We Remember…

If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8

As you may know, Memorial Day has not always been a federal holiday, automatically celebrated on a Monday. The originally marked on May 30, 1868, was designated to honor those who had given their lives in the Civil War. The Monday Memorial Day holiday was created in 1971. It has also morphed into the “official” start of summer vacation season.

It, obviously, is so much more, so entwined in our nation’s history.

My essay is not about these issues. It is about conditions, life and death, and the direction one follows in the aftermath.

There was general tumult in our nation. There was rioting, demonstrations, angry words, unhappiness, loneliness, uncertainty, hopelessness. Yet, there was an undercurrent that there are areas of “right”, “wrong” and “duty”.

This is not a description of 2023. This is a description of 1969. We were in the midst of the Vietnam “conflict” (like Korea, not a declared war). The draft had been reinstituted that year, as more American forces were being sent to southeast Asia. A lottery was created in fall of 1969 to determine, by birthdate, the order young men would be called up, and possibly inducted into the military. 366 balls, stuffed with a date, were dropped into a drum, and someone turned the crank to rotate it, much like bingo. As someone from the Defense Department pulled out a ball, another would announce the date (on live TV) and another would post it on a blank board.

My number was 49. I thought my mother would have a heart attack. I assured her that, worst case scenario, I would enlist and work with American Forces Radio and Television, a tactic a college classmate used to be posted on the radio in Saigon; he later became a successful air personality and executive.

To make a long story short, I was called up to be given a pre-draft physical, once when I was at a radio station in Princeton, Illinois, the other about 6 months later, when I was back at SIU-Carbondale. I declared “4-F”, unfit for service. I didn’t ask the people in charge the criteria to be rejected as they processed me out the door. I just said a silent prayer of thanks. Life resumed.

In later years, through successive Memorial Days, I began to think about who went to Vietnam in my place. There was no way to figure that out. I could only pray that they survived what they faced and returned intact. I keep that prayer in my heart, nearly 52 years on.

My high school may have been like yours, albeit mine was men-only. There is a social stratum you have to figure out early on and it is difficult to break out of your perceived spot on the social scale. I am sure there is a 21st century version of what I went through with the “climbers” (tan pants and madras shirts) and the “greasers” (black everything, including pointed toed shoes). The “greasers” set themselves apart from the “climbers” and the school leadership took that cue by inevitably placing the black clad guys in low-level course work, just enough to get them through to graduation and a ticket to trade school. They would never be college material like the tan-pants crowd. I somehow learned to negotiate between both cultures, likely because I had technical and/or social skills that one group or another needed for a particular situation. (My high school counselor had told my parents that I likely was only capable of a trade job-doubtful, as I applied for summer work at a factory and failed the time and motion exam. To their credit, they didn’t tell me about that conversation until years later).

Two of the “greasers”, whose teachers had written off as non-motivated and only worth passing attention, did graduate, barely, and, I learned later, enlisted in the Marines, together. They had training together, but they were assigned to different areas of Vietnam. They were killed in action, within a month of each other. There is a plaque in the high school lobby honoring their memory. I pray for them, too.

We don’t know the paths we will tread, no matter how much we plan. In my case, my biggest takeaway as an instructor at Benedictine College has been to be open to see the gifts our students bring, and work with them to find the gifts they haven’t yet unlocked. No matter the “big picture” division and meanness in our world, the love and joy they can share as they make their own way will be a reward for a lifetime.

Michael Throop