“Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris.”
In 1963, in high school Latin class I read that opening line of the Aeneid by Virgil.
Like the Iliad and Odyssey, there was a constant theme of violence as the Roman Empire imposed civilization and peace on others – at incredible human cost.
My childhood home was a VA-financed two-bedroom Cape on a dead end with a river in back, a meadow and three baseball fields across the street and the school at the end of a short path. As Greenwich Village folksinger Dave Van Ronk said, “We were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends……and we were laughing all the time.”
It was the best of times.
In June 1963 President Kennedy forwarded civil rights legislation to Congress. In June 1963, JFK gave what the Boston Globe called his most important speech at American University in Washington, D.C. – entitled “A Strategy for Peace”. He also spoke at the Berlin Wall telling those seeking peace and justice, Ich bin ein Berliner – “I too am a Berliner.”
That same month, civil rights leader and Korean War veteran Medgar Evers was shot in the back in his driveway in Mississippi. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery not far from my Uncle.
In September 1963 a bomb killed four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
In 1964 the Johnson Administration lied to the country about the reasons for sending troops into Viet Nam to help a country which had no concept of democracy and which had fought intruders for centuries to preserve deep-seated devotion to family and village. Congress voted 498 – 2 in favor of a Resolution to endorse the war. In three years, 15,000 American troops had been killed. Viet Nam, to paraphrase a French proverb was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.
C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.
I remember going to my first two funerals – of my cousins, both killed before they were 22.
In 1964 three civil rights workers were tortured and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They too were in their twenties.
In 1965, a mother from Detroit was shot to death while organizing marches in Selma Alabama.
Riots became a summer staple – Harlem and Brooklyn, Paterson NJ and San Francisco in 1964, Watts and Chicago in ’65, over twenty in 1966, the year I graduated from high school.
After Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, a proposed bill addressing gun violence languished in Congressional committee. Days after Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, the bill whistled through Congress and became law – the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Only one Congressman had voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and for the Gun Control Act of 1968 – Wayne Morse.
Richie Havens in his Handsome Johnny sang of the irony of marching to the fields of Vietnam and marching to the fields of Birmingham.
And we were going to impose civilization and peace in Viet Nam?
It was the worst of times.
As in Kafka’s book, The Trial, in December 1969, one morning, without having done anything wrong, I was threatened with a form of arrest – the draft. I served a sentence of 2 ½ years, which in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a felony sentence; I am thankful for the fact that it wasn’t a life sentence or a death sentence.
The entrance to the Kennedy Presidential Library exhibits a number of his most inspiring quotations. The first one displayed is from his American University speech; in that speech he said:
“every person sent out from a university should be of his or her nation as well as of his or her time, and I am confident that the men and women who carry the honor of graduating from this institution will continue to give from their lives, from their talents, a high measure of public service and public support.”
With the help of family and friends and villages, I got back on track and served that same troubled government for 34 years primarily enforcing the Gun Control Act of 1968. I turned 2 ½ years of servitude – servitude enforced and supported by lies of the government – into decades of service to my country saving countless lives and helping fellow Americans flourish according to promises made centuries ago by their government.
Virgil’s opening line in the Aeneid roughly translates as
I SING OF WAR AND A MAN SENT BY FATE TO A STRANGE SHORE.
The last line in that stanza reads “Can immortal souls indeed harbor such wrath??”.
I would end here with a wish to all of you in Vietnamese “Hoa binh va binh an.”
Peace and well-being.