It was December 1967, and I was in army basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. The Vietnam War was raging and wasn’t anywhere close to ending. Young men were dying and more were to follow.
We had been out in the field doing something or other – I can’t remember what. It started to snow heavily, so we marched over to a nearby building for shelter. They called for several deuce-and-a-half trucks to come and pick us up. While we waited, the Company Commander, a First Lieutenant, suggested we sing some songs to pass the time until our transportation arrived.
He suggested we start off with a popular song of the day, a song written by Pete Seeger called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I don’t know whether he realized that it was an anti-war song, but the irony of it all was not lost on me. Here we were, spending eight weeks learning how to kill and maim, and yet here we were, singing an anti-war song. Most of us would be sent halfway around the world to fight in a questionable war, and in the song we were asking “Where have all the young men gone?” We know where they had gone, and where even more were going. It was a surreal moment.
Pete Seeger and others have demonstrated to us how powerful music can be. It can be effective in bringing awareness of injustices. It can help bring about societal change through powerful lyrics. It is a major way we worship God – that’s why we sing hymns and praise songs in worship. Music can express some emotions much more effectively than prose. Even after we’ve lost most of our faculties, music often remains with us.
Like anything, music can also be abused. It can put down women, as we hear in the lyrics of some rap songs in which women are referred to as “ho’s” and ‘bitches.” Music can promote drugs, promiscuity, and a host of other bad behaviors. Fortunately Pete and others have used their music to promote social justice and peace. Pete also used his fame and influence to clean up the Hudson River. If he had done nothing else, being instrumental in cleaning up our beautiful river would have made him a hero.
I didn’t know Pete and Toshi very well, but I had the opportunity to talk with them on several occasions. I had some interesting conversations with them, which I treasure.
After basic training, I went on to advanced training in the field I had enlisted for. Miraculously, I did not go to Vietnam, which I thank God for. Why I was spared and so many weren’t I can’t answer. It is one of those mysteries that we just won’t understand in this life. But I’m grateful I received orders for German language school, and then was sent to Germany where my new wife and I spent one and a half enjoyable years.