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Summer of '69
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When the Selective Service notice comes for Tiger, Kate's first instinct is to throw it away. Surely this is every American mother's first instinct? Pretend it got lost in the mail, buy Tiger a few more weeks of freedom before the U.S. Army sends another letter—by which time, this god-awful war in Vietnam might be over. Nixon has promised to end it. There are peace talks going on right now in Paris. Le Duan will succumb to the allure of capitalism or Thieu will be assassinated and someone with better sense will take over. Frankly, Kate doesn't care if Vietnam succumbs to the Communists. She just wants to keep her son safe.
When Tiger gets home from his job at the driving school, Kate says, "There's a letter for you on the kitchen table." Tiger seems unconcerned about what it might be. He's whistling, wearing the polyester uniform shirt issued by Walden Pond Driving Academy with his name stitched on the pocket: Richard. The letter uses that first name too—it's addressed to Richard Foley—though no one ever calls him anything but Tiger.
Tiger says, "I taught a real cutie today, Ma. Name was Magee, that was her first name, which I thought was far out. She's nineteen, like me, studying to be a dental hygienist. I flashed her my pearly whites and then I asked her out to dinner for tonight and she said yes. You'll like her, I bet."
Kate busies herself at the sink arranging daffodils in a vase. She closes her eyes and thinks, These are the last easy thoughts he'll ever have.
And sure enough, a second later, he says, "Oh jeez, oh wow…" He clears his throat. "Ma?"
Kate spins around, clutching a handful of daffodils in front of her like a cross to ward off a vampire. The expression on Tiger's face is part shock, part excitement, part terror.
"I got called up," he says. "I'm to report to the army recruitment office in South Boston on April twenty-first."
April 21 is Kate's birthday. She'll be forty-eight years old. In forty-eight years, she has been married twice and had four children, three daughters and a son. She would never say she loves the son the most; she will say only that she loves him differently. It's the fierce, all-consuming love that any mother feels for her child, but with a dash of extra indulgence. Her handsome son—so much like his father, but kind. And good.
Kate opens her wallet and sets twenty dollars on the table in front of Tiger. "For your date tonight," she says. "Go someplace nice."
On April 21, it's Kate who takes Tiger from Brookline to South Boston. David offered to drive, but Kate wanted to do it alone. "He's my son," she said, and a flicker of astonished pain crossed David's face—they never speak in those terms, her children, meaning not his—and Kate berated herself while at the same time thinking that if David wanted to know what real pain was, he should try being her. Tiger said goodbye to David and his three sisters in the driveway. Kate had instructed the girls not to cry. "We don't want him to think he's never coming back," she said.
And yet it's this exact fear that's holding Kate hostage: That Tiger will die on foreign soil. He will be shot in the stomach or the head; he will be killed by a grenade. He will drown in a rice paddy; he will burn in a helicopter crash. Kate has seen it night after night on the news. American boys are dying, and what have Kennedy and Johnson and, now, Nixon done? Sent more boys.
At the recruitment office, Kate pulls into a line of cars. Ahead of them, kids just like Tiger are hugging their parents, some of them for the last time. Right? It's indisputable that a percentage of the boys right here in South Boston are headed to their deaths.
Kate puts the car in park. It's obvious from watching everyone else that this is going to be quick. Tiger grabs his rucksack from the back seat and Kate gets out of the car and hurries around. She takes a moment to fix Tiger in her eyes. He's nineteen years old, six foot two, a hundred and eighty pounds, and he has let his blond hair grow over the collar of his shirt, much to the dismay of Kate's mother, Exalta, but the U.S. Army will take care of that pronto. He has clear green eyes, one of them with an elongated pupil like honey dripping off a spoon; someone said it looked like a tiger eye, which was how he got his nickname.
Tiger has a high-school diploma and one semester of college at Framingham State. He listens to Led Zeppelin and the Who; he loves fast cars. He dreams of someday racing in the Indy 500.
