A Circle of Friendship

Susan's party

We sat around the table talking about our high school days, wondering how it is even possible that by the end of this year all of us will have entered our seventies. We recalled the times when we first met and wondered how some of our absent friends were doing. Somehow we each felt exactly the same as we had when we were teenage girls even though the calendar belied our somewhat vivid imaginations. We were celebrating Susan’s birthday and and anticipating Linda’s. Charles had enjoyed his on Sunday. Each person who was present is quite special to me in one way or another.

I had met Susan, the woman of the hour, when I was only six years old. We were both in second grade and had the same teacher. She lived within walking distance of my home and we often rode our bicycles around the neighborhood laughing and singing. Her voice would ultimately become the music of an angel, but back then we were just two little girls having fun.

We went all the way through high school together, and Susan’s father often drove us to football games on Friday nights. When we were in college we both worked for Holiday Inn one summer making reservations and a pretty good sum of money. Susan was one of my bridesmaids when I married almost fifty years ago, and we both had daughters named Catherine but with different spellings, if I remember right. For a time we played bridge every Friday night and shared cheesecake and lemonade and lots of laughs. We lost touch for a time but managed to eventually find our way back to each other. We marveled at how easily we got right back into comfortable conversations as though we had seen each other only the day before. Now Susan is seventy, but somehow looks exactly as she did when I first met her, and is definitely as sweet.

I’ve known Monica as long as I have Susan. In fact the three of us had the same teacher in the second grade. Monica and I have always somehow managed to keep the fires of our friendship alive. In many ways she is much like the sister that I never had. Her husband and mine get along famously and we have taken camping trips and vacations together that are among the best memories of my life. Monica is thoughtful and creative and a genius when it comes to common sense. She’s someone who knows how to keep my flighty tendencies grounded. Our children grew up together and still get along famously. I can’t imagine what my life might have been like living without Monica by my side.

Linda is the person I always wanted to be. She is beautiful and kind and good at everything that she tries. When we were in school together I thought that she was the most perfect person ever, and the truth is that I was not being hyperbolic. We really became close while we were in college and our bond has only grown stronger over time. When her boys and my girls were growing up we spent hours together in the summers going crabbing and eating snow cones on hot days. Our children learned how to swim from the same teacher, and we often cheered for our Houston Cougars at parties that featured Linda’s culinary genius. I learned how to cook and decorate and even how to be a more caring person from Linda.

Carol is the glue for our Class of 66. She is the historian and secretary all rolled up into one. She keeps is apprised of birthdays, illnesses, parties, and even deaths. She is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of everyone of our former classmates. Her heart is big and warm and she makes each of us feel loved and important. Without her we’d probably all drift apart, but she keeps the fires of our friendships burning brightly. I have grown so very close to her. She has been the happiest surprise of the past few years. I never intend to let her go again.

Shirley has the power of serenity. Somehow her sincerity and brilliant smile have always calmed me. Just sitting next to her brings serenity to my heart. Most people are only remotely interested in the things that others say, but Shirley gives off a vibe that indicates that she takes everything that quite seriously. She remembers conversations and asks how people are doing long after they have spoken of troubles. Even when her own life is in an upheaval she thinks of everyone else first. She has a very special talent of expressing profound compassion without even having to say anything. Her eyes are like windows to her beautiful soul. I have to admit that I always leave her feeling renewed.

I only recently realized that Jeanette and I were in the same class together in the first grade, so I suppose that I have known her the longest. She was a cheerleader when we were in high school. She always seemed to be smiling and having a great time. It’s uplifting to be around her. She has a cheerful aspect that brightens our reunions. I didn’t know her well until recently and I find myself regretting that we did not become close earlier because I like everything about her. She is down to earth and loyal and incredibly thoughtful in a very quiet way. She does wonderful things for others without fanfare, asking nothing in return for her generosity. I’m hoping that we manage to stay in touch now that we have found each other because she is one hundred percent the kind of person that I adore.

