SIMI VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
The warm summer sun shone down brightly on the bleachers in the football field of Simi Valley High School, while on the field, seated on folding chairs, the Class of 1968 anxiously awaited the graduation ceremony.
The weather was hot as was usually the case at that time of year in the bedroom community that lay northwest of Los Angeles, the warm Santa Ana winds occasionally blowing through to cool things slightly.
Tommy McPherson sat midway back in the rows of seats as he waited for the principal, Mr. Jacob, to start the ceremony. Though his immediate mind was on the ceremony, his mind was also on the War.
To young men of his age, the War meant Viet Nam. Five years ago, he had not even known where Viet Nam was. It still remained only a place half the world away. Early on in high school, he was determined to join the Army upon graduation.
As the date drew closer when he would graduate, some of his friends tried to dissuade him from going. Things were becoming extremely heated across the United States as university students protested. Large groups held rallies to burn their draft cards. Some young men fled to Canada rather than fight. And this spring, students in protest had taken over administration buildings of the universities as they had at Columbia in New York.
The national scene was intense, not only for the protests, but because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, and just that month, Bobby Kennedy, who was likely to win the nomination for the Presidency was shot down in Los Angeles. He recalled how he and his girlfriend Cheryll had heard the news on KHJ radio as they had sat in the front of his 1965 Mustang on the hill behind the drive-in.
Cheryll had begun to weep, and he also was greatly moved. It wasn’t quite five years since JFK had been shot, and the nation had seemed to go haywire after that.
Tommy recalled how he had made the final decision to go, despite everything that was happening, despite his friends viewpoints. He knew many disagreed with the War, but his parents had instilled in him a strong love for his country. America meant something to him. And he hated communism.
He knew others in his class who were also going: his best friend, Peter Wall, and Peter’s cousin, Fred. Both had enlisted in the Marines, and would be driving down to Camp Pendleton near San Diego once the graduation celebrations were over.
Tommy himself had chosen the Army. He had always loved the Army as a kid. He had watched all the TV shows about World War II. He had gone to the Army-Navy store in the San Fernando Valley and bought Army fatigues, a canteen, everything he could put his hands on. His mom thought he would grow out of it, but as manhood approached, his boyhood love had honed into a strong determination to go and serve.
She had tried to talk him out of going, had hoped he could avoid the draft, but when he told her he had enlisted, she wept.
“Tommy”, she cried that night, sitting out on the back patio as the sun set over the valley and the shadows eased across the lawn, “I don’t want you to go, son. You might be killed. I’ve seen such terrible things on the news.”
He had knelt beside her and held her hand and tried to explain to her how he felt. It didn’t matter, that some of his friends didn’t understand. It didn’t matter how the country was reacting to the war. What mattered most to him was he felt a strong sense of duty within himself to do it.
“Mom, I have to. It’s something I have to do. It’s…it doesn’t matter to me what anyone thinks. I have to do this for myself. I realize there is a lot of things going on in this country, and not everyone agrees with the war. But I hate to see people trampled on. We are in Viet Nam to help people stay free of communism. That’s important to me.”
He wiped her tears, and she hugged him to her. “You’re my only child, my only son. What would I do if you were lost to me?”
He kissed her head gently, “I love you, Mom. And I will miss you and Dad very much. Please try to understand. You both raised me to love this country. We have what we have because someone went and fought. That’s what I’m doing. I’m keeping the world safe for you and Dad.”
She raised her head and looked into his eyes, nodding, and while she felt a sudden pride at his determination, it was with reluctance that she accepted his decision.
His Dad had more readily accepted it, and had given him a pep talk about keeping himself clean and straight-thinking because he was going into a place that was chaotic. Tommy had always been close to his father, and knew he would miss his strong, steady example.
They would give him a party for graduation, and once that was over, they had planned to drive him up the coast to Monterey, to the Army training camp at Fort Ord for his basic training.
The hard part would be letting go of Cheryll. Cheryll had been his girl friend since junior high. They had met through Peter Wall who knew Cheryll’s brother. He had gone with their friends to Chi Chi’s Pizza and they had talked for most the night. Since that time, they had been practically inseparable, driving their parents to distraction with long telephone calls, dropping in at each other’s houses, prom dates. Once they reached high school, everyone assumed they would get married after graduation.
Cheryll was the one person who tried to understand his reasons for going. She did her best to support him, and they had an understanding that once he had an income, and came home on leave, they would become engaged. It was a difficult decision, particularly since it could mean they might not get married for a couple of years, but they both wanted to make that commitment before he left.
Leaving his best girl behind was not easy. She had been a steady part of his life for five years. He wanted to marry her, and, once he came home, have a family with her. She was a beautiful girl, with long, straight blonde hair and lovely almond shaped green eyes framed by a slender face. Like Tommy, she wasn’t extremely outgoing or popular, but loved quiet, peaceful places, and books, and taking long walks together. She wasn’t always into parties and while she dressed nicely, she wasn’t into style. She dressed more conservatively than other girls, since her parents were conservative people. Her father was in shock when one of her girlfriends starting wearing mini-skirts. He had put his foot down that his daughter wouldn’t wear them, which was perfectly fine for Cheryll.
He planned to spend his last night with her, taking her out for a nice dinner where they could just talk. He loved her, and wanted to absorb all the memories he could before leaving.
When he had told Cheryll he was going, they had just come back from a party at Peter’s house, and he had driven her home. He pulled up in front of her house in the Texas tract, and she waited for him see her in.
“Cheryll”, he had started, and then quietly said, “I’m going into the Army.”
At first she said nothing, but searched his face. He hadn’t expected an outburst—Cheryll wasn’t like that. But after a moment, tears began to flow.
“I knew this would happen one day, Tommy.” Her words were even despite her emotion. “We’ve known each other for awhile, and I know how much you’ve wanted to go in the Army, ever since you were a kid. I had hoped you would change your mind, but I guess it’s something you have to do.”
He nodded and then embraced her gently. He wanted her to know that even though he was going away, her feelings for her hadn’t changed.
“You know how I feel about you, Cher. You know I still want to get married.”
“Yes, I know, Tommy, and….I will wait for you. I love you, and I want us to someday be together. I had just hoped that would happen soon.”
He looked into her eyes and then quietly said, “I would ask you to get married before I left but I don’t want you to go through that. I mean, some guys end up captured, prisoners of war. If that were to happen to me, I wouldn’t want you to feel bound to wait. It would be very hard on a person.”
She hadn’t considered that, but then there were many stories of prisoners of war. She didn’t know what she would do if that happened to him.
So, they had made plans as much as they could, and when he saw her to the door, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and then ran inside. He walked back to the car, and headed home, but the sight of her tears and the lingering kiss filled his dreams that night.
He came out of his thoughts to realize that the ceremony had begun. Everyone was standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Followed by the Ivy girls and Mr. Jacob giving a speech, the valedictorian also gave a speech. Shortly thereafter, they began to call the graduates up to the stage for their diplomas.
In some ways it seemed unreal that he had arrived to this point, but at the same time, he felt in the coming months, he would look back on this day as golden. His life would never be the same, he knew, and the people he loved would never be the same, and their lives were changing rapidly, their world headed God only knows where.
He heard his name called, and he headed up to the platform, following those in front of him. He came to stand beside Mr. Jacob, who warmly shook his hand and handed him his diploma. He held it high so Mom and Dad could see, and then headed off the stage, headed toward his future, headed toward Fort Ord, basic training and Viet Nam.