I love the fall. The weather is cool and crisp, skies are gay and cloudy and the colors are incredible. I also feel a bit melancholy when fall rolls around. The time changes and there’s a seemingly slower pace. I write a “novel” in 30 days, kick leaves when I walk and enjoy the freshness of the air. I always reread The Great Gatsby at this time of year, too, and that’s part of the melancholy. It’s such a sweet, simple story and it’s so sad.
This year it seems I’ve been even more filled with that feeling. In recent weeks I’ve reconnected with some of my high school classmates, via Facebook, of course. We came of age in the mid-60s, a tumultuous time to be so young and think yourself so old and wise. In my senior year, the draft became the DRAFT, changing all our lives. I’ve been thinking about that a good deal, especially with Veteran’s Day just passed.
I think I’m past the point of mid-life crisis, but I feel so lost, so adrift these days. Writing about it helps.
Life is funny sometimes, how it passes day to day and then suddenly takes you back to a time that seems so long ago. When I was a senior in high school, the Vietnam war became of supreme interest to everyone my age. There wasn’t any discussion of whether or not the war was good or right, just of how to avoid becoming a part of it.
For girls, it was no problem, for the guys it was a different matter. Sure, some got deferments for school and others talked fleeing to Canada. But when it came right down to it, I guess I should have realized that a majority of my male classmates would be in Vietnam sometime in the coming year.
Oddly, I didn’t. My focus was on the anti-war movement, especially as the next few years unfolded and I moved away from the small town where I’d graduated from high school. My class was small, the town was small; we had 117 students in the senior class, the largest ever graduated from the school, and the last to graduate from that particular campus. All the years of building tradition, the senior quad, ditching government class out the back gate to the beach, senior ditch day, slave day (all those really important “educational” moments) seemed to drift away as the next class moved to the newly built high school that fall.
I lost touch with my classmates. All of them. I’m not very good at sustaining relationships that way. Hell, I’m not very good at establishing to begin with. Over the years I’ve created a new set of friends everywhere I’ve gone and then moved on to start again. It’s easier for someone who doesn’t get close to people to do that, even if you envy the people who drag along all their friends and even mix them with their new friends to end up with hundreds of “friends” on Facebook some 50 years later.
As we were graduating that June, one person didn’t join us. He graduated, but he left school early because he felt so strongly about joining the war. He was already in Vietnam by the time we cheered the end of our school days and danced at the senior all night party. Charlie. I didn’t know him well, but he was well-regarded and a nice guy. His family had immigrated from Mexico when he was a small boy and he had developed strong ties to the community and pride in his new country. Going to war was what he was going to do and he knew it.
Before I left that small town, about a year after graduation, I heard that he’d been killed in combat. At about the same time two of my classmates got drunk and ran their car off the road, flipping three times and killing both of them. Popular guys and both my good friends. Three boys (really boys, they were only 18) dead in a matter of days. The entire town mourned the two who died together; all three schools closed, stores closed, the church overflowed with mourners and I was sobered.
For Charlie? I don’t remember any funeral. Maybe it happened after I left, I don’t know. Maybe it was just a private family burial. Charlie, who died fighting for his county, and the other two who died for, well, being stupid kids.
We were all stupid kids. It was a stupid war. Charlie shouldn’t have gone and neither should all of the others that I’ve recently learned about. No one should have gone and no one should have died. Several of my classmates did both. I might never have known about them except for “social media” (the preferred means of communication today) and the thing that seems to bind together even the older generations. .
An old friend from high school, recently rediscovered on Facebook, has been updating me on my classmates and others I knew in high school. Seems at least three committed suicide from my class of 117, and several didn’t make it home from Vietnam. I hadn’t known. Honestly, given the years and the distance and my inability to sustain friendships, I didn’t even think about it. I just always remember Charlie.
Had I known, I might have searched for their names on the war memorial in Washington DC as I searched for and ran my finger across Charlie’s. Had I know I might not have felt so completely alone last summer when I was very near to killing myself. Had I known, I might have wished to freeze time for all of us, on a warm spring day, with the smell of the ocean filling the air, and we seniors laughing together and defending “our” quad and it’s big tree from all the low-life underclassmen.
Had I known I might have done a good many things differently in the last fifty years. But, as they say, life is wasted on the young, after all. We just don’t know it until it’s too late.