I was a junior in high school at the time and a pool-hall buddy of mine, ''Friday'' Robinson, and I got the wild idea we wanted to join the Army. Well, it wasn't just the Army. We were bound and determined to be paratroopers, even though neither one of us had ever been any higher than the second story in our lives.
But all that didn't matter. There was an adventure out there somewhere beyond the long ribbon of railroad tracks that stretched in all directions from Galesburg and we were hell bent to have us some of it. However, my father -- John E. Stiles -- wasn't having any of it. I didn't know it at the time, but of all the things the man had in mind for his oldest boy, the United States Army was not on the list. The Old Man had spent World War II crawling around Burma and South China with Merrill's Marauders and he wasn't about to have his first born share that particular experience with him.
In fact, he was downright adamant about the whole thing. ''No God damn son of mine is gonna run off and join the Army,'' he informed me in just those terms.
You see, my father wasn't what you'd call a dyed in the wool patriot. In fact, some might have called him a professional skeptic, especially where his nation's leaders were concerned. When they started that ''My country right or wrong'' tune, Pop was always headed in the other direction. That's what comes of such experiences early in life. But then, never having been there myself, I had to learn the hard way. Anyway, there wasn't a chance my dad was going to sign those enlistment papers.
So I began a campaign to wear him down. It was really more like a constant badgering process. I'll bet I asked him at least twice a day for the next six months.
It took a couple of months but then I started to notice a slight change in Dad's attitude. He perceptively moved from complete obstinance to agonizing annoyance and from there to absolute aggravation. Finally, there came a day when he was worn down to a very short fuse. He grabbed the papers out of my hand and with one of those looks on his face that spelled dire consequences, he informed me that he was going to sign the ''damn things,'' but I had better never, ever utter one word of complaint on the subject for the rest of my natural life, which wouldn't be a moment or two more if I didn't rush the documents right down to the recruiting office. Oh there were lots of times over the proceeding three years when I wanted to saunter up to the Old Man and tell him he was right all along, but I didn't dare. My own obstinate pride wouldn't allow it. Almost a year after his scribbled signature, a harrowing three weeks at jump school and my first five rides in an airplane -- each of which ended in a breath-stopping step out into nothingness at 1,250 feet -- I was packing my gear for Vietnam.
As tough as it was trying to get Dad to go along with my foolhardy Army adventure, I knew he would not be happy when he found out his son was shipping off to war, just about 20 years since he had gone over ''The Hump'' (flying over the Himalayas into China during World War II). He hadn't spent three years in the jungles of South Asia to have his son go back there to risk life and limb less than two decades later. Oh he was upset all right. But he didn't say a word, no ''I told ya' so'' not so much as a ''I tried to warn ya' boy.''
I really think he was more scared than I was. But then he knew what was coming and I, on the other hand, didn't have a clue. And considering the fact that he sent me a letter just about every week I was over ''The Pond,'' something he didn't even do for Mom during his stint in Asia, I'm sure of it.
Pop used to keep a map of Vietnam on the stand next to his TV chair -- his virtual throne -- with all the various American units marked on it. And he never missed so much as a news bulletin about the war during my just over 12 months in it.
My dad was not a political Hawk -- pro war advocate -- during Vietnam. He came by his stance after experiencing the horrors of the institution first hand. It was not unlike what's transpiring today in this country, as the ''Hawks'' push us ever faster towards the brink in Iraq, and the ones yelling ''Slow down'' the loudest are those among us who've seen the gory outcome of such ill considered schemes for ourselves.
Most wars are dead wrong and this one is at least as wrong as the one I spent a white-knuckled year in the midst of. And, thank God I don't have any sons or grandsons of age to be a part of this particular upcoming fiasco. Because, if I did, there'd be four of us missing when the red flag went up this time -- me, my grandson and the two guys they send after us.
It only took 10 years longer for me to come to my epiphany than it did my dad, as I'm more than 30 years down the road from my tour in 'Nam. If you're listening Pop, now seems like an appropriate time for an ''I TOLD YOU SO!'' or two.