Sunday, November 26, 2006

1968

On December 13th, 1967 I was "separated" from the US Army. A couple of days later I left Ft. Hood, Texas, where I spent all but 2 months of my service time, and headed home to Indy. I entered the military as a more or less political and religious agnostic. I had no strong political views and really had given no serious thought to matters of religious faith.

Owing to a couple of my compatriots at Ft. Hood, both my religious and political sensibilities began to emerge. One of my friends introduced me to existentialism through some books he lent me including one with the daunting title "Kierkegaard, Heideger, Buber and Barth." I remember attempting to slog through that little tome to no particular avail. But, at least, it did open my eyes and mind to the fact that there were actually people who seriously believed that god didn't exist.

Another of my friends introduced me to what we lovingly referred to as giggle weed, maryjane, pot, or just grass. I came to relate to the phrase "Far Out Man!" Mind expansion was in gear. (I haven't imbibed any mind altering substances in around 30 years or so, but it was fun at the time. - If either of my sons happen to read this - I'm lying. I never did any such thing. I was straight as the white line down the center of the road. I'm just trying to make my loyal readership think that I am, or was, at any rate, hip.)

To a man the circle I ran with, all draftees, hated the army. We were young, flip and irreverent. But all of the military rigmarole just seemed pointless. I recall while in basic going through bayonet and hand-to-hand combat training. It was so ludicrous. Often we would wind up laughing standing opposite each other with our helmets askew brandishing our M14 rifles, bayonets fixed, but still in their scabbards. We looked goofy and felt ridiculous. A couple of guys who had been to Vietnam told us that, what the Army taught us in basic, was just enough to get ourselves in serious trouble, probably killed.

At the time, anyway, most NCOs and a number of the officers just did not strike us as being particularly bright. Many of the NCOs were essentially uneducated excepting for their military indoctrination, and they resented us young upstarts who thought we were smarter than they were.

We couldn't get out fast enough. One of the mantras that guys would regularly blurt out was "short!" meaning they were "short timers" having too few days left in service to worry or care about whatever was going on at the time. Often, even guys who weren't "short," would yell it out anyhow in a pathetic bit of wishful thinking. Finally, in mid-December of 1967, I was free. I was also pretty much a political liberal and well on my way to being a religious non-believer.

I spent the first day of 1968 in Pasadena, CA. watching the Indiana University football team lose to one O.J. Simpson (little did we know) and the USC Trojans. If memory serves, the score was 14-3. A few days later, my older brother, who was still in the service boarded a plane and wound up in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, where he stayed for 8 months or so. Happily, he saw no action and returned unscathed - physically at any rate.

In the interim, all hell had broken loose here at home.

As my brother arrived "in country" the Tet Offensive was in full roar.

April 4th, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

June 6th, 1968 Bobby Kennedy dies from an assassin's bullets.

In August, 1968 the Democratic National Convention in Chicago went crazy and violent.

In November, 1968 "Tricky" Dick Nixon was elected president in a narrow victory over old line Democrat, Hubert H. Humphrey.

I'm told other "stuff" happened in 1968 as well, but the above is quite enough, thank you very much!

You will note that not a single one of the above events was "good" by any measure I'd acknowledge. No doubt there are some people out there who would find reason to celebrate any or all of them. I don't believe any of them would find this post quite their cup of tea.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Emilio Estevez's "Bobby." It's a good film. There are a number of really fine performances. Laurence Fishburne and, especially Sharon Stone are fairly amazing.

But the weight of the film, what really moved me, did not come until the end - the actual shooting. Note that most of the scenes having Bobby Kennedy in them are actual vintage footage.

At the moment the shooting took place in the film, I pretty much lost it. It all came screaming back to me.

I had been supporting Eugene McCarthy in the early months of the year. But, when Kennedy declared his candidacy, I looked up. I didn't immediately trash McCarthy, but it soon became apparent that Bobby had much the same message, and was much more likely to carry the day in November. His name recognition alone was probably worth several million votes.

