Alum pens book about Vietnam-era College

by Joon Cho | 11/3/13 3:56pm

“Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House” is not an average story of college life. Denis O’Neill ’70 writes about middle-aged strippers picking up dollars bills from brave audience members and freshmen lined up on the fourth floor of New Hampshire residence hall competing to become the king, the title given to the one with the biggest male anatomy. Denis gives a raw, borderline crude, image of his times: road trips were measured by beers per mile and classmates dropped acid on I-89 to enliven the dreary journey. These outlandish tales can hold their own, but the book is anchored by the fact that all of these youthful antics were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and the ensuing drama that enveloped the entire campus.

The setting is similar: skates collide with ice, sticks battle for possession of the puck and the crowd yells and bangs the glass walls, jumping up and down to the rhythm of the game. Yet it’s totally different: the yells aren’t chants, but mere numbers. The focus wasn’t on the game, but the fraternity brothers who were yelling out the contents of blue capsules, blue capsules that determined who would be shipped off the Southeast Asia to fight and who would stay home.

“After that it became a tale of two campuses,” O’Neill said.

Dartmouth was as tumultuous as the rest of the United States during the 1960s, and it radically changed during O’Neill’s college years when the first women, known as the “Magnificent Seven” arrived at the College. “Whiplash” is both a raw recollection of events and historically important artifacts and explores a more remote aspect of the time period.

“In general the war at home has been very well explored,” Dick Babcock ’69 said. “But I don’t think there have been very many subtle explorations of the social dynamic here at home while the war was unfolding.”

Babcock said the book poignantly portrays a group of privileged, mostly white college boys realizing just how privileged they are. Students of the era truly had to come to grips with the harsh reality outside the world outside of Dartmouth. Most were able to exempt themselves for the draft, and so were all the more shocked by the realities of the war, including news of a classmate’s death who served.

“We were presented on a daily basis with huge choices,” Roy Carlson ’70 said. “We were going through these doors that would change our lives completely.”

Students today can learn a lot from the book, because the characters depicted experienced similar personal journeys.

“Finding one’s voice is a natural quest, and college years, for many reasons, are often a time when we try out many voices before finding our own,” O’Neill said. “But life-and-death decisions by dint of a national draft lottery added a degree of difficulty unique to our class.”

The book may also change students’ perspectives on higher education. Carlson said that while students these days look to graduate and get a job, during his time many were thinking about making the world a better place.

“It’s kind of the same now, we had to respond to the draft and other challenges, and now you have to respond to NSA intelligence,” Carlson said.

O’Neill said the book is also intended for his peers and hopes that they too, can look back and reflect on their memories. O’Neill was motivated to write the book after his 40th college reunion in 2010.

“I just gathered with my classmates and we were just talking about the old times,he said. “It hit me.”

O’Neill insists that the memoir is accurate, although he notes that the order of events has been mixed up for better dramatic effect.

“There was basically so much to choose from that was intriguing and meaningful I ended up having to throw a lot of things out,” O’Neill said. “The end result is pretty colorful in a rambunctious way.”

Babcock said that although he vividly remembers many events in the books, there are a few that must have happened while he was off campus.

“The great beer heist must have happened when I was gone or maybe I drank a lot of the beer,” Babcock joked.

Carlson said O’Neill is “colorful,” just like his stories are. The two became close after they graduated, and have been lifelong friends since. Denis took the time to visit Carlson even when he was living in Rio de Janeiro.

“He went to the beach, sat in the sand with one stack of postcards, and wrote something to all of his friends everywhere,” Carlson said of O’Neill. “Denis keeps his friends very close.”