When the war in Afghanistan began, I committed myself to reading every obituary for military service men and women published in the three newspapers to which we subscribe. I owed our soldiers this attention for my political opinions.
The obligation is also a residuum of feelings about not serving in the military. As a child, I expected to serve in the military. My father and many men of my village whom I knew as a child served in World War II or Korea. Local holidays always honored veterans. Gold Star mothers rode, unsmilingly, in parades. About the time I went to high school, I knew that I would be rejected by the draft. I was epileptic. Involuntary service was not, therefore, an existential issue for me. When I went to college, I served in ROTC for two years, as did all my male classmates. I chose Air Force ROTC, out of a childhood love of airplanes. My choice did not reflect any real possibility that I might be a military pilot. My severe allergies were also a disability. They damaged my inner ear and impaired my balance. I could not climb higher than the top of a step ladder without vertigo. Piloting classes and weekly drill and parade were no more than play-acting that AF ROTC imposed on me. I did not continue, as did my cousins at Harvard who were in Navy ROTC, beyond the requirement.
My condition would not prevent me from entering the service, had I a passion to do so. I could have lied, but I did not like lying. Making headway in my life worked against self-deception. I had a Puritan disposition to see the truth about myself. Lying to the government was out. But my dedication to truth was also not an existential issue. Telling the truth was easy, because ultimate service would not be asked of me. I suspected that my commitment to truth was simply convenience. On this stage of my life, too, I was play-acting. I was, perhaps, not being truthful at all.
In college I was politically disengaged, though I registered to vote as a Democrat. I chose the Democratic Party, because I could rebel against my family tradition. My father's family's politics had been Republican since the Civil War. I did not have any sense of the political values of my mother's family, though they were registered Republicans. My paternal great grandfather volunteered for the Civil War as a young man. In his mid-fifties, he volunteered again, serving in the Spanish American War. His officer's wardrobe trunk, which he used in both wars, sits in our dining room, holding table linens.
After several years of supporting our involvement in Viet Nam, I changed my mind and opposed the war. I dismissed US policy as simply a continuation of the French colonial rule. I was not especially politically active, but I gestured toward the anti-war movement. When I was 24, I received my notice for induction from my draft board. I asked the board to postpone my induction for several months, while I completed an advanced degree. The Board agreed. I reported in late Spring. I took the AFQT and my physical exams. I was, as expected, promptly rejected. My medical condition was so poor that my physical exam results were reported to my home state welfare agency. A welfare officer visited me a few months later to sign me up for medical welfare. I was embarrassed by the offer. My medical disabilities were my problems. I thought I was dealing with them adequately. I stood by my family's tradition of economic independence. Welfare did not appeal to me. It did not occur to me that this was a political position at odds with my professed ideology.
Classified 4F, the issue of dodging the draft did not arise. I knew, however, that were I to be drafted, I would serve. I was uncomfortable with draft dodgers and protesters who fled to Canada. It was not that I was proudly American. I was embarrassed by excessive displays of patriotism. I thought of myself as a person motivated by duty and loyalty. Friends from high school and college were drafted or volunteered and served. A few evaded overseas service through the National Guard. A college friend, who shared a summer job with me (we had home milk delivery routes), served in Viet Nam and was killed by friendly fire. An American tank ran over him. I recall vividly the letter my mother wrote to me telling me the news. It was a call others heard, but for me it remained distant. I thought I would be disloyal to these friends if I refused to serve if called.
Political ideology faded as I entered my profession and had my children. My first marriage, which gave me my daughter, failed. This failure profoundly wounded me. My wife announced that she never loved me and left to be with another man. My daughter stayed with me. Her mother and I shared joint custody. I understood that my daughter came first in my life. Now, I was not play-acting. After a few years, I married a second time. I had my son. My priorities arranged themselves. My family and children were first, then my wife's career as an attorney, then my own profession.
I stayed home with my children. I stuffed my own career into the corners of days and long stretches late at night after the children were in bed. My political interests transmuted into civic involvement - creating a better community for my family. The politics of the larger world receded. What was the flood of Vietnamese refugees about? Who was Pol Pot? What did anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel have to do with the oil crisis? Why did Iran fall to Muslim fundamentalism? Such questions flickered briefly in my mind as I quickly skimmed the newspaper, then disappeared forever. Reagan's presidency blurred before me. I baked bread, shopped at Von's, cooked meals, and attended school meetings. The care required by my infant son, who had recurring medical problems, was unexpectedly intense and difficult. He inherited my childhood epilepsy, to my sorrow. For years I lived in a haze of exhaustion. I managed to fulfill my own professional obligations, at a minimum in some areas, satisfactorily in others, outstandingly in few. I remember thinking it was an unbelievable luxury for professional colleagues to have time for lunch or travel out of town. When I was forty-five years old and dead tired, I could not imagine that I would live to be fifty-five.
My commitment to my family became my commitment to my Being. I was completely invested in my wife and children. When my daughter went off to college, I was stunned by her absence. Added family obligations absorbed the effort her leave released. We had to bring my wife's mother and father, and then, a few years later, my father, to California for care. We took in my sister's son and then several more teenagers. My wife's father, my father, and my nephew were alcoholics. My nephew was also a drug addict and one of the teens we took in was careening toward addiction. We were submerged in the daily struggle of rescuing them. Meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and drug counseling absorbed evenings. My son's tumultuous high school years added to the turmoil. Then suddenly, it was all over. Fathers died. Teens moved out. My son went to college in New York City, joining my daughter there, who was working at a large investment bank. My wife's career reached new successes which unexpectedly gave her a more regular work schedule. Her evenings were free. We were empty nesters. Our large house was silent. Our voices echoed.
Nine-eleven exploded my world, threatening to destroy me and my family. Both my son and daughter were at the World Trade Center that morning. My son was evacuated by police from his college dorm in a WTC building as soon as the North Tower was hit. My daughter, who had jogged in the concourse before work, watched the North Tower burning from her trading floor cafeteria, then grabbed her purse and left. They walked out of Manhattan to Brooklyn, as streets were being closed. The weekend before 9-11, I was in Boston visiting a friend. My wife had scheduled my return to Southern California for Tuesday morning, the eleventh, on an American Airlines flight out of Logan, nonstop to LAX. At the last minute, without informing me, because she wanted me home a day earlier, my wife changed my flight to Monday afternoon. To save money, she put me on express airline with a change of flight in Chicago Midway. I arrived home late Monday evening.
For the first time in my life, my politics erupted out of my hard-earned experience and commitments. My politics did not feel like play-acting any more. By Tuesday noon, nine-eleven, I knew what values had made my forebears patriots, what values had led them to volunteer for service in the wars of their generations. I knew why my great grandfather's officer's trunk rested in our dining room, why I had photos of my father in his Army infantry uniform on my walls, why I had a bundle of his letters, tied by a ribbon, from Italy, France, and Germany in 1944 and 1945 locked in a safe, why we had collected stories of the Pacific war from my wife's father, why I had translated passages from the German diary of her great uncle who presciently removed his family from Germany to New York in the mid-1920s. I understood, supported, instantly my President's intuitive decision to send our soldiers abroad to protect my family here. My son said he wanted to join the Israeli Defense Force to fight the terrorists, though he acceded to his mother's wishes to stay in college through graduation. I re-registered in the Republican Party. I discussed with my wife how I could serve, even as an aging man, near my children should they have to serve or wish to serve in our long military journey. That might come to pass. I have returned home.