"TURNING POINT" -- story by CHRISTOPHER LAVIN about brothers TOM and GREG during the VIETNAM ERA - PAGE 46-47 of Mem-wha??
By Christopher Lavin (Christine's younger brother)
Saturday, May 26, 1984
cover story of The Rochester, NY Times-Union Magazine
Saturday, May 26, 1984
written by Christopher Lavin
Large cover photo of Greg and Tom
as 4 and 5-year-olds in military uniforms
holding M-1 rifles with this caption:
Tom and Greg Lavin were reared in a military family, but when their draft numbers came up, Tom chose Vietnam, Greg chose prison. Christopher Lavin tells the story of his brothers' choices and of a family that hasn't been the same since.
One brother chose not to fight, one never wants to fight again.
"Died on the field of honor, sir." My brother Greg stood stiffly in uniform and barked out those words. It was Memorial Day 1966. Greg looked down at a stone marker on the parade field of the military high school he attended in Peekskill, Westchester County.
My brother Tom, 15, also in uniform, stood close by, as did my father, who taught at the school. Greg was 17.
Years later, Greg, now living with my family in Geneva, would look back at that Memorial Day as the turning point in a life that, up till that time, had been one of unquestioning devotion to the military.
The marker at his feet carried the name Michael Kilroy, a friend who had represented all Greg wanted to be in life.
Kilroy had been the perfect cadet, one of the chosen few -- the straight arrows -- who would graduate from Peekskill Military Academy and go on to West Point to become an Army officer.
But on May 19, just a few days before this Memorial Day ceremony, Kilroy had been killed in action in Vietnam. He was 24.
Now Greg and Tom were among those honoring his memory and for the first time in his life, Greg was uncertain about the military life.
I was only 7 at the time, but then as now, I watched the lives of my older brothers closely. Nearly a decade older than I, Tom and Greg were as much parents to me as they were brothers.
As time went on, as Vietnam and the turbulence of the late 1960s further invaded the family's life, that uncertainty grew to transform Greg and engulf Tom, too.
Being of draft age, they were the first to face the most difficult choice for a military people: Accept the Army life they knew so well -- the ordered discipline of "Duty, Honor, Country" -- or submit to the anti-war feelings of the time.
Greg chose prison. A terror-filled six-month sentence.
Tom chose Vietnam. A nine-month tour of questioning.
Both served their time.
Both survived and remained, throughout those years and since, the best of friends.
They were not, however, unchanged.
None of us was.
As a young boy, I, too, had military dreams. Still too young to be a cadet, I would don a makeshift uniform and mimic my older brothers' marching. I found an old bugle and learned to play the Army calls. But my dreams died, too, as I watched Greg and Tom struggle through the Vietnam years.
Greg and Tom's story, their decisions, and their lives in our large, military family, in a way parallels the American experience of Vietnam -- the questions raised, the traditions challenged and the contradictions of heroism, guilt and regret instilled in so many lives.
Then years after their ordeals, Greg and Tom speak about those days reluctantly and with nervousness -- as though the pain of hard choices has been numbed only by a sedative of years that wears off quickly as they recollect.
Mom still cries and Dad becomes nervous and a bit melancholy as each recalls the difficulty of raising their children in the Vietnam era.
"We would watch TV and see the protests, but at first we were insulated by the military," Mom says. "To us it seemed the whole world was crazy and we were normal."
Now Mom, once a World War II Red Cross worker, joins anti-nuclear marches. Dad - then a conservative military man who wanted his son to serve in the Army -- has self doubts.
"I was of the old school -- my country, right or wrong," he says. "I didn't know what was really going on."
They raised us -- all nine Lavin children -- in a five-bedroom house on the side of a hill in Peekskill.
Down the hill, to the west, we could look out over the rooftops of the small, quiet city and see the Hudson River and beyond to the palisades. We were too far south to see West Point, the U.S. Army's officer training college, but from our earliest day we knew it was there -- just up a bit and across the river.
