Memories of 1968

I have a lot of memories of childhood, like everyone I suppose but a lot of those memories, certainly my earlier ones, I would be hard pushed to link them to a certain date or time. The first memories in which I can actually do that are those from 1968. Surprisingly for someone who has never even visited the USA, a lot of my 1968 memories concern, yes, the USA. Lyndon Johnson was the President of the USA in 1968. He had inherited the presidency from John F Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963 when Kennedy was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. He won the election in his own right in 1964 easily beating Republican opponent Barry Goldwater.

1968 was different though. Johnson’s domestic policies and reforms known as the Great Society had been overwhelmed by the Vietnam War. People were looking at the casualties and asking what is going on? Why are we even in Vietnam?

In 1963 President Kennedy stated in a TV interview with respected TV anchor Walter Cronkite ‘in the final analysis, it’s their war; they are the ones that have to win it or lose it.’ He was talking about the Vietnamese not the USA. Kennedy later issued NSAM (National Security Action memorandum) 263, in which he approved the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.

On November 26, 1963, only four days after taking office in the most tragic of circumstances, President Johnson approved NSAM order 273 reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. Johnson unlike Kennedy, was not withdrawing troops, he was sending more.

Perhaps Kennedy was backing away from Vietnam, perhaps not. Historians differ on their assessment of what Kennedy would or wouldn’t have done. Either way, the Johnson Administration became more and more involved in the war, sending more and more troops into South East Asia. The country became split over the issue. Students were protesting, university campuses became battle grounds between Police and students. Vietnam was a big issue at school over in the UK as I remember. Many of our morning services talked about the issue and I vividly remember one morning when our headmaster played a pop tune over which were read the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam.

Johnson had won by a huge majority in 1964 and appeared confident of winning again in 1968. However a shock awaited him in the first primary in New Hampshire on March 12th when anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 49 percent, a shockingly strong showing against an incumbent President.

McCarthy’s campaign was boosted by thousands of young college students who shaved their beards and cut their hair to be ‘Clean for Gene’. Those students organised voting drives, rang doorbells, distributed McCarthy buttons and leaflets, and worked hard in New Hampshire to bring the vote home for McCarthy.

Robert Kennedy was a notable critic of Johnson’s policies and he had initially declined to run against the President but seeing the success of McCarthy he announced his candidacy for the Presidency on March 16th.

Over on the Republican side, Richard Nixon, the big loser in the election of 1960, had staged a major comeback and was the front-runner in the Republican Primaries ahead of his closest rival Governor Ronald Reagan.

On March 31st President Johnson made a televised speech to announce he had cancelled all bombing of North Vietnam in order to help ongoing peace talks. At the end of his speech he dropped a political bombshell by announcing he would not run for President in 1968. Some have said he was scared of losing to Kennedy, some have said he was just tired and was worried about his health. In fact he died only some five years later on January 22nd, 1973.

On April 4th Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. He had made a speech earlier that day in which he spoke of his happiness at reaching the promised land.

“Like anybody,” he had said, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight.”

Robert Kennedy heard the news of the murder when he arrived in Indianapolis that night. He was scheduled to give a speech in a predominantly black neighbourhood and the Police tried to dissuade him from speaking saying that they could not protect him in the event of a riot.

Kennedy announced the death of King and those assembled for the speech were understandably shocked and grief-stricken but Kennedy went on, speaking only from a few notes he had jotted down during the ride from the airport.

‘For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.’

His speech was credited with preventing rioting in Indianapolis on a night when riots broke out in many other parts of the country.

Many in the Democratic Party felt that Kennedy had only entered the election when McCarthy’s performance showed there was support for an anti-war campaign; nevertheless, he won a number of the primaries although he was defeated by McCarthy in Oregon.

In the UK it was a hot summer as I remember and I went with one of my friends to see the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a stunning visual feast although I later had to buy the book by Arthur C Clarke to understand a lot of it. My Mother was amazed. I can still hear her now: ‘A beautiful hot day and you have spent it in the picture house?’

On June 4th Kennedy beat McCarthy in a close contest in California. After a brief victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel he was shot by an assassin shortly after midnight on the 5th. I was 11 years old at the time, an English schoolboy a thousand miles away in England and shocked by the shooting. I remember hearing the news on television sometime in the afternoon or early evening. It was a Wednesday, not that I remember that, I had to look it up, and I slipped out into the garden to say a silent prayer for Kennedy hoping he would live. He died in hospital some hours later.

Robert Kennedy’s funeral mass took place on June 8th and then his body was taken by train to Washington. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks to pay homage as the funeral train passed by.

On August 20th Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Premier Alexander Dubcek was deposed. Dubcek had initiated a series of reforms that became known as the Prague Spring. The Soviet Union was nervous of his reforms and the invasion was designed to return the country to its previous oppressive regime. Dubcek was eventually replaced by Gustáv Husák. He returned firm party rule to the country and ‘normalised’ relations with the Soviet Union.

On the 28th August the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago and television viewers were shocked to see Chicago Police brutally beating anti-war protestors with clubs and tear gas. The crowd chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ as the violence went on.

Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party nomination but on the election day of November 5th it was Richard Nixon who emerged triumphant. He would be forced to resign in 1973 because of the Watergate Scandal.

On December 24th, Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 spacecraft made a TV broadcast from lunar orbit. The crew of Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first in history to leave the planet Earth for another celestial body and the first to see the phenomenon of earthrise. In 1968 a number of things were the focus of my life. One of them was science fiction and here was something not so different but factual, not fictional.  I was glued to the BBC broadcasts by Cliff Michelmore and James Burke. On the TV transmission Commander Borman introduced his crew before they took turns to read from the book of Genesis. He finished by saying ‘And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.’

Even today, years later, if I ever hear those words on some documentary programme or a YouTube video, I am transported back to 1968, listening with wonder that men could reach the moon, that space travel was possible and that the things I had seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey could one day come true.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Breakfast TV and The Apollo Moon Landing.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan but when I was a child growing up in the 1960’s I was probably more interested in science fact. The sixties was the time of the space race and the Gemini and Apollo missions were covered in great detail on TV and when I say covered I mean full features and bulletins and not just a one minute item on the news.

I don’t know if you can imagine the excitement of a twelve year old boy, getting up for school one morning to find the TV on and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when the usual TV broadcast at that time would have been the test card! Those black and white ghostlike TV images enthralled me that July morning and how my Mother eventually managed to pack me off to school I do not know.

The moon landing was covered on UK TV by both the BBC and ITV although in our house we watched the BBC coverage exclusively. Cliff Michelmore was the main presenter but it was James Burke who explained all the technical stuff.
The launch of the Apollo missions was always a highlight for me. Although I enjoyed all the other elements too like the crew broadcasts from space, and those from Mission Control in Houston especially when a major decision had to be taken, for instance, ‘are we ok for lunar trajectory insertion?’ And the answers would come from the experts around the control room:

Mission_Control_Celebrates_After_Conclusion_of_the_Apollo_11_Lunar_-_GPN-2002-000033

Mission Control: Image courtesy wikipedia.

Capcom? (Capsule communications)Go!
Retro? (Retrofire officer)Go!
Fido? (Flight Dynamics Officer)Go!
Guidance? (Flight Guidance Officer)Go!
Booster? (Booster Systems Engineer) Go!
And so on round the room.

Now the Space Shuttle has been mothballed there are very few launches from Cape Canaveral. (Originally I had written Cape Kennedy but as usual after finishing writing I did a quick search on the internet to check my facts and found, surprisingly, that Cape Kennedy reverted back to its original name of Cape Canaveral in 1973. I never knew that!) But another highlight of TV space coverage was in 1968 when Apollo 8 made the first manned trip to the Moon. Apollo 8’s mission was not to land but to fly to the Moon, orbit and return to Earth. The three crew members were Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders.

There were numerous broadcasts from the crew, especially during their orbits of the moon and they sent back to mission control their impressions of the lunar surface, Lovell commenting that “the Moon looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish beach sand.”
Every time the spacecraft passed behind the Moon radio transmissions were blacked out and the crew and ground control were relieved to hear each other’s voices once again when they came back, unscathed, from the far side of the Moon.

The crew of Apollo 8 were the first in history to see ‘earthrise,’ the Earth emerging from the lunar horizon. The crew all scrambled for their cameras but it was Anders who took the famous colour photo seen here.

297755main_gpn-2001-000009_full_0The most moving broadcast ever was when the crew read lines from the book of Genesis and Borman finished by saying “and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
Every time I see a documentary about the Apollo programme that includes that transmission, I can feel myself taken back to Christmas of 1968 and once again I become that same small boy, glued to our old black and white TV set. Incredibly, NASA was hit by a lawsuit because of this by an atheist who objected to astronauts broadcasting religious activities while in space.

Back to 1969 though as the Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module piloted by Neil Armstrong dropped down towards the Moon an alarm sounded in the spacecraft. Ed Aldrin passed the information back to earth; “Alarm 1201”.
Armstrong carried on, dropping the craft ever so closer to the Moon’s surface but again that alarm sounded. What was it? Well believe it or not, the Eagle’s on-board computer, which had a memory less than that of your mobile phone had locked up with an overload of data. Armstrong switched over to manual control and landed the Eagle, dodging an area in the Sea Of Tranquillity littered with boulders without computer assistance. His remaining fuel supply when Eagle touched down was just 30 seconds!

Armstrong was the first man to step out of the hatch and to drop down onto the lunar surface and I should imagine everyone is familiar with his famous words: ‘That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.’ However Armstrong’s first step out onto the Moon wasn’t small at all, because the Lunar Module landed so gently that the shock absorbers hadn’t compressed. His first step out onto the Moon was almost a four foot jump onto the lunar surface. TV cameras beamed the event to viewers back on Earth and along with myself, almost 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon. It seems incredible to me even now, that back then in 1969, I was getting ready for school, eating my porridge or cornflakes and watching science fiction become science fact.

I must remember to ask my Mum though, how did she manage to get me off to school on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?


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Floating in Space