We were the coattails generation of the late 1960s. In 1968 we were fourteen years old. Too young to be players on the frontline protests of the Vietnam War. Too old to be unaware of the strife. We rode into our adulthood on the coattails of a generation five years older. Our young minds had no mental infrastructure of experience on which to place the trauma of the war. We quashed our confusion and stayed on the sidelines as we watched the older teenagers raise hell about the Vietnam War. Later, our checked emotional responses showed up in the most banal ways. As adults we acted out by avoiding the cop on the city corner because of a distrust of authority, for example. After all, as kids we watched the boys take numbers to get in line to go to war.
The painting, NAM, Can We Stop Now?, is where we can deposit the shushed emotions of our inner 14 year olds of this coattail generation that had few outlets for their sadness, anger, and fear of an adult world they were about to enter. Once muted by the narrow vocabulary of inexperience, we are now part of the middle-aged voices guiding this country that we love so much. The blessings of time accede that there were patriots who served in the military and patriots who protested that their brothers were dying in an “unjust” war. To acknowledge is to let go and move on.
Young people, in particular, need to understand
the complications and the
ambiguities of these things, and to hear it from someone
who has not only gone to
a war, but devoted a lifetime to suffering from it.
– Author, Tim O’Brien
For more on the origins of this painting:
August 1968, the summer Chicago hosted the The Democratic National Convention. In April of that year Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN . Still 1968 and more death. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was buried shortly thereafter having been shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Daily body counts à la Vietnam War led into the weather on the local news. This then fourteen year old plopped herself in front of the tube for reruns of Star Trek, Bewitched, The Monkees and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. probably to swoon over Napolean Solo, my second favorite heartthrob (after John Lennon). I can’t remember the plot of a single episode. That summer I’m sure I modeled my new high school uniform for my little sisters. An A-line skirt with a single pleat down the center. The jacket fastened at the neck with velcro. It was collarless, short-waisted and sported brocade trim around the cuffs and neck. Definitely dry clean. How delightfully impractical. I was headed to high school in September ’68. 1968. Yep, the big frosh year.
I can remember the crunch of Coco Puffs cereal more than the politicos of the times. But I vividly remember two images on TV from that summer’s Democratic convention. Young people like me being hit with billy clubs. Young people like me being sprayed with tear gas. Protesting the Vietnam War. Protests EVERYWHERE. These two images always percolated to my consciousness when later years would throw back reminders of the war. At the time I was only fourteen — too young to forsake it all for Haight Ashbury but just old enough to do the headbands, bell bottoms and requisite crash diet to get twiggy -like like Twiggy. I, we, the very young teenagers, were the perfect age to be imprinted with images of bashed youth. Young people like me, gassed. Young Americans like me, beaten. We didn’t know what we were seeing. At fourteen, life, good or bad, just happened like the refrigerator light turning on and the garbage disposal pulverizing chicken bones. We did not really question or know how to question with the full breath of developed thinkers. We had neither the experience nor the emotional vocabulary with which to make sense of our times. And so we just swallowed the images, and they went…somewhere.
In 1974 on the hovercraft headed to Ireland from France, a now defunct, cheap way to get from France to Ireland, our ad-hoc group for the duration of the trip included a Vietnam veteran, a young man juiced up for the many hours it took to make the crossing. A touch of sobriety surfaced during the subsequent bus ride to Dublin and our eyes met. He shook his head “No.” I knew what he meant. “Do not know me. I don’t want to feel anything.” Back then I accepted his pain at face value because I didn’t know…well, I didn’t know what I did not yet know. Or did not want to know. My nineteen year old head was wrapped up in my own adventure of life, which did not include unearthing the shadows of the Vietnam War safely tucked away in my subconscious but not so buried in his. And so I left my traveling companion to his pain . Like the beatings and tear gas, today I remember his vacated eyes. I could not tell you his name, height, hometown, nothing but those blank eyes.
In 1970, 1971 and 1972 the government held lotteries* to draft young men to serve in the army which in lay talk meant, “Who’s going to Nam?” My brother turned 18 in 1972. I remember his draft number as 351. My research for this piece showed that his number was actually 185. I think our parents lied. They must have thought 185 sufficiently high to keep him out of the war. At this point I was 17 and old enough to be very afraid for him. Were my parents in denial, or did they hear it wrong? Or did they think the war was winding down, and my brother would never go, so why worry me? In any case I considered my brother home-free. I continued on my merry way to a senior year of playing field hockey, straightening my hair with rollers the size of juice cans, and time “down the shore” with my high school girlfriends.
In 1972 my draft number would have been 204; my husband’s 140; my one sister, 153; the other, 332. Julie and Tricia, President Nixon’s daughters, would have gotten a pass with numbers 355 and 316 respectively along with Sasha Obama (282). The Bush twins and John Kennedy, Jr. would have born the scars of war. They share a birthday, November 25, and the draft number, 25. Who knows if we would have seen Chelsea get married at number 186? Michaelangelo, Shaq, Alan Greenspan, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, DL Hughley, Willie Stargel, Rob Reiner, Ed McMahon, Lou Costello, you poor schmucks born on March 6, pack your bags. Your number is 1.
(My heart is racing as I look up my sons’ numbers.) My first son, number 48; second son, 9. (I’m queasy. I could vomit… no kidding. )Vietnam War…families lost sons, plural. It could have been me.
The numbers feel like cattle branding. Line up in the chute. Off to war. Would we have tolerated vacuous eyes in Jenna, Barbara, John Jr., Caroline, Chelsea, Malia…the boy on the hovercraft, my sons? You get my point. From August 1964 to February 1973 there were 1,766,910 inductees into the military. Our pain had to go somewhere.
*From Wikipedia. Draft Lottery: The days of the year including Leap Year day were represented by the numbers from 1 to 366 written on slips of paper. The slips were placed in separate plastic capsules that were mixed in a shoebox and then dumped into a deep glass jar. Capsules were drawn from the jar one at a time.