Sometimes the clock turns back to the the 1970s, at Michigan State University. After the Vietnam War, or after it ended for some of us, as those who returned from the war trickled home, year after year, many of us found whatever home we had in and around East Lansing. Some of us, as years went on, went back and forth to Ann Arbor or Madison for graduate school, but I am getting ahead of myself.
We were “throw aways.”
We were the children of the generation of the Great Depression. My father, born in 1906, had been a bootlegger, trucker, “union organizer” and political activist in Detroit. My mother, born in Kentucky in 1924 had grown up in Glomar, a small mining camp outside Hazard. This was the world seen in iconic photos, barefoot children, starving, living in shacks. As the war moved forward, we are talking World War II, our parents either went into combat or war industries. Most of us were born during or after World War II, the lull before the Korean War began.
We were the children of a generation that had put off having families and in too many cases were far too damaged to raise children. They did their best I guess. It is hard to imagine what their lives were like as America has “Pollyannaized” its history and, in doing so, lost its soul as well but this isn’t what we are talking about today.
We grew up under Truman and Eisenhower, the imaginary America of the 1950s, raging alcoholism, PTSD, violence, racism and “Commie-scare” politics the real diet of the day. We were the children of people who never should have had children, who never really wanted them. We were an inconvenience, a “concept” that people trying to scrabble a life out of a failed century were going grasp onto.
In my house, a more than miserable place, all we had each year was Christmas. My German father held that above all, the idea that something magic and special could survive in Detroit, a world of brown snow,of poverty and crime, a dismal place with the exception of that special time of the year, Christmas at the Ford Rotunda, or Downtown Hudsons or Greenfield Village. There was still majesty about, for awhile at least.
Running the clock forward. I remember the Christmases in East Lansing and Ann Arbor, sometimes two dozen of us with families that had long forgotten us and had long given up on the idea of grandchildren. We weren’t the perfect children they might have wanted. Many of us were combat veterans, special operations types from Vietnam. We were united by our distrust of the United States, children of the great universities, our part time jobs, our teaching fellowships and parking passes, and our friends.
Some would move on, but as America’s economy moved into collapse, more and more stayed, bachelors degrees turned into masters then doctorates, marriages came and dissolved, as we moved from rented rooms in tumble down century old homes to half abandoned farm houses. Life was communal, an ever growing seemingly endless family of friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, current and former, now only survivors.
Today many of us are “holding on” as our parents did, or perhaps not holding on at all. The “ups and downs” of the half century has seen many of us with great jobs, huge homes, even grand estates. Some of us have them still and know how meaningless they are, others of us lost everything and yet retain all that matters. Those years ago, we lived communally for a reason, sharing food, cars and cash. We knew life was a lottery and winning would never define us. There is a reason so very few of us became “conservatives.”
None of us had anywhere to go. It wasn’t just that our families had left us behind. In fact, they had never existed in the first place. Those I had known prior to going to Vietnam were now gone, come to think of it, only Mike Chester, another writer at VT,was and is still around. He reminds me of a “going away party” in the late 1960s in Detroit, a get together prior to me going into the Marine Corps. He remembers it much better than I do, or has convinced me he has. He talks to two dozen people being there, tearful at me leaving. A year later none of them knew I ever existed. As Jim W.Dean so often says, you just can’t make things like that up.
I remember the 1970s, the effort we would make at Christmas, the shabby decorations, two or more turkeys, we had excellent cooks, usually the US Army Special Forces types, always very competent at things like that, often able to “appropriate” whatever we needed from university stores.
We were warriors, some, the “intelligentsia” certainly, the best and brightest of the best universities government financial aid and VA disability checks could buy. A smattering of the group were older, vets from Korea or World War 2, faculty members, usually History, Philosophy or English, sometimes Russian, Chinese or “Humanities,” with failed marriages and a love of alcohol. They had latched onto our energy and desperation or perhaps it was the “20 something” girls, more likely the latter.
For part of the time, up to 1975, there was always the continuation of the Vietnam War in the background. To some of us, it was a “safety valve.” We could always return to the military, always go back to Vietnam, for most of us, the only real home we had ever known. This is a story of the Vietnam War never written or spoken of anymore. We were “giants” there but on returning home, it is like we were diminished, bar tenders and dishwashers, correcting papers, teaching 3rd rate classes to the children of car dealers and “golfers.”
