The year I graduated from high school. The graduation ceremony was so hot that Bobby Jo and I sat stiffly, trying not to sweat. In the first week of the June, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been dead only two months. The nation had watched while mules pulled his body in state down a weeping avenue. It seemed John F. Kennedy had died only yesterday. Vietnam was.
I, Margaret Ann Anderson, was valedictorian of my class. My high school gym was filled with caps, gowns, and gold tassels. My mother had put a henna rinse on her hair for the occasion. My father kept putting his arm around my shoulders, his gesture of extreme affection. Light bounced off the hardwood floor and hit the velvety blue-black of the robes, and so young faces really did seem aglow. I thought it a beautiful year.
Tonight, Robert J. Andrews sat next to me. He was black and to be shipped overseas in the not too distant future. However, the big concern that night was that I’d had to keep my hair rollers curled tightly onto the top of my head in order to keep my graduation cap from slipping down over my eyes. Robert Andrews, we called him Bobby Jo, knew all about my big secret though because he’d already snatched my cap away once. “Say-hey, Miss Prissy!”
My white face had flushed scarlet. “Bobby Jo, don’t you tell!” I had determined that Harrison, my hometown, would neither see me in my curlers nor with my cap sliding down to my nose. I might be so small my clothes never fit quite right, but valedictorian Margaret Ann Anderson was going to be beautiful if only for one night. I did have to be careful about moving my head too quickly from side to side, but tonight, I was the star.
“She hasn’t got anything on under this hat!” Bobby Jo said to passersby as he planted it with large hands firmly back on my head. “Not a thing under this here cap to speak of, right Miss Straight-A?” Bobby Jo teased.
“Don’t you get smart with me!” I was white, middle-class Margaret Ann Anderson from Main Street, our main street of neatly trimmed lawns, Harrison, Small town, U. S.A., America, but I was not afraid of Bobby Jo Andrews from the untrimmed side of town.
Bobby Jo liked to make out that he was big and bad and had just squeaked by in order to get that diploma of his tonight. However, I, little goody-two-shoes Margaret Ann, worked in the school office on my free hour, and so I knew for a fact that Robert J. Andrews had a solid B average.
“Don’t you try to play dumb with me!” I told Bobby Jo straight to his face. (People from Harrison set great store by this trait of being able to tell someone something straight to his or her face.)
Margaret Ann Anderson had been only pleasantly afraid to give her valedictorian speech that night. The whole of Harrison was there, but she was certain her speech was oh so original, oh such great and ringing stuff!
First of all, I, Margaret Ann Anderson, explained carefully to the citizens before me that Harrison was a great place TO BE FROM.
Harrison was a small town. Very residential in the sense that to live in Harrison meant to live in a family, a family being a couple with children. Also every family had a house and a yard. Divorcees, what we had of them, were wild women. (There were no male divorcees that I knew of.) Divorcees were loose women who lived in the trailer park.
Of course, I lived on the white side of town. Bobby Jo lived on the black side. Bobby Jo did, however, come from “a respectable family,” meaning “the white folks” knew his family worked. (His father ran a dry cleaners.) Harrison had red brick grade schools and a high school that had been there—why my own mother and father had graduated from the very same building.
In my speech that graduation night, I went on to point out that the students of 1968 had many wonderful and important stages of life before them.
I, myself, was certain I would do better in all the stases of my life than the farmers, ex-cheerleaders, small town businessmen and hairdressers who sat before me. I was going to go far, meaning I was going to “get out.” I did not see my high school graduation as an end, but as a beginning. High school, for me, had not been all that great. Not that I had not had good times. I had not been popular, which is the important thing. At any rate, I was on my way to college first, this I knew, and then I was sure, I’d visit Europe.
