Music is the universal language that shrinks distances between cultures. That music, when offered up by the rare artist who fabricates a stage aura of celestial qualities, offers us a means to transcend daily misery, to heal, and then try to make tomorrow work better. When these iconic figures pass away too young, the loss causes shock waves. None of us will ever see them perform live again, and the best we can do is push replay to re-inject fleeting images and memories etched in our minds in a conditioned stimulus-response dynamic. Two too many iconic personalities have passed away recently that built in the public a sense of belonging to a larger happening while inspiring cultural shifts through their original voice. Of course, I am referring to Prince and David Bowie, to mention two. I felt a simultaneous ripple in the universe and in my cerebral cortex upon learning of their deaths.
However, there has been the recent passing of another who occupies greater real estate in my cortex and who single-handedly did more than make pop trends to try to shift our culture while giving many a sense of belonging and support. He lived life as pedestrian, basic, humble, and morally profound as one could. He has received that mainstream nod of an obituary footnote that admits he stood out, but his story needs to be served up again and again and his passing needs to inspire waves of passionate activism. Like David Bowie and Prince, his message is universal but lacks entertainment value.
For me, his passing is very personal. I had attended several anti-Vietnam War rallies where the Jesuit Priest, Father Daniel Berrigan spoke. He was the first and the last religious figure to inspire me into political activism. In 1970, I reached legal draft age at 18 years old. On August 5, 1971 all young men born in 1952 were to learn their legal military status from the outcome of the Selective Service Military Draft Lottery. My family and I were gathered around the evening dinner table, with the portable black and white TV rooted on the corner of the kitchen counter, visible to my family of four, close and accessible enough, but not too close as to steal our sense of family. Anxiousness permeated this evening's ritual as we awaited hearing my birth date called and pondering that reality. We did not have to wait very long; 12/15/1952 was drawn on the third spin. Geez, we all laughed with sardonic irony that I almost "won" first place.
It was soon thereafter disclosed that to keep the U.S. military machine going in the last quarter of the Vietnam War, all eligible males born in 1952 whose lottery numbers were 95 and below would be drafted. I was a short guy at five foot six inches, and the macabre joke in my circle of friends was that guys such as me would become front line gunners because we were harder targets to hit. More disturbing was the sick side note that the average life expectancy for a front line gunner was about 2 minutes. What did I know? I was just a kid released from high school.
The weight of this insane and pointless drama caused me to feel as though my life was slipping away. No amount of pop-tribal music could console me. I lost sleep, my humanity, dignity, and began to put on lots of anxiety weight from over eating. We all knew this war was ending soon, that it was morally atrocious; that the draft was racist and class-ist and that kids of privilege could bargain for a better deal. We saw the body bag counts every night watching the news with Uncle Walter Cronkite, the most trusted voice in America. Even he started sounding pained. We knew kids that tried desperate things to avoid going to war. Some swallowed aluminum foil after being told it would give them a medical deferment from causing bad x-rays. We heard of kids that cut off a toe, drugged themselves and asked a friend to slam a hammer in their head. There was never a good story connected to the entire Vietnam War machinery. Some tried to and did accept patriotic duty and marched in step. Most of the people I knew found fault in that approach. Of even a greater injustice, it wouldn't be for another two years before my lottery group got to vote for a president that could send us to kill and maybe die.
Father Berrigan's moral voice grounded so many others and me in this struggle. Hope sprang from feeling fraternity with his activism. War is always miserable. It does horrific things to people and places, cultures and spirits, whether directly, indirectly, or in distant epic periods of history, all is torn asunder by it. Hopefully, Father Daniel Berrigan's voice that gifted us for 94 years with reason, morality, and civic duty to speak and act in non-violent measured media attention gathering methods will continue to guide us.
I fear we are living in dangerous and divisive times, when uneasiness is epidemic over who will be the next Commander-In-Chief President and no amount of cool rock-God musical theatrical antics can calm. Rest in peace Father Daniel Berrigan, you earned and deserve it. The rest of us will need to keep your light on in our cerebral cortex.