Why I’m Still Here

by W.D. Ehrhart

Back in the spring of 1973, I was about to graduate from college and trying to figure out what to do next. The Vietnam War, in which I had participated as a U.S. Marine, had been the bane of my life for more than eight years, and seemed as if it would never end. I hated Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and I’d had enough of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and I didn’t want to be in this country any longer.

But I had only my Honorable Discharge and a Bachelor of Arts degree, no real work experience, certainly no career, and no foreign language skills. And I didn’t want to kill myself. So what options did I have?

Back in the summer of 1969, between the Marines and college, I spent some time as a crewman on a small Irish freighter sailing between Liverpool and Dublin. The mostly Irish crew could care less about the American war in Vietnam. They were focused on “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. It was the only time in eight years that I had been anything even vaguely resembling happy.

And so I decided I would go back to sea. I managed to get a job, first in the steward’s department and then in the engine room, on an American oil tanker sailing off the West Coast. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. Good pay. Whales and porpoises. A giant Erector Set to amuse myself with. And no news. The entire Yom Kippur War was over before I even knew it had started.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard and ARCO company officials raided our ship in Long Beach harbor one morning, and they took exception to some of the substances they found in my cabin. I was eventually exonerated in a federal maritime administrative law court, but that ended my career as a merchant seaman. I was back on the beach and stuck with America again.

Fast forward to January 1991. George Herbert Hoover Walker Bush had just upgraded Desert Shield to Desert Storm, and the United States military was about to embark on another stupid war, this one to reward the Emir of Kuwait for stealing Iraqi oil by putting him back on his gold-plated toilet. I wasn’t at all surprised by what the U.S. government was doing, but I was mightily dismayed that the American people were so willing to send their children off to another bumfuck war so soon after the fiasco of Vietnam.

At that point, I remembered a few years earlier when the prime minister of New Zealand said that he was opposed to his country becoming non-nuclear, but he had gone along with it because it’s what the people of New Zealand wanted. And I thought about living in a country where the government actually did what the people wanted, and I wrote to the embassy of New Zealand in Washington, D.C., and discovered that both teachers (me) and computer programmers (my wife) were on their list of desirable immigrants.

I said to my wife, “Let’s go.”

She said, “Let me get this straight. You want me to drop the life I’ve built, leave behind everyone I know, and go to a country where I’ve never been, and where I will know no one but you?”

I had to admit that she had a point. And that was the end of that plan.

Fast forward again to the present day. The U.S. has barely survived four chaotic and insane years with a narcissistic, infantile, sexist, homophobic, racist, ignorant, criminal grifter in the White House. The current occupant of the White House is a reasonably decent (for a politician) but uninspiring old man who has no business running for president at his age. And the narcissistic, infantile, sexist, homophobic, racist, ignorant, criminal grifter is poised to be returned to the White House by a substantial portion of the electorate that is—forgive me—little better, certainly no smarter, than the man they are so keen on.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is now controlled by “Justices” who wouldn’t know an ethics violation or a conflict of interest from a jelly donut, and who are about as impartial as Taylor Swift at a Kansas City Chiefs football game. Congress is about as dysfunctional as a toilet with a clogged soil pipe. The one person still in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is called a “moderate,” even though she is opposed to a woman’s right to control her own body, the Paris Climate Accord, and Obamacare, and wants to build the wall on our border with Mexico, and deport illegal immigrants en masse.

And if that weren’t enough, we are living in a Wild West shooting gallery where there are more firearms in the hands of private citizens than there are hands to hold all those firearms while the odds of repealing the 2nd Amendment are right up there with legalization of incest and child pornography.

The problem today is that any country I might be interested in emigrating to doesn’t want me—not at the age of 75—unless I show up with a lot of $$$$$. And I mean a whole lot of $$$$$. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enough to make sure I don’t become a burden on the social safety systems that natural-born citizens of Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand have been paying into all of their lives.

I have friends who emigrated—for free—to Ireland a few years ago, but his grandmother was born in Ireland so he gets to be an Irish citizen, and his wife gets to come along because she’s his wife. My closest European relative is an Italian great-grandfather, which doesn’t get me an Italian passport. And besides, I don’t speak Italian.

And how the heck am I supposed to leave behind all my friends and all my connections built over a lifetime, and start again in a strange community in a foreign country, even if I had the $$$$$ to do it, and even if they do speak English? I don’t even do Zoom or Skype, and at my age I’m not likely to start now.

So it looks like I’m stuck in the Disunited States of America for what is left of my life. I’m trying to make the best of it. Today was a beautiful day, and I joined several hundred like-minded citizens on a silent walk for a ceasefire in Gaza. And I write essays like this one that don’t really change anything because mostly the people who read what I write already think pretty much like I do, but writing it down keeps my head from exploding.

And maybe Dolt .45 won’t become Dolt .47 after all, and I won’t end up in a concentration camp for political dissidents, or shot to death by a Proud Boy wielding an AR-15 in my local CVS drugstore, and my future and the future of my country won’t turn out to be as bleak as I’m imagining it will be. At times like this, I find comfort in Emily Dickinson’s poem: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words— / And never stops— at all—”


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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