Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jun 20, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Diary - Part 9

by Rosemary Reeves

Part Nine:  Public Housing Boys in Vietnam

If you missed the first eight parts, click on the links below:




It was the late 1960s and I was coming into adolescence at a time that some called The Age of Aquarius.  Utopian melodies spilled out of my little pink transistor radio, which I carried around.  The songs of brotherhood and love meant everything to me, a misfit kid from the projects who was called white trash.  I sang along to songs like the one from the group 5th Dimenson…

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

But the dream of harmony and understanding was marred by conflict.  War continued to rage on in Vietnam.  The nightly news reported the casualty count and the numbers were astounding.  The battlefields of Vietnam were strewn with the bodies of young men from all walks of life.  Many of those who died or were still fighting, were poor, having obeyed the draft notices placed in their housing project mailboxes.  Some waved goodbye to their loved ones in the public housing complexes where they grew up, only to return in flag-draped coffins.

Somewhere in the minefields and rice paddies of Nha Trang, my brother Barry had been fighting for his country.  In his letters home, he had said that the Vietnamese children were frightened upon first laying eyes on him, because he had red hair.  They had never seen red hair before.  So he made a special effort to entertain them, to give them treats and to make them laugh.  He did two tours in the armed forces there, one in Phan Tiet and then Nha Trang.  For two years I watched the nightly news with my parents, studying the images of battle weary soldiers, searching for my brother’s face in the hope that he was still alive.  “Do you see your brother among the troops?” Mom would ask every evening as we sat in front of the television, “Look closely.”

She trusted my young eyes over her aging ones.  I used to have to thread a needle for her whenever she needed to sew something.  Carefully, I looked at the weary soldiers behind the brave reporters who traveled with them on the battlefield.  “I don’t see him, Mom,” I’d say.

“Oh, God, where is my son?” she’d reply, “Look harder, Rosie.” 
Barry finally came home in 1969.  It was the first time he saw our house on Carwithan Road.  We had moved out of the projects while he was away.  He stayed with us for a while until he could find his own place.  The first night he was home, he fell asleep on the couch.  I awoke in the middle of the night to hear him shouting in some strange language, his arms flailing.  I ran to my parents’ bedroom, and woke my mother. We rushed back downstairs.  “Why is he doing that?” I asked. 

 “He’s talking in his sleep,” she replied, “He’s speaking Vietnamese.”  She told me not to touch him, not to startle him in any way.  I watched in horror as she tried to bring him out of it by repeatedly calling his name.  When he at last awoke, mom told me to say nothing and go back to bed.

Later that week, I went outside and the neighborhood kids teased me because I wore the same pants every day.  I only had one pair of pants.  My brother risked his life in Vietnam and all they could do was torment me for not having material things, for being from the projects.  And at 11 years old, I began to ask myself some very big questions.  I began to think about what it meant to be American.  I began to ponder politics.

Over time, the television images were of young men burning their draft cards.  Many were moving to Canada to escape the draft.  Bob Dylan’s voice rang out from my pink transistor radio, singing that it was time for change, that America’s youth could defy authority, their parents and even the government.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.


I sought deliverance from the old order of things because I had been part of a marginalized populace, segregated and labeled by my public housing roots.  But I was beginning to dream that things would be different.  The peace songs I listened to on the radio moved me, drew me in, and led me to believe that humanity was indeed on the brink of higher understanding.   Materialism, superficiality, conformity and petty judgments would soon be things of the past due to rebellion.  I longed to be old enough to join the peace protesters, the hippies who spoke of freedom and lived their lives as they chose, without shame or apology, and without having to justify themselves.
I told my mother that if I were a boy, I would burn my draft card and move to Canada.  “How can you talk like those people when your brother risked his life in Vietnam?” she replied.  She called them draft dodgers and cowards.  I quickly learned that the admiration I felt for the peace protesters was an incendiary force that set me apart from my family members.   It was because my brother suffered through a war that I wanted an end to the horrors of it.  But that was misunderstood, for I was silenced as soon as I tried to speak of liberal politics.  
Watching the nightly news with my parents while my brother was in Vietnam had filled my adolescent mind with images of rebellion, pressing matters of politics, heavy thoughts, ponderings of individuality, and Utopian musings.  Mom and Dad, who were conservative in their beliefs, had inadvertently created an 11-year-old liberal.  Also, the unwelcoming neighborhood we lived in after leaving the projects was an unwitting accomplice to the birth of my liberal mentality.
And the young men who served in Vietnam received no hero’s welcome, no ticker tape parade, no accolades from an adoring public, throwing confetti at their homecoming.   The poor ones returned to their housing projects, their sacrifice recognized only by their loved ones, to live under the housing authority flag once more, in obscurity.



4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. You're precisely right on this one...

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  3. my brother Danny went to Nam and came home with exposure to orange-he was a door gunner on a chopper, he died in 1982 and is missed everyday. He was a friend to your brother Barry also!!! Jerri McLaughlin Hemphill

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  4. Considerably well written piece...

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