|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
From Kennedy Era Patriotism to a War Zone
I was born in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania in 1949. My family lived in a rural area in Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, but it was at that time farmland. I was the youngest of nine children. In our house, everyone had assigned duties. It was a big house, so we all had a lot of chores, but we all did a certain percentage to help out our family.
In 1968, I was getting into the popular things which were bellbottoms, the lime green and orange tie-dye, and the two pony tails and the blonde hair. I had a good relationship with my parents, so I didn't buy into the "anyone over thirty couldn't be trusted" until I got into college. I thought that drugs were stupid until I started to use drugs and then it stopped being stupid for a while. Then I realized how stupid it really was. My favorite musical group was Chicago because they had a good instrumental style. They used brass well, and I loved the brass, the French horn, and the trombone for solos. In high school in Malvern, Pennsylvania, I enjoyed mostly classical music because I went to a musical conservatory, so we listened to as much classical music as possible.
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had nightmares. When they drew up the map of where the missiles could reach, our area was in the circle which would have been destroyed. So, it was very traumatic. In 1960, when Kennedy was elected, I became a fan. I went to all of the rallies I could get to, I collected Kennedy memorabilia. That was the first election for which I was awake. As a matter of fact, I met Bobby Kennedy; I met Ethel and Pat Kennedy who was married to Peter Lawford.
When Kennedy was shot, that was one of the most traumatic things up to that point in my life. We were Irish Catholics; he was our hope for the future. I remember it was as if a family member had died. We cried for weeks on and off, and it was a very sad time.
I felt that discrimination against people of color was a problem, but not so much discrimination against women, because my family was full of women who had accomplished many things. So there wasn't any problem with women being able to do things because my mother was a successful career person as well as a successful wife and mother. She had her priorities in order, and my older sisters were college graduates and accomplishing important things. To me, feminism wasn't that we had to fight for our rights, because I saw women with power. As far as color, we didn't have any blacks in our town, and so when I saw what the blacks were having to deal with in the South, I was very troubled by it.
I believed what the politicians were saying about the war, and so I accepted one hundred percent what their reasons were for having the draft. In fact, I fought for the chance to go, and when I was there, I was proud to be there until I realized how messed up it was.
In 1968, I started volunteer work at the Army hospital in Valley Forge which was right near our home, and I spent a lot of that summer of 1968 working at the Army hospital. Before I went to Vietnam, I was "gung-ho" about what we were doing over there, and then when I saw what was really happening, I became active in the Vietnam Vets Against the War (VVAW). During my time in the hospitals, I met a lot of GI's, but all of them were wounded, so it was a very different take on the war. My job as a volunteer was to encourage them and to let them know how proud we were of them, so it still fed that same support of the war. I worked with the amputees and the eyes, ears, nose, and the throat injuries, men with part of their faces blown away, eyes gone, and only one arm left, things like that. They were some of the bravest, most heroic people I had met up to that point in my life. The men in wheelchairs and on crutches were part of my work, but the body bags, that just meant dead! I never got used to the body bags. There were certain times of the day people didn't want to drive to the airport because there were so many body bags.
The day before my college graduation, I got a telegram telling me that I was scheduled to leave for Vietnam in six weeks, so I had to get my shots and everything. When I came back from Vietnam, I was stationed in a naval hospital for a year. Then, I went to California and became a "scum-ball" hippie, and I did that until I hit rock bottom. Then, fortunately, the Lord got a hold of me and said, "You're messing up and now it is time to turn it over to me," and that is what I did. He straightened my life out for me, found me my husband, and got us back together again after a couple of years of going our separate ways. We have lived happily ever after.
I was active in Vietnam Vets Against the War for a little while and then President Ford came in there and said he had to grant amnesty. Then, I was active in the Vietnam Vets for Amnesty. I lost faith in anything when I was in the war, so I wasn't involved in any religious organizations until I hit rock bottom. Then, it wasn't a religious organization; it was a person named Jesus who straightened everything out.
