What in the past has always been a pleasant experience at the annual One World Day festival and parade along Martin Luther King Drive near Cleveland’s University Circle turned rather ugly for a few minutes at this year’s event.
Long-time friend Joseph P. Meissner who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, had strongly encouraged me to take part in the festivities. I met up with Joe before the parade at the Vietnam Garden, one of many cultural gardens along the road representing various nations. Following a number of brief speeches at the garden, including one by yours truly, two men of a certain age approached me, one wearing a crimson army beret. They were Vietnam veterans but that was about all we had in common. They were not happy campers. The one with the beret asked what unit I was in and I turned my left shoulder to him to show my First Infantry Division shoulder patch. “Big Red One,” he said. He then fingered the French fourragere red-and-green braid circling my left shoulder and I said the French government awarded it to the First Infantry Division which had stormed Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion in 1944 and that because the division had helped liberate France from Germany during the war, the French government awarded the fourragere to First Infantry Division soldiers, including those soldiers serving in The Big Red One in subsequent wars. (The red-and-green colors of the braid mimic the colors of the ribbon supporting the French military award, the Croix de Guerre. Croix de Guerre – Wikipedia)
The aggrieved veteran with the beret did not like my peace flag, saying it was “Illegal.” I said, “I’ve never been arrested.” He said, “I’m surprised no one has kicked your ass. Your flag desecrates the American flag.” I said, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. Didn’t you hear my speech?” He said, “No” and I reiterated a point in my speech: “I don’t think my flag desecrates or disrespects the American flag. It respects peace. People who have not been in a war–have never experienced the bitter taste of war–can never ever respect peace to the same degree I do.”
I said to the rather-exercised veteran, “What was accomplished in that war? We were sent to Vietnam to kill communists and now Vietnam, a communist nation, is our ally against China. What was accomplished?” The two gentlemen’s response to my question: Silence. Dead silence. I said the only accomplishment was lots of profits for war profiteers and the less-antagonistic Vietnam veteran agreed. They eventually had enough of my presence and comments and the bereted one said as he started to walk away, “I’m done with you.” Fine with me.
Other than that rather intense, unpleasant conversation, the rest of the day went very smoothly. Many of the Vietnamese women wore the traditional ao dai (ow zye) dress, one being a young Vietnamese-American girl who is an eighth-grade student at St. Angela Merici School in Fairview Park. She is hoping to enroll at Laurel School in Shaker Heights after graduation from St. Angela’s grade school, but will need financial assistance to attend Laurel. (I mentioned both of my daughters had graduated from Laurel.) The girl said she liked my last comment in my speech where I said, “We all know there is a flagpole on top of the White House. If I had my way, I would put my peace flag on that pole, but fly it above ABOVE the American flag.” The girl said, “We want freedom and peace” and I said, some people have said to me, “We have to have war before we have peace and I have replied, ‘If we never had war, wouldn’t we always have peace’?”