The 1968 Summer Olympics saw some unforgettable moments. There were some controversial ones, such as the Black Power salute on the winner’s pedestal. But there were also some amazing accomplishments in sport. Perhaps the greatest of all was Bob Beamon completely shattering the long jump record.
Beamon was a good long jumper. When you look at his overall career average, that’s about all you can say about him. But what he did was choose the perfect time to make the longest jump of his career, one that would change the history of the sport.
He nearly missed even getting into the event. He fouled on his first two qualifying jumps, and decided to start his last one well behind the line to be safe. He managed to get in easily at that point.
But he made it. And on his first jump in medal competition, he went 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches. That was officially measured as 8.90 meters.
Long jumping at the time (as well as now) was a sport where records are set frequently, by fractions of an inch (or centimeter, if you prefer).
Beamon beat the existing world record by one foot, ten and-a-half inches.
Let’s put that into perspective. Imagine someone (free of steroids) hitting 80 home runs in a year. Imagine a 75-yard field goal. Imagine someone running the 100 meter dash in eight seconds. The jump was so long that it had to be measured with a tape, as it was beyond the capability of the electronic measuring system.
Beamon’s astronomical slaying of the world record led to a new adjective describing a feat that far surpasses anyone’s expectations: Beamonesque.
Beamon’s second-best career jump was 27 feet, 3 1/2 inches. After the Olympics, he never cleared 27 feet again. His record stood for 22 years in a sport where records had been routinely broken every four or five years.
But his opportunistic choice of the Summer Olympics in which to make the jump of his life cemented him in history as the one long jumper that most folks have heard of. It also got an adjective named after him. Not a bad achievement in a few seconds.
The 1960’s started off with school segregation still widespread, separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” all across the deep south, and much struggling to come to put all of this to a stop.
Such a process would have to be painful, and indeed it was. Martin Luther King was advising peaceful resistance to racism, while Malcolm X advocated killing the white devils. Fortunately, King proved to be a more effective leader.
By 1968, things had improved. Segregated schools were much rarer, but the solution of busing students long distances to integrate was not a good idea, and it was causing much anger and strife.
The Summer Olympics at Mexico City would prove to be a platform to make a statement.
There was a movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics altogether. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It’s never a good idea to skip the games for political reasons. Every time it’s been done, the only effect has been to diminish the Games themselves, as well as to cheat hard-working athletes out of what they have been striving for.
Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the Gold and Bronze for the 200M. Friends and teammates at San Jose State, they agreed to make a very visible statement at the presentation of their medals.
Smith had a black glove on his right hand, Carlos wore one on his left. As the National Anthem played, they raised their gloved fists in the air. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia also wore a patch on his jacket supporting the organization that was seeking a black boycott of the games.
It seems pretty tame today, but it was shocking in that emotionally charged year. The gesture was met with outrage by many, admiration by others. The Olympic Committee was certainly not amused. The runners were banned from further competition and from the Olympic Village.
Smith and Carlos received death threats aimed at them and their families. Of course, so did nearly everyone else involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But history eventually judged their actions as admirable. They were honored in 1998, and there are plans to build a statue at their alma mater commemorating the incident.
Here’s to standing up for what you believe, even if it makes you unpopular.
We Boomer kids grew up in a pretty consistent political situation: Better Dead than Red.
The communists, ANY communists, were our sworn enemies, that is if you lived in the United States, or most other democratic nations. Russia, Cuba, East Germany, North Vietnam, Red China, they were all the same. The bad guys. The other side. The force from which the world must be protected from further expansion.
That all began to take a turn another direction entirely in 1971.
Table tennis, or ping-pong, was occasionally featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. While it had its followers, it was far from being one of the more popular competitive contests in the US. But it was a different matter in the Orient. Ping-pong was a passion!
