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RECOLLECTIONS: I Couldn't Escape '68
By Jim Wohlgemuth
I am sure many of us are feeling those pangs of memory, those anxieties of wartime experiences as the 50th anniversary of Vietnam continues and drags unmercifully through the sanitation of time and Ken Burns. To some of you, your anniversaries have come and gone and I am sure you are well done with it. For me, mine is about to start, the fiftieth anniversary of 1968.
Fifty years ago I was partying through a year at Drexel Institute of Technology as I squandered my 2S deferment.
In January I saw the news about the Tet, I saw the extent, the power, and the commitment of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong and knew LBJ's optimism was unfounded. When peace candidate Gene McCarthy challenged LBJ in the New Hampshire primary and almost won, I felt good, maybe there might be peace and Vietnam would end. Johnson pulls out, in comes Bobby and I am thinking that there is truly going to be a peace candidate. OK, I can try to ride out the year at Drexel and transfer to a different school and maybe a new President could end the nightmare in Vietnam.
One warm April afternoon after seeing a movie with friends, I headed back on the train to Drexel. The train was noticeably quiet. No one was speaking. We got to the dorm and there was a crowd around the TV, Dr. King had been assassinated. I saw the smoke rise over Philadelphia.
June school was almost over. How would I explain my dismal performance to my parents? I started to go to sleep one evening when a friend burst into the room to say Bobby had been shot. I lay back down, too stunned to be saddened. The sadness would come. I was numb. I just wanted my parents to come get me and take me back to Western Pennsylvania, back to our home in the woods, back to the safety of my childhood.
I remember very little about that summer except sitting, just sitting. My mom got me a job in her office and she took me to work each day. I befriended a member of the Young Democrats who invited me to the Pennsylvania state convention. It was fun so he said let's go to the national convention in Chicago. I declined, I didn't think it would amount to much. Until it did. I watched the horror of the police brutality on the student protesters thinking to myself I am so glad I didn't go. Then again, shouldn't I have gone?
My grades came in the mail and my parents, I suspect, were too disappointed to even say anything. One afternoon my Mom sat me down and gave brochures for the Air Force and the Navy. We had one of those conversations that I knew I had better say nothing. I had put myself in this position and now Mom was going to push me out of it.
I went to the Navy recruiter. I took an aptitude test. The recruiter told me of all the jobs that were available to me. I just wanted to stay away from Vietnam. I told the recruiter I had relatives in England and would like a ship where I could visit them. I said I liked the idea of a destroyer, whatever that was. The recruiter smiled, nodded and assured me that my test scores would let me pick my duty. I was offered delayed entry. I would join on December 16, 1968. I went home to sit, think, and count the days.
I remember Jose Feliciano's Star Spangled Banner at the World Series and John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising their fists at the Olympics. I remember the Nixon election. I remember the evening news about Vietnam. I felt the reality of the situation crowding me, suffocating me. Then came December 16, 1968.
The morning was Western Pennsylvania cold. Snow was on the ground but not in the air. I had to be to the Federal Building by 6 am. My Dad drove and my Mom was in the front seat directly in front of me. I remember images but no thoughts. No one said a word, not a word. We arrived at the Federal Building, I grabbed the bag my Mom had packed for me and got out. There were some sheepish smiles of resolution and a handshake and hugs. The guidance to be careful and to write. My Dad had enjoyed the Army so he was confident that I would be alright. My Mom, a war bride from England was doing her stiff upper lip with a Mother's smile. I walked to the Federal Building and in the door. I don't remember taking another breath for days, maybe months. I know I must have. My Mom would later tell me that if I had turned around she would have called me back and we would have figured something else out. I wish I had, but I am glad I didn't. I am here.
That was my 1968, a year where I was confronted with a reality that would unnerve and challenge me to my core, but thanks to the foresight and fortitude of my Mom and the confidence of my Dad, I made it through and because I made it through that year I knew that I actually could be the navigator of a future that I would make. But please, these memories of that year have a rawness that to this day will upset my stomach and generate an anxiousness that forces me to reach for another beer. So when I see those magazines commemorating 1968 I either turn them around or I mention to the checkout clerk how upsetting it is to see it. That then generates the blank stare and the inevitable question, "Do you want your chicken in a plastic bag?" Damn it '68.
Oh, that destroyer in the North Atlantic ended up being an LST off the Mekong Delta.
Jim Wohlgemuth joined the Navy in 1968 and served on the USS Westchester County LST 1167 from '69 to '71, and homeported in Yokosuka. He was a radarman. He also served from '71 to '72 on the USS Point Defiance LSD 31. He got an early out to go to college in September 1972. He is now retired and a member of VVAW and Veterans for Peace, trying to share the futility of militarism.