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How a boomer came of political age

BoomerCafé recently ran an excerpt that our co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs wrote for a new book that resonates with baby boomers, a book called “1969: Are You Still Listening?: Stories & Essays.” It looks back 50 years to the end of the stormy decade that helped shape us all. Now, BoomerCafé periodically is publishing excerpts by other writers who also contributed to the book. It’s part of our series of reflections for boomers from 50 years ago.

This excerpt is from Robert William Case of Denver. It introduces the principal characters and sets the stage later in his excerpt for a bystander account of the Kent State massacre, and shows the growing conflict between the generations.

As a seventeen-year old high school senior, the capricious ways of the draft were a constant source of interest. In the face of declining popularity, President Nixon gave it a face lift in 1969 by changing the draft into a lottery system. The first drawing was held on December 1st, televised to a national audience. Budding young notables like Bruce Springsteen, Bill Murray, and Brent Green were included, and future presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Donald Trump.

Robert William Case

I don’t remember watching. Seventeen and politically naïve, I was still increasingly dissatisfied with the way the war was going. This was not a position my parents cared for. Growing up in our Midwestern home, I never heard either one of them find fault with the war or the increasing costs in money and lives. They wanted it to end, but with honor. That was the promise the president had made to garner their votes the year before. They would approve of whatever he proposed in order to carry out this nebulous plan. If they had any doubts, they were never expressed within hearing range of my ears. What they did express, quite openly, was their disdain for anyone protesting it.

Anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State University. May 1970.

Graduating during time of war was something my Dad and I had in common. On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was a freshman at Ohio University studying to become a dentist. Dad was drafted right away. The Army put him in an ROTC uniform and left him in school. That was 1941. But after battles like Guadalcanal were fought and won, wounded soldiers and sailors from the Pacific began overflowing into stateside hospitals for long term care and treatment. To meet the demand, Dad became an Army medic to work as an orderly at the military hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He cared for its gravely wounded survivors for the rest of the war and was discharged a First Lieutenant in 1945.

Robert Case’s father in 1944.

Although my Dad never served in a combat zone, he had no illusions about the damage inflicted in combat upon the human body and spirit. With all these experiences the closest he could come to being critical of the Vietnam war was to say to my older brother as he went away to college in 1969, “I spent enough time in uniform for all of us. You shouldn’t have to go.” I had no doubt that Dad included me in that statement. There was no other way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let me choose my own way.

Case’s father in his Navy uniform in 1954 holding his sons. Robert on the left.

Many others were finding reasons to oppose the war. The issue came into sharp focus on April 30th, 1970, in an evening television address, one month before I would graduate. Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia by 20,000 American and South Vietnamese troops. He called it an “incursion.” The New York Times called it a “virtual renunciation” of his promise to end the war. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal took a stand, warning against deeper entrapment in Southeast Asia.

The next day protests erupted on university and college campuses across the nation. One of them was Kent State University (KSU), so close to my own backyard. Back then, Kent was an old mill town in the middle of farm country with the usual assortment of banks and businesses, straddling the Cuyahoga River. In my seventeen-year-old view of the world, it was like a magnet, the only place to go for 3.2 beer on my upcoming eighteenth birthday. The best bars were all on Water Street. My view of Kent was soon to change.

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Robert’s book is, “Icarus and the Wing Builder.”