Guest Columnist

Tumult - and a fateful teen dance - defined 1968

A photo of the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids in 1968. (Gazette Archives)
A photo of the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids in 1968. (Gazette Archives)

Fifty years ago 1968 happened. It was a tragic and tumultuous year in American history. As a teenager (I would turn 16 that September) life seemed transitional and conflicted, which was pretty much expected back then. Riots, anti-war demonstrations and changing norms were viewed through the eyes of a restless, privileged, Cedar Falls, Iowa, boy. It was a kaleidoscope view, filled with bright moving bits of color in sharp contrast — vivid but hardly transparent.

After living through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just five years before, the loss of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy gave rise to a cold hopelessness in some, and violent rage in others. The year 1968 was taking a toll.

I remember the upheaval at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and worrying that my brother, Ted, was out there somewhere. My family would drive out to San Francisco that summer to visit my other brother, Dan, who was living among the hippies not far from “The Haight.” He took my sister Ritta and me to see The Who at the Fillmore West. To a 15-year-old Iowa boy, it all seemed strangely, wonderfully exotic.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another …”

- Robert Kennedy

April 4, 1968, the night of Martin Luther King’s death

Everything was changing at breakneck speed back then. Seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the local drive-in theater with my buddies was a revelation. Would life be like that in 33 years? It seemed so far away. The Beatles released their White Album and we memorized the lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon.” We partied at the reservoir and hallucinated down in Jamosky’s basement. We took road trips without seat belts while speeding down two-lanes and smoking cigarettes (and other things). How did we survive?

As 1968 raged outside my sheltered (if risky) teenage life, a seemingly innocuous incident would forever alter its course. I had decided to spend a warm July evening at a “teen dance” at the Island Park Beach House. As the band of local musicians played “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” (by The Rascals), a beautiful girl came up and asked me to dance. I gladly accepted. Fifty years later that dance continues. It wasn’t a straight line mind you — certainly it took time and considerable effort to convince her. But our long and winding road started then, that fateful summer of 1968.

I would find out later that she was simply trying to escape a would-be suitor and saw me as a safe haven. No matter — that was my lucky night. I did not have the wisdom then to understand the love and compassion coming my way. It was simply a brief, bright spark, lighting the darkened-skies of 1968. It was needed then. No less now.

• James Dreier lives in Iowa City.

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