This summer I’ve been spending a lot of time poring over old photos and reminiscing about some of the best summers of my childhood. The summer of 1969 really stands out.
As many of you may remember, on July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first human beings to land on the moon. As he took his first steps on solid ground, Armstrong uttered those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
We witnessed a huge milestone in American history. I’d just turned 15, and like many of the hippies of that time, I had a rebellious streak. I performed naughty acts like wearing the American flag around my shoulders and experimenting with psychedelic drugs.
But rather than watching me continually engage in unlawful activities, my mother decided that I should have a meaningful and transcendent experience, so she decided to send me to Lausanne, Switzerland, to spend the summer at an international teen camp there. So that’s where I was when the astronauts landed on the moon.
“There will be teens in Switzerland from all over the world,” my mother told me. “It will be good for you to get out of the New York for the hot summer.”
When I asked how I’d communicate with the other students, she said that many would speak English or understand it. She also told me that I’d have the chance to practice the French I’d studied in school for the past four years.
This was my first trip overseas without my parents. My insecurity about the journey to Switzerland resulted in my wanting to take most of the contents of my bedroom with me. From the attic I fetched a huge duffel bag, into which I stuffed just about every item I owned, or as my father used to say, “Everything but the kitchen sink.”
A few weeks after I arrived and was settled in, the campers and counselors were told to gather in a large glass-enclosed meeting room that also served as the camp gymnasium. It was about 10:30 p.m., way past the end of our habitual evening activities. We scurried to find spots on the hardwood floor in front of the small TV mounted on the wall so we could share this experience with one another.
Of course, there were some campers who couldn’t have cared less; they were busy flirting with the boys next to them (I might have been one of them), and the counselors were telling us to be quiet.
As one of a handful of Americans, I felt proud that so much attention was being directed toward my country. But like any milestone that we live through, I didn’t realize the impact of that experience until many years later.
And just like teens today, music was an essential ingredient of my happiness, so I didn’t dare go overseas without my record player, padded between my clothes, along with my favorite 45s. Those little black circular discs (about twice the size of a bagel) had big holes in the middle.
In that hole we placed another smaller yellow plastic disc, about the size of a quarter. This disc prevented the record from swaying back and forth on the record player, or Victrola, as my mother used to call it. Usually, each record had one song on each side.
The 33s, on the other hand, were the larger-format records, and stored the same amount of music as one compact disc. It was the size of a small tire on a children’s bike, also with a little hole in the middle. The 33s didn’t require that small yellow disc.
It had been only four years since the Beatles were first introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show, and their music was popular across all the generations, but it was most popular among teens. (I really felt my age when I just read that Ringo Starr recently turned 81.)
There are a few Beatles songs from their first album that still resonate in my head, but the one that made the greatest impact on me was “Let It Be.” I played it over and over again, the music blasting out of the speakers in my tiny bedroom in Queens, New York.
“Let It Be” accompanied me on my journey across the ocean and resonated from my dormitory room at the international teen camp, which at other times during the year was a school called École Nouvelle (New School), and the amazing thing is, even now, almost 50 years later, that song still instills a sense of peace in me.
What was nice about the song was its calming effect during that stressful time of being so far away from my parents. It was also a song that teens from other countries had repeatedly heard on their radio stations, so it served as a common denominator across the different nationalities represented at the camp. I was amazed by how well the foreign speakers knew the lyrics, although they may have had little idea what they meant.
In addition to the transformative moment of the astronauts landing on the moon, now, more than five decades later, hearing “Let It Be” still conjures up images of that summer in Switzerland; and also, my slow dances with boys from France, Kuwait, Italy, and the United States.
That summer was one of the best of my youthful years, and sometimes I play “Let It Be” in my head when there’s turmoil around me – and I know that the soothing effects of the Beatles’ words will resonate in my mind forever.
So here’s to summer fun and reminiscing about the milestones we were fortunate enough to experience!
Which of your childhood/teen summers do you remember the best and why? What brings you way back then? Do you often reminisce about the past? Let’s swap childhood summer stories!