Despite its lack of serious fan base, the US had a pretty good ping-pong team in 1971. They were playing in a tournament in Japan that year when a chance incident of a player jumping on the wrong bus, coupled with a courageous act of generosity by one of his competitors, led to relations normalizing between China (notice we dropped the Red?) and the United States.
US star player Glenn Cowan was late practicing one evening, and missed his bus back to the hotel. He spotted another bus and jumped on. It was occupied by the Chinese National Table Tennis Team.
Cowan was an outgoing fellow, and stood at the front of the bus as it left for the hotel and said a few informal words to the team. A translator passed them on in Chinese. The result were icy stares from the players who had been well-schooled in the decadence of the West, and the need to avoid contact with them at all costs.
Then, a player named Zhuang Zedong stood up in the rear of the bus, walked forward, and presented Cowan with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains.
Cowan was flabbergasted (in a good way) by the act of generosity. The rest of Zedong’s team were equally flabbergasted, but in a distinctly different direction.
When the bus arrived, there were photographers present who recorded the bizarre sight of an American competitor getting off of a bus full of communist Chinese rivals.
The incident received lots of airplay, and it eventually got back to Chairman Mao. With the Cultural Revolution (and the rumors of its horrible human rights abuses) winding down, he decided that it was time to make a friendly gesture towards the largest of the western nations. The end result: the US team was invited to visit China to play in a tournament just a few days after the Japanese competition was over.
The tournament was a success, even though the Chinese team seemed to be taking some dives in the name of diplomacy. A little less than a year later, Richard Nixon made his historic trip to visit Mao and Chou-En-lai (as he was known then). He also toured many parts of the country, and the TV shots of him standing on the Great Wall are burned indelibly into my memory.
Soon, we were doing business with China, and suddenly seemingly forgot that there existed a small island off of the nation’s east coast that we had once also called (nationalist) China. Such was the price paid for new political allies.
I was a serious juvenile philatelist in those days, and was delighted to learn that I could now obtain stamps from Communist China. I ended up with quite a few for a quarter or so from the Littleton Stamp and Coin Company.
Today, for better or worse, there are few items in the discount stores that are manufactured anywhere but China. Chinese-made merchandise has suffered a poor reputation for quality that is slowly being overcome. My son recently presented me with a very nice Kershaw pocket knife that was made over there.
But once upon a time, Red China filled a kid’s heart with uneasiness, imagining a vast communist army that was bent on destroying the American Way. After all, ALL communists were evil!
There probably aren’t very many Boomer males who haven’t been in love with the beautiful Mary Tyler Moore. My older brothers fell for her as Laura Petrie. I was just a kid then, so I fell for Mary Richards when I was a teenager. And even today, she has aged gracefully, maintaining a timeless beauty that refuses to go away.
Mary herself is not a Boomer. She was born in 1936. But her beautiful smile and the popularity of her TV shows makes her a Boomer memory for sure.
There are many things I love about this talented actress. First of all, when she was born, she was named Mary Tyler Moore. I have always appreciated artists, especially actors and actresses, who felt comfortable keeping their own name. However, I DO understand why John Wayne decided not to go with Marion Morrison. 😉
Mary’s first moment on TV, which has been preserved, can be seen here. It was a Hotpoint appliance commercial for the Ozzie and Harriet Show. It caught the public’s attention, and Mary was soon a regular guest star on shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Hawaiian Eye. She auditioned for the part of Danny Thomas’s daughter on make Room for Daddy, but Danny himself vetoed her, saying her little pixie nose could never let her pass for his daughter.
In 1961, Carl Reiner envisioned a show about his misadventures writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and cast Dick Van Dyke as himself and Mary as Rob’s understanding bride, Laura.
Dick was a good looking comedic genius who brought in the female viewers. Mary would have brought in the male demographic by being as funny as Adlai Stevenson, but it turned out she was a comedic genius herself. Double bonus.
