Who would have thought a football game would set the tone for such a momentous year?
At the start of 1969, there was a sense of tension across the nation. The anti-war movement had toppled a sitting president. The civil rights and women's liberation campaigns were at fever pitch. There were competing forces in America: change and the status quo. And no one was sure which would prevail.
As I say, it started with a football game. The Super Bowl that year pitted the National Football League's Baltimore Colts -- embodied by the traditionalist crewcut of quarterback Earl Morrall -- against the upstarts of the American Football League, the New York Jets, led by their glamorous and shaggy star, Joe Namath.
The Colts -- with a punishing defense -- were the biggest favorites in the short life of the Super Bowl -- expected to win by 19 points. When Namath "guaranteed" a Jets victory -- it was widely seen as a reckless act -- that might just get him killed. And when the Jets dominated the Colts, winning by a score of 16-7 -- it was widely seen as a victory of the Counter-Culture over the Establishment.
The Inauguration of Richard Nixon eight days later was something else. After a tumultuous year of protests against the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Nixon's tight victory over Hubert Humphrey could be seen as a defeat for the "Movement."
But that was not clear at the time. Nixon claimed he had a "secret plan" to end the war. And he was the "new Nixon" -- marketed as quite different from the politician who had gone down to defeat in 1960 and 1962. Especially in the early days of his presidency, it wasn't clear where Nixon intended to take the country.
I graduated from college in 1969. And by the late spring of that year, the antiwar movement was certain Nixon was no friend. I remember in May of that year, campus radicals took over the main administration building at Harvard. While SDS -- Students for a Democratic Society -- occupied the first floor, my colleagues at the college radio station (yes, I was a reporter even then) set up shop in the office of the faculty dean.
We broadcast from there all night. And I can remember as dawn broke over Harvard Yard, we could see Middlesex County police -- dressed in riot gear -- preparing to break down the doors to University Hall. They arrested all of us -- protestors and reporters alike.
We were bussed to the Middlesex County Jail and placed behind bars -- my one experience in lock-up. We were each allowed to make the traditional one phone call. Some called their girlfriends. Others called their roommates. I called the college radio station and filed a report, signing off a tad melodramatically: "This is Chris Wallace, in custody."
It was that kind of year -- when almost everything seemed in flux, from sports to government, from college campuses to relationships within families.
Then came July 20. As momentous as the first manned moon landing was, it should rightly be seen as the "Triumph of the Nerds." It was the engineers with their slide rules, the scientists, the technicians and yes, those extraordinary test pilots who made good on John Kennedy's national promise to get to the moon "in this decade."
I was working as a production assistant for CBS News (yes, nepotism had its benefits) at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. And when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off the Lunar Module and took their first steps on the Moon, I was sitting with some of the country's top geologists.
I remember they took Polaroid pictures of the TV screen as the astronauts panned their camera across the lunar surface. Then, they taped the pictures together to create a panorama of the landing site.
It's no overstatement to say that no one -- I repeat no one -- truly knew what the astronauts would find up there. Some geologists predicted the LM and the astronauts would sink into a foot of lunar dust and never be able to return to Earth. Others had different theories. And I remember sitting with the scientists and thinking: careers were being made and destroyed with every step the astronauts took.
As I say, the moon landing was an expression of national will -- a demonstration of what this country could accomplish when fully mobilized. And yet, it was also the most tangible evidence possible that anything was possible. It was a new world.
The tempo of change in 1969 kept beating. There was Woodstock in August. I lived only a couple of hours away from Max Yasgur's farm. And I have always regretted not making the trek there (mostly for the girls).
Later that year, they held mass protests against the Vietnam War in Washington. And determined not to make the same mistake, I drove down from Boston to attend the rally and to undergo the ritual tear-gassing (again, mostly for the girls).
The lovable, but hapless New York Mets stunned the sports world -- just as surely as the Jets had -- shocking the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. And Richard Nixon fought back against the forces of change, mobilizing the "Silent Majority" to raise their voices.
I have been struggling to find some way to explain 1969 to all of you who didn't live through it. And I found a song repeating itself in my mind.
"Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul./ Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon./ Politicians say more taxes will solve everything./And the band played on."
The Temptations had it right -- 1969 was a "ball of confusion."