The great strength of George M. Watson Jr.’s memoir, Choices: The Crisis of Conscience of the Vietnam Generation, (Xlibris, 272 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper), is the author’s in-depth look into a boyhood that took place in America in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s—the same time as mine, but which was alien to me in almost every way possible.
Watson spent his boyhood listening to the same radio shows I did: the Big John and Sparky Show, Buster Brown show, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Clyde Beatty, Sky King, and the Shadow with Lamont Cranston. But almost everything else that he delineates is a whole new world to me.
I was raised up to my ears in Lutheranism; George Watson’s church and education, from the beginning through his Ph.D., was Roman Catholic. Of this, Watson says: “I’m not saying that nuns in the classroom are the key to victory on the battlefield, but they certainly instilled in us the seeds of discipline.” He goes on to say: “Rules must be obeyed,” and emphasizes the role of fear in education—fear of polio, of the shots, and of nuclear attack. I do share that part of his boyhood.
Watson grew up in Portland Maine, across the street from the University of Maine, where he earned a BA in history before he served in Vietnam. His boyhood included a huge amount of sports, especially baseball.
Watson’s book is much enriched by many fine photographs, including one of his brother Ronnie and himself, with their father between them, all of them wearing baseball uniforms. This photo is from the spring of 1949. There are bats on the ground, mitts on their hands, and George has a baseball in his right hand. There is what appears to be a white picket fence in the background.
I’ve gone back to this remarkable photo repeatedly, analyzing it. Dad looks calm and happy and patient. The boys look happy, too. My main thought about this photo is that George and Ronnie’s dad is not a World War II veteran. His hearing problems kept him out of service. This is one of the many alien aspects of George’s boyhood that he so beautifully explores in this amazingly honest book.
Ice-skating, playing in a band, and caddying at the country club also figure in Watson’s boyhood narrative. I found the extensive section on caddying at the country club fascinating as it fully showed a world I’ve never intersected with as I’ve never even been to a country club, much less played one round of golf. Watson’s experience as a caddy was instrumental in the formation of the adult he became.
As he puts it: “I really got the feeling early in life (if ten is early) that I was left to my own devices to work out problems.”
George Watson, who today is the head of the Special Projects Team at the U.S. Air Force History Support Office in Washington, D.C., did a 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty with the 101st Airborne Division. After reading Choices, I’m eager to read his Vietnam War memoir: Voices from the Rear, 1969-1970.”
As Watson says in Choices, “No one wanted to work towards a degree, earn it, and then end up in a body bag.”