Carl Reiner envisioned a series that would run for five years, then the plug would be pulled. And that’s exactly what happened. The show was an incredible hit, and ended of its own accord after 158 wildly successful episodes. Its legacy is historically cemented in place by the fact that it was listed as “never jumped” at jumptheshark.com (before they opened the floodgates and let a bunch of mediocrities in).
What would be next for the lovely Ms. Moore? It would be 1970, with the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The show was perfect for the era. Women’s Lib was in full force, and a show about a gal who breaks off a bad relationship and moves to Minneapolis to start over was certain to be a hit with good writing and good acting. Once again, it scored big in both areas. Besides Mary, the show included a mixture of talents like Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Gavin McCleod, and John Amos.
While Gloria Steinem was in full activist mode, Mary Richards chose to establish her independence with baby steps. The result was one of the most popular and successful sitcoms in history, even in the opinion of this writer, overshadowing the Dick Van Dyke show itself.
One of the single most hilarious moment on the show was when Chuckles the Clown met his demise. The funeral scene has to be seen to be believed. And thanks to YouTube, you can see it here.
Mary knows how to take her leave, and she took the show out on top in 1977, shortly before I graduated from high school. She proceeded into movies, playing a mother with issues in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People in 1980. She was nominated for an Academy Award, but fell short of winning it. The dark, cold character she played so brilliantly was certainly not Mary Richards or Laura Petrie. Its shock value may well have hurt her chances.
As I mentioned before, Mary has slid very gracefully into her golden years. She is an outspoken advocate of causes she supports, and still picks up an occasional acting gig (HER choice). She is also an essential part of Boomer memories, particularly for the guys who sought her qualities in the ladies they pursued.
To reiterate my last column, we Boomers grew up knowing who the world heavyweight champion was. Nowadays, at press time, there are four with names I’ve never heard of.
In 1921, the World Boxing Association was formed. It presumed to call the shots as far as who the champions were in each weight division, and all seemed to agree that they were cool with that. Thus, the whole world agreed that the reigning champions had names like Max Baer, Joe Louis, Max Schmelling, Gene Tunney, and Rocky Marciano.
Then, in 1963, another boxing authority was formed: the World Boxing Council. Uh-oh. Now, we had the potential to have TWO different champions.
And, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. Ernie Terrell (the brother of one of Diana Ross’s Supremes) was named champion by the WBC in 1965 after Ali backed out of a fight with him, while Ali remained the champ as far as the WBA was concerned.
But there were only two names to remember, and only one after Ali brutally savaged Terrell in 1967 in revenge for Terrell referring to him as “Clay,” insulting the recently converted Muslim in the process.
Once again, all agreed who the champion was.
For some reason, in 1983, the International Boxing Federation was formed. And for some yet other reason, the World Boxing Organization was formed in 1988, Now we have four different governing bodies to decide who the champions are.
What a mess. Combine that with fighters like Ali and Jerry Quarry who are debilitated by their careers, the deaths of Duk Koo Kim and others in the ring, and the psychopathic behavior of former champion Mike Tyson, and it’s easy to see why the popularity of boxing is a shadow of what it was when we were kids.
Ever heard of Wladimir Klitschko? Oleg Maskaev? Ruslan Chagaev? Sultan Ibragimov? According to the FOUR different authorities who govern professional boxing, those are the names of the current heavyweight champion.
What a stinking mess. What happened, anyway? Remember when the champ was Floyd Patterson, and everyone knew it? Or Joe Frazier? Or the Greatest of all, Muhammad Ali?
I don’t regret professional boxing’s fall from grace and loss of popularity. It is a sport with tragic consequences for many of its participants. Who doesn’t fight tears when they see Muhammad Ali wracked with Parkinson’s syndrome? Despite how you feel about pugilism, if Ali would have gone to work in another trade, odds are nowadays he would be a sixty-something that would never shut up (and who would be loved by all who knew him). However, I do look back fondly on the days when everyone knew the name of the heavyweight champ.
