What a fantastic year. For me, 1969 was just one of the best years I can remember. Here's why.
First, I'm really talking about the period from July 1969 through July 1970.
Why? Because it was a year of firsts for me. Many firsts, many interesting and mundane things that marked the year before I went to college.
* I turned 17 on 23 July 1969.
* 1969-1970 was my senior year in high school.
It was also my second year living in Pasadena, Texas. The high school I attended was Sam Rayburn Senior High School. It had 3,600 students, while my high school in New York - John F. Kennedy Catholic - had 600; a big change. At Kennedy I was in the middle of the pack of a bunch of Catholic students who were expected to excel by everyone, parents, teachers, peers. At Rayburn I was all of a sudden taking all advanced classes, labeled a nerd, and was the guy with the weird accent. I never really got used to living in Pasadena, or Texas for that matter, but being right near Houston and near the Gulf of Mexico made being there a bit better. There were a ton of things to do in Houston, and Galveston and the Gulf were less than an hour away, so once I had a car I could escape Pasadena pretty regularly.
* I got my first drivers license in the summer of 1969.
We'd moved to Texas in summer 1968, when I turned 16, but I missed the summer drivers education class. So, with my junior year high school schedule being full I had to wait an entire year to take drivers ed. The drivers ed car was an automatic and so it was easy to drive. The most 'fun' part was learning to drive on the freeways around Houston. Yeah, not that fun really. But I made it and passed drivers ed. The next problem was that I had to take my drivers exam in my mom's car and it was a standard shift so I had to learn how to drive a 'three on the column' and figure out clutching, etc. My mom took me to the parking lot of the high school football stadium (Yes, my high school had it's own football stadium. Texas, you know.) and taught me how to drive the standard transmission there. This was good because all the embarrassing stalls and jerky starts happened on the parking lot instead of in traffic. The only fly in the ointment was that in southeast Texas near the Gulf of Mexico there aren't any hills, so I had to wait till my mom moved back to New York to learn to drive that standard on a hill.
* I got my first car in the summer of 1969.
The car was a 1963 Chevy Corvair coupe with a small 6-cylinder engine and a 5-speed stick transmission. It was blue. Remarkably, it had seat belts, though no shoulder harnesses or head rests. I added head rests later which added to the cool vibe of the Corvair. Being a Corvair the engine was in the back. Two sets of 3 cylinders in two lines, each with a single-barrel carburator. Loved that car. I learned how to change the oil and do a tune-up on that car. I got my first set of tools for that car.
* In 1969 I took my first long road trip in the Corvair.
I was attracted to a woman in my junior class whose family had moved from Pasadena up to Tulsa, Oklahoma after junior year. My long trip was a drive from Pasadena to Tulsa in December during our Christmas break in 1969. It was the adventure of my teenage years. According to Google Maps it's just about 500 miles from Pasadena, Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. An 8-hour drive or so up I-45, US Route 69, and the Indian Nation Turnpike. I started right after Christmas, with the intention of spending a couple of days in Tulsa and then heading back. The drive up to Tulsa was pretty uneventful, as was my stay. Spending a couple of days with my friend and her sister cured me of my attraction and I was ready to go home. I started out early with cold weather and light snow in the air. By the time I was on the Indian Nation it was a blizzard and the road was pretty well snow-covered. Remember, I'd had my license for less than 6 months and had never driven on snow before. Also, snow removal in Oklahoma isn't as robust or efficient as it is in, say, Wisconsin. An hour or so into the drive I did a nice little 180-degree skid onto the median. Remember that "turn in the direction of the skid" thing? Well, it's a learned skill. Luckily, there wasn't much traffic - hardly anybody else wanted to drive in a blizzard - and I was able to get myself back on the road. Only to do a second 180 a few miles further down as the snow was turning to ice. I managed to get myself back onto the road again and proceeded down the Turnpike at about 15 miles an hour for a while. The Indian Nation Turnpike heads pretty much dead south from Tulsa, so an hour or so later I was out of the storm and the temperature had warmed up so it was just raining. Sometime after that and right before I was out of Oklahoma on US Route 69 near Atoka my Engine Overheating light came on. US 69 was a two-lane road that wound its way through some hill country in southern Oklahoma so there weren't many places to pull over. Getting desperate, I lucked into a wide space in the road that was created by the entrance to the Mack Alford Correctional Center. I pulled over, got out and opened up the engine compartment to discover that my fan belt was broken so the engine wasn't getting cooled (the Corvair had an air-cooled engine, so that fan was essential). I