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In the rhythm of The 12, my two week schedule connects with the May holidays of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. That’s fitting, since this Memorial Day I find myself thinking of something I learned from my mother when I was ten years old.
In 1968, our family was living in a small town in Ohio and our next door neighbors had a son serving in Vietnam. If you think the US is divided today, perhaps you aren’t old enough to remember 1968. We were more fractured then than at any time since the Civil War. Cities were inflamed after the assassination of Martin Luther King, ennui was setting in after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago turned into a riot, George Wallace was running for President as an independent and was openly racist, and on the Republican side Richard Nixon was running on winning the Vietnam War. Soon after his inauguration, he would start arguing that a “silent majority” of Americans were okay with what we were doing in Vietnam.
But it wasn’t okay and we weren’t okay with it. We learned words like “quagmire” and “morass” from our involvement in Vietnam. (Not to mention other words like “napalm” and “Agent Orange.”) The facts about atrocities like the My Lai massacre were starting to come to light. There is no question that the United States was into something very bad with no strategy how to get out. Our leaders failed us by drafting the youth of our nation into service in Southeast Asia. But we as a nation turned around and failed the young people who served. We didn’t know what to think of them or how to treat them. Since the war in Vietnam was so touched with immorality, we treated those who served there as immoral – shunning them, calling them “baby killers,” turning a collective deaf ear and blind eye to their struggles as they came back home.
Sometime that year our neighbor’s son Scott came home from Vietnam. At a time when the best most neighborhoods did was pretend not to notice a veteran’s return, my mother rallied our neighborhood for Scott. The Cincinnati Enquirer thought what we were doing was so unusual they sent a reporter out, who asked my mother a bunch of questions about her views on the war. She didn’t know how to answer them. She was not political . . . but she was a Christian. Next to loving God, she believed the most important thing to do was love your neighbor. She organized a party for Scott – painted a banner, put out decorations, got a pot luck going – and let Scott know he was loved by the people on our street and we were glad he came back to us. He wasn’t hailed as a conquering hero, he was greeted as our prodigal – a son and brother who had been lost and now was found. I remember my brother’s girlfriend’s older brother came over – he had come back from Vietnam sometime in the previous few months – and he and Scott spent a lot of time together that night and in the next few days. Who knows what sort of stories they shared with each other? Who can measure the therapeutic value of them being able to debrief, or the value of Scott experiencing the love of his neighborhood first-hand?
I don’t know what sort of internal demons Scott faced, but I know he made it back and that he has gone on to lead a good and productive life. I think of Scott when I read the chilling statistics of 18 veteran suicides a day, or of the 200,000 veterans that are homeless. Shame on us. Honorable people have been used in dishonorable ways and there is a toll on our veterans’ psyche’s.
As regular readers of this blog may know, my mother has Alzheimer’s now and has no memory of any of this. But she did it, and I remember. I was ten years old and I got it. I got that loving your neighbor was the right thing to do, regardless of the sort of storm your neighbor had been caught in. Here’s an unusual thing about Alzheimer’s Disease – although my mother has no memory of this, if all that had happened was explained to her, she’d say without hesitation that welcoming Scott back with open arms was the right thing to do. If someone lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s gets that, I wonder why it is so hard for us a society.
Love God, love your neighbor, and do the right thing.
Thanks for the brief trip down memory lane. I was going to the University of Cincinnati at the time but was alternating quarters with work in Chicago. I observed, more than participated, in the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention, but still got caught up in the tear gas that was used to disperse the crowds.
A year later, I was completing my co-op work at Herman Miller here in West Michigan and was living with and helping a young couple remodel their new house. Gary had just returned from Vietnam and to a job that had been held for him while he was serving his/our country. He went on to become a valuable executive at the company.
The following year, 1970, I was completing my studies at UC and looking forward to graduating and moving to Chicago. Then came the shootings at Kent State and our campus was closed. After several weeks, the university's administration decided to keep the campus closed and gave everyone passing grades in all of our classes. By that time, almost everyone had retuned home.
There was an official graduation, although most seniors did not come back to campus. I was there, along with members of the the Ohio National Guard, who were stationed in machine gun nests around the top of the football stadium. Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, who opposed the war in Vietnam but supported the troops, was the speaker.
Several years later, I had the opportunity to meet Senator Hatfield while I was redesigning his offices in Washington, D.C. And 40 years later, the University of Cincinnati invited the class of 1970 to come back to campus for graduation with the class of 2010. I attended. I still had my cap and gown, which were red to signify that I was the student marshall for my major. I once again had the opportunity to lead my class into the graduation ceremonies.
I did move to Chicago after graduation but then back to Western Michigan a few years later. I am still friends with Gary and his wife and my cap and gown are now back in the cedar chest. Who knows when I might have the chance to wear them again.
P.S. I'm sorry that I missed your sermon Sunday at Central Reformed Church. I always look forward to the Sundays when you are preaching.