THERE IS NO WALL IN WASHINGTON-BUT, MAYBE THERE SHOULD BE
This space is usually devoted to ‘high’ politics and the personal is usually limited to some experience of mine that has a direct political point. Sometimes, however, a story is so compelling and makes the point in such a poignant manner that no political palaver is necessary. Let me tell the tale.
Recently I returned, on some unrelated business, to the neighborhood where I grew up. The neighborhood is one of those old working class neighborhoods where the houses are small, cramped and seedy, the leavings of those who have moved on to bigger and better things. The neighborhood nevertheless reflected the desire of the working poor in the 1950’s, my parents and others, to own their own homes and not be shunted off to decrepit apartments or dilapidated housing projects, the fate of those just below them on the social ladder. While there I happened upon an old neighbor who recognized me despite the fact that I had not seen her for at least thirty years. Since she had grown up and lived there continuously, taking over the family house, I inquired about the fate of various people that I had grown up with. She, as is usually the case in such circumstances, had a wealth of information but one story in particular cut me to the quick. I asked about a boy named Kenny who was a couple of years younger than I was but who I was very close to until my teenage years. Kenny used to tag along with my crowd until, as teenagers will do, we made it clear that he was no longer welcome being ‘too young’ to hang around with us older boys. Sound familiar.
The long and the short of it is that he found other friends of his own age to hang with, one in particular, from down the street named Jimmy. I had only a nodding acquaintance with both thereafter. As happened more often than not during the 1960’s in working class neighborhoods all over the country, especially with kids who were not academically inclined, when Jimmy came of age he faced the draft or the alternative of ‘volunteering’ for military service. He enlisted. Kenny for a number of valid medical reasons was 4-F (unqualified for military service). Of course, you know what is coming. Jimmy was sent to Vietnam where he was killed in 1968 at the age of 20. His name is one of the 58,000 plus that are etched on that Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. His story ends there. Unfortunately, Kenny’s just begins.
Kenny took Jimmy’s death hard. Harder than one can even imagine. The early details are rather sketchy but they may have involved drug use. The overt manifestations were acts of petty crime and then anti-social acts like pulling fire alarms and walking naked down the street. At some point he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. I make no pretense of having adequate knowledge about the causes of mental illnesses but someone I trust has told me that such a traumatic event as Jimmy’s death can trigger the condition in young adults. In any case, the institutionalizations inevitably began. And later the halfway houses and all the other forms of control for those who cannot survive on the mean streets of the world on their own. Apparently, with drugs and therapy, there were periods of calm but for over three decades poor Kenny struggled with his inner demons. In the end the demons won and he died a few years ago while in a mental hospital.
Certainly not a happy story. Perhaps, aside from the specific details, not even an unusual one in modern times. Nevertheless I now count Kenny as one of the uncounted casualties of war. Along with those physically unwounded soldiers who can back from Vietnam service unable to cope with their own demons and sought solace in drugs and alcohol. And those who for other reasons could no adjust and found themselves on the streets, in the half way shelters or the V. A. hospitals. And also those grieving parents and other loved ones whose lives were shattered and broken by the lost of their children. There is no wall in Washington for them. But, maybe there should be. As for poor Kenny from the old neighborhood. Rest in Peace.