Different Memories

If my family had been a bit more prosperous, I might have been at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970. I might have somehow been involved in or witness to an infamous early shooting of students not by a crazed citizen but by a military body charged with protecting them. As it was, a young mother sat in a nearby town folding diapers as the whole thing unfolded in the media.

According to the website, Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont,  is the nation’s oldest private military college (200 years) and the birthplace of ROTC.

A year ago I sat in the Shapiro Fieldhouse watching the Commissioning ceremony for the Army ROTC. One by one, my son the retired Sergeant Major and military history instructor gave several newly fledged 2nd Lieutenants their first salute.

By tradition these new young officers could choose who they wanted to honor with this request. Many chose their father, a brother, a retired uncle or aunt. One young man received his first salute from his grandfather who sat fully-uniformed in his wheelchair. Salute accomplished, Gramps got a big hug, to the applause of the crowd. Another returned the salute from a uniformed underclassman and then promptly embraced her, lifting her small body off the ground. His fianceé, as it turned out.

It was a very emotional experience for the families, especially for those who were themselves retired members of the military. Many were visibly trying to maintain control of their memories. I watched as one father fought hard not to lose it entirely – old soldiers never cry, right?

 To say the least, it was an adjustment for me to be in a large auditorium full of people who obviously made no negative judgment of the ROTC, the National Guard or even of war.

In the course of the afternoon, my son became junior in rank to these cadets of his, even though he had years of military experience in the field, and they were fresh-faced and heartbreakingly young. Each new officer gave his or her chosen “first saluter” a silver dollar. My son told me that it began as a tradition “back at the beginning” when an instructor got paid one dollar for the entire term. Then for whatever reason (inflation?) the tradition died until recently when they started it again. He received one Susan B. Anthony, a few Ikes and one quarter because the young man forgot to bring his dollar, so he wrapped the quarter up nice with his name and the date on it. Keepsakes, all.

My father was in the Army (WWII), and I regret that he passed away before he could witness his grandson being so favored. During Dad’s service he never left our borders, but he was proud of his time in and confused and angered by my generation. He never understood why his daughter held a low view of our military institutions. Perhaps a son might have felt differently. Or perhaps not, given the era. For my father, war was a necessary evil to hold back the march of those who would destroy everything he loved. A man did what a man had to do, and hoped to come back to his family in one piece.

In my young adulthood, I watched the Viet Nam war go from a minor “military conflict” to one of the worst political debacles in the country’s history. Now I have two sons I consider heroes. One joined the Marine Corps Reserve and is still dealing with the physical and mental issues of Desert Storm. A year ago I watched the other, a career Army man, as he fulfilled a request from his students to give them their first salute from a (now) junior officer.

How proud they were, those stiff and scrubbed children who may never see combat, or may be lost to some other war in a land no one can pronounce. Will the world come completely around again? Will my great-grandchildren protest war? Or will they march happily up the aisle to receive their first military salute? How different will their memories be, when it comes time to pass their own traditions on to the next generation?

Norwich University, Senior Military College, Vermont

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