Summer of ’69

Many of you will instantly recognise the title for this piece as being a song by Bryan Adams, from his album Reckless (1984). Adams has been a little vague about the meaning of the song, having at different times suggested that it was about sexual exploration (but the use of the apostrophe would seem to disprove that!) or, more probably, that it is a song about nostalgia in general, and not the actual year 1969. I, however, am taking it literally, as that summer was a momentous time for me and I can never hear the song without thinking back.

I was 15 through that summer, and had my 16th birthday in September 1969. I was at the age of teenage awakenings – realising that there was more to life than school, my mates and football, cricket, tennis etc: I was madly in love with a beautiful girl who lived in our village, but she was just an unattainable dream. She was a whole year older than me, and that made such a huge difference back then! She had already left school and got herself a job, and she was far too sophisticated for me! I did manage to go out with her a couple of times but even then I could see that I stood no chance. It would take an incredible coincidence for her to read this so I think I’m safe in telling you that she was called Sue. Actually, now I come to think of it, there were two beautiful girls called Sue in our village, so that may keep them guessing. Except for the one I didn’t go out with, that is….

The law on working ages was more relaxed in those days, and since January that year I had been working on Sundays in a coffee bar in the nearby town, Dover. Winters back then are set in my mind as being colder and snowier than today, and as Sunday shopping hadn’t yet been legislated there was hardly a soul around in town on a cold, snowy winter’s day. The coffee bar’s owners were well aware of this but preferred to stay open for any passing trade on every day that they could – they were relaxed about how I spent my time as long as I opened the place up, served all of the customers, did the washing up and closed up at the end of the day. This gave me plenty of time to myself, and meant that I could actually get paid while doing my school homework – a real result! So I spent my Sundays with an occasional passer by, a Russian sailor who came in whenever his ship was in port (I always imagined that he must have been a spy to be allowed ashore!) and at some point in the afternoon a group of four lads from the local public school, when they were allowed time out for good behaviour. I like to think that my sitting there translating Caesar’s Gallic Wars into English helped redress the intellectual balance between public and grammar school, and perhaps made them look slightly more favourably on us poor oiks who weren’t amongst the privileged! (In the UK education system, ‘public’ schools are actually the opposite: they are fee paying schools for those who can afford them).

Fast forward several months and this became my first ever summer holiday job. For the whole school holiday I was going to be working six days a week earning my own money – every day except Sunday, ironically. This date has been forever set in my mind, as the US rather kindly arranged a special celebration for me:

Yes, I started my summer job on 21 July 1969, having been up most of the night watching TV! Summer days on which people were at work or out shopping were much busier than winter Sundays, and there were three of us working there. We were busy, we had a lot of laughs, and the time flew by – and I fell in love again, with my co-worker this time: sadly, Claire had a boyfriend and was moving away, so that was another potential relationship doomed before it had begun! By the end of the summer I had earned enough to buy a secondhand Lambretta and as soon as I became 16 I got a provisional licence and opened up my whole horizon. Life was good, and with that scooter the summer of ’70 was even better (another time, maybe…).

But life always has a surprise waiting for you, doesn’t it? All summer long I had been working towards my dream of buying that motor scooter and of being legally allowed to ride it. It was going to be the absolute best week of my young life so far. As I look back on that week I realise that it was one of the most important in my life, and still is even to this day. I was 16 on the Tuesday, paid over my money and bought the scooter on the Thursday, and then on the Saturday my Dad left home to be with the woman he had fallen for. He and my stepmother, as she became, are still blissfully happy some 47 years on, so it was clearly the right thing for him to do. But for me life changed. I stopped being the self-centred teenager and in an instant became the man of the house. I had seen this coming but my poor Mum didn’t have a clue and took it really badly. I had a lot of help from my sister, but she was 13 and being very much Daddy’s little girl took it badly too. So I grew up rather more rapidly than I would ever have expected. Whilst I still enjoyed the same lifestyle in general there was a new dimension to it. I was now the one doing some of the business of the house, helping with the shopping, making the occasional phone call etc. With 20/20 hindsight (always a wonderful thing) I was probably helped enormously in my development by this, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. It’s not as though I’ve ever resented my Dad for what he did – feeling as he did it would have been wrong to stay with Mum any longer than he had already done ‘for the sake of the children’  – but my new found freedom of being a teenager with his own wheels didn’t happen quite as I had expected! But at least I had a good relationship with both parents, and even managed to achieve the first rapprochement between them at the Christening of my first daughter. It only took 18 years!

And all of that comes back to me every time I hear this:

It’s strange, really, how much someone else’s song can matter to you.

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23 thoughts on “Summer of ’69

  1. Music in our teen age years had an amazing ability to enter the conscious and wrap our memories in a nostalgia of notes and heartbreaks. My father left our family in 1964 the year of so many Beatles songs, and You Don’t Own Me, (Leslie Gore), Walk on By and Anyone Who Had a Heart (Dionne Warwick). We would come home from high school, turn on the Dick Clark show and sing and dance….and feel sad at the same time. I think having a Dad leave a family is different for boys and girls and different by age as well. But my Dad left and moved to Oklahoma, so he not only left home but dropped out of lives for the most part. For my sister and me his leaving brought peace in that our parents stopped fighting, but a strange empty place at the same time.

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    • A sad time for you, and I think you’re right about it being different for boys and girls. It is probably also affected by the number of children too. Our teenage years are when we do a lot of growing up and are, I believe, most receptive to new ideas, and new music. It stays with us for life. What I find interesting is that it is a song from 15 years later that, by its title reference, is the one to take me back to that summer. The song actually from 1969 that has really stayed with me is Man of the World, by Fleetwood Mac. It’s heartbreaking and really went well with my teenage emotions.

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    • It’s almost as though he wrote that about my life! I love the song, but it means much more to me than just that. I can still remember watching the moon walk with my Dad, a real piece of history.

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  2. So many of the incidents you mention hit a familiar note. It seems that all of the western cultures were being affected by some common social changes. Notably, divorce statistics swelled during those years, as women left marriages because suddenly they could. Many spouses and children were left stranded in the wake of that movement. There is always a balance in change —between ecstasy and pain!

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