In the summer of 1960 I was five years old; by the end of that chaotic decade, in 1969, I was a teenager, 14 years of age. To say it was a confusing, frustrating time to live during those impressionable years does not do justice to the events of the time period. Maybe turbulent is the best word to describe what happened during the 60's; some good, but mostly troubling and tragic events dominated the news. To be honest, it was a wild decade to go from a young child to a teenager.
I have faint recollections of 1960, 61, and 62. Of course in my previous article, 'Growing up in Elmhurst,' 1960 was a big year because I started kindergarten and met my school boy crush, Nancy Occhiogrosso. 1961 was just a blur and the main memory about 1962 was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tensions between Russia and the United States had reached an all time high. The term 'Cold War' was used to give an account on the seriousness of the state of affairs.
This was a time when I believe my instincts started to develop. I saw the faces of men and women as they stood at the newsstand reading the events of the day; when they watched the news. Whatever I felt or just sensed in those people's eyes I'm not sure, but what I knew it was not good. I witnessed fear and uncertainty.
As a child it was a very scary feeling. After all, older people are the ones who make sense of things. They tell their children, their students, that everything will work out; there is nothing to be afraid of. Rather than speak aloud, the adults remained huddled together; their whispers couldn't be heard. As much as my friends and I tried to hear their words, I would imagine the hushed tones they spoke were meant to protect us.
A year after that near disaster, anyone born in the 50's or prior to that decade knows where they were on the 22nd of November, 1963. I'm sure you can picture it in your mind right now. Not only was President Kennedy's murder one that shocked a nation, it was one that stunned the world. Yet the United States of America moved on. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our new president, and the democracy that we hold so dear continued to work. The country would mourn for awhile but we would then move forward as Americans always do. Our resiliency is unparalleled.
The Constitution, written 234 years ago, is still the most important document this country and the world will ever see. Some leaders of today are doing their best to transform it with some very liberal ideas, but the Constitution must endure as it is written, or our country will never be the same. It will fail!
Sports was our outlet
While these world events went on, my friends and I found peace and solace. Sports was our outlet; above all baseball, the national pastime. We watched it on T.V. and played the game every chance we could. Juniper Valley Park, Maurice Park, Newtown High School field and Victory field were some of the places we went to have fun and forget about everything but baseball.
In February of 1964 I sat in front of the television with my sister and we looked on and listened to what would become the most famous band of all time; the Beatles. Later in that year the first World Series I recall watching was when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees. It was the last good season for the New York Yankees. It would be 12 long years before they would return to the World Series.
By the way, I was the only Yankee fan in the neighborhood; a very difficult dilemma. The Mets drew all the attention no matter how bad they played. I remember listening to the final out of the seventh game of the '64 series with my dad in the parking lot of the World's Fair. I went to the World's Fair, in Flushing Meadows, several times before it closed and I enjoyed looking at the displays that showed what the future years would look like. I think we have probably outdone ourselves with the technological advances of the 21st century; yet I am a little disappointed that I don't have my jet backpack to fly me from one place to another.
In 1965 I joined the Police Athletic League's baseball team named the Tigers. It was at the encouragement of my friend from P.S. 102, Bruce Kabbath. At nine years old I didn't play much, but the following year I started every game. The P.A.L. is for kids from nine to 12 years old. We played our games at Maurice Park in Maspeth every Saturday morning during the summer. With the league short of one team they added a junior high school team, St. Stans. They were allowed to avoid the league rules and have players as old as 13 and 14. It may not seem like much but in sports terms there is a big difference between 11 and 12 year old kids compared to 13 and 14. St. Stans won all of their games until my last year. When I was 12 years old I was already five feet nine inches tall. Due to my size, our coach turned me into a pitcher. I remember I just reached back and threw as hard and fast as I could. I was also known for throwing a little too close to some batters; mostly the older St. Stans players. I tried my best to intimidate them. In the last game I played for the Tigers I struck out 13 batters. Our games were only seven innings long. The final score was 2-1; St. Stans had finally been beaten. My teammates and I played our best game at the right time.
