The 1960s, I mean.
In-between going to drive-in movies, and looking forward to getting my next Baja Marimba Band LP, and visiting the Moose Lodge, and playing space ship in abandoned refrigerators, there was Vietnam to think about.
Vietnam was like a crazy aunt in the attic. Nobody knew what to do with her. Until somebody somewhere came up with something, she was allowed to scream for a few minutes every day on the TV news and in the newspapers. Respectable people simply ignored her and moved on.
McHale's Navy was never ordered into the Gulf of Tonkin. Gomer was never deployed overseas. The Flying Nun was never told to drop napalm on anyone or face imprisonment. The body bags never made their way back home to Mayberry....
Our paperboy, Tom K., was scared shitless regardless. In fact, he was so scared shitless of his draft number being pulled and being sent to Vietnam that he preemptively joined the Coast Guard. He might have married my sister otherwise. Instead, he married someone else - but not before telling us that his experiences in the Coast Guard had been so awful, he wished he'd taken his chances with the draft instead.
I guess there's just no pleasing some people.
A boy about Tom's age who I sometimes saw at the barbershop didn't seem to be scared at all. He may even have enlisted - I don't know. Whether he enlisted or was drafted, he seems to have been quite happy the day he stopped by the shop to show off his brand new uniform. The head barber (George) was very impressed. Me, not so much - partly because he never, ever acknowledge my existence in all the times I saw him, and partly because the head barber never, ever seemed to be half as impressed with me.
Maybe I should have tipped more?
Anyway.... The boy (whose name I can't recall but who may have been known as Terry) ended up being shipped to Vietnam. Months passed. Eventually the news wafted into the barbershop that he wasn't doing so well. I'm not sure what happened. All I can recall is the head barber (George) talking about how he'd been vomiting blood. I don't know if that was the result of being shot or because of some strange Asian illness he'd acquired. I don't think he ended up dying, but I really don't know. The concept of vomiting blood seems to have blotted out everything else. I'd been seeing people die on TV and in the movies for a very long time by then, after all - but vomiting blood? That was startlingly unexpected. Surreal. Like being told that someone was pissing out their ears....
My cousin Roberta hooked up with a US soldier named Lee, circa 1968. Roberta was my sister's age. The two girls had talked about getting an apartment together the minute they turned 18 in 1967 but that idea seems to have been dropped when my mother threatened to do some carpet bombing of her own. So instead Roberta married the soldier. I'm sure he turned out to be a more useful roommate. He wasn't much of a conversationalist, though. And especially not about Vietnam. Although he served time there he simply refused to say one word about his experiences. If he had, maybe I wouldn't now remember him as The Quiet Hillbilly. I'm sure that's unfair, but it's the best I can do with what I have to work with....
I think Lee and Tom and He Who Vomits Blood were the only boys I personally knew who got tangled up in LBJ's southeast Asian police action.
Bob the Marine was the only man I knew who got tangled up in it.
Or the only career military man who embraced it with gusto, anyway.
It was Bob the Marine who drove us to see Cleopatra at the drive-in in the summer of 1964.
And it was Bob the Marine who almost became my step-father a year or two later.
I think my mother went to high school with Bob. In any event, they were both in their mid-30s by the time people were going from watching Walter Cronkite's nightly gore report to watching "What's My Line?" and "The Munsters" without blinking an eye. Like He Who Vomited Blood, Bob seemed to see the war as some kind of great and noble undertaking. Like The Quiet Hillbilly, however, he never had much to say about it.
He did send us a batch or two of photos while he was on a tour of duty, however.
Here's my favorite shot:
In the early 1970s I saw a big anti-war ad in the newspaper that went something like this: "If your son is 13 he's just 5 years away from being drafted and sent to Vietnam."
For maybe the first time in my life it occurred to me that the war was something that might end up engulfing ME.
But not quite as scary in retrospect as the realization that I came very, very close to becoming the adopted child of a career Marine officer.
Not that he seemed awful at the time. Fence posts didn't seem awful at the time, either. But who wants a fence post for a father?
I guess I ought to be glad that he wasn't worse - glad that he seems to have barely looked at me, let alone tried to run my life in ways too horrible to contemplate - but... what can I say?
"All in the Family" is funny when you get to watch it as it unfolds in a little box for 30 minutes every week but not so much when you have to live it 24/7.
But maybe I have it all wrong.
Maybe there was a tender or a curious or an artistic side of Bob that I just never got the chance to see.
Maybe he did me a favor by teaching me that tickling can be a kind of torture and that Indian arm rubs were something to be avoided at all costs. (Why didn't the Vietnamese surrender in the face of such things?)
Maybe he really wasn't being hilariously stupid the day he told me that the only correct way to assemble a jigsaw puzzle was to start with the upper left hand corner and proceed methodically piece-by-piece across the first row, and then the next, and then the next. (Is it any wonder that we lost the war?)
Maybe it betrays a grave person failing, but... suffice it to say that I never liked Bob more than when he was far, far away and sending beautifully colored red, white, and blue air mail envelopes to our door....
Bob's dead now - but not because of anything that happened in the war. He simply got old after retiring from the Marines and (as far as I know) enjoying a long and happy retirement.
The photos he sent so many years ago remain.
Pieces of history. Or of a dream. Or both.
Pieces that barely hint at what once was. And what might have been.
The sort of pieces that death and time continue to funnel my way as if they're consciously pandering to my unsavory inclination to poke at and ponder the rubble left after every private apocalypse.
If I were being paid for this I suppose I could call myself an historian.
Since I'm not I guess it would be more honest to call myself a sick puppy that keeps lapping up life's barf in the crazy belief that it'll somehow prove to be more nutritious and edifying the second time around.
If they ever come out with a Wii version of that, let me know.