There is a chapter in “Expiation” where two generations clash over the Vietnam War. The main character Dan has just graduated from high school the night before. Dan’s father, a veteran of World War II, takes to Dan about his future. This conversation was held in many, many homes in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Here is an excerpt from “Expiation”. Dan has been on the roof of the family house adjusting the television antenna.
Dad kept shouting instructions up to me as I turned the antenna. Finally, he said, “Right there Dan, that’s perfect.” Now I could get off the roof.
When I returned to the ground, I intended to just head back into my room and resume listening to music. Maybe I would call Katie and see if she wanted to go do something.
“Here’s one for you,” Dad said as he handed me a letter as he sorted through the mail. My eyes opened wide as I saw the logo of the San Francisco Examiner on the return address. Suddenly, I couldn’t get it open fast enough. Mentally I was trying to prepare for what it said. It would probably be the first of several letters saying, “we appreciate your application but no thanks.”
As I unfolded the letter I saw the words of the first sentence. “We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted in the San Francisco Examiner’s intern program.” My mouth flew open as I continued to anxiously read the details.
“Dad! Dad!” I called, “I got accepted in the newspaper internship program. The San Francisco Examiner!”
“Great son, but you don’t want to go to San Francisco do you?”
“Of course I do, are you kidding? This is the San Francisco Examiner. I can do this and go to Cal-Berkeley.”
“Well, that’s great but wait to see what else comes. Congratulations pal, I’m proud of you son. But seriously, are you going to move to San Francisco and go to school with all of the damn hippies in Berkeley?”
“Dad, Cal is a great school. But don’t you understand? This is the San Francisco Examiner! This is William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper. This is the big-time, Dad!”
Dad shot me a puzzled look, “Well, it’s flattering to be accepted and to know you could have gone there, but why leave Seattle? You don’t want to go to school down there. Katie’s going to the UDub right?”
“You don’t get it. This is the same as if I was a baseball player and I just got offered a contract by the Yankees!” I said in frustration trying to use the baseball analogy so Dad would understand. “The Examiner—that’s the Yankees, Dad!”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your future. I didn’t know this was all going to happen today. You did just graduate last night. But let’s talk about your future for a minute,” Dad countered.
“There’s not much left to talk about now. This is so amazing! A lot of decisions just got made. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Now I know what I’m going to do,” I said excitedly.
Dad then played the Katie card. “Are you going to leave Katie behind? That is one great girl.”
“That is one great girl Dad,” I offered, “no one needs to convince me of that. Katie knows about what I was trying to do. She supports me. We’ll work this out. Katie could eventually come down there and go to school.”
“Katie going to Berkeley? Why would she want to do that? I think you need to think this through more thoroughly, Dan. Plus there is something else I want you to consider. I think before you launch into your college and career you should think about giving something back to your country. You need to do your part. We’re at war now. Every young man needs, at some point, to kick-in and give back to this great country.”
“What! Are you telling me you want me to go to Vietnam before I go to college? Are you crazy? Do you think I’m going to turn down this internship so I can go get my ass shot off by the Viet Cong? Dad, you remember John Russon? He was the catcher on my baseball team last year.”
“Yeah, I remember him,” Dad replied as his face turned red reflecting his agitation.
“Well, John was killed in Vietnam last week. I heard that last night. He was a year older than me but I played baseball with him. Last year he was standing here in June, like I am today. John had just graduated from high school. Now he’s dead.”
“You want me to start listing the friends of mine who were killed fighting the Japs in the south Pacific? I have a much longer list than you, Dan.”
“Good Dad. I’ll go over to see John’s parents today and tell them they don’t have it so bad because my Dad lost more friends in his war.”
“Don’t be a wise ass. I’m just saying this is part of life. I’m sorry about John. He was a nice kid. But it’s part of being an American. At some point, we all have to give back…or should.”
“Dad, I love my country and I respect very much what you and your generation did. You fought evil. You fought bad people who were trying to enslave everyone. I’m sure I can’t imagine all that you experienced Dad. You’re a hero. But your war is not the same as what’s going on in Vietnam. This is a civil war. We’re jumping in the middle of it and losing good young men like John, for what? This cause is not worth dying for. We ought to be careful about where we send our heroes—our good young men. Vietnam ain’t it.”
Now Dad was really angry, “We’re stopping Communism, that’s what we’re doing. The Communists are just as much a threat as Hitler and the Japs. These are bad people too, Dan.”
“It’s not our right to go around the world killing every bad person. It’s just not our job! We have our own problems here. Big problems that need to get fixed. We’re not in a very strong position to be telling other people how they should live.”
“This is the greatest country on the face of the earth,” Dad snorted.
“It depends on who you talk to. We have black people who don’t have freedom. They are met with billy clubs and fire hoses. We’ve got this stupid war which LBJ started for no good reason. Thousands of young guys, just like me, have had their hopes and dreams snuffed out forever, for what?! For no good reason Dad! Then we have two leaders who recognized these problems—Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. They both got gunned down last summer and now we’re stuck with Nixon. Meanwhile, there are protests in the streets and the frustrated black people are burning their neighborhoods. Look at the Democratic Convention in Chicago! That should make us all proud to be Americans!”
“We have a lot of trouble makers in our country right now who are trying to ruin this country,” Dad countered.
“Trouble makers! Who’s the trouble maker? The black man who’s not free? Or is it the people who are perpetrating the atmosphere where all men aren’t free. Why does every generation have to be defined by war, Dad? Maybe my generation could be defined by making peace. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?”
“What is the matter with you? You’re hopelessly naïve son. So Dan, do you think I should have just flashed the peace sign at the Japs when they were dropping bombs on my ship in Pearl Harbor? Do you think I should’ve done that? Would that be your suggested more enlightened way to deal with things?”
“Dad, why do you and I have to have a big fight just as I receive great news– just when I’m so excited?”
“I’m disappointed in your attitude, Dan.”
“Disappointed! I played two varsity sports in high school, I was on the honor roll, I got almost all As. I was accepted at Cal and two other colleges and now I have this great opportunity in San Francisco. You could do worse for a son.”
“Dan I’ve always been proud of you, but I think you’re making a big mistake to go down there with all of those people. Your brother, Ray, plans to serve his country. What do you plan to do for your country? That’s all I’m askin’. It’s time to stand up and be a man.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do for my country, Dad…I’m going to go be the best writer I can be. I’m going to college and I’m going to be a responsible, contributing member of society. That’s what I’m doing for my country, Dad!”
My dad said nothing but looked very sternly at me.
Then I couldn’t resist one more shot. “And by the way, Dad, I agree with ‘those people’ down in Berkeley. We need to get-the-hell out of Vietnam and that stupid war! Dad I’m going to take your advice. I’m going to stand up and be a man. I’m going to school in Berkeley and I’m going to work at the newspaper in San Francisco. You can’t stop me! I ‘m really disappointed that you’re not happy for me.”
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