To those from that time, walking the streets of Ann Arbor or East Lansing, of Columbus or Madison, a dozen other college towns, brings back memories. At Michigan State, so much is gone, the endless gardens, the aging haunts, all replaced with new buildings, lawns and a world where a History Department with dozens of funded chairs is now an afterthought for the “pre-law” crowd. Even the faculty members from that time, Paul Varg, Jim Hooker, Harold Marcus, Walter Gourlay, John B. Harrison, so many, not just gone but forgotten as well, more than forgotten.
VT, Veterans Today, reminds me of that time. I just returned from Syria. With me were Jim W. Dean, Jim Hanke, Mike Harris and Ralph Edmundson. We also had Korean war vet William Stanley, an academic from that earlier time with us, someone who knew many of those I knew from so many years ago. He was great company.
We could have brought more a hundred more. Consider this an understatement. Veterans Today isn’t a publication, not for the insiders, who now number in the many thousands, from print and radio. We aren’t a club nor are we a political group. We are “throw aways.”
We are the multi-generational kids that never fit in, never tried, those that looked for a way of blending in and yet not giving up humanity. VT people are those who learned how impossible that is. Geography has us scattered, not just around the United States but around the world. More of my extended family is in Europe now than the US. It is the same group of kids it had been in 1970, more languages spoken, the faces not the same, names like Harry Erivona from Nigeria or London, Iftikhar Malik of Oxford, still around, part of that gang at Michigan State back in the 70s. There is Ted in Zurich or Peter, in a Paris hospital or my Egyptian partner Hany, I always imagine in that perfect seat in a Zurich coffee shop. I think of George in his huge Toronto home, a misplaced Cypriot and lost child like the rest of us.
At VT it is more than the writing staff, it is readers too, some of whom drive me crazy but they know I care about them as well as we trade barbs year after year.
Mike Harris pointed out last night we may be in the millions. We lose people as well, I could talk or Eric or Raja but it is even more. We’re all good kids, good hearted, people who, like our parents, thrown away, not just by families that never wanted us but by societies we watched crumble around us, not just America but Britain and Canada, Germany and Israel, Pakistan and Iraq, Singapore and India, across Africa, Russia, Sweden. If you didn’t know such an extended family exists, it does. You may well be part of it, if you feel a part of it, then my work has been successful.
Today it seems as though the world is burning down around us. I suspect I am not imagining it. If I had known then what I know today, I might not have had the energy to move on nor would I have wanted to face it but “facing it” is what defines us, winning or what we manage to gather onto ourselves.
I have this vision that haunts me. I caught it like a nasty infection, perhaps 15 year go. I was on my bike (Kawasaki W650 “retro”)with Carol. We were riding across Ohio, a Sunday, fourth of July weekend. I remember passing a farm, nothing fancy, a home built during the 50s maybe, an old barn and a yard with a big tree. There were a dozen cars parked, tables set up, children and grandchildren everywhere to be seen.
It reminded me of a lifetime of choices, of who I decided to become and of regrets. Pretense is nothing and all accomplishment is empty, pretense, immaterial.
It reminded me of my mother. When my father died, she remarried and moved up to Kentucky from Florida, buying a small farm in a beautiful area. I still own it, god help me. This was “Hank and Dorothy,” extended families on the Fourth of July, barbecue, kids everywhere, our mixed family, half “Jewish” sort of. We were never a religious lot. Hank died soon after, the time of kids visiting and those special family outings gone forever, having lasted so short a time.
Perhaps this is why I keep envisioning this scene, this farm, this “perfect family,” something I would never be part of, not the same anyway. I didn’t get that factory job or teach or run that insurance company. Like so many of us, I was tainted with the smell of “more” somehow, more that, in the end, has turned out being so much less. But then it was always to be so.
I was a throw away, a “gatherer” of throw aways. Maybe, collectively, we are building a better world somehow. It is possible, perhaps more than possible. If you, out there somewhere, having that nagging feeling you may belong to something, perhaps you are right. We do exist, much more than voices on a radio and certainly not anonymous on the net, far from that.
Certainly, we should have our own country, one without police and prisons, of course without an army, not a real one anyway. Many of us can do that quite well ourselves but know how stupid the idea is, how useless. I would have a world of cats and dogs, of happy kids, of gardens and bonfires, of fireworks and celebrations, where the idea of rules is insane. How it went so wrong, so long ago in Mesopotamia, writing down how people are supposed to act. Real people never needed any of that but then again, this being a holiday, we don’t need to go there, to define “real people.”
For those of you out there with children and grandchildren, who have some health left, perhaps even this year only, one Christmas can be enough. For those with none of this, with only memories, you are not alone.