4. My Decision, Pt. I [1968]

My Decision – Part 1

Fall 1968

In the spring of 1968 I graduated from college and found myself faced with the most difficult decision of my 21 years of life. It was a violent time. The war in Vietnam raged at its peak. The protests against it and the draft, a specter that had shadowed my entire college career, grew ever more violent. I had entered college not long after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the assassination of President Kennedy; I graduated just after Tet and the King and Kennedy assassinations.  Discord and hatred filled the nation, and fear and uncertainty filled my future: graduation had granted me a degree, but it had taken away my student deferment.

Without the 2S classification, I could not go to graduate school as I had hoped. The Florida teachers’ strike that year flooded the Georgia market with experienced, non-draft-age teachers, and the state declared an end to new teacher deferments, so my hopes for a teaching job were dashed. Many of my  friends had been drafted or had enlisted. I had to make a decision among a number of unacceptable options.

I was young and foolish, but I knew the decision would probably have the greatest effect on my life of any I would have to make. Somehow, I had always had a rudimentary awareness of the essential interconnectedness of all events.  I can clearly remember sitting in my seventh grade classroom holding a pencil in my hand, thinking of breaking it, and realizing that if I did, it would – at least could – change everything else that happened after that. I didn’t break the pencil.

So I was under no illusions about the importance of this decision.

It was my decision.

I am still living with the consequences of that decision a lifetime later. That decision has driven me half-way around the world, and back and forth across America more times than I can count. It has led me into places, ideas, and a life that I never imagined as a boy growing up in small towns across south Georgia, riding my bicycle down tree-lined streets, tromping around in fields and forests with my daddy’s old single-shot .410 and sweeping out his shop, swimming in ponds and rivers, working in watermelons, hay, and tobacco, sitting in little classrooms learning about the Middle Ages, and singing in the choir at the First Baptist Church.

That decision, and the events that followed from it, have led me to question nearly everything I was taught, to abandon nearly all the values I once held, and to embrace ideas that were considered, in 1968,  “of the Devil” by nearly everyone I knew.

And it was my decision.

As I confronted the choices posed by the Vietnam War for a college graduate in 1968, however, there were several powerful forces influencing my thinking. College campuses, academic and political venues, the media, even our local barber shops were full of discussion of the war, the draft, the protesters. Everyone had an opinion about it one way or the other. But the person most a part of my decision was Daddy. A strong, articulate personality, a crusading country editor, a pillar of church and community, and a loving father at once stern, funny and warm, he was clearly the major factor I had to reckon with in this life decision.

A navigator and POW in WWII, Daddy was patriotic to the hilt. He truly believed in the American ideal – and the American myth of a country that could do no wrong. He had no patience with the radical notions that Vietnam was an ill-advised quagmire, an immoral foray into post-colonial imperialism, or at best a meddling in affairs that were none of our business – all notions that weighed heavily on my mind. A good Baptist whose father and grandfather had been preachers and professors at a Baptist college, Daddy saw no place for a pacifism based on religious conviction, much less the idea of moral opposition to a specific war based on social and political analysis.

So, despite my anti-war leanings, conscientious objector status was not an option. The lottery system was a year or so away, and I knew of no understanding doctor passing out excuses. After a visit to the Jacksonville induction center where white-coated men with expressionless faces and icy hands did unspeakable things to innumerable young men, I was 1-A.

The head of the draft board, Mr. Winton Bell, told Daddy how it was. I remember sitting on the aluminum bleachers at the football field one night listening to them talk:  “What does it look like for my boy, Winton?”

“Doesn’t look good, Fred. We got a quota, you know. A little county like ours has to take everybody we got to make our quota. If he’s 1-A, he’s gone; soon as we get to his name, he’s gone.”

I wanted to say, “He’s sitting right here!”

I thought about the protest march in Atlanta. It had been less than a year ago, but that day, I had thought this moment would never come. I was facing the draft, the Army, Vietnam.

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