Now I’m Part of History

Rocky Flats encirclement, 1983

I guess it’s inevitable that after living 70 years you become part of history, especially in this swiftly changing culture. Because I’ve lived more than 50 of those years in the same place—Boulder, Colorado—I’ve seen a lot of transformations. Yet I was still surprised a few years ago when the local oral history project wanted to interview me about the 1970s—the fabled time of anti-war protests, hippies, drugs and (apparently) wild sex. At the time Boulder proudly wore the slogan, “where the hip come to trip.”

Yet, it didn’t seem that long ago that I interviewed an older woman for the same history project, but, I realized, it was 40 years ago, and the Boulder native described life in the 1930s and 1940s in what was then a sleepy college town. I thought history belonged to my parents’ generation, who were born in the Depression years and lived through World War II. It hadn’t occurred to me that the 1970s, when I came of age, eventually would be considered an historic era, nor that I would ever get old enough to be an authority on that history.

But I kept getting reminders. Last year my 16-year-old nephew wanted to interview me for his “counterculture” class. I was happy to oblige, because I wanted to convey to him the turbulence of those times: the anti-war protests on campus; female staffers at the university striking for free child care; how men started wearing their hair long and women gave up girdles and high heels to wear long, loose skirts; and how marijuana was everywhere.

But I kept getting reminders. Last year my 16-year-old nephew wanted to interview me for his “counterculture” class. I was happy to oblige, because I wanted to convey to him the turbulence of those times: the anti-war protests on campus; female staffers at the university striking for free child care; how men started wearing their hair long and women gave up girdles and high heels to wear long, loose skirts; and how marijuana was everywhere.

I wanted to re-create the excitement of a time when it seemed the world was changing under our feet. It must be characteristic of older people to want to convey to a new generation how different life was then. And just as elemental for the younger generation to be bored with the old days, just as we weren’t interested in stories of how our parents and grandparents struggled in the Depression and war years.  

Most recently, I wanted to check out Boulder’s new history museum in town, because I was in a mood to go back to an earlier and slower way of life: the 1800s and early 1900s, when Boulder’s dirt streets were traversed by miners, farmers and horses. But the exhibit of 75 iconic symbols of Boulder’s history focused mostly on the time from the 1970s forward.

As a journalist from the 1970s to the 2000s, I had a front-row seat to much of that history:  the first gay marriage (before it was legal); the encirclement of the Rocky Flats nuclear processing plant south of town by peace activists; the deaths of Chicano activists in a car explosion; the start of Celestial Seasonings tea company. A photo of Boulder’s first natural food store brought memories of all the times I ate at the upstairs restaurant where hippies and others could get a healthy meal for $2.

I didn’t need to be educated about this history because I was there. It’s a strange feeling to become part of history. It means you’ve lived longer than you thought, have seen and experienced more than you realized and that you can no longer deny that you’re old, because you’re staring at your life in a history museum.

— Kathy Kaiser

6 thoughts on “Now I’m Part of History

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  1. Love the last line of this incisive piece!
    Years ago when I was teaching at a community college, I came out of the classroom and as I was walking toward the campus quad, I overheard two students discussing the history exam they had just taken.
    HIm: What date did you put down for when Kennedy was assassinated?
    Her: Ummm, I think it was 1962
    Me: [In my head] It was November 22, 1963. I was in Woolworth’s with my little sister, and I looked around and saw people crying. Then I heard the radio announcer, voice shaky, telling us our president had been shot and was dead. I held my little sister’s hand as we walked home in the cold. That night we sat in front of the TV and watched what have become iconic videos of Jackie in her blood-spattered pink suit. Two days later we watched on the TV as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
    We were there, Kath, on the ground. I asked my father once if he remembered when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “Oh, yeah,” he said, and gave me the details of where he was and what he was doing and how he felt. We carry the shape of history in our bodies, don’t you think?

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    1. Thanks, Verna! I too remember all the details of Kennedy’s assassination (which for my nephews is now ancient history). I remember wondering at the time how something like that could happen; I thought adults were in charge of the world, and so the world was safe. To me that was the beginning of the “counterculture,” of a new generation realizing we needed to take action. I agree that each generation is imprinted with the world-changing events of our times.

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  2. What an interesting piece. I feel turned around and upside down to look at your experience from fresh, new angles! Yes, the generations march on at a breathtaking pace even as we yearn for the days of miners and dirt roads! Love the punch of your final comment!

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  3. In my 20s and 30s, I definitely wasn’t aware of being part of history. Yet I was—not just because I was active in feminism’s second wave, but simply because I was *there*: one of the vast number of people who made the ’60s and ’70s what they were. More strange, to me, is the recognition that history is being made at this moment. Your 16-year-old nephew, the youngsters we now call “millennials”—all of them are participating in whatever this is, right now. If human civilization survives long enough for them to become as old as we are now, their own grandchildren will come to them, wide-eyed, asking, “What was it like?” None of us has the clear vision of hindsight to encapsulate these times as readily as we can those longer-ago eras. I wonder if history will outlast this era of ours, such that future historians will have the opportunity to explain what’s happening now and what happens next.

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    1. Looking back at our “history” provides some wonderful perspectives and reflection. But part of me wants to go back and live through it all over again.

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