There was nothing in front of me, really, an emptiness that I would not have acknowledged back then, but recognize today. I didn't have a job. In a month, I'd graduate and simply go home having finished the college education my parents couldn't have and therefore considered an incredible opportunity, something I'd lived through without their high regard. Maybe my own fear of the future because a factor that convinced me. I don't know.
I'd just flunked an army physical for a heart condition that still has me taking daily medicines. I was alienated greatly from my own heritage and faith tradition, at odds with my parents' deeply-held political views. I knew--even lived with--Vietnam vets who'd come back deeply scarred psychologically, guys who were a mess. All of that played a role too.
Perhaps I'd begun to oppose the war because so few around me did. Most of the student body descended from hard-rock Republicanism, young men and women armed with a dynamic that valued the bootstraps with which their ancestors, our ancestors--immigrants all--had pulled themselves up and out of having nothing. Hard work was our creed, Nixon our God-ordained leader.
The news came over my radio early one morning in May. Sam Brown was promising a huge anti-war rally that weekend in Washington D.C., urging millions to come to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
I don't remember making a decision to go, but I went, along with two other Dordt College students, the three of us in a VW bug. It was a life-changing experience.
I remember fault lines in our nation, in my family. I'm a veteran of those wars. I know what it feels like to be at significant odds with those you love. I've seen America around a dinner table split down the middle.
That particular episode of my life comes back to me this morning, how I became a part of a anti-war movement that cut through American life as if it were an ripe melon. I suffered through significant generational conflict, was one of those young people with a father who'd spent years in the South Pacific and had no way of understanding a son who didn't believe in American righteousness.
Back home, streets were burning from racial conflict that ran through the country like a plague. We were a country divided. My father considered Martin Luther King a social agitator, even a communist for undermining American democracy. I recognize my father's views in Home, Marilynne Robinson's second novel about a small town in the fifties, whenever the "old man," Pastor Robert Boughton, tells his prodigal son Jack that "the coloreds" would be far better off if they stopped protests and accepted their role in American culture and class.
In 1970, I was a kid, and Lord knows I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I came back from that anti-war march on Washington, May 10, 1970, less convinced than I could define righteousness. Still, we were not a united states.
Sometime after another very contentious election--Bush vs. Gore, in 2000--Newt Gingrich, who would become Speaker of the House in a Republican Revolution he called "Contract with America," was asked about bringing America together. He said this:
Most Americans do not find themselves actually alienated from their fellow Americans or truly fearful if the other party wins power. Unlike in Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Rwanda, competition for power in the U.S. remains largely a debate between people who can work together once the election is over.Sunday morning on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Gingrich if he remembered that statement. He did. And then Todd asked the former Speaker, "Do you believe that's the case in January of 2017?"
"No," Gingrich said, as bluntly as that.
On the morning of an election that is far too close to call, it's frightening to think that no matter who wins, half of America is going to watch a person they consider the devil move into the White House and become our leader.
I don't know what's going to happen today, but what's worse is I can not imagine what's going to happen tomorrow.