walked up to the entrance to the Correctional Center to ask if I could use a phone. The guard at the gate not only wouldn't let me use a phone, he told me to get out of the drive if I knew what was good for me. According to my map, there was a town about 5 miles south of me, where I hoped I could find a service station. So fan belt in hand I started walking and managed to hitch a ride from a passing motorist who dropped me off at a station just on the outskirts of this town. My luck held and the station had the right size fan belt and I had enough money. Then I hitched back to my car and opened up the trunk to get out my tools. Only to discover that my brother had borrowed my toolbox and all my tools and had managed not to put them back before I left for Tulsa. So now I had a fan belt, but no way to put it on. Hoping that I could borrow a wrench at the service station I started hitching again. Miraculously, the first guy who stopped had tools and said I could borrow them to install my fan belt. Of course, he backed up from where he picked me up to where my car was parked and managed to hit my driver's side fender with his bumper. It was a small ding and I was already tired and still had a 6-hour drive ahead of me, so I waved him off, borrowed his wrench, installed the fan belt, thanked him and was off and running again. I did manage to make it home, where I retrieved my tools and put them back in the trunk. I haven't been back to Tulsa since.
* In 1969 I got my first real job.
My mother was graciously paying my car insurance, but gas and maintenance were all on me. So that summer of 1969 I got my first real job, sacking groceries at a Globe supermarket an easy walk from our apartment. I worked at the Globe full time during the summer and hung onto the job, working part-time after school started in late August. This kept me in gas money and let me buy my lunch in the school cafeteria every day. To save on parking fees I talked the owner of a convenience store that was right across the street from my high school to let me park next to his store during the day. How I managed to do this I no longer remember. The job at Globe was OK. I packed groceries for customers and after a few months also started stocking shelves. Despite the fact that this was Texas, I had to join a union to work at the Globe. I can't remember how much the dues were, but they couldn't have been much and the union membership got me a higher starting rate than the minimum wage, so it was all good. I worked at that Globe for most of my senior year, but quit shortly before graduation because I had too much else to do.
* I had my first car accident.
The Globe parking lot was also the site of my first traffic accident. The parking lot opened onto a busy four-lane street with no traffic light. So turning left out of the parking lot was always an adventure. One early evening in the fall of 1969 I was leaving the parking lot and turning left. There was a pickup truck in the rightmost lane turning into the parking lot and I thought there wasn't anybody in that next lane so I started my turn. Big mistake not waiting to look around the truck before turning. Because there was a car in that next lane and a second later there was a dent in my left front fender - the same fender that would be backed into in December in Oklahoma. The dent in my fender wasn't that bad, my car was still drivable. But the other car had managed to crack his radiator. Nobody hurt, and we got both cars back into the parking lot and called the police. First accident, the first time I had to show my insurance card, the first time I had to tell my mom about it.
* I learned to surf in the summer of 1969.
Another advantage of having a car was that I could drive to the beach. Galveston was a bit less than an hour from our apartment and gas was cheap in 1969. I loved going to the beach. In those days at the western end of Galveston Island you could drive out onto the sand and park. At the other end of the island if you took the ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar peninsula you could drive pretty much the entire length of the peninsula, 80 miles all on the sand. On Galveston island there were also several outfits that would rent you surfboards by the hour or the day. I'd roll down the windows, strap a surfboard to the top of my car and pick a spot somewhere along the seawall to park. I taught myself how to surf, mostly by watching other people and then trying to do what they did. In 1969 surfboards were longer and heavier than they typically are now and the waves in the Gulf of Mexico weren't that high. So it wasn't that hard to learn to stand up on the board and ride the small waves into shore. The rides weren't that long, but they were spectacular. The feeling of getting up and having the board flow through the wave was just really enormously invigorating. Many weekends I'd finish a Saturday late shift, hop in my car and drive down to Galveston around 11pm, spend the night on the beach and rent a surfboard as soon as they opened in the morning. I'd surf all day and head home exhausted and ravenous in the late afternoon. Occasionally my brother would go with me and once or twice a friend also hopped a ride. The freedom of being on the beach and catching waves was just wonderful.
