1968 to 1972: The Awful Years

By John Gilstrap

At some point along the line, I apparently set a recording on my DVR for a retrospective of the Ed Sullivan Show and Rock and Roll. The other night, as I was trying to bore myself to sleep, I watched the episode that features the rock-n-roll hits from 1968-1970. I watched songs from The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even Tom Jones’s Delilah. Everything about that show–from the fashions to the songs themselves–brought an unexpected feeling of melancholy.

I turned 11 years old in 1968. When that year dawned, we had already seen one president shot dead on the streets of Dallas, a neighbor of mine–the father of a classmate–had been gunned down at his front door by a stranger who remains at large to this day. Three of my heroes–the astronauts of Apollo 1 (and previous astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini Programs) had burned to death while trapped inside their capsule. More than a few of my neighbors’ dads had been shipped off to Vietnam. Five years earlier, I had been rescued from the roof of my grandparents’ burning apartment building in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the most egregiously misnamed city on the planet.

By the end of that year, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be dead, and just a few miles away, Washington, DC, would be set ablaze, just like so many other cities across the country. That was the year when civil rights-based busing came to my neighborhood, causing me to be shipped off every day to a school 35 minutes from my house in the midst of a culture where everyone was angry and nobody told us kids how we supposed to deal with such startling changes. I learned to fight, but I never liked it, and I was never very good at it.

1969 brought such protests to Washington that my father, a career Navy officer, was ordered to wear suits to the Pentagon for his own safety. Woodstock happened that year, but that was also the year when Charles Manson went on his rampage. Things at home were beginning to unravel between my parents, and I was still fighting a lot in school. The thrill of my lifetime occurred on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 conquered the moon. Five days later, another Kennedy, Ted, was in the news for his actions in Chappaquiddick. We closed that year with the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

In May of 1970, soldiers from the National Guard opened up on student protesters at Kent State University. We actually had the discussion at our dinner table that perhaps the protesters brought it on themselves. In August of that year, our vacation at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos ended after the first night when the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our stuff with it.

By autumn of 1971, my brother had gone to college, leaving me to cope with family stuff as a solo.

As I write this post, that knot of anxiety returns to my gut as a ghost from the past–equal parts fear, anger, sadness and disorientation. It was during those years when I turned most desperately to fiction–both reading it and writing it. I escaped to places in my head where good guys always won and bad guys were always brought to justice. I rarely showed my writing to anyone back then, and I’m not sure why. Looking back with decades of space between then and now, I think I was afraid of people knowing just how twisted up I was inside. The “me” I projected was immune to such things as emotion. Back then, there was no greater embarrassment for a boy than to cry in public–or show any real emotion for that matter. In those days, I never had a friend who was close enough to let me lower the armor. Hell, maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend to anyone else to let them share with me.

Life in a bickering household can be very lonely. I think now, in retrospect, that the adults in the house were so wrapped up in their own unpleasantness that having me be quiet was probably a blessing. I know that it was a blessing to be relieved from my role as marriage counselor, listening to their grievances as they each tried to pull me to their side.

My high school had 4,500 kids. Talk about anonymity!  As a young teenager with less than zero athletic ability (or interest in such), the school library became my hangout spot. I have no idea how many books I read in those days, and how many stories I wrote, but they have to number in the hundreds. When I was into a book or writing a story, I was safe.

Life took a sharp turn for me when I was sixteen years old. I called a family meeting–the first in the family’s history–and I announced to Mom and Dad that I wasn’t doing this anymore. I told them that they were being unfair to me by airing problems that I could not solve, and that I was going to start taking chances at school. I was going to join things and risk the taunts of others. Since my parents wouldn’t drive me and we couldn’t afford a car for me, I told them that they would have to let me ride with friends. I told them that an 11:00 pm curfew was unreasonable on a weekend night. To bolster my argument, I had a long list of straight-A report cards to show them.

As I presented my case, they said nothing. I think they were shocked–in fact, I know they were because that night is still the stuff of legend among my extended family. But they didn’t argue. From that moment on, the “me” I projected moved closer and closer to the “me” I actually was. I don’t think the two will ever meet, but asymptotic is close enough.

I realize now that my imagination saved me from what could have been a terrible end. I don’t expect the demons ever to go away, but at least now they know their place. August 27 marked the 40th anniversary of my first date with my best friend, who would become my bride. Later this month, we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed in countless ways, but had I not planted my flag on Mount Angst, and opened the spigot to honest emotion–which still flows much more easily through my stories than in real life–I don’t think I would have recognized the blessings for what they are.

