I love music.

The music of the 1960s defined a generation. This music defined our Vietnam Veterans.

General Electric record player circa 1960s
My old record player

There was a time in my adulthood when I listened to the blues for the soulful poetry and rich instrumentals. As a writer, I don’t work with iTunes shuffling through my library. In singing along, I inadvertently type lyrics into my stories. For the last several years, my playlist has moved to Christian groups, making it harder to keep from shouting the uplifting words. 

Blues, Christian, even a lifetime ago when I embraced country … music connects us to surroundings and eras. It binds us to people and moments that otherwise stay buried in our subconscious. Music sets mood, provides a backdrop, soothes you, or opens wide your eyes. Notes can be subdued or bold, scoring a movie or a first date (or last date). 

Will the youth of today be forever tied to the tunes of their teenage years the way my generation is? A few chords are struck, transporting us to the awkward days of acne, bell bottoms, and searching for our role in the world.

At my stylist’s, salon owner Dawn and I laugh at the oldies on her radio. She is twenty years my junior. The song that stood out the last time was Rod Stewart’s Maggie May. What a rush of memories burst forth!

Music and Place, Vietnam and Our Tunes

At Veterans Day, I think about the ninety somethings to the twenty somethings I’ve met over the years. Men and women serving from World War II through today. They convey both humility and pride in their military service.

The fighters of my generation are the ones who went to Vietnam. Perhaps some knew in a vague John Wayne sort of way what they were getting into. For me to comprehend a fraction of their experience was—continues to be—a slow, evolving process. 

In the years before I was born, 1959, rock bands were making changes to the way we related to music. As revolutionary as jazz was when it blasted onto the American landscape, rock was an entirely new sound.

1966. I am seven.

The Ballad of the Green Beret was released a year after the USA went to southeast Asia to a country named Vietnam that none of us had heard of. We knew about Korea. My father was in the Army from 1952-1954. Dad served as an MP in Hawaii, downplaying his army time because he didn’t fight. One thoughtful Korean Vet I spoke with a few years ago said, “It doesn’t matter where he served. He was willing to go where they sent him. He was a Veteran.”

Rock music was controversial from the start. But this song—whether you liked it or didn’t—was different. Music became tied to current affairs. Songs exploded on the scene, changing the way we related to music. To each other. To war.

Buffalo Springfield’s eerie lyrics to For What It’s Worth resounded with me. 

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

I listen to these lyrics today and they remain graphic, haunting.

We are still at war.

1968. I am nine.

It is a turbulent twelve months.

  • January – the Tet Offensive costs thousands of American lives.
  • March – the My Lai massacre happens. We know nothing about it for a year.
  • April – Martin Luther King is assassinated. Our country erupts.
  • June – Robert Kennedy is assassinated. Our country boils.

Our parents, raised in rural Pennsylvania, were patriotic, practical people. With unwavering strength, they supported our soldiers. Always. Dad lost an uncle as a result of the D-Day landings; Mom’s eldest brother served in the Navy.

Vietnam was the first televised war and the media indulged in the drama of it. Our parents sheltered us from the news, barely letting us glimpse the daily totals of dead, injured—ours and theirs. We were not allowed to see the images of young men being med-evaced or body bags lined up for cameras. 

Reading an article published in Smithsonian Magazine last year, I realize there were over 500 civilians killed at My Lai. Not the twenty that Lt. Calley admitted to. History judged in retrospect can often be misjudged. But there are things that are wrong no matter when they happen. My Lai was one. When it is revealed in 1969, protests against the war grow stronger. Our parents say, this is not normal behavior. There is something wrong in Calley’s head. Our military is better than this. We believe them.

1969. I am ten.

Nixon takes office. Our parents are never fans.

Woodstock happens. This explosion of musicians is outside our parents’ realm of understanding.

The Kinks release Some Mother’s Son. The lyrics are harsh. They are reality.

Some mother’s son lies in a field
Someone has killed some mother’s son today
Head blown up by some soldier’s gun
While all the mothers stand and wait
Some mother’s son ain’t coming home today
Some mothers son ain’t got no grave

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son still evokes my strongest emotions.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

I start to understand that war creates an uneven society. Still, I am in my thirties before I grasp that Blacks were not treated as equals in Vietnam although they fought beside Whites. My mind begins to form a lasting, total incomprehension of racism.

1970. I am eleven.

It is May. My mother stands, stunned, listening to the radio. Later, when Dad is home, the TV is turned on. They cannot fathom and cannot explain to their children why students at Kent State University were shot by National Guardsmen. America’s innocence begins to unravel. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release, Ohio.

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drummin’
Four dead in Ohio

There is a battle in Cambodia. Thirty thousand US troops invade following an attack there by the South Vietnamese. Is the war expanding?

We embrace the words to the Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply”
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do”
So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!”

1971. I am twelve.

Rod Stewart album

Maggie May burst from the DJ’s speakers at this shy gal’s first junior-high school dance. A boy two years older approached, my heart pounded, and he asked me to dance. Tall, handsome, and funny, he wears a long-sleeved burgundy cable sweater with a zip up neck. He smells like fish. Why? His natural body odor, bad cologne, or what he had for dinner?

