Remember When: Life as a young person during Vietnam era

Published 4:30 pm Friday, July 29, 2022

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Since my life as a teenager, college student, and young adult corresponds with the Vietnam War era, I suppose my memories of living through those years of the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s may have some importance. These memories are probably not much different than those of other “baby boomers” my age, children of World War II vintage parents. I will attempt to share what originally seemed not so serious in the year I was graduated from high school in 1965 but became more serious year by year after that.

The song “Soldier Boy” recorded by the Shirelles was released in 1962 and became a hit tune immediately. (Soldier boy; Oh, my little soldier boy, I’ll be true to you.”)

By 1964, my folk singing group was performing in hootenannies all around Cruel War”(“The cruel war is raging, Johnny has to fight…”) and Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (“When will we ever learn?”) made popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

My memories are vivid which take me back to our high school homecoming week in the fall of 1964 when the classmates, seniors we were, worked on floats each night prior to the big game on Friday preparing to be the winners over the junior class. I recall the guys and girls, some football players, some cheerleaders, some of us who sang “Hurrah for Andy” and “Corn, Corn for Ole Andy High” the loudest. Our fight song was the “Notre Dame Fight Song,” the tune chosen by many colleges and high schools using words adopted by each institution.

Those were such fun times with high schoolers mixing and mingling with each other, couples getting together, falling in love in the evening shadows. No, parents did not work on the floats back then. They were strictly student planned and manufactured projects. A couple that stands out in my memory was a certain beautiful blond cheerleader and a darling fun-loving football player. Everyone thought that they made a picture perfect pair.

Moving forward, after graduation, I headed to college in the summer of ’65. I knew that there was a lot of news about a war going on in a place called South Vietnam where all of those unfamiliar names of places that fighting was going on was so foreign – somewhere around the world. I didn’t listen to much news back then because college campus activities were at the forefront. I did think that I needed to be more knowledgeable about the news, but as time went on, that realization seemed to get more significant. I began to hear about some of my former high school friends being drafted and some joining the service. My gosh, what is this all about? Why isn’t this over?

Even a visit by First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, to the U of Alabama campus in the spring of 1966 resulted in information she shared and promoted about the “Keep America Beautiful” program rather than news of the war. “Plant a tree, a shrub, or a bush” while our soldiers and the enemies were running through the jungles – the J-U-N-G-L-E-S!

My boyfriend while a college student got his “Greetings” letter and his Selective Service number pulled and had to report to Montgomery for a physical. Two times he was sent back because of high blood pressure. He said he didn’t get any sleep because other boys were crying out loud all night because they were so scared.

I distinctly remember that fathers who were veterans of WWII were constantly analyzing the situation and telling sons, “There is something not exactly right about this war.” It was the topic of constant conversation at the coffee shops downtown.

Some guys were adding their names to a waiting list for the national guard just so they could have a little more time to finish college before they would be drafted and have to serve. My boyfriend and my other best boy friend did just that.

By that time we are all married and my husband got orders to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training to learn to drive tanks. The day he left, I took to the bed not knowing if his guard unit would be deployed or not. Some other classmates I was friends with were in the guard, in the Army, the Marines and headed somewhere.

I was a music teacher by then and some of my male students were whisked away following graduation. One of my female student’s father was an officer in Vietnam. She graduated from high school without her father being present at many happy occasions.

Back to college days, my wonderful friend who was also in the School of Education graduated from the U of Alabama about the same time as I did. Her first job was as a kindergarten teacher in Columbus, Georgia where she met an Army officer who ended up being sent to Vietnam. She wrote me and told me that she was joining the Red Cross “Donut Dollies,” a group of women, college graduates who would serve over there in the SRAO (Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas) program for a certain period of time. By then, this war and the involvement of more people I knew was getting more and more serious.

If I name names, then someone will be left out. My college friend and her officer boyfriend eventually made it back. I received letters and pictures she sent me from over there. She told me that her mother would have been shocked at what all she went through. “Don’t tell her,” she implored. I played the piano at their wedding. She wanted a song from West Side Story played, “One Hand, One Heart.”

During the early 1970s, I kept hearing accounts of more and more familiar classmates, Andalusia friends, and graduates in other classes that had gone off to the war. A few guys I knew had a little college but decided to sign up and serve and “grow up” with the intention of returning to get really serious and finish up their degrees later.

