Friday, May 18, 2007

What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

Our Town downtown
May 14, 2007

The picture in the Times last Friday of some NYU kids romping in the fountain in Washington Square Park after the graduation ceremony was the standard-fare shot of the predictable merriment that goes-on on such a day. The lead picture on NYU’s web site that day showed one of the graduates making bubbles.

Maybe they’re protesting at Oberlin’s graduation or at Evergreen State’s. You don’t hear about it though. You’d think there’d be some kids walking out on some speaker. If they’re not doing it in Washington Square Park, where are they doing it? I’m not suggesting they do it. I’m just thinking about why, with a very unpopular war on, in which all the casualties are kids their age, there isn’t much protest.

There are a couple reasons. First I think TV makes the whole world go flaccid. If you’re a student, Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher are making all the clever signs for you. No need to festoon your dorm windows with peace signs. It’s easier to sit and watch the TV people be clever about the war. All that sitting doesn’t really lend itself to a Chicago 7 lifestyle either.

The main reason (although it’s hard to raise anything above TV as the cause of most of the culture’s inactivity) is that the kid making bubbles is not worrying about the draft. Neither are the kids hopping into the fountain. For all the claims of how much this war is like Vietnam, to my graduation day memory it’s not. The draft loomed huge back then.

Indulge me: My father hardly talked to me after the ceremony. What was there to talk about? We hadn’t really talked in a few years. The war was going on in Vietnam and we didn’t agree on one thing that that war spawned. He was bothered by my long hair, my cigarettes and my bellbottoms. He didn’t care for the music. He was older than most of my friends’ fathers and he wasn’t a guy who was going to wear long sideburns like many dads did then. That bugged me. He wasn’t one to watch the Smothers Brothers or ‘Laugh-In.’ He thought the army might even do me some good. That bugged me. He’d been an officer in World War II. Sensing all that in him, I had to do things like play ‘The Eve of Destruction’ over and over at a high volume (Wouldn’t you think a junior in the dorm near Washington Square would have played that same song the other day, that loud, and over and over, while whoever spoke tried to speak at the commencement?) I had to wear a white armband at my graduation.

The draft dominated the lives of college students then. Not a day went by we didn’t worry over some table about it. All of us, it seemed, knew a kid back home somewhere who, with no student deferment like we had, got drafted after high school, sent to Vietnam, and was killed. As soon as school was over for us, we were no longer going to be protected from maybe the same fate. It drove us crazy. I could say we talked about nothing else, but that wouldn’t be true. We still read the sports page, played the jukebox. Motown was big. But draft worries dominated. I wound up teaching in an inner-city grade school in Cleveland to beat the draft. Guys somehow got in the National Guard. Others didn’t. Many friends went to Vietnam. Part of me envies them the experience. Hard to explain.

Anyway, it’s very different today, certainly for the students in an era of a volunteer army. They can take five or six years to graduate. We couldn’t. We, for all our protests, knew we were lucky to be white boys with a few bucks in our families. We got news from home about a kid from our high school that had been killed. The draft connected us to him. The college kids now don’t have that.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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