The Thinking 

When I Was Seventeen

September 12, 2017


ALAN writes:

“When I was seventeen, it was a very good year,” Frank Sinatra sang in the best song in his classic 1965 album “September of My Years.”

It dawned on me one day recently while sorting through old papers and letters that fifty years have now gone by since I acquired those things.

When I was seventeen, in 1967, it was indeed a very good year in some ways. Merely to be young and alive was cause for celebration. I was a spoiled brat but didn’t know it. It was hard to tell because there were millions of others like me. I found I was part of a species unknown in world history until Americans invented it only a few decades earlier: The Teenager. I lived in a limbo state between childhood and adulthood. I hated it.

The older generation did not see it quite that way: They looked upon the younger generation as beneficiaries of the highest material standards of living in history.  That judgment was valid, but it was only half the picture. The other half was the moral-philosophical framework whose transmission to the younger generation is the perennial responsibility of the elder, but at which (to put it charitably) the elder generation in the 1950s-‘60s did not excel.

I had no awareness of such things in 1967, or that a cultural revolution was going on. Current events were too vivid and I was too young to be able to evaluate them properly.

So as I look back fifty years, what do I see?  Is life today better than it was in 1967? How could anyone doubt it?  Americans today have bigger TV screens and bigger, faster, and louder motor vehicles. Isn’t that proof?

Although 1967 was certainly no benchmark year for a properly ordered culture or proper moral code, much of it looks good compared with what is out there today.

Men and women could still speak sensibly; they had not yet agreed to adopt the bizarre kind of speech that veteran entertainer Steve Allen described as “teenage goofola.”

Americans in 1967 had only begun to sip the poison called feminism. Today they are drunk on it.  Women in 1967 did not wear tattoos or use profanity in public places.  Today they do both and applaud themselves for it.

Men did not wear ponytails, dress like little boys, or act like perpetual teenagers.

Are Americans’ conduct and manners better today than they were in 1967?  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.  That’s a real knee-slapper.

“Rock music” was inescapable in 1967, but there were two ballads that year that I thought much better:  Al Martino’s “Mary in the Morning” and Ed Ames’s “My Cup Runneth Over.” You will never hear them in America today because they are lovely and understated, and entire generations of Americans have since been taught to resent beauty and restraint. If they were ugly and raucous, we would hear them every week.

When I went downtown in St. Louis in 1967, I saw a city alive. If I go there today, I see decay, abandonment, and excuses.

One of the first things you see if you drive into St. Louis from Illinois is a panorama of buildings defaced with spray paint.  No such vandalism was there in 1967.

Fifty years ago, the Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis had an elegant lobby with marble columns, a coffee shop, dining rooms, a corner drug store and a bank of pay telephones off the lobby where I often stopped to call friends.  It opened in 1904 with a ball given by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy.  Some residents lived there for decades.  One woman owned a dress shop in the lobby for 25 years.  Its Gas House cocktail lounge had velvet wallpaper and crystal chandeliers.  Banquets, meetings, and dances were held in its large “Gold Room” ballroom.  It was once known as the finest hotel in St. Louis.

Half a century afterward, a man who was stationed at Scott Air Force Base (near St. Louis) in 1957 wrote:

          “When we got a weekend pass, we’d take a bus to St. Louis…  At night, some of us would stay at the Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel…  St. Louis, at the time, I found to be a very military-friendly city and made us all feel very welcomed.  ….St. Louis and its people will always be a bright spot during my time in the Air Force.” [Memory written on July 17, 2011]

Imagine what he would say if he could see that hotel today:  Boarded up for ten years now and defaced with spray paint eleven floors above ground.

