Monday, August 6, 2012
Personal Time Warps
Having lived into my sixties now I have many distinct memories of historical events, including what I was doing and where I was at when those events occurred. For example, I remember the day that the Russians launched the satellite Sputnik, with all the panic that event set off in American life. Occurring during the Cold War, that event sent chills down the spine of average Americans and deep concern from our nation's leadership. We were deeply fearful that the Russians had frog leaped our edge in technology which made the Soviet threat even more dire. Sputnik eventually served as a swift kick in the ass and America rapidly accelerated our research and development efforts. Those efforts led us to put a man on the moon in the summer of 1969 and put the Soviets back in their place.
John Kennedy, the President that made the moon landing happen, would not live to see it. I was in a high school typing class when the school principal came over the intercom and told us our President had been shot, and that we should return to our homes.
When Neil Armstrong placed that first foot on the moon I was sitting in a jeep on an airbase in Vietnam, looking up at that same moon and marveling at what we had achieved. During that same month we would say goodbye to Dwight Eisenhower who helped to save the free world at a place called Omaha Beach.
Being part of historical events is part of being an American. Those common experiences we share all seem to draw us closer together and bind us to our common values.
So, when I sat and watched the freed Vietnam POWs land at Travis Air Force Base in the early 70's I couldn't help but wonder what manner of "culture shock" they might endure as those who had been imprisoned in Hanoi for a decade, and had missed out on sharing the American experience. Even more shocking must have been the stark changes that had occurred during their absence. I would later read the personal accounts of the POWs and gained further insights as many of them came to address us when I attended Officer's Training School. Ironically, many of them, while imprisoned, did get updates on the news of the world. More strange to the POW returnees was the long hair on their kids and the above the knee hem lengths of their wives's dresses!
I too had two "mini time warps" that left me feeling eerily alienated for a time. The first occurred in April, 1970. I had just boarded a TWA contract flight on my way back for a second tour in Vietnam. As anyone who has made that long trip to Southeast Asia knows, it's a long two day affair as you leap time zones and cultures. When I finally arrived in Vietnam I learned that the world was just recovering from a state of great fear and worry as the Apollo 13 crew clung tentatively to survival in a small aluminum capsule thousands of miles away. Since I was in that long travel "time warp" I missed the long breathtaking wait for our astronauts to make it back. I would not learn what that national experience was all about until viewing the film "Apollo 13" some 30 years later!
The second incident occurred in a similar manner. In 1976 I was stationed in South Korea. That summer I left to come home for leave. When I boarded a Northwest Orient flight for my return to Korea following my leave nothing in the world was of an immediate worry. However, when my flight arrived in Seoul I disembarked from the plane at Kimpo Airport only to see the entire airport swimming in armed American and South Korea soldiers. When I finally found someone to ask what was going on I found that all American and Korean forces were on a war footing....and all over a tree-cutting at the DMZ. South Korean and American troops had been injured and killed by North Korean border guards. As a result, we had F-111 fighters hovering above the DMZ and B-52 Bombers flying overhead in anticipation of some serious carpet bombing if it became necessary. When I taxied from the airport to the bus station to board a bus back to my base I found South Koreans in panic, trying to board with bundles of clothing and chicken cages, fully prepared to flee south as they had done in the early fifties.
As I looked around at the panic I felt like yelling "what the hell have you people been up to while I was away!"..."I turn my back for one minute and you people go nuts!".
Time Warps. They leave you feeling so alienated. As I sit here and write this, and being one who is a "contemplate my naval" type, I can't help but wonder if that same sense of alienation exists with folks who won't, or can't seem to assimilate into the American culture. I can't even imagine the loneliness and alienation that must feel like.
No matter our politics, no matter our ethnic origins, no matter our religious beliefs, we are all bound by our national common experience...it is what makes us unique as Americans. It's what makes us grieve for 3,000 people lost in the World Trade Center...or for a small cache of humanity in a theater in Colorado.