It's taken me almost fifty years to make peace with "1969". We've been fighting a long depressing battle for so, so long. Never looking at one another in the eye, and never speaking about our pain. We just try to forget who the other is, and try not to ask why we hate the other so much after all this time. Just sitting at opposite sides of the room and dare not to raise our heads up to speak. Silence and more silence, that's how we deal with our problems. Yes 1969, you made me hate you so much.
Once while cleaning out my mom’s apartment I found one of those old time kitchen towel calendars buried in the back of the closet. Scrawled on it right in the middle were those dreaded numerals "1969". I quickly tossed it in a black garbage bag and covered it up with old shirts and material that belonged to my mom. But somehow that didn't work and instead the old dirty towel calendar made its way back to the top of the trash and right back in my head where I've been fighting it from going. Right back to where it belongs, enter the nightmares, enter the crying, 1969 is back again and it's never going away.
You see 1969 started like every other year here on East Fourth Street - with my family's yearly New Years Eve party at my grandmother and grandfathers apartment right below our place. With dozens and dozens of relatives and a celebration for my cousin Pete whose birthday falls on the 31st of December. There was nothing that seemed different than any other New Years Eve, no it all seemed to be just right and nothing different from before I thought.
December 31st 1968
It must have been a Guy Lombardo special that night too in 1968, being broadcast from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel about ten miles away on a cold winter's evening in Manhattan, the same hotel where my parents spent their honeymoon night.
Standing around the television everyone was getting ready for the traditional countdown and had either a horn or a twirling gear noisemaker in their hand. And as the frigid wind blew against the old wooden windows of my grandparent’s house you could hear them gently rattle and whisper a sweet goodbye song to 1968.
Then it started like every year, those same spoken numerals and the familiar countdown on the television. "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one...Happy New Year!!!!
With hugging, kissing and the usual crying my family all did their best to say goodbye to one year and bring in another as they have done many times before.
January 1st 1969 12:01 am
For me 1969 has just begun and all its nightmares will live with me forever, and for my brother Joseph they will all soon end.
"Hey Joey why are you walking so funny? Are your shoes too tight? Because if they are we can go to Mays this weekend in downtown Brooklyn and buy you a bigger size".
I vaguely remember my brother complaining to me about his legs or feet, but somehow I remember something wasn't right because my brother was doing a lot of sitting and lying around the house rather than being outside and running around with his friends and especially Steve McNally who lived next door.
"Hey Joey are you feeling ok?"
"Get away from me you idiot"
That's ok, older brothers always speak to their younger brothers that way and given the fact that he seemed to be not feeling well I really didn't mind anyway.
Now it's all making sense
Last year in 2016 I found a box of old photos in my closet here in Brooklyn. They were ones that we took upstate all during Easter of 1969. As I looked at each photo I noticed something quite consistent in each one. The expression on my brother’s face. In each and every photo Joseph had a pained expression. He wasn't smiling and in fact almost looked like he was ready to cry. It was his knees, it had to be.
Easter upstate in the Catskills April 6th 1969
“Hey Ronnie just stop for a minute, my knees really hurt”.
I remember looking at my brother that day and seeing the pain in his face. We were fishing with my grandfather Paco down by the stream alongside the Hollow that lead to our house in the Catskills.
My brother Joseph stopped behind me, in his left hand he held a fishing pole, in his right hand a white plastic bucket with two small brook trout swimming inside. The water was brown because we just scooped it up from the brook minutes before. I remember it just finished raining that day and the grass was quite wet too.
I took my brothers fishing pole and bucket and helped him walk to our Rambler station wagon parked alongside the road. He just cried all the way to the house while rubbing his knees with his hands.
My mother’s solution for many of life’s woes was a warm compress with Bengay. As my brother lie in bed that night the relief of a warm washcloth on his knees would only be temporary. Because when we got back to Kensington there would be doctor visits, new shoes, knee braces, questions about tendons and then finally blood tests.
Apparently the knees are where a lot of bone marrow is produced, and when you have “acute childhood leukemia” at 13, they are bound to hurt.
June 7th 1969
“Who are you here to see young man?” “You know its way past visiting hours and you don’t belong on the floor”
The doctor spoke to me with authority while I was washing my hands in the men’s room at Maimonides Hospital that night.
“Oh, I’m here visiting my brother Joseph Lopez in room 523”
The doctor’s face just melted before my eyes and he looked almost apologetic now. He rubbed the top of my head and just said; “Oh that’s ok, you just spend some time with your brother young man.”