And then, without warning, Kate is sucked back in time. Tiger was born a week past his due date and weighed nine pounds, twelve ounces. He took his first steps at ten months old, which is very early, but he was intent on chasing after Blair and Kirby. At age seven, he could name every player on the Red Sox lineup; Ted Williams was his favorite. At age twelve, Tiger hit three consecutive home runs in his final game of Little League. He was voted class president in eighth grade and then quickly and wisely lost interest in politics. He took up bowling as a rainy-day pastime in Nantucket and won his first tournament soon after. Then, in high school, there was football. Tiger Foley holds every receiving record at Brookline High School, including total receiving yards, a record Coach Bevilacqua predicts will never be broken. He was recruited to play at Penn State, but Tiger didn't want to travel that far from home, and UMass's team wasn't exciting enough—or at least that's what Tiger claimed. Kate suspects that Tiger just ran out of enthusiasm for the game or preferred to go out on top or just really, really disliked the idea of four more years of school. Kate would have liked to point out that if Tiger had gone to college, any college, or if he had stayed at Framingham State part-time, he would not be in this position right now.
"Don't forget, you promised to check in on Magee," Tiger says.
Magee; he's worried about Magee. Tiger and Magee went on their first date the day Tiger got the letter and they've been inseparable ever since. Privately, Kate thought it was unwise to jump into a relationship only two weeks before going to war, but it might have been the distraction he needed. Kate has agreed to check in on Magee, who Tiger says will be very upset that he's gone, but there is no way a girlfriend of two weeks will be as upset as the soldier's own mother.
A tour of duty is thirteen months, not a lifetime, but some of the mothers here outside the recruitment office are unknowingly saying a permanent goodbye, and Kate feels certain she's one of them. The other mothers didn't do the terrible thing that she did. She deserves to be punished; she has enjoyed every happy day of the past sixteen years like it was something she borrowed, and now, finally, the time for payback has arrived. Kate had thought it would be a cancer diagnosis or a car accident or a house fire. She never considered that she would lose her son. But here she is. This is her fault.
"I love you, Ma," Tiger says.
The obvious response to Tiger is I love you too, but instead Kate says, "I'm sorry." She hugs Tiger so tightly that she feels his ribs beneath his spring jacket. "I'm so sorry, baby."
Tiger kisses her forehead and doesn't let go of her hand until the last possible second. When he finally goes in, Kate hurriedly gets back into the car. Out the window, she sees Tiger heading for the open door. A gentleman in a brown uniform barks something at him and Tiger stands up straighter and squares his shoulders. Kate stares at her fingers gripping the steering wheel. She can't bear to watch him disappear.
Both Sides Now
They are leaving for Nantucket on the third Monday in June, just as they always do. Jessie's maternal grandmother, Exalta Nichols, is a stickler for tradition, and this is especially true when it comes to the routines and rituals of summer.
The third Monday in June is Jessie's thirteenth birthday, which will now be overlooked. That's fine with Jessie. Nothing can be properly celebrated without Tiger anyway.
Jessica Levin ("Rhymes with 'heaven,'" she tells people) is the youngest of her mother's four children. Jessie's sister Blair is twenty-four years old and lives on Commonwealth Avenue. Blair is married to an MIT professor named Angus Whalen. They're expecting their first baby in August, which means that Jessie's mother, Kate, will be returning to Boston to help, leaving Jessie alone with her grandmother on Nantucket. Exalta isn't a warm and fuzzy grandmother who bakes cookies and pinches cheeks. For Jessie, every interaction with Exalta is like falling headlong into a pricker bush; it's not a question of whether she will be stuck, only where and how badly. Jessie has floated the possibility of returning to Boston with Kate, but her mother's response was "You shouldn't have to interrupt your summer."
