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Notes From the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
This past spring, I was re-invited to speak to five Douglas County high school history classes about the Vietnam War. In most respects, those experiences didn't turn out to be a whole lot different from the ones I'd had in the spring of 1998, my first attempt at the "'Nam re-education" of our local youth. For that reason, I had declined Joe's and Jeff's gracious invitation to write an article for the last Veteran about that endeavor.
But then, as I reflected upon round two of my efforts as a sort of volunteer teacher's aide, I remembered one question that a student at one of the high schools had asked. Either I had kind of buried that query in my subconscious, or, more likely, being fifty-three years old I just plain forgot about it - and especially about the students' reaction to my answer. I began to think that there might be something in that experience worth writing about.
The question, loosely paraphrased but substantially accurate, was this: "My grandfather says your Sixties generation was useless as tits on a boar hog. You smoked, snorted or swallowed anything you could get your hands on, went to bed with any animal life form you stumbled upon coming out of a bar, pissed off all the money your hard-working parents worked a lifetime to save for you, and now - thirty years later - here you are standing up in front of my class trying to tell us you were all George Washington or something. How goddamned dumb do you think we are?"
Well, she didn't really say all of those things, I suspect because her parents had taught her to respect her elders. But, truth to tell, that's pretty much what she had on her mind. (Trust me, I was there. It wasn't pretty.)
My first reaction was to take a cue from Dick Nixon and say, "I'm glad you asked that question." To my credit, I didn't do that. Instead, I put on my best Dan Quayle face (always an attention-getter), and, after a few agonizing seconds, put together what I hoped was a halfway decent answer to a very good question.
My Sixties Generation. What was I supposed to come up with? A justification? An apology? An old Kingston Trio song? Hell, who died and made me Jimi Hendrix?
Anyway, to the best of my honest recollection, this is how I answered that question.
We sure weren't perfect. I know a guy who took one acid trip too many, and since 1971 he's been sitting out on his parents' front porch rocking chair, studying the back of his hands and just smiling. He's been doing that for twenty-eight years. On the other side of the coin, I knew a lot of men and women that I marched with in the anti-war days, who went on to law school and are now making a hell of a lot of money representing HMOs or, worse yet, selling life insurance. And I know too many of my peers, including a lot of 'Nam vets, who still think that we should've elected Curtis LeMay or George Wallace as president. Missing perfection I can live with, but we weren't even consistent about it.
But you know what? Most of us tried. Your grandparents' generation told us to support the troops in Vietnam, and we did. We brought them home. They told our African-American brothers and sisters that they'd eventually get them up to the front of the bus, but they shouldn't be in a big hurry about it, because those things take time. Our generation didn't feel like waiting that long. And no cause for you young ladies in the audience to have worried, either. Your grandparents' Rotary Club had all kinds of nurses' scholarships for you. Of course, they had a lot more dollars tucked away for medical school tuition, but that was for your fathers, not your mothers. And you young folks worrying about your sexual orientation? Well - and you don't have to raise your hands or anything on this one - you can pretty well guess what Grandpa and Grandma would tell you about that.
I didn't tape that particular presentation, so I can't say that everything I just wrote is a verbatim re-creation of it. But it's pretty close. And then it got a little spooky, because when I got done with that freewheeling monologue, not one student asked another question. Not one. I had just got through telling them, not real subtly, that most of what their grandparents had been telling them was bullshit. I had strongly suggested that Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" had been the biggest single impediment in this century to the admission of minorities, women and gays into full citizenship in our great melting pot. I had told them that, our indefensible invasion of a foreign country notwithstanding, it was their grandparents who had ultimately dishonored this country by trying to whitewash it. And not one student had a single thing to say about any of that.
I have decided that there are three possible explanations for this. One is that I had done just an ass-kicking job of portraying my generation in a fresh and positive light. The second is that they didn't feel like listening to any more of what sounded like a lot of self-serving crap. And the third, I'm afraid, is that nothing I had just rambled on about for fifteen minutes was anything they were the least bit interested in.
If there is a moral to this story, it may be something like this. For any of you folks thinking about "teaching Vietnam" in this country's high schools, I would certainly encourage you to do that. But keep one thing in mind. You are there as the guest speaker. No one is going to be really rude to you, and none of the students is going to stand up, tell you you're full of shit and just walk out. And, if you're lucky, and the students have been prepped a little bit, they may even give you a little applause as you leave. But unless you have done an awfully better job than I've ever done, or unless you're one hell of a mind reader, you will probably walk out of that classroom with one nagging question on your mind. That question is, "Did I really accomplish anything here?"
Two years, eleven classes and a couple of hundred high school students later, the best I can come up with is, "I'd like to think so." Apparently I'm not convinced that it's an entirely useless endeavor, or I wouldn't be planning to do it again next year.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW's C-U Chapter.
He lives in Tuscola, IL where he works for the Probation Department.
He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.