Their Vietnam

I have four grandchildren between the ages of 18 and 23. I’ve told them that coronavirus is their Vietnam. It will be the event they will remember when they are my age, as I remember Vietnam for its horror and its impact on my life.

I was born in 1942, so skated by with easy education and Peace Corps draft deferments until 1968, when Vietnam really heated up and the country was running out of volunteers—American Indians volunteered at the highest rate of any American group for Vietnam, an important fact that deserves more attention—and the draft was becoming problematic. In 1969, with reduced volunteer numbers and the number of poor black and brown draftees available growing smaller, the Selective Service Administration was going to have to begin drafting large numbers of white Americans. They came up with the draft lottery.

Going to Vietnam became a condition of your birth date and numbered Ping-Pong balls bouncing in a container in front of a television audience. I was 26 by then—too old to be drafted by the protocols of the day, so I paid no attention to a draft number attached to my birth date, but I’ll guarantee you that any American male born between 1944 and 1951 and not in the service at the time can tell you precisely what his lottery number was. Low and you were on your way to Vietnam; high and you went back to work, school, partying, and feeling some guilt for your good fortune. In the middle—100-150 maybe; I don’t remember the details—and you stayed home to worry.

On the front lines of the COVID-19 war, young people are losing school terms and having to study online; being laid off from their jobs in restaurants, bars, ski areas, hotels, and factories; working scared in grocery stores and at Amazon; or saying to hell with it and partying. If they are working anywhere in the health field, 50 years from now they’ll remember the work they did that helped people survive, and the people who didn’t make it. Although this crisis has only been with us full scale for a month, my guess is that it is already indelible in their young lives.

Vietnam, and the severe negative reaction in the rest of the world to the American war effort there, ended my Peace Corps staff assignment in Turkey—and it ended my dream of being a diplomat. I came back to the US in 1970, and a year later found my way to a small, rural Oregon town to work and live close to the land. We were part of the 70s “back to the land” movement.  And unlike many who went back to the cities and suburbs, I stayed here.

It’s early now, but over the next months the grandkids and their cohort will be examining the world and their own options with different eyes. They’ll jump into health care or politics or biochemical research to find answers; return to familiar surroundings and hunker down; or they will become lost in the shuffle of political and medical opinions and directives, and stumble along in a life of missed opportunities and “might-have-beens.”

My parents and their generation had the Great Depression and World War II. Their parents had World War I and the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which hit 500 million people, about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Over 50 million died. My generation had—and still has—Vietnam.

And American Indians had them all, as they simultaneously battled discrimination and assimilation.  The miracle of their survival continues to astound.

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  1. I had a great aunt who was a nurse during the 1918 flu. She was marked for life by the horror. Only drug at the time was sulfa.

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