Beth Alston: Music evokes memories of eventful year

Published 2:36 pm Saturday, February 2, 2019

It was the summer of ‘69. The year that Bryan Adams recalled so passionately in his song. My 16th summer. It was a time to remember, even 50 years later. Wow. That’s half a century.
Woodstock, the largest music festival to that date, was held on a farm in upstate New York. As we watched images of all those hippies and hippie-wannabes on TV, I was silently thankful I didn’t make that scene. While the music was good, it looked to me like a filthy, hot, muddy mess filled with the stinky hoi polloi and all the garbage they produced.
The Manson family murdered seven people over a two-night period in the hills of L.A.¬¬
The U.S. landed a manned spacecraft on the moon on July 20, and astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first human to step onto the moon’s surface.
The night before that historic event was also memorable for the residents of the small, southwest Georgia town that produced me. I and my family were awakened around 3 a.m. by an ear-splitting explosion — a bomb plot gone wrong a short distance up the street from my childhood home. While the intended victim was unscathed, the explosives “expert” paid the ultimate price. No one was ever arrested.
That was the same summer that a car driven by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick island off Martha’s Vineyard, with a young woman inside. She died and he waited 10 hours to report the accident. He got off with a charge of leaving the scene of an accident.
That summer I was so enamored of my first love, a boy I had adored since I was six and he was nine. It wasn’t meant to be, and I thank my lucky stars it didn’t. He turned out to be an abuser of women.
In 1969, the Vietnam War, which would ultimately drag on for 20 years, was still going strong, and plenty of young American men were coming home in body bags. Some of our local boys would do their bit in the jungle war and later take their own lives after returning home.
There was a seemingly constant parade of young men who came to my family home that summer, not to visit me, but to plead with my father who was on the local draft board. He had to send so many of them over to a foreign land. I didn’t envy him that responsibility, although he shared it with other board members.
Yes, I suppose the Vietnam War was the biggest thing going that summer.
Which leads me to the crux of this column. There has been much written about that conflict, the political machinations, the anti-war movement it spawned among America’s young, the desperation of young men who fled the U.S. to prevent being shipped thousands of miles away to fight a war they didn’t understand, the shaming of those who did their military duty upon their return to native soil. Volumes and volumes of books and a multitude of movies as well.
There was “Apocalypse Now,” a 1979 film so terrifying and unsettling — which I unwisely watched alone — that I couldn’t sleep for days; bizarre to say the least. Wikipedia says it was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness; it was Hollywood at its biggest, and most star studded. It won several Oscars.
Another big ‘Nam movie, “Full Metal Jacket,” (1987), was directed, co-written, and produced by Stanley Kubrick, according to Wikipedia. I found this film sketchy on historic integrity and generally an unsatisfactory viewing experience. Though it garnered critical acclaim, it just didn’t strike a chord with me.
I watched “Platoon” (1986) again recently, for the third or fourth time. Written and directed by the often-controversial Oliver Stone, who makes a cameo appearance, this film, in my opinion, is the most appealing of the genre. Stone wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences as a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam, according to Wikipedia.
For me, it is the best Vietnam War movie. Why? The cast was superb with stellar performances by Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe, my favorite. Sheen’s character, a privileged kid who wants to do something, anything to make the world a better place, also narrates the story of the green, young man who volunteers for Vietnam and slowly but surely becomes indoctrinated into the ways of war, its face-to-face killing, unconscionable interactions with civilians, and all the other ravages of military engagement. He takes on characteristics of those around him, and he comes to realize that his moral compass is becoming more and warped. He fears for his sanity. He can’t seem to help himself, but always stops just short of sliding into the deep morass of consummate evil, until late in the movie, that is.
Witnessing this transformation of the young private calls forth all the memories of being young during the years of that decade, especially as a teenager in 1969 — the struggle to understand why our country fought there, the multitudes needlessly slain on both sides, and how the conflict would affect our world back home. I felt empathy with Sheen’s character.
But perhaps the one factor that most influenced my opinion of the film is the music. From the opening shot throughout, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings sifts through the viewer’s consciousness and touches the emotions. This particular piece of music has been employed in many movies, but in “Platoon” its plaintive beauty is nonpareil. The intensity of the music serves to pierce the feelings of the viewer. It evokes ghosts of the past. It brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it, tears for a lost generation, tears for the loss of innocence, for the passage of time and youth and all its hopefulness.
Barber, finishing his arrangement in 1936, captures “pathos and cathartic passion,” according to Alexander J. Morin. Barber couldn’t have foreseen that new generations would come to appreciate this haunting piece after the release of a movie about the Vietnam War more than 50 years after he put his mark on it.

Beth Alston is publisher and editor of the Americus Times-Recorder. Contact her at or 229-924-2751.