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I was 14 years old in 1968 and the thing that struck me the most was when Bobby Kennedy was assasinated, it seemed like the whole world had the air sucked out of it. I seem to remember he hung on for a day or so and all the kids in my class at school were speculating on and hoped for his survival, but of course it wasn't to be. The war was a constant presence in our lives by that time, more so it seems than Iraq is today. Dr. King's unbelievable assasination just months before... Adults and us kids were wondering what in God's name was happening to our country? It seemed to be coming apart at the seams! When Bobby died, it seemed that our last ray of hope died with him. It was like a punch to the stomach. Here forty years and a lifetime later, I still feel the incredible ache of what truly might have been. I didn't realize for a long time how much it affected me. I talk to young people sometimes about that "era" and it's almost like ancient history to them.
I was a 15 years old when JFK was assasinated. I recall hearing about it at school when I was in English Class. Everyone was absolutely devastated. We had pinned our hopes on the future that he promised and we were ready to pursue - and then he was gone.
In 1965 (my senior year of high school), I had a class in International Relations (Mr. Rubenstein as I recall was the teacher). One day he asked everyone in the class to look around at each other in the room. He said that within 5 years at least one boy in the class would be in the US military Vietnam. At the time, we really couldn't see how this far away place could affect any of us.
I graduated from high school in 1966 and went to college, but I didn't really have my heart in it. As a result, I found myself out of school with no direction and no 2S deferment.
As a result, I was available and drafted into the US Army in January 1968. I was in Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana (AKA TigerLand - YES - It really did exist) in April when we got word that Dr. King had been murdered. Another great man with hope and vision for the future was cut down. We were all put on alert and made ready to respond, if needed. We were in this heightened state for a few days.
While at Fort Polk, most of us got orders that we were to report to Oakland, CA, for final processing then travel to the Republic of Vietnam. We did get abour four weeks leave before we had to report to Oakland. I was at home in Los Angeles in June. I was watching the action on TV when we got word that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. Again - we saw a bright light that was snuffed out so early in life.
A few weeks later I was in Vietnam and ready to perform my duty. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and the US Army had trained me to be an infantryman. However, I had one skill that none of the others in our group had. I knew how to type. That capability I learned in High School now became one of the most important skills available to me. It pulled me out of the mud and the jungles. I had an ace in the hole at a time when there was a need in the Administration Company. I played the card and I am certain it was a fundamental reason that I am here today.
I was afforded the opportunity to work in the relative safety of the large base camp at Bien Hoa. Even so, we did get an occasional nighttime mortar or rocket attack and the VC could reach out to create some havoc, do some damage, and take a life hear or there.
In late August, we had just heard of the uprising in Czechoslavakia and the move the Soviets made to quell the situation. Tensions were high as I recall. That evening, the base started to take some incoming, but they were hitting mostly way off to the northwest of our location. We felt safe and stood and watched the "fireworks" and wondered who was catching hell this time. I recall seeing a streak of orange fall out the sky and land. Upon hitting the earth, a light began to eminate from this location. It grew in size very rapidly and went from white to yellow to orange and finally to red. At one point, it seemed to emcompass the entire sky. I thought to myself that they had finally done it. I truly thought it was an atomic bomb that had gone off. A few seconds later a tremendous force threw us all to the gound with a deafening sound. As I lay on the ground, I thought for sure we would all be cooked. But then I noticed that it was dark again and some of us started to stir and get back up. About 30 secods later, it rained debris for awhile. We later found out that a rocket had hit our ammunition dump and the whole thing went up. It burned for two days.
This was all very sobering and personal. I realized I was not immortal and I needed to do something with my life. I still had to endure 10 more months of this. Granted we had it better than the grunts out in the boonies, but it was tough.
I did endure. As a matter of fact, I wound up extending my tour in Vietnam for two months so that I could get a five month early out. I only spent 19 months active duty when I arrived back on US soil in August, 1969. My parents met me at LAX after flying home from Oakland. My mom seemed to have aged 10 years during those 14 months. I was glad to be home. I took off my uniform and tried to not speak of those experiences.
But I cannot forget - even today - 40 years ago is still vivid in my mind.