1969, A Year Of Change
Note: This is an updated re-print of my earlier Lakewood Observer column regarding 1969.
In a great many ways, 1969 changed everything. Just about anyone alive at that time knew it too.
If 1968 brought rain, 1969 brought the storm; literally and figuratively, locally and nationally.
Many writers allude to a time in history when innocence was lost forever. If any year filled that bill, it was 1969. It was also quite a time for this young writer, who was about to graduate from Lakewood High School. This year marks the 50th reunion for my class.
We’ll be getting together soon in July; at least, those of us who can still make it.
Let's step back in time to those Lakewood streets in 1969; in those weeks just before our graduation, at least...for a little while.
You would have seen a city having marked differences from today. Giant elms, sycamores, and maple trees stood along the serene tree lawns of Lakewood's side streets, lending cool green shade and a womb-like sense of security and peace to the residents. Most impressive of all were those elms, with their V-like branches reaching heavenward, and overarching the nearby homes; providing the illusion at least, that every street was cocooned in its own little world. Many of those streets back then had not yet been paved over with asphalt. Those streets still retained their red-brick luster, and while that made for slick driving during the rains, and bumpy moments for our middleweight bicycles, the overall effect was much like that of a halcyon, idealized portrait of front-porch middle America; as it was ever meant to be. Ice-cream trucks, as well as bicycle-borne knife sharpeners and fruit vendors advertised their presence by pleasant bells and plaintive calls.
Many of those moments were captured by Dad's Ansco 35mm camera, a cool little heavy metal machine that took stunning photos, IF you set all those little doodads just right! There was also the family's fantastic Polaroid, a fold-out black-and-brushed-metal affair that you also had to manipulate with a multi-step process of cocking it, clicking a button, and then first, carefully pulling out a little paper, followed by just-as-carefully pulling out the picture paper-- as it was squeezed through metal rollers. You then set a timer and waited. If the photo was black and white, you had to carefully coat the print with a jelly-like substance after you pulled it away from the backing. It was amazing how Dad got the great pictures that he did.
See...there was more time for all of this back then.
There was also time in the '60's to get on my Sears J.C. Higgins Flightliner bicycle and enjoy a ride. That red-and-white vehicle gleamed like a space ship, with its two headlights, fancy horn, and comfy seat. That first bike is long gone, but a few years ago, a used-bike seller had a mint-with-tags example of that same bike, except for the red fenders. (Mine had been chrome.)
It's mine now.
Let's take an idealized bike ride, shall we, because... all that time that I just wrote about? You know...that Lakewood frozen underneath that gel-swathing of Dad's old Polaroid pictures? That city's time was about to run out.
Firstly, that's me over there on the front porch, in those brown hopsack jeans, and blue silk "Ben Casey" shirt, looking for all the world like a cross between a hippie and a nerd; with those funky black horn glasses, plucking out a folk-rock tune on my little acoustic guitar, accompanied by that wonderful girl up the street. She had a really cool electric guitar, and we'd often swap up and play each other's instruments. I also had a cool Lakewood rock band back then named SKIE. That band lasted through 1970, and battled the rival band “Haze” in 1970 to a draw on the Lakewood Park bandstand, but our lead singer went off to Vietnam and came back changed forever.
Truthfully, before long, we ALL changed forever, but I digress here.
Anyway, we finish our jam session and I put my guitar away. (Oh yeah, that original guitar is also long gone, but, like my bike, I found another one just like it, not long ago. It too, followed me home.) It's after rush hour now, and it's time to take the bike out. The psychedelic blue "Ben Casey" shirt is carefully hung up and exchanged for a loose-fitting madras plaid short-sleeve, open and indeed, blowing in the winds of time.
I had yearned for one of those new racing bikes when I was younger, but because of my physical issues, Dad seemed to feel that the Flightliner's big balloon tires and coaster brakes would be so much safer for me back then. That Flightliner's fenders and center tank had finally been stripped away, so that my bike would be as light as possible, but I still found it hard to keep up with the other guys on the block. Before long, I bought my own racing bike. Maybe I even had one by that time, and that first Flightliner had already gone away. A few things here, I just don't remember all that well... but...let's just bask in that imagined sunny spring evening in 1969 for a bit longer, while you and I take our virtual ride back into time.