One block from that hotel in 1967 were the studios of WIL Radio.  It presented a nightly 3-hour discussion program called “Controversy.” Topics ranged from current affairs to science to education to philosophy to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Steve Clark, the program moderator, was intelligent and articulate and kept the discussion civil. Shouting matches or profanity on radio in 1967?  Unimaginable.  He interviewed grown-ups.  It was discussion for grown-ups.  It was my first regular exposure to intellectual debate.  I enjoyed it immensely.  On many nights that spring and summer, I lay there listening to the discussion while gazing out through the screen door at the black night sky, a perfect setting in which to think about the ideas exchanged on that night’s program, a perfect setting to sustain the sense of wonder I felt about certain controversies on the borderland between science and philosophy. And each night’s program ended, just before midnight, with the record he chose as his closing theme, pianist George Shearing’s lovely “Portrait of Jennie.” Is anyone still alive who remembers that charming ballad or am I the last?

It was in the winter of that year that I first heard the name Jim Garrison and read newspaper accounts of what he claimed about the murder of John Kennedy. I was a skeptic regarding the official truth. I thought the Warren Commission Report was a splendid snow job concealing a non-investigation. I suspected that Garrison was on to something firm. A powerful central government that was pursuing a suicidal war in Vietnam and that had refused to provide military support to the USS Liberty when it was attacked by Israelis in June 1967 was not a government that inspired my confidence or respect. That Garrison was made a target of ridicule, character attacks, and attempted discrediting by that government and a chorus of parrots in the mass communications industry suggested to me that he had probably latched on to a part of the truth about Kennedy’s murder. One evening eight years later, I sat in a packed auditorium on the campus of St. Louis University as Jim Garrison stood there and spoke for two hours about his assessment of that murder.

On Saturday afternoons in 1967, I spent many hours browsing in an old book shop that had three large rooms and tall stacks of old magazines going back decades.  The lady who owned the shop allowed me to do that because I never left anything in disarray and was always delighted to purchase the treasures I found. I had no awareness whatever that the book shop occupied a storefront in a building that was once the Empress Theater, where Debbie Reynolds, June Lockhart, Shirley Booth, and Vincent Price had appeared in stage plays in the 1950s.  The building was torn down around 1970, and there is no book shop like that one in St. Louis today.

In the summer of 1967, I made my first (and last) appearance on television. Citizens and police officers in St. Louis County had reported seeing strange lights in the night sky. A St. Louis TV station decided to make that the subject of its weekly discussion program. Having taken an interest in the matter, I was invited to appear on the program with an aeronautical engineer and a commercial airline pilot. All of us agreed that Unidentified Flying Objects added up to a genuine mystery, an impression supported by the fact that scientists at the University of Colorado were then engaged in a study of the matter. But we were wrong. They added up only to the illusions of mystery. But it was a necessary lesson on the path to learning how and why people can be induced to believe things that are not true.

On many nights in 1967, I watched Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon on “The Tonight Show.” Like Lawrence Auster, I enjoyed those two men and their nightly conversations.  [“Ed McMahon” at View from the Right, June 23, 2009]  There was something refreshing and uplifting in that nightly ritual.  I thought its best years were the 1960s when that program originated in New York.  After it moved to the Left Coast, I seldom watched it; I thought it had lost something in choosing tinseltown over the magic of New York City and Broadway.

In 1967 I formed friendships with people who are now deceased, purchased magazines in drugstores that are now dust, and lived in a decent place that is now degraded.

On Christmas Eve that year, we visited my grandfather in his room at a nursing home atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.  A picture taken there shows him bedridden and surrounded by his five children and two grandchildren.  It was terribly, indescribably sad.  My cousin and I are now the only ones still alive from that evening.  Thirty-six years later, I went back to that spot and sat on a park bench overlooking the river, thinking about the last weeks of his life in a room just a few yards away.  He lived from the age of hot-air balloon ascensions to the age of manned spaceflight.  I often regretted not asking him what he thought about the obvious absence of moral progress concurrent with that remarkable technological progress.

On many days in 1967, my mother and I sat there watching the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC television.  The top news item was always the Vietnam War, the first war to be televised in living color.  I had the impression I was living in never-never land.  Fifty years later, I know it was valid impression.  But that is a topic for a separate essay.

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