- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." – Charles Dickens
It was a seminal decade, the 1960s – a cultural equivalent of the First World War in its disruptions and far-reaching effects. What happened during this turbulent ten-year span has echoed down the years from that time to this. We all live with its legacy and contend with its consequences.
Historians differ on where to draw the line of departure that marks this formative time. If you were to pin me down, I would say it began with the report of rifle fire from the Book Depository Building in Dallas (and possibly the grassy knoll, who knows . . .) and ended with the last chopper lifting off the embassy roof in Saigon. Yes, that fits nicely. Born in assassination, buried in defeat. Two very appropriate bookends, those two.
The 60s seemed both far away and uncomfortably close as this year began and I got the first emails concerning the two forty-year reunions that were rapidly approaching. Time is relentless and long memory a curse. I look at the calendar today and can hardly believe it’s 2009. When did it get so late in the game, and when did I become obsolete? At other times, it often seems 1969 was a dream that never quite faded with the dawn.
But this year, all the chickens were coming home to roost as I was soon to discover; for the gathering of disparate individuals was soon to commence in two seemingly unrelated, polar opposite groups. The first – scheduled for Memorial Day weekend (how fitting) – was the 40-year reunion of Bravo Company, Republic of Vietnam, 1969-70. Sadly, that’s as specific as I can get considering many of the wounds from that abortive struggle still fester after all these years. It’s one of the lasting legacies of a war seemingly conceived, planned, and executed from directives hastily scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin in some out-of-the-way DC bar.
Receiving word of this upcoming gathering of veterans, I was as conflicted as always when it came to meetings of this sort. Let’s face it, we’re not the greatest generation, and this was not the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. No adoring crowd of well-wishers was to be found at our get-togethers. No children honoring their fathers. No CNN, BBC or any other alphabet-soup news reporting agencies. Just a group of men well into middle-age, growing old, getting tired, and probably just as torn as I was about showing up in the first place. The very fact that the best news coming out of the Bravo company newsletter was that nobody committed suicide in the last twelve months gives you a feel for the mood of the group going into the 40-year get-together.
I had a particular source of discomfort to deal with compounding my decision even further. We were an airborne unit – I realize that narrows it down some, but leaves plenty of room for anonymity – and when I rotated in-country, was assigned to an air assault platoon as a rifleman. That worked out well. I tapped into a wellspring of hostility during basic and airborne AIT; enmity that had been smoldering like a dormant volcano all through childhood. Put a weapon in my hands, take off the societal restraints, shake well and voilá! – instant grunt.
Ground pounding was one thing, command was something else. When I got shoved into that role – due to high attrition among junior officers – everything changed. It was a role I was not suited to –by temperament, training or rank. But, orders were orders. And when my tour was over, well, let’s just say there are many more names on The Wall who served under my leadership – of the lack thereof – than there should be and leave it at that.
So I’ve always had second thoughts about showing up at these meetings. I’d been to one other – the 20-year reunion in 1989 – and it was awkward and tense. I was planning to beg off when our company commander called me up. He’s a successful attorney, semi-retired now, renowned for his command presence in the courtroom and on the battlefield. He encouraged me to come, insisted really. And since he was hosting the event, and since his home sat on a forty-acre lot overlooking the Santa Barbara channel, and since it was over Memorial Day weekend – always a tough holiday for me, and one in which I should never be alone – what could I say but yes? I mean, if you’re going to be stranded over a holiday weekend, Santa Barbara is a great place to be stranded in.
As expected, nobody was particularly overjoyed to see me when I showed up Friday night. My greeting was cordial, but restrained. Thirty-eight of us joined the assembly during the course of the weekend. But the house was big enough to accommodate us all. We joked that this was the ritziest barracks we’d ever drawn a billet in. Quite a step up from the four-man hooches of bygone days. U2 on a state-of-the-art sound system instead of Jim Morrison on an eight-track.
We’d done well over the years. Most of us landed on the right side of the contemporary divide that separates those who are well off from those who never will be. There was a lot of grousing about Obama, corporate bailouts, and the taxes to pay for them. There were also lots of pictures of grown-up children, and toddler grandkids. It was ironic. We gathered to commemorate an event forty years gone by, and talked about nothing but the here and now. Who was retired? Who had what operation? How ‘bout them Steelers? That sort of thing. There was precious little reminiscing about the good ol’, bad ol’ days. And what there was amounted good-natured banter about the absurdity of the whole thing and the characteristic gallows humor typical of combat veterans, loosened up by liquor and worn down by the erosion of time. But there was nothing about our thinning ranks or who died by their own hand. Nobody wanted to go there.
