“Where were you in ‘62?” My answer to that “American Graffiti” question was, “in Lincoln, Nebraska,” far away from Modesto, California. But the same music resonated through our adolescent lives in the heartland. And although it seems that in the geographic middle of the country, lifestyle trends often lagged behind the coastal regions, in terms of the rock and roll era, that teen culture, born in the 1950’s, was well established. But unlike the lead characters of the movie, we were not living out our final days of cruising in hot rods and listening to rock and roll. Rather, we were a year away from our drivers licenses and just beginning to join in the American mating tradition known as “dating.”
For me, the year 1962 was a passageway from the early teenage years of junior high school to the late teens of high school, from the days of my youth which were decreasingly filled with the activities of childhood to the increasing efforts to take on the trappings of adulthood. During the first four months of 1962 I was part of the ninth grade class of Millard Lefler Junior High School, the school leaders and trendsetters, socially well established, secure and confident (at least as confident as 15 year olds could be). During the last four months I was a sophomore at Lincoln High School, at the lower end of the social totem pole, having entered a larger social environment where ninth grade bravado turned to adolescent insecurity. The dichotomy of my 1962 experience is held together by two common threads: music and an extremely myopic world view. In 1961, the tone arm had been lowered and the music emanating from that stack of 45’s was becoming a constant companion. By 1962 that music became attached to all my memories. In 1961, I took the first halting steps toward a relationship with a member of the opposite sex and in 1962 experienced what would best be labeled as “young love.” And that relationship and all the trappings that came with it narrowed my world view of 1962.
As my classmates and I passed through the hallways and classrooms of Millard Lefler Junior High in the spring of 1962, we did so literally shoulder to shoulder. Lefler was a relatively new school, built in 1955 to service a population of Lincoln, Nebraska that was expanding eastward. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was part of the vanguard of what would become known as the “baby boom.” By the time I reached Lefler in 1959, it was already becoming overcrowded. But as we experienced things like one-way hallways I was totally unaware that I was part of a bubble in the demographics of the country. My life was filled with telephone calls and weekend parties; city wide “Nine High” dances and actual competitive basketball games. While the history of that time chronicles the horror of nuclear tests and programs for bomb shelters, I remember little of that -- except for the extended musings of teenage boys on possible alternative uses for bomb shelters. While John Glenn orbited the earth, I noticed, but was probably preoccupied with preparation for a basketball game that week and a party that weekend. When Marilyn sang happy birthday to the President, I was not aware, but probably should have taken more notice -- that teenage boy thing, again. All in all, the historic events of the year were passing by pretty much unnoticed by me.
What did make a lasting impression was the music. Indoors it came from the stereo speakers stationed on the far sides of my room and outdoors from those same speakers now placed in the windows. From frantic games of 1 on 0 basketball played in my room with a self invented precursor to a nerf ball while Larry Finnegan’s “Dear One” played on the stereo, to the outdoor one on one’s and two on two’s in my backyard played to the strains of Dion’s “Lovers Who Wander,” music was omnipresent. I remember liking “Johnny Angel,” even though it was kind of a schmaltzy slow song, because it was sung by Shelley Fabares who I knew personally as Mary Stone and thought of very highly (teenage boy thing). I remember “I Can’t Stop Loving You” as not only a great song, but also one that was good for slow dancing at parties; and I know I was totally unaware that it was part of a “country” album by Ray Charles. And I know I played “Stranger on the Shore” a lot, a record that has truly stood the test of time. I remember hearing “Uptown” by The Crystals for the first time and finding it strange, but liking it. I remember making fun of “Wolverton Mountain” by Claude King -- exaggerating that hillbilly drawl as we sang along (teenage -- childhood side -- boy thing). I remember hearing “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler performed (lip-synched) on American Bandstand and knowing it was a hit -- couldn’t stop myself from singing along, “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl.” (At that time it made perfect sense. After all, there were “dukes” and there were “earls,” so naturally, “nothing can stop a ‘duke of earl.’”
That summer was filled with baseball, dances, and the swimming pool. And records like “Palisades Park” by Freddy Cannon, “Sheila” (shades of Buddy Holly) by Tommy Roe and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” by Neil Sedaka were favorites. One significant memory was hearing a new sound on the radio that I liked, but had a hard time imagining the group singing -- that was “Sherry” by The Four Seasons. I wasn’t sure if it was a black group, a white group, or maybe even a girl group (but that didn’t seem right, considering the lyrics). And it was all exciting and it was all leading up to beginning a new life -- high school!
In September of 1962, the Lefler ninth graders became sophomores at Lincoln High School. To be accurate, about half of us became “Links.” Our class was geographically split with the other half going to Southeast High School. It is amazing how permanent that split became. And there was another split. I got “dumped” and found myself navigating my new environment with no girlfriend connection. Of course, in a new, bigger school, there were lots of opportunities to meet someone new. But I really didn’t -- I imagine I wallowed in my own misery and I know I found company in songs like “All Alone Am I” by Brenda Lee and “Only Love Can Break a Heart” by Gene Pitney.
That fall, there were football games and often times dances after the games. I went “stag” with a group of guys and never had the interest (courage?) to ask girls to dance. The only real dancing I remember from that time was the opportunities to do as Dee Dee Sharp encouraged us to do in “Mashed Potato Time” and “form a big boss line.” Whenever somebody started up one of those lines, you could join the line, do your own version of the locomotion, and not really need a partner. I’m sure my version was very sexy and can’t understand how it never resulted in some girl actually asking me to dance (stupid really, because that just wasn’t done back then).
One event from the outside world did invade my teen consciousness, the Cuban missile crisis. Dr. King’s arrest in Georgia, the riots at Ole Miss, landmark Supreme Court rulings -- none of these were on my radar. But the missile crisis made everybody take notice -- we really did believe that we might be on the verge of nuclear war.
As winter approached, I was playing basketball (made the junior varsity team). In the post missile crisis world, President Kennedy took on additional stature and the American public became ever more attracted by the Kennedy White House. Vaughn Meader released his comedy album, “The First Family” and we all delighted in impersonating him impersonating the President and repeating over and over again the lines from the comedy sketches on the album.
As far as movies and television in 1962, those cultural imperatives left little impression. I don’t remember attending very many movies -- no car, no dating, no movies. On television, I remember “My Three Sons” and “Bonanza” (“My Three Sons” on horseback) as being favorites. I was (and still am) a big fan of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” -- Mary Tyler Moore (teenage boy thing). And I remember watching “The Defenders” -- a nod towards my more serious, “adult” side.
In retrospect, 1962 was the launching pad for many cultural threads that would become so much a part of our future, but I was clueless. As mentioned, the events of the civil rights movement went unnoticed. As Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite took theirs seats on television, I didn’t watch. I never saw James Bond in “Dr. No.” I had no idea that Andy Warhol had painted a soup can, and had I known, I’m sure my reaction would have been a simple, “huh?” But in music, I had my ear to the ground. I could have told you that The Four Seasons were a hot new group. I could have told you that Ricky Nelson was underrated as a rock performer. I could have told you that the new sounds of Motown, like the Marvelettes, was gaining in popularity. But I had no idea who Bob Dylan was, and I certainly was unaware that a British group had just released their first record, “Love Me Do.” (There would have been a slim chance that if I had heard the harmonicas from Dylan or Lennon, I might have thought, “that sounds like Bruce Channel.”)
With all the things I was aware of and was not aware of, 1962 came to a close. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to meet the “love of my life.” I didn’t know it at the time, but the “Elvis Era” was entering its last year. I didn’t know it at the time, but the most impactful event of my generation was less than a year away. But that’s where I was in 1962.