Up the hill from our house, to the east, was the small, ivy-covered campus of Peekskill Military Academy. Because Dad taught there, our house was owned by the school and we ate our meals in the school dining room with the cadets.
Like the students, we were awakened to the bugling of Reveille in the morning and drifted off to sleep to the tune of Taps at night.
There were parades on Sundays, occasional helicopter visits from Army generals and inspections of the cadets' rooms every Saturday. Students would salute my father as they passed and called him "Major Lavin." It was an ordered, insulated life in which rank left no doubt where each man stood and decorum was the golden rule.
"Life was so controlled," my mother recalls. "You know, I never wore slacks there. You had to appear proper. Your children had to be dressed well, their hair combed, faces clean or you heard from the headmaster. Once in a while, he'd tell us we had to look a little bit better."
Dad -- Major Lavin -- had served with the 9th Air Defense Command in World War II and would often regale us with wondrous stories of travels through England, France and Germany, the beaches at Normandy, the push into Germany through Bad Neustadt. They were tales of adventures with friends -- such as Stone Gregory -- whom we never met but knew well.
In some ways, our home was run like a military unit. I remember room inspections on Saturdays and lists -- a duty roster of sorts -- that assigned household chores. Dad wouldn't say pick up trash in the yard, his order was the military, "police the area, 360 degrees." We all wore crew cuts. "I didn't know my hair was curly until I was 16," Tom said to me years later.
Greg was the oldest boy and most devoted to the military. At age 3 he recalls glancing at a mirror to see how he looked in Dad's military cap. It is his first memory.
Greg also recalls visiting West Point before he was 10 and vowing to follow in the footsteps of my mother's uncle, James B. Crawford, who attended West Point, became a general and was buried at "the Point" with an elaborate military send-off.
"It was quite an elite place at the time," Greg recalls. "I kept thinking 'Jeez it would be great to get in there' . . . It wasn't so much the spit and polish of the place. It was more the image of discipline."
Greg groomed himself for the Point. He got straight A's at Catholic grammar school, became an altar boy and student leader. He entered PMA near the top of his class and eventually became one of the highest-ranking student officers.
Tom, though less enamored with the military discipline, followed in Greg's footsteps, struggling at times to keep up with his older brother. He, too, went to PMA and advanced quickly.
But Greg failed an eye test in 1966. West Point rejected him.
That fall, he entered Colgate University in Hamilton, Madison County.
Tom went upstate two years later to attend Hamilton College in Clinton, 22 miles from Colgate.
In 1968, the family left the military environment and joined Greg and Tom upstate when the falling image of the armed forces in America hurt PMA's enrollment and the school failed. We eventually moved to the Geneva area.
I was 8 when Greg first came home from college. I could see he had already begun to change. His hair was long -- over his ears. It was new and daring. Dad told him he had to get a haircut or he couldn't eat dinner with the family. Greg was upset and he refused. I was upset, too. Greg was my favorite brother. I had missed him terribly when he went away to school and now he was home and house was upset.
Such conflicts of appearance took on more substance as Tom and Greg joined anti-war protests at Hamilton and Colgate.
In June 1970, Dad sat in the audience at Colgate's graduation and watched as son, chanting "Peace Now," received his diploma wearing a white arm band of protest.' "That was a damn class he belonged to," Dad recalls thinking at the time. "They had all kinds of things on their arms and the night before they were making all kinds of snide remarks to the deans and officials."
By then Greg's decision had been made. He would refuse induction into the Army, but would not seek the traditional conscientious objector deferment.
Instead, he would spend months poring over library records of Southeast Asian politics and America's involvement in the war. He hoped to prove at trial that the war was illegal. If necessary, he would go to prison in hopes that he and others like him would clog the court system, and make the most dramatic of anti-war statements.
On December 28, 1970, Greg reported to his induction center on Whitehall Street in New York City, but refused to take the ceremonial first step forward for the military oath.