Janis is an icon. In many ways she was the consummate leader of our class. She wears a necklace that says Go Go which says it all about her. She is a ball of energy who gets things done no matter what is needed. She is a highly successful business woman which doesn’t surprise me at all. She uses her influence to lead charitable causes and help her city to become a better place. She is everywhere doing her magic and just being around her is inspiring, She motivates me to be better than I am, to do more. When it comes to women leading us to the future, Janis is at the front of the pack.

When we were still in high school Janis had a car and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. When we had to go places she always made sure that I had a way to get there. When we were seniors I was the May Queen and as usual my hair was a mess. I have never figured out how to deal with it. Janis very sweetly styled my locks and redid my makeup so that I looked truly regal. I walked out feeling so pretty and confident because she had taken the time to help me. I’ve always remembered that kindness.

Charles was the only male in our group. He and I both went to the same church for many years after we had graduated from high school and college and created families. I always enjoyed seeing him, but I eventually moved and thought that we would never meet again. It was a great surprise when he showed up for Susan’s party. He is so down to earth and sweet.

It’s rather remarkable how wonderful my school mates have become. There was something magical about our youth and our upbringing. We have all worked hard and loved mightily. We have terrific children and adorable grandchildren. We simply enjoy being with one another with no pressure or expectations. Our circle of friendship has grown ever stronger and made all of us just a bit better because of it.

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The Children Will Lead Us

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Back in the late nineteen sixties many members of my generation became actively involved in protests against the Vietnam War. We voiced our concerns by taking to the streets and marching to draw attention to the cause. On one occasion there was a rally that was described in an article in our local newspaper as a gathering of long haired hippies. My husband reacted by sending a letter to the editor in which he suggested that it might have been more fruitful to listen to the arguments of the protestors instead of focusing on superficialities like appearance. A few weeks later he received a response in the mail from a rather famous older man who had written a single question, “What’s wrong with a little conformity?” Obviously this individual had missed the point of my spouse’s argument which had been that perhaps it was time to consider what the young people of the country had to say.

Ultimately the Vietnam War came to a close and over time the evidence supported the view that the government had known from almost the outset that the conflict was unwinnable, and yet they had continued to draft young men and send many of them to their deaths. It was only after there was no way to hide the realities that the United States withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to deal with the North on their own. It was the first time that the United States was forced to admit defeat.

Today we have a new generation of young people marching for the cause of gun control, and once again many who are older are choosing to either ignore or make fun of their efforts. I see a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter that are derogatory and insult both the students’ behavior and their intelligence. They are accused of being spoiled and arrogant while also knowing little about the government and how it actually works. Instead of just listening to what they have to say, opponents of the protestors have reverted to name calling and mockery. Perhaps it would better serve us all if they would instead calmly sit down and hear what the kids have to say. After all, just as it was the youth who fought in the jungles of Vietnam with the strong possibility of dying, so too is it the children and teens who are being killed inside schools. They have a legitimate stake in the discussion and we older folk would do well to consider their ideas.

I remember a time when President Nixon felt frustrated by the anti-war protestors. He learned that many of them were having a sit in near the Lincoln Memorial, and so he decided to go talk with them. Sadly instead of attempting to learn what they were thinking he spent most of his time arguing with them. I always thought of how different things might have been if instead he had actively listened to them and then attempted to incorporate some of their beliefs with his. Perhaps he would have become a revered leader. Instead he only became more and more paranoid about those who disagreed with him and ended up breaking the law because of his insecurities.

I think that the students who marched across America this past weekend sincerely wish to make a positive difference even if some of their ideas are a bit over simplified. It would have been incredibly positive if all of our lawmakers had joined the ranks of the protestors not so much in agreement, but with an eye to letting our young know that all of us are proud of their activism and really do understand that they have concerns. This was a grand opportunity to hear rather than talk, and to find areas of agreement, for surely it is apparent that we must attempt to find answers that will make our schools safer than they presently are. At the same time I would suggest to the students that they be open to ideas as well. It is counterproductive to insult entire groups of people with foul language or to indict leaders who are attempting to find solutions that may be different.