Despite the subdued atmosphere, we spent much of the weekend relaxing. Our host chartered a boat, and a bunch of us spent that day deep sea fishing. Others walked the beach. Still others didn’t stray too far from the pool. A marathon Texas Hold ‘Em game developed in the den. Cigarettes, San Miguel beer and Wild Turkey 101 were poured out in abundance. And while most of us could still hold our liquor, we discovered we couldn’t keep the non-stop hours required for drawn-out sessions of this sort. I lost $20 – the last losing hand of which was eights and aces – and I took it as an omen to quit while I wasn’t too far behind. Mostly we paired off in twos and threes and spent the time catching up on the business of the last forty years. We talked about what happened since, not what went on before.
On Memorial Day, we attended a local service as a unit. Nobody showed up in camo fatigues. Nobody displayed any insignia. Some vets wear the colors with a kind of defiant pride. We didn’t. A contingent of bikers from Rolling Thunder put in an appearance. The keynote speaker talked about the commitment of the present-day defenders of freedom standing watch on far-flung battlefields. He also paid homage to the sacrifice and triumph of the WWII generation, a few of whom were still fit and able to fall out at parade rest. Vietnam was not mentioned.
During the course of the weekend, our host suggested I give my Normandy presentation, culled from my experience during the 60th anniversary commemoration in 2004. When he first brought this up, I really didn’t want to pursue it. We were not the greatest generation, I explained. In our war, there was no strategic objective seized, no triumphant homecoming, no honor, no respect that came with the years. Besides, the assembled group knew me, and all of them had long memories.
But, as always, I could not deny our host’s request. So I ramped up on Saturday night, and shared the experience of old men returning to the site of their greatest triumph, their middle-aged children seeking fathers who had been so reserved, so removed, so distant from them in childhood. I spoke of the many-faceted dynamic of what went on during those three delirious weeks in Europe – things like reconciliation and respect, forgiveness and understanding, absolution and admiration, grace and salvation.
When it was over, seventeen men came to faith in Jesus Christ or renewed their walk. And all this while I was in a spiritual desert of my own. Trust me, I’m not that good a speaker. And I’m certainly no evangelist. The material still has power. All these years later, it still captivates, mesmerizes, convicts and transforms, particularly among men who’ve stood their own trial by fire in desperate circumstances.
We spent four very intense days together and parted company on the Monday after Memorial Day. We all pledged to stay in touch, all the while knowing we wouldn’t. We’re not close. We don’t cross the line from brothers-in-arms to close friends. No great reconciliation occurred during those four days. But we all got a reminder that a man is the sum total of his experiences. And the events which forged our common experience would not be denied. Not altogether comforting, but not discouraging either. Call it a reaffirmation of our collective identity.
And then there was the Class of ’69 on a hot August night. My, oh my, where do I begin?
Ever end up on a website and completely forget how you got there? That’s how I stumbled upon the Class of ’69 reunion site. I knew it was in the offing – after all, it’s been forty years, and we make a point of celebrating these milestones – but somehow it got lost in the shuffle. Bravo Company was more front-and-center going into this year, for reasons which must now be clear to everyone. But, there it was in all its glory – the Class of ’69 – and there I was, clicking on my first alumni profile. And just like that, I was hooked . . . Again.
It was intoxicating, tripping down memory lane for the second time in a matter of months. You would think these particular reminiscences would be more appealing than the razor’s-edge reflections of Bravo Company. They were. And they weren’t. But for a frustrated historian like myself, it was impossible not to explore the exploits of the best and the brightest from the one town in Southern California that prosperity passed by.
Still, this time around I was going to pass. There were several reasons for my decision. Chief among them was I was worn out from the Bravo Company gathering. Four days in Santa Barbara left me pretty much wrecked for the entire month of June. I usually don’t dream in my old age. But when the war dreams come roaring back, live and in living color (never a good thing) it’s time to take a rain check, back off and bug out. So, while my curiosity was piqued, I was quite prepared to sit this next one out.
The other reason was hard times came early to me – long before the onset of this latest recession – and I was going to suffer by comparison. I did a quick head count of who was planning to attend and it worked out to roughly 10% of the total class. There were reasons for this as well – many of us simply could not be found. A few (like me) were just going to pass. And of course, we had our own casualty list. You don’t get forty years down the road without taking a few losses along the way. Still, that number stuck in my craw for some reason. 10% somehow held some significance. Then I remembered.