You have to remember that although I knew my brother was sick, no one really told me how serious it was. But that few moments with the doctor in the men’s room told me something very different. I knew my brother was going to die, no matter what my mom said.
All my brother Joseph did was just lie in that bed at Maimonides Hospital in Boro Park. Never smiling and sometimes sleeping. I hated the smell of that hospital, I hated everything about it. Now the wing he was in we called it the “round building", because from Fort Hamilton Parkway it somewhat looked like a Maxwell House coffee can. From his window you could see Kensington, 310 Beverley and PS 179. On the wall of his room was a card from his seventh grade class at Ditmas JHS.
Joey also had a collection of hospital toys, toys that my mom and my family brought for him to play with while he was sick. There were little cars, trucks, comic books, and a model of the Mayflower. But there was one toy in particular that I will never forget. It was a small plastic white Jeep with a silver chain underneath that powered the four wheels. I would sit next to him and with his hospital bed on an incline we would just run the Jeep up and down the linen hill. My brother never really smiled in Maimonides you know, but that Jeep was the only toy that brought a little glimmer in his eyes.
The nights at 399 East 4th were really awful too. When you always have an older brother either sleeping above you in a bunk bed or next to you in a twin bed, the thought of going to sleep without anyone there with you really hurt. And all you wished for every night was to wake up in the morning and see your brother beside you.
Sometimes late at night I would hear my mother talking to her sister Beatrice who lived in Queens Village. My mom actually spoke fluent Polish, and most of the time that’s how the conversations started. But somewhere along the line they both broke down and it turned to English. When my mother described the bone marrow tests my brother had to take, and his screams that even made the nurses cry, that’s when I shut the door and tried not to think about it anymore. June 11th 1969
I was in the 6th grade class at PS 179 on June 11th 1969. Mister Bernstein was my teacher and everyone was just so kind to me that day. From the sixth floor window you could see all of South Brooklyn, including Coney Island. I couldn’t concentrate on my work that day, and I kept repeating “Hail Mary” and “Our Father” over and over in my head as I looked at the Parachute Jump in the distance.
Some of the kids walked over to me and just said “I hope your brother gets better”, even Michael McCall who used to break my pencils all the time. I never told anyone in class that my brother was even sick, so I was somewhat surprised that everyone knew about it, especially today.
As the bell rang at three and I left school, I was surprised to see Clair McNally, my friend Paul’s mom waiting for me outside of the school on East Third Street.
“Hi Ronnie. I just wanted to make sure you got home ok”
I was kind of surprised because I was eleven and have been walking home alone for a while now. But Clair was very kind, so I don’t question her. As we walked up Avenue C towards East 4th, I started to feel a little sick, something just wasn’t right and Clair really didn’t talk to me either.
As we made the left on East 4th and started getting closer to our house I started to feel real anxious and my heart beat faster. There were strange cars in my driveway and the whole thing didn’t feel right. Clair held my hand and walked me up the red brick stairs. Instead of opening up the left hand side door that lead up the stairway to our apartment, she opened up the heavy wooden door to the right that was my cousin Pete’s apartment.
Clair made me sit down on the couch by the front window.
As I looked up I saw my entire family sitting at the dinner table in the next room. They all just sat there quietly with looks of loss and sadness in their faces.
My mom was there too.
Why wasn’t anyone with my brother at the hospital?
Why is everyone here?
Why? Why? Why?
As my mother got up from the table and started walking towards me, she started crying. She sat on the couch next to me and wrapped her arms around me. She just hugged me as hard as she could and then softly whispered in my ear; “Joey died”
Suddenly it felt as though the floor fell through. Like I was floating through the air. Falling, falling, falling. I was hoping to hit the ground and just die so I could be with my brother Joseph.
Then all of a sudden I heard the front door open. It was my cousin Pete coming home from Ditmas. My uncle Pete pulled him aside and also whispered in his ear. Pete just ran into his room in the back of the apartment. He was crying as he closed his door.
Then a few minutes later my little cousin Denise walked in, and it was the same whispering and the same crying.
And before you knew it the door just kept opening, more of our family had arrived. More crying, more whispers, more sad faces.
No it wasn’t a dream, my brother really died that day.
Pitts's Funeral Home June 13th 1969 The Nightmare is over for Joseph
The young boys smile looked frozen and awkward as he slept. In-between his folded hands were a dark red rosary. His face was white as milk, and his hair jet black, combed backwards. Under the powdered make-up on his face you could still see freckles, they were dark brown and looked as though they were gently sprinkled on his cheeks.