"It wouldn't be interrupting," Jessie insisted. The truth is, coming back early would mean saving her summer. Jessie's friends Leslie and Doris stay in Brookline and swim at the country club using Leslie's family's membership. Last summer, Leslie and Doris grew closer in Jessie's absence. Their bond made up the sturdiest side of the triangle, leaving Jessie on shaky ground. Leslie is the queen bee among them because she's blond and pretty and her parents are occasionally dinner guests of Teddy and Joan Kennedy. Leslie sometimes gives Jessie and Doris the impression that she thinks she's doing them a favor by remaining their friend. She has enough social currency to hang with Pammy Pope and the really popular girls if she wants. With Jessie gone all summer, Leslie might disappear from her life for good.
Jessie's next older sister, Kirby, is a junior at Simmons College. Kirby's arguments with their parents are loud and fascinating. Years of eavesdropping on her parents' conversations have led Jessie to understand the main problem: Kirby is a "free spirit" who "doesn't know what's good for her." Kirby changed her major twice at Simmons, then she tried to create her own major, Gender and Racial Studies, but it was rejected by the dean. And so Kirby decided she would be the first student ever to graduate from Simmons without a major. Again, the dean said no.
"He said graduating without a major would be like attending the commencement ceremony in the nude," Kirby told Jessie. "And I said he shouldn't tempt me."
Jessie can easily imagine her sister striding across the stage to accept her diploma in just her birthday suit. Kirby started participating in political protests while she was still in high school. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Roxbury through the slums and dangerous neighborhoods to Boston Common, where Jessie's father picked Kirby up and took her home. This past year, Kirby marched in two antiwar protests and got arrested both times.
Jessie's parents are running out of patience with Kirby—Jessie overheard her mother saying, "We aren't giving that girl another dime until she learns to color inside the lines!"—but Kirby is no longer their biggest concern.
Their biggest concern is Jessie's brother, Richard, known to one and all as Tiger, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in April. After basic training, Tiger was deployed to the Central Highlands of Vietnam with Charlie Company of the Twelfth Regiment of the Third Brigade of the Fourth Infantry. This situation has rocked the foundation of the family. They'd all believed that only working-class boys went to war, not star receivers from Brookline High School.
Everyone at school treated Jessie differently after Tiger was deployed. Pammy Pope invited Jessie to her family's annual Memorial Day picnic—Jessie declined out of loyalty to Leslie and Doris, who hadn't been included—and the guidance counselor Miss Flowers pulled Jessie out of class one Monday in early June to see how she was doing. The class was home economics, and Jessie's leaving inspired enormous envy in all the other girls, who were battling with their sewing machines in an attempt to finish their navy corduroy vests before the end of the term. Miss Flowers brought Jessie to her office, closed the door, and made Jessie a cup of hot tea using an electric kettle. Jessie didn't drink hot tea, although she liked coffee—Exalta permitted Jessie one cup of milky coffee at Sunday brunch, despite Kate's protests that it would stunt Jessie's growth—but Jessie enjoyed the escape to the cozy confines of Miss Flowers's office. Miss Flowers had a wooden box filled with exotic teas—chamomile, chicory, jasmine—and Jessie chose a flavor as if her life depended on picking the right one. She decided on hibiscus. The tea was a pale orange color even after the tea bag had steeped for several minutes. Jessie added three cubes of sugar, fearing the tea would have no taste otherwise. And she was right; it tasted like orange sugar water.
"So," Miss Flowers said. "I understand your brother is overseas. Have you heard from him yet?"
