No one reading a morning paper on January 1, 1968, could have guessed what lay coiled in the calendar ahead. A reader might have gleaned, with a yawn over coffee, that this was to be the UN's Human Rights Year and would mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. plastics industry. Ah well, more of the same. Another New Year's Day, another hangover. Were the resolutions we had made late the night before keepable? Would things please get a little more cheerful? Thirty-eight "incidents" mar the first half of the 36-hour New Year's truce in Vietnam. . . . DeGaulle hails France as "an infallible beacon for the world." . . . Bart Starr scores from the one-yard line with 13 seconds left to give the Packers a 17-14 win over Dallas and the NFL Championship. . . . Dr. Christiaan Barnard rushes to Cape Town to prepare for the second heart transplant in medical history (the first fizzled) - this one to save a dentist, Philip Blaiberg, 58, who, along with Dr. Barnard, may be faced with a grim-reaper's choice: Will the heart of a timely-dying black South African be placed in Blaiberg's white chest if his life depends on it? . . .
So. Another year in the late Sixties. We had just come off a brute. Astronauts Grissom, White, Chaffee burned dead on the launch pad. Riots for keeps in Newark, Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta. Six-Day War. China's first H-bomb test, and dunce caps for elders in the Cultural Revolution. Johnson and Kosygin talking past each other in the swamps of New Jersey. Che Guevara winged in Bolivia. Civil war in Nigeria. U.S. population over 200 million. LSD. Twiggy; miniskirts. Flower power, Beatles and Stones. In Schleissheim, Germany, Hermann Winter, angered by noisy, low-flying American helicopters, fired 120 dumplings at them with a home-made catapult and won his war: the United States agreed to fly higher over his house.
There was no way in which 1967 - or '66 or '65 - could have prepared most of us for 1968.We were in a kind of national sleepwalk - aware, on a dream level, of black rage; of the undertow of Vietnam and the paradox of young doves on the verge of mayhem; of the way Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap was beginning to show, like a split seam in the seat of the pants; of cool models provided American youth by Red Guards' impudence and Fidel's chin hairs. But more clearly in focus, for most citizens, were the Toro lawnmower to be taken to the shop for repairs, the Wonder Bread and the Tide in the shopping cart, the plans for a night out for a Big Mac and The Graduate , the hours balanced on lower lumbar vertebrae in front of a flickering 24-inch Zenith: "Mission Impossible," "The Monkees," A. J. Foyt going round and round, Bubba Smith the Bone Crusher.
And so, as January, 1968, moved along, most of us were, so to speak, half awake. Sort of (but not really) disenchanted. This month was starting just one more turn of the big old wheel. Human Plastics Year.
A decent white heart goes in Blaiberg's chest; it is destined to beat there longer than any other pioneering transplant: 19 months, 15 days. . . . Dr. Benjamin Spock and four others are indicted for conspiracy in "counselling, aiding, and abetting" young men to avoid and resist the draft. . . . Alexander Dubcek succeeds Antonin Novotony as Czech Party chief. . . . The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour tops the LP chart. . . . First-class stamps go up to 6 cents . . . . The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau debuts. . . . The last of the exploratory unmanned moon vehicles, Surveyor 7, lands softly, near the crater Tycho . . . .
Now, from this distance, a decade later - or could it have been a century, so far away the mood of those days already seems - we can perhaps see the hints hiding in the crevices of those opening days of the year. We know now that 1968 was to be that year of shocks.
There had been no other year in our history with such multiple seismic tremors as '68 was to bring. There had been mythic catastrophes: Sumter, Gettysburg, Lincoln shot, the Maine , the Argonne, the Crash, Pearl Harbor, JFK shot - but '68 was different. No single one of its shocks was to turn the country around, but the shocks were to keep coming, and coming. It is still too early for long history's verdict on the meaning and lessons of the triphammer's hits - to say nothing of posterity's sense of whether the meanings were grasped or the lessons learned - but even now we can see that that extraordinary year was, at the very least, the fulcrum of the teetering, promising, sickening decade from the killing of John Kennedy to the fugue of Richard Nixon.
Johnson gives the State of the Union message - the Great Society marching with water in its legs. . . . A delegation of SDSers, including young Tom Hayden, visits the International Cultural Congress in Cuba. . . . The U.S. and U.S.S.R. submit a nuclear non-proliferation draft treaty to the UN Disarmament Committee in Geneva. . . . The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seated on a white couch with a hyacinth bud cupped in one hand and flanked by public-relations pinstripers from the firm that handles Ringling's Circus, gives the press the latest hype on the curative powers of transcendental meditation, and when one reporter observes, "Jesus didn't have any public-relations men around him," His Holiness replies in a tiny, bell-ringing voice, "That is why he took so many hundreds of years to be known." . . .