Of course, most of our class ended up like I did at the state liberal arts college nearby. A few went a little further off—I can think of Steve, Jim, and Eddie who went to the more prestigious technical state school upstate—that is Steve went, while Jim and Eddie flunked out after the first year. Eddie then stayed in Harrison because he had to get married, and Jim joined me for the second year (to my endless delight, now a year behind). Kevin Lawrence Richards, whose father was a doctor, got him sent to a private school on the East Coast. Bobby Jo got sent to Vietnam.
In my speech of 1968, I expanded on the point that there were doors to be opened and roads less traveled to be traveled. (People in Harrison knew Robert Frost since John F. Kennedy had quoted him on T.V. years before.) I told my Harrison audience that we, the class of 1968, must take the knowledge and values that we had learned at Harrison High out into the world.
As to the girls of my class, Maryanne married an old boyfriend of mine and settled down right away. My best friend, Dolores, came to the same local college I did, finished and then got married to a social studies teacher she’d met there. They had two children, got a divorce, and then she taught social studies too.
Meredith Renee Johnson got sent by her father to a very exclusive finishing school and always wrote home that she loved every minute of it. Years later, after she got involved with the women’s movement, she wrote that she had hated every minute of the finishing school (as I’d always hoped and suspected) for glamorous magazines featuring women in business suits sporting real leather briefcases.
At about the same time Meredith was writing her articles in New York City, too-little, too-late social worker, Margaret Ann Anderson was reading a case study she’d unearthed from the neglected bottom drawer of a huge green filing cabinet. (After upsetting days, adult Margaret Ann often ended up back in her office, thinking surely she could make sense of things. Sense out of senseless tragedy.) The study was telling her that Bobby Jo’s second wife had left him too. That is, in addition to his first one.
Margaret Ann had gone to college as she’d planned. She’d graduated with honors from there also, but through no fault of her own—meaning that she had certainly grown brunettely pretty enough and she’d certainly tried hard enough—she had failed to end up married. Then to top it all off, every one of her counselors to date had failed to advise “straight-A Margaret Ann” that she should really be planning on a career.
Seventeen-year-old Margaret Ann Anderson had felt particularly noble when she’d come to the part in her valedictorian speech about the “torch being passed” to this “new generation of Americans.” (Everyone quoted JFK in those days—former president, King Arthur and Lancelot all rolled up into one. Young and swinging, inspired and inspiring, JFK.)
From college, Margaret Ann graduated in psychology and sociology, no husband and no job. She saw Europe then from a backpack. After college and some travel, and through her father’s influence, Margaret Ann had finally landed a job for a social agency in a small town near Harrison. She was the state coordinator or counselor for the whole of the area, including Harrison. However, it seemed Harrison had changed. The whole region was losing its small town look. There was an alarming university influence, which meant too many hippies. Black people had moved into the white side of town and vice-versa. In fact, once that mess in Southeast Asia had ended, a whole rainbow of races had begun settling in Harrison, not to mention older women had started leaving their husbands and going back to college.
In 1968, I had noted that our class had been privileged not only to grow up in Harrison, but to witness the work of John F. Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Robert Francis Kennedy, an example of someone carrying on when the others had been forced to leave off.
I noted that we had the same great social issues left to tackle—civil rights, poverty, and peace in the world. (Although she was getting by with being a bit political because her teachers liked her, Margaret Ann knew better than to mention the V-War by name.)
However, Margaret Ann also noted that our generation welcomed “all challenges and the forthcoming possibilities they offered.” It was a difficult world surely, but one so full of opportunities if only each and every member of the class of ’68 had the vision to see these opportunities or the courage to take them. You see, we had hope fired by great persons. A destiny, and we could all be great persons!
Indeed, one day, several years into being a state coordinator and counselor for whatever and whomever, Margaret Ann Anderson accidentally became part of the nightly news. An “innocent bystander,” she witnessed her former classmate and buddy, Robert J. Andrews, Bobby Jo, being dragged from a beauty parlor. So—he had survived Vietnam.
