Tuesday morning 5:51 AM finds me sitting at a small metal table on a narrow cement sidewalk in front of Starbucks, sipping coffee. Sipping coffee and thinking.
I have been watching the PBS Vietnam special for the last week. It has been riveting, and disturbing. I feel compelled to view it like I am compelled to stare at an accident on the side of the road. The emotions when I watch the screen trump any rational reason why I should, or should not, view the series.
It surprises me how fresh the half-century-old photographs are to me. I saw many of them in real-time when I was a child and adolescent. When I view them now I am instantly transported back to those days. In many ways, I traveled the same journey that the storytellers did.
As a child, I believed that the government’s only purpose was to protect us. That they always told the truth, and that they were transparent in their actions. As an adolescent, I became progressively more jaded by the reality that I saw on the nightly news. The body counts based on political currency, rather than necessity. The dehumanization of an entire nation of people. The devaluation of American lives. Winning the war became the goal in Vietnam, the reasons why lost in political rhetoric and catchphrases.
The stories of the soldiers, many children, brought back memories of me sitting in the kitchen of the house on Francisco Avenue listening to WGN as my year’s draft lottery numbers were being announced. My number was 108. My best friend John’s number was in the high 200s. Predictions were that they needed to draft up to 160 or 180 that year. I was relieved for John but terrified for me.
I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I became aware of my number. A feeling of being completely out-of-control. By that point, I had lost faith in God, the government, all authority. I was too afraid to separate myself from my family. Too afraid to escape to Canada.
It felt like my life was over that day. One more trauma in a series of traumas, but one that would likely be my demise. I had survived others in my young life, some formidable. However, the US government and my perceived expectations of my family appeared to be insurmountable. A barrier that I did not have the strength to breach.
During my draft year, the war deescalated and they never reached draft number 108. It was still a year of hellish waiting.
I’m not sure what was more painful. The thought that I could be sent off to war and most certainly die, or the realization that those who pledged to protect me had clay feet. It was a time of transition for me. A time where I decided that the only way that I could move forward in life was by taking control of my own life. A time of abandonment of naive, but comforting beliefs. A time of doubting everything. When you doubt everything you are alone, and so it was a time of great loneliness.
It was one more step in me becoming ever more independent. A blessing and a curse. It was one more step in me becoming expert in areas that I found necessary or interesting. A blessing and a curse. It was one more step in me becoming skeptical of other’s motivations in their interactions with me. A blessing and a curse. It was mostly a terrible time.
I have softened over the years. tempered by life experience and maturity. I view authority with a reality that is more nuanced, less absolute. I have more trust with people in my life, and I realize that most individuals, agencies, and authorities have many facets… some good, some bad.
I tend to focus on the positive of people and things, not the negative. I tend to see the good in others, more than I see the bad. But I still have a wary eye.
I am aware of the damage caused to real people who were exposed to horrific atrocities at an age where they should have been focused on weekend parties and fast cars. I lost a cousin because of the trauma of Vietnam. I have worked with countless vets at the VA who lost functional lives because of their experience. I currently work with successful men who seemed to beat the odds, only to crumble when the structure of their work lives ended. That vacuum filled with memories and nightmares from a time better forgotten. It saddens me. It sickens me.
I am aware that knowledge without action means little. We can learn from the past, or we can repeat the past. This rule applies to big-picture stories, like the Vietnam war. It also applies to small-picture stories, like our personal lives. So many times we repeat cycles of futility, hoping for a different outcome. I want to move forward. I want to learn and move on. I don’t want to be cynical or paranoid, but I also know that I can’t be all trusting either.
My wife Julie sometimes criticizes me as I can come off as being an expert in many things. It is true that my obsessive nature drives me deep into topics. It is true that my professional life places me in a position where I am expected to be knowledgeable, an expert. I wonder if my intrinsic nature fueled this quality, or if it was formed by the traumatic realities of my young life?
I move on, forever growing, forever questioning. I want to believe, I want to trust… one step in front of the next, moving forward.