As a society, while we fawn all over celebrity, we don’t show a lot of respect for the inherent virtue of artistry. I think that each of us needs an outlet to shorten the distances between the “me” we project, the “me” we know ourselves to be, and the “me” to which we aspire. Whether through music, dance, writing or perfecting one’s golf game, it’s the process that matters, not the sales record. It doesn’t matter if no one else in the world appreciates your art if it honestly reflects that slice of time in your journey.

Dare to try. Dare to dream.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

40 thoughts on “1968 to 1972: The Awful Years

  1. Thanks for the journey down memory lane. Lots of tragedy and cause for angst back then. I, too, became a writer to keep my sanity, create a world where I had some control.
    But I think any era we examine will have its tragic times as well as happy ones.

  2. Powerful read. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you were able to break free of the “real men don’t show emotion” trap and find a way to share your artistry.

    I’ve been complaining the last few years that I’m very weary of living through historical events, but reading this makes me realize that it’s any time, for anyone, depending on the lens.

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong, Cyn. I will still go to great lengths not to *show* emotion in real life. For good or ill, I’m still of the school that sadness and anger are for private moments.

  3. Good post. In the category of Big Events, there was also the Tet offensive, Jan to Sep 1968. The Chinese curse comes to mind: May you live in interesting times. It was that.

    • How right you are, Harvey. I remember that the Tet offensive was a phrase thrown around a lot, but it would be years before I understood the significance of it.

    • As curses go, “May you live in interesting times,’ is highly incongruous, since the cursor resides in the same era as the cursee. It’s fiction.

      • I’ll take your word for it, J—I wasn’t there, so I can’t comment with any authority on whether the curse is “real” or “fiction”—but neither does it matter. Either way, it may be construed a curse, and I do.

        As to the effectiveness or veracity of the curse, I also submit the “times” vary for the cursor and the cursee depending on where they live in the world. Sometimes the scale is a continent, sometimes a nation, state or region, and sometimes a house. In one might live a harmonious family, and in the next a church deacon and mass murderer.

  4. Interesting this week that we’re touching on topics that have to do with our inner and outer selves.

  5. John, though my heart aches for the boy you were, I’m glad you found your happily ever after with your best friend. Congratulations for 40 years together, 38 married. That’s not easy, especially for someone who didn’t grow up in a happy household. This may explain your career path, as well as your writing. Nathan, escaping an unhappy life, Jon making people pay for hurting children, Victoria turning down safety for her children. Your hard-won success is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Again, congratulations.

  6. Powerful post, John. Thanks for sharing your story. I can see how all the stress/trauma that you’ve lived through can fuel some very potent emotion in your novels. And a good reminder to all of us to use the traumatic, never-again times (and the emotion they produce) to supercharge our stories.

    Dare to be real. Dare to strive for our dreams.

  7. Out here we had the freak-out weirdness of the Manson family, who camped in the hills about 8 miles from my house. That was the beginning of the end of my innocence. In Hero’s Journey terms, I looked over the threshold and, for the first time, got a glimpse of the monsters out there in the dark woods, and knew now they were real.

  8. Thank you for sharing your account of your journey, John, so wonderfully and painfully told. Of course, it isn’t over by a long shot. Safe and happy travels.

  9. Thanks for this compelling account, John. Channeling your pain into writing not only helped you endure, but has given the world the benefit of your work. Dream on.

  10. Beautiful and heartfelt, John. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s not easy to expose one’s soft underbelly, but when they do it’s powerful. This post, more than any other you’ve written, makes me want to read your books to find out more about your inner “me.” Adding them to my TBR.

  11. Good morning, John. Thank you for sharing this. Each of us is on our own journey in life, and it meant a lot to read about yours. While we’re different, I could relate to a lot of this. I’m four years younger than you, and one of my first memories of the news was the Apollo 1 fire and the funeral on TV. I remembered Vietnam then as mainly an incomprehensible weekly KIA count shown on the news, and the cultural changes as scary to a 7-11 year old (the ages I was from ’68-72).

    I remember thinking that everything was crazy. Now that I’m an older adult with a strong interest in history, I can appreciate that “crazy” is one way of framing the human condition, though I’m more hopeful than that 🙂

  12. Thank you, John.

    During that era, I remember waking up each morning with a sense of dread, wondering who was going die that day from civil unrest, OD (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and others), or war.

    Life is cyclical. Current days feel like deja vu all over again–not necessarily the events themselves but the zeitgeist and widespread angst. I worry for kids who are coming of age now. We survived and I guess they will, too, but it’s not an easy time to live.

    • Debbie, FWIW I find so much to be hopeful about with the kids coming of age now. My youngest niece is 16, and an old friend who had children late in life (he’s a year older than I) has a 14 year old and a 10 year old, and all three have so much positive energy and determination. Heartening to say the least.

  13. John, your experience facing down your dysfunctional parents struck a chord. My parents weren’t dysfunctional-I actually had a relatively peaceful childhood, my head in the sand and my hands wrapped around books.

