Monday, May 17, 2010

If Not Now, When?

You've got 
some "Star-Spangled'
in your coffin
That's what 
they've done for you
~Richard Brautigan

In the fall of 1972 I entered college at Bemidji State. It was not yet part of the university system, but just a small state college set amongst the trees which lined the shores of Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota.

The Vietnam War was still raging, Watergate was just coming to light but had not yet entered our lexicon as a term for all manner of political mayhem. I was a young wife and mother who was harboring visions of becoming part of something bigger than what my then small world seemed to offer. In the late sixties I had very quietly fantasized about joining the Weather Underground. I didn't spend a lot of time considering the violent and sometimes lethal road it had taken. Nor did I understand the completely antithetical nature of such an organization. I was naively interested in railing against the system, protesting the powers that be, and in particular the war that had permeated our consciousness taking thousands upon thousands of young lives.

Three years previously I had grieved with my best friend as we heard over the school intercom, while in home economics class, that her sister's boyfriend, a former student at the school, had died in Vietnam. I knew Max only slightly, but that day we grieved for more than Max. We grieved for something lost, something indefinable and yet torturous in its implications.

In the fall of '72, I looked like a cross between a hippie and a leftover beat poet from the fifties. One day I was in India cotton and sandals, the next it was a black turtleneck and bell-bottoms with cowboy boots. I  was not in the throes of an identity crisis so much as I was just a young girl who was simply trying on all the possibilities that spoke to me. Inside, however, beat the heart of an anarchist. Two things kept me from acting on this. Family and Fear. I had already positioned myself as the black sheep in a family that didn't wander too far outside the mainstream. I was also afraid of the system which I so longed to change. It was quite simple. I didn't want to hurt anyone. And I loved my freedom.

My first week in college I had no intention of entering the fray of politics and protest. It was a quiet time, there on the shores of the lake, when I leaned over to the gal sitting next to me in an English class and inquired about the bracelet she was wearing. It was a nondescript silver band with writing on it. She explained that it was a POW-MIA bracelet. They honored soldiers who had become prisoners of war or were missing in action. I immediately wanted one. It wasn't a fashion statement, I just knew I had to have one and that something else had been set in motion. She gave me the phone number of a woman who was spearheading the local movement to sell these bracelets and bring this more and more to the attention of the public; a public that was growing weary of a war that was just starting to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

I called the woman. She invited me over to her house. We sat and talked about the bracelets and how I could sell them on campus. It was not the form of protest I had in mind, but it was something I could do. I didn't know it at the time, but it spoke more directly to my truer self; the self that can quietly protest as a participant in life rather than live with ill-considered decisions. She gave me the information I needed to do this.

I went back to school that next week and inquired about how to get permission, a requirement there at the college. I met with Glenn, the organizer of such events and he suggested I become president of The Coalition of Concerned Students, an almost defunct organization under which I could operate. It sounded like more than I wanted to get involved in, but he assured me it could be as involving as I wanted it to be. I then met with a man named Chick, who was president of the student body, explained to him my little plan and away I went. I received the bracelets under the auspices of the national organization, organized a meeting for interested parties, and set up a table just outside the student union, the place where everyone showed up sooner or later to hang out, grab a bite to eat, or do some last minute cramming for an exam. Three people from the meeting helped sell bracelets, each of us according to our class schedules. Like most things it got off to a slow start but it picked up a little bit of steam and we were off and running. I couldn't tell you now how many we sold but it was several hundred. As we sold them, I sent money orders back to the national organization to keep the fires stoked and us in bracelets.

We received coverage in the student newspaper with my picture and a story told from my youthful perspective. Our goal was to bring this to the forefront of people's minds, bring a greater awareness to a heartbreaking aspect of the war and to honor those who had entered a war either by what I saw as a misguided choice or by an even more misguided draft, which had resulted, for them, in horrific consequences. The week the story appeared I was approached by a childhood friend who said she'd attended school there for four years with nary a bit of notice and I was, "of course," in the student newspaper the first month out. It was my first glimpse into how others saw me. And, it was the first time I felt my inner life recognized by someone other than me.

The Coalition of Concerned Students went on for awhile, but my desire for involvement waned as the war ended and although much needed to be done for those who were still prisoners of war and missing in action, my life went in other directions, mostly concentrating on my small family and my education. As much as I loved learning, I still had a lot to learn about myself. Eventually, I put my two bracelets in a jewelry box and there they remained.

For a reason I cannot call up today, yesterday this came to mind and I found myself wondering about these bracelets again. I needed to be reminded. I found a link that provided a history and additional links where one can find out what happened to those whose name appeared on an individual bracelet. It was helpful in recalling these events and in remembering my initial desire to act outside my own little sphere of thought.

