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FARE THEE WELL: Celebrating the 50th—of the Vietnam War and the Grateful Dead

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A Saint of Circumstance, I took a short, strange trip to the land of Lincoln, Obama and Ernie Banks to celebrate Independence Day. 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the official start of the U.S. war in Vietnam—and the first dissonant vocals and complex improvisations of the Grateful Dead. How’s that for irony?

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Saint of Circumstance, I took a short, strange trip to the land of Lincoln, Obama and Ernie Banks to celebrate Independence Day. 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the official start of the U.S. war in Vietnam—and the first dissonant vocals and complex improvisations of the Grateful Dead. How’s that for irony? “American Beauty,” right?   

I took the trip because my son invited me to the July 3 Cubs game at Wrigley Field. (Put ivy on the walls of Buck Hardee Field, string a mess of bars on Carolina Beach Road, that’s the friendly confines.) It struck me that, as our children mature, the father-friend line can sometimes safely blur. My first Wrigley game was one of those times. 

The Cubs lost, but July 3 also was an anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. To this unapologetic abolitionist, the fact that the Cubs fan Wayne Messmer sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to start the game says something about who carried the day—and why flying flags honoring the former Confederacy on any government building in the United States isn’t a friendly gesture of reconciliation. It’s plain silly.

On July 4, after dawn, I sipped coffee along Chicago’s riverwalk, in front of a wall with the etched names of Chicago’s Vietnam casualties. “Chicago Remembers.” A couple with more than a touch of gray approached hand-in-hand. The tall man shakily let go of his wife, ran his hand over a few etched names, took a breath, and cried quietly. Friendship isn’t about the years. I nodded respectfully as he passed. I think I saw him whistle through his teeth and spit. He will survive.

That afternoon I reconnected with a friend I hadn’t seen in 25 years. Terry is the kind of friend who laughs so kindly at your flaws, it’s impossible to get angry with him or take yourself seriously. The kind of friend that, on the worst night of your life, you stay at his house, bleed on his white carpet, and he never mentions it again. Ever. The kind of friend who will ask, “How the hell did we get so old when we’re still so young?” He laughs with you over a bone-in pork-chop sandwich. Both of us look at the world through young eyes in old bodies. It’s not about the years.   

After the pork chop, I went to the Field Museum pre-concert festival and tried to score tickets to one of The Dead’s final shows. In younger, more arrogant days I would have hesitated to scrounge for a ticket, concerned about the cultish aspect of Deadheads. Waltzing about with multi-generational tie-dye-friendly folk in Millenium Park, I admired that in 50 years, the band never demanded allegiance, sent anyone to fight a war to defend their flag, forced anyone to drink Kool-Aid, or damned anyone for who they loved, or for their lack of faith. Buy a ticket. See a show. Go home. It’s art. It’s not voting or going to church. Believe it if you need it. If you don’t, just pass it on.

The preparty rocked, but without a true friend to share the Soldier Field show with in real-time, I would have been an unworthy surrogate for those with a more passionate relationship with the band. The Dead have been friends and playing music together for 50 years; some folks have a relationship with them nearly that long. My ticket should go to one of them. It’s not about the years. I still had mixed feelings about missing this once-in-a-lifetime gig, being part of history and all, but my son reminded me: “I study improv. Every day is once-in-a-lifetime. And then it’s history.”

My part of history was to feed faithful Deadheads leftover deep-dish pizza and chocolate cake, and watch fireworks from a southside beach. As the tracers flew above Navy Pier, I wondered what kind of real fire killed the friends of the old soldier I’d seen cry at dawn. I watched light dance over the faces of my son and his friend, as pods of southside friends danced to beats I didn’t pretend to recognize.

I jotted these travel notes on the anniversary of the date Thoreau went to Walden Pond. Thoreau was big on the beat of different drummers. Fifty years from now, I hope fewer kids in Chicago, Wilmington and around the world are looking for names etched on a wall. I hope more are dancing to the complex rhythms of life with their incarnation of The Dead.

Fare thee well, friends.

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