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A Journalist's Archive

Boom!
Tom Brokaw
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Stick a flower in your hair, or tape one to your bald head, it's time for a trip down memory lane courtesy of "Boom" by Tom Brokaw.

          Forty years after the fact, Brokaw created "a virtual reunion of a cross-section of the Sixties crowd," packing "Boom!" with retrospective conversations from average citizens and leading political and social activists of the time. But "Boom!" becomes more than just another flashback as Brokaw takes on the daunting task of examining the lasting impact of the Sixties on American society.

          In spite of his years in journalism, "Boom!" was a challenging endeavor for Brokaw. He titles the introduction, "What was it all about?" Then, as if thinking out loud, Brokaw asks readers, "How do you sum up a time when change rolled across the country in hurricane proportions, when there were so many contradictions and so many paradoxes?"

          Yes, defining a decade where every issue had competing slogans is a bit overwhelming. Timothy Leary told us to, "Tune in, turn on, and drop out," while the establishment yelled, "America, love it or leave it." At the beginning of the decade segregationists shouted, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate." After Martin Luther King's death, inner city blacks were screaming "Burn baby burn!" But Brokaw's warm, conversational writing style makes the journey down memory lane a pleasant trip as he examines the Vietnam War, the civil rights and women's movements, and a generation shrouded in the haze of marijuana smoke.

          There is even controversy over when the 60's began and ended. In Brokaw's mind, the turbulent decade began with the assassination of President Kennedy and ended with the resignation of Nixon in 1974. But Brokaw attempts to narrow down his focus by zeroing in on 1968, the most tremulous year of the entire time-period. 

          Brokaw certainly got that right.  In January of that year 70,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops launched the Tet Offensive. Few people remember that the United States won every battle during the offensive, but most recognize it as the turning point in the political battle against the war. After Tet, even prominent administration members began challenging Johnson's assurances that America could actually win the war. Anti-war protestors stormed the streets demanding an end to war. Chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today," were only silenced by Johnson's own announcement on March 31; "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

           But the nation was screaming for change on all fronts. Civil rights leaders pushed to improve educational, economic, and political opportunities for blacks. Martin Luther King emerged as the voice of reason, urging blacks to use non-violent methods to obtain their goal. His voice was silenced by a sniper's bullet on April 4, leading to race riots in 125 cities. Within days, 46 people were killed and 3,000 were injured. "Black-Power" became the battle cry of a race fed-up with the status quo, while more moderate black leaders pinned their hopes for a better world on Bobby Kennedy.

          Hope died with Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968.  Brokaw said, "The assassination of Bobby Kennedy...was a staggering loss for the country and for American liberalism." Indeed, as he points out, the decade known for its left-wing ideas also gave rise to "the silent majority" who elected Richard Nixon as their president, while many Boomers sought solace in sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

          Brokaw's collection of reflections from the movers and shakers of the Sixties helps to put the decade in perspective, but I think his conversations with everyday Boomers actually captured the soul of the decade. I especially liked his coverage of Tom and Nellie Coakley, a couple who both served in Vietnam. Tom, "a hard-partying hockey star at Brown University," didn't want to go. Nellie, who decided to become an Army nurse while still in grade school, insisted on going. Through their eyes readers begin to understand that Vietnam will always be a part of the people who fought there. Tom stays in touch with his old platoon and said, "I felt a sense of pride in serving with these guys..." Nellie, who now counsels soldiers returning from Iraq, said, "It's very much like Vietnam. And for everything the Army says they're doing, they're just not doing enough."

          A book about the Sixties wouldn't be complete without an interview with Gloria Steinem. But younger readers will gain a better understanding of the importance of the women's movement through Muriel Kraszewski's story. She was never an activist, but when Kraszewski was denied a job as a State Farm agent because of her gender, she sued. Her fight, and others like hers, created a world in which Brokaw's own daughters were free to choose any career. One became a physician, "another is a vice-president of a major entertainment company, and the third is a clinical therapist."

          The text of "Boom!" is interspersed with numerous photos. Check out page 378 to see what Dick Cheney looked like 40 years ago. Sorry Dick, even back in the 60's plaid shorts and white socks with sandals were not cool! I think Brokaw uses the then and now photos as a politically correct method of reminding readers that while the events of the 1960's still impact our world; it was a long time ago.    

          "Boom!" covers the music, movies, and art of the time, as well as the greatest accomplishment of the decade - reaching the moon. But I'm certain Brokaw finished this massive book and then remembered he forgot to cover the technological advancements that made the trip to the moon possible, otherwise he would have devoted more than a few paragraphs to the issue. After all, it was a long journey from the cheap transistor radios Boomers used to Armstrong's walk on the moon.

          As for Brokaw's conclusions about the Sixties, he said, "We have been through so much together - Boom!- but we have survived and thrived. We are richer in every way for the experience." Let's hope history agrees with him. 

          Read "Boom!" If you lived through the Sixties it will jog many memories. If you didn't, it may help explain that funny smile you sometimes notice on your parents' or grandparents' faces.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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