Right after the shootings in Florida many of the leaders of the current movement appeared on the Dr. Phil Show. A wonderful discussion ensued, but Dr. Phil advised the students to take care in how they presented their arguments. He noted that people will tune out anyone who yells at them or insinuates that they are somehow bad people. He agreed that the kids have a very worthy cause and he expressed his deep admiration for their courage while coaching them in the best methods of persuasion. Some of them appear to have followed his advice while others have veered into a more argumentative posture which probably won’t be particularly successful in changing minds.

Many of our Founding Fathers who created the foundations of this country were very young at the time that independence was declared. Alexander Hamilton was only twenty one. James Madison was a mere eighteen. Sometimes it take the adventurous spirit of the young to show us all a better way to live. Preventing gun violence is a worthy goal, and we should be quite proud that some of our young are willing to take on such a complex topic. They are attempting to find answers to questions that are long past due. If we are to demonstrate our own maturity we should be willing to model the kind of respect that everyone with a stake in the debate deserves. I’d like to think that we are capable of helping them to forge an agreement that will have meaning for everyone. Let’s cheer for them rather than casting aspersions. What they are doing is noble indeed.

Yesterday Today and Tomorrow

default-1464355425-834-scientists-believe-they-have-explained-the-great-flu-outbreak-of-1918A hundred years ago in the fall of 1918, there were many who seriously wondered if the world was coming to an end.  A great war was still raging in Europe and decimating the young male population. Across the globe there was unrest and a general feeling that life would never be quite the same again. The worst surprise of that autumn was to come in the form of a tiny virus not yet visible to the human eye with the microscopes of the day. It would lead to an outbreak of influenza that eventually killed as many as five million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. One sneeze from an infected person had the potential to infect ten thousand, and for a time nobody knew what to do.

It appears to have begun at a military base in Kansas where it was first thought to be little more than the typical seasonal outbreak of illness. It soon became apparent that the new strain was unlike anything doctors and biologists had ever before seen. It started with coughing and a fever that quickly grew ever more severe. It filled the lungs of the ill with so much fluid that they literally drowned. Before long there were not enough beds or doctors for the affected, and not enough coffins for those who died. During the months of September and October of that year the disease spread like wildfire, sparking dire accusations that the Germans had somehow planted germs in the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches. The fact that German troops were just as susceptible to the sickness did not allay the fears of those who were losing loved ones and friends so rapidly that it felt as though there was nothing that was going to stop the rampage of death.

More American citizens died during those weeks than in all of the wars of the twentieth century, and yet there was no cure, no idea of what the cause might be. For some reason the virus was more likely to spare the very young and old, but was most deadly for strong and healthy adults in their twenties and thirties. It would be years later before researchers found the virus that had wreaked such havoc on the population, and began to understand that the sickness had burned itself out when those who survived became immune without any form of medical assistance. Our understanding of such diseases grew over time, but always there continues to be a silent fear that something similar may one day return to infect humanity like a plague.

I had never heard about the horrific influenza of 1918, until I read a book shared by my daughter. She is a nurse and science teacher who has a great deal of interest in such things, and she thought that I might find the topic interesting as well. I was stunned to learn about the horrific events and to realize that none of the older people I had known who would have been young adults during that period had ever mentioned the event. I was particularly surprised that my grandfather who was well known for his vivid stories of the past had not brought up the topic. Since I was unaware of that part of history I had not known to quiz him about what he remembered regarding that sad chapter, and so I was not privy to his eye witness account.

Historians conjecture that this particular episode must have been so personally horrific that those who had endured it did not want to speak of it again. Perhaps it was the impetus for the roaring liveliness of the twenties when people appeared to throw all caution to the wind. Living through such tragedy must have caused people to view the world much differently than they otherwise might have. Most certainly they would have wanted to blunt the memories that must have been quite horrific. When the next decade of frivolity was followed by a worldwide depression and eventually another war, the personal stories of illness and death might have seemed trivial to them by comparison. In truth, they would have been right to wonder if the bad news would ever stop, and when it finally did they most probably decided never to speak of it again.

