Fifty years ago, 1968 began this way …
Minnesota had hit the hockey jackpot when the North Stars became ours. My friend Johnny and I nearly hugged each other when our teacher, Miss Steinberg, gave us the green light to write an article about the team.
Miss Steinberg loathed sloppy spellers and sloppy thinkers, wimps and wiseguys. Fifty years later, the memory of her red-ink edits and demand for “gumption” intended “to grow you a thick skin” still churns my stomach, for which I am grateful.
Yes. She called it “gumption” back then.
(Note: Tom Friedman, another alum of St. Louis Park High, devoted one of his New York Times columns entirely to Miss Steinberg at the time of her death. He called her “the toughest teacher I ever had.”)
All of that journalism skill- and character-building was fine by me. But what mattered most was the chance to rub shoulders with our pro hockey idols, whose tough-guy names added to their star-studdedness: names like Moose (Vasko), Bronco (Horvath) and Cesare (Maniago).
On the morning of the interview, Johnny and I showed up at Miss Steinberg’s classroom champing at the bit, Johnny with his Polaroid Swinger and me with a sharpened No. 2 at the ready — more determined to score photos and autographs than quotes.
At the Metropolitan Sports Center, long-gone home of our North Stars, a harried public relations guy hustled us into the locker room, pointed at two folding chairs in a corner and ordered us to “wait here and don’t touch anything.” “And no photographs,” he warned Johnny.
Soon our heroes swaggered in from practice, intimidating and indestructible in our eyes. We stared into our blank notepads, peeked at these gods-come-to-life, clueless about how to approach them, completely out of our league, feeling as if Miss Steinberg had thrown us to the lions. “Gumption”? Gone.
Until center Bill Masterton asked if we were the “school reporters.” I probably mumbled, “I dunno. I guess so.” Masterton shook our hands and pointed at his teammates. “Go ahead. Ask away.” He was a genuinely good guy and for too brief a time became my favorite player.
Johnny and I gave it our best shot, but after several excruciating minutes of stammering questions and uninspired responses, Masterton must have surmised our interview was a bust, because he summoned Danny O’Shea, one of his more gregarious and cooperative teammates.
(We chose to highlight O’Shea in our article. Our high school editors would later print it with the headline, “North Star Player’s Daily Life Proves Exciting, Yet Demanding.” It would include the eye-opening observation: “After showering and dressing … O’Shea went into the lounge … and watched color TV and smoked.”)
Just before that rather nasty PR guy fetched Johnny and me, Masterton slipped us souvenir pucks and allowed us to surreptitiously take one photo each. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said. I snapped one of Johnny with “Mr. Moose.” (Yes. That’s what Johnny called Vasko.) Johnny took one of Masterton and me.
I taped the Polaroid image of Masterton and me shaking hands to the inside of my three-ring notebook and enjoyed showing it off. I removed it the day after he died.
You might remember how that happened. On Jan. 13, 1968, during a home game, Masterton’s unprotected head slammed onto the ice. It was gruesome. Andre Boudrias, the only North Star (and one of a handful of NHL players) who wore a helmet back then, said it “sounded like a baseball bat hitting a ball.”
A photo of Masterton being hauled off the ice on a stretcher so soon after our photo was taken sickened me. I presume to further her “gumption” agenda, Miss Steinberg assigned me to face my dread head-on and write an editorial in the wake of Masterton’s godawful death, exploring why NHL players weren’t required to wear helmets. I wasn’t emotionally prepared. But this was Miss Steinberg’s nonnegotiable edict. I melodramatically titled the piece “Death on the Ice.”
Miss Steinberg red-penned it “passionate but shallow. Try again.”
So began 1968.
But just 10 days later, the dam broke and sadly Masterton’s tragedy took a back seat when:
North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and took 83 sailors prisoner. They were tortured.
Eight days after that, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive across South Vietnam; a recently graduated kid from our school was killed in action, along with so many others.
Then the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
Two months later, so was Bobby Kennedy.
Then the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
Soon after we watched the televised brutality between police and protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Third-party presidential candidate George Wallace’s running mate, retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, told us, “… I don’t believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon.”
But also that year … “The White Album,” “Hair” and heartthrob Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s gorgeous film offered respites from the all-too-real heartbreak and fear. So did the beginning of the Paris peace talks, the women’s liberation groups protesting at the Miss America beauty pageant, and Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms and clenched, gloved fists in a Black Power salute. And LBJ’s signing of the Gun Control Act of 1968.
1968 ended this way: On Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon for the first time. Among the thousands of congratulatory telegrams they received, one read: “You saved 1968.”
Still, during that year of years, many of us wondered and worried, silently and out loud, what in God’s name had happened to our world.
Well, we survived it. And now we’ve survived 2017.
2018? Miss Steinberg’s “gumption” — let’s call it “courage” — comes to mind. I’m thinking that now more than ever (even more than in ’68), we’re going to need to find some.
If we do, I like our chances.
Dick Schwartz, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.