Damned Wrinkles

“In the name of freedom, America is mutilating [that country]. In the name of peace, America turns that country into a wasteland. And in the name of democracy, America is burying its own dreams. ”

Leaflet, Students for a Democratic Society

Americans had never fought a war like it. It was the most unpopular conflict in American history. It was the nation’s first defeat. It was Vietnam.

_____

In April of 1967, my biggest worry was the wrinkle in my stockings in my Senior Favorite picture for the Delta Daze, the school yearbook. I was sitting beside Bobby Cox in a glider in someone’s flower garden for the photo session. He had his arm behind me on the back of the swing and appeared cool, casual, and sexy. I was poised — back straight, chin up, hands folded in my lap, wearing a flower print dress with a white Peter Pan collar and white patent shoes with a double strap. I must’ve twisted my stocking when I put it on that morning, because in the final shot, there was that wrinkle running diagonally down the side of my left calf to my ankle. And it would remain there, stuck to the page of time, for all succeeding generations to see.

Class Favorite Picture

That day, I drove my green 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 with the long fins to the photo shoot, and Anna M. rode with me. In the Superlatives, I’d won Class Favorite, and she was Miss CHS, Sophisticated Senior, and a Beauty. I rolled my window down an inch and let hot wind blow in, as we drove out Highway 8 East, chatting and listening to WHBQ and “I’m A Believer” and “Light My Fire.” It was one of those steamy mornings that could melt the make-up right off your face. Instead of worrying about my Cover Girl, I should’ve paid more attention to my Hanes.

“We should’ve caught that,” the editor of the annual said, “and stopped it.”

“Maybe no one will see it,” I said, hoping people would pay heed to my cute shoes, the arch of my eyebrows, or the big pearl and diamond ring my parents had just given me for graduation.

But people always notice wrinkles.

Other than that wrinkle, and maybe trying to dog paddle out of senior math — a friendly term for trigonometry — with my head above water, it was a jubilant time. It was the season for senior parties, Cotillion, senior prom, Class Day, and graduation gifts. It was a time for bonding with friends before closing the chapter of carefree childhood and moving on to college and all the world had to offer.

Yet there was one more wrinkle in the elation of the season. Halfway around the world, half a million boys just a year or two out of high school were fighting a bloody war, getting shot, getting maimed, getting blown up. They waded through flooded rice paddies full of leeches that stuck to them and had to be burned off with cigarettes, or they trudged through jungles, encountering mines, mortar shells rigged to tripwires, booby traps, pits with poison-tipped bamboo stakes, spears lashed to bent saplings, and the enemy darting from hidden tunnels in ambush, raging to kill.

The debacle of war in Vietnam had been going on since I was a baby, when President Truman sent military aid and soldier-advisers. The Soviet leader Kruschev told us, “We will bury you.” Communism was an evil menace that had swept over Vietnam, and if that tiny country fell, it was likely the whole world would go. President “I Like Ike” said, “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly.”

In April of 1967 the biggest military offensive of the war was taking place — a surge of troops sent to Operation Junction City, an 82-day search and destroy operation, that turned out to be successful, but when the troops left, the enemy covered it up again.

The war took place in my living room. The evening news played it — clips of soldiers running with big guns, orange smoke and the fire of bomb blasts, flag-draped coffins coming home instead of live boys, and those infernal helicopters playing the sound of war. Medevacs dropping in to unload fresh soldiers and load up the wounded made deep haunting blade sounds, a whir mixed with rapid beats moving faster than a knife cutting celery on a chopping block. The sound of the blades echoed through my living room, into the kitchen where Mama was cooking supper, into the bedroom where my sister and I were doing homework and listening to records — “The Beat Goes On,” “There’s a Kind of a Hush-sh-sh.”

Thousands of boys were dying in a fury and firestorm, while I slept in my own cozy bed at night beside a picture of my boyfriend in his basketball uniform, ate Mama’s roast beef and mashed potatoes and two-layer chocolate cake, and worried about wrinkles in my stocking.

It all came home to rest one Saturday afternoon when I saw a black car without whitewalls on its tires drive up in front of the house across the street. The boy who lived there was my age, had dropped out of high school, joined up, went to Vietnam. I watched as two soldiers in dress uniforms, pressed to perfection, got out of the car, stopped at the end of the sidewalk, straightened their jackets, straightened their shoulders, then took the first step together and walked in cadence to the front door. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but I later realized, after word got out and Mama took food over.

A wrinkle, in the name of freedom, in the name of peace, in the name of democracy…

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