He was arrested and released and the legal proceedings began.
Greg spent the days awaiting trial flipping hamburgers at a Carroll's Restaurant on Routes 5 & 20. At night, he would take an hour-long ride on a Greyhound to Cornell University's Olin Library where he would spend hours photocopying government documents he felt would prove the war was illegal.
The attic room Greg and I shared at home slowly became a storehouse for his studies. Sometimes, when Greg was not there, I would sneak over to his side of the room and leaf through the government letters he received and the black binders filled with photocopies. But the pages held bureaucratic writings I couldn't comprehend.
Greg's decision to go to court outraged our father and things were unusually quiet and tense at home.
"I wouldn't go near the trial," Dad recalls. "I was disgusted by the whole damn thing. I said here's a guy whose own uncle is a general in the Army. His grandfather was a justice of the (New York) Supreme Court and the man is choosing prison rather than serve his country. That upset me."
The dispute eventually forced Greg to move out. He continued his research living in a small, one-room furnished apartment near the railroad tracks in a declining part of town.
Tom was not performing in college as well as he knew he could, so he decided to leave Hamilton in the fall of his junior year to take a year off.
Dropping out made him subject to the draft. His Selective Service number was low -- 42 of 365.
When drafted, Tom chose to join the Army, rather than follow Greg.
"Maybe part of the reason for going was it was something different than Greg did," Tom says. "Being a year and a half different in age with someone can be like that . . . I remember we talked about it. I said I'm going in to get it over with and he said fine. There was no harshness, no vituperation on his part."
Tom took the military oath on Feb. 26, 1971, did basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, and was assigned to a military police detachment in Vietnam.
As a former protester, he felt self-conscious about going to Vietnam. He recalls walking through Berkeley, California, a center of anti-war activities, a few days before flying from San Francisco to Vietnam.
"I saw some old hippies -- I think they were passing a joint around," he says. "And I said to myself, I probably would be here if I wasn't going to Vietnam."
He made certain not to tell strangers where he was going.
He saw disapproval on all sides, even on the Pan Am jetliner that flew him into Saigon in August 1971.
The stewardesses weren't smiling," Tom says. "My suspicion is they didn't feel too good about being so directly involved. That's the way it looked. It was a lot easier to pay your tax dollars and forget it than to think of the jet fuel and bombs your money was buying for our planes over there."
Tom worked as a military policeman for less than a year in the Mekong Delta. As an MP, he saw little combat duty, but could watch from the roof of his hotel as planes dive-bombed in the distance and American helicopter gunships sprayed the countryside with machine-gun fire.
He saw death for the first time and came to pity the war-torn country.
"I was on patrol through town and we came across a guy -- a suspected Viet Cong -- who had been killed the night before," Tom recalls. "His wrists were tied together, hung up on a fence and his stomach was slit open from the sternum to his waistline. It was a busy place. I remember seeing about 30 kids walking to school wearing white blouses -- Catholic kids. They just walked straight ahead with their heads down a bit. It was a much bigger deal for us than it was for them. I remember thinking they had been at war for so long."
Members of Tom's advisory group had been shot while on patrol and he knew that it could happen to him at any time.
"There was a sad stream of caskets on the highways I patrolled -- ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), each covered with a flag, heading back to their villages," he says.
Tom left Vietnam in April 1972 on a similar Pan Am airliner. He wasn't happy, but he was relieved. "I don't remember now if the stewardesses were smiling," he says. "But I know we were."
His war was over.
When Tom got home, Greg was still fighting in court.
His trial in New York City had been a short one -- just two days. June 8 and 9, 1972. Federal District Court Judge Milton Pollack had given just a cursory glance to the reams of material Greg had amassed and dismissed it. Foreign policy and the use of the military, he rules was the prerogative of the president and was not within the jurisdiction of the courts.
