Were you in the service? Did you defend our country on land or sea or air? What did you do in your free time? Did Bob Hope appear to your troops or did you have a band from the USO (United Service Organization) entertain you?
I was stationed on a United States Coast Guard cutter on the West Coast. Our entertainment involved calling our families on a shortwave radio. Imagine me talking to my mom and dad. I would begin by saying as much as I wanted, then I had to end my comments with “Over.”
I waited for them to reply but, as it turned out, only my mother would frantically respond, and then she, too, would need to finish by saying “Over.” After a five-minute, back-and-forth conversation, we would conclude. My mother was the only one who ever talked, but I bet she gave my non-responsive father “heck” for suddenly losing his voice.
Once we traveled to Hawaii, Japan and Midway Island (hardly ankle-deep water). Mike Lamoureux, my good friend who was in the Navy, would tease me because I was in the Coast Guard (1969-1973) and was thus supposedly a “shallow water sailor.”
I remember how I would go to the USO to listen to 60’s folksongs (Blowin in the Wind by Bob Dylan, The Times They are A-Changin’ by Judy Collins, We Shall Overcome by Joan Baez, Imagine by John Lennon and Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary). They were very meditative for a lonely sailor, thousands of miles away from home. Only later would I discover that these “meditative songs” were really fuel for fire in a time of great turmoil for our country, a boiling cauldron that started bubbling in 1963.
When I was in seventh grade, our principal made an announcement on the school PA (Nov. 22, 1963). She indicated that during a motorcade through downtown Dallas, President John F. Kennedy was mortally wounded by an assassin, later to be identified as Lee Harvey Oswald. We also found out that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office later that same day. Two days later, Oswald himself was killed on live, national television by a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, while he was being transported in police custody.
A year before I started high school in 1965, two national broadcasters, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, made a breaking news announcement on Aug. 7, 1964: “The Tonkin Resolution is passed by the United States Congress, authorizing broad powers to the president to take action in Vietnam, after North Vietnamese boats attacked two United States destroyers five days earlier.”
Before I finished high school in 1969, people my age were notified that they would soon be receiving draft cards. Little did we know that more than 58,000 of our brightest and bravest would be killed on foreign soil, and those blest to return home alive, whether from a POW hellish camp, a fox hole or a hospital ship, would be spit upon by protesters and even draft dodgers, who would later be pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in his desire to bring healing to a broken nation.
When I was a junior at Bishop Heelan High School, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., while standing on a motel balcony. Two months later presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic senator from New York, was shot on June 5, 1968, at a campaign victory celebration in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian; Kennedy died the next day.
In the midst of sadness and tragedy, I remember hearing great news, as other brave men walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, and in September I flew on Ozark Airlines to Omaha, to enlist in the Coast Guard.
In God’s divine plan I knew he wanted me to be a witness of the good and bad of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps our Lord was preparing me for the high and low points of the 21st century. I wonder what songs will come about as our divided nation crawls in a hopefully-forward direction?
May the Catholic Church be the lighthouse pointing the way.
Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese, and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.