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Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Mark Heckey is a retired city planner with a passion for writing.

The year 1967 compacted life into a mosaic of social turbulence, individual growth, and an explosion of musical talent. A young, extremely talented singer arrived in a flash, brought black soul music to a multi-racial audience, and disappeared just as quickly when his life and art vaporized with an airplane accident. Otis Redding became the King of Soul that year. His hit, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, became his biggest success and a somewhat odd foretelling of his own death.

In 1967, I was an awkward, skinny, and painfully shy sophomore at John North High School in Southern California. We were an early experiment in racial integration and I began to experience the culture clash of mixing with black students. Our bused integration became a tense experiment. There were fights in the back-parking lot. Taunting calls echoed across the central quad. Within a year, we would all be damaged by the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

By the end of the year, a forced harmony settled across our school. Music is a great cultural bridge, and we white students became drawn to the new Motown sound and began to gravitate to black music. The Beatles of course, were first in our white hearts. Otis Redding's melodic and rhythmic vocals appealed to all of us--black, white or brown. High school kids unite behind their teams. Our integrated school drew from a big pool of student athletes. This allowed for very talented teams that won big. The pep rallies and the game nights began to knit the student body together.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay sang to our teenage angst. Otis spoke of feelings of loneliness, alienation, misdirection, and fear of the future. We felt all of these things. He spoke of being in a strange land and contemplating the world as a passive observer:

"I left my home in Georgia
And I headed for the Frisco Bay
Cause I've got nothin' to live for
Looks like nothin's gonna come my way, so"

The lyrics spoke of watching the world aimlessly and a reluctance to engage it, just like many teens who find themselves on the sidelines:
"I am sitting on the dock of the bay, wastin' time… I'm sitting here restin' my bones and this loneliness won't leave me alone."

I felt this malaise in my world of 1967. I was athletic enough to make the school teams, allowing me to get to know the "minority" kids but too nerdy to hang with any of the popular "cliques." I lived in an in between world of nerds and athletes, not fully enmeshed with either group. My stepfather had split from my mother that year adding to my internal identity of weirdness. I became stuck on the dock, watching the ships of social success and acceptance cruise by me.


Loneliness also ruled my days. I lacked the courage to talk to the lovely Claudette. She would never know I thought her attractive. When I approached her at the lunch table, my tongue was struck dumb and I blushed hot pink and backed away. I sought the solace of my four nerdy and braniac friends.

I found them on the edge of the quad, respectfully distanced from "Blood Hill" where the black athletes held court. We talked books and term papers, rarely girls. But we were listening to music and finding our way towards the rock explosion, the San Francisco (Frisco Bay as Otis referenced it) psychedelic bands like Jefferson Airplane, and the emerging Motown line up—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. There were so many genres in the music scene. The scene fluxed, spilled over and combined, the lines between ethnic music got altered and culturally erased. Artists crossed over and grew multi-racial audiences.

The Age of Aquarius arrived and opened our timid adolescent hearts. Otis Redding led the cross over movement. In his brief but spectacular life, Redding changed the music world for ever and evolved black music into our American mainstream.

He traveled far in his young and brief career. He died at age 27 but he created a cultural bridge.

"This two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home
Now I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay"

It's now 2020 and a different kind of angst has hold of me. The streets once again are filled with turmoil, violence, and anger. As a country we seem to be in a time warp and have circled back to the 1960s. Can I cross the racial divide? Will I be able to reach out and understand the social injustice inflicted on people of color? I hope I don't sit back and watch from the docks. I am not a teenager anymore. I need to step into the Bay and try to make things right.

~ Mark Heckey




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