In this post, and likely a number of future posts, I’d like to share pieces of the project I’m currently working on, ‘My Story, Mostly’.
Jeffrey Mason, whose book ‘Dad, I Want to Know Your Story’ which has inspired the writing of my auto-biography, invites the journalist to list the critical events of the year of one’s birth, in my case 1947, but I think this is a bit empty because in 1947 I was pretty much oblivious to what was going on at the time. It may have been a significant year to my parents but are just entries in a history book for me. More significant I think would be my formative teen years, 1962 perhaps. I would have turned 15 that year.
I read a book after seeing the author speak at a professional development conference when I was working for AECL, sometime in the ’70s. The book was called You Are What You Were When [Morris Massey] and the author’s thesis was that the sociological events of the time when you were a youth, influence your values and your behaviour for the rest of your life (unless you are also later struck by a ‘Significant Emotional Event’): the frugality of those who grew up in the Dirty 30s, the stoicism of the ‘Greatest Generation’ of the 1940s. I grew up in the ‘50’s but I don’t think it was world events that affected me but the insecurity from moving cities every couple of years. However, I think millions of us born in the first few years following WWII were much influenced by the 1960s events and culture. I wasn’t an activist, I wasn’t into drugs or the ‘beat’ culture, I didn’t go to Woodstock, but the energy of the ‘60s was all around us, fueled by television and radio.
So let me jot a few things from the early 1960s (’62 & ’63, when I was 15) that may have had some influence on me.
Historical Milestones: 1962/63
- The Cuban Missile Crisis
John F. Kennedy was President of the United States of America (the Prime Minster of Canada at that time was John G. Diefenbaker who mistrusted Kennedy and who himself was much disliked by JFK) but what happened in America profoundly affected what happened in Canada, as has been the case for much of Canada’s history. The Cold War between the Western Democracies and the Communist Block was at its coldest in its forty years history in the 60s and peaked in 1962.
Fidel Castro had succeeded in 1959 overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba and began converting Cuban society to Communism, to the delight of the Soviet Union and dismay of the United States. Kennedy authorized the ill-conceived and poorly executed invasion of Cuba in 1961 (The Bay of Pigs fiasco). To support his toe-hold in the Americas Chairman Khrushchev began installing ICBMs in Cuba. This was an unacceptable threat to America and Kennedy demanded the Soviets withdraw the missiles and installed a naval blockade of Cuba. Kennedy spoke to the nation on tv on October 22 and for the next seven days the people of the world were on the edge of their seats. Khrushchev declined to comply instead complaining of America missiles in Turkey. Kennedy began to arm American nuclear missiles in occupied Germany and gave an ultimatum to Khrushchev. For forty-eight hours the world held its breath, but eventually Khrushchev blinked and agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba in exchange for reciprocal withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey and guarantees for Cuba. The world let out its collective breath.
The interesting thing to 15-year-old me about this whole episode is that, while I was aware of it, I wasn’t alarmed. I think the whole Cold War and the prospect of nuclear war was much less an issue for kids in Canada than in America – for example, to my memory, we never had air raid warnings, never hid under our desks – I’m sure I had much bigger things on my mind in October of 1962 – the next WHVS Junior Tigers football game.
- The Berlin Wall
Part and parcel with this psychological war between ‘The West’ and the ‘2nd World’ was the tension in divided Germany and in particular the tension in divided Berlin. Berlin is in the middle of what was Communist East Germany, then a Soviet satellite country, and was completely fenced off, though there were transportation corridors to retain connection between West Berlin and West Germany. But East Germany and East Berlin constantly feared the continuous leakage of citizens from the east to the west. Indeed, East Germany in 1961 constructed a brick wall right through the city of Berlin demarcating the Soviet sector from the three Allied sectors (America, Britain and France). Western Powers were concerned there would be a repeat of the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 in which the Soviets closed the transport corridors to Berlin and the Allies undertook a massive air transport of goods and commerce to Berlin. At the height of construction of the Berlin Wall President Kennedy flew to Berlin (1963 June 26) and delivered one of his most famous speeches pledging commitment to the preservation of Berlin in a free Germany. The famous line, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ rang around the world and still resonates today.
The second siege of Berlin ended but the Berlin Wall persisted for another 30 years and was only knocked down by jubilant Germans with the collapse of Soviet sponsored East Germany and the amalgamation of one Germany again in 1989.
- The Space Race
Charismatic Kennedy also inspired us with this compelling vision: ‘We choose to go to the moon’, a speech he delivered at Rice University September 12, 1961 (yes, yes, I know 1961, not 1962, but really): “America should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.“
America was in a race with the Soviet Union, this time a race to develop space flight technology, and were perceived as losing it, so this was yet another element in the Cold War between the West and the Soviets. He further galvanized America with this sentence in the Rice Speech:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade…, not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
It was one of the most inspirational speeches of the twentieth century, rivalling anything the greatest speaker ever delivered. For the rest of the decade, I and millions of others were fascinated with each progressive step in America’s quest to land the first man on the moon, succeeding ahead of schedule in July 1969. It was an event telecast on tv even, and the whole world watched. Mom took a picture of the tv to recall it; I had for many years a copy of the Globe and Mail front page of the moon landing. (Maybe I still do, buried in my memory box.)
Unfortunately, JFK did not live to see his goal for America achieved; he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, another day anyone of my generation and older will always remember.
- Sir Winston Churchill Died
So, who was the most compelling speaker of the twentieth century if it wasn’t John F. Kennedy? Why, Sir Winston Churchill, of course. Widely credited with saving western democracies from the scourge of totalitarianism (and in the result restored democracy to belligerent Germany and Japan) he did so with compelling speeches, willing the British people (and the peoples of the British Empire and allies) in their darkest hour to never surrender. Churchill later warned the West to be wary of the Soviet Union in his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. Beyond that he was a prodigious writer and won the Noble Prize for literature in 1953. When Churchill died in 1965 (I realize I’m supposed to be recording influences on my life from 1962 but WSC is so compelling, then as now, it would be wrong to omit his death from this narrative, anachronistic though it may be.) The nation and the free world mourned his passing and felt compelled to pay homage to this saviour of democracy: the crowds lining the funeral route were enormous; most of Canada watched the funeral on TV. He had declined to be buried in Westminster Abbey though it is hard to think of anyone more deserving of the honour.
I was always a student of history, and an Anglophile to boot, and I have admired and honoured Churchill my whole life; I have read a dozen of his books, especially the six volume History of the Second World War and the five volume History of the English Speaking Peoples which include generous tracts in praise of America, Britain’s greatest colony, and thus a major influencer of English language and values and justice on significant parts of the whole world.
[As a quirky footnote in this autobiography I might mention that I read most of these eleven volumes while riding the Ottawa Transit Commission buses commuting from our apartment in the south end of Ottawa to the AECL offices downtown over the course of about 18 months in 1971/72. I started re-reading HESP as I write this story in 2022.]
I’m pretty sure that many other things happening in the ‘60s, not just 1962, had significant impacts on my emerging mind – pop music, the Beatles, the Viet Nam War, the protest movement, most of which happened outside of Canada – but ‘My Story, Mostly’, is not just a 1960’s chronicle, so we should just leave what we have there. No doubt echoes of my teenage years will show up elsewhere in My Story.