Today that song resurrects that night.

I was safe in the countryside—dancing and learning new boundaries. There was a blanket of innocence over my life, embracing The Temptations’ Just My Imagination and Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend. 

This new environment contained grades six through twelve with ages from 12 to 19. Boys would graduate and the draft would take them. 

This year, we got John Lennon’s classic, Imagine with the key lyrics:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for

1972. I am thirteen.

The Midnight Special broke TV barriers, lasting until I graduated from college in 1981. On the dead-end road where I lived, this show was as close as we got to participating in a revolution. I loved watching Carol Burnett, but Wolfman Jack gave my generation a voice.

1973. I am fourteen.

Our history teacher wove former times and current events together. I poured over newspapers, compiling school reports. When our parents weren’t sheltering us, I watched the news.

Television provided the first nationwide understanding of what POW meant. It was not Hogan’s Heroes, not Stalag 17, not The Great Escape. Current events went beyond the Geneva Convention. MIA become synonymous with torture and sometimes unknown endings to good men. I still have clippings of John McCain’s release from a camp that year.

In January, the war in Vietnam is officially over for the United States. By March, our last combat troops leave the country. We have lost 58,000 people. There are 1,000 MIA. Over 150,000 are seriously injured. We don’t know about PTSD.

We watched our Vets return, broken pieces of men trying to walk whole across the airport tarmac. One man trudges, on crutches, leg missing, his sister crashes through the barrier to engulf him in adolescent joy.

1975. I am sixteen.

US Marines and Air Force Helicopters are tasked with ferrying 1,000 American civilians and 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees from land to carriers. I am stunned that this is necessary. Didn’t the war end two years before? Didn’t Vietnam heal and blend in unity? I am woefully naive.

1977. I am eighteen.

There were a handful of Vietnam Vets attending York College when I did. I was awed by their ability to be in Southeast Asia, fighting battles, then transplanting themselves to southcentral Pennsylvania and the surrealism of studies. One young man did not adjust well. His friends, my friends, let him rant when he drank too much, let him punch holes in their walls when he had angry nightmares, and permanently hid the gun he once revealed. Lenny. His name comes in a flash. A marine. The guys told me he wanted to be called jarhead. He said Semper Fi and I had to ask what it meant.

Years later, I attended a reunion. Like Maggie May taking me back to 1971, Patsy Cline’s Crazy beckons the dance I shared with a Vet I’d casually known in school. He later revealed that he was a corpsman during Vietnam. We lasted two years, but his guardedness ends us.

Long Time Passing & We Were Soldiers Once ... and young

1984. I am 25.

I read Myra MacPherson’s book, Long Time Passing – Vietnam & The Haunted Generation. It remains on my shelf. The book is 700 pages combining a sociological study and biography as she interviews Vets. Her words telling their stories, provide a different education. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is finished.

2001. I am 42.

My sisters, Jackie two years older, Joanne ten years younger, and I take Jackie’s daughter to the Atlantic Coast for a summer break. It is a hot August, but we decide to drive through Washington, D.C. I have not been there since high school. None of them have ever been. We park near the National Mall. We see Washington’s Monument, the Reflecting Pool … but we seek out The Vietnam Wall.

Jackie and I are compelled to see the Wall. With no connection for the younger two, we leave them on a bench and walk.

Because of how the black granite rises out of the earth, growing ever higher, revealing ever more names, your emotions increase the closer you get to the center. Jackie and I soon find ourselves sobbing, wondering why we are crying. It remains an emotional experience each time I stand there.

One month later, the United States suffers a stunning terrorist attack. 

Everything changes.

2002. I am 43.

I continue trying to understand a war that defined a generation. 

This year I read We Were Soldiers once … and Young. It is the year the movie is released, the soundtrack a mix of songs from then and now. Throughout the eighties and nineties I read volume after volume about the war. What did those men and women, barely of age before me, go through? 

Music interweaves events and songs into our lives.  Gentle, enticing music fosters connections to our individual and generational histories.

Where were you, my fellow Boomers, when Maggie May played in 1971? 

  • Did your radio antenna draw fire as you walked?
  • Were you a woman serving as a nurse?
  • Did you become a corpsman? 
  • A helicopter pilot?
  • Were you crew on a C130?

Was Stewart’s a trite and trivial tune, disregarded by GIs? Were you only aware of Bob Dylan, The Doors, Phil Ochs, Country Joe McDonald, The Who? Or did you hear Maggie May, wherever you were, and wonder, for a moment, who was dancing to it back home?

2019. I am 60.

Even if you aren’t a Bruce Springsteen fan, in closing, I leave you with his The Wall released in 2014. It’s worth listening to the full introduction. Just before he starts singing, he says, “This is a short prayer for my country.” (4:08)

We continue to define the ethos of our nation by the gallantry of our serving military, by the respect we give our Veterans, and by the kindness we show others.

God bless our Veterans.


Read: Pearl Harbor & The Arizona Memorial