25 December, 2009

Like a Rock: Recalling and Reasserting One's Best Self

If we are ordinarily fortunate, each had a time in our life when we were at our best. If we are extraordinarily fortunate, we will have another time when we can recall the courage of our convictions and reassert our best self.

Youth is not only a period of time it is also a state of heart and mind. In the best sense youth is when we were at our best physically, philosophically, and intellectually. “We do not have a care and are lean and solid everywhere – like a rock.” Our hands are steady; our steps quick and light and we hold firm to what we think is right. We are strong as we can be and something to see. We are unencumbered by the weight of various hustlers and their schemes and most preciously and profoundly, we still believe in our dreams. If there is a blessed period of our lives, youth as heretofore described is it!

If we outlive this period of amazing grace, life itself may wear on us. Perhaps, we may know and mourn the death of our heroes as happened to me in once 1963, and thrice in 1968. Though these losses do not show on our bodies or faces, they mark and mar our inner selves; life imitates art and reverses the transfer of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

When JFK was assassinated in November 1963, I was 18. President Kennedy had inspired me to ask what I could do for my country in 1961. That question and the search for an effective response dominated my thoughts for the next seven years. In 1968, I was in Vietnam sincerely doing what I could for my country. I felt I had found and answer for JFK even though he died before I could show him. In the holiday season of 1967, the Vietnamese in the village that was my principal responsibility had put together a banner saying “Thank you for coming to fight for our freedom!” My squad and I were truly touched. Despite the protests raging in the world, we believed in what we were doing. As hard as it would have been for those back home to believe at that time and in that place all of us were ready to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. We held firm to what we thought was right; we still believed in our dreams even amidst the threat of death and dying.

In the spring of 1968, my world began to turn from one of youthful optimism to one of chronic loss. In April, Martin was murdered in Memphis. The consummate dreamer was dead at the hand of person distinguished only by his marksmanship and his misanthropy. America exploded in justifiable outrage on the part of Blacks and acute anxiety on the part of Whites. Only in Indianapolis did some measure of calm and civic unity prevail. This was due largely to one man, Robert F. Kennedy. Pondering the tumult from thousands of miles overseas, I consoled myself with the thoughts, “We still have Bobby. Martin may be gone, but the Dream lives on.”

Almost exactly sixty days later, while I and my squad were still doing our duty and facing hostile fire, we no longer had Bobby. On June 6, 1968, the last clear voice for the future of my country was silenced for ever. Years later I learned Bobby’s final intelligible words were, “Is everyone else all right?” If I had heard the question at the time, my answer would have been, “No Bobby almost nobody is all right now that you are gone.” I did not, however, know of his question. I only knew of my answer. Unscathed in battle in Vietnam, I was being severely wounded by the war of jealous greed and vicious hate raging in the country I believed I was defending at a distance of 11,000 miles. I was no longer” Unencumbered by the weight of all these hustlers and their schemes” and my dreams were not merely dying, they were being assassinated.

As bad as things were at this point, they were soon to get worse. On Flag Day 1968, near the close of a sixteen hour battle, my dearest friend and closest brother in arms, Sunny, died in my arms. Although I was still seemingly unmarked, my true self was almost mortally wounded. By the end of June, I was out of Vietnam; by the end of August, I was out of the military. I returned to civilian life and entered college. I went from fighting in Vietnam to fighting against the officials in Washington who had sent better men than they to risk and often lose their lives in a conflict the officials had no intention of winning and no good reason for waging. Such energy as I could muster to serve my country was expended battling my government. Through all this with a heavy heart and a battered, but unbowed spirit, I believed I was doing what I could for my country. My eyes were not quite so clear and bright; my steps were not quite so quick and light; something had gotten to me. That something was to continue getting to me for forty years.

Where did they go, forty years, I don’t know. I would sit and I would wonder sometimes where they had gone. Between 1968 and 2008, I was without question alive. I had met and married a wonderful woman who is still my wife and the love of my life to this day. She and I have two sons and as the song goes, they are my joy and have been my salvation as far as I had had salvation. In August 2008, however, the moon came “calling a ghostly white” in the guise of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Like the actual moon, this moon went through various phases. The glow of this moon bathed and soothed my wounded spirit. Joe Biden, speaking of his upbringing said:

"My dad, who fell on hard times, always told me, though, "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up. Get up." I was taught -- I was taught that by my dad.

And, God, I wish my dad was here tonight. But I thank God and I'm grateful that my mom, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden is here tonight. Mom, I love you. You know, my mom taught her children -- all the children who flocked to our house -- that you're defined by your sense of honor and you're redeemed by your loyalty. She believes that bravery lives in every heart, and her expectation is that it will be summoned. Failure -- Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable."

Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women - students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors - found the courage to keep it alive.

We meet at one of those defining moments - a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.

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