mad in pursuit memoir notebook

DISPATCHED FROM THE intersection of yesterday and forever

Remembering the Vietnam Era

2004. Vietnam has become such an issue. I'm trying to remember what it meant to me at the time.

It was certainly very abstract.

First of all, I was a girl, who went to girls' schools from 1963 through 1970. I was an oldest child and tended to hang out with other (overachieving, bossy) first children -- so there were no big brothers away at war.

Whatever little contact I had with the war was of the "hell no, we won't go" variety. My cousin Barb moved her wedding up because of some technicality -- maybe her fiancé's college deferment was at risk and he was better protected by being married before a certain date. I think her brothers managed to sit it out as weekend warriors in the Reserves. My cousin Bobby joined the Navy, but died of pneumonia during basic training.

My father had been a pretty loyal hawk till the war wore on and on. By the time my brother was nearing draft age, he was ready to support Tom making a dash to Canada. Lucky for my brother, when he turned 18 in 1969, the deferment complexities of the draft had been converted to a lottery by date of birth and his birthday was one of the lucky ones.

I went to college in Chicago, so every weekend there were opportunities to attend demonstrations and protest marches. But they all seemed more like social events to me -- something you did to avoid studying. A procrastination gambit. Oddball that I was, I preferred to study. And I was afraid tear gas would melt my contact lenses.

I knew that Johnson was bad and was glad when he decided not to run again for another term. Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy were icons of a promising new era... but I'm not sure I really understood the policies at stake. When Nixon got elected, I understood that we entered an even darker era, in which our government was not to be trusted.

In the spring of 1970, I remember the agitation among students and faculty over the invasion of Cambodia. I acted appropriately outraged, but can't say I understood. When the students at Kent State U. were killed by the National Guard, our college went on strike and spent a month in "alternate university" classes. It was totally cool.  I still did not understand what the war meant, but I did understand that I belonged to a generation committed to fixing the world -- peace, love, and rock & roll.

I left college, went out into the world and did a whole lot of growing up before the war in Vietnam ended. I think I was married and living in Rochester by the time the helicopters were fleeing Saigon.

So Vietnam was simply the backdrop of my youth. When I awoke to the world, the U.S. had boys in the jungle. And they didn't leave till I was officially an adult. If you were a young man, your challenge was to figure out how to avoid getting sent to the jungle. Guys who volunteered were, like, hillbilly losers.

So I guess I have to admit I don't know what planet the privileged John Kerry was living on when he stepped up to serve.



Vietnam War Timeline Combat troups in place: 1965-1975