    But, one day in 1969ish, I was in my high school cafeteria and before I could get out of the way, two giant boys-one white the other black-came roiling toward me sporting brass knuckles and pummeling each other. I barely got out of the way in time.

    I’d been despondent for some time in that high school. Race riots abounded around the country and then it started at my small town school. I’d complained to Mom and Dad, but they said their hands were tied. That was the district we lived in.

    That day though, I calmly made my way to my locker, cleaned it out of personal belongings, and left the building. Didn’t have a car, so I walked about 3 miles to get home. Once there, I called both of my parents at their respective work places and lowered my 15 year old boom on them.

    “Find me a different school. I’m not going back there.”

    To their credit, they both said we’d talk about it when they got home. Mom even told me to put my feet up and drink some tea.

    The result? Dad took the next day off and drove me and my older brother (who thought I was overreacting…) to his own alma mater-a small school outside of town. Only about 600 students in the whole place.

    It worked for me. That’s the school I graduated from. And I never had to face another fight at my feet by brainless idiots who chose to break each other’s faces instead of talk it out.

    I’ve always been grateful for that day and how my parents handled it. I heartily wish all parents were as wise.

  14. John, thank you for sharing your heart. It had to have been hard. Reading was my shelter whenever something terrible happened, like a schoolmate and friend being murdered by her father–I buried myself in books to deal with it. And now I write to lose myself–it saves my sanity, what littlie I have.

  15. As my father lay dying in the hospital, he cried just once when I was there. I did not let myself cry, thinking that would make him feel worse. My mother, a former nurse, sent me home then, knowing what was ahead.

    Forty years later, I visited his grave for the first time, trying to find my feelings. But I felt nothing at all.

    An empty place, where only grasses wave–
    No stone, no name, upon my father’s grave.

    As I left, I struck a wall of grief forty yards away and, blinded by my tears, was forced to wait there until the they stopped. Years afterward, I realized why I broke down there, instead of at his grave. At that distance, my father could no longer hear me cry.

  16. Debbie,
    My children are 21 and almost 18. The last five or so years have been hard on them and on me. 21 is a member of the class of 2020. They will tell you exactly when school closed, Friday, March 13, 2020. COVID took prom and graduation. It took summer trips. They have been tested for COVID over 40 times, had COVID once and been exposed about a dozen times. Thirteen members of their high school years have been victims of police violence. Both children took charge of their workplace for an active shooter. None of the adults had the knowledge or foresight.

    They work part time for a synagogue. The rise in hate means the building now has bullet resistant glass and armed guards. For that matter, my children have always said Good Shabbas to police at the door. On Sunday night between 10 and 20 police officers will be joining the congregation for Rosh HaShannah.

    I was at a third birthday party. The birthday girl was having a blast. All of her little friends are “COVID babies”. But you can’t say that. A few of them are triggered by the word COVID. They have always worn masks. They only know masked faces. They rarely play in parks and almost never with other children they don’t know well.

    They don’t even know what the draft is. They don’t worry about their favorite singers dying. Their trauma is much closer.

  17. Not often a post leaves me staring at the screen long after I’ve read it. Beautiful, Mr. Gilstrap. No wonder I love your books.

    Manson Family note: Before the murders, I was kid with a horse, boarded in Chatsworth. All us horse folks banded together to have a plan to evacuate the animals in case of brushfires. People would sign up and the list was distributed to the various ranches. I signed up at one while on a visit to ranch a few miles away, in the Santa Susana Mountains. At the Spahn Ranch. (I’m sure Jim’s bells are ringing if he’s reading this) But the topper was who signed me up: Squeaky Fromme, later would-be presidential assassin.

    Young and ignorant, I didn’t put it all together until an FBI agent showed up at my stable to talk to everybody who was on the rescue list.

  18. John ❤️
    I can relate. 1968 was when my dad died and my world was shattered. A few years later, while I was at college, my mom became terminally ill. Fortunately, while I was at college I met my husband, who has been my rock ever since.
    I turned more to theatre, dance, and writing to cope, but mostly theatre as being someone else was preferable and writing hurt too much.
    Happy anniversary to you and your lovely wife.

    • Thank you for sharing and thank you for your warm wishes. I often say that life is one big poker game, and we have to play the hand we’re dealt. I’m happy you found your rock.

  19. Wow. What a really awful childhood you had. I’d say I’m sorry you had to experience THAT, but you might not be you without it. I am happy for you that you survived it, and have gone on to a happy, successful adult life.

    • Thank you, but I can’t say that I had an awful childhood. I was always loved, we always had meals, and during the good times, there were lots of laughs. My parents did the best they could with the baggage they carried.

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