BRATTLEBORO—For the students of Brattleboro Union High School social studies teacher Bill Holiday, the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War era are as far away to them as World War I was to Holiday and his classmates when they were sitting in the classroom in the mid-1960s.
Holiday, a member of the BUHS Class of 1968, lived the history that his students now study.
Before the memories fade, Holiday, together with fellow BUHS social studies teacher Joe Rivers, is working on an oral history project for the Brattleboro Historical Society.
Holiday said his motivation for collecting stories for the oral history “doesn’t have anything to do with me and Vietnam,” but rather a desire to get as many area residents as possible — “from veterans to anti-war activists,” Holiday said — to share their stories about what Brattleboro was like in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Historical Society’s effort coincides with two major milestones in the history of the Vietnam War.
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the landing of two Marine Corps battalions on beaches near Danang. The Marines’ arrival on March 8, 1965, marked the first major direct involvement of U.S. combat units in the Vietnam War.
Bookending that event is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Last week, Holiday offered a preview of the upcoming PBS documentary, “The Last Days in Vietnam,” an account of the chaos and confusion leading up to the North Vietnamese Army sweeping into Saigon on April 30, 1975.
A different town
When U.S. involvement in Vietnam started picking up in 1965, Holiday was a sophomore at BUHS. Stories from Vietnam were starting to pop up in The Reformer but he admits, like young people in every generation, he was pretty oblivious to current events.
“I was politically naive about the war back then,” Holiday said. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I became aware of what was happening.”
He wasn’t alone. He remembers the Brattleboro of his youth as a very different place, a brawny manufacturing town whose inhabitants worked hard and drank harder.
“You had American Optical, the Cotton Mill, Boise Cascade, Dunham’s, The Book Press, and a lot of other employers that you don’t have now,” he said. “And Brattleboro once had more bars per capita than any other town in Vermont.”
And Friday nights in Brattleboro were a lot different, too.
“People talk about Elliot Street now, but it used to be bar after bar after bar. It was a crazy place in the late 1960s. It used to be like the Wild West.”
Brattleboro was also a town where the political dividing lines were clear, and the age of activism still lay years in the future.
“The divisiveness between liberal and conservative, redneck and hippie, hawk and dove was discernible,” he said. “The center was having trouble holding in Brattleboro.”
Add the influx of young people from southern New England, New York, and New Jersey who came to Vermont and started up the communes such as Packer Corners in Guilford, or came to attend Windham College in Putney, and the sense of change accelerated.
“They own the state now,” said Holiday, referring to the wave of hippies who came up in the late 1960s, put down roots, and helped usher in a new Vermont. “This state is the antithesis of what it was in 1960.”
Homegrown hippies were in short supply, Holiday remembers.
Feeling a draft
Like every young man of the era, Holiday said getting drafted was a concern.
Holiday went to the University of Vermont after graduating from BUHS, and was classified as 2-S (student deferment) while he was at UVM. By 1971, student deferments were no longer issued, and all males had to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) for the draft.
“At one point, I was 1-A (immediately eligible for military service, the highest classification in the SSS draft status ratings) but I wasn’t drafted. My number in the first year of the draft lottery (in 1970) was 251, so I wasn’t called.”
But if he had been drafted, Holiday said he would have gone.
“I wouldn’t have resisted. My father was a Marine and at one time, he was the commander of the American Legion. I never gave it a thought.”
With the end of the draft in 1973 came the end of what Holiday called “that pressure, a constant pall of pressure over everybody” in his generation.
A familiar name on ‘The Wall’
There are six names on the war memorial on the Common honoring men with Brattleboro ties who were killed in Vietnam.
Holiday knew one of them, Army First Lt. William John Bassignani, a helicopter pilot with the 173rd Airborne Brigade who was killed in action when his helicopter was shot down in Quang Ngai province on Aug. 18, 1969. He was 26.
Bassignani’s wife, Mary Ann (Friel) Bassignani, was Holiday’s next-door neighbor when he was growing up on Pine Street.
In 2003, Holiday was in Washington, D.C., attending a workshop for high school teachers on developing strategies for how to teach students about the war. It was put on by Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit group that built the Memorial Wall in Washington in 1982.
“One of the things they required us to do was to pick a veteran and honor that person with a formal ceremony right next the the memorial,” Holiday said. “I honored William Bassignani.”