He wore a white shirt and white jacket. I think it may have been the one he wore for his Confirmation at IHM on Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Above him were two freestanding lamps, with bright yellow lights shinning on his face, his eyes stayed closed. As an eleven year old I still clung to some miracle that Joseph would open them, just a crack is all I wished for. But my mother’s tears told me something else.
I got up from the folding metal chair and walked to the back of the room and sat next to my cousin Pete and Denise. With tears streaming down both of their faces, I knew this wasn’t a dream
It was a warm June night at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue in Kensington, Brooklyn. My brother Joseph was laying in a dark brown casket and was never ever going to wake up from his eternal sleep.
No, my bother Joseph was dead.
Time moves on and it's back to the Catskills June 30th 1969
I never really ever took any kind of medication in my life and even at the edge of 60 I'm still trying my best to keep away from anything that comes in a little plastic bottle that sounds like a baby's rattle. Yet, to solve my 1969 issue I think I'm willing to try anything.
The summer of 1969 found me once again up in the Western Catskills on our 200 acres by Huntley Hollow. And although my brother just died a few weeks before nothing in the world will keep my grandfather Paco from spending the summer up in the country.
"This is Heaven Ronnie, this is what you call paradise". My Grandfather would always repeat these words with his wonderful Spanish accent too. Which made it that much more convincing and at the same time sweet.
And maybe for my Grandfather Paco the Catskills were his little bottle of medicine too. Because just four years prior to my brother dying his own son Joseph Lopez Sr., my dad, passed away over at Delaware Valley Hospital over in Walton about fifteen miles away on a hot August night back in 1965. He was only thirty-nine years old at the time and lost his battle to lung cancer. But just like all of the Lopez family, the Catskill house was probably my dads little bottle of pills too. Because instead of spending his last few weeks at a hospital he chose instead to spend them at our house upstate looking at the mountains and the blue skies above. Yes this place is heaven and it always seems to draw us back no matter what the tragedy. So yes, nothing would stop my grandfather Paco from pointing our 1963 Rambler Classic station wagon Northwest from Brooklyn New York and driving 155 miles soon after the last candle was blown out at the funeral mass. No nothing.
And don't get me wrong because I loved going upstate each summer. We owned over 200 acres and the view from our house couldn't be prettier. In the mornings it was a beautiful sunrise from right behind our pond and the sunsets were so very spectacular setting over the mountain ridge right across us by the Newbert's house about a half a mile away. Plus we had the most beautiful view of Bryden Hill right in front of the house, which was more like a mountain to most of us.
Yet with all the beauty nature could offer along with all the support from my family nothing could help me from missing my brother Joseph who was with me each and every summer since 1957.
Not one Sunset, not one Sunrise, not one trout I caught with my Grandfather down by the brook at the end of the Hollow.
No, nothing was working, nothing.
And I dare not ever ask my mom if I could go back to Brooklyn and be with my friends and my cousins rather than by myself in the Catskills. No, that would have been blasphemy taken to its deepest level. Because once you were upstate for the summer you were there for nine weeks straight without ever going down to Brooklyn even for the weekend.
Plus it would have been the greatest insult to my grandfather Paco and no one would ever think about crossing that line.
So each day in July the sun rose behind the pond and set across the ridge by the Newbert's little White House. The grass grew and then was cut, crickets sang at nighttime and the swallows built their nest on our house just like each summer before. And slowly and very slowly the days and then weeks rolled by, June turned the page to July and then to August.
Yes there were weekend visits from my cousins and everyone did their best to comfort me and themselves from remembering that my brother was buried down at Paige Cemetery just about six miles away by Downsville.
But still no, nothing was working.
Constant sleepless nights up on the Hollow waking up from nightmares and imagining what would happen if my brother somehow woke up in his casket and tried to call us for help to get him out of there. Frantically scratching the silk cloth above his face and screaming at the top of his 13 year old lungs to get him out of there.
"Mommy, Mommy, Help!!!! Ronnie, please Ronnie get me out of here!!!!!"
Now let me tell you, the fact that my grandfather and grandmother wanted to visit my brother and dads grave every day that summer didn't help the situation either. I would always hope that every time we passed the Paige cemetery down by Downsville my grandfather would just drive by, but no each time we were on 206 and headed into Downsville I would hear the dreaded "click, click, click of the turn signal and my heart would start to sink,
Just start shaking that little plastic bottle of pills for Ronnie, here's a glass of cold spring water and get ready to swallow. No that kind of medicine just did not work with probably made things worse.
