Times change, so do people

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

As I look back to a time when I was 19 years old, I recall being very decided about political and cultural choices -- for awhile.

Being raised on the South Side of Chicago, there's no way I was going to wear sandals! The uniform footwear for males in my steel mill neighborhood was a pair of s--tkickers -- steel-toed, high-topped boots with or without metatarsal protectors. Males did not wear sandals.

A year later, I was shopping on Piper's Alley in Old Town for a pair of sandals to go with my embroidered, frayed-cuff jeans and vegetable-dyed pullover shirt.

I had just started college and had my nose deeply immersed in philosophers, theologians and the Wundts, Piagets and Freuds of my major field, psychology.

Before the end of my first year, I was planning to join the Army.

I was proud of my uncle who served in World War II and I wanted to do my part to defend the country. The Russians were spreading Communism in some far-off land called Vietnam and the United States had to stop that.

Of course I didn't know where Vietnam was, other than the newspapers said it was next to Laos and near Cambodia. Like I knew where they were!

A few months later, I was in uniform. I was stationed in California, where I met some hippies.

Now I wanted to be a hippie. I opposed the war, but I was in the Army with a four-year commitment.

What changed?

I was still proud of my uncle. I was still proud of the country. I still respected the president.

It was me. I was changing.

Then as now, most 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds change their minds and continue to change their minds.

A couple of other guys traveling through that same time warp into adulthood were making choices, too.

One put on the uniform of a U.S. Army officer and went to Vietnam. Another joined the National Guard in Texas.

John Kerry, the one in the Army, returned to the United States disillusioned by what he saw in Vietnam and became involved in organizing Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In fact, he testified before Congress saying, "In our opinion and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart."

George W. Bush, at about the same time, learned to pilot warplanes with his state's Air National Guard, and although he took an oath, he apparently did not quite make every weekend warrior meeting as ordered.

These two people, also in their late teens or early 20s, were making choices, changing their minds not unlike most others at that age.

So why did their behavior some 35 years ago take on such importance in this year's presidential election?

Despite what their campaign handlers want folks to think, it just doesn't matter anymore.

Kerry and Bush are grown men now. One's a U.S. senator, the other president of the United States.

They're not 19 anymore and this is no longer the United States of the '60s. In fact, the world looks nothing like it did then either.

That's why I was so pleased with the performance of these two candidates as they debated before a national audience for the first time Thursday night.

Not once did either mention his own or the other's military record. The mud slinging was all but nonexistent. In fact, they at times complimented each other's service to the nation.

And they got down to business, speaking about foreign policy and laying out plans for America's role in a rapidly changing world.

They discussed issues that should be on the millions of television screens in homes across the country. Issues not only on the minds of Americans, but on those of people in countries around the globe.

What can a powerful nation such as ours do against global terrorism? How can the United States help Iraqis breathe the serene air of freedom? What's the best course of action in bringing a diplomatic solution to the nuclear hotbed of North Korea? In what ways can we effect change in the dismal economy of Russia to help restore a once-proud people's self-esteem?

These issues were debated. They were brought to the fore for Americans and others to chew on. These are the foreign policy issues that presidential candidates must address if America is to regain the respect of nations around the world.

I can but hope that the same level of substance will be evidenced as debates continue on domestic social and economic matters.

These are the things that matter, not who was the better patriot in the tumultuous '60s.

That may have been something to chew on for a day or less during the campaign, but now it's time to focus on what's important.

Of course, I suppose it would be fun to learn when John and George W. got their first pair of sandals.

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