"Two letters," Jessie said. One of the letters had been addressed to the entire family and included details of basic training, which Tiger said was "not at all as hard as you read about; for me it was a piece of cake." The other letter had been for Jessie alone. She wasn't sure if Blair and Kirby had gotten their own letters, but Jessie kind of doubted it. Blair, Kirby, and Tiger were all full biological siblings—they were the children of Kate and her first husband, Lieutenant Wilder Foley, who had served along the thirty-eighth parallel in Korea and then come home and accidentally shot himself in the head with his Beretta—but Tiger was closest to his half sister, Jessie. Actually, they weren't allowed to use the terms half sister, half brother, and stepfather—Kate flat-out forbade it—but whether or not anyone chose to acknowledge it, the family had a fault line. They were two families stitched together. But the relationship between Tiger and Jessie felt real and whole and good, and what he had said in the letter proved that. The first line, Dear Messie, made tears stand in Jessie's eyes.
"Letters are the only thing that make it easier," Miss Flowers said, and at that point, her eyes had been brimming as well. Miss Flowers's fiancé, Rex Rothman, had been killed in the Tet Offensive the year before. Miss Flowers had taken a full week off from school and Jessie saw a photograph of her in the Boston Globe standing next to a casket draped with the American flag. But when the new school year started in September, a romance seemed to blossom between Miss Flowers and Eric Barstow, the gym teacher. Mr. Barstow was as muscle-bound as Jack LaLanne. The boys both hated and respected Mr. Barstow, and Jessie and the other girls at school had been wary of him—until he started dating Miss Flowers, when he suddenly became a romantic hero. That spring, they spotted him bringing Miss Flowers a delicate bouquet of lilies of the valley wrapped in a wet paper towel, and after school each day, he carried her books and files out to the parking lot. Jessie had seen them together by Miss Flowers's Volkswagen Bug, which was painted the color of a Florida orange, Mr. Barstow leaning an elbow on the roof while they talked. She once saw them kissing as the school bus drove away.
Some people—Leslie, for example—are unhappy that Miss Flowers saw fit to replace her dead fiancé within a year. But Jessie understands how losing someone tragically leaves a vacuum, and as they learned in science class, nature abhors a vacuum. Jessie knows that after Wilder died, her mother had hired a lawyer to fight the insurance company's claim that his death was a suicide; the lawyer argued that Wilder had been cleaning the Beretta in his garage workshop and it had discharged accidentally. This distinction was important not only for life insurance purposes but also for the peace of mind of Kate's three young children—Blair had been eight, Kirby five, and Tiger only three.
The lawyer Kate hired—who was successful in convincing the court that the death was accidental—was none other than David Levin. Six months after the case was settled, Kate and David started dating. They got married, despite Exalta's vehement objections, and a few short months after the courthouse wedding, Kate became pregnant with Jessie.
Jessie hadn't wanted to talk to Miss Flowers about Tiger and Vietnam, so to change the subject, she said, "This tea is delicious."
Miss Flowers nodded vaguely and dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief she kept tucked into the belt of her dress to offer her students (she was, after all, a guidance counselor for adolescents, and their hormones and feelings ran amok on an hourly basis). She said, "I just want you to know that if you have any dark thoughts during the school day, you can come to talk to me here."
Jessie had glanced down into her cup. She knew she would never be able to take Miss Flowers up on this offer. How could Jessie talk about her dark thoughts regarding her brother—who was, as far as she knew, still alive—when Miss Flowers had actually lost Rex Rothman, her fiancé?
Jessie was tormented each night by thoughts of Tiger getting killed by mortar shells or grenades or being captured and marched a hundred miles through the jungle without any food or water, but she stayed away from Miss Flowers's office. She managed to avoid seeing the guidance counselor alone until the last day of school, when Miss Flowers stopped Jessie on her way out the door and said in her ear, "When I see you in September, your brother will be home safe, and I'll be engaged to Mr. Barstow."
Jessie had nodded her head against the rough linen of Miss Flowers's jumper and when she looked into Miss Flowers's eyes, she saw that she truly believed those words—and for one sterling moment, Jessie believed them too.
June 7, 1969
I'm writing a letter now to make sure it reaches you in time for your birthday. They say it only takes a week for mail to reach the States but when I think about the distance it has to travel, I figured better safe than sorry.
