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Jewish World Review September 2, 1998 /11 Elul, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Whose history?

WASHINGTON You know you're getting old when your memories become somebody else's history lessons.

I was exposed to that sobering experience earlier this year when I was invited back to my alma mater, Ohio University, to participate in a three-day look back 30 years to 1968, the year that contained more world-shaking, history-making events than any other in the very eventful 1960s.

It was an occasion for combat veterans and university administrators to sit at the same table with former student radicals and anti-war protesters without fighting. It was a time to sort out what happened, make some sense of it and, perhaps, put to rest whatever troubles remained in our souls.

But one thing struck me right away. Even though we were sitting in the middle of a busy university campus, our audience included almost none of today's students, except, it turned out, a few graduate history majors.

I felt hurt, I realized, as hurt as my parents must have felt hurt when I, in my day, didn't want to hear about the Great Depression.

And that, as Walter Cronkite used to tell us, is the way it is. The past is prologue. Today's students have their own history to make, just like we did.

Besides, we boomers can't pass on the lessons of the '60s to anyone else until we come to terms with them ourselves.

So far, we haven't. Maybe we never will.

The latest piece of evidence that we may never put our '60s memories to rest landed on my desk in the form of a new book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York University Press) by Jerry Lembcke.

Lembcke, 55, is a veteran of the war (he was a chaplain's assistant in the 41st Artillery Group in Vietnam) and of anti-war protests. Now a sociology professor at Holy Cross College, he investigates a cultural artifact of the war, the stories that returning veterans were spat upon by anti-war protesters.

I asked Lembcke in a telephone interview why he decided to pursue this book now. Why not let it rest? He said he was moved to action by the Persian Gulf War. It was then he discovered how deeply many of today's students and soldiers have embraced the spitting stories as fact, despite the lack of evidence that they occurred at all.

The spitting protester, particularly the spitting female or long-haired hippie, has taken on the qualities of an urban myth that appears repeatedly in speeches, conversations and letters to newspapers. Yet, despite the heavy news coverage that anti-war protests received, no such episodes are documented. When Lembcke tried to check such stories out, they fell apart, one after another, "an unending series of pop-up targets," Lembcke called them.

As for the stories to which some veterans persistently cling, Lembcke suspects they might be the result of false memory, brought on in part, at least, by the widespread sense of being figuratively spat upon by an ungrateful nation.

My column-writing colleague Bob Greene is a little less skeptical. His solicitation of such stories from veterans a decade ago led to his 1989 book "Homecoming." It included a variety of stories, some happy, some not, including 63 accounts of alleged personal spitting experiences.

"It's hard for me to believe there are that many false memories," he told me, in response to Lembcke's book.

Yet, the stories have become so widely believed, despite a remarkable lack of witnesses or evidence, that ironically the burden of proof now falls on the accused, the protesters; not their accusers, the veterans. Anti-war protesters must prove the episodes didn't happen, instead of the veterans having to prove they did.

That's what makes the 1960s so vexing. All of our experiences were so different, it is impossible to come up with a version of events that pleases everyone's memory.

Which gets to the real point of Lembcke's book. "It is about America's search for an alibi to explain why it lost the war," he said, noting that German and French veterans reported similarly ugly confrontations with their countrymen after losing wars.

It is also about a nation coming to grips with its own memories, some of which are not pleasant. The '60s helped define my generation. We shall continue to argue about it until we are no longer around to argue.

No wonder today's young people don't want to hear about it. They've got memories of their own to build, arguments of their own to make.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.