Cruising along Madison, heading eastward, with the warm sun at our backs, we pass Jameson's Barber shop and MG Motor Sales Inc., as we decide whether to drop into either Elmwood or Wagner's Bakeries. Either would have been a good choice, but we settle on a cone at Coneland, having had a banana split at Malley's the last time, and a sundae at Bearden's on Warren, the time before that. We turn north, by Union Carbide, onto Highland Ave, (now called W.117th street) and then make a left onto Detroit. We pass Fairchild Chevrolet and Koepke Mercedes. We pass Bobson's Hardware and Hornack's Bowling Center. We savor the great smells wafting from the doors of Chicken Delight and Kelly Donuts as we proceed past Educators Music and the Lakewood Elks Club.
Coming into the downtown area, we pass the hospital, along with Lorbach Opticians, Geigers, First Federal, Carson's Dress Shop, and also, both Keith and Everden Jewelry stores, as well as McCollum Insurance and Lakewood Camera Shop. Farther along, we pass the Masonic Temple, the Christian Science Church, the Detroit Theater, and of course Miller's Restaurant, with no alcohol served, and there were always plenty of those sticky buns for those unforgettable after-church (coat, tie, and dresses please!) Sunday dinners! Along the way, we pass the numerous bars and churches that dotted Lakewood like the daffodils of springtime.
As evening's shadow's lengthen, I remind myself that my bike no longer sports that streamlined center tank with those twin headlamps to light my way. That tank had been lost, along with a great many other things in life. I had no idea what else was about to be lost, before very long...
In those weeks before graduation, all of that ubiquitous mixing of hopes and dreams transpired in the class of '69. There were elements of fear and uncertainty on the part of the guys, as a military draft lottery was planned to soon start up, (It happened in December) and of course, there was that war in Vietnam. We were losing sometimes hundreds of guys every week in a war seemingly without end, and it was time for many in our class to serve. Some of us were also planning for college. The gals were asserting more independence, as "Women's Lib" became an everyday term. Schools were losing more and more battles over hair length, and freedom of expression in speech, dress, and behavior, and radio stations came into the classrooms. Lakewood High had won a stereo console from a radio station for their "L Room" social area. As seniors, we hung out there a lot, lounging on those hopsack couches, and watching as the wooden furniture around us was gradually replaced by fiberglass. We often shared our straw-served drinks from the same red and white wax-paper cups with the gals there too, as we enjoyed those pretzel rods from that see-through container sitting on the counter.
Our class motto? Yesterday, only a dream-- tomorrow, just a vision, but today we live.
Some of us, anyway, I guess...
On July 4, 1969, Lakewood changed forever. A storm roared through our city about 7 p.m. that evening, in the midst of the 4th celebrations. Trees toppled like matchsticks, and people died, including a very dear classmate friend who was a former co-member of our high school’s Ranger Marching Band's drum line. (She'd played the glockenspiel.) We'd endured many Friday drum line dinners together, and often marched as a unit up to the high school to join the rest of the band with her playing the LHS fight song melody on those bells, but again, I digress here, and if you'll pardon me, I need to pause for a moment.
Too many salty old tears seem to be getting in the way of my typing.
These days, many of Lakewood's big trees are gone, either victims of that storm, or of the Dutch Elm Disease. Most of the brick streets are gone too, along with so many other things...Many other friends are long gone too, victims of alcohol or chemical abuse, disease, war, and life in general.
Our country changed, as well. Violence increased in the streets, and in Vietnam. Campuses erupted in protest. Cities burned. It seemed that anything on a pedestal got knocked off, never to be placed back on again. Trust went from being a given, to a taken. Never again would Lakewood be quite as beautiful as it was in those halcyon days of spring in 1969.
The pulse of this city would survive, but at best... it would indeed be irregular, but yet again,
I digress here...