* In my senior year I took AP Chemistry and met some people who would be friends for life.
At 17 I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn't sure why and I had no real idea what doctors did all day long, but I knew that they kept my mother alive (she was a very brittle Type 1 diabetic with all the problems that that degenerative disease brings), so that was my goal. The first step to meeting that goal was to load up on science and math classes. In my senior year I took Trigonometry and Math Analysis, a year-long physics sequence, and AP Chemistry called Chem II at Rayburn. Chem II was my favorite class, and not just because my teacher was a tall, very attractive 23-year-old blonde who'd just graduated from the University of Houston. Chem II was our homeroom and also our first-period class, so we had extra time with it every day. Wednesdays were our lab day, starting at 7:00am and running through the homeroom period and first period and we needed every second of that time. Since we were together so much of every school day, the 20 or so of us in Chem II became pretty close friends. Most of us were complete science nerds and so also had those Math and Physics classes together. Fifty years later I stay in at least some contact with a few of those folks. Some of them did become doctors (I didn't) or scientists or tech people, and many drifted off into other disciplines. But we all had good memories of Chem II.
* In 1969 I met my first real girlfriend.
What with being somewhat introverted and moving 2,000 miles between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I'd never really dated nor had a girlfriend. That changed about midway through my senior year when I met Sue. She was best friends with another woman - Susan - who was dating one of my Chem II buddies. Sue wasn't a science nerd but was kind and a good listener and we hit it off almost immediately. We dated the rest of senior year, went to prom, and hung out a lot. If I remember correctly, Sue's father was very protective, so our dates were many times constrained by parental rules. Our relationship continued into part of the summer of 1970 until I went up to New York to live with my father (more on that below). That next fall I went off to college and Sue stayed in Pasadena to attend the local community college. We had one last fling that next spring and then it was over. No regrets, no drama or histrionics. We just went our separate ways into new relationships. Still, she was the first, so thanks, Sue.
* I got accepted to college early in 1970.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't going to college. My mom talked about it when I was young and as high school hit it seemed like everyone was telling me about good grades and what classes I had to take to get into college. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. My parents had not even graduated from high school - needing to work to help the family instead. So nobody knew the first thing about the process of getting into college or paying for it or what it was like. Also, this was 1969 so no internet, no Google, no web pages, no email. It was basically you, your high school guidance counselor, and whatever books you could find in the local library. Luckily for me I had done well on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test; not well enough to earn a scholarship, but well enough to be inundated with literature from colleges that wanted students like me. That was the first part of my education about college. Getting out of Pasadena was a priority for me, so I devoured those brochures. I finally chose Lindenwood College II in St. Charles, MO. I chose Lindenwood for several reasons: first, they offered me a scholarship and work-study money. Second, it wasn't in Texas. Third, the II in its name was for the men's college that had just admitted its first students for fall 1969. The co-located women's college (Lindenwood College for Women back then) had 500 students; LC II had 100 men. I was hooked. Fourth, they had a computer that students could use. Being a child of the early 60s I was fascinated by the American space program and the race to the moon. One of the things that was hot at that time was all the computers that they used. This seemed like it would be a cool thing to learn.
* I saw my first R rated movie - MASH.
MASH is a black comedy, an anti-war movie, and pretty much my favorite movie of all time. Well, Casablanca might be number one, or they might just be tied. MASH was released in March 1970 and was an R-rated movie. Looking back I have no idea why it would have been R-rated at all. We were obviously all much more innocent and naive in 1970. Since I was 17 in 1970 I could go see it, and since I was living in Pasadena, Texas in 1970 I pretty much was on my own; my best friend Randy wanted to see it as well, but for some reason our schedules didn't work out. MASH is a terrific movie and I was suitably impressed. My 17-year-old brain could barely comprehend lots of the allusions and dark humor but I knew right away that this movie was "important." So I saw it like three more times that spring, the first time I'd ever gone back to see a movie more than once. I still watch it probably once a year or so.
* I got kicked out of class for protesting the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970.
