My father graduated from high school in 1967 and, with his two best friends, immediately enlisted in the armed forces, like his father, like his grandfather, like every Leitch boy as far back as anyone could remember. The anti-war movement was in full swing by then, but in Mattoon, Illinois, a Central Illinois farm town mostly known for having an exit of its very own off Interstate 57, none of that was happening. He just signed up because that’s what you were supposed to do. What else did he have going on? Besides, that cute girl from the third town over thought he looked sharp in his uniform.
There is something about being in the middle of history that is uniquely disorienting. Watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s epic “The Vietnam War” in 2017, it was staggering for me to imagine what it must have been like to be alive through the experience. I was born in October 1975, three months after North and South Vietnam officially unified. In the span of time between his high school graduation and my birth, my father joined the Air Force, watched close friends die, met my mother, married her during a weekend furlough from his base in Virginia, started a career as an electrician, bought a home, buried a son and then gained another. He did all this, of course, during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. But every time I ask him what it was like live through all that, the protests, the civil rights movement, Watergate, man walking on the goddamned moon, he can never quite describe it. “I was too busy trying to figure out my own life and my own family,” he says. “I didn’t quite realize what was all happening until it was all over.”
We are living, right now, in a period of tumult and transition and, perhaps, opportunity that rivals that time — and very well surpasses it. Someday, my sons, currently aged eight and six, are going to ask my wife and me what it was like to live through the Trump era, to live through the pandemic, to live through this time of unprecedented social unrest. I want to be able to give them an answer. I want something to point to. I want to say this is how it felt in real time. this is how we were processing it. this is what it was.
That’s my personal goal, as I embark on this new Medium project, for which I’ll be writing regularly every week. I am…