I think most of us would agree that the events of the past year have marked a period of divisiveness and uncertainty in America. I was reminded of this during this past weekend, when I happened to watch a CNN special commemorating the 30th anniversary of 1968, another tumultuous period in our nation’s history. While watching, I felt as if a time warp had transported me back to some of the most eventful years of my life. I realized that what happened that year will forever be seared in my mind; imprinted in my DNA.
Sometimes over the course of a life, there is a cosmic confluence in which many historic events take place within a relatively short period of time. It can be overwhelming. During such periods, our nation and its people, as well as both our friends and political enemies across the globe, often see their lives and relationships transformed; sometimes for good, and sometimes not.
In August 1968, my husband, Larry, graduated from Texas Tech University. His graduation was one of our collective dreams – we could mark it off our list of “things to accomplish.” Yet, important as that milestone was, Larry chose to skip his graduation ceremony so that we could spend time with family.
I was pregnant with our daughter and Larry had been accepted to Officer Training School in San Antonio. Before he left, we headed for Alabama to visit his grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles and his cousins.
Pilot training would be next for him, which would be followed by his deployment to Vietnam. Larry’s lifelong dream of becoming an officer and pilot in the US Air Force was finally set in motion to become reality. As soon as our baby was born, I would enroll again at Tech to finish my degree.
One evening, Larry’s relatives gathered at his Mama’s and Papa’s little cottage for dinner. It reminded me of my daddy’s families reunions. The family ate on the back porch, the front porch and at a picnic table in the front yard, while Larry’s aunts and uncles took turns telling stories about Larry before his dad, the Chief Master Sargent, married his mother. Larry had always been so confident and mature, it was intriguing to see him blush and grin like a teenager. We ate early so we wouldn’t miss anything of importance at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
After dinner, everyone helped Mama and Papa clean up the dishes, so we’d be ready when the convention speeches came on. The men moved some of the kitchen chairs into the tiny living room and the children sprawled on pillows on the living room floor, while storytelling and teasing filled the room.
When we turned on the television, the riots in Chicago were front and center of the coverage. The news commentary reported that the riots were a direct result of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Reverend Martha Luther King in April. The anti-war movement was burgeoning.
Some of the family members began to boo when the protesters were shown on the television and some of their comments were rude and demeaning. I started to feel uncomfortable and I realized Larry did too. I didn’t know if he was uncomfortable or trying to shield me from the sometimes-ugly chatter. Larry grabbed my hand, “Tyra, we’re going for a walk, the moon and stars are spectacular at night out here in the mountains. There’s no lights to distract from the beauty of the night sky,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Once we were outside on the porch, he whispered, “My family means well, and they’re entitled to their point of view, but the night stars are a better show than anything we’ll see inside. Besides, it’s calm and quiet,” he finished as he clasped my right hand tight.
It was a period when riots and protests against the War in Vietnam had become the norm across the country. Though I didn’t say anything to Larry, a dark cloud enveloped me as I thought about his dream to fly in the United States Air Force. Some days and nights I told myself he might get an assignment other than Vietnam, but I knew that was a fantasy. Everyone who was drafted or joined the service seemed to end up in Vietnam. Why did I think Larry would be different?
I’ll always remember Larry’s words that night. In the end, he did deploy to Vietnam in 1970 and, in 1971, his small Cessna plane was shot down in Laos and he was killed.
Recently I wrote a blog highlighting the divisions in our country and spoke about the importance of coming together as Americans. Our country’s Pledge of Allegiance is a clarion call to come together, yet, too often we take our great country and each other for granted.
The times were turbulent during the 1960s and, especially, in 1968. After remembering and contemplating the past, I am more hopeful these hardline divisions will pass. History teaches us that periods of great upheaval can help bring about positive change and set the stage for a better future.
One of our greatest strengths, as a nation, is our precious right to freedom of speech. As a former educator, I think we could benefit from some of the things we were taught in kindergarten – for instance, always speak respectfully to others and treat others how you want to be treated.
© Tyra Manning 2018