"My days of old have vanished tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. . ."
On a charisma scale, Mr. McGovern was pretty close to zero. He was my high school geometry teacher. His personal syllabus allowed no essay questions. A yes-no, right-or-wrong kind of guy.
Mr. McGovern wasn't much taller than many of his gangly charges. He wore an unfashionable crew cut and had piercing blue eyes. He stood ramrod straight. Though he didn't suffer us fools patiently, at least he never raised a hand against any of us, though he must have been tempted.
One stifling spring day in 1965, without fanfare or explanation, Mr. McGovern broke his classroom routine to play a recording -- an LP, as I remember -- of a man giving a speech.
The voice was wobbly and cracked with age. Mr. McGovern stared at the portable record player as if the voice of God were coming from it.
He gave no reason for his action, hoping perhaps the speech would itself prove self-explanatory.
We were callow schoolboys, as immune to the grand, martial cadence of the old man's shaky words as we were to the emotions they were meant to conjure. When it was over, Mr. McGovern looked shaken. He cast his blue eyes about the room to see if the words had had their desired effect on us. His answer was obvious: No. I remember leaving his room feeling -- for no apparent reason -- that I'd somehow let Mr. McGovern down.
I'm guessing now, but that spring day was probably the first-year anniversary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's death. I'm also guessing that Mr. McGovern was a military man who’d been moved to introduce us to something he valued by playing what was even then one of the most famous speeches of the time: MacArthur's farewell speech, given to the corps of cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962.
This tiny sliver of schoolboy memory stabbed at me one day about seven years ago at the end of a long, hot day that found me wandering the grounds of what is formally known as the United States Military Academy at West Point.
I'd gone there as a pilgrim of sorts, not sure what I was looking for and even less sure what I would do with it if I found it. I’d been dispatched there by an enlightened editor who told me to take a walk there and come back with a story.
I thought at the time that Joe knew a bit about my history, and by giving me the assignment, he hoped that he had effectively rubbed two storylines together that would culminate in some sort of narrative conflagration that would be interesting to the reader. The peacenik goes to the Point.
As I said, Joe was an enlightened editor. He knew I was conflicted about the military, had been all my life. And he knew conflict was the basic element of any good newspaper story, even one without an evident news hook.
Aside from this editorial backgrounder, what you've already read and what follows below is the result of that pilgrimage, the day I spent wandering West Point looking for something I didn't have a name for. If Joe was looking for fireworks, I must have disappointed him. I discovered something vastly more important about the Point and about me that day, something that I think is a fitting subject for Memorial Day.
Colleagues over the years had urged me to visit the Point. They predicted that whatever prejudices I held would melt in the majestic presence of the Point's awe-inspiring grounds, its crenellated towers, its fabled history.
I'd spent the day walking all over the vast campus, feeling quite the outcast. I'd been impressed, yes, but not moved.
Then, near the end of the day, at the edge of a vast greensward called The Field, I found myself in a sun-spattered shrine, standing in the thin afternoon shadow of the old man himself, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Around me were seven low, stone slabs on which were carved excerpts from MacArthur's farewell speech.
“My days of old have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. . . ”
I sat on the smooth stone bench inside the small courtyard and found my thoughts turning to my own dream of things that were. I was surprised to discover that the old warrior's words had brought a tear of recognition, along with unexpected thoughts of reconciliation, to a life-long pacifist.
“. . . the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of wars.”
My father was a veteran of World War II. He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, though he hated the sea and could barely swim. He never talked about those days while I was growing up. He wasn't that kind of patriot.
My father expected me to join the service and in a sort of "yeah, sure" way, so did I. The war at hand was Vietnam, a war fought mostly by young men my age who didn't have the luck or the means to escape the draft.
But I did have that means and with my father's blessing, I began attending Fordham University in 1968.
My conversion to the anti-war cause was typical of millions of baby boomers. I became "radicalized." I questioned authority, joined peace marches, let my hair grow, smoked dope. To my father's great dismay, I'd become a rebel with a cause, and a cause of great concern.
Every night, the TV brought news of the war's toll. Scores of dead Americans. Hundreds of dead "Communists."
We were winning, the generals told us.
Safe, symbolic protests soon lost their appeal for me. I wanted to do something. Almost anything that promised relief but didn't threaten anybody's life or well-being.
I fell in with a small group of people who were similarly impatient, similarly eager for action. In short order, I'd become what the news media of the day liked to call a draft board raider. And in August 1971, I was caught with four friends trying to destroy and steal draft board and Army Intelligence files from the federal building in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
We hadn't intended to get caught, but caught we were, and looking at a possible 15 years in federal prison.
I was too naive to share my father's fears for my future. Instead, I felt overjoyed. I'd finally found a useful, non-violent way to serve my country.
I got lucky again when we came up for trial. An enlightened federal judge allowed us to put the war on trial.
Nevertheless, we were convicted. The judge sentenced us to a year in prison, then suspended that sentence. We wept and laughed for joy.
A year after our trial, my father died of cancer at the age of 48, but not before he joined me in speaking out against the war.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
I'm not used to telling war stories about myself. For the past 10 years, I've had the honor of telling other people's war stories in this newspaper. And I've found that though "issues" may differ, at some essential level, every war story is an anti-war story.
Remembering some of those stories, and my own, I heard the echo of MacArthur's words reverberating in my head.
He spoke of "a great moral code — the code of conduct — and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land"
A great moral code. Wasn't that what I thought I had a corner on back in my green days?
"The soldier, above all men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice."
The willingness to sacrifice. Wasn't that what I arrogantly thought was missing from war protests of the time?
MacArthur's speech, it turns out, was a love song to the common soldier, not to the generals or the politicians or their unelected cronies whose faces filled our TV screens then as now -- with counsels of patience, predictions of imminent victory, promises of democracy on the march.
Listen to the love song of Douglas MacArthur, as he describes the effect of West Point's code — Duty, Honor, Country — on those who take it to heart:
"They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; to learn to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion for those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high, to learn to laugh, yet never forget to weep."
Sitting in the old soldier's shadow, I thought of Mr. McGovern, and of my father, of wars just and unjust. MacArthur's are words every real teacher — every father — yearns to tell student, son or daughter, in times of peace or war.
And for keeping such words alive, this old war protester owes a debt of gratitude not only to the old soldier who spoke them, but to the fabled academy that carved them in stone.