Happy birthday, Messie!
Thirteen years old, I can't believe it. I remember when you were born. Actually, all I remember is Gramps taking us for ice cream at Brigham's. I got a double scoop of butter brickle in a sugar cone and the damn thing fell over and Gramps said, Aw, hell, then got me another one. I don't know how much you remember about Gramps, you were pretty young when he croaked, but he was a hell of a guy. Before I shipped over, Nonny gave me his class ring from Harvard, but we aren't allowed to wear rings, so I keep it in the front pocket of my flak jacket, which isn't that smart because if I get blown to bits, the ring will be lost forever, but I like to have it next to my heart. It makes me feel safe somehow, which may sound corny but Messie, you would not believe what counts for a good-luck charm around here—some guys wear crosses or Stars of David, some carry rabbit feet, one dude has the key to his girlfriend's bicycle lock, another guy has an ace of spades that won him a big hand of poker the night before he shipped out. And I have Gramps's class ring from Harvard, which I don't advertise because the guys might think I'm trying to boast about my pedigree. But what I guess I'm trying to tell you is that the guys carry things they think have magic powers or things that remind them why they might like to stay alive.
There are a few of us who have proven to be natural-born survivors, which is good because our company has been dropped right into the action. I've made two real friends here in Charlie Company—Frog and Puppy (properly Francis and John). The other guys call us the Zoo because we all have animal nicknames but they're jealous of how tough we are. The three of us have stupid contests, like who can do the most pull-ups on a tree branch and who can learn the most curse words in Vietnamese and who can smoke an entire cigarette without taking the damn thing out of his mouth the fastest. Frog is a Negro (gasp—what would Nonny think?) from Mississippi, and Puppy is so blond and pale he's nearly albino. We should have called him Casper or Ghost, but those nicknames were already taken by other guys in our regiment, and since he's the youngest in the platoon, he's Puppy. Puppy is from Lynden, Washington, all the way up by the Canadian border—raspberry country, he says, bushes as far as you can see, all of them growing fat, juicy raspberries. Puppy misses those raspberries and Frog misses his mama's vinegar coleslaw and I miss Brigham's butter brickle. So we are a mixed bag, a cross-section of our great country, if you will. I love these guys with all my heart, even though I've known them only a few weeks. The three of us feel invincible, we feel strong—and Messie, I hate to say it, but I know I'm the strongest of the three of us. At first, I thought that was because of Coach Bevilacqua making the team do so many wind sprints and climb all the stairs in the stadium, but that only makes you tough on the outside, and to survive here, you also have to be tough on the inside. When it's your turn to take point when you're charging a position, you have to be brave, and I mean brave, because chances are good you're going to be the first one to encounter Charlie. If you meet up with enemy fire, you're taking the bullet. The first time I led my company, we were headed down this jungle path, the mosquitoes were roaring like lions, it was the dead of night, and a group of VC sneaked up behind us and slit the throat of Ricci, who was bringing up the rear. We engaged in a firefight and a couple others were shot, Acosta and Keltz. I made it out with nothing but two dozen mosquito bites.
I hear other units have gotten shrinks to come in and help them deal with the way this stuff messes up your head. When we go out on a mission, it's almost certain that at least one of us is going to die. Which one of us is only a question of luck, like which ducks are you going to hit with your water pistol in a carnival game. When I was teaching kids to drive in Brookline, I knew the war was going on, I watched it on TV with you and Mom and Dad, I heard the body counts, but that didn't feel real. Now I'm here, and it's too real. Every day requires fortitude, which wasn't a word I knew the definition of until I got here.
