December 1968: I was no stranger to South Buffalo midnight Mass. The Christmas story with its familiar accompanying pageant was in full bloom. The manger displayed near the front of St. Monica's Church. The angel, the shepherds, the three kings, the Christ child and the message of peace. I was 19 then, and like most of the neighborhood people, I had sat through more than a few midnight Masses. But this year, that Catholic ritual had new meaning.
In 1968 the world I grew up in, that South Buffalo oasis of Hank's bar and the Babcock Street Boys Club and Tilly's A&P, that South Buffalo haven had turned upside down. I needed sanctuary from an uncertain world and was hoping to find it in St. Monica's Church.
I looked at the altar. I thought about Joey. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year of my first funeral for a friend. Joey and I played baseball together at the Boys Club and attended School 26. Joey was a couple of years older. Instead of college, he went to Vietnam. He came home in a coffin.
I went to the funeral home where Joey was on a sunny autumn afternoon when the weather had just started to change. Visiting hours had ended, and no one else was there. I didn't want to go in, but the funeral director told me to, saying that he was sure the family would appreciate it.
I stood next to the coffin. All I could see was a face that looked like it was made out of plastic. This wasn't the Joey I knew from the baseball fields, street corners and classrooms. This was a corpse. I cried.
Death was a stranger to me until 1968. That year, it became a companion. Not only for my neighborhood, but also for the country.
December of 1968 seemed darker than usual. Talk of war filled the air. Life was raging with uncertainty. Violence seemed to be everywhere.
I had dropped out of college. The draft was beckoning. Many of my friends from the blue-collar, Seneca-Babcock neighborhood where I grew up were in the service. But even in such a bleak time, Christmas offered hope. I needed Christmas in 1968.
I found it in a pew at St. Monica's. This was Christmas Mass, but I thought back to Easter. That was the season when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He was a personal hero, a man of conscience and commitment. King not only fought for equal rights for African-Americans, he also marched for peace. He was one of the first national leaders to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
In April 1968, King, 39, was in Memphis. He was supporting striking garbage workers and planning a "Poor People's March" for Washington, D.C. He was shot dead on April 4 by a sniper.
In his final speech, the night before his death, King said:
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will."
On this Christmas night the sky was black and clear. But I remember soon after King's deaththere were riots on Buffalo's East Side. Buffalo's sky that evening had an orange glow darkened by a smoky haze. The city skyline, like the country, erupted in mindless violence, symbolizing a national divide far greater than black and white. This city of close-knit neighborhoods and ethnic heritage was burning in front of my eyes. It was a sight I will never forget.
I needed healing, and so did the nation. That's why Robert Kennedy so inspired me. He came to South Buffalo during his run for the U.S. Senate from New York. I remember seeing him near South Park High School where I went to school. His long hair, youthful appearance and personal charisma made him seen more rock star than politician.
I was just a teenager, with no real political philosophy. But Bobby Kennedy touched me in a way that made me care about politics as an avenue for change. He spoke out against the war. On the day of King's assassination, Kennedy, whose brother had also been gunned down, spoke out against revenge. He told an audience it was time "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."
"We can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence," Kennedy said that day, "(replace) that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love."
Like Martin Luther King before him, Bobby Kennedy understood the meaning of Christmas and lived it.
Then came that night in June when Kennedy, 42, won the Democratic California presidential primary. Later that night he was fatally shot.
The year brought more heartache and conflict. I failed my draft physical due to a football injury. But friends from my neighborhood kept getting drafted. There would be more funerals for me to attend.
Meanwhile, outside my backyard boundaries, the rest of the world seemed to be spinning out of control. Chicago police clashed with young protesters at the Democratic National Convention. The Tet offensive brought more bloody scenes into our living rooms and increased the body count. I took a factory job. Richard Nixon was elected president. I marched against the war in a protest downtown. I remember standing on Main Street near Memorial Auditorium seeing helmeted police in riot gear on one side and protesters chanting "Stop the war," on the other. There seemed to be no middle ground.
But this was Christmas, and even the carols took on different meaning. Simon and Garfunkel had released a song called "7 O'clock News/Silent Night." It featured a newscaster reading reports of war, murder and social division while the musicians sang the familiarChristmas carol in the background. That song seemed to sum up the dichotomy of a 1968 holiday celebration somehow out of place with the despair of the daily news. This world of 1968 was a far different place with a new set of rules. The childhood expectations of growing up in South Buffalo no longer applied.
* * *
Near the end of the Mass, the choir at St. Monica's sang "Silent Night." I walked home through the neighborhood streets I roamed as a boy. Those same streets produced boys who would die in Vietnam. It made me see the houses, stores and factories in a different way.
Seneca-Babcock wasn't just a geographic location, it was a way of life. It was hard-working people who had faith in God, who also wanted to believe there was a basic order to their country and world. In 1968, that order turned into chaos, even in my little corner of it.
Christmas Eve was a reminder that peace on earth really had meaning beyond words mumbled in a holiday carol. In 1968, we lived in a dark and dangerous world, but somehow on Christmas night, you believed it would someday be a better place.
* * *
December 2002: Talk of war is in the air. Life is raging with uncertainty. Violence and death seem to be everywhere.
Longevity has its place. I'm older now. I've lived longer. I watched the towers burn and fall. I cried for the victims. I saw the bombs drop in Afghanistan. Daily, I read about Iraq invasion plans. Once more, the world as I experienced it has blown open.
Just like 1968, people are searching for order in their lives. Instead, they find themselves in a perilous world.
An alleged al-Qaida terrorist cell was in our community. The newspaper where I work had an anthrax scare. In Virginia, near the Beltway sniper shootings, my sister-in-law looked over her shoulder whenever she stepped out of her car, not just at a gas station. North Korea has nuclear weapons. President Bush incessantly talks about war with Iraq as a solution to our problems.
I'm trying to put all this in some kind of perspective as Christmas draws near. This year, as always, there will be presents, parties and decorations. This happy celebration will be muted for me. I can't help but think where we as a people, a community and a country have been, and where we are today.
My old neighborhood has changed. Stores are boarded up. St. Monica's has been torn down. The things I thought would last are long gone.
But there is a constant, and that's Christmas. Thirty-four years ago as a teenager at Christmas, I experienced the hard lessons of life and death, of peace and war. In some ways, this holiday year reminds me of the turbulence of 1968. It's time once again to tap into the redemptive power of Christmas. Living our faith. Dedicating ourselves to peace. Searching for answers through the message of the holidays. Finding hope for the future. I wonder what Martin Luther King would say, if he were here today? What would Bobby Kennedy do? And what of Joey, who was all of 21 when he died in his war?
We have yet to "tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world," Bobby Kennedy said the night King was assassinated.
Christmas, though, offers hope. It's a story that begins with birth and eventually ends with death that brings redemption. That spiritual force takes human form one night so long ago in Bethlehem.
Today we are a long way from that night. Our world is frought with tools of terror, from suicide bombers to Predator missles. We face a constant reminder that danger may be just around the corner or in the sky above us.
Where do we go from here? What wisdom does Christmas offer? How can faith trump the season's commercial rituals?
I have no answers. All I have is a time of year when anything seems possible. My accumulated Christmas experiences have enabled me to appreciate the depth of the season and the possibility for change. Somehow, that iinsight is more vivid this time of year. We need Christmas again this year. We need the hope. We need to find the spirit and feel the grace of the season. Christmas can brighten the darkest December. And this year, we need the light.
Anthony Violanti has written about his South Buffalo Christmas memories for the last four First Sunday holiday issues. Violanti covers media for The News. His e-mail is email@example.com.