October of 1965 I ran home from school each day to watch the last few innings of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins. The World Series was played during the day back then, and the broadcast was very simple; so easy to listen to. The announcers didn't talk every second and there weren't any silly computerized statistics overflowing onto the T.V. screen telling us things like a player hitting 10 points higher during the day as opposed to a night game. The Dodgers beat the Twins in a seven game series. The pitcher for the Twins that seventh game was Jim Kaat. When I moved to Palm City, Florida I met Jim Kaat several times at a few local stores. I think he was very surprised to be recognized.
The Chaos Heats Up
In the winter of 1965 Malcolm X was shot to death while speaking at the Audubon Ball Room. All I knew about the man was that he was speaking his mind to an audience and I would imagine his killers didn't like what he had to say. By the end of 1965 we had experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's assassination, the increase in troops to Vietnam, which was quickly becoming a very controversial wardividing the nation, and the shooting of Malcolm X. The chaos of the 1960's was just heating up. Yet, on a calmer note, the legend and frenzy created by the Beatles, continued to grow.
In the summer of 1966 my friends and I saw our first baseball game in person when a neighbor took several of us kids to Shea Stadium. I have no idea who won the game between the Dodgers and the Mets. What I do recall is what we all saw for the first time. You have to keep in mind that most people in 1966 had black and white televisions. My family didn't get a color T.V. until the Christmas of 1968. As I walked up a slight incline I saw the stadium lights and then the most amazing view I've ever seen. The brightest green outfield and infield grass was right in front of me. The sight was incredible. I was speechless; so were my friends. We stood in awe. Then we turned to see the clay colored dirt of the infield and the colors of the seats. The first level was yellow. Next was orange, blue, and finally at the top of the stadium, was green seats. They were the cheapest at a $1.50 per game. I can still picture in my mind exactly where I was standing when I saw the field for the first time.
The Baltimore Orioles won the 1966 World Series, beating the Dodgers. The following year it was the Cardinals over the Red Sox and in 1968 the Detroit Tigers beat the Cardinals. For two years the city of Detroit was literally on fire from race riots. The Tigers' victory in the World Series became a needed and pleasant diversion within the city. For a short time the people of Detroit put their anger and frustrations aside. 1968 also turned out to be the last season for Yankee great Mickey Mantle, who retired from the game after 18 seasons.
During those years the civil rights movement came alive. In April of 1968 the most influential voice for equality of black people was Martin Luther King. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Three months later Robert Kennedy was also shot down while campaigning for president in California. Riots in the streets became commonplace. There were civil rights riots and then there were people opposed to the war in Vietnam who took to the streets to be heard. These public disorders were also political as many people disrupted the Democratic convention in 1968. It was at this time the country had spun out of control. For the first time in history a real war was brought to every living room in the country as newscasters took us up close and into the Vietnam War. The pictures were graphic and unsettling. The news brought the madness in the streets into our homes as well.
Years ago you could only read about the news; now you could see it first hand. Most of it was unpleasant as every news station quickly came to the realization that bad news brought more viewers to their T.V. sets than good news. Next up was 1969 when things really turned upside down; but in a good way. Three events would shake New York City, one in particular, the world.
Namath and the Jets
The year started off with a long-haired quarterback from the New York Jets football team predicting they would win Super Bowl III; his name is Joe Namath. The Jets were a huge underdog against the Baltimore Colts. This didn't stop them from playing their hearts out and making a prophet out of Joe Namath. The Jets won rather easily by a score of 16-7.
The Miracle Mets
In April, the New York Mets opened their baseball season by playing the Montreal Expos. I went with several friends and the Mets did what they were accustomed to doing; they lost. Baseball games were great back then. The Mets played a lot of day games; especially on the weekends. These games lasted just a little more than two hours. Starting at one o'clock my friends and I could be home well before dinner time; with our parents not knowing we spent the afternoon at the ballpark. But if we had extra money for hot dogs and sodas our mothers noticed we were not as hungry when the family sat down to eat.