Years ago, during my tenure in Las Vegas, I bid a job to computerize the office of an up-and-coming investment broker/sales superstar. It was the wild-and-wooly, pre-crash 1980s when you bought stocks and got rich. My broker client was a tax accountant with a securities license and a radio program with 50,000 watts behind it. He hawked investments that could save his clients thousands of dollars in taxes if they would only show up, check in hand, ready and willing to take the plunge down the golden road to wealth and prosperity. It worked. He had so much business he had to totally renovate his office.
Enter yours truly.
I was installing some hardware in his office on a Saturday morning. My broker/client was conducting a financial planning seminar in his conference room. The door was open and I could hear his lead-in for what figured to be a riveting hour presentation. He said –
“You know, 10% of the population controls 95% of the nation’s wealth. If, somehow, you could evenly distribute this fortune so that ever man, woman and child had an equal dollar amount, within three years, 10% of the population would control 95% of the wealth again.”
Getting back to the Class of ’69, it was this 10% who was going to show up in August. So, I was definitely going to suffer by comparison. All the same, a similar state of affairs didn’t keep me from attending the 20-year reunion. The conditions were essentially the same, although the particulars were different. And that party was inspiring, amazing, uplifting, spectacular, in fact. Pick your adjective. It was one of those “hinge events” upon which life turns every so often. It was simply outstanding. So what was the difference this time around? I’ll tell you –
A failed life at 38 is very different than a failed life at 58. At 38, we have the second half in front of us, and the comfort of being able to indulge in the kind of delusion that suggests a miraculous turnaround is somewhere down the road. At 58, we’re in the fourth quarter of life, winding down to the two-minute warning, and no such luxury exists.
So, fresh from the Bravo Company commemoration, I really wasn’t up for another pause for reflection. Besides which, the 20-year gathering of the Class of ’69 paid dividends in other ways. It was so uplifting, so life-affirming, so therapeutic if you will, that I departed the assembly that night and considered myself discharged as cured. No need to revisit the same venue anymore.
So, what happened to change my direction this time around? It was an email exchange with one of the prime movers on the reunion committee. Her response was so gracious, so thoughtful, so well-crafted, not to mention so subtly persuasive that I began to think the Class of ’69 might provide a suitable bookend to the Bravo Company gathering of a few months before.
Gracious. Hmmmm. That’s a word I would never have used to describe us when we were first thrown together during the turbulent and tumultuous 60s. In fact, I remember remarking at the 20-year gathering that I doubted any group of kids could be meaner to each other than we were. But, that was ten years before Columbine, so what did I know? So, after a few days to mull it over, I sent in my check, and the die was cast. Once more into the breach . . .
There was no official theme on that hot August night. But the unofficial one was Celebrating Forty Years of Triumph. Sure enough, this group grabbed the brass ring and never gave it up. Indeed, they were the 10%ers. They went out into the world, and good things happened. Through the years, the men walked into a room and other men wrote them checks, while women they met along the way wanted to bear their children. And the women of the Class of ‘69? Well, let’s just say all the boys wanted to play with them back in the old days and still do. I should look that good at 58. Wait a minute. I am 58.
My welcome was warm and inviting. Dare I say it again? It was gracious. It never ceases to amaze me how this group never ceases to amaze me. The radiance of the Class of ’69 – which shone forth at the 20-year reunion – had not diminished in its brilliance at the 40-year party. Even the most stunning high school hottie – you know, the one who had that glow around her; eternally out of reach and the one you were certain was going to slide through life without so much as a scratch or breaking a sweat – was accommodating, warm, cordial and . . . gracious. There’s that word again. She turned heads at eighteen. And she still does. And guess what? She’s had her tragedies and she’s had her failures. She also carries herself with grace and dignity that in many ways projects a greater appeal than all that teenage hotness so many years ago. Elegant, striking, beautiful.
I only got snubbed by four people. But I expected as much from this particular quartet. So, no harm no foul. We caught each other’s gaze across the room from time to time. And their expressions said it all. I’m sure their experience would have been greatly enhanced if I had a third-class reservation on the first gulag-bound train. But then, I’m sure my expression betrayed my sincere desire to walk them into a minefield. That aside, it was a gathering of old acquaintances bound by a common experience. A reflection on lives well lived and milestones achieved; a break from the routine; a season of rest. Once more I got a reminder – there’s power in a shared experience.
We could still get down and party hardy. But, with a shortage of that fine, white powder that put in appearances at previous gatherings, and a dearth of Viagra, I suspected the customary pelvic bump-and-grind we engaged in during bygone festivities was reduced to a minimum. Or maybe there were more important priorities to attend to that night.
So, if I was to sum up our transitions over the years, based on these snapshot gatherings, it would be thus:
- As high school kids we were brash and irreverent.
