OPINION: Where is Woody Guthrie when you need him?


Returning veterans were easy to spot on college campuses in the early ‘70s. Shoulder-length hair, beards, OD green field jackets with no rank insignia, no service label, but sometimes a name tag still sewn over the right breast pocket. We left the name tags on to prove we weren’t posers. (OD green for you civilians means olive drab green in color.)

Military-issue field jackets and blue jeans were the de rigueur uniform and why not. They were comfortable. They had lots of pockets. They were durable and could take a beating, whether you were in class or under your old beater car changing the oil. Because the military had issued it to you they were cheap…unless you count the value of the time you’d spent on active duty.

Long hair showed the world you didn’t have to cut your hair anymore. Long hair had started becoming popular in the mid 1960’s with the Beatles and other rock and roll bands furnishing the fashion. As teenage enlistees or draftees we all hated the short-cropped hair requirements enforced by lifer NCOs. Lifer was the ubiquitous term all junior enlisted used for anyone who had re-enlisted.

For most guys leaving active duty during the Viet Nam years, the beard began sprouting the minute we walked out the main gate with discharge papers in hand. Like the long hair, it symbolized that we weren’t in the military anymore and didn’t have to obey the stupid regulations. It only took me about four years to get over that little phase of my life.

The beard came off the summer after my first year of law school when I realized the 60-something-year-old judge in the country courthouse where I interned probably wouldn’t appreciate my buffalo hunter look. Not to mention I’d gotten tired of grooming bits of lunch out of it. Oh yeah, and the John Lennon, rose-tinted wire-rim glasses got swapped out for dark horn-rimmed studious looking nerd glasses.

Although the beard came off and the hair got cut, I kept on wearing that basic training issue field jacket with its liner. It was the only thing that kept me warm during the winter, driving the 10-year-old Volkswagen with its plastic bag and duct tape for a rear window to law school classes. Even with the two part-time jobs, it was the coat I could afford.

Much like the vets in law school, the vets in undergraduate school didn’t join fraternities. Nor did they bother to paint the rock in front of the student center. And we sure as hell didn’t join ROTC. We did drink beer. Lots of beer. We hung out in a corner of the student union. Some of us were just there to use up our GI bill educational benefits to avoid going to work.

Others of us were there to get that union card, a college degree, as soon as possible, so we could escape the working-class existence most of us grew up in and continued in through that first military hitch.

The ones using the GI education benefits to avoid working were in that special corner of the student union my first day in school and were still there a year and a half later when I graduated. They’re gone now.

Gone back to the steel mills, gone back to the chemical plants along the Mississippi River and gone back to the coal mines of Southern Illinois. Gone back to the places their dads worked. They’re gone from there now too. Gone from the shuttered steel mills. Gone from the coal mines now worked by machines that have replaced thousands of laid off union miners. Gone from the chemical plants bankrupted by executives who got their bonuses before heading to bankruptcy court.

Some things don’t change much.

The headlines for the last few weeks are all about failing banks getting rescued and executives selling their company stock and taking payout bonuses on their way to failure while the workers get laid off. How many times have we heard that story?

Let me get this straight. It’s ok to bailout banks. It’s ok for executives to take bonuses knowing their company is headed to a bankruptcy filing, but canceling student loans is socialism and God forbid we provide medical care for poor people. Federal and state governments closed mental institutions and fail to provide services for mentally ill people or drug addicts or alcoholics while our parks and downtowns fill up with them. Yet this country’s largest corporations and wealthiest billionaires pay no taxes.

God forbid we have socialism here, but it’s perfectly ok to have corporate socialism and coddle the wealthy while criminalizing the poor.

Where is Woody Guthrie when we need him?

(William Enyart is a former U.S. congressman for Illinois’ 12th District and after 35 years in the military, retired as two-star general in the U.S. Army. His final tour was serving as Adjutant General of Illinois commanding both the Illinois Army and Air National Guard. He started his working life as a member of UAW Local 145, Montgomery, Ill, where he and his father both worked for Caterpillar Tractor Co. The Enyart’s live in Belleville, Ill. You can listen to his blog posts at billenyart.com; Email him at bill@billenyart.com )

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