You may not believe this, but I’ve not always been the well-adjusted, well-mannered, well-spoken, well-thought out person I appear to be now.
There was a time when I was, shall we say, not well-done.
Oh, in those days I thought I had it all together, figured out. I was every second of 17, a senior in high school and knew where I was going in life. Hell, I’d already been there, seen it all, lived it all.
Right. There are none so ignorant as those who will not think.
It was early 1975 and in my mind, the Vietnam War was still going strong. Actually, it was dying out, would be over for us by April. Too many years, too many dead, too many missing and too many questions had taken all the stuffing out of the nation’s military bluster.
Who am I kidding. The only bluster coming from most Americans in those days was one generation’s distrust of any other. For many in mine, it was disdain for anyone over the age of 30 and disgust for anything and everything about the war.
But there was one shared feeling – for a myriad of reasons, almost everyone not wearing a uniform seemed to revile anyone who was wearing one.
At the beginning of 1975, me, myself and everyone else I was growing up with weren’t sure if by the end of ’75, we’d be over there. We were certain of one thing – we sure as hell didn’t want to go.
At that age, staring into the face of something like that in life can be a really transforming thing – can bring out the stupid in you.
Well, it did for me, at least. I idolized Abbie Hoffman (though I didn’t actually steal his book, “Steal This Book,” I read it cover to cover, over and over, like it was some sort of Newest New Testament), not Richard Nixon. I saw America, like France before it, as the imperialistic aggressor in the war and Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese minions as the valiant defenders of their homeland. And the South Vietnamese? Well, when you’re thinking in those extremes about Vietnam, there was no place left in there for them.
Oh, I didn’t want to bring down the government, destroy the American system. Nothing as drastic or diabolical as that. My most heinous revolutionary thought was wanting to bring down the American flag flying outside my high school, run up North Vietnam’s banner, and cut the pulley ropes.
Had I been a member of the Revolutionary court, I’d have been its jester-in-training.
The target of my self-righteous anti-war snarl wasn’t at any instituition in Washington, D.C, but just one man in my hometown. The father of one of my classmates.
A retired U.S. Marine who hadn’t ever really retired. Looking every bit as disciplined, feisty and fit as he must have been on the first day out of boot camp, he was the living, fire-breathing persona of the Corps. Hell, his big pickup truck was a rolling endorsement of it.
As red as the background of the Marine flag, it had the biggest decal I’d ever seen on its hood. Nearly filled every square inch of it. The emblem of the U.S. Marines.
Nothing reserved about that. Still, I didn’t hate the man, had never met him, but in my mind despised the things he stood for, what he embodied to me.
And then I met the father of another classmate, a strapping, bear-hugging bear of an Irishman, who took a liking to me and decided one night to teach me how to appreciate the fine art of drinking scotch. I turned out to be a disciple of Irish whiskey, my preferred drink to this day.
And in a fit of loose-tonguemanship, I mentioned the Marine. Went off on a dozen eloquent (my thought) verbal attacks, made my fervent feelings known to the first person on Earth other than myself.
Mike listened to it all, said nothing, sipped his drink. When I was done, he thought quietly for a few seconds, no doubt considering his words, and said,
“I know the man, know him well, as a matter of fact.”
He had every right to take my head off with the nearest empty bottle. He didn’t. He just started telling me the Marine’s story. How he’d been a leader of kids not much older than me, how he’d taught them, fought with them, and carried many of them out of harm’s way, over and over, dead or barely alive.
And how he’d re-upped after his first tour, then after his second and then after his third. He’d confessed to Mike that he didn’t love war, hated every damn minute of it. But what he hated more, what he just could not do, was leave those kids behind. By themselves. Without him to help them. To protect them. To fight beside them, and carry them out, if needed. Until they are home, no man left behind – the Marine motto. And his creed.
No man left behind.
So, as Mike told me, he had to go back. Until the Marines wouldn’t allow him to go anymore.
I listened quietly, as Mike had done for me. When he finished, I’d finished my drink. But had only just begun to feel like a damn idiot.
And then I said I think I’d like another drink. And someday, I think I’d like to shake that man’s hand.
I think he’d appreciate that, Mike said. And he went to get another bottle.
A few weeks later, the Marine was walking into a gas station when a long-haired, earring-wearing silly-looking kid wearing ripped jeans and moccasins walked up to him. Told the man he didn’t know him, but that he knew Mike and would it be all right if he could shake his hand, say thank you for all he did over there.
What probably was an instinctive look of wariness faded away from the Marine’s face, replaced by just the hint of a smile. Why yes, yes you can.
And they shook hands. And went their separate ways.
I hadn’t changed my politics, and I can pretty safely guess that neither did he at that moment. But at least one of us had changed his perspective on some things. My hope, in a small way, was actually two of us had done that.