Fifty years ago today, also a Monday, at the age of twenty-one, amid a deeply unpopular war, in a decision created out of a haze of depression, patriotism, and a deep yearning to free myself from the distrustful control of my mother and father, I got in my car, drove downtown, and signed the next three years of my life away to the United States Army.
Looking back, knowing what I know now, it might not seem like the best choice I could’ve made, but on that day, in that time, it seemed like the only choice that would get me out of Dallas and on the road to determining what my life would look like, who I really was, and whom I wished to become. It was a stark example of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: so lost and stuck and unknowing about myself did I feel, that only some extreme and violent action would get me unstuck, help me find my way, set me free to learn what I wanted in my life, as opposed to who my mother and father told me I was (not quite competent, not quite loveable) and what I should do with my life (get a “useful” degree and join the business world).
I was, as trite as it is to say it, trying to find myself. As if I wasn’t really here, but rather, out there somewhere, in the midst of an out-of-body experience wherein I had mislaid myself, and forgotten where I was. But I hadn’t misplaced myself so much as I had simply not understood or recognized myself to begin with.
And so, I engaged in a radical act of desperation; an irrevocable escape plan that no one could undo. I needed answers, and I wasn’t going to find them in Dallas.
Like most radical decisions, it had unintended or unforeseen consequences. Some of them could’ve been foreseen. My patriotism and fascination with the military and war, for example, somehow blinded me to the reality that choosing to join the infantry, in 1968, could get me killed.
There were beneficial consequences. The knee-jerk racism I grew up with in Texas was slowly worn away by my experiences with Black, Latino, and working class White kids in the Army.
Like racism, so it was with politics. I had unquestioningly imbibed the conservative world view of my mother and father, a world view that led me to believe that the war was a just cause, while my idealistic patriotism led me to feel that I had a duty to go to that war. The Army and the war, far from destroying my idealism and patriotism, rebuilt how I saw the world, sparking a true interest in politics, and completely turning around my views of the country, the world, and life in general. One hundred and eighty degrees. For that, I remain ever grateful.
There were other consequences that took longer to become clear, if in fact they have become clear, fifty years on.
Was the depression I felt and the drinking I did in 1968 a result of how unhappy and dissatisfied I was with my life in Dallas, or was it simply an early manifestation of the depression that has become a permanent feature of my life? Did the bi-polar mood disorder that is also a permanent feature of my life play a part in my seemingly rash decision to leave the safe environs of college and sign up for the infantry, in the deadliest year of the war, in the face of everything else that had happened in that year, both in America and in Southeast Asia? Which came first: the depression, or the PTSD? Those are questions without answers.
There are other questions without answers. For example, was that war worth the deaths of Richard P., Tom S., or Hugh S.? I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now. Was the war worth the deaths of another 58,315 young American men and women, and at least two and a half million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians? What did all those deaths accomplish, what did they gain, for this country, and for Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Lao? I’ll have to leave it up to you, to answer that question for yourself, just as there are similar questions today that you must answer for yourself.
I was caught up in a surging wave in 1968; a passionate, conflicted, unpredictable wave, which carried me into a new life. It was a life I sought, even though I had no idea then what it would come to look like, any more than anyone else ever does. It is a life full of joys and love and adventures, but also a life full of unforeseen consequences, strange turns, and unanswered questions, all of it shaped and directed by the decision I made on Monday morning, 22 October 1968. Be careful what you wish for.