was a weird Washington Park day back in the early 1970s. A
thick fog hanging close to the ground made the earth disappear.
It also obscured the lower half of people walking through
the Albany park.
As I walked behind the statue of Moses amid the park’s main
flower beds (which had also disappeared beneath the mysterious
fog), a surreal scene emerged. Moses, above the fog on his
mountainous pedestal, with arms outstretched and staffless
(his rod had gone on unauthorized loan via the late-night
intoxications of a band of Albanian hippies) achieved a dramatic
dominance over the scene. Then I heard him.
Passing before the outstretched arms of Moses, a guy who appeared
to be in his early 20s had stopped about 15 yards from me
and began shouting. He appeared to be shouting at me. He wasn’t
anyone I knew, but from his raised voice, I suspected that
he was not too happy with me. Then he went into a crouch.
As more of his body disappeared into the strange fog, I saw
that he was bringing his arms up as if he were aiming a gun.
I instinctively hit the wet grass, awaiting the gun blast.
I lay there for a short while, listening to the guy’s continuing
shouts. I started to figure out what he was agitated about.
He thought I was Viet Cong. He was back in Vietnam and I was
the enemy. He was having a flashback, and taking it very seriously.
It was kill or be killed.
He had so convincingly raised his arms as if he had a gun,
that I stayed low for a bit until I could catch a clear view
of his hands in the low-visibility conditions. He didn’t have
a gun. It was as unreal as the rest of the scene he was acting
out. I scooted out of the park and let the folks over at the
Refer switchboard (now Equinox) know there was an apparent
Vietnam vet in the park in need of help.
That whole bizarre scene in the park that day has stayed with
me for more than 30 years. I realized that day that there
were additional war costs that I had failed to give much notice.
I realized there was a whole other range of collateral damage
inflicted by the war. I realized that some of those returning
from the war had serious wounds that one couldn’t immediately
see. As I recently passed through the park checking out blooming
tulips, I wondered what had happened to that Vietnam vet.
Now, 29 years after the last U.S. casualties occurred in that
war, a growing issue in this presidential election year is
the Vietnam War. One issue is what the candidates were doing
during the war. Another looming issue is whether the current
war in Iraq indicates a failure to learn from the Vietnam
War. Some claim that what’s past is past and that the Vietnam
War should not matter in the debates that will fill this election
year. I disagree. I think Vietnam matters.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. Until I was 15 I didn’t pay
it much attention, though I did note that the war was somehow
tied to the game of dominos and a threat of communist world
domination. But then things changed as the number of troops
sent rose and I started to see that there were other games
besides dominos involved. I decided that the carnage in Southeast
Asia was wrong and joined the growing demonstrations against
the war that marched down Albany’s streets.
As I prepared to go to college, student deferments were no
longer granted. I was classified 1A by the draft board, which
meant that I could be called to the induction center at any
time. My fate tumbled about in a large canister on a stage
as the luck of a lottery determined if I would be drafted
or not. My number was in the 70s, but I had no idea what that
meant as far as the likelihood of being drafted. It turned
out that the draft that year didn’t get near my number, but
some of my friends weren’t so lucky.
Ironically, all these years later, George W., who is centering
his election campaign on being a war leader, apparently can’t
account for what he was doing during the Vietnam War. After
he secured preferential treatment and a National Guard slot,
taxpayer funds apparently were wasted on this “warrior” who
got pilot training, but soon lost his pilot status for failing
to comply with requirements.
George W.’s war-hungry confidant and sidekick Dick Cheney
was able to duck the war entirely through a series of student
and family deferments. Many of George W.’s top defense department
appointees also were able to avoid Vietnam service. Perhaps
this helps explain how these born-again war hawks are so capable
of repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War. They remained
insulated from the war. They never learned that Vietnam mattered.
With more than 58,000 Americans killed and more than 300,000
wounded, and millions of Vietnamese dead and wounded, Vietnam
should matter. Much of this death was set into motion following
an attack on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964
that never happened. The authority to wage war in Vietnam
was handed over to Lyndon Johnson based on a lie. No telling
how many would not have died, or been wounded or traumatized,
if the truth had been known on Aug. 7, 1964, when Congress
voted the president the power to wage war in Vietnam.
As the death toll in Iraq rises, the lessons of the Vietnam
War continue to be ignored by George W. As another distant
war expresses its casualties, I take a simple walk in search
of brilliant tulips in the park while ghosts of the past pass
through the fog of my memory, refusing to be forgotten. For
me, Vietnam will always matter.