Her own personal problems at that stage in her life concerned the fact that her boyfriend had once been a college protester, as had she, and was still that now several years after college, a hippie so to speak. Margaret Ann Anderson, however, was not. Seems she’d changed. In fact, over the last few years, her true love had accused her of selling out by not only taking, but being good at her job with a government social agency.
Margaret Ann had then argued that if her true love did not want to marry her, she had no choice but to support herself, or rather them, not to mention the fact that she intended to do something yet with her life! Her partner had then explained for the thousandth time only that morning that he did not believe in marriage, and Margaret Ann had made it clear, perhaps for the very first time, that she no longer believed in him. Not anymore. Period and all that jazz. An end to the relationship.
Former high school classmate Bobby Jo Andrews now stood on the sidewalk in front of Margaret Ann, counselor at large. So he had survived Vietnam. She had forgotten he had gone.
“Let me tell you how it was! Let me tell you how it was!” Bobby Jo grabbed at Margaret Ann’s suit lapels. He actually took her by the shoulders and tugged so hard that the strap of her tote bag, overstuffed with manila caseload folders, pulled at her hair. “Let me tell you how it was!” The police then finally got a better hold on Bobby Jo.
Margaret Ann, for whatever reason, did then remember a time from her college protester days, a time when a rock had gone through a window right next to her, and so she had jumped away. She had not, of course, thrown the rock. Not straight-A Margaret Ann Anderson and certainly not at an innocent window. However, she had witnessed students gone wild and angry, a riot, with books and glass flying everywhere. (The ROTC had unwisely or unfortunately gotten itself located in the library.) And then she had witnessed the security police gone wild and angry. They had turned the same riot into a stampede before clubs and curses, the same books flying everywhere. The scent of marijuana everywhere and no more sacred, ivy-covered halls. Who could be proud of any generation of Americans?
Now Bobby Jo had a swollen face, covered with sweat and still-running blood. One of the police officers had a blackened eye. Another had a gun they’d eventually wrestled away from Bobby Jo. Bobby Jo was crying. He didn’t recognize his old friend, Margaret Ann. “Margaret Ann” had no meaning for him anymore. She thought that her protester friends and herself, they evidently had not made a difference soon enough.
Then immediately, the Eyewitness News Alive team was there, telling Margaret Ann, telling all in town, that on this day, some decade or so after 1968, Bobby Jo had entered the beauty shop with a loaded gun in order to extract his sister, one Luella Andrews. His sister had turned into this “establishment,” that’s what Bobby Jo was now shouting right into the news microphone, “gone into some la-de-da white place to try and get that fizzy hair of hers done up straight,” and he, Bobby Jo, had warned her not to do it, warned her not to go in and let them pour evil onto her hair. He shouted, “Don’t say I didn’t warn her!”
Also, Bobby Jo knew a social worker when he saw one, if he didn’t recognize his old friend. He turned to address Margaret Ann directly. He told her that his sister, Luella, “just like everybody else in the whole damned world, never listened.” Nobody listened and so he, Bobby Jo, had entered that beauty shop and threatened to drag his sister “right up outta that high-falutin’ chair.”
Bobby Jo’s own once closely cropped hair now practically stood on end, inches high. (By the time Margaret Ann saw him again, or rather his photograph in the newspaper, Bobby Jo’s hair would then be entirely gone. He, or maybe other inmates, doctors, or jailers, must have entirely shaved his head.)
That particular day, though, I, Margaret Ann Anderson, wanted to remember something, anything about Bobby Jo’s honorable military service. A newspaper item, a commendation or medal, something notable. However, all I could remember was big, loose-limbed Bobby Jo from high school. He had always worn very loose, no-color clothing. Comfortable, he had not seemed either afraid or hostile. No, Bobby Jo had always had a joke for “whitey.”
