GRAND FORKS -- All within one year a half-century ago, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy were assassinated. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo surveillance ship, and the bloody Tet Offensive was launched. Boeing introduced its 747 jumbo jet. Three American astronauts circled the moon. Two African-American athletes raised their fists in silent protest against discrimination. And “Star Trek” aired American TV’s first interracial kiss.
The year 1968 was one of the nation’s most pivotal in history — and for better or worse — the events of that year awakened America and changed the country forever.
In the years leading up to 1968, much of America was living the good life. Times were prosperous. Children behaved. And the world seemed relatively stable.
Middle-class families watched “Leave It To Beaver” on boxy black-and-white sets and could relate to the innocent boy and make-believe family from the idyllic town of Mayfield. Real families ate dinner together in their own $14,000 houses with white picket fences. Fathers went to work in the morning. And much like June Cleaver — some even in pearls, aprons and neatly pressed dresses — mothers stayed home to clean house and keep the pantry stocked with a fresh supply of sugar cookies.
Especially here in the Upper Midwest, the 1960s were a time to dance and sip cold beer at picnics, a time to laze in peace and enjoy the comforts of family and home.
So in January 1968, many Americans didn’t see it coming. They were at the edge of a political and social storm, a cataclysmic culture clash that would throw them for a loop as fast and furious as that year’s inaugural Hot Wheels would fly off toy shelves and orange plastic tracks.
“It’s evident that 1968 was a seismic year, and we’re living in a world shaped by it,” said UND historian Eric Burin. “The ongoing black freedom struggle, the crusade for equality by women’s rights advocates and others, youth activism on an unprecedented scale, disillusionment about the Vietnam War and disgruntlement with the political system all represented alarming changes to some observers, who pushed back with calls for law and order.”
For the Baby Boomers who were coming of age in 1968, the year and experience would be like no other. No matter if they were at college and taking a stand, playing in a popular band, fighting deep in a leech-infested jungle or staying up all night to write hundreds of letters to homesick troops, all were in for a sudden awakening.
“I wondered what was going on and what was going to be next because everything changed,” said Lanny Aaker of The Fabulous Cornerstones. “It wasn’t like it took 10 years. Everything changed abruptly.”
Aaker, Fred Seidl and Steve Rood had played together in the popular Grand Forks band since middle school, and by 1968 at Mayville State Teachers College, they had made quite a name for themselves.
Managed by disc jockey Duaine Sanden, the young musicians still were riding high on the wave of their 1967 hit, “You Rule Me.” They sold 75,000 copies of the vinyl record and were performing back-to-back nights across three states and Canada.
“Back then, music was our outlet. Everybody loved to dance, and that was their outlet,” Seidl said. “But then it was like ‘whoa.’ All of a sudden, the music changed. Everyone’s attire changed. The hair got longer. And the dancing started to curtail. People didn’t come out to dance. They came out to listen or to watch.”
Rood said trends that had started on the coasts finally had made it to North Dakota, and they were seeing it in the crowds — fans as young as 12 and 13 passing marijuana cigarettes.
“We were still wearing matching suits in 1968,” Rood said. “By 1969 we were on a flatbed railroad car with long hair, sandals and grubs, looking like hippies.”
“It was a very lucrative time for bands because there was a wild streak in everybody,” Aaker said. “The music became more complex, more advanced. You couldn’t just play the bubblegum stuff anymore.”
Nothing the same
Mike Jacobs, a former Grand Forks Herald editor/publisher who was editor of the University of North Dakota’s Dakota Student newspaper in 1967-68, said his generation welcomed the overnight culture shock.
“It’s not just a political story. The change in the country was elemental. It went through everything,” he said. “We were young, and we were really, really glad to see it. We were coming out of the 1950s when things were pretty calm and pretty stable. We were all scared because we were the generation of fallout shelters and ‘duck and tuck’ drills.”
