[This is an edited version of a post originally published over Memorial Day weekend in 2011.]
In one sense, it was an epic teenage prank. The kind of thing you’d still be talking about thirty-some years later. In another sense, it epitomized the monumental dickishness of my generation, the post-Vietnam we-don’t-give-a-crap generation that came of age in the 1970s.
It was late May 1979 and I was a junior at Oak Park-River Forest High School in suburban Chicago. We were coming up on the annual Memorial Day assembly where the students were trotted out to the football stadium to sit in the grandstands to watch an ancient color guard slow-march the American flag and the flags of each of the service branches out onto the field while someone played “Taps”; followed by patriotic speeches and an overly emotive reading of “In Flanders Fields”; and then we’d trundle back into the school to continue marking time until the school year ended.
But that year, a senior – we’ll call him “Jeff” – came up with what must’ve seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. And he almost pulled it off.
It went like this, and I swear to god I’m not making any of this up. On the morning of the assembly, one of Jeff’s friends was hiding behind a parked car across Linden Avenue to the west of the football stadium, armed with a bow and arrow. Yes, a bow and arrow. At the business end of the arrow, they’d attached three or four firecrackers with wire or twine. Shortly after the student body were seated in the football stadium’s grandstands waiting for the color-bearing octogenarians and so forth, Jeff’s friend lit the fuses of the firecrackers and shot the arrow into the northwest corner of the football field, opposite the grandstands. The firecrackers went off, diverting everyone’s attention.
And again, I am not making this up.
At that precise moment, Jeff burst out of a concession stand at the northeast corner of the field, buck-freaking-naked – except for a ski mask and a pair of sneakers – and hightailed it from east to west down the track at the north edge of the field. He leapt the wrought iron fence at the west end of the stadium, dashed across Linden Avenue, and disappeared between houses on the opposite side of the street. The place went mad. Students howled, mostly in approval. Teachers and administrators fumed. An assistant football coach took off after Jeff, also leaping the fence and disappearing across the street. The ancient color guard were motionless, stunned, not quite sure if they could believe their own eyes.
By way of epilogue, I should point out that Jeff got caught immediately afterward. The reason being, he lost one of his gym shoes vaulting the fence making his getaway … and his name was written inside it. Yeah, he chose to wear gym shoes with his name written inside of them when he pulled off what seemed to be the most epic prank in his or any of our high school careers. As a punishment, he was banned prom and graduation; and, to add insult to injury, he made what turned out to be a huge mistake: He thought he could redress the wrongs visited upon him by writing legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko. And Royko did indeed write a column about the incident the following week. But, Royko, a former Air Force man, was – how shall I put this? – less than sympathetic to Jeff’s plight.
But here’s the thing. Being an idiotic seventeen year old at the time, I managed to convince myself that this dickish prank was, in fact, some sort of grandiose political gesture; that it wasn’t just the act of an upper middle-class suburban jerk but was instead a way of raising our collective middle fingers at the military-industrial complex, or some such nonsense. Because nuance and complexity tend to evade seventeen year olds who think they’re smarter than everybody else, I couldn’t appreciate Memorial Day for what it was. I didn’t get that showing respect to men and women who died in uniform was something altogether different from supporting war itself; that you could have grave reservations about, say, Vietnam, but still feel immense sadness, and even appreciation, for the men and women who died in Vietnam, or Korea, or anywhere else politicians sent them to die.
It’s odd. My father was a World War II combat veteran, which has always been a source of tremendous pride to me. So you’d think even at seventeen I’d’ve had some sense of respect for military dead. But my father was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, which was still an open wound in 1979; and, more than that, my dad, like most people who actually saw action during wartime, was never one to romanticize it. In fact, he hated war like only a combat veteran can hate war. And I guess at age seventeen I couldn’t distinguish between war and the people who were forced to fight wars; so being opposed to one meant you had to be opposed to the other.
Jesus, was I an idiot.
Over the years, I’ve come to look at that Memorial Day assembly in 1979 as a low point. Not that I personally had anything to do with the prank itself, but it still bothers me that I thought it was great at the time. I often wish I could go back to and talk to my seventeen year old self. If I could, I think I’d say something like this: Don’t ever blame the people who serve for bad decisions made by politicians, or for unthinking people who cheer on war like it’s football. As long as we need a military, we need people who are willing to sign up and take that oath – the one to protect and defend the Constitution – and those people are and always will be our collective responsibility.
Taking the time to honor people who’ve died in wars, even (or perhaps especially) wars started by arrogant, foolish politicians for crass reasons, is the very least we can do for them.