We graduated from the stage of the Empire in June 1969. It was evening, we all wore “dignified” black caps and gowns, a United States Senator was our guest speaker. The country was at war, we knew it, but it seemed far removed from our lives. None of our classmates was going into the service, nor did anyone seemed outwardly concerned about the draft. It is odd, in retrospect, that feeling, given that my older brother had put his grad school dreams on hold and joined the Navy upon his graduation from Brown two years earlier. It was a wise choice; he was on a nuclear submarine in the North Atlantic when the draft went to lottery and his birthday was the first one drawn.
He told me what I am sure our parents never knew, although I think our father suspected, that had he not been accepted by Admiral Rickover he would have sought service on a swift boat in Vietnam. Not wanting to be the dumb little sister, I did not ask him “What's a swift boat?” I filed it away as some of my-brother's-era Navy shorthand until Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ran for national office. Thank you, Admiral Rickover.
But in the summer of 1969 the distant war was always in the news, but rarely in the forefront here. Block Island was entering a time of transition, the long-delayed postWorld War II prosperity was lapping onto our shore. The New Harbor was moving to recreation, with a new, a third, marina while the New London boat made only one round-trip run, landing at Payne's Dock for a few hours in mid-day.
I worked at the Narragansett, as I had for a few summers. It was all very different, the 'Gansett and its sister The Spring House served all their guests two full meals a day, breakfast and dinner. We had a skeleton staff on for lunch and got the occasional New London day-tripper but it was, for the most part, nuisance duty we had to fill on a staggered schedule.
The dining room was genteel, with its pale blue walls and beadboard ceiling, well-mended white tablecloths over which more frequently changed white toppers lay. There was no bar, no liquor service at all, no outside seating. The evening menus at both hotels changed daily, but overall were quite the same week to week.
It is the kitchen I most remember, all raw wood one would not want to walk on barefoot, thick planks scrubbed with barn brushes by the dishwashers at day’s end. And the radio was always playing, tuned into Red Sox games or, amazingly, the news punctuating popular music.
The summers of the sixties were filled with news, it seemed more happened in the warmer months when people were outside. Sometimes it feels the tone of the decades was set in 1963 with that now legendary speech the Rev. Dr. King gave in Washington on a hot August day, and with the activism and the peaceful and productive marches.
In the mid-60s the horror story was of eight nurses murdered in Chicago, the same summer the owner of the hotel confided to her waitresses that she did not understand the lyrics of “Paperback Writer,” why, she thought upon first hearing it, was there a song about a paper bag writer? Another year we felt the cook’s elation as the fortunes of the Red Sox soared with impossibility, a distraction, perhaps, from the “real” news. Such was the multi-generational tone of the Narragansett kitchen.
We came into the summer of 1968 after the April assassination of Dr. King, and the knowledge of riots subdued by then Mayor of New York John Lindsay, and on the campaign trail, in Indianapolis, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, both famously quieting the crowds by their mere presence and sheer force of will. The Senator, himself, was shot in June and the summer of 1968, leading into a fall Presidential election, brought more discontent.
Then it was 1969.
Those Narragansett seasons were woven together for years. They defined summer, not in the Summeron-Block-Island way I imagine some people would think, but with the notion that milestones were reached, history altering events took place when the weather was warm. Perhaps it was only that we were out of school and spent more time listening to the radio.
As that summer of 1969 receded into the past, and events we lived — or, more accurately, heard on the radio — became real history, I came to wonder how did that all happen in the space of basically two months' time. As I write, someone on a vestige of what radio used to be, dialogue and news, not slanted “talk,” plays in the background, and the conversation is of the moon landing. The chatter had been, in the spring, of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the bridge between Jamestown and Newport.
Fifty years ago, in June, the horrifically polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, bad for Ohio, good for the cause of the EPA. Closer, barely a blip on my radar, what came to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, began to open doors and mind. The United States won the Space Race landing on the moon and only a few days later we were hearing bits and pieces of a live broadcast in the Narraganset kitchen, Senator Ted Kennedy talking of a tragedy in the waters near the theretofore unknown Chappaquiddick Island. From California, the ripped-from-a-horror-movie script Manson murders seized national headlines. In some other states a baseball team was gearing up to win its first Series and a music fest became Woodstock. But here, back between the moon landing and Chappaquiddick, Pete Seeger had sailed his newly launched Clearwater into the New Harbor, and brought his crew to sing at the Empire.
We sang “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land...” For those moments, we were, even in that crazy mixed up summer, one.