The previous year, along with my neighborhood friends, we found that it was easy to get to Shea Stadium. At the Grand Avenue subway station we hopped on the local train to Roosevelt Avenue; then a quick walk up the stairs and there was the number 7 train waiting to take us to Willets Point and Shea Stadium. We managed to scrape up the $1.50 cost of a grandstand seat; the worst in the ballpark. We didn't mind at all.
There were times we couldn't come up with the money so we would search in the trash at the back of the neighborhood's local supermarkets, delicatessens and our very own neighbors' garbage cans in search of Borden's milk containers. Back then on the bottom of the cardboard carton of milk there was a coupon to cut out. I think it was 10 or 15 coupons that gave us free admission to the cheap seats at Shea. Our hands smelled like milk for several days after each game.
As the spring came to an end the Mets were starting to play very well, but not when our group went to a game. At the start of July my friends and I never saw the Mets win a game; they lost nine times. My best friend back then was Gerry Simpson. Gerry grew up in a big Irish Catholic family. With three brothers and three sisters along with several other big families in the neighborhood, we always found a way to come up with enough players for a baseball or softball game.
Gerry was the first to notice that the reason the Mets had lost nine times when we were in attendance was because I was at all of those games. Some of my friends missed a few games, including Gerry, but I was the only one who attended all of them. I was quickly becoming a 'jinx' to the Mets, or so my friends thought.
The last games being played before the players took off for the All Star Game were on Sunday, July 20th. With the games all finished that day everyone waited until the evening when the U.S.A, and the world, was treated to an astonishing event.
Apollo 11 was getting closer and closer to the moon and the people throughout the world were on the edge of their seats as time drew near for the landing to take place. Despite finally having a color television, this event was in black and white. The picture was grainy, but considering the fact that the moon is nearly 250,000 miles away it didn't matter to us. We were lucky enough to see anything at all.
We all held our breath as the Lunar Module, called Eagle, guided by Buzz Aldrin began its descent to the lunar surface. When it landed safely everyone let out a sigh of relief and waited with great anticipation. Neil Armstrong eventually stepped out of the craft and slowly took several steps down a ladder until his last leap landed him softly on the moon. As he spoke his words; 'that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,' people in homes around the United States were overjoyed. I would also guess that various people throughout the world were excited as well; especially those countries who were not that friendly with the U.S.S.R.! We had beaten the Russians, our Cold War adversaries, to the moon; frustrating them once more.
Buzz Aldrin was next to step down to the moon and the pair of American astronauts began to bounce up and down as they cautiously surveyed the gray powdery land beneath them. The United States flag, with its brightly colored stars and stripes, was carefully secured into the lunar surface. Off in the distance our planet earth could be seen floating against an infinite black sky.
I was a week away from my 14th birthday and it was a time when I felt very proud to be an American. We completed the wishes of President Kennedy who once said he felt that it was possible to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the decade of the 60's had ended.
When the three astronauts, the other one being Command Module pilot Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th my friends and I returned to our summer of baseball.
On July 30th I went with Mark Zarimba, a junior high school friend, to watch a doubleheader at Shea Stadium between the Mets and the Houston Astros. The Astros won both games by trouncing the home team by scores of 16-3 and 11-5. I had now seen 11 games and the Mets, having the best season in their short career, lost all of them. To the Met fans in my neighborhood I was now officially declared a curse; everyone was in agreement. There was no doubt about it. As the pennant race heated up and the Mets were in contention for first place, my friends pleaded with me to stay away.
It was a tough decision to make. On one hand I still couldn't come to grips with the Mets winning a pennant. My loyalty was with the Yankees. On the other hand by mid-August I was softening up. I also became distracted by a concert called 'Woodstock,' in Bethel, New York reading newspaper articles about it and watching the event close up on the evening news. This phenomenon drew 500,000 people to watch and listen to three days of music with the most popular musicians of the day. The news covered the incredible sight as a sea of long haired young men and women showed the country and the world how a large peaceful assembly of people was possible.
