“This is not the America my father’s generation anticipated,” I thought to myself during a solemn moment a half-century ago.
“This is not the reason a whole generation of Americans – later called ‘The Greatest Generation’ by noted television newsman Tom Brokaw – risked their lives to do battle on two fronts during World War II. This is not the America they envisioned during that great war.”
I found myself at a crossroads, of sorts, as I entered a lifetime after the end of my military service that had taken me to Missouri, Georgia and, finally, to Nuremberg, Germany. I found myself thinking of how fortunate I’d been to escape a tour of duty in Vietnam, a fate that, yes, I’d anticipated but, quite honestly was pleased, when I’d been sent to Europe instead of Southeast Asia.
Just what, though, would I find when I returned to the United States?
Anti-war protests raged on university campuses across the country. Civil unrest drew wide coverage in print media, radio and television and that “unrest” among America’s younger generation was obvious and covered well by international media throughout Europe.
It was definitely a sobering time in my life and a time when I had many more questions than answers.
Before I went back home, before I returned to an America that would be changed forever by war, I had found my “opportunity of a lifetime” and took a European discharge in order to spend a whole summer in Sweden, home of my paternal grandfather and all the cousins, aunts and uncles who lived there.
To simply tell you that I enjoyed my time living among old-world family, working in a Swedish pre-fab home company and playing baseball for the Swedish champions – Leksands Baseballklubb – would be to vastly understate those experiences.
Still, there was the constant “news from home” that arrived periodically – most of that news not the kind I reveled in hearing.
Just before I left Germany for Sweden, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. I’d barely unpacked to begin an experience of a lifetime when I learned that Bobby Kennedy had been shot and killed in Los Angeles. When my father’s cousin, Karin, approached to tell me, I knew she had bad news just by the somber look on her face.
Near the end of my summer, the world learned that troops had invaded Czechoslovakia – the largest invasion in Europe since World War II – and quelled an uprising there. While stationed in Germany, my division, the 4th Armored Division, had bases along Czechoslovakia and East Germany, a peace-time defense against just such an invasion.
Still, I lived in Sweden and remained there, even during a time when my own pride in America was tested. During the summer, three friends from my former Army unit in Nuremberg took leave and visited me in Sweden. Our happy reunion was interrupted during a visit to a local pub. As we sat and reminisced, three young Swedish girls approached our table. They sat and chatted for only a minute when one of them boldly said to my friends, “If you would like to come and live here, we can find you work and you won’t have to return to the Army.”
That’s how bold some young folks were at that time of anti-war protests around the world. Of course, my friends proved they were true Americans and invited the young girls to leave.
When I went to live in Sweden, I was the 10th American soldier to do so. However, I was the first one to do so legally. The first nine were all deserters from the Army in Germany who arrived there and obtained asylum after they’d received orders to go to Vietnam.
I never, thankfully, met any of those nine ex-soldiers, although our paths crossed, at least in a way, while I lived there. I wrote recently that the baseball commissioner had called and told me that two of those deserters wished to play baseball in Sweden and asked my thoughts. I told him that I, too, was a visitor in Sweden and would not feel right giving my opinion on that. I simply said that if they were allowed to play, I would return home immediately.
In the end, they were not allowed to play and I stayed all summer.
Last week I was deep in thought and many of my thoughts were about the summer I spent in Sweden a half-century ago.
This week our televisions and newspapers have given us the news of more mass murder, of shootings in Synagogues and rampages that have wiped out entire families. We learn that, in parts of America, students and teachers have begun carrying guns to schools.
We have become a nation seemingly at the mercy of the National Rifle Association. It appears that the “right to bear arms” is the only part of our constitution that matters to many – even though when the constitution was written, the only “arms” were front-loading muskets.
Yes, this week, I’ve been deep in thought once again and I wonder: just what have we learned in the past 50 years?
I fear the answer is “Not much.”