When I was an electrician working in Southern California in 1981, I worked on a sprawling house that was being built by one of the various heavyweight champions of the time: Mike Weaver. Perhaps you have heard of him. I had. But how many people knew he was the reigning world champion (according to the WBA)?
So the demise of a universally acclaimed champion had already taken place by then. While some would say the last was Ali, I surmise it was actually Larry Holmes. After all, everyone knew about Holmes, even though many didn’t like the fact that he was responsible for humiliating the aging loudmouthed champion we had all grown to love (outside of the US, nobody would sanction the fight there).
So what did happen to boxing, anyway? Why can nobody name the heavyweight champions nowadays, even if they COULD pronounce their names?
In this case, I think the Greatest is the one responsible.
In researching this piece, like most of them, I consulted Wikipedia. It had this to say:
Prior to 1921, champions were acknowledged by the public at large. A champion in that era was a fighter who had a notable win over another fighter and kept winning afterward. Retirements or disputed results could lead to a championship being split among several men for periods of time.
Watching Tom Brokaw’s 1968 on the History Channel, I had a memory spring back to mind that was buried too deeply for me to dig up without a little help.
After the unspeakable assassinations of that year, I, and many other kids, assumed that leaders were destined to die violent deaths.
My mother’s shock of JFK’s death was still fresh in my mind on April 4, 1968, when the local programming was interrupted to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King had been gunned down in Memphis. While the former caused her to be hysterical, her reaction to King’s death was more controlled.
It had nothing to do with racism. My mother was born in the Texas Hill Country to hard-working parents. My grandfather, who lost a lung to WW1 mustard gas, ran his own gas station. My grandmother was a schoolteacher.
My grandmother was also a paradox. The world she grew up in taught her to use the dreaded “n word” with no embarrassment whatsoever. Yet, the way she lived her life proved that she had no real animosity against any ethnic groups.
I thought it was hilarious that the taboo word would fly out of her mouth repeatedly in the course of normal conversation. But if my mother ever heard ME use it, I was beaten as hard as if I had cussed.
No, my mother’s resigned reaction to King’s death was because she had seen it coming. Many, many great men had died in the fight for civil rights, and she, and many other adults, knew that some racist peckerwood would get the unquestioned leader of the movement sooner or later.
But we kids weren’t so in tune to the events of the time. All we knew was that another famous leader had been gunned down.
The angst became heavier on June 8 of that year. After giving a speech in Los Angeles, and apparently heading for a Presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy was gunned down by some Palestinian nutcase who had an issue with Bobby’s stance towards Israel.
That did it for me. As Hubert Humphrey squared off against Richard Nixon, I wondered who would be killing them. I also wondered why anyone would even want a job that had a certain violent death sentence attached to it.
It seems naive, of course, but it was a real part of my world. According to Brokaw’s 1968, I wasn’t the only one, either. Teachers reported that entire elementary school classes held the same belief.
I really don’t remember if my own classmates felt that same way. But I would be quite interested in finding out how many of you Boomer readers once thought that all leaders were destined to be gunned down.
The things we Baby Boomers were destined to accomplish! We would be the generation that would usher in cheap, clean nuclear power! We would be driving flying cars by 2000! And we would take the lead in adopting the efficient, easy-to-use metric system!
OK, enough with the exclamation points already. Obviously, all three of these particular dreams were overblown.
However, it may surprise you to know just how close we are to being a metric nation. Read on.
It all started by those lovable masters of illogic, the French, who decided we needed a logical system of measurement. According to metric scholar Pat Naughin:
The metric system used all around the world has three parts. In France in the 1790s, it was named the “decimal metric system”. The system part came from John Wilkins in England, the metric part came from Burattini in Italy, and the decimal part came from the USA. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were very active in getting the French “philosophes’ to use decimal numbers for the “decimal metric system”.
OK, raise your hand if you knew that our founding fathers were part of the team behind the metric system. THIS history buff didn’t!
