Somewhere during 1962 I turned 16. That was a big year for me. But not just because I could finally drive a car or take on a part-time job. I did these things, but in my sophomore year, I also attended a brand-new high school in Columbus, Ohio. And this was the year I started played ping pong.
According to the dictionary, 1962 should have been part of my “salad days.” I’ve always loved the phrase, “salad days,” but I’ve never really used it. Deriving from Shakespeare, salad days refers to one’s youth, a time of inexperience, enthusiasm, innocence, idealism and so forth.
For young American men, one word prevented 1962 and its neighboring years from living up to its salad potential — Vietnam. I don’t remember when I became aware of the word and of the country. It was probably around the age of 16 when I was only two years away from the military draft.
The word “Vietnam” demanded that you pay attention to it because of the draft. In a sense, it became a rite of passage, something that young men had to contend with at a certain age. Of course, I knew that by the time I finished high school and college, the Vietnam conflict would be over.
My earliest awareness of the Vietnam conflict was a stew of emotions. Vietnam was a very small country somewhere in the Orient (who uses this word anymore), but it had the power to vacuum a lot of young men out of their normal American lives, many for a year, some for eternity.
We didn’t call it a war even though it sounded like one, looked like one and preyed like one on the soldiers called to it.
It was our first “television war.” We saw instant images and heard statistics still sweaty and strained by the combat that gave them birth. Folks protested on principles of dissent in the street against the war as soldiers protected principles of democracy in the jungles of a faraway place.
If it hasn’t already, history will judge whether those standing on asphalt or on jungle floor had stronger footing.
I suspect that 16-year-old men in 1940 and 16-year-old men in 1962 had a lot in common. Their futures were shadowed by an event much beyond their control. The 1940 soldiers-to-be had fathers who vividly remembered World War I. I’m guessing that early 1960s’ young men had fathers who remembered World War II or Korea through their fathers. As a result, I don’t know if either group was better prepared for war.
I served in Vietnam, but I was one of the fortunate ones. Although drafted in 1968, I chose to enlist to have some say in the training I received. After all, the Army’s marketing campaign at the time was “Choice, not Chance.” Even with this slogan reverberating in my mind, I was not surprised when my request for Spanish language training morphed into Vietnamese language school, and later, interrogation training.
I was one of the fortunate ones, not only because I was assigned to an evacuation hospital POW ward instead of a combat infantry unit, but because my training allowed me to get to know the Vietnamese people on a professional and personal level. By day, I interrogated North Vietnamese Army prisoners. By night, I volunteered to teach English at the Vietnamese-American Association in Danang.
The early 1960s started as my salad days. But the salad was long gone by the end of the decade for me and for this country.
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