When I was 18 and in the Vietnam War, I couldn’t drink legally. I remember an editorial cartoon depicting GIs in a foxhole, bombs bursting in air, and one saying to the other, “If I couldn’t drink, then why am I here to die?”
The cartoon brought a brief, knowing smile to my young face, knowing well that, worse, I couldn’t vote myself out of the war, either. You had to be 21 to vote and to drink, yet most of my bros were my age or not much older. We knew the law, but we also knew how to get fired up while “in country." We all needed numbing to get through that unreal, and no one asked for our IDs back then, not that it mattered.
Years passed, and I moved on from Thunderbird -- the vintage of black choice in ‘Nam -- to Boone’s Farm, then onward to something with a cork. In between, there were some name brands as I grew toward sanity after a tour of the duty with Uncle Sam.
Strange how Election Day brings out the patriotism and memories in me. Today I wore my Vietnam veteran baseball cap while waiting in line to vote. I never said a word to my fellow Americans, except to the poll workers when required. I heard my companions banter about Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, same-sex marriage laws and legalized gambling in Maryland.
And I silently rejoiced. For I made their banter possible. I stood there, knowing they were free because I did what was asked of me when I was but a child. I enlisted in the U.S Air Force at exactly 17 years and 9 months old; I needed my parents’ signatures to enlist, and they grudgingly signed.
It was the best move of my life.
Back then, I began to learn how to survive in an unfair world. I learned how to communicate in spite of ignorant and intolerable rants from folks who thought themselves superior in rank, intellect, good manners and beyond. I learned about hate and rage and heroic acts that ultimately bested the former.
Reflecting on that young life brought forward through the crucible of war and a career in public service through the art of journalism, I understand the cries of democracy and the unrelenting forces that seek to mute it.
I remain a warrior for good thoughts and deeds. Today, while waiting in line, I changed my vote to allow children of illegal immigrants to receive low-cost college tuition. That’s because I saw a young Latino couple cradling their playful infant daughter. They too had come to vote.
They, too, are part of my America. I figured that out while waiting in line. I changed my mind because I can.
Because I am an American.