On the night of our high school graduation, I had received my diploma and then Bobby Jo had followed me up to receive his own. He had then tied my valedictorian gold braids into a clumsy bow, so in turn, I stole his diploma and tried to dart away with it tucked up under my sleeve. With a long arm of justice, however, he had then reached for the cap which concealed my undone hair, and so I had promptly returned his degree.
The Eyewitness Team explained that after Robert J. Andrews entered the establishment for his sister, he had seized the white proprietor instead. A relatively calm, middle-aged woman, the proprietor kept repeating into the news microphone that her husband was a hunter and so she was “experienced with firearms.” She hadn’t been afraid because, yes sir, she’d seen a gun before.
“Experienced with firearms,” she just kept interrupting Bobby Jo’s tirade now, a litany of “Yes sir, I’ve seen a gun before. Yes sir, my husband hunts.”
The police had Bobby handcuffed now, the soft pink undersides of his hands, his palms turned out so all could see.
Evidently, Bobby Jo had gotten so enraged at the proprietor, her story went, that he had hauled the “witch woman,” that was his name for her, he had hauled the “witch woman” out toward the street. My former classmate, Robert J. Andrews, fellow high school graduate, had then held a gun to the proprietor’s head. He had threatened to hold the woman hostage until his own sister, Luella, came with him, and meanwhile, had finally called the police on her own brother.
After the high school graduation ceremonies, we exuberant seventeen-year-old children had planned to party, party, party all night long. (In the Harrison of yesteryear, all night long just meant until an hour or so after midnight.) Now, I professionally guessed Bobby Jo had more than a passing acquaintance with drugs. So, he had survived Vietnam.
However, Bobby Jo wasn’t crying over the war then or even about being taken away to jail. His sister was crying about all that. A petite, wiry woman on the sidewalk now with the rest of us, her black hair all wet and only half done up in tight rollers and a camera shoved into her face, Luella was crying her eyes out for the television-viewing audience. “What are you gonna do with Bobby now? What about his kids? You’re not takin’ those kids from our house! Their mom don’t care nothin’ about ‘em, and don’t you be thinkin’ I’m lettin’ strangers raise ’em up!” (Meanwhile, the white lady proprietor attempting to comfort Bobby Jo’s sister was doing about as well as when she had tried to get the gun away from Bobby Jo.)
In high school, Margaret Ann and Bobby Jo had talked very little of politics, maybe some about the various presidents or about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how things were “progressing.” (That had definitely been Margaret Ann’s term, “progressing.”)
Bobby Jo disappeared into the squad car, but the story was that he had turned the gun on himself. Robert J. Andrews had “tried his best” his record read, to kill himself, to take himself “out of the picture.” When that hadn’t worked during the commotion, he had then tried to push the proprietor away and lunge at the police. Unfortunately, the woman had gotten in his way.
My own classmate had tried to commit suicide—one way or another; in the end he hadn’t cared. However, then the police officers—Harrison’s big, bad police—had managed to lunge further than he had and gotten the gun away from Bobby Jo. Probably some of them even knew Bobby Jo. At any rate, the Harrison police force was not about to stand by and watch Bobby Jo kill himself, nor were they really willing to do it for him. After getting him into the car, the news team turned away. The community need not bear witness.
At our high school graduation toward the end of the first week in June, 1968, Margaret Ann Anderson had ended her speech with something like, “Harrison, America, the world, watching and waiting—I commend to you our class of ’68. Class of 1968, let the future begin!” Bobby Jo had thrown his hat into the air.
The morning after our high school graduation, we each and every one of us woke to the news that “the last of three had been shot.” The wound proved fatal, and Robert Francis Kennedy, one more youthful, last, best hope lay dead. The summer stayed hot. There was a convention ringed in by protesters in Chicago, blood-filled news from the Mekong Delta, and then national elections. Rumors came out about Cambodia and Laos, and there were more vehement peace protests. Talk in the air of a lottery twisted, turned, and encircled.
1968. The year we all graduated from high school.