I have a confused relationship with Veterans’ Day. When I came of age, the Viet Nam war was heating up. Several of my classmates in the class of 1965 signed up and went off to Viet Nam – and some did not come back.
I managed to slide through college unscathed because two doctors at the U. of Minnesota pretty much lied and told the Army I had a heart murmur- which was a stretch to say the least. They lied for me because my family doctor growing up had known both of them in medical school. They were both women, and he was the only medical student who treated them as worthy humans. Because of his kindness 20 years earlier, they lied to save the life on one of his patients they had never met.
Life is complicated.
By the time I got to my senior year of college (1968-69) the Army was getting more aggressive in their search for recruits. They paid for an independent assessment, and Doctor #3, who did not know my family doctor, found a slightly irregular heart beat, but not a murmur.
Two weeks later I graduated and was off to a new career teaching junior high English in Kirkland, Washington. Pretty soon – oops – I was declared 1A, which is US Army code for “You’re Next.” The school district appealed on the grounds that I was the only young man they could find that could teach 8th and 9th grade English and coach tennis. Since the school district had received 15,000 applications for that year and had hired only 150 teachers, their appeal fell on deaf ears with a draft board in Minnesota. As it should have.
You know your day is not going to go well when the door to your classroom opens and there stands the principal, the hiring guru for the district, and a substitute teacher. “Can you come with us please, Mr. Preston?”
The three of us left the sub with my class after a couple of minutes of hurried imparting of lesson plans – good luck with that – and repaired to the principal’s office. I think they were more upset than I was as they informed me that the appeal had been lost, and I was now 1A and likely to be drafted almost immediately.
I dealt with this in a rational fashion- at least it seemed so to me. I presumed the Army would draft me, but I would be allowed to complete my contract. Thus, in June of 1970 I would be off to boot camp, and then on to Viet Nam. Where I would die. Faced with the simplicity of this analysis, I took the logical step. I purchased a brand new motorcycle.
I was not rash. I called my father and gave him a chance to talk me out of it. He had a lot of ammunition, since I had launched my first motorcycle into a ditch four months earlier and was only now recovered from the shoulder surgery. He called into question my judgment, intelligence, finances, work ethic, and everything else he could think of – for 45 minutes. At the end he summed it up with, “On the other hand, I’ve never been in your situation. Maybe you should buy a new motorcycle.”
A month later, my new Honda 450 CL Street Scrambler waited outside my apartment. Inside, my beady little eyes stayed glued to the screen as the results of the first ever draft lottery were flashed on my little black and white TV. People would be drafted in the order their birthdays had been drawn – a lengthy ceremony held all afternoon while I was busy teaching. Now the dates were on TV, 30 of them at a time.
My eyes scanned back and forth like Evelyn Wood on speed as each set of thirty appeared. Not in the first 30, or the 2nd or the first 100, or the 2nd. My heart fell as they got past 300, as I was sure I had missed it but NO! There it was! March 21st was the 334th birthday drawn, and just like that – it was over. I heard happy screaming from the apartment downstairs and soon some guy I had never met and never saw again was dancing around the parking lot with me – he was #332.
School the next day was a time to be quiet. Rose Hill was a first year junior high. Most of the staff were also in their first year. Some had numbers that were pretty high, but nobody had a number as high as mine. Some had numbers below 100, and joined the Air Force Reserves immediately.
A month later at Christmas I drove back to Minnesota and attended a party to see my best friend from college, just back from Viet Nam. I had supported him by shipping him a case of Almond Roca, with ½ the candy replaced with car, motorcycle, and Playboy magazines. Doesn’t sound like much, but it almost bankrupted me that month and it meant a lot to him. I was eager to see him and talk, but felt a little awkward. So many had sacrificed so much, then and now, and I had skated by.
In college you could get a student deferment if you were from a wealthy, educated, and white suburb – like I was. One of my junior year apartment mates was from a small town in an agricultural area, and the farmers on his local draft board cared not a whit for a college education. He was drafted with 6 months to complete on his degree in Engineering.
Life is complicated.
My father was in ROTC in college. WW II came soon after. He found himself on the train chugging to boot camp. The train was halted and the MPs got on board looking for him. His boss had convinced the Army that Al Preston could better serve his country by continuing his work as an engineer. He was yanked off the train and sent home. During the war he developed an oxygen system for B17 crews that would allow them to breathe while the place was upside down. He probably saved hundreds of lives. He ended the war with 6 patents which, as a government employee in wartime, never earned him a dime, but you would have to say the Army made the correct decision.
My two older brothers were past draft age status before the Viet Nam war became a dire issue for them, and my son and daughter grew up with the all volunteer concept. At the end of the day my only direct line of service goes back to my two grandfathers – both of whom died before I was born. My father in- law served in both WW II and the Korean War.
My wife sat on the freeway in Bellingham in 1969 to protest the war. I was always ambivalent. War seemed like a bad idea, and the Viet Nam war a really bad idea, but I had friends who died there and friends who wanted to be there, and friends who resented and were bitterly opposed to the war protestors.
Life is complicated.
In junior high I had wanted to join the Army after high school. The reasons for this were that I felt I was pretty immature (I was right) and because I wanted to drive a tank. By the time I did graduate people driving tanks were killing other people and being killed themselves, and that was not what I wanted at all. I just wanted to drive one.
And so, I’m conflicted by Veterans’ Day.
Last weekend I rode a motorcycle in a Veterans’ Parade in Auburn, and many of those watching evidently felt that the people on the motorcycles were all veterans. Their applause embarrassed me and I wanted to stop and explain to each one.
About twenty years ago I visited the Viet Nam memorial in Washington, D.C., and I was crying even before I found the first name of a friend. Then there was a long time of quiet sobbing, and my wife and children waited patiently. We were surrounded by other men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds, all sobbing quietly at the loss of someone special.
It’s all complicated.
Veterans Day, fortunately, is simple.
A day to give thanks to veterans. For many veterans of my generation, that’s all they ever wanted.
Copyright David Preston 2011