Turning 65 and my ah-ha days

Growing up when I did, I must have watched President Roosevelt's Dec. 8, 1941 speech to Congress a hundred times on TV.  "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 ... a date which will live in infamy ..."  As every baby boomer knows, America was brutally attacked, and then immediately answered the call to arms.  Had I been old enough at the time, I'm sure I would have joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. 

As a young boy, I had two ah-ha moments that affected my life.  The first was John Kennedy's election in 1960 as president, and the second was his assassination in Texas in 1963.  I was fortunate to shake hands with the Massachusetts Senator a month after he won the Democratic Party's nomination in Los Angeles.  Looking up at him in San Francisco that cloudy August day, I couldn't help but feel a sense of inner peace.  The torch hadn't been passed quite yet from President Eisenhower to Kennedy, but I could tell everything was going to be different after his election.

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That was true until that terrible day in Dallas.  I was in my high school civics class when the shocking news was announced.  The young president had been killed.  Stunned, I barely remember walking home that late November afternoon.  My father had met JFK several times, so his tears and utter disbelief echoed throughout our house for months.  It was the first time I witnessed, first-hand, what real grief looked and felt like.

The next shocking, stand-still moment I remember was Lyndon Johnson appearing on camera August 4, 1964.  His Gulf of Tonkin announcement stopped me in my tracks.  I was home alone when he addressed the nation.  I remember looking up at the stars that night wondering if Chinese forces were going to invade Vietnam?  If they did, would the U.S. use nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia?  I was sure LBJ had set the stage for WWIII.

Five years later I came face to face with the reality of war.  I was a senior at the Univ. of Southern California on December 1, 1969.  That evening, the first draft lottery since 1942 took place.  Talk about a personal day of infamy.  My date of birth was the first picked.  Yes, I "won" the initial Vietnam-era draft lottery.  At the same time my conservative fraternity brothers were giving me high fives, I was plotting ways to evade the draft.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and a host of others my age were doing exactly the same thing that fateful night.

The negative impact of the war in Vietnam was more than anyone could have imagined back then.  It not only was unwinnable, the entire premise of U.S. forces being there tore this country apart.  Having lived through those tumultuous days, I can tell you Vietnam wasn't some academic failure of foreign policy.  No, the war truly shattered the American psyche for decades, not to mention the families of the 58,000 troops who died there oh so many years ago.  Being against the war meant you were unpatriotic to some but heroic to others.  Just ask those who ended up on Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies list." 

George H. W. Bush (41) understood this when he launched the first Gulf War in 1991.  Too bad his son (43) didn't understand the dynamics of war twelve years later.  The lessons of "shock and awe," coupled with the specter of being greeted as liberators, still are being debated today.  I imagine they will be when my 18-year-old daughter turns 30.

As a father of three, I fully expect my two boys (33 and 20) and my daughter to grow up and raise their families.  Not so, the families of Newtown, Connecticut.  Last December, twenty youngsters and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  As shocking and tragic as that horrendous event was, what's worse is watching Congress drag its feet on meaningful gun control legislation six months after the shootings. 

For me, the sum total of these and other ah-ha days is this:  When will our leaders in Washington learn?  I may "only" be turning 65, but I know right from wrong.  You'd think lawmakers my age or older would know better.  Do you think I should invite any of them to my birthday party?

Freidenrich grew up in Palo Alto, California.  He served as a congressional staff assistant in 1972.