My two bracelets bear the names of Spec. 5 James Klimo and Maj. Kenneth Cordier. Kenneth Cordier went on to fill a slim role in the last Bush administration acting as an advisor on a veteran's steering committee. He also participated in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign which sought to discredit Senator John Kerry during his bid for the presidency. And that's all  I'll say about that.

It sometimes feels as though we suffer from collective amnesia, both short and long term, forgetting that American citizens are still fighting in other countries for causes none of us truly understand and most don't agree with. While still living in Santa Fe, I made the decision to end my near Luddite ways and enter the spooky world of technology via computers. The local internet company sent out a technician to set up my service. We visited a bit as he went about his business. He shared with me that he was a disabled vet who had lost much of his lung capacity. He said he had served in Iraq twice and once in Afghanistan. He would not, because of his injury, be returning with his unit to yet another tour in Iraq. Tour, what a ridiculous word to describe what they are called to do. Interesting, isn't it, how the war machine, the military-industrial complex, has hijacked positive terms for far less than positive reasons?  It puts a velvety little spin on their widespread shenanigans and the true cost of war, the lives of real people.

This man did not have a favorable opinion, shall we say, about our then president, Mr. Bush, and what appeared to be his complete inability to put a human face on war. This man was bitter. But, he also had a quiet and very nice energy that was palpable to me. I found myself crying as I talked with him, hearing a brief version of his story and his feelings around what was happening in our country. As he left that day, he turned at the top of the driveway and flashed the peace sign. I was left to think about the many who are not just physically maimed by war, but those who bear the silent and almost unbearable psychic scars caused by what they've seen, what they've endured.

I don't know why this story came forward today, why I feel called to write it down, but I would like to share a video with you about the reality of war. It does contain some graphic images, but it is accompanied by music that speaks to our hearts and souls, our "better angels," as Lincoln called them, and gives us hope. We should not turn away from these images. In doing so, we lose sight of how important it is that we make changes in how we deal with our global community, a community with whom we may not always agree, but with whom we must find common ground, a common ground that does exist if we take the time to see it.

I hope you will watch, and even more important listen to, what I see as the only approach to this story, a story old as time. I don't mind being called naive. I think these times call for naive hearts to step forward and claim for the world not only what is possible, but essential.

How many times are we going to pose the question, "If not now, when?"

Spec. 5 James Robert Klimo, from Muskegon, Michigan, began his tour of duty in South Vietnam on November 3, 1969. On November 4, 1969, he and three others were returning to base when the helicopter they were in ran into trouble, apparently not hostile in nature. An extensive six day search revealed nothing. His status was changed in 1978 from MIA to "died while missing." His name is on The Wall: Panel 16W  Line 030. He was 19 years old. It was his second day "in country." His body, along with those of his fellow crewmembers, is still missing...


  1. My husband and I traveled to VietNam in 2005 in a journey of reconciliation and healing. My Lai. The American Museum - photos of atrocities. Chu Lai. Cu Chi.

    The people greeted us with friendship.

    We built them a house to make amends.

  2. TM, thanks. Peace!

    Linda, I love hearing these experiences. Thank you for sharing that. What a gratifying opportunity for all.

  3. Really good blog mom. Sounds like our lives have had alot in common. lol

  4. Yes, Coleman, they have. Thanks for introducing that song by Puscifer to me.

  5. I had to Google Puscifer...had not heard of them. Great song, but haunting.

    When the Vietnam war ended I was a fifth grader standing at the bus stop. Someone came running down the street shouting "The war's over!!" We all cheered and hugged one another.

    Count me in the naive category. I don't understand war and why countries offer their citizens to fight to the death. If someone attacks us, different story. I think you have to fight back in that case. But yeah, all I can think when I hear the word is "War, What is it Good For? Absolutely NOTHIN'!"

  6. You did your part and it made a difference. What about Klimo? Very moving story about your college years and after. Liked the way you dressed as you described. Yes, the Underground.

  7. LB: The song, "War," was a "lullabye" of sorts that Coleman's dad would sing to him while dancing around the living room when he was only about six months old. It always calmed Coleman down. : )

    Jack, please see my recently added addendum at the bottom of this post. I found the info online. I forget what an amazing place the internet is. It was hard to read. Beyond Sad. Thanks for asking...

  8. A thoughtful, well-written post. You can be proud that you did something about your strong feelings against the war. I did nothing.

  9. Ms. Sparrow, Many felt impotent to do anything at all. Even not supporting it was doing Something. I'm very grateful an opportunity presented itself to do this one small thing. Isn't it a beautiful day here in Minnesota?

