When my daughter heard the other day that I was going to Danang on a consulting assignment she said to her mother: 'Gosh. He's just like all the students; taking off as soon as they've graduated, heading for Vietnam or Thailand.' My wife pointed out that when we graduated from university no one wanted to go to Vietnam because of the war there, and that our American friends were waking up in cold sweats every morning, scared stiff that they might be drafted.
'Ah yes,' my daughter said. 'I hadn't thought of that.'
Which just goes to show how history moves along. Different strokes for different folks; a different context for every age.
But it got me thinking again of that long-ago summer when I was hitch-hiking around the United States. In the spring of 1968 I was stopped many times by authorities of one kind or another. Police usually. It didn't matter where I was – Oregon, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee.
'Show me your ID.'
'What for? What have I done?'
'Just show me your ID son.' Hand on the holster.
There was one policeman who stopped his squad car right beside me when I had my thumb extended at a freeway entry-ramp just outside Baltimore.
'You can't hitch-hike here,' he said. 'It's against the law to hitch-hike on the freeway.'
'Sorry,' I said. 'I didn’t know that.'
He looked at me. 'Where are you from?'
'Well, no one'll pick you up here,' he said. 'You'd better get in. I'll take you to a better place.'
Right away I noticed the guns. A short-barreled shotgun rested just under the dashboard; a heavy calibre Remington automatic was clipped under the front seat. A pistol sat in a holster at his hip. But the policeman was friendly enough, and when he dropped me off it was less than five minutes before a blue Chevrolet stopped.
Behind the wheel sat a young man in uniform, no older than I was. He had a short-stubble haircut, and he was wearing an army uniform that showed he was a lieutenant in the US marines. Tim was a deserter. He told me that when he found out I wasn't American. I asked him why he was wearing a uniform.
'They check your ID if you're in civvies,' he said. 'They never ask someone in uniform. If they ever do check me out, they'll find me in the files and they'll know right away I'm AWOL. Then I'm in big trouble.' He looked at me. 'I bet you've had your ID checked while you've been in the States. You're the right age. You'd be in 'Nam if you were American.'
He was right of course. I hadn't thought much about these checks, putting them down to the normal paranoia of US officialdom. But then, as I got to know people in California, I found that most of the young men lived with a perpetual fear that their names would come up in the weekly lottery draw for the draft.
Tim saw me eyeing the single tab on his lapel. 'I made myself a lieutenant,' he said softly. 'They don't expect officers to desert.'
'Was it that bad over there?' I said.
He stared straight ahead at the road for so long that I thought he hadn't heard me. He sucked at his cheek, drawing it into a big hollow.
'It's pretty bad,' he said. 'I did a long tour there and now they want me to go back for more.' He pointed to his cheek; the one he'd been sucking in. 'See this?' A dark mark reached from near the corner of his mouth, up under his eye.
I'd noticed it as soon as I'd got into the car. It was the same on both sides of his face.
'I took a VC bullet through here an' it went right through an' came out the other side. Didn't touch a thing 'cept the skin. Didn't even take a tooth out.'
He rubbed it dreamily. 'But it was way too close for me. No sir. I ain't goin' back there.'
We skirted Philadelphia, and before lunch New York's skyline came into view. 'There you go,' said Tim. 'You're in Jersey now. You can get a bus from here, or a train. You'll be in Manhattan in no time.'
I got out, and Tim drove off towards a black-edged sky in his upright, blue car. I thought I heard distant thunder. But when I turned to look across the river the towers and buttresses of the city were bright with midday sunshine.