Jay Meehan: A cautionary tale from 1964
The young GI bounced his way along the rough hewn first draft of a jeep road through the pine stump and chigger infested woods of South Carolina. It was the Vietnam era and the STRAC-designated 2nd Infantry Division was out doing its month-or-two-long summer camp routine with other outfits. The war games were afoot.
In many ways, especially in appearance, it was not unlike MASH. They lived in tent cities thrown together in seemingly random configurations and would “bug out” whenever the perceived advantage tilted one way or the other. They actually had referees to make such calls.
Only, the irony generated by the then-current crop of anecdotal humorists had roots mainly in the field of electronics rather than in medicine. The 122nd Signal Battalion had its share of Hawkeyes and Radars and Trappers and Franks – though, nary a Hot Lips Houlihan. If one was looking for double entendre-rich jocularity, that was the place.
What our young enlisted man then thought of as our involvement in Vietnam was really a vastly different slice of spud compared to what loomed on the horizon. The paradigm was about to shift in ways unimaginable and, according to the political banter of the time, much of it depended upon the upcoming presidential election between a guy named Lyndon and a guy named Barry.
The election of 1964 was our hero’s first rodeo as far as exercising his civic duty and experiencing, firsthand, the aftermath of gibberish’s collision with political thought at the speed of dark. Those operating the future Large Hadron Collider at CERN would have been duly impressed.
He took the election and his involvement therein extremely seriously, even staying up late with the help of his favorite libation to get to the crux of the issues involved.
Two momentous scenarios occupied his thoughts that October morning. The first: his mission to reach the battalion mail-drop with his absentee ballot, thereby doing his small part to help thwart what he saw as a madman’s desire to occupy the White House. And the second, the reality that he had “90-days-and-a-wakeup” remaining in uniform.
Soon, the bulldozed clearing that served as the tent city command center for 112nd headquarters came into view. Soon enough, his somewhat Cutty Sark-spattered ballot envelope was on its way to the California coast.
It had been less than a year since President Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent swearing-in of President Johnson, but the rhetoric and newly hatched “Mad Men” ads made it seem like the campaign had been going on for millennia.
In this corner, out of the hill country of Texas, is the Hereford beef-cattle-residue-rich incumbent, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the “peace candidate.” In the opposite corner, in the white trunks and out of the Phoenix department store cartel, his challenger, Mr. Barry Goldwater.
With the political climate not all that far removed from the witch hunts of the McCarthy era and the ongoing union-busting red scare by the right, our citizen-soldier had opted for Johnson and his promise to get us out of Vietnam sooner rather than later.
The Madison Avenue subtlety of a young girl holding a flower in front of a mushroom cloud in a TV ad probably hadn’t hurt. Lucky for him, one had to volunteer to go to Vietnam during his Army years, but that would change.
Let’s skip forward to where Johnson’s electoral victory increased U.S. boots on the ground to 500,000 and U.S. body bags to 58,000. At least he instituted a draft so that everyone had to pull his or her share of the idiocy. Our friend, the jeep driver, had a quick education. Within weeks of his discharge, he was taking to the streets, inhaling tear gas.
For the presently much older, wiser, disillusioned veteran, this election and the official mail ballot he holds in his hands is even more foreboding than the one he experienced from the wilds of South Carolina. Those who don’t vote this time around obviously have not been paying attention.
So I’m off to meet my mailman, who should be performing his drive-by any time now. Hopefully the millennials and womenfolk and the rest of our diverse voting-age population will take advantage and by demographics alone, reset the pendulum.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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