I was asked to write a few thoughts about the summer of 1969, since it appears that I’m the only person currently working at the Richmond Times-Dispatch who was here (or even born?) at that time.
On reflection, I had to ask myself: “What do I remember after 50 years, and is it enough to make for interesting reading?”
Well, let’s give it a shot.
I had been a staff photographer for about a year, and to me, the job was like giving a kid the keys to a candy store. I had freedom to be as creative as I was able. I got to meet and photograph all types of people, from street beggars to governors, and I got to work with a group of the most creative and talented individuals I’ve ever known.
I was driving a 1968 Pontiac Firebird, which was soon to be replaced by a 1968 VW Beetle after I realized that the Firebird always appeared to police to be breaking the speed limit, even when parked. My family and I were living on a farm in Amelia County, and I was making the most money I’d ever made — about $150 a week, but gas was 32 cents a gallon and groceries were reasonable
I believe the times were simpler. It’s an overused phrase, but people actually talked to one another instead of texting or emailing, and kids learned to bond with their siblings and friends through actual contact.
1969 was a year that brought us some great things, some fun things and some things that made you sad.
Bob Dylan was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind”; two of the best Westerns ever made, “True Grit” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” were released; and Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson rode their Harley choppers to oblivion in “Easy Rider.” Network television was filled with comedy, drama and news, but just three channels of it. You either watched what was on, or you turned it off and listened to the radio.
The Vietnam War was heating up, and so were the demonstrators who opposed it.
There were so many national news events going on that year — everything from the rebellion in New York at the Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for gay and lesbian people at a time when they were ostracized by society, to the murders committed by the followers of Charles Manson, to 400,000 people spending three days camped out in the mud to hear incredible music at Woodstock.
But all that paled in comparison with the United States landing a man on the moon.
My family and I, along with millions of other people , watched a black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle lunar lander at 10:56 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969, and set foot where no man had ever been. I think that event caused the entire world to pause and perhaps, for a time, unite as one.
The next month, the remnants of Hurricane Camille stopped over the mountains of Virginia and basically parked over Nelson County for hours, dropping record-breaking rains (some estimates are up to 31 inches) and causing massive flooding, landslides and loss of life. At least 153 men, women and children died statewide, 125 of them in Nelson. Residents who survived tell of clinging to trees while other family members were swept away.
As we all know, water flows downhill, so Richmond had its share of flooding. Some bridges were closed, and Main Street Station was surrounded by floodwaters. I happened to be off-duty when the worst hit, but I had difficulty getting to work even several days after the waters had subsided.
The newsroom was always a swirl of activity, day and night, because of the fact that we had a morning paper (the Richmond Times-Dispatch) and an evening one (The Richmond News Leader) with separate news staffs, so there were different people here from 5 or 6 a.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. Both papers printed three editions every day except Sunday, when the News Leader did not publish.
Most of the staff smoked (one bad habit I never acquired), so there was always a haze hovering over the newsroom, which was filled with the sound of clacking typewriters, printers from the wire services dinging every time a breaking story arrived, and editors and reporters yelling “COPY!” That would summon a copy person to transport the finished story down to the linotype operators on another floor.
Those operators in turn would set the story in hot lead type. Photos went to engraving, where half-tones were shot and cropped for insertion. The presses were in the same building as all this, and when they started, the floor would shake. Passers-by on East Franklin Street could watch the presses rolling through large windows.
The photo department serviced both papers, which made for some interesting times. When covering an assignment, there would usually be a reporter from both papers, trying to get an interesting angle on the same story — and one photographer, trying to keep them both happy with whatever they might require to illustrate their particular needs for the story.
Most of us were using Leica or Nikon 35 mm cameras, which we had to provide, along with lenses and flash equipment, which could be a sizeable investment. The newspaper paid for any maintenance on our gear, which helped.
Shooting an assignment such as a Virginia Tech game meant hitting the road early in the morning, driving U.S. 460 through Lynchburg and Roanoke and getting to Blacksburg ahead of kickoff. Because we were shooting film and had to make prints — and had no transmitting equipment — we would have to leave usually at halftime, or perhaps, if the game was progressing quickly, the third quarter for the drive back to Richmond to make deadline.
Our communications when we were out of the office consisted of a two-way radio with limited range, due to only one tower and no repeater. Some parts of the metro area were better than others, and once you got out into the counties, the best you would get was static.
I was able to briefly communicate with the photo department once as I topped Afton Mountain, coming back from the Valley, but the signal quickly disappeared.
On many occasions, we would have to find a pay phone and call in to get or give information. That now seems as far in the past as smoke signals or yelling from hill to hill.
As 1969 came to a close, I looked back at all that had occurred in just one year — incredible history had been made, some great, some sad, but it made us all stronger.
The residents of Nelson County, Richmond and elsewhere rebuilt after the flooding and continued raising families and reopening businesses and getting on with their lives, with a sense of accomplishment and pride that personifies our state and country.
Was it a simpler time? Yes, but the digital age we now live in is one that has made my job as a photojournalist both easier and more difficult. Easier by being able to see your photos as soon as they are shot and being able to transfer an image directly into our system. More difficult in that deadlines are NOW!
The newsroom is quieter now that we have a smaller staff, just one daily newspaper, computers instead of typewriters, and no editors yelling at reporters ... well, maybe a little bit of that.
Wonder what it’ll be like another 50 years down the road. We’ll see.