In 1968, I was a senior at Escondido High School in Escondido, California. The Vietnam War was no longer a footnote to the evening news, it was the evening news. Whereas the class of '67 saw hopeful signs of a war being won, and the class of '69 was introduced to Vietnamization, the class of '68 moved inexorably towards a war with a voracious appetite for young men and no end in sight.
Once the Tet offensive got underway, we were awed by the numbers. Over five-hundred Americans died in one week. As one classmate put it, "Man, it's like the entire male contingent of our Senior class getting wiped out each week."
Vietnam did not always hold top billing in 1968. It had to compete with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. American cities burned as races rioted. The kids were up in arms and marching to a different beat as other kids in flag-draped caskets were marched to Arlington. 1968 was a tough year for graduation speakers.
The class of '66 and '67 learned about the war from David Brinkley. The class of '68 learned from the class of '66 and '67. In 1968, they returned on crutches and in wheel chairs. They addressed assemblies and talked in classes. I remember a visit from a Green Beret in a blood stained leg cast. Mr. Cooper gave him the full hour of our American History class. That day, we learned American History from one of the players. For many, it was a sobering lesson. Some only saw glory.
The specter of war haunted all plans for the future. Young men had to deal with the draft before making any other plans. Those who got accepted into college breathed a sigh. After all, they thought, the war can't last four more years. They were wrong, but then there was graduate school.
Others, less fortunate, became creative. Sugar slipped into a urine specimen bottle, faked homosexuality, faked lunacy, or a drug addiction got their numbers placed in the "F" pile. Others had few options: go willingly and get choices, go unwillingly and be a grunt, go to Canada and live. Some went to stay with Mohammed Ali.
I can't blame anyone for the choice they made. It was not a simple matter of patriotism. For many, the war was immoral. Others did not want to die without a good reason. Others did not want to kill without a good reason. We each did what we had to do.
On the other hand, some volunteered for the infantry and for service in Vietnam. Some had no problem with taking another's life and had nothing to live for, so risked nothing. I stood in that short line, eager for it to move. I made my father proud. I would love to tell my sons and grandsons that I answered my country's call and defended the flag. The truth, however, is that altruistic patriotism had nothing to do with it. I was young, dumb, and seeking a glorious adventure. I was in the right line and it moved very quickly.