This next story all probably happened because I'd gone to see MASH and was getting more interested in politics and the world around me. I can't say that I was really into politics in high school, nor was I a real political activist. But by early 1970 I was worried about being drafted and I was really ready for the Vietnam war to be over. I'd also just read "How old will you be in 1984?" a book of essays by and about high school student newspapers and free speech. The invasion of Cambodia in late April 1970 and the subsequent student protests lead me to want to do something. So I wore a black armband to school one day later in May. I didn't do anything disorderly and just went about my classes, but with the armband on. In 1970 in the Pasadena Independent School District there was a rule that students weren't allowed to "disrupt" classes. This happened to be a lab day in Chem II and while I was doing my lab work one of the assistant principals came into the classroom - disrupting it - and hauled me out of the room and down to the office. I was ordered to take off the armband, which I declined to do citing a recent Supreme Court case that asserted that high school students had freedom of speech (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969). He didn't care and I was kicked out of school for the day and headed home. Thus my career of political activism started and largely ended.
* I spent the summer of 1970 living with my father for the first time since 1959.
My parents had gotten divorced in 1959 when I was seven years old. I'd not seen my father much except for my birthday and Christmas in all the intervening years. It wasn't because my mother wouldn't let us see him, it was that my father just wasn't really suited to being the dad of young children. He worked much better with older kids. So at the end of my senior year of high school I decided to go back to New York and live with my father for the summer before I headed to college. I sold my Corvair to pay for the plane ticket and showed up in Ossining, NY in early June (yes, he knew I was coming). My father was separated from his second wife and had a one-bedroom apartment in what passed for a high-rise in Ossining. He got the bedroom, I got the couch. It was an interesting summer. I listened to way too much Frank Sinatra music, my dad's favorite and a singer I learned to loathe. We must have hit every Italian restaurant in Westchester and Putnam counties. We visited my Dooley relatives whom I hadn't seen since we moved to Texas. And my dad helped me fix up a 1965 Chevy Greenbrier van (yes, it's a Corvair van!) so I could drive it back to Texas. On the way back to Texas, the van started burning oil big time. So much that I had to get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, find a store and buy a case of oil so I could stop every few hours and put in another quart. I sold that van to my brother Michael in August so I could have money for books during my first semester at Lindenwood.
* I worked construction for the first time that summer of 1970.
When I got to New York in summer 1970 I didn't have a job. My father found me a job working off the books for a one-man stonemason operation. Dad would drop me off by the side of the Saw Mill River Parkway at about 7:00am every morning and my boss (whose name escapes me after 50 years) would pick me up. We'd go to the job site - it was the same large house somewhere in Westchester for the entire summer - and I'd mostly break rocks and mix mortar. We built a massive fireplace and chimney inside and out and a long rock retaining wall along the driveway. It really did take all summer. I got really good at hauling rock in a wheelbarrow and then lifting rocks up from one level of scaffolding to the next all day long. I really liked that job even though I was underpaid and the stonemason wasn't a particularly good or well-organized boss. The physical labor every day turned out to be fun; it gave me a chance to think a lot and I got to spend some of the lunchtime reading every day.
* I learned to drink beer - and like it.
The stonemason I was working for went out every day at lunchtime and bought a sandwich (I brought mine from home) and a six-pack of beer. He'd give me one and he'd drink the rest and then we'd get back to work. I can't recall what brand of beer it was, probably Schaefer or Rheingold, but I really hated it at first. But over the course of several weeks I started to like the tangy, somewhat bitter flavor and for the rest of the summer looked forward to that daily mid-day beer. One beer was enough to give me a little buzz and the back-breaking rock lifting was enough to sweat it out of me in short order. In 1970 the drinking age in New York was 18 and I turned 18 on 23 July. So for the rest of the summer I could go out to bars. That didn't happen very often because I didn't have the van till late in the summer and I was usually pretty tired after work. But it gave my father and me something to bond over. I also discovered that my father apparently knew everyone in upper Westchester and Putnam counties because every time we went to a restaurant he would know the owners and half the patrons. In every bar it was the same, my dad knew everyone. It made for easy introductions, but, of course, I was called the name I've always hated, "John Junior." So it goes.
* I was on TV for the first time. (How could I have forgotten this in the first post?!?!)
Senior year I was on the Sam Rayburn Prep Bowl team. Houston Lighting & Power sponsored this competition among the local high schools. The cool part was each contest (two teams at a time) was on the local TV station. I made it onto the Rayburn team along with Gene Thorne, David Gwyn (both unfortunately passed now, I believe), Danny Martinez, and John Beard. We did really well, winning 2 in a row before we were defeated by a team from Galveston. (They were really good.)