I graduated from college in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. The Tet offensive in January shocked Americans who had been told for years there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ On March 31, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election.
During spring vacation, I drove to the Naval Recruitment Center to interview for the Officers’ Training program, as did a significant portion of male college seniors in the Boston area. The applicants sat in a row of chairs circling the office walls. An officer called us one by one into a room for the interview.
With thousands of men trying to avoid the army, the recruiters were selective. The line of musical chairs moved quickly. The interviews last approximately two minutes. Only one young man was escorted to another office for a more comprehensive interview. Like a contestant on a military version of Queen for a Day. My interview took one minute and thirty-five seconds.
Back on campus, panic and hysteria reigned among the male graduating students. I applied to graduate school in Communications at Boston University and worked as a salesman at Jordan Marsh during the summer selling men’s pajamas, bathing suits, and underwear. At any moment the selective service could draft me into the Army for two years.
By the end of the summer, the uncertainty drove me to turn down grad school and join the Air Force. Avoiding Vietnam was worth four years in the USAF. If enlisting in the military was like going to prison, at least the service had medals and more attractive uniforms.
The week before induction, I was visited by (1) my college roommate: “Why are you doing this? Can’t you put off enlisting? Nixon has a plan to end the war.”; (2) a cousin in the Air Force: “It’s the least strict of all the services, like working a regular job. You’ll forget you’re in the service.”; and (3) Rachel who gave me a copy of the complete poems by Robert Frost. We had an unspoken promise that we would be married, but she must have wondered when that might happen. She wasn’t waiting four years.
My father gave me the most encouragement and support. The moment stands out in my mind because it was unexpected, and, for the first time, he treated me as a grown man, proud I chose to serve my country and not flee to Canada.
Although he joined the army as a second lieutenant during WWII and a Captain in the Army Reserves during the Korean War, I was enlisting as a lowly airman. We both understood this was better than enlisting as a second lieutenant, a rank with the shortest life expectancy in Vietnam. Nevertheless, I saw myself as a failure by joining as an enlisted man. Perhaps Dad recognized this, and his awareness prompted a comment one evening during dinner.
“You’re smart to sign up as an enlisted man. When enlisted men ask for leave, they get it. Officers serve at the whim of the commanding officer. We didn’t always get the time we wanted.” No doubt he remembered his own experience on Whidbey Island when he asked for leave for his honeymoon. Even in 1968, all AF personnel had to ask their CO’s permission to marry. “If the Army wanted you to be married,” my father said, “they’d have issued you a wife.”
His support made all the difference and helped me to be more optimistic. His words stand out as an indelible moment in my life. I wish there had been more of them. As the family dispenser of encouragement and praise, Mom would not have known to tell me this. Dad rose to the occasion and his words were a gift I’ve never forgotten.
Two days later, I took the Oath of Enlistment at the 58-acre military center in South Boston and flew to Texas for basic training. Relieved a decision had been made, I experienced a cleansing rebirth much as I did after confessing my theft and my cheating. But it reached into all plans of my life: marriage, graduate school, career, living on my own—all put on hold. How many times in your life can you press the ‘reset’ button, escape into the future leaving your past behind, and reinvent yourself? Two or three times if you’re lucky. Those moments are to be treasured.
Rachel and I married when I came home on leave between tech school and my posting to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. We were twenty-two years old. The wedding was announced, planned, and consummated within two months. I’m sure everyone thought the rush was due to her pregnancy. (Ha, ha. She wouldn’t be pregnant until eight years later.) My college roommate was best man.
After the reception, we went up to the marriage suite in the Copley hotel to change into our ‘traveling’ clothes. My roommate and his wife accompanied us. Our suitcases were open on the floor. “You’re taking those on your honeymoon?” He pointed to several nursing textbooks in Rachel’s suitcase.
“I take my exams when I return.” Rachel faced one more semester in her five-year nursing program at Simmons College. “My professors said I could delay them, but I’d only have to take them later.”
After our honeymoon, I left home again, and Rachel returned to college. I was married now and four years later I realized the part my marriage played in Mom’s outlook on life.
While I was in the Philippines, Mom’s letters became more and more illegible and infrequent. Dad took over the correspondence. He wrote saying her handwriting had deteriorated. Except for the change in letter writers, I was unaware anything unusual had happened to Mom.
Rachel and I returned to Boston after my discharge, I attended graduate school, and Rachel began working at Mass General Hospital. Over time, I pieced together those four years. My marriage triggered a sense of loss not only of a son but of her life slipping away. Depression and withdrawal became more pronounced. Around this time, they first tried to stop drinking.
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