Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Steve was one of my close friends in high school. Active in church, Steve and his older brother Andy and our youth group friends spent most weekends together in and out of each other’s homes, enjoying each other’s parents – more an extended family than simply friends. Andy was quiet, thoughtful, a bit like me. Steve was the life of the party, a gifted actor with a comic bent. Most days he was boisterous, overflowing with joy and enthusiasm for life. We all cared for each other, watched out for each other, and loved each other.
In the fall of 1968, my brother Dick and I left for college. Steve followed his brother Andy into the Marines. At Christmas we compared notes. Clearly, Paris Island was not Bates or Gettysburg College! That spring as I prepared for a summer job between my freshman and sophomore years, Steve shipped out for Vietnam where Andy was already half-way through his tour. As often happens we gradually lost touch with each other. Steve’s parents moved to Maine; there was little reason for Steve to come to Connecticut on leave. But the real reason may have been the near impossible challenge of bridging the yawning gap between a fraternity house in Pennsylvania and a base camp in Vietnam.
In some ways about all we had in common, beyond happy high school memories, was Vietnam. My college years were marked by peace rallies, anti-war demonstrations, angry confrontation among classmates for and against US policy, candle light vigils at Gettysburg’s historic peace memorial, teach-ins, trips to Washington to demonstrate at the White House. I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall thinking a lot about Steve in those days. God only knows what he endured, saw, experienced as a front line Marine in battle. In a way we were both following a call to duty. I, like many college students, was full of righteous anger. Cock sure of ourselves, we were determined to disrupt any kind of normalcy if we thought it could bring the war to an end. Steve was quietly patriotic in his own way, but I suspect finding in Vietnam more of a call to care for vulnerable comrades than any enthusiasm for the great crusade to keep this particular geopolitical Cold War domino from falling.
I went on to seminary, ordination, a rewarding career, marriage, children. Steve came home, got married, tried acting with limited success, bounced from job to job and place to place. I saw a little bit of Andy in the early seventies. He joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War after he left the Marines and had a brief moment of fame when he was one of the group that took over the Statue of Liberty to protest the war. Some years later we visited Andy in Maine when he was living in a cabin in the woods, alone with his huskies, far from the chaos of Southeast Asia. But I never saw Steve again, only hearing occasional bits and pieces from his parents while they were still living, and a few reports from a couple of mutual friends.
Two years ago while speaking at the Maine Conference Annual Meeting I had a chance to spend an afternoon with Andy. He was his same gentle self, content in his marriage, enjoying living quietly in rural Maine. If he had needed to come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam it seemed that he had done so a long time ago. We talked about Steve who I knew had died a year or two before my visit. His marriage had not been happy, and that had distanced him from his parents and his brother. His health had been poor. And there had been drinking. A lot of drinking. Maybe it’s too easy to blame it all on Vietnam’s version of post traumatic stress syndrome. But perhaps not really wrong either. I still remember our high school years together, but through a cloud of sadness.
This month marks the 35th anniversary of the end of the war. We will see the old, eerie pictures of the fall of Saigon in the waning days of April, 1975, the frantic efforts to get on the helicopters at the American embassy, the North Vietnamese tanks rolling through the city streets that had dominated our national news for years. Several years ago in Washington I spoke at a rally protesting the war in Iraq on the identical spot I had watched another generation lead a protest in 1971. I stood a few feet from Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clark, remembering them also being there all those years ago. All of us were older. But wiser? We don’t seem to learn our lessons well.
In this anniversary month there will no doubt be many comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan. There is much that is different, but much that is eerily, perhaps even frighteningly similar. Will we learn? I wonder. But along with those questions some of us will simply be remembering our youth, and the events that shaped us, and the choices we made, or that were made for us, and the impact of those choices on the rest of our lives. Steve receded and disappeared from my life over many years, and his leaving prompts a grief more poignant than sharp. But I am left wondering what might have been. And why it wasn’t.