A Reunion, A Documentary
Taking a Knee
Having a 50th high school reunion amid the release of Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s docu-opus, Vietnam, seems almost poetic, doesn’t it? Fifty years ago, of course, was 1967 and those who graduated from high school that year are now 68 years old, with many collecting their well-earned pensions and Social Security benefits. But fifty years ago these people were in the midst of being consumed by the national event that had surpassed the civil rights movement on the Nightly News --- the Vietnam War. Watching the documentary over the past few weeks and then spending Friday evening (September 29, 2017) at a 50th high school reunion prompted both cogitation and reflection --- like a sandy irritant in an oyster shell.
Before examining the specific event, let’s first consider what a high school reunion (any reunion) is. They occur every year, all over the country, and people attend them with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that can sometimes border on the psychotic. What’s at the heart of a high school reunion? Theoretically, it’s an event planned to bring “old friends”/acquaintances together to reminisce, to hoist a glass together, and to share “memories” --- real or imagined. In some instances, you have people who simply want to show up to show off --- to demonstrate “how far they’ve come,” or “how much they’ve made” ($). But you also have folks who are just curious to get a look at people they remember sharing a unique window of time with. And that’s where I got to thinking about what the experience of the Class of ’67 was, exactly.
There are two levels to consider when “analyzing” the concept of a high school reunion: the personal and the “universal”/general. Starting with the personal, one might believe, as I do, that a high school reunion (and most certainly a 50th reunion) should prompt individuals to consider:
But what about that more general/”universal” level? What might we examine that would be revelatory or insightful when attending and observing the 50th reunion of the high school class of 1967? Here’s where we have to inject the Burns and Novick documentary, because you really can’t examine the group of people who moved from adolescence to adulthood during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s without Vietnam at the center of it all. Whether you supported the war or opposed it, joined the military or left for Canada, identified with the Silent Majority or “campus protestors,” you simply could not get away from the war. Which is what makes the documentary timely and vastly educational.
Those who graduated high school in 1967 --- and particularly those of us here in the Northeast(?) --- cut our emerging political teeth on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Despite living in “nice” Northeastern suburbs, racism was ingrained in the culture and a number of those in our (“nice” suburban) class did not, for a moment, believe in racial equality. But the conversation about race and civil rights was unavoidable and had already stamped this generation. Then came Vietnam, as Burns and Novick so adeptly reveal.
The war was, at first, strongly supported. After all, we still believed in the “domino theory” and what we saw, initially, was a war of “godless-communist aggression” from North Vietnam against a struggling "democratic" South Vietnam. As Vietnam clearly reveals, and as we who opposed the war rather quickly learned, South Vietnam was a corrupt and authoritarian regime with no resemblance to a democracy. And that’s when the rude awakening really occurred for the Class of ’67. The realization that this whole Baby Boomer generation had been blatantly lied to, had been sold a bill of goods about how good and great “America” was, about how, in “the land of the free and home of the brave” we played fair and treated everyone equally was, in fact, shallow propaganda to keep a system catering to corporate interests afloat.
We were shocked and we were angry. By the time Watergate came crashing down (while the last embers of Vietnam were smoldering in Southeast Asia), the Class of ’67 was on its way to our 10th reunion, seeing the world in a whole new light. Skepticism about the government, as well as about anyone in power, abounded, and U.S. politics began to split along the lines that now seem an irreconcilable divide. A direct line can be drawn from the current “take a knee” protest/controversy back to the Civil Rights and Anti-War protests the Class of ’67 first participated in. There is not unanimity within the Class and, just as in the late ‘60’s, it seems the ability to engage in some kind of healing dialogue has disappeared.
The 50 years that have transpired since the Class of ’67 left their hallowed halls has been the history of America, for better and for worse. There didn’t seem to be conversations about Colin Kaepernick at the reunion on Friday night. It was more “hale classmate, well met” and that’s as it should be when we “re-une,” right? But now it’s Sunday and the NFL will be playing this afternoon, and some (many?) will take a knee. So, warm up that fan because you know what’s about to hit it again.
And if you don't agree with those players who kneel, I do hope you're standing and singing the Anthem in your living room at the start of the game, to "honor America."