Vietnam, 1968 – PBS and me

I stuffed another thousand envelopes watching Sunday night’s return to Vietnam. It was about 1968 when I was in my last year of Debate at Mankato High and would switch over to being a Senior. I would drop debate because I wasn’t quite as dedicated as our teams survivors. Our coach was a misogynistic jerk who leered at girls in short skirts. Besides, I’d overcome my panic attacks and was drawn into the speech team’s story telling and our schools theatrics.

1967-68 was the year our family hosted an African student, Bedru, who unwittingly integrated the all white Mankato High. I was dating for the first time, tentatively and politely. I could drive the family car. College was a certainty two years off but even for a high school kid it was hard to keep one’s eyes off politics.

Last night’s PBS episode covered the basics that I was watching in my peripheral vision that seminal year. Martin Luther King was assassinated. (Ironically my Ethiopian roommate did not seem very moved by this. Perhaps he was used to being in a minority back home. BTW – I suspect that our family stopped hearing from Bedru a few years later after he was murdered as a political prisoner by his pro-American government.)

Bedru was however intensely interested in the Kennedy’s who stirred such hope across the third world. My intensely political father had us all up late to watch the California returns that would almost guarantee that his little brother, Bobby, would be the next president. Bedru, who was pulling for the younger Kennedy, stayed up even later than the rest of the family to watch the coverage from California after the results came in.

The next morning we discovered he had silently gone up to bed after watching Kennedy’s assassination.

Civil rights and Vietnam both came to a head in 1968 and I have many vivid memories from the events laid out in last night’s episode. For instance, my Dad’s shutting me up as I yammered questions just moments before Lyndon Johnson declared that he would not seek or accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for reelection. Its the only time I recall him ever shushing me.

I remember the riots that blazed across the nation after King’s assassination. The riot in Detroit has now been portrayed in a recent motion picture that I’d like to see. One took place in Baltimore. Three years later when I worked as a summer intern in Washington DC. I visited my friend Jim Zotalis in a suburb where he was an assistant in the Don Budge Tennis camp. I had just given him a tour of the nation’s capitol and he was reciprocating by hosting me. The drive into downtown Baltimore was a shock. I went through the King Riot zone and all the shops that had reopened in fire blackened brick buildings had heavy iron bars across the storefronts.

As for Vietnam, it was the fighting in the Tet Offensive that lasted a month in Hue that prepared college for me more than the other way around. A year-and-a-half later as a freshman I would see my first-and-only draft card burning and participated in a counter productive blocking of the downtown’s most important intersection. I’ve shunned self righteous crowds ever since.

I watched George Wallace, Richard Nixon and a bevy of Democrats vying for the job LBJ no longer had the fortitude to endure and that left me prepared for Donald Trump last year.

It was a helluva year.