Forty-six years ago I was awarded a B.A. degree in history after five, not the usual four, years of reading books and writing papers. I was somewhat burned out and in need of a rest before receiving that letter of impending doom from General Hershey, Director of the Selective Service Administration.
Shortly after graduation a letter would arrive from the Selective Service informing me that my 2-S draft status was changed to 1-A, meaning that my deferment was over and I would shortly receive a second letter from Gen. Hershey that began with “Greetings.” The letter was, of course not an invitation to join the army and become a hero, but a notice that I was selected to become one of Uncle Sam’s mighty warriors. In all likelihood I would be sent to Vietnam, like other college graduates in 1968, as a fit sacrifice to the god of war.
The summer of 1968 was not a good time for vacationing in Vietnam. Not too many years ago I had the honor of getting to know a true hero who served as a marine captain in Vietnam. He told me that the need for new bodies to send out into the jungle on “search and destroy” missions was so great that they were sending over new draftees with very little training. Yes, at that time they were drafting men into both the army and the marines. The number of men who were drafted into the marines during the Vietnam War was 42,633.
I felt that I might be able survive through the summer before being drafted. I always dreamed of going to Europe, and now, before facing death in the rice paddies of Vietnam, perhaps I could fulfill that dream.
I was encouraged to go to Germany for the summer by my German language professor. She was a native German who married an American officer at the end of World War II. She introduced me to a foreign language major, who also wanted to go to Germany for the summer. With encouragement from Frau Helga Leftwich, Jim Sturgis and I made plans to spend the summer studying German and bumming around Germany.
Since I would no longer enjoy the benefits of a student deferment, it was necessary to obtain permission from my draft board to leave the country. I have to admit that the thought of going to Canada did enter my mind. As a child I saw one of those Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald movies set in Canada with those red-coated Mounties romancing beautiful girls. Who would not want to move to Canada after watching Rose Marie (1936)? Canada? Perhaps. The Canadians speak English, as well as French. But go to Sweden, the other option? No way. Sweden is lovely, and the Swedish girls are beautiful, but how would I ever be able to talk to them? The draft board proved to be merciful and allowed me to leave the country, so long as I was back by a certain date in September.
A friendly banker who just happened to be from the little German village next door to the village where I wanted to study German agreed to give me a student loan for $1,200 to finance my adventure. Strange as it may seem today, that was enough money to pay for air transportation to and from France, pay for the two months at the Goethe Institute in Ebersberg, and spend the rest of the time bumming around. It was also sufficient for me to spend several days in Paris before departing for home at the beginning of September.
Jim and I made reservations on a student charter flight to Paris. Because Paris was experiencing one of those great romantic moments in her history, our flight was diverted to Brussels, Belgium. The students from the Sorbonne with the support of members of the trade unions were rioting in Paris in hopes of toppling the government of Charles de Gaulle. They failed, but when we went to Paris at the end of the summer to catch our return flight, we saw lingering evidence of the riots everywhere in the area around the Sorbonne.
After arriving in Brussels, we and a couple other students, also trying to briefly escape reality, or perhaps as they often said in those days “find themselves,” went to a small café. While sipping a glass of wine and soaking in the atmosphere, a man ran into the café all excited and tapped the front page of a newspaper on the wall. You didn’t have to be able to read French to decipher the bold headlines above Robert Kennedy’s picture. We heard on the news before leaving New York that Robert Kennedy had been shot in California. We did not know until then, however, that he had died.
Bobby Kennedy was our only hope for ending the madness in Vietnam. Eugene McCarthy proved in early primaries that a “peace candidate” did have a chance to win the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1968. Whether he could win the general election was another matter. Once Robert Kennedy entered the race, there was little doubt that he would be nominated, and if nominated, he would win.
All was lost when Robert Kennedy was gunned down in that Los Angeles ballroom. Although we could not know it then, we had six more years of killing in Vietnam and six more years of unrest at home ahead of us. 1968 was the high tide of sixties revolution here at home and abroad. As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are [were] a-changin’.” Changing they were, but not as we hoped.
With the rise of Richard Nixon, the insecure former carnival barker, onetime champion of McCarthyism, and self-righteous Cold Warrior, America took a sharp turn to the right. The idealism of the sixties drowned in despair. Personal peace and affluence became the new mantra. Students no longer went on to the universities and colleges to obtain an education and discover the meaning and purpose of life. Instead of education, they sought training so that they could compete for success in a new franchised America.
For just a brief period America’s youth rebelled against the materialism that so characterized life in postwar America. But they failed, and they embraced materialism with a passion that would have embarrassed their parents. A lack of critical thinking and an expertise in the Social Darwinist struggle for survival are the desired skills for success in today’s world.
“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.”
(“Little Boxes,” words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company.)
Would it all have happened differently, if Robert Kennedy had lived, and not been shot by a deranged busboy 46 years ago? Maybe. Maybe not. We historians can only record the past. We cannot predict the future.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.