My father-in-law served in Korea during the war there. He has only mentioned what he saw there once in all of the years that I have known him. His eyes filled with tears as he recounted his experience and his voice was shaky. It was much too painful a memory for him to think about for very long. I have noticed that my uncles who fought during World War II were just as reluctant to share stories of their adventures as were my peers who fought in Vietnam. I suppose that there are events that are so horrible that we prefer to bury the thoughts of them deep within our psyches. It is simply too much to dwell on them for very long. 

I suspect that those who were witness to the 1918 influenza epidemic simply did not want to speak of the unspeakable. They lost loved ones and friends in a matter of days and weeks. They worried that the horror might return at any moment. To dwell on their heartbreak and fears would have been unbearable and so they did not include mention of the outbreak in their tales of living. The story languished until curious souls began to ferret out the details and bring them to light once again. What is a curiosity for those of us removed by a hundred years was all too real for those who were there when it happened.

Each generation has its share of tragedy. For those of us who grew up just after World War II the events etched permanently inside our brains include the good, the bad and the ugly. We recall with clarity exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It pains us to think of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that made is wonder if anarchy was going to rule the day. Many of have personal tragedies that affected us as well, the death of a father or hearing that a friend was killed in Vietnam. We smile when when we think of the first man to walk on the moon, and recoil at the vision of the twin towers in New York City falling like toy constructions before our eyes. These things affect us and change us and our ways of viewing the world, but we don’t often speak of them because the thoughts associated with them are too powerful and emotional. I suppose that the reality is that no matter how conversant we are there are no words sufficient to describe such things, and so we are silent just as my grandparents were about so much of the history that affected them.

Today we have new worries, but mostly go about our business hoping and praying that none of our biggest concerns will ever take place. Our natures compel us to be optimistic and to carry on even when situations seem dire. Like Scarlett O’Hara we believe that tomorrow will be a better day and we concentrate our thinking on the future rather than the past and the present. It’s how we survive. Still, there is something so fascinating about events like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that we can’t avert our gaze. We have to look if only for a moment so that we might remember that we are not immune to the same kinds of heartbreaking situations that plagued our ancestors. We are as human as they were, and we can only hope that when faced with tragedy we will respond well and not be judged too harshly for any mistakes that we make.

It’s all too easy to form opinions of what might have or should have happened. but we will never know what we might actually have done if we had faced similar hardships. It must have been a dark time, but somehow those who came before us found a way to keep moving forward without focusing too much on a past that they could not change. Perhaps we might learn from them and embrace each new day as an opportunity rather than dwelling on the heartache of the past. Yesterday is gone, today is an opportunity, and tomorrow allows us to repair any mistakes we have made. It’s the cycle that keeps the story of humanity alive. 

Bearing the Sins of Our Fathers

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I’m a bonafide Baby Boomer. I was born at the beginning of the Baby Boomer years. People in my age group were affected, and maybe even traumatized, by certain events that defined a great deal of how we see the world. Many of us were raised according to the recommendations of Dr. Spock. I know that I was. My mother often mentioned how he would suggest dealing with particular situations. We all remember crouching under our desks every Friday at noon in a drill designed to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear attack by the Russians. We remember Nikita Khrushchev taking off his shoe and banging it on a table at the United Nations and promising to destroy our country from within. The way we learned in school was reimagined after the Russians launched Sputnik. We are all able to vividly recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when John Kennedy was assassinated. The sound of the cadence of the drums at his funeral march still ring eerily in our heads. We saw the Civil Rights movement changing our country for the better and wished that we had been old enough to travel to Alabama to take part in marches of civil disobedience. Perhaps more than any other event, however, we were forever marked by the Vietnam War, a conflict that somehow both defines and divides us to this very day.

My generation paid little attention to what was happening in Southeast Asia up until I was in high school. We had been much more enthralled with the space program and the progress that we were making in journeying from our planet into the universe. Suddenly, in spite of our former ignorance, we began to hear more about a civil war in a faraway land and a supposed fight against Communism. We learned about the Domino Theory, a belief that if one country in Asia fell under the domination of communism others would follow and the boogie man of communism would be banging on our own doors. None of it had particular meaning for us until President Johnson began increasing our involvement in that conflict, and because there was a draft system all of the young men my age had to register for the possibility of involuntary involvement in the military.