But please don't blame my grandparents because they were trying their best and in fact were mourning the deaths of both their son and their grandson named Joseph.
And still time moves on.
I remember it was a Monday in mid August, my grandfather and I were sitting on these homemade versions of the Catskill chairs that he built and we were just looking at the mountains around us. And my grandfather Paco loved looking at the mountains he could just sit there are stare at the mountains and the deep blue sky all day. "Ahh, fresh air, you never get this fresh air in the city Ronnie, this is paradise Ronnie, this is Heaven".
And then out of nowhere the familiar sound of a cars engine way in the distance broke thorough the silence of the green mountains and the blue skies above.
"Hey Grandpa, a car, I think I hear a car?"
Now seeing a car coming up our Hollow was certainly a special event, because during the course of any given day back in 1969 you were lucky if you ever saw one car coming up the hollow. Because up in the Hollow nature certainly ruled over humanity and hearing the sound of a cars engine straining its way up the ever so steep incline of the Hollow meant that there was certainly the possibility of seeing another human being.
Which for me would have especially been a very good thing,
As the sound of the engine echoed through the tall maples surrounding Huntley Hollow I could just make out a red car with a shiny chrome bumper climbing up the steep incline of the roadway down by mister Laidlaw’s house about half a mile away.
As the car rumbled up the road and closer to our house I could make out it was a 1967 Red Ford Fairlane.
The same kind of car my uncle Frank used to drive down in the city.
As always we were expecting the car to pass our driveway and make it's way to the top of the mountain like every other car usually does.
Now back in 1969 the entire Hollow was paved after years of being a dirt road. The end of our driveway, which was about a tenth of a mile long, was exactly where the blacktop ended. Usually cars would either turn around right there and or just hit the dirt part of the road going about 45 mph and create a gigantic cloud of dust in their wake.
But instead of using our driveway as a turnaround or creating a gigantic ball of dust the Red Fairlaine turned onto our road and headed our way.
"A car is coming, a car is coming, mom a car is coming!!!"
Now just close your eyes and imagine seeing an airplane fly way overheard while you were stuck on that desert island way out in the Pacific Ocean. You start screaming and waving your hands, jumping up and down and hoping the pilot will see you. Well, this is kind of what it was like whenever a car drove up the Hollow back in the 60s.
As the car drove up our driveway I could make out two arms dangling out each window of the front seats. The sound of the tires making a crunching sound the entire way along with a occasional brush of an over hanging blackberry branch scraping its bright red sides.
As the car made a gentle stop by our house I could make out someone inside the car who looked familiar.
It was my first cousin Frankie.
My cousin Frankie smiled and got out of the old Ford Fairlaine with his friend Dexter who I remembered from our visits to Queens Village. Both Frankie and Dexter had long dark hair, bell-bottom jeans, cowboy boots and beards. Just looking like the typical "Hippie" types that my grandfather Paco always seemed to despise during his rants whenever we watched the channel four news together at 399 East 4th.
I sometimes think that my grandfather Paco may have been a fascist too . Whenever we would see hippies protesting on TV back in the late 1960's he would start telling me that they should all be sent to jail and have their heads shaved.
"In a Spain Franco would never let them walk around with hair that long, he would have them all put into work camps and shave their heads".
Along with his rants about having someone with an ax chop your finger off for stealing an apple I sometimes pondered the old saying that you can "take the boy out of Franco but never take the Franco out of the boy".
But still I loved my grandfather Paco to death and always smiled when he told me to cut my long hair.
"Mister Lopez, Mister Lopez are we so glad so see you!!" "This is my friend Dexter from California and we're looking for a place to spend the night".
"My grandfather Paco shook my cousin Frankie's hand along with Dexter’s and assured them that they would be more than happy for them to spend the night.
Paco 1, Franco 0
My cousin Frankie then looked at me with the biggest smile ever. "Hey Ronnie, how are you? You're never going to believe where Dexter and I have been for the past four days, it's was totally insane, totally crazy! What a trip you're never ever going to believe it".
Now my cousin Frankie was about five years older than me and had the most contagious laugh. He always seemed to make me feel better because he never seemed to let anything bother him and always seemed to laugh off any problem he may have had.
And seeing him on a Monday in mid August was just what I needed to make me feel a little better after my cousin Pete left the night before on a Sunday.
"Misses Lopez, aunt Stella, Isabel" my family slowly filed out of the house to greet my cousin and his friend Dexter.
