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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sally, Speck and the Summer of ‘66

We have things in common, Sally Draper and I. We’re both about the same age. We’ve both lost beloved grandparents. We both watched President Kennedy laid to rest in black-and-white on TV for three solid days. We both love the Beatles. We both want a pair of white go-go boots.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Sally is the daughter of Don and Betty Draper. Don is a well-to-do ad man in New York City; he’s now divorced from her mom and Sally lives with her two kid brothers and her mother (who’s getting fat) and her politician stepfather (whose horrible mother babysits her) in a haunted mansion in upstate New York.

In the year 1966, right next to the “Mad Men” parallel universe, there’s me, living in blue-collar Berwyn, Illinois, with my working-class parents and friends whose parents couldn’t afford a divorce – their fathers just took a powder.

Sally Draper seems like a pretty lucky girl. She gets to spend weekends in a penthouse in New York City with her dad and his glamorous new wife, who takes her on shopping sprees to Bergdorf’s and Bonwit Teller.

But I was lucky, too. I had a Mafia-wife godmother who bought me cool dresses from Bramson’s in Oak Park, a gold Baume et Mercier watch, and bequeathed me her expensive tastes that my parents could only indulge with orders from the Sears catalogue.

I also never saw my step-grandmother-in-law giving head to Roger Sterling. I learned about sex around the same age, but it was from a whispered conversation with Maureen Hannigan at a Girl Scout Christmas caroling event at the local old people’s home. And anyhow, Maureen Hannigan was lying. There was no way our fathers and mothers were doing that disgusting stuff.

I wonder if Sally has any friends. There are no allusions to any on the show, and that’s a damn shame. The only friend she really confides in is the creepy former neighbor boy, and he’s off at a boarding school and probably has ulterior motives of getting it on with Sally’s mother.

If I knew Sally, I would have invited her over to my house for the weekend. We’d kick off the festivities by watching “Dark Shadows” on Friday afternoon, then go to the movies at the Olympic Theater with my friends. Then we’d have a big pajama party, with everybody wrapped in blankets in our front room floor, playing Beatles and Herman’s Hermits records all night long.

My mother would make a pizza from scratch and we’d put our hair up in big plastic curlers and read about our fave raves in 16 Magazine, tell Polish jokes and get goofy until my father would yell from upstairs to goddamn it keep it down, he had to get up early for work tomorrow.

It probably wouldn’t be sophisticated enough for Sally – who had grown up with a maid, who knew all about sex, who with her brothers and dad frequently assumes the role of mother, sliding into that frigid, stone-faced efficiency so perfected by Betty. No, if Sally hung out with us, she’d get a chance to actually be a kid – although there would be nobody embargoing the news for her. It would be blasting out of our TV set, out of the radio while we listened to WLS Top 10 and Barney Pip or Ron Britain on WCFL.

 She might be scared, considering Chicago is where that guy killed those eight student nurses, the guy who had scared her so much that her grandmother-in-law had to give her a Seconal and she ended up falling asleep under the sofa with a butcher knife clutched in her hand.

 I remember July 14, 1966, when we first got word about the slaying of eight student nurses on Chicago’s South Side. I’d been riding in our 1964 Ford Falcon, going somewhere with my parents, bopping in the back seat to the Top 10 Countdown on WLS. It was summer, the car windows were open, and I was nagging my father to switch stations when the news or the commercials came on because all I wanted to hear was the music: The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Hanky Panky,” The Trogg’s “Wild Thing,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.”

 When the news came on, I wanted to switch, but my mother shushed me. It was a bulletin, saying the girls had been killed. It was shocking and scary. Back in 1966, things like this didn’t happen.   

 The murders happened on a Thursday, so maybe it was Saturday that I was riding around with my parents. My mother worked nights during the week, so the only time we would have all been together would have a Saturday or Sunday night. Speck was caught four days later -- on a Monday. My mother would have been at work then. I seem to remember something about her actually taking the day off – something very unusual for her. But she may have been too freaked out to work.

 But even though Speck had been on the loose here in Chicago, Sally could feel safe with us. My parents didn’t drink martinis or go out much – my father worked in a factory and my mother worked in a factory and their idea of a good time was an occasional trip to a local Italian restaurant, where they might have one drink apiece.

 And my friends may have had their share of neuroses, but worrying that Richard Speck was going to come and get them was the least of it. We were glad when the news told us he’d been caught four days later, but I’d never felt that any of us were at risk of being hurt by him or anyone like him. We were just kids, safe and secure in prosperous, post-war America. Who’d want to hurt us?

 Speck died in prison in 1991, sporting a pair of hormone-induced fake breasts. He never even made 50.

 Today, the Summer of ’66 is barely a blip in the modern American collective memory. But in the intervening years, the legacy of Richard Speck has permeated the national zeitgeist, cropping up in new generations of serial killers, “Saw” movies and the fictional world of Sally Draper. Whose fear of life that summer, it turns out, was right all along.

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