My son wanted to know why they made an entire museum exhibit out of the year 1968.
"Because I was born that year," I quipped.
Joking aside, a visit to "The 1968 Exhibit" at the Minnesota History Center gave my family a chance to talk about our personal history against a backdrop of the events that came to a head that pivotal year - the escalation and increasing unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the presidential election, and the cultural movements of the 1960s - from black power to feminsim.
We visited the exhibit as an intergenerational group including my 12-year-old son, who views the year as ancient history, and my mother and stepfather, whose lives were shaped by it.
The exhibit opens with the war in Vietnam. A Huey helicopter restored by a couple of dozen volunteers sits in the middle of a retro living room furnished in orange and avocado green. A vintage television, running black-and-white footage, stands on spindly legs in a corner.
"Is that what televisions used to look like?" my son gasped.
"That's Walter Cronkite!" my 71-year-old mother said simultaneously, as shots of the newscaster appeared spliced between images of combat and President Johnson assuring the nation that victory was at hand.
Although Vietnam is known as the first televised war, my mother didn't watch television in the first half of 1968. When the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in January,
"The Vietnam War really defined a lot about me and my contemporaries," my mother explained. "People got married, people had babies, people changed their careers, people went to Canada - all to avoid the war."
My stepfather finished graduate school in January of 1968 and,
POLITICS AND PROTESTS
I was born in February of 1968 while my parents were halfway through their year in Alaska. It was the war's deadliest month - 543 U.S. servicemen were killed. According to the exhibit, CBS aired a special television report on my birthday about Vietnam in which Cronkite told the nation, "We are mired in stalemate." February was also the month "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" was broadcast for the first time.
The exhibit is full of these odd juxtapositions. A timeline that weaves throughout the exhibit lists dozens of events, ranging from the feminist protests at the Miss America pageant to the fist "Doonesbury" cartoon and the release of the Beatles' "White Album."
Thematic displays cover the war, the rise of conservative politics, the anti-war movement, the presidential election, the political assassinations, the American Indian Movement and the popular culture of music, television and style.
In a darkened alcove, we watched a video of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his last speech in Memphis. I think my son was prepared to be bored, his curiosity dulled by superficial MLK day events in elementary school. He had told me he hoped there wouldn't be "too much civil rights stuff" in the exhibit. But he was riveted by King's passionate delivery of "I've been to the mountaintop." It was the first time he had seen footage of King, the first time he had glimpsed the civil rights leader's charisma and power.
We read about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, which my mother heard about via radio while at a fish camp on the Kuskoquim River. She recalled feeling like the country was falling apart.
By the fall of 1968, my parents were back from Alaska and settled in my dad's home state of California, where my mother got a job teaching high school English. When I was a baby, she took me to war protests in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. "Wow" was my son's response. I don't think it had every occurred to him that grandma had attended a protest march.
"Nana, who did you vote for that year? Or is that private," he asked after he cast his "vote" in an interactive voting booth behind a curtain. My mother had voted for Hubert Humphrey, who received 42.7 percent of the popular vote that year. Richard Nixon became president with 43.4 percent.
But mostly, my son was interested in the pop culture. I had to drag him away from a bank of retro television monitors that showed snippets from shows like "Star Trek," "Bewitched," "Mission Impossible" and the 1968 Olympics.
I hummed along to "Hey, Hey, we're the Monkees" and realized, not for the first time, that I watched far more TV as a kid than I allow my son to watch today.
At the music kiosk, my son marveled over album covers ("why are they so big?") with pictures of Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Tammy Wynette.
He talked us into playing the game show quiz. I worried that I would embarrass myself, but the questions were so obscure I didn't feel too stupid when I guessed wrong. (In what city did James Brown perform the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., calming crowds and likely preventing the riots that exploded in other cities? The answer is Boston.)
There were also a few other light moments. In the style section, we read the dress codes from several Twin Cities area public high schools. Girls couldn't wear slacks, shorts, skirts above the knee, narrow dress straps, bangs past their eyes or untucked shirts. Boys received demerits for blue jeans, sweatshirts or jerseys, belt loops without a belt, shoes without socks, hair covering ears and untucked shirts.
"Hey, I'm breaking three rules," my son said with delight, looking down at his jeans, untucked shirt and patting the hair that hung over his ears.
My mother said she couldn't wear pants as a female high school teacher in 1968. My son thought this was hilarious.
Our experience walking among the hundreds of photos and memorabilia was like paging through a collective scrapbook. And just as a scrapbook frames life as a narrative, the exhibit imposed a sense of order onto the turmoil of 1968. It brought back memories for the grandparents and provided a glimpse of their era for the boy who was born three decades later.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5295.
What: "The 1968 Exhibit"
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Information: 651-259-3000, minnesotahistorycenter.org.
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; closed Monday
Cost: $10 adults, $8 seniors and college students, $5 children ages 6 to 17, free for kids younger than 6; free for everyone Tuesday 5 to 8 p.m. (Note: Admission prices will increase $1 starting Dec. 1.)
Target audience: Middle-schoolers and older
Crowd pleaser: A Huey helicopter
Avoid: Trying to read everything. The timeline is online at the1968exhibit.org.
Tip: Bring along a grandparent
More: Read previously published Family Outings at MinnMoms.com/outings.