Dementia is a very strange animal, when it comes to memory. I can forget what Cookie says to me in a matter of minutes, but I can remember old memories as clear as a bell. I was thinking about this as I had my coffee on the patio this morning, surrounded by dogs. I was musing about my first year of college at Lake Superior State College in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The year was 1969, and the world was my oyster.
I had finished high school with a grade point average that lacked much of a pulse. I had already been turned down by a couple of colleges. I bore them no resentment, I wouldn’t have admitted me either. I searched on with some desperation, hoping for a school that I could get into. And then I remembered Lake Superior State. The school had been a branch campus of Michigan Tech, but in 1969 it finally achieved independence. They were hungry for students, even slackers like me. And to sweeten the pot, they had bargain basement tuition and board rates, as an added enticement. I was familiar with the area, as my parents had some lakefront just an hour away. I filled out the app and lo and behold, I was quickly accepted.
I experienced a number of firsts in my freshmen year. I saw my first “Snowmobile 500”, while standing in two feet of snow. I experienced the most frigid winter of my life, including an entire week where the temp never made it above 0. Despite the glacial conditions, students there still strolled around campus, and many even made the hike into into town. And, I attended my very first protest march; more on that later.
Lake Superior State had been built on the top of a very large hill, with a magnificent view. One could see all the across the St. Mary’s River, into Sault Ste Marie, Canada. There were many Canadian students there, and they all seemed to play hockey. Our dorm was the former Fort Brady, remodeled to accommodate members of the Womens’ Air Corp (WACS) in the 1930’s. (See photos below). Our dorm rooms were heated with ancient steam radiators, which could peel the paint right off the walls. There was no need for air conditioning, opening the windows could easily induce frostbite.
It was there that I found myself in the fall of 1969, a young lad of 17. I celebrated my 18th birthday in October, and registered for the draft in a funky old bring building in Sault Ste Marie. I received my draft card with a student exemption, postponing my chances of going to war. As Charlie Daniels wrote so eloquently, “a rich man goes to college and a poor man goes to work.” My family wasn’t exactly rich, as Mr. Daniels might have described it; however we did have the means to afford college with a low interest student loan package.
The Fall of 1969 was filled with protest marches against the war in Vietnam. There were rallies across the nation, including sleepy little places like Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. I was curious about such things, and decided to participate. We had a crowd of a hundred or so marchers, with the customary protest signs. We had barely begun to march, when the first beer bottle was thrown into the crowd. As we walked, the beer bottles continued to fly, as well as rocks, bricks and anything else the onlookers could find. Several students were injured by the projectiles, some rather seriously. Though not injured, I had a couple of near misses, with a bottle parting the hair on my head. I still remember thinking to myself, that if there is this kind of reaction in little Sault Saint Marie, it was going to affect the whole country.
Looking back, the event was a watershed for me, in learning how to deal with crowds, anger and violence. It eventually lead me to a career in policing where I worked a lot with various sorts of political demonstrations. Our goal was to have the different sides engage in constructive discussion, but sometimes the anger and violence got in the way. I learned the finer points of crowd psychology the hard way, watching what seemed a peaceful crowd suddenly turn violent. There were almost always some folks in the crowds who excelled in the incitement of violence; we even had a guy plow his car through a block full of marchers.
Some of those things you never forget, even with the onset of Dementia. Sometimes they even push their way into dreams. I truly enjoyed my career as an officer, but some things are still really hard to forget. There are triggers that awaken old memories. But my memories are nothing, compared to our Vets. Sadly, they don’t always get the treatment that’s needed. It is unforgivable, after the sacrifices they’ve made for our country.
I was flipping through the channels a few days ago, and happened on Ken Burns’ PBS Vietnam saga. I wondered how many Vietnam Vets will actually watch it, having seen it first hand. I will be praying for all of them, most especially those suffering with PTSD. And I will be praying for all our veterans who have gone forth in battle. Only they know fully the price of their sacrifice, and for just that, it’s the least I can do. Whatever your politics, I hope you will join me and pray for them too.