Pollack found Greg guilty and sentenced him to six months in prison and two years of probation and community service.
Greg's American Civil Liberties Union lawyers had told him his assertion that the war was illegal would not succeed in court, but Greg insisted on making the argument. And when he lost, his lawyers appealed.
Greg's lawyer, James Spitzer Jr., an anti-war attorney who volunteered on hundreds of similar cases, remembers Greg's case clearly.
Of all the draft resisters he represented, Sptizer says, Greg was the only one to go to prison. Most of his other clients, he says, raised religious or false medical issues and were granted deferments or alternative duty.
"But Greg wouldn't let us use those tactics," Spitzer says. "He wanted to make a point."
The appeal took a year and failed. Greg was ordered to report to federal authorities in August 1973, to begin serving his sentence.
Tom, who was traveling in western Canada when Greg told him of the failed appeal, returned home quickly.
Tom and Greg hitchhiked from Geneva to New York City, where Greg was to turn himself in to federal authorities, but they didn't tell anyone else in the family.
I remember a phone call at Christmas from Greg. He sounded subdued and far away and I asked him where he was. But he wouldn't say. My parents and most of the children -- including me and Ed, Jim, Mary, Jody and Christine -- never knew where he was at the time. I remember asking Tom, but he wouldn't tell me. I felt I was being left out of some great adventure.
No one but Tom and Louise, my oldest sister, would know for sure that Greg had been in prison until almost a year after his release.
From the beginning, his imprisonment was a nightmare.
Despite his military training, Greg at 5 feet 10 has never been an imposing figure.
In the violent sexually charged atmosphere of the federal prisons, he was constantly targeted by bigger and stronger men.
It was in Terre Haute, Ind., that he learned his first rule of prison life.
Greg was in transit from Lewisburg Federal Prison in Pennsylvania to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas when the prison bus pulled into a federal facility in Terre Haute for the night.
He was assigned one of about 70 beds in a large ward and, while other inmates went into a television room to watch Bonnie and Clyde, he took off his prison clothes and slipped quietly into bed.
Within minutes he had company.
Four other inmates sat down on his bed and began running their hands along his body on the outside of the prison blankets. One sat at the corner of the bed, caressing Greg's face.
The few other inmates nearby knew to leave quickly or risk being implicated in what they thought was about to happen.
"Come on, we're going to get you some socks in the back." Greg recalls the inmates saying. But he knew they wanted to get him to a more secluded area.
He began preparing mentally for his first struggle -- to jump from the bed and begin fighting like an animal. His mind raced. He thought about what a knife must feel like when it pierces your body.
Greg refused to leave.
"I said, "I know what you guys want. You want sex stuff,'" Greg recalls.
"That's all I could get out."
One of the inmates responded: "What do you expect from a guy who sleeps in the raw."
Without an explanation, the would-be attackers left and said they would return inn a few minutes.
Greg got up and dressed quickly. For he rest of the night, he sat awake at the end of his bed, waiting, his fists clenched.
The inmates never returned.
"From then on, I always slept in my clothes," Greg says.
There were other such incidents. Once on a day he decided to skip recreation period and stay in his cell, his cellmate stayed, too, and for an hour, Greg had to fend off his sexual advances.
Another time an inmate tried to maneuver Greg into an empty recreation hall. Again, he was able to thwart the attack. But each time he knew his life was at risk if he had to fight. He knew, too, that you had to be willing to fight or risk being a constant target for rape.
Greg often walked the prison corridors with his fists clenched, avoiding the eye contact or body language that might tell other prisoners that he was not so tough, not so willing to fight.
He learned other rules of prison life. These were simpler: Don't inform on other inmates -- even those who threaten you -- or you could be killed. And don't get caught talking to guards; someone may suspect you're an informant and you could be killed.
"Every day was like three days," Greg says. "I don't know what I would have done if I had gotten a three-year sentence."
Prison life was so harsh, Greg quickly turned to the religion of his youth for support. He has remained intensely religious since.
