To everyone who missed it or who has forgotten it, there was a phenomenon in the late '60s called the generation gap. The generation gap was the distance in understanding between a parent and college-age child. On July 21, 1969, I could measure the gap in understanding between my father and me exactly: it was 240,000 miles.
July 21 was the day Neil Armstrong bounced from his lunar lander down to the surface of the moon. Dad was moved to tears by The Eagle’s landing. For him, Neil Armstrong’s beeping, static-filled report from the moon was proof that the country he’d fought for in World War II could still achieve greatness. Its superior technology could silence and overwhelm not only the hated Russian Communists but also the unwashed, profane hordes whose rallies and marches and protests challenged the country’s greatness every day on the streets and on the evening news.
You couldn’t see Vietnam from the moon, and that was a comfort to Dad. So when his oldest and angriest son said something snide about the moon shot that day, all his anger at all the things that were going wrong in the country and in his home boiled up and spilled out. I don’t remember the words. But I remember how he looked at me, as if I were a stranger. He was on the verge of tears, angry tears, a place I’d never seen him go to before. Full of righteous anger, I marched out of the large, comfortable home on Lake Erie that Dad had slaved all his life to provide for me and my eight brothers and sisters. I was back within hours, indignant, angry as a hornet. Our estrangement had been growing for a year, since I’d gone away to college. Now, a line had been drawn and crossed. We both knew it. And neither of us knew what to do next. I sulked, disappeared into my room. He went to work, as he always did. The days passed in silence between us.
Less than a month after the Eagle landed, half a million young people descended on a dairy farm in Sullivan County NY and created a mud-spattered, dope-fired and spontaneous celebration of music-loving communality. I was there.
The contrast could not have been starker between these two seminal events: instant improvisation vs. years of rehearsal in the lab. Birthday suits vs. space suits. Pocket change vs. billions. On earth, we took Jimi’s advice and waved our freak flag high that weekend. Up in the sky, poor Armstrong couldn’t wave his spring-loaded flag at all. When it came to getting spaced, my generation had won the race; we’d found the quickest, easiest and most effective way to the launching pad. And off we blasted, we knew not where.
When I returned home from those days peace, love & music, the silence we'd entered weeks before continued.
Dad and I had each discovered that summer an escape route from the national tragedy that was unfolding every day on the evening news. We took refuge from the horror in our respective dreams of generational triumph. And we reacted with anger when either of us called the other out.
And that’s what we’d come to, my father and I. He was worried about me. He had a better sense of where I was headed than I did. I told him he didn’t know where I was headed. That was up to me. I told him I knew where I was going, even though it was a lie. The fact was, I didn’t want to know. Wherever I was bound was fine by me. The world and all its dizzying dangers and pleasures and hopes and dreams had only just begun to crack open for me. I was ready to go wherever the wind blew me; all I asked -- all I expected – was that I’d have fun getting there.
Dad had a vastly different road to travel, and both of us knew it. While my world was opening up, his was closing down. His paths narrowed every day. He’d been diagnosed with kidney cancer six years earlier. On the fifth anniversary of his diagnosis, he was told the kidney cancer had been contained. Now he had leukemia.
Dad had always been devoted to his work, and it was there that he found comfort. His job at that time was a thankless one with which he happily filled his days. He was PR director for the hapless, cellar-dwelling 1969 Buffalo Bills. His favorite joke while thumping the PR tub for die-hard fans in church basements and Knights of Columbus halls across Buffalo was that this year, the half-hour highlight film had been replaced by a Polaroid.
It wasn’t far from the truth.
Even when the Bills’ ineptitude on the field won them the draft rights to country’s top college player, one O.J. Simpson, his job got no easier. Simpson was initially a bust. Dad spent countless hours over the next couple of years counseling and comforting Simpson.. He spent a lot more time working things out for Simpson, by my jealous measure, than he did for me. No doubt finding a way to help Simpson retain his threatened product endorsements was a lot easier to deal with than figuring out what his resentful, demanding son needed. Or what his son would accept, if only he could figure out what to offer.
By the time Simpson had become a superstar, Dad was dead. Simpson sent a telegram; he couldn’t be bothered to attend the funeral.
By that time – 1973 – I’d been arrested and charged with several serious crimes, been tried in federal court, escaped a prison sentence and become a father without benefit of marriage.
And over the course of those same three years, even as I made it harder for him or anyone in my family to understand my actions, Dad rose magnificently to my defense and found a way to bridge that enormous gap that had nearly swallowed us whole in the summer of 1969.
This reminiscence is a chapter in an eventual e-book and / or performance piece I’m at work on. The working title is “Re-Writes of Passage: From Woodstock to the Moon and Back.”