1968 — the year I was eight — was the shittiest year of my life. On March 22, my family was involved in a horrible car accident that left my father a quadriplegic. On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated. And on June 6, Bobby Kennedy was shot. I attended third grade at three different schools that year — never returning to the Los Angeles neighborhood school that I had left on spring break. I also never returned to our Los Angeles home, because after months of hospitalization in Tennessee (where the accident occurred), my father was moved to the VA Hospital in Long Beach. When my sister and I finally went back west from staying with our grandparents in Virginia, it was to a new home and new schools in the new city.
A friend’s comments about the motivations of T**** supporters — along with comments about the emotional softness of college students requiring special care to cope with the trauma of their candidate’s loss — reminded me of my perhaps-too-soon education about class differences in the U.S.
After the accident in 1968, my father — a Korean War veteran — was treated in the spinal cord injury ward of the VA Hospital. He was 36, with a wife and two children. But his fellow patients were mostly men in their teens and early 20s, fresh in from Vietnam. These weren’t college boys. They were almost exclusively low-income blacks, California Okies and Mexicans who had been unable to escape the draft. They had been high school athletes (some of them star athletes in Southern California, where sports are “for real”). They had beautiful, young high-school sweethearts awaiting their return from the war. And many of them had post-war jobs lined up, working in their fathers’ auto body shops or in similar concerns. All of those things had been taken away by bullets through the neck or back, or by land mines that also had damaged or destroyed their genitalia.
I remember the family visits from what became an archetypal cast of characters:
- The bewildered, angry and heartbroken fathers with leathery skin, trucker tans and gnarled hands — uncomfortable in their “church clothes,” and not knowing what to say
- The weeping and devastated mothers — also dressed up — who would bring food, and who would try to groom their sons’ hair
- A little brother looking up at his fallen idol in his hospital bed. Terrified. Disbelieving. Unable to process.
- And the girlfriends — made up, hair done, dresses tight, cleavage hoisted, perfume you could smell all over the floor — there to assure what was left of their boyfriends that everything would be okay. And the boyfriends’ knowing that those women were gone, and not blaming them. Sometimes the boyfriends would refuse to see (or be seen, more likely) by their sweethearts, and would do everything they could to end their relationships so that she wouldn’t have to. One last act of heroism.
I also remember the time I came in and was ushered away from my father’s area. The curtain was drawn around the bed next to his. On the floor, in what seemed like an inch of blood, was the broken glass of the IV bottle (they were glass then) that whoever it was had used to slash himself to death. There was probably one suicide per week on that floor.
College students in 1968 didn’t have bouncy castles to help them deal with mid-term exams. They were worried about the draft and getting killed. And if you were poor, able-bodied and not college-bound, you were just meat for the grinder. If you don’t believe me, spend an afternoon counting the six packs of working man’s beer that get left every day on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Beer and cigarettes left by friends for friends. 300-pound, gray-haired bikers leaning against the wall and crying.
The typical blue-collar T**** voter may or may not have seen his buddy shot in half, and is highly unlikely to have had his junk blown off. But he may very well have lost his job. And his house, his wife and their kids. T**** understands that, and has used it in sinister, cynical and selfish manipulation to further enrich himself. Those who didn’t vote for T**** — especially we from the educated classes — need to get over ourselves, and understand, and reach out, and help to heal.
That doesn’t mean normalizing T****! It means being ready for when his voters realize they’ve been duped. It means responding with constructiveness and kindness instead of hubris. And it means working together to stop this monster in his tracks.