When the Vietnam war was over, there were no patriotic homecomings for returning veterans—no sympathetic bystanders thanking soldiers for their service. The American public shunned them. The same politicians who sent them to die for no good reason

denied their health care for post-traumatic stress and any cancerous effects of the US-deployed Agent Orange.

I’d been working on Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for Governor in June, 1986, when Chicago held a long overdue welcome home parade for her Vietnam War Veterans. One of Adlai’s supporters, Kitty Kurth, asked if I would round up some volunteers to help organize the march with the vets.

When I asked my unemployed friend, Alice, to join me in the march, she asked, “How much will I get paid?”

“Nothing,” I answered, “it’s volunteering.”

“You want me to walk for four hours with people I don’t know, for nothing?”

My acceptance of the call to volunteer with the parade, forced me to confront my shameful scorn in the sixties and seventies for returning Vietnam vets. As I slow-walked with 200,000 battle-scarred military men and women in silence through downtown Chicago, a redemptive veil flittered around me. I felt honored to be among them.

I can’t remember the first time I ever volunteered for anything. My family considered volunteering beneath them. They ridiculed me as a a naive idealist at best, a do-gooding loser at worst. Perhaps I started volunteering as a show of rebellion. Perhaps I sought refuge in something meaningful. I’ve abandoned friends, family and many living-wage jobs to work on political campaigns, for no money, surviving on unemployment benefits or credit cards. By the time my volunteering spawned a paid position for work I love, I’d racked up a lot of experience and a lot of financial distress.

Kitty and I kept in touch. We saw each other at various political events and campaigns. Then in July 1991, she asked me to volunteer with Comic Relief at the Chicago Theater, a star studded Tribute to Michael Jordan to raise money for homelessness. Assigned to greet Jane Curtin at O’Hare Airport, I escorted her downtown in a limousine, led her to the dressing room and kept her on time for her performance. All the volunteers hung out backstage and met Billy Crystal (a real jerk), Patty LaBelle (the nicest person in the world), George Wendt (another jerk) and Siskel and Ebert. Roger Ebert asked me every detail of my car ride with Jane Curtin. He greeted her by quoting some of her lines from3cb4ef3277b51b27070c9f70f7c10864 the Saturday Night Live Coneheads skit. He was as starstruck as I was.

At intermission, Michael Jordan appeared backstage to meet and take photos with the volunteers.

When I later bragged to Alice about Comic Relief, she was furious I didn’t include her.

“Well, you have to pay your dues,” I said.

“What’s that mean?” she asked.

Kitty has a lively communications firm and invites me to events she knows I’ll enjoy. Alice, like my family, derided me as a naive idealist. But I discovered life is more meaningful and a lot more entertaining when I just say yes. I’m not ready to give that up. Not yet.

12 thoughts on “Tale of Two Friends

  1. Sorry I’m late to respond, but I just read this and can’t tell you how much it means. My twin brother was one of those returning Vietnam soldiers, and I had been demonstrating in protest of the war. Needless to say this was dark moment in our lives (all is well between us not.) But your message is powerful and I, as is so often the case, am amazed at how you can take the most basic things, like volunteering, and turn them into glorious human endeavors. Thank you Regan.

    Like

  2. I remember those days so well. I love the silent march!!! It says so much.
    And Jane Curtin I love…. “Jane, you ignorant slut” was hilarious. Of course today you
    would be behind bars for what was comical to us on Saturday Night Live!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s