On Memorial Day, we revere and remember those who gave their lives for their country. Our country. Men and women who sacrificed all, many of whom died before their parents, never played with their children, or went without a honeymoon.
The Unknown Soldier reflects all those service personnel who died in the line of duty. We don’t know how their lives would have unfolded.
My generation’s crucible was Vietnam. We questioned – to put it euphemistically – those tens of thousands of young men and women our age who signed up or did not resist or skirt the draft. Today, more than 58,000 of their names are carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Lies and exaggerations such as the Gulf of Tonkin debacle, along with a profound and lethal misunderstanding and miscalculation of North Vietnam’s resolve to reunite the country, led the U.S. deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
In 1971, the government pulled 366 birthdates from a large, bingo-like spinning bin. Not until into the 200s was mine drawn, at that time a fairly safe number, meaning I’d won the only lottery my life depended on.
I remember sitting in front of the TV in our fraternity house when a man on stage picked out and read the first date. One of my fraternity brothers wailed and swore as if struck by a bullet, stood up and staggered out of the house, headed to his favorite bar. I don’t know what happened to him after graduation. He had a sly wit and fabricated a mean streak he half-smiled through to deconstruct.
Baby boomers like me get flak for not doing more to ameliorate many of America’s problems such as climate change. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” ranted about America’s ills, but we did little to act on his outrage. Bob Dylan sang about how the times were a-changin’, but looking back on those days’ worst elements – racism, misogyny, religious intolerance – sure, some progress has been made, but how much have we back-slipped, given our almost daily mass shootings and having our democratic form of government questioned and threatened?
I look now at my own life and know I could have done more for humanity after surviving the draft. My “service” includes four decades of teaching high school English, moonlighting (literally as the classes were taught at night) as an adjunct community college composition and creative writing instructor, facilitating a couple of writing groups, and writing some (occasionally) passable poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.
And writing about 842 columns for Shaw Media.
What did that add to the earth’s continuation, the nation’s healing, the community’s well-being? At best, I guided a few kids into a love of reading and/or writing, taught the Oxford comma, the proper use of “few” or “amount” (as in “a few oranges” but “an amount of hutzpah”), the power of a one-sentence paragraph or starting a sentence with a conjunction, brought together local writers to read one another’s work and learn to write better in the process, and spurred, I hope, a few laughs from readers of this column.
Overall? I give myself a C-. Compared with Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Al Gore and a host of other game-changers, an F.
Nevertheless, I’ll end where I began. Yes, let’s remember on Memorial Day those killed serving their country. Our country. We would not have the democracy we cling to with our fingernails today if not for them.
Let’s also reflect on who we still have. On those who made it through. On those who made a difference.
• Rick Holinger holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from UIC. His work has been accepted for publication in Chicago Quarterly Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere. His poetry book, “North of Crivitz,” and essay collection, “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences,” are available at local bookstores, Amazon or richardholinger.net. Contact him at email@example.com.