By the time I was a senior in high school there were hundreds of thousands of US troops fighting in Vietnam. Some of the members of classes ahead of mine had already gone to war and a few of them had died. It was as though the world had suddenly blown up and anti-war fervor began to overtake the land. Some saw those who did everything possible to avoid the war as traitors and instigators. Others called soldiers who served in Vietnam baby killers. The evening news brought scenes of violence and bloodshed into our homes each evening. It was impossible not to have an opinion regarding the volatile political situation, and it was my generation that was caught in the big middle of a war being run by old men using young boys as canon fodder.

Of course that war did not end well. The United States eventually had to leave Vietnam without victory, an outcome that the French and British had predicted, possibly because they had endured similar situations in the past. North Vietnam took over the governing of the entire country. Dominoes did not begin to fall all over Asia. The world eventually settled down and forgot most of what had happened back then, but those of us who were intimately part of that history have never forgotten. We were all changed in one way or another by the Vietnam debacle. We have been unfairly judged on both sides of the debate by our elders and our children. We were teenagers and young twenty somethings who were asked to sacrifice for a cause that we now know even the Secretary of Defense did not believe would end well.

We began as advisors to the government of South Vietnam, a political machine that was at best riddled with problems and at worst was filled with graft. The conflict was a civil war among people attempting to decide their own fate. Our interference was never taken well and the anger over our involvement only grew when we appeared to be invading the country rather than just offering suggestions. The United States was so fearful of Communism that it allowed itself to become more and more entrenched until it ultimately appeared to be an actual war between North Vietnam and the United States. The truth was that the more we bombed and threw napalm, the greater became the distrust and dislike of our country. Sadly, the young soldiers who were the same age as I was became victims not just of the horrors of war, but also a backlash against them from their own fellow citizens. They were caught in a controversial middle ground that was quite unfair.

At the same time those who protested the war were accused of being disrespectful and traitorous, but in truth they were not unpatriotic. In fact they demonstrated love for their country in voicing their concerns, most of which have been shown to have been correct in retrospect. Private correspondence between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson has revealed that there was indeed great worry that the war was being fought in vain and that our youth were being wasted on the battlefield. How awful to think that so many died when they needn’t have. How terrible to realize that the divisions that tore open a national wound should never have happened. It is detestable that the war continued mostly because nobody wanted to admit that they had been so wrong.

I was recently listening to an elder statesman who participated in both World War II and Vietnam. He felt that the most unfair outcome of Vietnam was the idea that the generation that fought against Germany and Japan was somehow more noble than those who went to Vietnam or their counterparts who stayed home and mounted resistance. He noted that we attempted to fight the two wars in the same manner when it was obvious that they required different tactics. He also defended the soldiers of Vietnam in noting that they were as good and courageous as their forebears had ever been. The only difference was that the leaders of World War II set up plans that worked, while the leaders of the Vietnam War made one mistake after another. He insisted that it is totally unfair to look upon the Baby Boomers as somehow less patriotic than their parents were because the circumstances were so very different.

We Baby Boomers were never the same after that war. It defined us in uncomplimentary ways. It was used to turn us against one another. We were pawns who have never quite been understood by either our elders or our children. It was run by a man who had been a systems analyst and who believed that it would be possible to create battle plans based on data such as tallying the numbers of those who died on each side. He neglected to take into account aspects of human nature until it was far too late. The entire rationale was built upon a false premise that left our country damaged. We are still attempting to reconcile the differences that tore us apart back then. As for the Baby Boomers, we have become symbols of failure and lack of character when we were not the ones in charge. We were simply the group that was used so that politicians would not lose face or power.

If there is one dream that I have it is not so much that we Baby Boomers will one day be vindicated, but that no other generation will be put through such a horrible introduction to adulthood ever again. Those who wield authority must always be conscious of the human cost of their decisions, and have enough moral character to be certain that no group will be so badly abused. If we are one day able to admit openly to past mistakes and reflect on how to avoid them in the future, then the sacrifices of so many Baby Boomers will not have been totally in vain.