The Dispirit of ’67

The men I have coffee with most mornings in town are all in what we never call the last trimester of our lives. We’re winding down, golfing more, worried that what’s ahead won’t be as good as what’s gone before. We are retiring or retirees. Our memories are more certain than our prospects. Some things, we say, are changing. Some things never do.

Forty years ago, we were driving up Woodward Avenue in our souped-up Dodges, Chevys and Fords, ogling braless girls and hot rods at suburban drive-ins, lip-syncing Motown and protest songs, rooting for the Tigers, who were winning that year. We were white and male, native-born Americans — the big three when it came to playing the odds. We could be anything, like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The future seemed full of possibilities. We were freshly minted, or newly wed, or just beginning our careers or, like me, in the first year of college — trying to decide what to do with life and time.

The covers of Life and Time that first week of August ’67 featured the God-awful riots in Detroit. There was a distant, ugly war, a siege mentality in the White House and troubling signs in the economy. The body count half a world away, the failed leadership, the terrible inequities of life on the planet seemed incidental to our youth and promise. Though ’67 was a summer of discontent, we were, in retrospect, still banking on what our parents had banked on: other big threes — truth, justice and the American way, and, in Michigan anyway, ”Generous” Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

Now, years since, we all — the teachers and engineers, lawyers and politicos, bankers and test drivers, insurance agent and real estate agent, the pastor, the ad man and undertaker — draw pensions or pay packets from an economy that trickled down from Henry Ford’s assembly line and the boom it brought to the Motor City, its leafy suburbs and upstate vacation towns on Michigan’s great and inland lakes. Everything hereabouts came from cars and the people who came here decades ago to make them.

That industry, like many of us, has passed its prime. ”Going back in history,” says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, ”these companies have been … the Rock of Gibraltar. That’s not true anymore. The Rock of Gibraltar has turned into a sandbar.”

A friend from the old days who, like thousands hereabouts, took early retirement from Ford, laments, ”I’m not ready to be a greeter at Wal-Mart’s, but I’m too old to go back to school.” With his buyout money, he and his son are starting a landscape company. ”I’m learning Spanish, to talk to our crews,” he says. ”How’s that for globalization?”

Michigan languishes in what one crowd calls a ”one-state recession,” which they attribute to union greed and taxes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the current governor, and what the other crowd insists is a ”one-industry recession,” which they lay to executive greed and globalization, pigheadedness on energy and environmental policy and the former governor. As in that August of 1967, when George W. Romney was governor and a favorite for the Republican nomination, our local midsummer woes seem like harbingers of the nation’s. By month’s end he’d let slip the truth about ”brainwashing” with regard to his former support for the war. By April of the next year he was out of the race, Lyndon Johnson was a lame duck, and the murderous cycle of riots, assassinations and lost causes was about to bring Richard Nixon to power.

Forty years on and we’re still in an ugly distant war. Detroit remains among the most segregated cities in America. The white, male, native-born Americans of our generation — Bill Clinton and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — for all their promise, have been disappointing. Another Governor Romney is running for president. We have our lame duck, our lost cause and the Tigers winning again this year. Some things change, we say. Some things never do. Whether history repeats itself remains to be seen. At coffee most mornings, alas, we do.

Thomas Lynch, a funeral director, is the author, most recently, of the memoir ”Booking Passage.”

August 5, 2007
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR; The Dispirit of ’67
The New York Times

Milford, Mich.