A Mile In Their Shoes
I have a theory. I have many theories about many things, but this one kept rolling around in my head. So, after seeing a news show host and her guest touch on the same idea, I knew it was time to make my case. It would involve other people’s experiences, which is a risky thing if you’re like me and want a particular outcome. But also if you’re like me and believe you are right, you’d take the risk, right? I can hear people who know me snickering right now.
My theory is this: Along with many beliefs, did eliminating the draft in 1973 play a role in our country’s ever-increasing divide? We no longer seem to know who our fellow citizens really are across this vast country. How can we, if we don’t have face-to-face interactions with each other? And college doesn’t help integrate us; it’s a “birds of a feather” kind of experience. To this day, I proudly defend Southerners. I grew up in the Deep South; I know the majority of people are good, and I only know this because of my personal experiences.
“Why can’t we all get along?” –Rodney King
It was time to interview a few veterans from WWII and Vietnam — start building my case. I contacted Jo Ann Murphy, head of our Veterans Affairs, and she graciously gave me the names of three veterans here on the Island, Skip Tomassian and Herb Foster of Edgartown, and Bob Falkenburg of Oak Bluffs. Would these veterans tell me what I wanted to hear so I could neatly mold their military histories into my grand, brilliant theory? Things rarely go as planned, but if you let them unfold on their own, sometimes magic can happen.
This I felt sure of: Without being almost forcibly thrown together with people opposite of you, and having never been given the opportunity to know a person from an entirely different background, anyone can believe anything about anybody, and it makes this maligning-each-other propaganda we are exposed to every day a powerful, valuable political tool for some politicians and media companies. It inflames our differences, and sadly, it is to the detriment of our troubled country. If we, as a country, don’t implement new policies, champion ideas that target this growing problem, we’re not going to make it. The forces we are up against have but two motives — money and power. And the misguided anger we have toward each other today has become a national addiction, an epidemic.
“A house divided cannot stand.” –Abraham Lincoln
If a concept has a problematic nature like mine, have a solution or two, or three. Here’s my controversial solution — bring back the draft! Hold on, I’m not suggesting a military draft like in Israel, but one with a four-month basic training stint where kids from all walks of life are integrated with one another. And after the training, the draftee can choose a field to work in for the next year and a half. Fields like forestry, FEMA, the Peace Corps, or climate-change projects, for instance. In the meantime, an organization — A Mile in Their Shoes Project, similar to the foreign exchange program — could be implemented. High school kids from all over the country could trade lives for a few months, see how other Americans live in other parts of the country. And don’t tell me this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. We better begin mending our country somehow, some way, starting NOW.
I believe something of value should not be free, so all this hyperbolic talk of free college irritates me. By having a mandatory draft, one could earn his or her college education. Basically, it’s the G.I Bill.
Bob Falkenburg, 92, WWII and Korean infantry division veteran, said he never would have had a college education had it not been for that bill. Our youth would not only be giving service to their country, they would be having invaluable social experiences with one another. Why go into decades-long debt when there is a patriotic way to pay for it? It’s a win-win for all of us.
Skip Tomassian, 74, Vietnam veteran, was 24 and fresh out of law school when he was drafted into the JAG Corps. When recalling his basic training days, he said, “Essentially, everybody is stripped of their identities — their hair is cut the same, their uniforms are the same. It is an equal and level playing field — a tear-down, rebuild sort of thing.” I can just see the horror on the face of a teenager having just read what Skip said, and the ensuing conversion with their parents: “Mom, I’m going to Canada if that happens.” Well, honey, that’s been an American tradition for years!”
Everybody hang on, hear me out, more important, hear out Skip, Herb, and Bob, for they unanimously agreed they became better men for having served their country. Skip: “I learned how to roll with life’s punches and how to have more acceptance of other people.”
Herb: “It was a great ego adventure. I found I more than measured up to other men, and knocking down, metaphorically, a bigot one day, well, there was nothing like it.”
Bob: “I learned about hierarchy in organizations, how it works, and the importance of it. My experiences gave me a broader understanding of people, and a greater sense of scale to all things.”
Originally I mistakenly wanted the veteran’s military memories to be full of wonderful stories of camaraderie, but I soon realized this was wartime; this was life or death, not “Kumbaya” moments around the campfire. I did get funny stories; I got stories of prejudices among the soldiers, and from Bob, a near fatal-but-missed-him story. Miraculously, he tilted his head to the side as a bullet whizzed by his cheek — bullets you cannot see, by the way — and buried itself in the wall behind him. That got his attention for the rest of his life.
One observation I had was that not only did these men have amazing, vivid memories of those times, but an uncanny recall of their fellow soldier’s names. Throughout my interviews they would rattle off full names. In fact, Bob would not let me continue until he correctly spelled a Hispanic soldier’s name, not for me but for himself. They took pride in remembering names, and were compelled to do so.
When asked what the soldiers talked about in private, Bob gave me a sharp look and said, “Not politics, that’s for sure. Women and weapons, that’s what we talked about, women and weapons.” Their commonalities were priority, not their differences. I loved that.
“In time of domestic crisis, men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.” –John F. Kennedy
Herb Foster, a high-speed Morse Code operator, had a great tale. And it proved to me the concept: You can believe anything about anybody if you don’t know any better. When Herb was in basic training, five or six guys from Texas and Oklahoma, upon learning Herb was Jewish, said they had been told that Jews had horns and tails. They believed this preposterous tale their whole lives until they saw Herb in the shower one day. You see, those poor misguided, misinformed men could have gone their whole lives believing this to be true had they not gone into the military. Case closed!
I realized after meeting these extraordinary men, they arguably had a deeper respect for our country than most people, including myself. Herb said to this day when saluting the flag, a powerful emotion comes over him. He could not explain why, I don’t think he needs to. Bob confessed he cries easily, he’s more emotional. This truthfulness endeared him to me. Skip had a story of going to a soldier’s house for dinner. He had no idea how poor the man was. He felt sorry for him, he felt empathy for him, the man had nothing. Skip said some soldiers had been so poor their whole lives; they had never tied a tie, never been to the dentist. We all need to get out of comfort zones and get to know one another. We are all Americans; we are all in this experiment together, like it or not.
What I was looking for, I did not find, but what found me was what I needed to learn. These veterans went into the service as young men formed by their familiar surroundings, but came out as mature men blessed with compassion and tolerance to a degree that they might otherwise never have had. And I was shown, that in time of crisis, in times of life and death, politics, religion, and the color of one’s skin don’t matter. What matters is — are you with me, do you have my back?
Change will not come easily, but with hard work, we could become a better country tomorrow than we are today. Of this I have no doubt. So let’s stop bickering and get busy, we have mountains to move.
Lorraine Parish is a writer and clothing designer who lives in Vineyard Haven.