This was the weekend for a lot of high school graduations. One of my grandchildren walked proudly across the field and picked up her diploma as we all cheered and took pictures. The keynote speaker wisely kept his words to a minimum allowing the focus to be on the graduates. That was as it should have been.
On the drive home, I thought about my own high school graduation some 55 years ago. I remember the gymnasium being extremely hot. Why we didn’t have it outside on the football field, I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t do that kind of thing then. There were a few speeches and some awards. And then we were out of there and into the real world. Some of our classmates we would never see again.
None of us had any idea of what the future was going to bring. How could we? It was still a time of relative comfort and our world seemed secure. We seemed to have achieved something of a status quo arrangement with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy was in office — actually a neighbor living down the road in Hyannisport. I think we took that for granted the fact of having the nation’s Chief Executive living close by. There certainly weren’t the creature comforts and technological gadgets that today’s graduates have. The transistor radio, color television, and cars with automatic transmissions were the top of the pole back then. McDonalds had a couple of restaurants on the West Coast. There was one WalMart and it was in Arkansas. It seemed that everyone who wanted a job had one. There wasn’t any state or federal welfare to fall back on so working was part of the culture. What crime there was, was confined to the cities. Our doors were usually unlocked. Drugs were for headaches, muscle aches, and occasional gastric problems and we bought them at the locally owned pharmacy. We were dimly aware that in some parts of the country there were people being denied their basic rights, but it wasn’t a front burner issue for us. And besides, they were Negroes, people that were just about invisible where we lived. Being gay or “queer” was something that people just whispered about and anyone with a progressive agenda was considered a “Red.” It was illegal to purchase birth control devices of any kind without a prescription. In some states, even that didn’t get you a condom. Women stayed mostly at home, managing the kitchen and the children. To get divorced you had to go to Nevada. There seemed to be a great fear in that time that communism was going conquer the world. To be ready for the Russians, the Strategic Air Command had nuclear-armed bombers in the air 24/7. That seemed good enough. Vietnam wasn’t on anybody’s list of problems and if you had a foreign car it was a Volkswagen beetle. The sporty crowd drove Austin Healeys or Triumphs.
Who of us could have known what would come? That President Kennedy would be dead less than two years after our graduation. That thousands of us would end up fighting and dying in a jungle war in a far-off corner of southeast Asia. That cities would burn as racial strife boiled over. That the counter culture would sweep away many of the old accepted values that were part of our parent’s generation. That we would land on the moon by the end of the decade.
I thought about all this as I watched my granddaughter and her classmates celebrate their completion of high school. Their future is out there. What kind of a world, I wondered, would they be entering?