"After 10 minutes in the prison I'm back going to church," he says. "I'm back thinking about survival. I'm back appreciating the way I breathe. Air goes in and out of my lungs and that's all you are concerned with."
Tom visited Greg when he was at Lewisburg and remembered knowing from his appearance that Greg was going through an ordeal.
"He looked like he had been running a marathon and he was taking a break while I was there," Tom says. "And when I left I knew he would be back in there, like he had to swim a hundred miles before he was done."
Tom tried to reassure Greg in letters that his prison time would not affect the way people viewed him.
"Most people would probably consider the time you're doing comparable to doing time in the Army," Tom wrote in one letter addressed to inmate 79135-158.
And later Tom wrote, "As it stands now, few people will know that you spent (time) in jail. I doubt if they will treat you differently and I think that the stigma of being a Viet vet is worse."
When Greg disappeared, Mom suspected he was in prison, but didn't mention it for fear her suspicions would be confirmed and her husband and younger children would be worried.
At one point, she sent a letter to Greg's last Geneva address hoping it would be forwarded. Tom intercepted it and sent it to Greg.
"I hope you are well and happy wherever you are," she wrote. "There was a while in the beginning when I thought you were in prison . . . I had one bad night over it, then I said, "That's it. No more tears. It's what you chose and who loves weepy women anyway,' Since then I've decided it isn't prison, but that maybe it's just as well we don't know what it is you're at."
Dad was torn by his love for his son, and his sense of duty his son was violating. Mom was caught between a husband she loved and a son who was able to convince her what he was doing was right.
"Greg reasoned with me. He convinced me this war -- Vietnam -- was an important wrong step for the country," Mom says. "But Dad was not up to where I was at that point. He was much more military, always. When I thought that he (Greg) was in jail, I couldn't even say it to Dad."
Dad would say later he suspected Greg was in prison but didn't mention it because he didn't want Mom to worry.
"I figured they had caught up to him," Dad says. "I don't remember what he told me at the time, but I kept my mouth shut. What we didn't know, we didn't have to worry about."
Greg returned home as quietly as he left. In January 1947, he rode for 30 hours on a Greyhound bus from the federal prison at Springfield, Mo, to Rochester and on to Geneva.
In an awkward coincidence, Greg ran into our sister Christine at the Rochester bus station. She was on her way home from the State University College at Brockport.
"I could tell something was wrong," Christine says. "He was very pale and nervous and he wouldn't tell me where he'd been."
Greg didn't tell anyone for many months.
"I figured they would be a better source of recovery for me if they didn't wonder what it was like in there and treat me differently," Greg says. "I think that worked. I was surprised by my recuperative powers."
Long after Greg came home, I was visiting the apartment he and Tom shared in Geneva when they told me where Greg had been. I was shocked and afraid what my friends would say if they knew. I didn't want anyone to know. I don't remember asking him what prison was like. I was afraid to know and he wasn't ready to tell. Now, 10 years after his release, he is just telling for the first time some of the specific incidents of his time in prison.
And Greg's pain persists.
From time to time he'll awaken at night terrorized with a recurring dream that he was released too early.
"Nightmares -- yes -- that I did get out but they forgot I had 14 more days to do and now I have to go back in," Greg says, shaking his head. "And all those people in there who missed me the first time around are waiting. And I'm going to get killed and then I'm back in there. It's the same damn theme all the time."
There are remnants in Tom's life too.
He still thinks of Vietnam whenever he sees a battle scene in a movie or reads news accounts of the conflict. He hasn't watched the movies made about Vietnam -- The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home -- and he doesn't want to.
"For some reason I still carry my draft card," he says. "Still folded up in my wallet. It's on my right hip now, but I'm not sure why. I do know that I will produce it if I'm ever asked to be drafted again -- I've done my hitch."
