HOOD TO HERO
by Joseph Walker
As a high school senior in the early 1970s, there were a lot of places I wanted to go: Europe, Hawaii, backstage at a concert, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders locker room. But there was one place I actually had a chance of going where I definitely didn't want to go.
Don't get me wrong. I was as patriotic as the next guy. I loved my country. I was almost an Eagle Scout. And I could play a version of "The Star Spangled Banner" on my tuba that could bring tears to your eyes. At least, it brought tears to my band teacher's eyes.
And it wasn't that I had strong feelings one way or the other about the morality of the war. I registered for the draft like I was supposed to when I turned 18, and I wasn't thinking about burning my draft card or moving to or anything like that. The fact is, I didn't know all that much about the war's political implications, and I didn't really care -- not like I cared about my '62 Caddy, my collection of Neil Diamond records and somehow getting a date with a cute little sophomore named Becky.
When it comes right down to it, I didn't want to go to Vietnam because... well, there just isn't any other way to say this -- I was scared. Scared of the jungle. Scared of the Viet Cong. Scared of napalm. Scared of Agent Orange. Scared of Russian weapons. Scared of body bags. Scared of being injured. Scared of being killed. Scared of my high draft number.
Of course, that wasn't my public position. As far as everyone else was concerned, I was just really focused on getting my college education. And doing some volunteer work for my church. And getting married and starting a family. All of which was true. But the cold, hard fact of the matter was, I was interested in those things because they were a lot less frightening than Vietnam -- notwithstanding the prospect of finals, homesickness and potty training.
So it was hard to know what to say when my high school classmate, John, told me he had joined the Marines and would likely be shipping out to 'Nam before the school year was out.
"They can't do that, can they?" I asked, worried almost as much for him as I was for me. "Don't they have to let you graduate from high school first?"
"I'm 19, almost 20," he said, shrugging his shoulders. He smiled at the puzzled look on my face. "I got held back a year," he said, smiling. "Maybe two, I don't remember." Suddenly I felt less embarrassed about how easily he had pinned me during a 9th grade wrestling tournament. It looked like man against boy, because it was.
"Look," he said, "you know I've never been much good at this school stuff. About the only thing I'm any good at is fighting in the parking lot after football games. So I figure I might as well go someplace where they don't give you detention for fighting -- they give you medals."
For the first time in the six years I had known John, I saw peace in his eyes. Peace -- because he was going to war. It didn't make sense, but then, few things did those days. I just knew that John, the parking lot warrior, had found his nobility. He was willing to go someplace and do a job that a lot of us were unwilling to do. In fact, just the thought of going there and doing that scared some of us to death.
And that made him a hero -- at least, to me.
I don't know how many hoods have become heroes in the service of their country. But every Veteran's Day I think about John and others like him who fought for peace.
For their country, and for themselves.
-- Joseph Walker