"Frankie, where the heck were you? Where you sleeping in mud? You're all filthy, wait till I tell my sister".
"Don't worry aunt Stella I called my mom already and she knows all about it, in fact she's the one who suggested that we come up here instead of trying to drive back to Queens Village".
My mom was smiling the whole time while looking at my cousin and Dexter, which made me feel better because it's been a while since I've seen her really smile.
"Well, Hippies are welcome here right Frank?"
Said my Mom to my Grandfather
Holding back his inner "Franco" my grandfather Paco smiled and said his best "Yes Sir". Which was another one of his favorite sayings.
"So where were you two Frankie?" Said my mom? Come on and let's let the cat out of the bag".
"I don't know if you heard about it on the news but there was a crazy concert down by the Monticello race track off 17B."
"The crazy Hippie fest? We saw that on the news last night". Said my mom.
"Yes aunt Stella, we were at the Woodstock concert and it was insane".
"Totally insane and totally nuts".
And of course my cousin Frankie was laughing while he told us about the whole concert at the dinner table with Dexter by his side. Looking like the Jesus twins they told us all about the music, the rainstorm, the sunrise and the sunsets. The traffic, the dancing, the drug scene and the helicopters bringing the musicians in and out for the entire concert.
Standing in front of our house later that evening my cousin pointed towards the mountains looking towards Roscoe and Monticello.
"You see those mountains way down there?
That's where the whole thing happened ".
It was Monday night, August 18th 1969 and somehow a very thin ray of light was starting to shine though the darkness and depression of 1969.
Maybe someday it won't be so bad after all I thought to myself, someday it won't.
Well my cousin Frankie and Dexter slept at our house that night and got all washed up and headed back to Queens Village the next morning right after a big country breakfast.
Watching their car drive away was the hardest part, but the stories they left with me about their four days down at Bethel weren't going anywhere and were never leaving.
Well for the rest of the Summer up on Huntley Hollow all I could think about was the concert that they spoke about and all the crazy things that went on there for those four days.
Looking every chance I could at the mountains towards Roscoe and imagining being there for those four nights just a few weeks before.
The Woodstock concert, wow, that must have been so cool I thought, something oh so different from what my own version of 1969 was. And something that brought such joy to so many people. It must have been a real "trip" as my cousin Frankie would say, a real trip indeed.
2016 and finally coming to terms with 1969
Well it's taken me almost fifty years to get over my brothers death and the darkness that the numerals "1969" bring to me. And somehow I have learned to use the "Woodstock Concert" as a form of medication and revenge against that year.
Because while I was crying and feeling ever so alone up on Huntley Hollow during July and August of 1969, something magnificent and magical was happening about forty five miles away over the mountains that I looked at every Summer day from our house.
Something that was legendary, something that wonderful, something that defined 1969 and in fact an entire generation.
Finally something about 1969 that didn't involve my brother Joseph getting bone marrow tests at Maimonides Hospital.
Finally something about 1969 that didn't involve my family all sitting around my aunt’s dinner table too afraid to tell me my brother died.
No finally something about 1969 that I can think about without feeling sad.
I know it's strange but somehow the Woodstock music and Arts Fair became that little white plastic bottle of pills that I've always been looking for. Something to take away the pain, something to take away the bad memories.
True I was only eleven years old when it was going on and there was no way in Hell that my grandfather Paco would have driven down route 17 to see it. Being surrounded by all the long-haired peace loving Hippies that his inner Franco so disliked. Wishing to grab each one and have their heads shaved and then put them in some kind of work camp. No, I'm not feeling bad that I couldn't be there because there was no way I ever could have gone.
But still I guess just knowing that it was all happening just about an hour away down in Sullivan County while we were up in the mountains over the border in Delaware county that same Summer of 1969 makes me smile.
Maybe it's finally coming to grips with the fact that after something awful happens it's possible for something else positive and beautiful to occur not long after. I don't know.
So as I rode the F train once again this morning I clicked on the little iTunes move icon and once again started watching the Woodstock documentary that I downloaded last year. Sometimes seeing mountains in the distance during different parts of the movie and wondering if that's where my grandfather Paco and I were sitting by our house and looking at the beautiful blue sky and other mountains in the distance towards Roscoe and Monticello and maybe even the concert itself.
Yeah I know it's all a long shot and maybe just a pipe dream but it's ok. Because 1969 isn't as bad as it used to be and after all these years, and maybe just maybe now I can finally hang that old 1969 linen calendar back up on our kitchen wall where it really belongs. And look at those four dreaded numerals and finally smile.