Friday, August 9, 2013

Old Friends

Last week I talked about our country’s military draft during the Vietnam War and how it affected men my age. This week I’d like to talk about a handful of those men.

Outside of school, segregation by age goes away. In the real world we live and work among people of all ages. In the Fall of 1969 a group of ISU college freshman found themselves all together in the seventeen floors that housed the vertical mass of young men coming to Normal, Illinois in search of the college experience. I don’t know how many men were there. There were more men on my floor than the number of students in my high school class (27), perhaps more than my entire school (106), probably more than the number of people then living in my hometown of Danvers (800). Manchester Hall was all men. Hewitt Hall next to it was all women. We were together, initially, only in the cafeteria. For a kid from a small town, with nine girls in his graduating class, it was a smorgasbord of women. I was eighteen.

As it happened four of us eighteen year olds men, who came together first in Manchester hall, lived together throughout our four years at ISU. We recently got together on a lake near Danvers. Now 62 or nearly 62, we’ve changed. We’re all pretty much retired. It was time. It’s been forty years since we graduated.

My wife says men don’t stay in touch like women do and she’s right. The last time we were together (we’re not in agreement on this) was at least 1987, probably 1989 or so. I made a pot of chili, bought a couple of cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and had everyone over to my new house on Caton road in Ottawa before we added on. My kids were little. When I told my daughter, now thirty, that I was getting together with my college friends she asked ‘Are those the guys that came to the house when we were little and stayed up all night playing cards in the dining room?’ Yes Maureen, those are the guys. The game was pinochle.
We moved out of Manchester Hall after one semester into a two bedroom apartment. We were six then. It was crowded. But we were finally free then of all outside rules governing life and living. We had to create our own of sorts. About eating each other’s food, doing dishes, having people over, cleaning, the mundane matters of life to which we all must attend. We worked it out somehow. It was wonderful and probably awful at the same time. I remember it as terrific.

We dropped two roommates and moved the next year to a decrepit old place in Bloomington. Life went on. We stayed in school. Outside our college apartments history happened and the world changed. National guardsmen shot and killed college students at Kent State University in Ohio. Members of the Weathermen blew up a college building in Madison Wisconsin. Universities across the country closed in protest to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. Jane Fonda visited Hanoi. The Vietnam War continued. The Beatles broke up. We stayed together.

We were among the last students to be exempt from the selective service system, and being inducted into the US Military, due to our status as university students. We had the last of the student deferments. Why did our country grant college students four year deferments? I’m not sure. We valued education? We believed those who would emerge with college degrees would benefit American society? Something like that. The concept became terribly unfair. African American men for example, who attended college at much lower rates than their white counterparts due to lack of resources, lack of tradition or history in the black community for continued education, served and died in Vietnam at a much higher rate than their white peers. The lottery ended that kind of discrimination for one. We were the last college students to be saved from the risk of war by having our birth dates thrown in a hat.

Our junior year we moved into an entire house closer to campus and stayed there for the duration. There we each had our own bedroom. We wallpapered the refrigerator in the kitchen, and put a separate fridge in the dining room for beer. Life was very, very good there. I painted my bedroom red and plastered it with art posters. It was in that bedroom that I heard on my clock radio, waking up one spring morning during my senior year, that President Richard Nixon ended the draft. The war was nearly over. I would never be a part of it.

So how did we turn out, these four men spared from the war and educated in the Midwest? What did America gain in exchange for exempting us from fighting and perhaps dying in Southeast Asia? You decide.

Jeff, born November 8, 1951 with draft lottery number 119, earned a degree in Industrial Technology and made a career of teaching high school near his hometown. He specialized in auto mechanics and took students to competitive car repair events. He raised three kids, put them through college, stayed close with his extended family, volunteered for the Lion’s Club and became a go to guy in his church and community.

John, October 5 #166, majored in Business and soon after graduating enlisted as an officer in the Air Force. He flew as a back seater in F-4 fighter jets in America’s peace time military here and in Europe. After retiring from the service he returned to take over farming his family’s acreage. In addition he worked at State Farm, in county government, and put another three kids through college.

Tom, March 5 #299, went on from studying Political Science to law school. He established a law firm that now includes one of his three sons. He also was very active in his community’s local democratic party. His firm’s practice has changed as the years have gone by but now in addition to representing a number of Housing Authorities has as its clients lots of small businesses, many operated by minority or immigrant owners. As we learned from Tom “you can’t believe the ways that immigrant business owners are challenged and taken advantage of in this country.” If I were a small business owner needing help I’d want a guy like Tom on my side.

And me? I feel like you know me and what I’ve done. I was born August 13, 1951 and my number in the lottery was 58. Yes I reported last week that it was 307. I was blown away that it was 307. I told my wife when I left the shack ‘You know what? All along I thought I had a low number, something in the sixties and here it turns out it was 307. How could I be so wrong all these years?’ It was easy. I looked at the wrong set of numbers on the internet. So I was right in studying hard after all. Good thing.

Among us since college we’ve had six marriages, lost three siblings, suffered a variety of illnesses, and gotten old. Life expectancy among American males living in Illinois is now just over 76 years. If the four of us all average out we’re now twenty three years past the midpoint of our lives with fourteen years to go. We’re a lucky group of guys. We’ve found love and support within our families. We’re all comfortable financially. More importantly our lives have been rich with positive experience. You can hear it as we talk to each other. We smile a lot. As we recalled the good and bad things we encountered in college, the triumphs, the good fortune, the low points, the arrests, the giant dog we adopted who chewed through the basement door, the motorcycles we owned and wrecked, the parties, I can’t go on. But trust me, without going into detail we have a lot for which to be thankful. More, I think, than our share. For one thing, we’re all still sharp enough to remember how to play pinochle, though some play better than others.

As a cohort we lived through trauma and the challenges life offers and appear to have come out on the other side whole and happy. I’m very glad to have these guys as friends. We need to get together more frequently. At the rate of meeting up every thirty years or so we have statistically seen each other for the last time, unless we all live till 92. But who knows? Maybe we’ll beat the odds again.

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