- At midlife we were confident and competent.
- In middle age we are serene and gracious.
But, we can hope they’ll find their way, and make peace with their demons. Maybe we’ll see them the next time around, whenever it comes up. I genuinely believe this group is excellent therapy for anyone who’s been beat down by life and beat up by circumstances. It has always been for me. Twice now.
Our emcee went through a litany of the grand accomplishments we lived through, and some of us participated in. And for all the distractions going round the room by then, I still couldn’t help but notice that the list was incomplete.
It’s true, we’ve seen some dramatic changes along the way. We were in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. But we also now deal with a politically correct tyranny that infects every aspect of our lives. We saw the introduction of genuine equality for women in American society. But we currently live with the wreckage of Roe v. Wade. We’ve just elected our first African American president. But we also endured Rodney King and all the alienation and animosity that came in its wake. And, of course, we raged against an immoral war in Southeast Asia. But we gave no thought to the ruined lives that came home from the carnage. So, while I’m perfectly willing to embrace the fellowship of the Class of ’69, I’ve got my doubts about the triumph of the baby boom generation that appears to go along with it.
This is not a group I would expect to show up on Memorial Day for a veteran’s service. It’s not that we’re disrespectful. It’s just that we can’t be bothered on the first holiday weekend of summer with a downer on a Monday morning. We work too hard, accomplish too much, have too many plans. It’s all a matter of priorities and ours are well . . . different than . . . say . . . Bravo Company.
For all that, it was a tremendously uplifting experience. Never thought we could capture lightning in a bottle. Twice, no less. So, what is there to conclude from these two diverse, yet related gatherings?
The Class of ‘69 celebrated 40 years of triumph. And rightly so. We worked hard, doors opened for us (most of us, anyway), and everything came our way. Now we’re enjoying the hard-earned fruits of our labors. We’ve known success and failure, and everything in between. But we took it all in stride, and our confidence in the foundation upon which they built our monuments never wavered. There was always solidarity in the midst of a slide area in which we could place our trust.
On the flip side, Bravo Company knows betrayal. We came to terms with alienation, mistrust, resignation and isolation. It comes with the territory when the rug gets pulled out from under. The Class of ’69 may have trumpeted “Never trust anyone over 30.” Bravo Company lived it out. The vibrancy of that hot August night was nowhere to be seen during the sedate gathering of veterans over Memorial Day.
It could be Bravo Company will find its way home. That’s still within the realm of possibility. It’s an ongoing journey, made all the more difficult by decades of living with an uncommon wariness not found in the culture at large. We don’t broadcast it. You won’t find us screaming into a camera “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” We don’t live out the Chicago convention in 1968. But we are cautious. We keep our own counsel. And we always watch our own backs now that there’s no one to do it for us. Oh, we get along well enough. We function at a level that has generated many a healthy fortune. But for all that, we’re set apart. And we learned early on that happy endings are often illusory. Nightmares, depression, suicide, Agent Orange. We live with them all, but we manage to keep on keepin’ on. Most of us do, anyway.
And when Bravo Company arrives at its destination on its long day’s journey into night, I hope the Class of ’69 will be there waiting to welcome us home. We can all throw a log on the fire, break out the good whiskey, cozy up to a comfortable easy chair (or even a good, warm woman, that’s even better) and swap stories about the 60s, the divergent paths we all took, and how all roads ultimately led home. As a member in good standing of both groups, that’ll be a party worth waiting for.
The Class of ‘69 adjourned from our 40-year celebration just after midnight. Any after-party activity that lingered into the morning was something I was not privy to. I’m old. I get tired easily. And it was time for my coach and four to turn into a pumpkin and a bunch of mice. But I got a much needed boost to my flagging batteries at a time when I needed it. Just like the last time I partied with this group.
There’s power in a shared experience. I think I already mentioned that. And down the long road of years, the pull is particularly strong when the experience is early and formative. For the Class of ’69, the early days in which we were thrown together was a time we were struggling to find out who we were, what our abilities were, how we would navigate our way through life. For Bravo Company, the experience was more basic. It concerned confronting the dark side of our nature without getting consumed by it; covering each other’s back regardless of what we thought of one another; coming to terms with a sense of community forged in dire circumstances that nobody wanted, but everybody embraced.
In each case, a sense of identity was forged. We were the same. We belonged to each other. We were part of the same tribe. And that’s important. Everybody needs to belong to something. And I embrace both divergent groups. I’m grateful for the grudging acceptance of Bravo Company, and I revel in the camaraderie of the Class of ’69. To do anything less would be a denial of the most basic sense of community we all need. Besides which . . .
- “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”