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 from 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.