The morning of April 4 Kennedy arrived in Indy as part of a midwestern campaign swing. I was out and about on the east side of town when I heard sirens approaching from behind. I looked around to see a motorcade approaching and Kennedy sitting up in the back of an open convertable. I pulled over, stepped out of my car and positioned myself to better see him as his car went by. As it happened, the motorcade came to a stop with his car maybe 50 feet up the street from me. People seemed to come out of nowhere rushing forward to shake his hand and speak to him. He obliged for several minutes, smiling, shaking or just touching hands and talking to many of the folks, while some fellow held fast to Kennedy's waist to keep him from falling or being pulled out of the car. I chose not to move, but rather just take it all in. It is a memory that has stayed with me since.

Of course, later in the day, Dr. King was murdered. Kennedy was appearing at a rally in a predominantly Afro-American neighborhood in Indy when news of the assassination reached him. He made the announcement to the crowd gathered to see him. It was a terrible moment. Kennedy handled it with calm and eloquence. Rioting broke loose in cities all across the country that night. Indy experienced very little violence. I would not presume to credit Kennedy with all of the calm which prevailed here, but his demeanor and his words most certainly had an effect.

I was hooked.

I know that little of the above would necessarily lend itself to making a great, or even good, president. Kennedy had earned a reputation as being ruthless during his tenure as attorney general. He was a rich and privileged lawyer from Massachusetts. However, time spent traveling the country before and after his decision to throw his hat in the ring, gave him a new perspective. He visited the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn which was, at that time perhaps the worst urban ghetto in the country. The devastation he found there stunned him. He traveled through other impoverished areas of the country - coal towns, mill towns, other urban ghettos. All of it affected him, opened his eyes. At the same time he became well aware of how badly things were going in Vietnam. He saw that the war was escalating out of control, and he knew it was imperative that we get out of it as quickly as possible.

His ascendancy in the polls culminating with his primary win in California made for some true excitement in presidential politics. To have it end, so suddenly, so terribly was devastating. Who was this guy with the same first and last name who ended it all? Sirhan Sirhan. A Palestinian. What? Where? An omen of things to come? Well, I don't believe in omens, but at the time, all most of us could do was wonder what in the world was happening with this guy that would motivate him to kill Robert F. Kennedy? What was the connection? Now, I guess, we know, but it still makes no sense.

The initial crack in so called "American innocence" was John Kennedy's assassination. The escalation of the war in Vietnam and the images of our soldiers returning in body bags was the second. In 1968 we took so many hits that by the time Nixon took his oath of office in January of 1969, I don't think we understood how much we had lost. This was a wholly different country in a wholly different world.

By 1975 we had witnessed a ridiculous scandal born of arrogance and paranoia, which brought down both a sitting president and vice-president, and our military ultimately humiliated in their frenzied departure from Saigon. It was our first experience as a nation with failure. We were not invulnerable. We were no longer the undaunted savior of the world. There were people, whole countries even, who didn't like us. How could this be?

I am not a pollyanna regarding Kennedy. I don't imagine that Bobby would have made everything all better. He and the country would doubtless have faced many difficult travails and suffered many failures. But it is possible to believe that we may well have extricated ourselves from the horrific mishmash of Vietnam sooner, with significantly fewer lives lost on both sides. There would have been no Watergate burglery and the consequent mess that caused.

Perhaps Kennedy's strengths - his eloquence, his intelligence, his political savvy, and yes, perhaps even his ruthlessness, might have changed the course of America domestically, and in the international arena as well. Different hands, different minds, different agendas. Where we are today might be a great deal better. However, it seems to be getting a great deal worse.

Yes, I rue the loss of Bobby Kennedy.

TLS



1 comment:

tina said...

Hi, I got here through "compete materialist" and then through "Terra." I really enjoyed your post on "1968". It brought back memories of my husband (deceased in 1977) being at Fort Hood. I also enjoyed reading about the Kennedy's. I like your long posts, I love to read, and it's like reading a book.This is my first comment on your blog but I will be reading the rest of them and commenting.