In last week’s column, we marveled about the amazing achievements and heroism of Apollo XI astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, whose dedication we celebrated over the past week as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of their trip to the moon.
Since then, a video of a moon landing denier harassing Buzz Aldrin has gone viral, and it ends with the guy getting punched in the face by Aldrin.
I suppose that could be a segue to the second half of our remembrances of the summer of ’69. In that crazy summer, it must have seemed that the world was coming apart – or, at least, to an obvious end of the old ways and the generation that had prevailed since the Depression era. The period at the end of the sentence, if you will.
In that time, when a Broadway musical featuring full frontal nudity could become a mainstream hit (“Hair”) and spin out the number-one record of the year (“Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In” by the 5th Dimension); when the gay rights movement got its start (the Stonewall riots); and certainly, when the muscle car hit its peak (the 1969 Dodge Charger and its relatives the Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang), it was a wild era of bold statements, when literally anything seemed possible.
In the summer of 1969, while the Vietnam war was still raging in southeast Asia, things were far from peaceful at home but somewhat calmer than 1968, when the nation was ripped apart by assassinations and riots.
The walk on the moon in July of 1969 would have been a great ending to the decade, but within just a few weeks, events happened with details that continue to unfurl and mystify even five decades after the fact.
One was the accident at Chappaquiddick Island that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne and haunted the political career of Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy for the rest of his life.
Another was the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles, later called the “Helter Skelter” murders after the Beatles song, which also occurred 50 years ago this summer. The Manson family, as they were called, were followers of cult leader Charles Manson. That story is bizarre enough on its own, but the grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate, hairstylist Jay Sebring, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary gripped the city of L.A. with fear.
The LaBianca house is up for sale, having just gone on the market this week for the first time in over two decades. If you have $1.9 million and want to live in a nice house where a couple was murdered, it’s currently available.
While all of this was happening, Hurricane Camille was churning in the Gulf of Mexico. The category 5 ‘cane tore through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with wind speeds of 175 mph. By the time the rains receded, 259 people were dead.
On the same days that Camille was lashing the Gulf Coast, preparations were underway at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, for a festival promising peace, love, and music. Woodstock is the most memorable of all the rock festivals because it was the biggest: over 400,000 people listened to a Who’s Who of popular artists of the period, from Jimi Hendrix to Creedence Clearwater Revival; from Santana to Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Joe Cocker and The Band; Sly & the Family Stone to the Who. It seemed everyone who was anyone was there.
Immortalized in songs, films, and popular culture, Woodstock was a cultural signpost for the Baby Boomer generation.
To think, all of the above including the moon landing took place in the space of four weeks in the summer of 1969.