  10. Dang. Just, dang. First of all, this was so thoughtfully, expertly written Teresa. I can't tell you how impressed I am with your talent. As for the content, I'm afraid I'm a little like Ms. Sparrow. I see injustice (war), I shake my head, and with the exception of casting my vote against the warmongers in political office, I've done very little. You inspire me. Thanks.

  11. Joan, I always look forward to seeing what you have to say. You say it so well, so I'm beyond grateful for your words of encouragement. Thank you, so much.

  12. Between 1968 and 1970 I taught on Okinawa, then a U.S. possession and a staging area for the Vietnam War. My husband has the Silver Star from Vietnam. In 2000 and 2002 my husband and I traveled to Vietnam. Khe Sahn was overgrown and difficult to find. Hanoi, Da Nang, and Saigon bustled with activity, moreso the second trip.

    I don't like war.

  13. Kittie, I sent you a personal message...but I want to thank you for sharing this and please thank Dick for his service. I am humbled by those who answer the call to duty, especially under such difficult circumstances.

  14. I feel WWII was a noble endeavor. Every war thereafter makes me want to crumple in sadness. Or hit something in rage. I was born in '69 so the Iraq wars are my own personal version of Vietnam, but I find that I do nothing to stand against them but for the occasional angry rant. I admire you Teresa. Very much.

  15. We all have our own memories of that period. Our young married friends all have different opinions about the war with some conflicting opinions; some friendships were lost but many endured. I went on Mother's Marches with a baby on my back. I attended classes at the Univ of MN and watched and listened to arguments among students, altho the U could hardly be described as a hotbed of opposition to the war. It was not a happy time...a sad commentary on our government instead.

  16. Kristy, thank you for your response...

    Kate, yes, a sad commentary on our government.

  17. Napa,CA.- Fall 1972- Got my ears pierced and started wearing my POW~MIA bracelet- Major Henry M. Serex- U.S. Air Force. Shot down over South Vietnam on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972.
    It seems like a small thing. I was pregnant with my second child and we were in the process of moving. It was one thing that I could do.
    In November of last year, I wrote a post about the bracelet.
    A few weeks later I received a card in the mail. It was from one of his daughters thanking me for the tribute. I was overwhelmed. On the envelope she wrote "home at last".
    We must never forget that even the smallest effort, when done with love, is a wonderful thing. Those bracelets were very important. They made people pay attention and ask questions about a very unpopular war.
    We can only do what is within our ability at the time. We made a small effort but those bracelets made a big difference.
    "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." ~mother Teresa~

  18. farmlady, Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. It's so nice to find a kindred spirit. They were difficult times with little that a person could do. Those bracelets represented Hope and that's always a good thing to provide and be a part of.

    I read your post. Very good. Thank you for telling me about it. I'm struck by the similarities, especially in the photos of the bracelets. Nice.

  19. Just randomly read this post and watched the video. So poignant and enlightening on many levels. The far reaching effect of the war in Vietnam on the American heart is something one grapples with as an outsider. Our own hippie days in the UK were quite different, flirting with political activism but with no real cause except the inevitable outcry against social injustice, university fees going up and some anti war lip service complete with appropriate artwork. Your account is very relatable to for me and I couldn't agree more about the use of that word "tour". Way to trivialize?! Good grief. When we arrived to live in DC in '87 we were surprised to find the MIA consciousness raising booths manned by Vets were a permanent feature by the Lincoln Memorial as you walk towards the Vietnam Wall. People were still unaccounted for, others still cared. The awful reality of a draft is hard to imagine but I know it happened in WW2 in the UK because an uncle of mine refused to fight, was jailed and then sent to work in the pine forests in Wales, branded a despised "conchie". It seems there's no room to say "don't sign up" now for fear of being considered disrespectful of those who have.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Jill. I'm so glad you found this post. What a brave uncle ...

  20. Powerful, Teresa. 'If not now, when?' to which the rejoinder is likely to be -'Now. Or never.' Being Canadian my experiences of those times are different but we had many on our side of the border cheering the war on communism - some under my roof. Question nothing, and eventually there will be nothing left to question - or anybody to serve as questioner. As I said, powerful. This joins the list of your posts that will fill my thoughts for some time to come.
    Oh, and as a fellow black sheep, I'm honoured to be in the same company. (Not to mention the Luddite similarity..)

    1. Once again, I'm so glad you found a particular post .... another important aspect of my life you've taken the time to recognize ... and it's very much appreciated. Thank you so much for your comments.

      A fellow black sheep ... fine company. I still sometimes lament my letting go of Luddite ways .... but here we are ... way leads on to way ... :)