Sat next to a long hair, skinny, “Hippie” guy at Orientation in a community college yesterday, and felt thrown back to a time years ago, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from a similar fellow wondering what the hell I was doing there.
I was being “oriented” to college, knowing nothing of higher education, having barely gotten through high school a few years earlier. And there I sat, less than 20 days out of Vietnam and leading men in combat. What did I expect from Life back in the States? Was I ready for Peace having faced War for nearly a year? Could I handle it?
Absolutely not! I was taking part in one of those “touchie-feelie” group meetings. The tall kid — had to have been no more than 19, and only a year out of high school — was leading a “Be In.” He asked all of us to share our names and histories. He was all smiles and friendly patter, laughing hard at just about anything and everything, whether it was funny or not. Would have punched him, if he tried to hug me like he did some of the others. Guess he saw something in me, maybe my eyes, that warned him away from me.
Cultural shock. That’s what it was. Being thrown into a way of Life I was not exposed to . . . I was used to Philadelphia’s inner city toughness. People act different here in the Suburbs. Especially at College. Among in-coming Freshmen. No matter what walk of Life they might have recently travelled. They treated us all alike.
Dazed, I became speechless, unable and unwilling to share who I was with a bunch of strangers, none of whom had proven worthy of the trust I had depended on in my three years of military living. Hide away, Michael. Don’t let them see you. Keep your guard up. This could be hostile territory. Tell only your name, rank and serial number. Minimize your exposure. Keep that escape path open and in plain sight.
The long-haired guy spoke in an effeminate way. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But, I could not understand what he was saying. It was like a foreign language, and I had to concentrate really hard to cut through the way he talked and focus on what he talked about.
Keep in mind, there was no “debriefing” of soldiers coming back from Vietnam. We landed in Ft. Lewis, Wash., USA, and were treated to a “heroic” breakfast of steak and eggs. They served breakfast all hours of the day or night. It was the Army’s special treat to us following a minimum 20-hour flight from one country to the other.
We got discharged a day or two later, getting our regular stipend along with vacation pay, and that little extra few civilians ever saw: combat pay. An extra few bucks each month for being in Harm’s Way. It was better than nothing. (A private making $125 a month might disagree with you. I was a hot-shot lieutenant, but felt I made very little more than that enlisted man.)
Got through my Orientation Day with no loss of life or serious bodily injury. Learned to take each day as it came. Couldn’t rush things. Discovered how to handle myself in a new World of Academics.
And, that’s what I tried to pass on to my son, as I attended the Orientation gathering with him Tuesday. Sitting next to the long-haired fellow. Who bothered us with his over-friendly smiles and his endless questions. Some things never change, I thought to myself. Now, if Nicholas can simply get through his first semester unscathed by the first days of battle, I think he’ll have a good chance of completing his “tour of duty” in Academic Life.