Moral Gravity

This weekend I’ve been gathered in a 50th reunion with classmates from Haverford College, class of 1968. Perhaps four dozen of us returned, many with spouses. We were an all-male class of 144 when we entered, something like 100 or 115 when we graduated on a rain-soaked day.

The reunion was filled with lunches and dinners, panel discussions and award ceremonies, and a great deal of sharing stories with one another. I was struck at how many good lives had been lived, how varied; and I was struck, too, by the relative lack of prominence-seeking among us.  “We live in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have,” one of my classmates quoted early in the reunion. That’s from Henry James though my classmate had learned it from Parker Palmer. That seems a fitting tagline for my class, or at least where we are now.

This morning, we gathered in the Haverford Friends Meeting House, a short walk from campus, to remember the 20 or so of our class who are already deceased. Like all Quaker memorial services, this one was full of laughter and tears, and stories about people we missed. I knew all the deceased because we were so few to begin with, but a few I knew better than others.

Sitting in the midst of these stories at the memorial service, I found myself imagining us as planets, separated by distance one from another after graduation. We have continued to exert influence on one another, I thought, through remembered conversations and shared past experiences and escapades. For example, one classmate talked about the lasting influence of a difficult conversation he had with a roommate, now deceased, about a borrowed car. Such a small thing, a few minutes’ talk, but such a long tail of consequence. It’s like celestial gravity it seems, the way we have nudged one another in unexpected directions or set expectations for one another that continue to exercise influence over the decades. Story after story testified to those gravitational influences.

One thread that ran through the memorial service was AIDs. Two of our classmates had died of AIDS, both passings a surprise to nearly all of us. Sexual orientation was nothing I recollect talking about with my all-male classmates in the mid-1960s. How could that be in a time we thought of as an era of sexual revolution?

Nearly constant in my mind through the weekend was the disturbance in the cosmos we call the Vietnam War and probably should call the American War on Vietnam. All of us in the class of 1968 graduated into the predicament of what we would do with the near-certain prospect of being drafted into the U.S. military, likely, if we submitted to that draft, to be sent to combat. I know the stories of many of my classmates. None among the 20 deceased had been killed in combat. Only a few of us served in the military. Some had gone to Canada; some had found unlikely deferments or medical exemptions. Two had gone underground after the Chicago Days of Rage. There were several conscientious objectors in my class, not surprising for a Quaker college. A few, like me, had refused induction but never been prosecuted.

One, Bud Alcock, had rejected his offer of conscientious objection (he was a birthright Quaker) and had instead chosen jail by refusing induction. He served 22 months in Allenwood. (Bud was among the deceased. I don’t know what cause his death.) I saw Bud only a few times after his stint at Allenwood. I could see that he was more reserved after that experience. In an article about him a few years before he died he was quoted as saying, “You know you’ll lose time [in jail], but most of us lost our self-confidence too. Prison destroys your self-reliance. I imagine that some of us didn’t recover.” That was sad; almost certainly true. Yet one of my classmates talked at the memorial service about the moral influence that Bud’s decision to go to jail had had on him.

If we are planets, separated from one another by time and distance and yet exercising moral influence on one another – keeping faith – then the Vietnam War was like a chill wind through our galaxy that scattered us all the more. It sent people on unexpected Odysseys, all of which led to different futures than had we graduated into calm weather. All were affected; some of us were battered much more than others by that wind.

I was fortunate never to be prosecuted. The experience of refusing induction stiffened my moral spine. There is probably more good than bad in that. A friend was rejected when he tried to enlist because of a minor skin rash. He might never have finished college (or lived very many more months) save for that fickle gust of wind. A friend went to Canada and has never again lived in the U.S., an unthinkable path save for the war. To win a deferment, yet another friend went to medical school as well as pursuing a Ph.D. Years later, because he could see patients and do clinical research, he could engage in the struggle to save people from the scourge of HIV, a challenge he took up with determination. He attributes that determination, in part, to the examples of his classmates who had been engaged in earlier struggles for peace and justice.

For every one of the classmates whose stories I know (many, by no means all), I can see the effect of the war’s scattering wind on the moral gravity that has held us together over five decades. But I can also still see the continuing influence of that moral gravity that binds us together. I am grateful that our planetary paths brought us so close together this weekend.

We talked only a little about the current travails of this nation; we know we share a perspective on that. Instead we renewed friendships. Who knew gravity could have such a buoyant effect.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Moral Gravity

  1. Patricia Bonner says:

    What a beautiful and poetic meditation on your 50th reunion. Will it be okay to share on the BMC class of 1968 list serve? Patty Monnington Bonner

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