Long Way, Baby

“What were they thinking in 1968?” I ask, as I take a closer look at the faded old newspaper, crumbled decades ago around the dishes that I am unpacking. Still stark in its faded shades of charcoal and cream, it is a relic of communication that I almost never see anymore. The Wichita Eagle. It whispers to me from a place I once lived, and from a Friday August 23 of long ago.

westpointI seem to have opened the paper to the women’s section, although it is tactfully not called such. The feature article (from the Associated Press) gives a slightly breathless account of how “East Coast girls between 17 and 21 don’t have to travel far … to have one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends of their lives.” It goes on to detail the excitement awaiting a girl lucky enough to be invited to West Point for the week-end as the date of a cadet. There are picnics and dances and white-gloved receiving lines. It’s not all glitz, however. The article warns that up to five girls have to share one low-wattage bulb while applying their make-up.

As I read, forty-seven years melt away and I become Sherri Roth, a thirteen-year-old news freak skimming the paper as I search for answers to the burning questions about life that keep me awake at night as I try to understand the universe.

Is my goal supposed to be to date a boy who goes to West Point? The AP writer seems to think so. Hopeful young women looking for a foot in the door are encouraged to contact the Cadet Hostess at West Point to see if they, too, might be included in one of the arranged mixers held throughout the year. I’m not convinced this approach is for me.

slimsThe summer of 1968 is also when Phillip Morris introduces Virginia Slims, a cigarette marketed to young women using the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” I’m only 13 and I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I like the slogan and I wonder if we have come a long way. The Virginia Slims ads sure make me think so. I like how the women in them can do anything.

I think that maybe I’d rather be a cadet at the academy. Frankly that sounds far more glamorous than just dating one. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since first grade and I’m pretty sure that a military academy education would be a sure fire way to make that happen. I decide to look into it. Over the next year, I will be disappointed to learn that the academies do not even have women cadets.

Sally RideIt will be 1980 before the first females graduate from United States Military Academies. I’ll have figured out long before then that it was the Air Force Academy I should have gone to. I’ll also have learned that women cadets there and elsewhere were not permitted to be trained as combat pilots until 1993, greatly reducing a women’s chance for flying time and advancement.

Sally Ride will become my hero for life when she circumvents that path, becoming an astronaut and the first American woman in space by way of a PhD in physics from Stanford.  I will smile that whole week in June 1983 when she makes her first space flight. This, I will say, is really what constitutes “one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends” of any girl’s life.

For more notes from 47 years ago, where 13 year old Sherri Roth reports the news from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs posts for the How to Get a Standing Ovation Editionthe Vietnam Edition the Won’t You Please Come to Chicago Edition and the Race Relations Edition