AsI left homeroom and joined the surge of students in the hall, I heard a voice calling my name: “Paul, PaUL, PAUL!” I looked far down the hallway and saw a big, chunky guy with glasses standing off to the side and motioning to me with his hand that was not holding a load of books. It was Steve Musko, once my closest friend and now pretty much a stranger, a varsity football lineman and a part of the jock crowd that I had nothing but contempt for.
I glanced briefly over to my friend Tim who had followed me out into the hall from homeroom and jerked my head over in Steve’s direction. “I have to go see what this guy wants. I’ll catch up with you.” He nodded and went on his way. I looked over toward Steve again, now about 15 feet away and he said, “Come on, man, I have to tell you something important…pick it up!”
I pushed my way through the crowd and stood in front of him, the flow of students eddying around us, considering some sort of smart-assed comment when I looked up into his face and saw his mouth in a tight grimace and his eyes welling up: “It’s Vic, ”” he blurted, then continued in a trembling voice. “Vic. Dead. Over there. Fucking stepped on a mine or some shit like that, I don’t know. But Vic is dead.” He took a deep breath, sighed, and continued: “I thought you should know and you probably didn’t. I ran into Renee and her Mom last night. It just happened, like, last week or something…”
“Vic? Vic? Jesus…” I croaked, and stopped. Vic was one of the kids from our neighborhood. Older than us by a couple of years, we had spent hours and hours together with Vic over the years, playing, talking.
Steve’s eyes quickly searched my face. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder, taking in the thinning crowd as the last few of our fellow students were now scurrying to beat the bell that would mark the start of the first class period of the day. I stared into the space over his shoulder, saying nothing.
“Look, man, I’m sorry, but I had to find you and let you know. It sucks. I guess I better get to class. Maybe I’ll see you later or something.”
Steve strode away quickly while I stood there for another half-minute until the bell jarred me out of my reverie. I shuffled off to class.
Vic was Victor John Cartier who had lived with his Mom and sister, Renee, a few houses down Summit Ave. from Steve. He was three years older than Steve and me, while Renee was the same age as us. He was part of the two dozen or so kids that gave substance to the ‘baby boom’’ in our neighborhood in Webster Groves, a leafy, middle class suburb of St. Louis. Over the decade-plus of our early and middle childhoods from the mid-1950’s to the late 1960’s, in larger groups we played endless hours of baseball, football, kickball; while in smaller sets of 2 or 4, we roamed in and out of each other’s homes, playing games, watching TV and eating lunch and dinner with each other’s families.
Because of the age difference, Vic wasn’t a huge part of Steve’s and my life’s until we got into middle school. Then, Vic was going to the all-boys Christian Brothers College Prep school where they wore military uniforms, marched and drilled, and were a powerhouse in St. Louis high school sports. Vic always had really cool cars: first a Pontiac GTO and then an MG-B convertible. We hung out and watched as he and his best friend, Bob, worked on their cars, ran errands for them and sometimes got to go for rides, speeding through Webster’s sleepy streets and listening to Vic and Bob talk about their adventures that always involved some mix of football, girls, alcohol, drag racing and cops.
By the time I was in high school myself, I had pretty much lost interest in hanging out with Vic and Bob, and, even, Steve. When I would see Vic, we would stop and talk, but we had less and less in common and little to talk about. Still, I wasn’t totally surprised when he joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in late 1967. But by the time he came back on leave in early 1968 and was walking around the neighborhood in his uniform, the Tet Offensive was underway in Vietnam, and millions of Americans (including my parents and my older sisters) were increasingly disillusioned about the war. So, I had no idea what to say to him when he told me he was going to be going to be shipped out to Vietnam after his leave. He was doubt-free about it — -in fact, said this was what he had trained for and was looking forward to fighting.
Over the next ten months, while Vic was fighting in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, I was reading everything related to the war in Newsweek and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and listening to Walter Cronkite give voice to his own disillusionment on the evening news. Anti-war protests were becoming larger and my parents, sisters and friends all reinforced my growing belief that the war was wrong.
As a sixteen year old living in Webster Groves, it was interesting and exciting to engage in learning about something important, happening in real-time and affecting our country and the world. And, it was safely half the world away.
Until Vic changed all of that for me when he stepped on that mine on April 8, 1969. Vietnam became real. And very personal. Vic’s death at age 19 threw some kind of switch in me.
I realized then that, in a little more than a year, I would have to make my first choice about Vietnam: what to do about the draft. The growing anti-war movement had within it a growing faction that advocated for active non-cooperation with the draft by not registering, or, if already registered, burning or turning in your draft card and refusing induction into the armed forces. I had read a number of first-hand accounts by self-described war resisters and I was drawn to their clear sense of responsibility, conscience and action.
Right then, it did not strike me as being terribly odd that, as a 16 year old, I was contemplating some kind of action that could land me in court, in prison and, ultimately, shape the rest of my life. No more odd, I thought, than a decision Vic and many others had made to fight and that, ultimately, led to their deaths. So, some fourteen months after Vic died I took my stand and publicly refused to register for the draft.
Nearly fifty years later I am amazed at Vic’s and my audacity — -as well as our courage. Our audacity was born of our passionate conviction in the righteousness of our cause, whether the cause was framed as duty and honor by Vic, or peace and justice by me. Our courage was born out of the necessity of responding to what was demanded of us in those times by our country, as well as the hope that what actions we took would make a difference. All that, and a big measure of our youthful sense of invincibility.
Semper Fi, Vic. And peace.