Last week I enjoyed an exchange of Thanksgiving memories from 1967 and 1968, on and near military posts. As for many of my generation, the Vietnam War significantly shaped my life. Years afterward, a young adult told me, “Oh, yes, Vietnam. We studied that in my history class in high school.”
What happens when experience becomes history? It’s not just the passage of time, like when a babysitter calls your record albums a great set of oldies. The Vietnam era as presented in history textbooks seems only distantly related to my experience. That’s not to say the textbooks got it wrong. Texts portray the big picture: causes, turning points, effects on national politics or international relations.
Lived experience is mostly small picture. Stationed in eastern Africa, how do you explain to the furniture maker why you need an eating table by the fourth Thursday in November? What do you do when your spouse gets reassigned to Southeast Asia the week after you confirm a pregnancy?
In May 1970, four students in Kent, Ohio, were shot dead by National Guardsmen during a protest of the invasion of Cambodia. I was in nearby Oberlin for a three-day visit to line up student housing for fall. Joining a vigil, babe in arms, I fretted about how to find housing fast when the entire campus had closed in response to the news from Kent. Friends who lived in Kent at the time describe frantically trying to cross town to get their children from day care, when protests made the streets impassible.
Mundane matters like housing, day care, or a Thanksgiving table fall outside the purview of most histories. To sense what it was like to be there, you’ll learn more from diaries, letters, memoir, or well researched historical fiction.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.