Our high school social studies club was dedicated to understanding world problems. To do this we had local discussion and information sessions Monday after school. However the greatest opportunities were provided by the Student United Nations of Pittsburgh. There were two major events enjoyed by hundreds of Southwest Pennsylvania students. The Model UN was held in the spring and it functioned just as you might imagine. It was fun and a great learning experience. I learned about the nation of Gambia and how its economy was built almost entirely on peanuts. A bad year in the fields or markets could devastate an entire country. Another year we represented France and could wreak havoc with every other nation’s plans.
But the subject of this story is the December event that was truly memorable. Students were given the opportunity to travel to New York to visit the United Nations. This was available to those who could cough up fifty dollars to cover the transportation and lodging. This was no small change in the day but it was possible to earn half of that by donating blood and some of us did just that. Pay the fee, bring along a few dollars for some food, and present a parental permission form and you were off to the train station in Pittsburgh. You would board a musty train car that enjoyed its heyday two decades before and had seen precious little care since. You would find seats that would allow you to sit upright and sleep. The dozen or so Knoch students tended to sit with each other. The city students were almost of another world. The girls from Winchester-Thurston in their stylish rags smoked their cigarettes and held them at a rakish angle as they effortlessly tried to outdo each other with whatever they were talking about. A student no older than we from Taylor Alderdice smoked his pipe and carried himself like a grandpa. The kids from Central Catholic, who we knew all too well from debate contests, told loud bawdy jokes. We were all a bit wide-eyed and very unsophisticated.
About two hours into the trip, the train would slow as we approached Horseshoe Curve and we’d get tossed a bit into each other’s shoulders as we made the turn. When the sun came up we’d arrive in Philadelphia. Someone’s transistor was playing Petula Clark singing “Color My World” as the cars were switched to the electric engines that would take us into New York. My memory of New Jersey from the trip was a succession of rail yards and billboards that advertised the Broadway show, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which, if I recall, had already closed. At Penn Station we disembarked and carried our luggage across the street to the New Yorker where we would stay Saturday night.
Our first order of business was to eat. As an intact group marched and gawked together down 34th Street to a place that offered steak and potato dinners for $4.99. The place had a continuous stream of customers who could choose between “medium” and “well done”. They moved to find a vacant table that was about the size of a checker board where you could eat a fairly decent steak for a really good price. We stayed together as a group as we walked in the brisk December air past Macy’s and on to the UN. We were given a nice tour of the General Assembly room, saw the copy of Guernica by Picasso, and visited the souvenir shop where none of us purchased much from the too-expensive displays.
After that, it was Katy bar the door! In an explosion of freedom and “do what is right – but stay in groups” we were off to see the town. Some of us went to the Empire State Building that was not far away. Others went who knows where. We had agreed, however, to meet up that night to go to a movie. I guess “Waterhole #3” must have been funny because I often awoke to some strong laughter while snoozing to gather my strength for the activities to follow. Sometime after 10 PM, many of us agreed to walk the many blocks to see for ourselves what Greenwich Village was all about. There must have been strength in numbers because we walked through some pretty dicey parts of town to get there. We decided to pay a few bucks and enter a place that could only have existed in the 1960’s. The first thing we noticed was the profusion of black lights. Not only did they illuminate my blue shirt with the most amazing hue but they also provided what little light was available. There was a lot of Jefferson Airplane blaring. Mark Bokerman, attempting to find his way in the dark, apparently stepped on a couple enjoying a magic moment. “The guy cried out, Ahhhhhh”, related Boke. Our cohort of hayseeds was enjoying the blend of amusement and shock but we got our fill of that in about a half hour. Enough of that! We gathered together and proceeded to walk back to the hotel, miles away.
On Sunday morning the faithful Catholics decided to go to mass and, catching my second wind, I went along. As a Lutheran I was able to navigate the liturgy which now was in English. I was, however, surprised to hear the priest offer his suggestions for how his flock should vote in the presidential election that was still 11 months away and the parties had not yet picked their candidates. After mass we returned to repack and leave for home. Some of our group had gathered as many coat hangers as possible and dangled them out the window in a futile attempt to reach the ground. I think I slept for 400 miles on the train and was too tired to go to school on Monday.
That was 1967. You just could not do those things today. I am glad we studied world problems.
(As an interesting aside, on the previous year’s trip, we actually saw a Broadway show – ‘Barefoot in the Park”. When we had more culture available, we got into far less trouble. But then again, that was 1966 and the world was a lot tamer than in 1967.)