1970s teens' memories from JFK to 'Tricky Dick'

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 5:03 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout December.

When a group of 1970s high school graduates gathered for a “bull” session this past summer, they were amazed while recounting the many historical things they witnessed while growing up.

“It truly was the best and worst of times,” said Susan McCarthy of Connellsville.

McCarthy, a 1974 Connellsville Area High School grad, owns McCarthy Public Relations in Connellsville and is active in numerous community and civic groups.

Three other Class of '74 members — Ellen Faris Bessell, Kirk Soxman and Kim Schroyer Patterson — and Kim's husband, Gregg Patterson (Class of '72) concurred that one of their earliest memories was the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“As soon as it happened, they sent us home from school,” said Bessell, who was a second-grader at the time. “Everyone was crying.”

The Red Scare

“Right away, we were scared that the Russians would be after us,” added McCarthy. “We were so worried.”

Russia had been overthrown by the Communists and renamed the Soviet Union in 1918. Although technically U.S. allies during World War II, the Soviets turned chilly after the war ended in 1945 — and the Cold War festered into the 1960s and beyond.

The group of friends recalled being taught to “duck and cover” at school, hiding under desks just in case the Russians decided to drop an atomic bomb. It was, they agreed, a lesson that sticks in their minds with terrible clarity.

Like thousands of other U.S. families, the McCarthys had a bomb shelter: “Dad built it in the basement and filled it with bottled water, canned foods and other supplies.”

Nineteen sixty-three had some hopeful news before the JFK tragedy. In August, 250,000 civil rights advocates marched to Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

All it took was one gunshot in Dallas, Texas, to change America. Kennedy was dead, Lyndon Johnson was president — and the Vietnam War started in earnest.

Vietnam: Bloody blackdrop

Newscasts and newspaper stories about the war were a worrisome litany during the friends' formative years.

Gregg Patterson remembered how upset his family was as he neared graduation in 1972. “I was terrified about Vietnam. The draft was still on,” he said.

Like hundreds of other girls nationwide, McCarthy wore a silver bracelet engraved with the name of an American prisoner of war and the date of his capture.

Her older brother served with the Navy overseas during the war.

“Our house was so quiet while he was gone,” she said, “and it was terrible how the servicemen were treated when they finally came home.”

The '70s grads agreed that 1968 and 1969 were the most seminal years while they were growing up.

'68 assassinations

In 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, a vivid memory of McCarthy's.

“My brother was home from the Navy, but we couldn't get to Pittsburgh to see him,” she said. “There were race riots in Pittsburgh. The Hill District was on fire.”

As if the loss of JFK and King wasn't bad enough, in June 1968, JFK's brother, Robert F. Kennedy — who was campaigning for the presidency in California — was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

“RFK was an icon of the 1960s. He was so handsome. It was another Kennedy tragedy, proof of the turmoil of the times. A kind of numbness set in,” said Bessell. “I think he might have been the best president of all time. If either one of them had lived, things would be different now.”

How ironic, then, was it that on July 18, 1969 — two days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon — JFK's and RFK's younger brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne? The married senator left the scene and didn't report the accident until 10 hours later, touching off a major scandal that affected his political career until his 2009 death.

Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, received a two-month suspended sentence, and lost his driver's license for a year. “I still can't believe he got away with that,” said Bessell. “It was dirty politics, plain and simple.”

‘One small step'

On July 20, 1969, science rather than scandal held the rapt attention of the entire world, as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped from Apollo 11's lunar module onto the moon in “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The lunar landing had the same shock impact as JFK's murder, but in a good way: Those who experienced it still remember where they were when it happened — nearly 45 years later.

“I was at my grandpap's house on First Street,” said McCarthy.

“It was a really big deal. I was visiting my grandparents in Alliance, Ohio,” added Bessell. She's never forgotten the moment and made sure that her 5-year-old grandson, John Patrick, knows about the moonshot. “When the space shuttle made its last journey last year, he watched it with me, and I contrasted that last voyage with Apollo 11.”

Another bad/good coincidence occurred within days of each other during August as well.

On Aug. 9 and 10, serial killer Charles Mason orchestrated the murders of movie director Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and several others, as well as Leo and Rosemary LaBianca. He sent six of his “Family” members to do the dirty work; at the LaBiancas', they wrote “Death to Pigs” and “Helter Skelter” in the LaBiancas' blood. The “Family” and Manson were convicted in a series of titillating trials; Mason remains locked up in California, despite numerous parole efforts.

Flower power

At the other end of the violence spectrum was the rock concert/love-in Woodstock, an outdoor psychedelic music festival that peacefully drew 500,000 people to upstate New York between Aug. 15 and 18, 1969.

“We were too young to go, but we all knew about it,” McCarthy lamented. “I wasn't allowed to even listen to the music or see the movie!”

Post-Woodstock, a rumor circulated that another “Woodstock-esque” concert would be held at Arnold's farm near Vanderbilt. Although it fizzled, many a Fayette County driver headed down Route 201 in search of seeing a bona fide hippy — and they weren't disappointed; there were a few skulking about.

Watergate scandal

As the group began its high school career, the Vietnam War was slowly ending — and a new scandal beginning when it was discovered that the national Democratic headquarters had been bugged at the Watergate Hotel. In 1974 — McCarthy, Kim Patterson and Bessell's senior year — Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office.

“Oh, ‘Tricky Dick.' Remember him? He wasn't ‘a crook,' ” McCarthy said with a laugh.

After high school graduation, the friends went their own ways — and into the heaven (or hell) of disco — and beyond, taking up the adult mantle of career and family life.

“Please, oh please, don't mention disco to me,” McCarthy moaned. “I grew up with The Beatles. I didn't want to hold Paul (McCartney's) hand — I wanted to hold BOTH hands!”

Saturday: Recalling the BIG and bold 1980s

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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