1968 Looking back : Vietnam from a 16 year old’s point of view
It was 1968 and the Nightly News was still news. Every night the reports ended in silence. A roll call of the name of every person lost in South East Asia either KIA ( Killed in Action) or MIA ( Missing in Action) ran on the TV screens.
The scroll of names went flying up the screen. Sometimes it seemed it went on and on forever. In living rooms across the United States people sat in the flickering light and watched. No one spoke, no one knew what to say. Vietnam was the first war that had come right into our homes and we were stunned. A day when the list was short was rare, more often we saw several hundred to a thousand names flash by.
As a teenager, I only knew one thing. My friend was there. What was he doing? Was he safe? Was he shooting his gun at people? Could he? Sean had a very brief basic training then was on a plane, landing in South Vietnam at the start of the Tet Offensive. The last letter he sent was written on the plane. He wrote just a little. He was kind of excited to see his first ‘ foreign ‘country. He was 18. When we heard he was gone, killed in action less than two weeks later, the shock gave slowly away to confusion for 16 year old me.
There were protests, even in my small town. There were people saying things I could not understand about politics that most of us were not even familiar with, about so many things. Words just flew around. When a march was planned in Providence, I was no where near clear enough or ready to have an opinion on any of it. I was just a heartbroken kid waiting for her first boyfriend to come home. I am not sure today I can watch the new PBS special “The Vietnam War.” The thought that out the corner of my eye I might imagine I could see my friend.. no.
I recently found this old, typed, smudged and water stained poem in a box of things I was sorting. I was 16, It was 1968. Sean was dead. He was 18.
For Sean,( instead of marching)
if marching today would bring you
back for one smile or the touch of your hand on my cheek
i would lead these people as they scream out loud in this rain
i would carry the banners and sing the songs
use all the power within me
to conjure you back for a second
to look upon you living
but you are gone
brought down for the last time
never to rise again
and now they march and cry out their anger
but when i was lost
my heart blown apart in a mosquito-infested swamp
they were safe, feeling nothing
but the warm homes and full bellies of youth
they say they march for you that never knew your name
while you are a requiem
singing in my soul each night
should I march?
perhaps one day.
but today you are too far from these signs and shouting
you are too sweet and fresh in my memory
you wake me with your laugh from my deepest sleep
i see you on streets , just ahead ,
turning corners barely out of reach
I can't summon anger , not yet,
but today all tears of all these people
can't bring you home again.