Tom doesn't blame himself for going to Vietnam. If he hadn't gone, it would have been some friend of his who had to go.
And like many Vietnam vets, Tom is bitter that capable young men who served in Vietnam -- unlike their parents who are honored for service in World War II -- have been stigmatized for their involvement in this war.
"I was involved, and the taxpayers were involved," Tom says. "I think the important thing is to learn the lesson, that we must find other problem-solving techniques . . . "
Most dramatic was the change the Vietnam years brought to my parents.
As the war ran on and the Watergate scandal revealed corruption among the leaders handling the war, political cynicism replaced blind patriotism in my father's demeanor.
Today, he is more concerned with the poverty and hunger in the world than with the politics of capitalism and democracy in America.
"Unfortunately, our country now is at the mercy of an industrial military complex that can use the politicians to get whatever they want and squander our wealth."
Shocking words to those of us who him as Major Lavin.
Mom has changed, too.
She used to watch her sons march in military parades, but now she marches in protests against nuclear arms at the nearby Seneca Army Depot.
She felt the pain of Vietnam, but now takes pride in shocking her more conservative friends by telling them that her son -- a man they all know -- once went to prison rather than serve in the Army.
"It makes them think," she says. "They all know him and think he's great, but when they hear he's been to prison, it confuses them. It makes them think about what it means to serve your country."
Tom and my parents see Greg as a kind of anti-war hero, a sort of secular saint, one of the few people who can claim to have done the good thing during the Vietnam era.
Greg is the son and brother who didn't run to Canada, like many of the more than 500,000 who refused to serve. He is one of a relatively few -- just 3,250 the government says -- who fought a civil war in the courts and served time in prison.
"The world couldn't be run by saints," Mom says. "But you need them to stick their necks out and to lead while the rest of us have to get on with the daily living."
Greg was pardoned by President Gerald R. Ford in October 1975, but he doesn't consider himself an anti-war hero.
What Tom did and what Greg did were just two reactions to government out of control.
"The war was a cancer," he says. "I'm not going to argue whether some got caught by the cancer -- like those who got caught in the Army -- or those that had a very tough time fighting the cancer like I did. We each got hurt. But I'm not going to differentiate any further. Neither one of us started the damn thing to begin with."
The structured military years of Peekskill seem a long time ago now -- longer than the 18 years that elapsed since 1966 when Greg stood at Michael Kilroy's marker. I was too young -- too uninvolved -- as I watched Vietnam pass by, to understand as I know now that as Tom and Greg changed, the family changed too, drastically. And I changed.
In less than two decades, I had left behind the little boy, marching in the Army uniform and playing the bugle calls and had become one who is suspicious of all things military.
Greg picked up the telephone last August and called Tom, who is attending college in Seattle. Greg, now 35, and a theater building manager and emergency medical technician, reminded Tom, 33, that this was the 10th anniversary of his imprisonment.
They reminisced about those difficult times when both were younger and relied on each other for reassurance.
It was a private Memorial Day for my brothers -- one who chose not to fight and one who never wants to fight again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Lavin, 25, the second youngest of Tom and Josephine Lavin's nine children, joined the Times-Union in May 1982 as a member of the suburban staff. He is now covering City Hall. In 1976, while he was a senior at DeSales High School in Geneva, New York, Lavin began working for the Finger Lakes Times as a reporter. He worked for the Times until 1982. He is a graduate of Hobart College.
The above story ran as the cover story of the Rochester Times-Union Saturday magazine. on May 26, 1984. Tom Lavin Sr. died two years later, Josephine Lavin still lives in Geneva, New York. Christopher Lavin, now 50, was Senior Editor of Special Sections at the San Diego Union Tribune until June of 2009. He is now Marketing Director for The LaJolla Country Day School in LaJolla, California.. Greg Lavin, 60, lives in Geneva, New York, and works in the health care field. Tom Lavin, 59, lives in Rochester, New York with his wife and three children, and works for the United States Post Office.