As Woodstock came to an end, my mind was drawn back to Queens, New York. From what the newspapers and sportscasters said, all people, anywhere and everywhere, were talking about the exploits of New York's 'Amazing Mets.' Towards the end of August I went to two more games and the jinx continued. I then chose to stay away until Mark had a couple of tickets to the September 20th game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was sure the jinx would come to an end. I couldn't have been more wrong. Bob Moose, the pitcher for the Pirates, threw a no-hitter that afternoon; not only beating the Mets but embarrassing them as well. I recall catching a foul ball that day.
When I showed Gerry my ticket stub for the Pirate game and the ball I caught he couldn't believe it. He wasn't as impressed with the ball as much as he was shocked at my ability to bring about another Mets loss; this time by a no-hitter. So I gave him my word. That's it, Gerry. I'll stay away for the rest of the season. My record for the year was the Mets 0, the jinx 14 wins.
As most of us know, the Mets went on to win the Eastern division and clinch a playoff spot. The majority of the people in New York City were ecstatic. The Mets would now play the Atlanta Braves with their superstar right fielder Hank Aaron. At stake was a trip to the World Series. Gerry camped out all night for tickets to the third game of the best of five series to be played at Shea Stadium. He held a ticket for me but the only way my friends would let me go was if the Mets won the first two games of the series being played in Atlanta. I figured that was impossible so I didn't make plans to attend the game; yet sure enough, the Mets won both games against the Braves in their home ballpark. My jinx was put to the test as the entire neighborhood, including me, took the subway to game three.
The aptly named 'Amazing Mets' proved too good and they went on to win the game. The jinx was over! When the final Atlanta Brave batter was called out, Shea Stadium shook so hard; I thought it would topple to the ground in one giant pile. A week later the National League Champion New York Mets dominated the American Leagues Baltimore Orioles for the Mets first World Championship. My neighborhood went wild with everyone taking to the streets.
Cleon Jones the Mets leftfielder caught the last out of the series. Despite the teasing and criticism of being a jinx all year long I had to smile as the Mets won. By this time I really didn't mind and was happy for my friends. It was truly a very special summer and fall in New York City. Throughout the violence and chaos in the streets around the country, the assassinations and the Vietnam War, the sudden and distressing deaths of singers Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, my friends and I did the only thing we could; we survived.
Now the Knicks
Early in the spring of 1970 the New York Knickerbockers won the NBA championship. First it was the Jets then the Mets and finally the Knicks. One person was heard to say:
'In a year where they can land two men on the Moon and bring them safely home, having the Mets win the World Series makes a lot more sense. In fact it explains it all.'
So my friends and I braved our way through the 60's. To this day we wear it as a badge of honor, courage, something to be proud of; a rite of passage. At its peak I think we can agree the decade became unhinged. There was madness and instability, yet there was also bits and pieces of happiness that we tucked away and held onto with great care. We all grew up a little faster than we might have liked, but it was well worth the ride, and what a wonderful journey it turned out to be. I wouldn't change it for any other time; any other decade. We all came through it; older for sure, a lot wiser and, most importantly, more capable of understanding, and making sense of the world around us. It was a lesson well learned.
Magical Mystery Tour
Looking back we rolled with the punches; determined to take life's uncertainties in stride, to wait them out; to let each day take its course. At times we were sad, confused, frustrated and afraid. It was at these moments we discovered something that's very easy to remember and take to heart; it's a special saying:
Yesterday's the past, tomorrow's the future, but today is a gift. That's why it's called the present.
So the wild and extraordinary 60's tested my friends and me as we came of age in Elmhurst, Queens; we all passed. Yet in the end it was baseball and the moon that put the biggest smiles on all of our faces, and took the worries away. They were smiles of joyfulness and relief. Along with those happy moments came treasure chests of incredible memories that will last forever. To borrow a few words from the Beatles, the 60's were our Magical Mystery Tour!