Gene's Blog: Their Vietnam?

Gene Mueller's blog

See that gaggle of kids up there? Pretty good looking crew, except for that dork in the lower left hand corner, the only child sporting a hood on what appears to be an otherwise mild and kinda sunny day.

That would be me, along with my first grade classmates at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheboygan. We were six, maybe seven years old. The time stamp at the top says it's December of 1963, leaving us just weeks removed from the JFK assassination, two months away from the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Cassius Clay as heavyweight champ. We were exactly 12 years away from the Four Seasons turning the month and year into into a hit song.

We'd forge first friendships on the playground near those very steps--the girl named Lynn in the upper right corner and I had already promised each other we'd get married,  but judging by the distance between us in the photo, I must've earned my way into the equivalent of the first grade dog house with the future Mrs. Mueller. Our teacher was a kindly woman--Mrs. Spring--who'd introduce us to Dick and Jane, the brother/sister team that taught us how to read. Mrs. Spring cultivated our various interests, in my case stocking my desk with articles about the late President for whom I'd already forged a rather healthy interest.

We were "boomers," the children of The Greatest Generation. Some of us had relatives who'd fought more recently in Korea, and a few of our older siblings/relatives/neighbors would soon be heading for a place called Vietnam. Those first graders and an entire nation would watch at home in the years to come as some 56 thousand Americans would die in Southeast Asia in a war that, at the time of the photo, was a "police action" designed to keep Communism from spreading. Our leaders would tell us it was a battle we would soon win if only we'd invest a little more manpower. Five years after that photo, a thing called Tet would happen, showing that the U.S. was far from victory, that the folks orchestrating the U.S. end of the effort didn't really know where we stood. The conflict that would become a cause, one that would split the country as those older siblings burned draft cards, hit the streets, demonstrated en masse against an undeclared war with no clear end, one that was sending their friends home dead.

Another generation of kids is tired of seeing their contemporaries die for nothing, too. They didn't perish an ocean away. They died in classrooms and playgrounds. To some, death came within arm's reach--such is the case in Parkland, Florida, the scene of a mass shooting that left 17 dead this month.

Survivors there and others around the country vow to change things. They're going after familiar targets: gun lobbies, the NRA, members of Congress/state lawmakers who to them did little or nothing to stop the carnage. They see a system of background checks that seems a bit too leisurely and a safety net with far too many holes, be it a tone-deaf FBI worker who didn't heed warnings about the shooter to deputies who stood outside Parkland watching as the shots rang out instead of engaging. They wonder about the age-appropriateness of weaponry, asking if those under 21 are ready to be handling AK-15's. There's the question of mental health and whether our system is getting enough potentially dangerous people out of circulation before they act out. Our President and others think it may be time to arm teachers. As  Second Amendment devotees to to dig in their heels, so do those who say the status quo isn't cutting it. They're done with "thoughts and prayers", tired of hearing the time is never right to start such a debate, fed up with hearing that anyone who says what's happening should stop is guilty of "politicizing tragedy."

This could be their Vietnam. They're done with seeing their contemporaries die as a nation fails to even address possible solutions. When IS the right time to bring this up, they ask? And, they promise to keep this in the news cycle until the country does. They don't have draft cards to burn, the way their predecessors did in the 60's. What they will soon have (if they don't already) is the right to vote. It's a power that levels the playing field against the well-financed, better organized groups who'll try to stop them.

The change they seek won't come fast, but it won't happen at all if it's allowed to leave the news cycle, if it's replaced on social media by the next pop culture outrage-of-the-hour. Does this new group of freshly aggrieved young people have the staying power? Will their proposed answers see the light of day, get a vote in a legislature or in Congress? And even if they're passed, will they change a problem that's been with us, well, since that picture at the top of this was taken? It would be just three and a half years later that a sniper would take aim from the University of Texas clock tower, randomly plinking off passersby until 15 were dead and many more innocents wounded. It was the first such outrage of our time, and it got dismissed as a one-off, the act of a madman who no one saw as a danger. There couldn't be more like him, the country said.

Then it happened again. And again.

Those kids in '63 didn't have to worry about "active shooters." Our biggest issue was getting to class before the bell each day, the most pressing danger being a classmate who'd maybe run with scissors. We had drills for fires, not for gunmen. The only weapon Mrs. Spring carried was a red pen.

Sometimes, you find a cause. Sometimes, the cause finds you. The Parkland survivors have the immediate energy to keep "change" top of mind for more than a week now, even as their motives are questioned by slimy claims, learning early on that the older kids play dirty.

Mass killings have been an issue for decades. Continuous, productive debate about possible fixes never gets traction. The students of Parkland want to change that. As my friend Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute said the other day in an interview about media coverage and guns, what problem gets better if it's ignored?

Instead of the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, this group of motivated kids seems ready to take on the swamp that is Washington, D.C. Their friends aren't coming home in flag-draped coffins an ocean away. They're dying next to them in classrooms. Like those before them who decided enough is enough, the students of Parkland say the time for change is now. 

And, as it was 50 years ago, the whole world is watching.




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