At night when I'm on watch or I'm trying to fall asleep while also staying alert, I wonder who in the family I'm most like. Whose DNA is going to keep me alive? At first I thought it must be Gramps's, because he was a successful banker, or my father's, because he was a lieutenant in Korea. But then you know what I realized? The toughest person in our family is Nonny. She's probably the toughest person in the entire world. I'd put our grandmother up against any Vietcong or any one of my commanding officers. You know that way she looks at you when you've disappointed her, like you're not good enough to lick her shoe? Or when she uses that voice and says, "What am I to think of you now, Richard?" Yes, I know you know, and that's why you're dreading going to Nantucket, so if it helps you be less miserable, remember that the qualities of Nonny that are making you unhappy are also the qualities that are keeping your favorite brother alive.
I love you, Messie. Happy birthday.
The night before they leave for Nantucket, Jessie and her parents are sitting at the kitchen table sharing pizza out of a delivery box—Kate has been too busy packing to cook—when there's a knock on the front door. Jessie, Kate, and David all freeze like they're in a game of statues. An unexpected knock on the door at seven thirty in the evening means…all Jessie can picture is two officers standing outside on the step, holding their hats, about to deliver the news that will shatter the family. Kate will never recover; Blair might well go into preterm labor; Kirby will be the most histrionic, and she will loudly blame Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and her particular nemesis, Richard Milhous Nixon. And Jessie—what will Jessie do? She can only imagine dissolving like the Alka-Seltzer tablet her father drops in water at night when he's working on a stressful case. She will turn into a fine dust and then she will blow away.
David stands up from the table, his face grim. He isn't Tiger's biological father, but he has filled the role since Tiger was a small boy and, in Jessie's opinion, has done a good job. David is slender (tennis is his game, which is his only saving grace as far as Exalta is concerned), whereas Tiger is tall with broad shoulders, the image of Lieutenant Wilder Foley. David is a lawyer, though not the kind who shouts in courtrooms. He's calm and measured; he always encourages Jessie to think before she speaks. David and Tiger have a close, nearly tender, relationship, so Jessie bets David feels sick as he goes to answer the door.
Kate reaches for Jessie's hand and squeezes. Jessie stares at the half a pizza remaining in the box and thinks that if Tiger is dead, none of them will ever be able to eat pizza again, which is too bad because it's Jessie's favorite food. Then she has an even more inappropriate thought: If Tiger is dead, she won't have to go to Nantucket with her mother and Exalta. Her life will be ruined, but her summer will, in one sense, be saved.
- "The grande dame of beach reads...Hilderbrand shifts among characters with her usual ease, weaving a saga that will make you forget the dynamics of your own dysfunctional people as you crowd into a too-small vacation rental."—Liz Egan, New York Times Book Review
- "An engrossing tale of an iconic American summer"—People Magazine
- "Overall this novel is an entertaining bagatelle . . . There won't be a single transistor radio this summer on Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, nor on Madaket Beach in Nantucket. But there almost certainly will be multiple copies of Summer of '69. It's this year's beach-reading cure for . . . the summertime blues."—The Boston Globe
- "Superb...Hilderbrand hits all the right notes about life in a tightly knit family, and this crowd-pleaser is sure to satisfy both her fans and newcomers alike."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Hilderbrand's first foray into historical fiction will rouse curiosity in new readers as well as devotees of her annual summer smashes."—Susan Maguire, Booklist
"Hilderbrand's characters are utterly convincing and immediately draw us into their problems, from petty to grave...To use the parlance of the period, a highly relevant retrospective."
- "Misunderstandings, secrets, and wrong choices are revealed in this completely satisfying novel that is the beach read of the summer, sure to appeal to Hilderbrand's fans while earning her new readers. A must buy."—The Library Journal
- "She presents another breezy yet gritty novel with Summer of '69... Simple, sassy, and continuously engaging, Summer of '69 fits neatly into the nostalgic reader's beach bag."—NPR
- "Hilderbrand's books keep getting better and better."—Bookreporter
- "With vivid descriptions of the songs, fashions and other details of the era woven throughout, it's a true nostalgia trip."—AARP
- On Sale
- Jun 18, 2019
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown and Company