Life Interrupted: Now and 50 Years Ago

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“Hey Grandpa, you’re a pretty old guy, do you remember if anything like this coronavirius disruption ever happened before?” Versions of this question were asked in one way or another by several of my early-20s grandchildren, all of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic: One is deeply disappointed that college graduation this May has been canceled along with many other “last-semester” parties and rituals. She has a right to be disappointed; after four years of hard work, this is a time for celebration. Another had a promising summer internship with a major research company; the internship was canceled and now he’s left without a summer job between his junior and senior college year. Another graduated college last December and is job searching during this difficult time. Another was laid off from his restaurant job. Yet another was emotionally devastated when the Peace Corp pulled her out of her African village, along with 7,300 other volunteers around the world, and left her hanging, deeply disappointed and unfulfilled after a year of planning for service to others.

Granddaughter Cecelia, Peace Corp volunteer in Cameroon, Africa.

In order to feel their pain, I needed to reflect back 50 years and remember, without the accrued wisdom of life experiences, what I was feeling at their age. “Well, it wasn’t exactly like this,” I said. “Between my junior and senior years in college, I had an internship with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and remained a federal employee on leave. I was looking forward to resuming this job upon graduation but forces beyond my control intervened. My last semester of college, Spring, 1968, was a very tumultuous, anxious, and confusing time.”

Every able-bodied male in college who held a draft card and a 2-S education deferment, which was nearly everyone, religiously watched the CBS nightly news with Walter Cronkite. Beginning around 1965 the Vietnam War became a TV war.

Donald Trump: Draft Records
Example of a draft card. Check out the owner.

On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. This was the famous Tet Offensive. Tet, normally a celebration of the lunar new year and the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar, was one of the bloodiest days of the war. It was a strategic success for the North Vietnamese. General Westmoreland requested, and President Johnson sent, 200,000 new troops to mount a counteroffensive. In February 1968, Walter Cronkite announced that it “seemed more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam will end in a stalemate.”

Walter Cronkite during a visit to Vietnam in 1968. Before a warhawk, now conceding America’s lost cause.

It seemed that when Walter Cronkite, the most trusted voice in America at the time, conceded a stalemate in Vietnam, the country’s attitude toward the war changed. Even President Johnson gave up: On March 31, already in campaign mode for the 1968 presidential election, Johnson announced he would not run for a second term.

There had been many demonstrations against the war on college campuses, even at conservative Purdue University where I went to school. The Tet Offensive and Cronkite’s admission accelerated the unrest. Johnson’s announcement was welcomed because he wasn’t trusted, nor was his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, who became the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. When Robert Kennedy threw his hat in the ring for the nomination, young people regained much hope only to be devastated by his brutal assassination at a campaign rally on June 6.

View of anti Vietnam War demonstrators standing and protesting outside the White House during a march to the Pentagon in Washington DC to plead for an end to the conflict, 1967. (Credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Vietnam War demonstrators outside the White House during a march to the Pentagon to plead for an end to the conflict.

Friends of mine were adamant about not being drafted. Several explored a move to Canada. Several admitted they had connections with sympathetic doctors that would write a bogus physical exam providing them a medical deferment. This was not uncommon. I didn’t know these young men, but Dick Cheney said “he had other priorities” and was able to get five successive deferments; with rich, connected fathers, Dan Quayle and George Bush got into the Indiana and Texas National Guards, respectively, when no one else was admitted; Bill Clinton went to England on an academic scholarship; Mitch McConnell had then U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-KY) write a deferment letter: Tom Brokaw had “flat feet”; and Donald Trump had “fake bone spurs.”

Never once did I entertain such options. Not that I had a mature sense of patriotism at the time–it just didn’t seem like a responsible thing to do. The day after graduating from college I visited the U.S. Army recruiting center and volunteered for Officer Candidate School and then flight school not knowing that by virtue of being a helicopter pilot I increased my chances of not returning from the War alive from 45:1 to 18:1.

Somewhere in Vietnam, 1970

On May 4, 1970, I arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in NJ for a flight to Vietnam the next day. I settled into my BOQ room and turned on the TV to live scenes of the Kent State shootings that happened only minutes before. It was absolute chaos on that college campus in Ohio. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Ohio Army National Guard troops shooting college students with live, metal-jacket, lead bullets for protesting the war in Vietnam (The linked video: As seen through the eyes of Professor Jerry M. Lewis. Virginia Tech is mentioned at timeline 15:04 and 15:45).

My God, I thought. Is this the Army I joined? We are literally killing ourselves! Later, during the same broadcast, President Nixon, in a speech to the nation justified his recent order that greatly expanded the war across the border into Cambodia.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Iconic photo of Kent State shooting, May 4, 1970.

The next day, on May 5, 1970, exactly 50 years ago as I write this, I left on a chartered Tiger Airlines flight on a 28-hour trip to Vietnam. It should have been 26 hours, but the plane circled Bien Hoa Air Base for two hours due to incoming enemy 122 mm rockets impacting the runway. Craters in the runway were filled before the plane could land. During the long flight, I had lots of time to wonder what I was getting into, and what was happening to the country I was leaving. Was I a patriot for volunteering for this duty? Or was I a Johnson/Nixon “chump” naively being sucked into a hellhole for their political purposes (watch Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War on PBS). I believe Cheney, Quayle, Clinton, Bush, McConnell, Brokaw, and Trump thought the latter.

So, no, my dear grandchildren, I don’t remember anything quite like the current coronavirius pandemic that may take twice as many lives as the Vietnam war. But I do remember unusual times that postponed career plans for many and, for some, virtually all young people like yourselves, ended life altogether.

In some ways yours and my predicament at the time, though 50 years apart, were similar: We were young, innocent bystanders thinking we were doing the right thing when we were inadvertently caught up in a whirlwind, not of our making; we were both led, not by truth, but led badly and cynically by politicians in power; and, by chance, it was an election year. In 1968 the country chose poorly and the nightmare continued. Will today’s nightmare continue? To be determined.

Three of my five early 20s grandchildren. All seven are “above average.” They make me proud.

One more similarity is that now, like 50 years ago, young, resilient people like yourselves will overcome your setbacks and learn from these unfortunate experiences in ways that make you stronger and smarter still. The way forward is to keep your chin up; continue to follow your heart; nurture your spirit; cultivate meaningful relationships, and develop material sufficiency. The world awaits you. Your families, community, country, and the world need you.