Young people felt a wave of new freedom and reveled in the remarkable change in viewpoints, lifestyle, and tastes in music, clothing, food and sweet wine.
Even little things were huge. For instance, the switch from vinyl to reel-to-reel was revolutionary.
“It was possible to put on a tape and play music for a party all night long. Think about this, a plastic album has two sides. It plays for about 25-30 minutes, and then you have to stop to turn it over,” Jacobs said. “Nobody wants the music to stop. It always was a big downer. You’d have to quit what you were doing, get up and change the record. The fact that you could have music for four hours, it was liberating.”
The 1960s myth
But more important than the nuisance of a periodic moment of hi-fi silence, Jacobs refuted a common falsehood.
“There’s a myth that has been perpetuated by some folks in North Dakota that the ’60s didn’t happen at UND, which is just patently untrue,” he said. “There was a drug culture. There was a music culture. There was a political protest movement.”
He recalled the regular “noon Friday” peace lines, and so did then-student Mary Ann Crawford of Grand Forks.
“I remember walking through campus and in front of the Memorial Union there were the Hawks and the Doves,” Crawford said. “It permeated our campus. Nothing like Chicago in 1968, but it was there. We were just glad to have our guys back home safe and sound because I did go to a couple of funerals for some who didn’t make it back.”
Jacobs also recalled how students once “foolishly marched into the pit and planted trees” at the Nekoma missile site and how the newspaper helped free women from college curfews by stopping its “Down the Avenue” column — an antiquated feature that revealed “which fraternity guy brought which sorority girl home late.”
Apparently, a fraternity man was expected to buy the woman an equal number of roses for every minute he delivered her late. A reporter actually went to a local flower shop to cull the information.
“It was the most bizarre sort of macho thing, and very quickly, the absurdity of this custom was exposed,” Jacobs said. “The result was a campaign against hours for women. We made a big change for women on campus, and I’m proud of it.”
Jacobs said the era was an exciting time, too.
“I’m not for a minute diminishing the bad things, but it was a joyful time as well. We were young. We were getting a decent education. We had the whole future ahead of us, and we had a really big sense that the world was changing and we were going to be part of it. And we embraced that.”
Chuck Haga also recalled feeling deeply hopeful when he began his own UND studies in 1967.
“But what really sticks with me was when Bobby Kennedy was killed. I remember being angry at everybody old. That included everybody older than 25 or 30. I just felt like people weren’t doing enough,” he said. “The war, the assassinations, the racism, all those problems just wore on us. We felt engaged. We felt like we were working for something better and thought it was going to be better, but 1968 really challenged that idea of progress. We were disillusioned. I think we really thought we were going to change the world.”
And for the young men of the time, the military draft always hung over them with a distressing, gnawing darkness.
Jacobs recalled going to the downtown Riviera to wait it out with dozens of others as their fate would be drawn by lots in Washington, D.C.
“That was the other thing that was important about the 1960s. For all of the fun, the joy and the capers, the draft hung over everybody,” he said. “Men were subject to the draft, and the women in their lives worried about them.”
And those who did serve were not always treated kindly. Don Martin, Grand Forks, had graduated from high school in 1964 and was working at American Crystal Sugar Co. in East Grand Forks when he was drafted in 1965.
“Before they even said anything, I volunteered to go to Vietnam,” he said. “There was trouble over there, and we were going. That was it.”
After he served two years and returned to the U.S., he was greeted by protesters at the Seattle airport.
“They were there doing their stuff,” he said. “We were called baby killers.”
But he said he knew he had done his duty and ignored them. Once home, he was treated much better.
The 1960s were tumultuous times, but many Americans believe the nation is better now for its widespread attitude adjustment. New people were given voice. And new people listened.
“I think some of the lessons we learned at that time still apply today,” Haga said. “We learned it is right and proper, patriotic even, to question authority and challenge leaders, decisions and policies that are wrong-headed. In some ways, we’re better. We’ve grown.”