A new couple moved to town. The husband was a Vietnam veteran, a helicopter pilot. Another couple was new in town. He had been a helicopter guy, too. They were both great guys and became instant friends sharing experiences. We kind of ran around with that couples group.

There was a big party one night we were invited to. Some active military guys from Fort Rucker were invited to the party. They had all been in active service in Vietnam together. Some were headed back for another tour of duty. There was a lot of discussion that I heard (or should I say overheard) that night. What was a lot of reminiscing between them was unforgettable to hear about, things you might not ever want to know. These guys had experienced physical injury and mental anguish, living conditions one would never want to be a part of, fear, anger, homesickness, loneliness, battle memories, and deaths of friends. A lot of those guys, American’s best, and their wives later split up; some made a complete turn-around to turn their lives and their burdens over and follow the Lord; and heart-breaking tragedies occurred including, even suicide. RIGHT HERE! Let me forget, Lord. Those are just some instances I knew of.

Another story of a dear classmate – He returned home alright, but he was not the same happy-go-lucky darling boy that was at that float sight in the fall of ’64. Upon returning, he went around to visit his friends that he loved and that loved him. He wrote poems that centered around the horrors of war. He even made a brief appearance at his 10th class reunion, I think so he could get one more glimpse of his cheerleader girlfriend who had married another. Our classmates and I, well, we were all so sad for him. A few years later after he had tried and tried to blend into the world he left behind to no avail, he passed away in a tragedy. I played the piano for his funeral. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”God bless him. No, his name is not on the Vietnam Wall, but it could have been. He didn’t die over there but he died here because of over there.

How many soldiers had to identify their best buddy’s body and then several weeks later had to identify it again? Use your imagination. We are all so very proud of him to this day!

Other local guys who made it back, are with us today. I know of several who have had successful careers – one a school principal and superintendent; another, a mayor of our town; another, outstanding in the wood business and friend to all; another, a veterans’ officer and outstanding patriot. I am sure they must have received encouragement and a lot of patience from their family and friends who lacked a clear understanding of what they had been through at the time.

Andalusians will never forget the fine young local man who flew helicopters in Vietnam. He was a football star at AHS and married a vivacious brunette cheerleader, both were in the class above me, a stunning couple. He arrived back home from his tour, got married, and got stationed at Fort Rucker. He was teaching young pilots to fly helicopters. One night his wife got a knock at their apartment door where she was notified that her husband had been tragically killed in a night-time operation. Our town was shocked. He was so young and full of hope. In the years since, a scholarship has been awarded annually at AHS Awards Day in the young man’s memory. To say his wife was devastated is an understatement. It took her years to restart her life. Even her closest friends could not console her.

My God, why did it take us all of these years to figure it all out? Did America really not welcome those soldiers back? Did I?

In conclusion, we appreciate their service, their sacrifice that changed their lives dramatically. Sometimes a story has to be told. It screams to be shared. I thought I never would have that opportunity, but this is just one pitiful and shallow attempt to describe life that was here with a war going over there. I do Remember When.

Ever since that time of not knowing anything much about the world news, I made it my responsibility to learn about all of those foreign places on the map of that war such as Saigon, Cam Rahn and Phan Rang AFB, and Danang.

Some may say, you and yours escaped the effects of that war. I can’t help that. All I can do is to be a part of patriotic organizations that honor veterans and promote patriotism the best I can – honoring the veterans that live among us, recognizing their achievements, appreciating their service, displaying and waving my flags, and loving America.

As members of the Covington Veterans Foundation, we welcome those who have come to Andalusia to visit the Traveling Vietnam Wall and to attend the Lee Greenwood concert. Everyone who comes out is sure to have a story. One may share it with our volunteers or others or just may choose to keep it tucked inside their heart forever. We are so glad that you, like so many, are having the opportunity to visit this sacred site. Not everyone can get to Washington, D. C. to visit the real wall, and we knew this. Again, the City of Andalusia welcomes you. Now wear your red, white, and blue. Wave your flag. Sing along with Lee Greenwood in “God Bless America.” Teach your children and grandchildren that freedom is not free. Strive to be a “good citizen.” If you served and are reading this, accept our deepest gratitude for the part you played in making the freedoms we enjoy possible. God bless America!

Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at