I was very impressed with Martin Luther King, Jr., and I was very supportive of him. I was in Buffalo, New York when he was killed. In fact, he was killed right before our Easter break. I was very short-sighted as far as awareness of my surroundings when I was that age, but I know we were worried about whether we would be able to get out and off the campus safely to the airport because of the rioting. I felt that the rioting was justified, and I thought it was horrible. To me, Kennedy's death was bad enough, but now it was happening again. He wasn't Kennedy, in my eyes, Kennedy was something special, but it was still a very sad time.
Growing up, I used to watch the "Bob Hope Christmas Special" every year and decided I wanted to do whatever I could to get on his show. I had gone to Vietnam, and one of the reasons I went was because I wanted to see Bob Hope. Since 1958, they would show these Christmas specials, and I loved it. I just thought it was the neatest, most patriotic thing. My parents were older because I was the youngest of nine kids, so they had been too old to be in World War II on a military level. My mother worked in the same Army hospital I later worked at, and my dad was on the war production board. They were super patriotic, and to me the epitome of patriotism was the Bob Hope Show. So every year I would watch it, faithfully; my whole family would gather around the set and watch Bob Hope. One of my reasons for going to Vietnam was to go see the Bob Hope Show, and I got assigned to DaNang, which was one of his chief show sites. The day I got there, we were getting a tour of the hill, Freedom Hill, and they said that this is the stage that Bob Hope uses, but he is not coming back anymore. I was so mad because I had finally gotten there, and Bob Hope wasn't going to be there. Then, I wrote him a letter and said, "How come I got here and now you're not coming?" I got a very nice letter back from one of his officers and it said, "We don't know yet whether he is going to be there, but if he is, I hope you get to see him." I wrote back again, just kind of tongue in cheek, saying, "Well if he does come, I hereby invite him to dinner!" So when the show came to DaNang, he called me up on stage and answered my letter and said he was coming to dinner. It turned out he didn't, which was really good.
Then when I was in California two years later, I went to the studio looking for a job because I was out of work, and when I got there, the producer of the overseas show met me. I had contacted the Bob Hope Production Companies or studios, and they had forwarded my name to this producer. He gave me the royal treatment. He gave me VIP tickets to the next show which was the first show Bob Hope wasn't in Vietnam or the first Christmas he didn't go to Vietnam. Because I was there in the audience, they made a special deal of having me stand up and introducing me and that whole thing.
There were times when I subscribed to the idea that maybe they just ought to do Hanoi. I had patches on my purse. The purses we carried were claymore bags, and they were heavy green canvas bags. Men carried their claymore money in them, and when there were extra ones laying around, they would give them to us. We would go get a patch or a pin from that unit and one of my patches said something to the effect that we ought to drop a bomb on Hanoi. But how serious are people at a time like that? That was just the mindset of the time.
When the war finally ended, I cried for a long time, for weeks. I was in the midst of post-traumatic stress disorder when the Christmas bombing of 1972 started and we pulled the POW's out in 1973. I felt like we were getting smart and bombing. And then the POW's were released. We had thought that was all of them, and then we found out that it wasn't; it was up and down. I can remember it was a relief. I don't have the sense of the Vietnam War ending in 1975. To me it ended when we got the POW's back in 1973. I am still concerned with the POW issue because I think we let some people down. I am convinced that our government knew it, and I am convinced that when we had people who were willing to go back and get them, their attempts to go back were aborted by our government because of the financial reasons.
The Sixties had a very strong effect on me, but it is not something I would ever want to relive. In fact, whenever I see someone with lime green or bellbottoms, I cringe. I think that it was a symptom of something deeper. I think that when prayer was taken out of schools, the structure of morality and integrity and all those things had started to break down. That created a generation of "spoiled brats," which is what we were in the Sixties, and brats act out. I think a lot of what was happening was acting out, but then it was balanced against some of the things we accomplished. If the protest hadn't happened, would we still be in Vietnam?
