The Vietnam War changed the world. It was also the guiding force that set the boundaries of my youth. I graduated from high school in 1961 and went immediately to college, within 2 weeks of graduation. I had no plan other than having no other plan and the hope that university would be different and better than what I had known before.
Vietnam began to leak into the spaces between classes, the lovely young women and my own, now that I have some perspective, monumental confusion. This was to continue until it was attached to every thought about and action taken for ‘my future.’
I worked my way through school and graduate school, living in a poverty that has to be, to this day, embarrassingly joked away. Without the kindness of strangers and a fair bit of larceny I would not have been able to do it, even in the ‘easy days’ of the 1960s. In fact, almost did not do it. There were pivotal moments. And always Vietnam.
I avoided the draft with student deferments and then with teaching deferments. I had studied the war, read General Giap’s book in 1962. Saw the pictures. Knew what happened to tender young men when their bodies were blown up. Knew that the war was the plaything of old men struggling for power. As a rural farm boy I knew what bullets did and what death looked like.
The graduates from my grad school were sought in the region because they had the reputation of being well trained; I was hired at the only job for which I applied, borrowed a little money and a car from my graduate advisor and moved to a great city were my life was to begin – with enough money to eat and sleep, and finally free of Vietnam.
I was young; many of my students were older than me. Many were Vietnam vets. A certain willingness and enthusiasm made me the darling of the department chairman and, perhaps more importantly, my group’s secretary. Soon I was writing my own teaching schedule, creating courses, getting the little awards of a better office and being invited to consult on faculty and curriculum issues.
I didn’t have to count pennies or collect deposit return bottles from the roadside. I could buy shoes and do important work.
It was not all sweetness and light; there were conflicts, but I was maturing into college teaching, growing up and forming a plan for my future. I would stay here. The school had a future. The students liked and respected me, chose my classes. I gained a little weight. Until May 4, 1970.
By now I lived in a nearby town more to my country tastes. I got up that morning, hopped into the car I had recently bought brand new and drove to school. The radio news said that students had been killed at an anti-war demonstration in Kent, Ohio. I knew my students would be angry, I knew that I would have to pick a side and for the life of me I didn’t know what side that would be. Vietnam was back.
The next few days were filled with arguments, academic and not so much, about the need for stability, the power of education to win the day, things I really and truly believed. My students also had their histories and desperately wanted to believe what I was telling them: keep you focus on your classes, get your education, fight from a position of social strength. At least in my little area of concern it seemed that the struggles that were going on elsewhere would pass us by – and I might win again in my private war with Vietnam.
Ten days after Kent State, I was driving to school when the car radio had the audacity to tell me that my life as I was planning it was over. Two students had been killed at Jackson State in Mississippi. My school was a state inner-city college about a third Hispanic, a third Black and a third ‘white.’ While Jackson State may not have had as much impact on the rest of the nation’s universities, it was the deal breaker for us.
My mind was a swirl of thoughts and emotions with only one conclusion. The college would close. I would be pressed into service to help make that happen. I was to become the student of my students. When I walked into my office there were 3 students there, standing as far from each other as they could get; the leaders of each of the major student groups. Their message was simple. They did not trust each other, but would work together through me. Soon after they left the representative of a much less formal Vietnam veterans group came to tell me that some anti-war vets were planning to blow something up if the school didn’t close classes and do a teach-in on the current state of political corruption; such a thing seemed unlikely, though possible. My informant was believable.
Without going through the details of which I am not proud, the classes were ended and replaced with teach-ins on the war and related matters – it did not go especially well. I was told that I could not to be fired, but that my life would be made into a teacher’s hell if I stayed. The leader of the Black student group said he would put on a major march if I wanted to stay, but too much had happened, too many bridges burned.
I tried again at a great Midwestern university, where, a bit older and battle worn, was again the darling for a brief time. But the magic was gone, the infantile brilliance of colleagues grating, the students insipid and… the magic was gone.
Somehow Vietnam seemed to get us all one way or another.
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Up to that point in my life I had only driven through Jackson, Mississippi three times and had never been to Kent, Ohio. I have never been to Vietnam.