I know what I was doing on this day in 1965, a Sunday. I was likely at 12:30 Mass, mostly to please my father, who raised a fuss with me two months earlier when he found out I’d been skipping Mass and instead picking up the Sunday Times at the Overlea Pharmacy where we had it on order each week, and driving to the McDonald’s on Taylor Avenue for a good long read. But not too long, because I knew just how much time I had to pore over the Arts and Leisure section before 12:30 Mass ended.
After the blowup, the family meeting, I made contrite promises to go to Sunday Mass until September, when I was due to leave for my first year of college. Often my father accompanied me, but just as often he went to church early, leaving me and my younger sister to catch the last Mass, a gathering of hungover teenagers, twenty-somethings and the graveyard shift workers who sometimes napped between St. Michael’s and returning home.
After I fulfilled my duty to my father, I would phone one friend after another, until I gathered a quorum of girlfriends willing to do something fun—a picnic with sandwiches and beer out near Loch Raven Dam, an air conditioned movie and a bite to eat at HoJo’s on Old York Road afterwards, or a swim at Beaver Dam. I was working for the summer at Fort Holabird in Dundalk, and I’d gotten my first paycheck—112 dollars, after taxes, for the past two weeks of work assigning codes to records of soldiers who had gotten into a little trouble. Along with a half doze other summer clerks, I reviewed dusty files from decades earlier, listing various criminal convictions GIs had committed-from simple assault to homicide—while in uniform. Our job was to write down the correct code for each offense on a key punch card. AGAS, aggravated assault, was the most common. We had low level security clearances. I refused to discuss the details of my job with anyone in my family, as well as my friends.
We worked in the bowels of what was meant to be a temporary building at the army base. The structure had been added to more permanent buildings during World War II, and it had never been modernized. Six-foot tall floor fans kept us from passing out from heat exhaustion, but we summer clerks kept asking for more air circulation, so the Army provided us with small oscillating fans. We worked at long government-issue tables, constantly shifting our eyes from the coding work in front of us to the clock, waiting for the morning coffee break. My new friend Sophie and I would stroll down to the canteen, a small air-conditioned room full of vending machines, and drink diet soda. We were both determined to lose weight before school started. We were a diet support group of two, before Weight Watchers ever came up with the idea.
The hours passed in a slow blur. We had a half hour for lunch, then a long afternoon of coding, a bathroom break around two in the afternoon, followed by more coding, more stacking of dusty files, and chatting with one another when our very strict supervisor, Earline, wasn’t bearing down on us.
Two young soldiers appeared a month into our summer and joined us in our labor: John claimed he was a surfer from California, but as it turned out, he was from St. Paul, Minnesota, a child of divorce shipped off to military school and later, sent to his grandma for one summer in LA.
Curtis was a black kid from Georgia, sweet and innocent. He was engaged, and he wrote to his fiancée twice a week. Both soldiers had their orders to go to Vietnam by the end of summer. The two of them provided diversion to the summer clerks, and two of the girls developed major crushes on John. We called him the Beatle soldier because of his hair—as long as a guy in uniform could get away with in 1965.
At the end of our work day, Sophie and I raced out to her green VW Beetle, trying to beat the traffic out of Dundalk. We took the back way through Highlandtown, across Eastern Avenue, and back to my street, where we parted company. The next morning at seven, when Sophie picked me up at the top of my street, the day was already steamy. My hair curled in every direction. Sophie’s air-conditioned Beetle was my only escape from the Baltimore summer.
Weekends were all the more delicious. I spent them reading, thumbing through Seventeen and Glamour. I planned my college wardrobe, searching the newspaper for specials on fall outfits. I sat in the kitchens of school friends, all of them with jobs as mind-numbing as mine. We tuned the radio to WCAO and for hour after hour, listened to Sonny and Cher, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Stones.
I tried to ignore what was going on halfway across the world in Vietnam, but the news was everywhere– on the radio, on tv, in the newspaper. President Johnson announced that more troops would be called up. The U.S. mounted more air strikes against the Viet Cong. I argued with my father about the war. He said we should send in flame throwers and burn their whole country down and be done with it. He said if Vietnam fell to the Commies, we could expect all of Asia to follow suit. He had served in the Navy in China during World War II, he considered himself an expert in these things. I was a stubborn, outspoken, intemperate 18 year old, and I didn’t have the sense to walk away from a political argument, with him or anyone else.
That was the summer of the odd, scratchy feel of the material against my knees when I tried on wool skirts in a Hutzlers department store dressing room; listening to Bob Dylan sing “Like a Rolling Stone” on my stereo; lunching on thin cheese sandwiches on Hollywood diet bread; waiting for a college boy I used to have a crush on, but no longer did, to invite me to go classical record shopping at Korvette’s; driving around in my mother’s red and white Impala and never filling it up with gas; drinking cold beer out of the can; going to the Brehmen Savings and Loan every other Saturday to deposit my paycheck and taking only ten dollars back in cash, half of it for Sophie’s gas money.
Leaving high school behind, I felt triumphant. Nothing that summer felt better than sitting back in Sophie’s green metal pod and listening to the radio, talking of white go-go boots, boys, and black cocktail dresses. Freedom lay just around the corner, I was sure of it. Sophie shifted the car into fourth gear and we drove down Holabird Avenue and westward, to our homes that we couldn’t wait to leave for good.