During the 60’s, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada all began a systematic conversion to the same system that most other countries had officially adopted: the metric system. This left the US, Liberia and Burma still using the English Imperial units. Thus, talk began spreading among legislators,educators, and manufacturers about switching over.
There was really no choice in the matter. Go metric, or lose every economic and intellectual advantage you have over the rest of the world.
Thus, the metric system began being taught to us Boomer kids in schools.
At this point, it would be good to point out that pharmaceutical manufacturers had been using the metric system since early in the 20th century. So had much of the tooling industry. When it came to teeny tiny amounts, it just made more sense to them to use grams and millimeters.
But it was in the 70’s that many others followed suit. For example, food manufacturers. Cereal boxes began being sold in metric weights, with the standard weight in parentheses. The implication was that the METRIC system was the preferred one.
The liquor industry was an eager adopter. I know that by the time I could legally purchase hootch in 1980, the half-gallon, fifth, and pint were gone, replaced by their metric equivalents. Wine was sold in metric quantities as well. Interestingly, the working man’s preferred libation, beer, stubbornly resisted change.
Indeed, it was stubborn resistance by the working stiffs among us (including, for the longest time, ME) that kept the US from jumping in headlong with the rest of the world and becoming an official metric nation. We cringed at the sight of kilometers on our speed limit signs. We rolled our eyes at temperatures given in Celsius. We were disgusted when our SAE wrenches that we might have inherited from our fathers and grandfathers no longer fit these newfangled nuts and bolts on our cars.
A flyer published in Singapore in the 70’s, shows an approach that might have made the transition easier. Children, teach your parents the metric system!
But instead, we tended as a generation to agree that our feet, pounds, miles, and gallons were just fine, thank you.
However, the metric system continued to be adopted despite our indifference and/or opposition. Our American-made cars began to sport speedometers that read in both MPH and KPH. Some gas stations extended the functionality of their old two-digit-price-limited pumps during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 by marketing the now-expensive stuff as liters. The Olympics turned us into begrudging experts into what constituted a meter, a kilogram, or a kilometer. Domestic cars even began to be manufactured with metric bolts.
That brings us to today. The US continues to be one of three blips on the world map that are still officially non-metric. But in reality, we are as much, or even more so, metric than some official countries. It just doesn’t say so on our company letterhead.
One last thing: for an inaccurate, but close enough, conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, just double the number and add thirty. Thus, 30 degrees Celsius becomes 90 degrees “Americun”. Actually, it’s 86 degrees, but at least you know it’s HOT!
The older members of the Boomer generation got to see lots of cool things. They watched Howdy Doody. They wore coonskin caps. They got to play with baking powder submarines.
However, they also held a dread of one day turning eighteen. The draft was on, and a particularly nasty war was ongoing. Kids (and I mean that literally, as I was certainly a kid when I was eighteen) had to make profound decisions. Would they opt for ROTC? Would they volunteer for a more appealing form of service than the swamp-wading, booby-trap avoiding Army grunt? Or would they stay in school, or apply for CO status, or, head for Canada?
The draft began with a proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Back then, a one-time payment would exempt you from having to serve.
After that, drafts would be implemented during times of war and suspended afterwards. In 1940, FDR signed the Selective Training and Service Act which created a draft during a time of peace, although the writing was clearly on the wall regarding the US’s future involvement in WWII.
But after the War, the draft stayed. Fewer young men were drafted in peacetime, but the possibility was there nonetheless. As wars like Korea and Vietnam escalated, more and more youths were sent the dreaded letter from Uncle Sam.
In 1969, a lottery was held which you did NOT want to win. Up until then, the government’s policy was to draft older individuals first as needed, meaning the odds would increase that you would be called up until you reached whatever cutoff year was in place. But the lottery chose birthdates at random as the primary prerequisite of when you would be selected. The later your birthdate was drawn, the less likely you would be called.
Twenty-year-olds were the primary target of the lotteried draft. If you turned twenty on September 14, 1969, you were virtually guaranteed being called up. That was the first date drawn. June 8 was drawn 366 (it was a leap year), so you had a pretty good chance of avoiding the dreaded letter if you were born on that day.
