A Big Yellow Streak

In the fall of 68, while I was trying to go to graduate school, I room with my best friend.  He was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and like myself a working class kid who was ill-equipped to be a working class kid.  During the course of the quarter, he was drafted and reported.  He got through boot camp ok and was made an MP, though I can think of few people less physically imposing.  He was assigned to guard a missile base, in Arizona, I think.  24 hours on, 24 hours off.  He became “catatonic” and the army let him out with the stipulation that he did not claim medical reparations.

Another friend, also a working class kid and much more suitable to be one, since he worked out regularly and was very strong, decided not to endure the suspense, and joined the Marines voluntarily.  He thought it would be the event of our generation and wished to be present for it.  At that time, to get volunteers, the Marines were lopping six months off the tour either at the end or up front.  My friend chose up front, and during the six months fell in love and had a car accident that screwed up his knee.  The Marines would not take him.

Another friend, the son of a car salesman, became a marijuana salesman and decided when the war came along to go underground.  He stayed with me for a month maybe longer right before I dropped my groceries in the parking lot.  He was jailed once for weed and the FBI came and he said he would report as soon as he got out of jail, but he didn’t.  He was at Woodstock.  And drank very heavily.

Another person, less a friend but respected, decided not to step across the line at the draft board.  Funny to think of being arrested for NOT do something.  He was immediately jailed for not doing something first in a minimum security prison, and after he led a food strike there, a maximum security prison off the coast of Washington State.  He said that later somebody approached him about making a “movie of the week” out of his story.  He was the son of a philosophy professor who had been a CO during WWII.

These people, along with John Wayne and my father, both of whom said cryptically, “a man has got to do what a man has got to do,” constituted my moral compass as I agonized and tried to understand what was wrong with me, why I didn’t so clearly want to do what a man has got to do.  Being tough, sucking it up, following orders was a good deal of what my working class heritage was about.

And those Southerners seem to go off to war at the drop of a hat. I was not a real man like John Wayne, but instead a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back.  And a coward in two directions, for if I truly objected to the war itself and was not just a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back, I should go to jail like my other friend but I couldn’t do that because the idea of prison scared me pissless, making me a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back.

One might here begin to sense the depths of my inward conflicts although these remarks do not do justice to them.  It would have helped greatly had I been sure in my heart that the war was morally wrong in some absolute sense.  But I just couldn’t reach that conclusion.  Now it’s easy to say, oh yea, Vietnam was morally wrong.  Indeed, it just trips off the tongue. But back then the best I could do was to characterize it as a major “fuck up” and in that way another dimension of life as perpetually “fucked up.”

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