[Author’s Note: I shared the following story during our annual Memorial Day Ceremony on campus. My goal was to attempt to personalize both the cost of the war and the sacrifices people make for our country. After relating this story the whole school went up to Memorial Field to talk about the five “Dublin School boys” who died in World War II. From there we joined the rest of the town for the annual Memorial Day Parade.]
I want to tell you a story this morning about a young man who attended Dublin School many years ago and died as a result of wounds he received fighting in Vietnam, about his devoted younger brother Jack, about a Dublin headmaster who never forgot, and about a 1970 muscle car called a Chevrolet Chevelle.
When I first arrived at Dublin in the summer of 2008 Mr. Fox, the acting and interim Headmaster of Dublin School invited me and everyone else who was on campus that July day to an informal ceremony in the School House. There, Mr. Fox reached into his pocket and pulled out a key and said, “congratulations, the keys to the school are yours.” I felt a real weight at that moment, a weight that would only grow as I looked around the School House and asked Mr. Fox about the five names inscribed on the hearth in the School House living room. “Those are the names of the Dublin School boys who died in World War Two, in the very early days of the school.”
During those first years at Dublin I would bring the school up to Memorial Field to talk about those boys, as I hope to do today. A few years ago, however, Michael Lehmann, the son of Paul and Nancy Lehmann, the founders of Dublin School told me that there was another former Dublin student who died in active service, in this case in the Vietnam War, and should be remembered along with the five other boys. Mr. Lehmann felt a particular connection to this young man, Peter Machen, since he had talked to Peter about his own military service when visiting the school. Mr. Lehmann served as headmaster of Dublin School for one year after his father retired and I believe Peter died around the time he was serving as headmaster.
Today, as I look out at all of you I think of a young Peter Machen who attended Dublin School as a ninth and tenth grader. Peter grew up in Baltimore and struggled with school as a result of some serious learning disabilities. He bounced from school to school and eventually ended up at Dublin after graduating from the Indian Mountain junior boarding school. I wish that Dublin had in the 1960’s what we have now, a well established learning skills program. According to his brother, Peter had Hollywood looks and dreamed of one day buying a 450 horsepower Chevrolet Chevelle! Peter didn’t make it through Dublin and failed out of two other high schools before dropping out for good. He passed a high school equivalency exam and was accepted into the Maryland Institute College of Art. In the late 1960’s the Vietnam War was at its peak and young people were drafted into service. Peter’s status as a college student allowed him to avoid being drafted into active service. Unfortunately, Peter’s freshmen English course did him in and he did not make it through his first year of college. Out of college, his draft status was reclassified to 1-A, available for immediate service.
[At this point in the talk I explained how the draft lottery worked in 1969-70 and read off the top ten birthdays that were selected in the lottery. Interestingly, we had at least on student for every birthday “drafted” in 1970.]
Like most people with Peter’s status, he enlisted, in his case into the US Marine Corps. In February of 1969 he entered boot camp at Parris Island, SC. Because of his good looks he was actually offered a non-combat role as an embassy or White House Guard, but Peter had become very close to his platoon and felt guilty about abandoning them. He and his platoon shipped off for Vietnam in the summer of 1969. A year later, with 39 days left in his tour, he was seriously wounded in his abdomen by machine gun fire. The official report referred to bullets from an AK-47, the weapon of choice of the Vietcong.
His brother Jack was attending Princeton University and he and his family had recently received a letter from Peter in which he wrote, “I am getting too short for this John Wayne gung-ho stuff.” The Marines sent two of their own to Peter’s family’s house in Baltimore to give them the bad news about Peter’s life threatening injuries. Peter had been med-evacuated to the hospital ship Sanctuary, then was transferred to a hospital in the Philippines before ending up at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He died there with his family by his side on December 1st, 1970.
I spoke and exchanged emails with Peter’s brother Jack a few years ago and learned that Jack had determined that Peter was going to get his Chevelle one way or another! Jack found a 1970 Chevelle listed on eBay and drove out to California to pick it up. He eventually delivered the old car to a garage near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where he collaborated with individuals from the Wounded Warrior Project. These individuals found that working on cars and working to remember a fallen soldier helped them with their PTSD from the Iraq War. They now bring the finished car around the country for car shows.
I do not want to comment today on the merits or necessity of war, I simply want to remember those members of the Dublin family who lost their lives as a result of combat in service to their country. Peter Machen’s life was cut short and I sincerely hope that in his memory we can all work toward cross cultural and international understanding, towards peace and inclusion in an attempt to avoid such devastating loss of life.