The draft started with twenty-year-olds, then progressed through each older year until 25. Then it dropped to nineteen, then eighteen.
However, even though both forms of the draft were set up to spare eighteen-year-olds, the fact is that many of them were still drafted. Curious.
As Vietnam slowed down, so did the draft. In 1973, it was discontinued altogether. I was fourteen. I was very, very happy. So was every other Boomer male who had evaded compulsory military service. In 1975, even registration was stopped.
But in 1980, Jimmie Carter reinstated registration due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He intended to send a message to the Kremlin. Of course, now the Soviet Union is no more, and Russia is a democracy, and WE’VE invaded Afghanistan. Despite those strange twists of political intrigue, registration continues.
But today’s youths largely view it as a mere rite of passage. We who remember JFK, however, can recall a time when “draft” had a much more sinister connotation than a good cold beer or a chilly breeze in one’s house.
The year was 1972. George Carlin, brilliant comedian best known at the time for his portrayal of the “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” on Johnny Carson and Flip Wilson Show appearances, released an album called Class Clown. The album, which appeared without parental advisory labels way back then, contained a magnificent, highly offensive routine called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”
The Seven Words, which you can view here in all their profane glory, exemplified Carlin’s rapier-sharp intelligence when it came to deducing how society works. Clark Gable used what was then known as “the D word” way back in 1939 in Gone With the Wind, and from then until 1972, many formerly taboo words had become acceptable for broadcast television.
But there was no doubt about it: in 1972, there was NO WAY you would hear any of Carlin’s Deadly Seven on broadcast television.
How times have changed.
Carlin, who taped the album in Santa Monica, California, was arrested later that year in more conservative Milwaukee for performing the sketch onstage. The charge? Violating obscenity laws. It was tossed by a judge soon afterwards, but the bust still earned the comedian a great deal of infamy that only enhanced his rebellious reputation.
What would happen to him today in Milwaukee? Well, obviously no charges would be filed, but equally obviously, nobody would bat an eye. You hear worse than that at a hip-hop concert. That is one of the differences, for better or worse, between the world we Boomers live in now and the one that we grew up in.
The Deadly Seven soon began becoming obsolete shortly after Class Clown’s release. One of the first to fall was the “S word.” It was frequently heard at sporting events. The dreaded “F word” also was picked up by parabolic microphones on the sidelines of football games and such. And Carlin pleaded the case that the “T word” didn’t even belong on the list. Well, it too was heard on many a live broadcast.
But the list came crashing down for me in 1982, when a local station, KTLA I believe, in Los Angeles aired the uncut version of The Deer Hunter. At each commercial break, the audience was warned that what they were seeing was the original R-rated movie.
I don’t know how they managed to pull it off without getting nailed by the FCC, but I remember pulling it in on a pair of rabbit ears over the airwaves. And, if I recall correctly, that film contained every single one of Carlin’s Deadly Seven. Repeatedly.
Nowadays, even the cleaned-up A&E version of The Sopranos is liberally sprinkled with “S words.” SNL is known for regularly receiving FCC wrist-slaps for “F-bombs.” And let’s face it, an episode of Deadliest Catch, while technically “bleeped,” leaves very little to the imagination as to what “French” is being spoken.
But once upon a time, George Carlin nailed the state of television censorship with his unforgettable Seven Deadly Words. Ironically, while coming up with seven words too obscene to say on TV is quite impossible today, there are probably hundreds of words too Politically Incorrect to ever make the airwaves. And lovable Otis the drunk on Andy Griffith, or Foster Brooks at the Dean Martin Roasts? Horrors! That could never happen today! Our village-raised children should never see such excesses! Why, the next thing you know, they would be too upset to listen to Akon on their iPods!
To repeat myself yet again, what a long, strange trip it’s been, being a Boomer.