Looking back on the Vietnam conflict, my perspective has changed because I think years do that. Anybody who is in any kind of war looking back twenty or thirty years later can see a difference. I am proud that I went. I see a lot of good that it did. Primarily, I met my husband. I have a lot of good that came out of it. I see that it took that extreme horror to get me on my knees. From that, I can be eternally grateful that it happened, but there is a lot about it that I still sort through sometimes because I think that it was wrong the way it was handled, politically and militarily.
I have visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and it is a very uncomfortable place to go when you are a Vietnam Veteran because you know people on the wall. I realized a lot of good people paid the ultimate sacrifice. There are a lot of people who still have not come home yet, and that is what makes me sad. The beauty of the wall is that the people who have not come home yet, can go there and connect.
The Sixties was an era of negative changes. I think we undermined authority and were successful with the "sit-ins" at the colleges and the Kent State protests. All of these things did undermine authority, and it didn't benefit. We are all more suspicious now. We are not going to ever get in another Vietnam because we all learned that we are never going to let our young men go through that without a lot of serious questioning. Before the Fifties, maybe there were some teenagers who were "wise-acres," but people didn't have the mindset of, "Wait until they become teenagers." Teenagers are not bad people! There were all of these teenagers, barefoot, in long hair, dirty clothes, jeans, and bellbottoms. That made it seem like that is the way teenagers are supposed to act, and they don't have to.
At that time, I was taken over by the Kennedy quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." That is why I ended up in a war-zone. I remember sitting in a bunker one night when a red alert was happening and not knowing whether we were going to survive, thinking, "I wonder if Kennedy knew what he was saying when he said that?" Or did I really want to follow what he was saying? And then Johnson was not a showman like Kennedy was, so I didn't like him as much. Nixon was even less of a showman because he lost to Kennedy first, and then he never seemed to get a good shave and that was very important to me, because he always looked like he had a five o'clock shadow. I was judging from the wrong approach because I didn't have the wisdom to know whether they were good men. I have since found out about corruption in the Kennedy Administration. That was such a disillusionment, and I resented what Nixon did as far as lying with Watergate. Yet, I can say that he did something politically, which was go to China. He was the first president in our lifetime to go to China. Somebody sent word from China to Hanoi saying that it would be a bad move to wipe Cam Ranh Bay off the map while Nixon is in China. We knew it was coming and there was nothing they could do to get us out of it. He stopped it. In the next election, I voted for him because I figured the man had saved my life, so I owed him my vote. It was embarrassing later when I found out how Watergate turned out.
I think that the drug use and the counter culture were overplayed. I went from, "They're just a bunch of weak-minded imbeciles" to, "Maybe that is not a bad way of doing things." Then trying it and realizing that it was the stupidest thing that I ever did. The only good that came out of that time I was involved in drugs was that it got me so low I hit rock bottom. I could cry out and say, "God, if you are there you better grasp on because I am losing," and he did.
I think that there are still problems with racism in American society, but I marvel at how much has been accomplished over the last thirty years with the Civil Rights movement. Now one of my children spent two years in a military college in Alabama, and he still saw a lot of what I saw in the Sixties. It was like, "Did anybody learn down there?" But I think we have made great strides.
In my life, I thought I knew right from wrong, true from false. It took a war to get me on my knees, to get me to find Jesus. If someone had said to me, "Hey, you need to know who this person Jesus is. You need to know for your internal security. You need to know and I will give you a choice. I will tell you who he is, and I will give you a book that describes who he is. Or I will send you to a war-zone and take you through horror, bring you back to the states, and make it more and more horrible because you can't get rid of what you went through. Then you will get desparate enough to say, "I think I want to know who this guy is." That would be the piece of advice to any young person. Get a Bible from someone, read it, read it with an open mind and say, "Hey, maybe there is something in this I would need to know," and seek the answers.