“Picture, if you will, a young man entrenched in a foxhole dug into the muddy jungle floor somewhere in South Vietnam….”
It was the opening line of the speech I prepared for the 1971 American Legion High School Oratorical Contest. I made it through the school, town, and county finals. There I was in Lake George for the Regional finals on a snowy February Sunday, running a temperature of over 100 degrees, nursing a strep throat and a bad case of nerves. It was the first time I had reached this level in the competition and these judges did not know me.
As I gave my speech, I watched one after another of the judges’ faces harden against me. My selected topic was lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. I illustrated the rightness of my argument with references to 18, 19 and 20 year-old Americans who were participating in all other aspects of citizenship that did not have an age requirement. My strongest argument, of course, was the draft that sent young men under the age of 21 off to Vietnam to fight in an undeclared war, without the right to vote for the representatives who had supported the war and the draft. My argument fell on deaf ears and I finished third.
Riding home in near blizzard conditions in the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile, wrapped in a blanket and sipping honeyed tea from the thermos refilled by my mother at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant near the exit for the Northway, I was feeling pretty lousy. My mother was telling me that I had done a good job and that my voice, even raspy as it was, had been clear and had carried to the back of the auditorium. My father interrupted her.
“You knew going in that you were not going to win. You had to know that they couldn’t let you give that speech at the State or National contest.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror to gauge my reaction. My mother typed my speeches and ironed my navy jumper and white blouse for the contests. Past-President of the American Legion Auxiliary, she took no small amount of pride in my success in the Legion’s oratorical contests. But, my father had done public-speaking in high school; he knew what it was to stand in front of a group of people and sway them to your position. He was my critic and my chauffeur. And my biggest, if often silent, fan. Dad would take off from work to attend one of the contests, often held on a weekday afternoon, the last period of the day, sometimes as part of a school assembly.
“They thought your speech was all about criticizing the war. They didn’t get what you were saying: that if you are old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to vote for the guys who are going to send you off to war.” He paused. “It’s a shame because it was your best speech. It’s not right that you didn’t win.”
I remember the long ride home and missing school for several days with a strep throat and various respiratory ailments. I remember that my advisor, Mr. Beard, agreed with my father. He had cautioned me about my speech when I wrote it, that it might not fly with the judges: all American Legion members, all men, all veterans. And I remember my father’s support of my arguments.
A few months later, on July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and became law, stating that “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
I voted in the next Presidential election, in 1972, when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. I have voted in every election since then.
I will vote on Tuesday, even though there are those who say an individual vote doesn’t count, that blue states are blue and red states are red, that the Electoral College makes the final decision and that the popular vote just doesn’t matter.
I keep thinking about that fictitious18 year-old soldier in a foxhole in Vietnam, sent to die in a war he had no say in starting or continuing. I vote in every election for him and for thousands of others who cannot vote but who are affected daily by laws enacted by people who serve at the will of the electorate.
I will vote because in 1971 there were men who said I shouldn’t be able to vote. I will vote because of the 18 year-olds who died in 1971 and were never able to vote. You should too.