The first thing I saw was a helicopter. It was a medevac, or had been, 45 years ago in Viet Nam. I knew, because it had a red cross on a square, white background, which was used to mark medical evacuation helicopters. Now it was part of a traveling exhibit entitled “1968” at History Colorado (formerly and more recognizably known as the Colorado History Museum). I almost missed it, as the exhibit is scheduled to close on 10 May.
I didn’t miss the real 1968 either. Not entirely, anyway. The exhibit, once you got past the helicopter, was organized by months, and it reminded me of the currents running through America that year, of which I was aware, but not a participant. I didn’t even approve of some of them.
I grew up among people who were casually, institutionally racist. It was as normal to be a racist as it was for the sun to rise in the east. It was also normal – expected, actually – to believe and support the government, and its war in Viet Nam.
While Texas was still tending to go Democratic in elections, my mother and father were solidly Republican, so I was too. It didn’t matter too much politically, not yet, since the voting age was still 21 in Texas, an age I didn’t attain until August of that year.
It was appropriate that the helicopter was the first piece of the exhibit, because the war in Viet Nam hung over everything that happened that year, including events that had no direct connection to it. My life, for example. I knew about everything that was taking place, because I read about it in the newspapers and saw it on the television. It was mostly just background noise; events and movements and protests that were happening somewhere else, to other people, but not to me or my friends. And anyway, as I said, I disapproved of a lot of the changes that were washing over the country.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, I did not mourn his death. To the contrary, I thought it was surprising that it hadn’t happened sooner, and didn’t all those riots and looting and fires after King was shot just go to show you what those colored people were really like, burning down their own neighborhoods like that?
That’s how bad it was. That’s how unthinkingly I had assumed the beliefs of the people I lived with.
Earlier in the year, when a North Vietnamese and Viet Cong offensive erupted all across South Viet Nam, I was supportive of our military as they successfully fought back, inflicting huge losses on the Communist forces, although at a great cost to our own men. The Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese.
I was oblivious, however, to the fact that only a couple of weeks earlier, President Johnson had spoken at length about how we had the Communists on the run now. I was equally oblivious to the reaction against the war that began to coalesce after that; not just on college campuses (though not on mine until the following year), or among the filthy, laughable hippies (as I then saw them), but everywhere, among all sorts of people.
If the 2015 me – or the 1978 me, for that matter – could meet the 1968 me, I wouldn’t like him very much. But it wasn’t the 1968 me who was standing in front of that helicopter at History Colorado the other day. It wasn’t the 1968 me who watched the video screen installed within the chopper, or listened to the voice recordings that played. It wasn’t the 1968 me who gripped the glass case in which were displayed a K-Bar commando knife, C-Rations, and other memorabilia of the war.
It was the person I’ve become who was standing there, and I’ve become who I am largely because in October, 1968, my life finally intersected the upheavals and changes in America. That was the month I dropped out of college and volunteered for the Army. Because I didn’t want to miss out on my chance to go to the war, I went into the infantry.
A tightness enveloped my chest as I stood there looking at those olive green cans of food, the battered knife, the vintage helicopter. A great sadness welled up within me – a sadness I will never escape – and I cried, because that’s what happens when that sadness comes back to the surface.
The beginning and the end of the exhibit were furnished with identical sets of living room furniture from the era. The set at the beginning was very middle class 1968, and was placed immediately adjacent to the helicopter. It included a television that was playing a loop of news coverage of the war. One segment was of Walter Cronkite in Hue during the Tet Offensive, wearing a steel helmet and flak jacket, interviewing a soldier. A later clip showed Cronkite in the New York studio a few weeks later. For the first time, he described the war in pessimistic terms. That was the broadcast that persuaded Lyndon Johnson to not run for re-election in 1968.
Instead of a television, the set at the other end had a pedestal record player with a clear plastic dome top that would’ve been described as groovy in 1968. The counterpoint to the groovy record player was the coffee table. The top was inset with a glass-covered display area. Placed within it were a Congressional Medal of Honor citation, a Purple Heart, and other items pertaining to the death of a Marine sergeant in Quang Ngai province, South Viet Nam, in the autumn of 1968; the same province to which I would be sent a year later. He had thrown himself on a Viet Cong hand grenade, to save his friends. One of the papers noted that he had died “hours later, in the field.” It doesn’t say why a medevac helicopter didn’t get him to a hospital.
Between those two living rooms were display cases filled with the colorful, playful clothes and music and plastic paraphernalia of that fateful year. They made a stark contrast with the war and the murders and the riots depicted elsewhere. They were the bright, joyous yang to the war’s dark yin energy. The visual and emotional clash between those parts of the exhibit exemplified the anxiety and yearning, and the tremendous opposition of tectonic forces that battered and transformed everything about America over the course of that year. Although I was incapable of seeing it in the autumn of 1968, I too was about to be battered and transformed.