Happy MLK Day, USA!
It's fitting in a way I can't begin to describe that the last day of the presidency of George W. Bush should fall on a day when we honor and remember the life and unfulfilled dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who gave his life for his Lord, his faith, his humanity, and our country. He was not an old man, only 39 when he was shot. But he will always be remembered for one August day on the National Mall in 1963. He had a dream...
My first visit ever to our nation's capital was in May, 1970. Campus unrest at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio had ended in a tragic and bloody scene of confusion. Shots were fired by National Guardsmen called in to maintain order. Four students lay dead. A generation bled with them, either here at home or in Southeast Asia. One was a cousin; another a classmate of 12 years. Their names are both on a black granite wall there on the Mall.
Some Air Force and Navy classmates and I, in a program of intensive Russian language and area studies at Syracuse University, were torn. We were sworn members of the U.S. armed forces with 3.5 years remaining in our 4-year enlistments. We had been found healthy enough to serve, loyal enough to at least be permitted to continue training in what would eventually become a highly classified career field. Yet we were also students who could not simply extract ourselves from a generation of our peers by means of a military haircut or a different wardrobe.
And so we drove to Baltimore on a Friday night and crashed at the apartment of a buddy's friend. The next morning we made our way to Washington, DC to join a vast throng of mostly young Americans who had come to mourn and to ask what had gone wrong in our country and where we were going as a nation.
I still have the black and white photographs. In one, a young couple, very clean cut, is heading toward the gathering on the Mall. They have a little baby in a backpack. Where is that child today? He or she is now 39 years old, same age as Dr. King when he died. Does he or she know why his/her parents were there that day?
Later that day I would breathe tear gas. Not because I had done anything threatening or illegal. I had simply exercised my right and my responsibility as a citizen and an airman sworn to defend the Constitution. So I was there. Being a citizen, you sometimes get in the way. And need to.
Yesterday I listened to some of the hopeful songs and addresses in anticipation of tomorrow, 01/20/09, a day I thought would never come. In many ways, I'm too wounded and too jaded to let my feelings go. But they have a little. I've been disappointed and betrayed before.
I think about where we parked my car on that day in May 1970. A little boy named Eric was on the street, seemingly with no adult to care for him. My friend Haukur (standing) lent little Eric his Frye boots. Fellow airman, big Eric (in trunk), posed next to little Eric. Little Eric lived in a neighborhood that in a few years would be obliterated by rioting and a fire. I wonder where little Eric is today, if he ever had a dream. Did he have a future that didn't involve prison? Did he survive?
In my heart I will be going to the National Mall tomorrow. And for the first time in my life I will fly the Stars and Stripes from my own house. Not at half staff as I did at a former workplace to mourn yet another American's death in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This time the flag will fly at full staff. From home. And I'll let my feelings go a day. I have a dream today. Long may it wave...