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Author's Name: Richard Elgin

Title: "The Village, St. James, Missouri"

I was raised in the quintessential Midwest family in the quintessential Midwest town, St. James, Missouri.  Located on Route 66 in south central Missouri in the foothills of the Ozarks, the little town (population of about 1800 at the time) was the embodiment of being raised in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  “It takes a village to raise a child” is the saying, and there was hardly any better village than St. James.  My upbringing revolved around all the good things of a small town:  Family, friends, the neighborhood, school and school activities, traditions, church, scouting, the library, the community and community activities and helping others.  These were my family’s values and those of all the families of all the kids with whom I was raised.  One time on Cartall Street where I was raised you could count 29 kids and 16 dogs.  There was always a ball game going on the vacant lot next to our house and the occasional fight amongst us kids.  I was just as likely to get a scolding (or a swat on the butt) from a neighborhood parent as from my own.  All we kids worked, whether in a parents’ small business downtown, which was only a short bike ride away, or a paper route, mowing grass in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, working on the family farm, pumping gas and washing cars at the local Texaco, being a soda jerk at the drugstore, working as one of the janitor’s helpers at school, the girls waitressing or taking orders at the Cree-Mee.  It didn’t matter, everyone had a job.

Our Troop 95 Boy Scouts took two canoe trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and we went to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.  The high school band went to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.  The FFA chapter always went to the annual state convention.  The Catholic kids all went to catechism classes on Saturday morning.  We all followed and cheered for our championship John F. Hodge High School basketball team (the high school was too small for a football team).  The Senior Play and the Junior-Senior Prom were big deals.  What great experiences, remembered for a lifetime.  What great values, applied for a lifetime.  What great friendships, kept for a lifetime.  What a great village.

During my high school years (1962-1966) I don’t remember the Vietnam War playing a large role in my life, nor having any strong feelings about the war, nor it being the subject of any deep family discussions.  Except that Mom, the liberal, thought it was a civil war and that we should not be involved.  She being a voracious reader, interested and knowledgeable about world affairs, Mom would have had a well-founded opinion on why U.S. troops should not be in Vietnam.  Pop, the conservative, was a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” having built airfields across the southwestern Pacific during World War II as an officer in the Seabees.  He’d stayed in the Reserves and in the early 1960’s was a Navy Commander (Civil Engineer Corps).  Pop thought our government was doing the right thing by being in Vietnam.  That was the conventional wisdom during the early 1960’s.  We were there to stop the spread of communism, to keep that first domino from falling, for if it did certainly the remainder of Southeast Asia and then the Philippines would fall to the communists.  This probably made sense to me, and, like Pop I supported our involvement in Vietnam.  However, being a 1960’s Midwestern household, I don’t remember my parents’ differing views on the war ever being discussed very much.  Perhaps that was because they had two sons, both of whom were just the right age for service in Vietnam.

During my high school years my older brother, Pico, was a student at the University of Missouri and had a Draft Board Classification of “II-S” (a Student Deferment).  That would change on his graduation in 1967 and Pico faced being drafted.  He was called to St. Louis to take a preinduction physical.  Always tall and thin, by design he became thinner.  For several weeks prior to going to the Induction Center he ate nothing but celery and drank water.  He “weighed in” at 6’3” and 132 pounds.  Even the military had limits.  He was classified “I-Y,” which meant “Available for military service, but qualified for military only in the event of war or national emergency.”  I guess the Vietnam War was not a war, for he escaped service in the military.

My sister, Jane, was three years younger than me and of course did not face service in the military.  I suspect, influenced by Mom, she thought the U.S. was wrong to be in Vietnam.  On October 15, 1969, she recalls joining the “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam,” and wore a black arm-band that day, as did millions of others.  I was in Vietnam that day.

So, our family was just like millions of other American families of the Vietnam era, conflicted about our involvement in Southeast Asia.  Ironically, today, my 1960’s and 1970’s liberal minded, “hell no, we won’t go, get us out of Vietnam” siblings have moved to the far right of the political spectrum, while I’d place myself conservative, but much less so than they.  They have staunchly supported U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.  I’d say let’s strictly apply the Powell Doctrine before deciding to get in, and, if we aren’t ALL IN, then let’s DON’T GET IN.

Vietnam came into my consciousness through reading Buz Sawyer, the comic strip.  This would have been about 1961 or 1962, when, as a freshman in high school, I had a before-school job as one of the janitor’s helpers sweeping floors, dumping trash cans and cleaning toilets at school.  I would get up early and join Pop in the kitchen for cinnamon toast, a poached egg and a glass of milk.  Pop would be having coffee and reading the St. Louis Globe Democrat.  Buz Sawyer was a world adventurer who had been a Navy pilot in World War II and Korea and had reenlisted in the Navy to serve in Vietnam.  Now a Commander, he was involved in exciting missions in Vietnam.  From Buz Sawyer I learned the Viet Cong were the bad guys and learned South Vietnam was part of Southeast Asia.  I could find it on a map.  Buz’s missions were always very exciting.  I followed him closely.

So, most of my knowledge of Vietnam was gained through Buz Sawyer.  I knew nothing of the history of Southeast Asia, realized it had been colonized by the French, knew nothing of the First Indochina War and the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu, nor the resulting Geneva Accords, nor the political and religious intrigue of South Vietnam.  This is what I didn’t know when I joined the Army in 1968.  And, even the most basic history of Southeast Asia and Vietnam is what the war protestors didn’t know either.  Those who were eligible just didn’t want to serve in the military and were against any war in which they might have to serve.