PBS’ Vietnam War Series Hits Close To Home

Jeff Durstewitz talks about the show's Saratoga connection.

PBS Vietnam
PBS' series on the Vietnam War has a Saratoga connection.

We’ve lived on White Street, between the track and park in Saratoga Springs, for almost 33 years now, and our long tenure seems almost like a dream. Were we ever really those indomitable 30-somethings who moved into an 1871 house in a venerable (and, as we later realized, vulnerable) neighborhood back in 1985, intending to restore it to its Victorian glories (and fix its flaws, like a lack of insulation) while filling it with kids? We were.

And were we the 40-somethings who juggled having babies (who quickly morphed into adolescents) with home improvements, while we occasionally struggling with our finances? Yes indeed.

White Street, though it began to fill out just after the Civil War, never had quite the cachet of the “historic” area just to the north. And its location was problematic for us in two respects: the track traffic in the summer and the transients, mainly Skidmore students, who didn’t always have the same stake in neighborly relations as homeowners. Over the years there were serious threats to our happiness, like a particularly memorable, toxic neighbor. But there were also compensations, such as the nice couple who bought him out.

At one point, students established a raucous after-hours “speakeasy” almost across the street from us, and we (along with other families) considered moving out. But then the students’ out-of-state landlord saw what they had done to his property, and sold it, to a young family who quickly turned it into a showpiece. Then there was the time an old friend moved in unexpectedly, just down the block. But again, there was the sad day a longtime neighbor and Korean vet died in his home. A lot of memories, a lot of emotions.

But over the decades, our “all-American” street ultimately resolved itself into a stable, nurturing place. We happily watched our kids play with their friends, one of whom is now a young mother living next door. New families invested in old homes as their aging occupants moved out or passed on. Imperceptibly, we went from being part of the street’s youth movement to old stalwarts, as life played its ancient circle game.

Then came the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick-directed The Vietnam War series on PBS. It has served as the ultimate reminder that life’s ancient circle game sometimes involves devastating loss.

The Crockers were also once a younger couple who invested in White Street, just as we had, but roughly 25 years earlier. Their kids played with other youngsters as older residents, now mostly gone, looked on benignly — as we do now. But as the documentary made clear, the eldest Crocker child couldn’t be kept from joining what he saw as a crusade to help the Vietnamese people. He died in a firefight a day after his 19th birthday in 1966 — about 19 years before we moved into a house just down the street from his.

The film features extensive interviews with the aged but very articulate Mrs. Crocker and with her daughter Carol, with whom I’d happened to work briefly some years ago. It repeatedly shows the Crockers’ home on White Street, which looks now much as it did then, when it was struck by unfathomable sorrow. We hadn’t known the Crockers during our early years on the street, but we’d become friendly with their next-door neighbors. The lady of that house had delighted in our kids’ Halloween costumes and followed their progress as they got older, just as bygone residents had with her kids and the Crockers’ kids. But one of them, as the series starkly reminds us, hadn’t gone on to the pursuit of happiness.

As reassuring a matrix as our old street provides, the Vietnam series delivered the sobering truth that the horrors of the wider world may still intrude, and its frequent references to a tragic loss on White Street hit — literally — very close to home.

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