By E.A. Barrera
On August 9, 1974 I was a student at Rios Elementary School in that netherland of communities near Lake Jennings sometimes called El Cajon, Lakeside, Flinn Springs and Johnstown. All week, as this nation has said goodbye to former president Gerald Ford, I have been reminded of that day and that time of my life.
An American President is rarer than a Pope or a King and to date, in 230 years as a country, their have only been 42 men to hold the office of President of the United States (we count Grover Cleveland twice, since his two terms as president were not consecutive. That is why George W. Bush is our 43rd president, despite the fact that only 42 men have served in the office).
Everyone more or less recalls that moment when they knew who the President was and how strange it felt getting used to saying a new man’s name following the title president. Richard Nixon was the first president any of my age group could remember. Less than a year earlier, kids had recited “The Night Before Christmas” but with updated lyrics reading “…Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on Agnew and Nixon!...”
But then a year is a lifetime - both in politics and in the minds of elementary school children. On August 9, 1974, in what was then the “new concept” of Rios Elementary’s year-around, “open school” design - all of the kids were sat on the carpeted floor of the large central area to watch Ford take the oath of office. It was something we could not really appreciate, since even amidst the turmoil of those times, we were just kids and what Nixon had done was generally too complex for any of us to understand. We all sort of mouthed the words we heard from our parents that “Nixon was a crook”, but that was about as deep as we got. Still, it was a wise and educational thing the teachers did that day in placing a television in the center of the school building and insisting we kids watch the inauguration of a new president. We may not have understood the political sub-text of what was happening, but we knew we were seeing our President being sworn into office. It is something we would never forget.
My teacher - Carol Minic - was like most of the other teachers at the school. A young woman, probably around 30, who had grown up in the news and casualties of the eleven years building up to this moment - the entire span of the children’s lives she now taught. For her and so many other adults of the time, our lives had been a time of endless, almost daily drastic news events, starting with the assassination of John F. Kennedy the year we were all born and going through an endless parade of 1960s history:
Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over Barry Goldwater;
the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,
the Watts Riots,
the Vietnam War,
the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy,
the Moon landing,
John Wayne winning an Oscar,
the shootings at Kent State,
Nixon’s trip to China,
Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern,
The events of that period were siphoned through our young minds in ways probably unpredictable for the adults around us. One example involved our own student government at Rios. I’d been elected Vice-president of the student body a month earlier, with a buddy of mine named Steve Euling elected president. In what could only be described as the law-of-unintended-consequences theory to both life and politics, a lot of the kids at Rios did not draw from the Nixon resignation experience any sense of the justice of our political system, or the historic nature of a president assuming office under such unusual circumstances. Instead they got the idea of how fun it would be to impeach a president and soon a movement was afoot to impeach poor Steve.
Now, as I said, Steve was a buddy of mine and I had quickly learned that being president of anything was nothing more than a lot of after-school meetings and making speeches at assemblies and having to set a good example - none of which I’d bargained for or wanted by the time of the great Rios impeachment debacle of 1974. So while a bunch of kids were trying to impeach Steve, I was trying to get them to quit because I did not want the job (in later years I often wondered if Ford felt the same way). Eventually the teachers caught on to what was happening and put a stop to it. But it was a searing moment of time for me and it reminded me of the history we live through, as well as observe.
Events are processed through the minds of children in a very different way than adults. What news filters through (versus how much is lost until later years) is the historical backdrop kids carry as they assume the adult responsibilities of their lives in the years which follow. None of us kids in 1974 understood the context of Watergate or Vietnam or why “Nixon was a crook” or why we were all supposed to say “President Ford” instead of “President Nixon.” But we understood about getting into trouble and getting fresh starts. Future historians will no doubt have read every speech or listened to the thousands of hours of audio tape Nixon had, which revealed the crimes committed by him and his men. But they will probably never see the juice of this history - the little vignettes carried out in schools and offices across the land whenever something significant happens - whenever a people remember the life of a President who served when they were young.
Gerald Ford died the day after Christmas of 2006. He was a middle-brow president and will not be remembered for any significant or lasting national achievements (other than pardoning Nixon a month after taking office and thus sealing his fate as the man in Nixon’s shadow). But he was the President of the United States as I entered 6th grade. His presidency was the backdrop to my own coming of age as an adolescent. He came at a time when the children of the 1960s were beginning to forge an identity of their own and for that reason he will be remembered.