50 years then, 50 years now

Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis

I started work at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in January 1977. I began on the copy desk. Within a few months, I became a reporter, working general assignment but also specializing in religion. I was 27 at the time. I had no idea how incredibly young I was.

A big, shocking story that summer quickly brought into focus the age difference between me, many of my fellow reporters and the newspaper’s senior management. Elvis died, 23 years after he skyrocketed to fame. Shortly after word spread throughout the newsroom, we heard that at the afternoon news conference, the editors decided that Elvis’s death was not Page One news. They relented, but we remain stunned that there was any question in their minds. A month later, Bing Crosby died, and his front-page obituary was never in doubt.

The biggest event of the year, for the paper’s top leaders, was the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. The Globe-Democrat had been one of the sponsors of the flight and wasn’t about to forego an opportunity to commemorate it or trumpet the paper’s role in it. We spent months preparing our coverage. When the date rolled around, the special section was stuffed with memories, trivia and thought pieces about the significance of the flight.

My word for the coverage? Overkill. Who cared about something that happened so many eons ago?

Well, of course, the people who lived through it did. And now I understand. At my age, lots of 50th anniversaries of events I lived through have taken place or will be occurring in the new few years. The Kennedy assassinations. The mysterious death of Marilyn. The onslaught of the Beatles. Vietnam. The King assassination. The moon walk. Woodstock. All of them matter to me. All of them are markers in my life, and for that reason alone, I want them to be remembered.

I often bristled at the Globe-Democrat’s senior management. I thought they were impossibly conservative. In 1982, the year I left, John Belushi died. After watching the adulation roll in for a week, the editorial page editor couldn’t stand it anymore, which led to an editorial called “Death of a Pig.” How could the world ignore Belushi’s excesses, perversions and wanton lifestyle,  he wondered. My last day was the day Belushi died. I was glad I no longer had to be in any way associated with rantings like that.

Looking back, I have more tolerance for senior management’s excesses now. They were, after all, products of their generation and experience. They must have been overwhelmed by the massive societal changes of the Sixties and Seventies. They reacted with disgust. They might have chosen another path, but I at least understand more about what drove them.

Above all, I understand their desire to celebrate Lindbergh’s flight. It recalled to them the can-do spirit of their time, just as the moon walk does for me today.

If you’re reading this, and you think of me much as I thought of them, I understand. My wish for you, though, is that you get to observe and celebrate some 50th anniversaries of your own. And I hope you take time to realize what they mean to you and how they shaped you.

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