When I was 18 years old, I was stupid in all the ways you’d expect an 18 year old to be stupid. Shallow and silly, irresponsible...in other words, a perfect candidate for America’s armed forces.
For as long as there have been wars, old men have always sent their children to fight them. It has never mattered if our leaders were “liberal” or “conservative.” What has mattered is that wars are required to be fought on the ground by our young---those men (and now women) who have no sense of their own mortality.
In those days, the war was in Vietnam and I reached draft age in the middle of my forgettable college career. But I had a student deferment and so, in the beginning at least, I gave little thought to the war raging 15,000 miles away.
But some of my college buddies were approaching graduation and the end of their deferments.
One of them was an eccentric fellow named Don McGinty. For reasons I never knew, his nickname was “The Cheeseman.” We were both, improbably, in a fraternity—he and I were known for our reclusive ways and not really “fraternity material,” but somehow we’d survived the winnowing process. He was a senior, I was a freshman—the Old Man and the Kid.
We lived in the fraternity house on Third Street, a building that dated back to before the Civil War. It was a rambling three story brick home with slate roofs and copper gutters.
From the roof’s edge to the ground was more than 45 feet. Among his many talents, Cheeseman liked to run what he called “roof patrols.” He’d swing over the creaky wooden fire escape, boost himself onto the nine inch wide gutter and make his way around the perimeter of the house. He did this on a regular basis.
My fraternity brothers and I could often hear him up there, stomping about, and figured it was only a matter of time before Don made a quick trip, downward, to the front yard.
We put his odds of survival at 50/50. After all, 45 feet just isn’t enough distance to reach terminal velocity.
One night, Don poked his head in my door; I was listening to Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” for the 76th consecutive time and had assumed that he, like my neighbor Bemis, had come to throw my record or my stereo, or me out the window.
But instead, he made me an offer that I could not resist. He asked if I’d like to join him for tonight’s roof patrol. How could I say no?
Don led the way and I sallied forth without fear. It never occurred to me I could slip and plummet to my death, even when we had to make a free parabolic sprint between two chimneys, across the slippery slate, in order to traverse the west side of the old house. Nothing to it, I thought. We spent a bit of time on the roof’s apex, enjoying the quiet spring evening, then returned to the TV room to celebrate our triumph with a couple of Falls City beers. Our brothers were impressed. We’d looked danger in the eye and laughed. We were immortal!
Six weeks later, McGinty graduated and was promptly drafted into the United States Army. By September, he was in Vietnam. We rarely heard from Cheeseman over the next year and a half. As before, we were too young and stupid to think any harm could come his way. He was The Cheeseman. He defied Death each time he dashed across the slate roof. Finally, ahead of schedule, my pal Danny got a card from Don—he was coming home.
But instead of the gala greeting we’d planned, Don slipped into town quietly, without fanfare and it was a week later that we discovered he’d rented a small apartment, not far from campus. Don was not the Cheeseman anymore.
Like so many other Vietnam vets, he didn’t want to talk about his time there, wanted to simply put it behind him and move on.
But it wasn’t that easy; he finally showed us his wounds, or some of them. He spoke cryptically of the dread and the fear and uncertainty that haunted him for more than a year, until shell fragments from a Viet Cong booby trap ended his tour of duty and sent him to an army hospital and finally back home.
He’d left Louisville, a 21 year old kid, who loved rock and roll and Falls City beer and dancing on the gutters of the old fraternity house. He came back home, ages older than the 18 months he’d been away. More serious, more reflective and now certainly aware of the fragility of Life, he had become, ironically and because of his service, exactly the kind of man the recruiters avoided.
He’d discovered how quickly a life can be changed, damaged or snuffed out. And certainly the U.S. Army has no need for that kind of maturity.
I lost touch with Don over the years. I have no idea how his life turned out. I hope it went well for him and he was able to deal with the demons that had been thrust upon him by a government, once again, willing to sacrifice its young.
I know for sure that there are young men and women right now, 40 years later, across the planet, “our” young and “their” young, being sacrificed once again, to satisfy the questionable goals and even the egos of governments that never seems to look closer than the statistics, that never understands what “casualties of war” really means.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are Democrats or Republicans...the Wars go on. For the Cheeseman, war took some of the lightness out of life. By the time he’d returned from Vietnam, “roof patrol” was a quaint memory. Now he knew what it really meant to stare Death in the eye. And he wanted no part of it.
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Find both at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)