I have loved the song (and video) Fortunate Son for some time. I first saw it as a rendition by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (see below) and put it in my iTunes collection. Recently I discovered the original was done by CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and that the song was actually a lament of how most young Americans during the Vietnam War didn’t have the advantages of some privileged sons (“I ain’t no senator’s son” is one lyric line) to avoid serving in the war. In other words, the song was not about being a Fortunate Son of our great country, as I first imagined, and sang along without really understanding the words.
And that made me feel like maybe I don’t deserve to enjoy this song since I am someone who would be considered by CCR and Eddie Vedder, a “fortunate son” in a negative or unfair sense.
I’m not a “senator’s son.” But I am the grandson of a US senate candidate who lost that race 5 times, and the son of a father who was a governor and briefly a US senate candidate before dropping out of the race. And I’ll be the first to tell you, yes, there are tremendous and very unfair advantages to being a privileged son.
I have never tried to pretend otherwise. A few years ago I spoke to a group of entrepreneurs at Louisville’s Venture Club and was asked about these advantages. I responded, “Yes, I was born on third base (referencing Anne Richard’s political zinger aimed at George Bush Sr a few years back that he was “Born on third base and thought he hit a triple”). But that I was well aware that I didn’t hit a triple. In fact, I added, “I’m still not quite sure how I got on third base. I just know I have no recollection of ever being at bat.
Secretly, I suspect I was hit by the pitcher—maybe on purpose—and it was pitch was so hard they let me take three bases instead of just one. But that’s probably not the truth and just a story I tell myself so I feel like I earned third base on some level in some technical way. But I know deep down it was mostly a privilege thing. But there I was on third base.
“But I felt guilty about it,” I told the audience. So “I stole second base. And then I stole first base. So I could get back to where everyone else has to start on base.” I continued, “That relieved some of my guilt but I’m not sure it was the best play. At any rate, right now I think I may have found a way to get back to second base…and for the remainder of my life, I’m going to be trying to just get back to third base again—which is where I started. So, please don’t be mad at me for any advantages I had—and I had a lot—because, at this point any way, I’m just hoping to ‘break even’ in life by getting back to where I started from.”
That whole part of the speech was largely improvised but I liked the analogy and am sticking with it—and it summarizes pretty well the way I feel about all that. I hate it when people who have had great advantages in life try to make it sound like they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and are self-made men or women.
I recall Al Gore starting his presidential campaign in 1992 with a story about how he grew up in Carthage, TN and chopped wood or some such story. Yuck! And, of course, there really are no self-made men or women. But some are less self-made than others. I put myself in that category.
I am grateful for the advantages I have had. As I said at another time to someone who brought up this topic, “I have had doors opened to me others don’t. But what I do and what happens after I step through that door is on me and up to me. But getting that first foot in the door matters a lot and is a big life advantage.”
The key in life, I guess, is to take whatever advantages we are given and try to make the most of them— do something useful for others with them (as well as useful to ourselves and our families). To whom much is given, much is expected, and all that. But at the end of the day , when we are quiet and alone, only we know in our hearts if we are living up to ourselves and our potential. And we never stop trying to….and, of course, seem always to feel we are falling a little short. But we do keep trying. And that is the main thing –and probably our saving grace.
But back to the song Fortunate Son. I have tried to make peace with all this privileged son business. As for any help with not serving in the military, that was never the case for me. I recall a few days before my 18th birthday being in a hotel room with my father and telling him I was going to register to vote in a few weeks and there was talk at that time about reinstating the draft (as there often was from time to time back then). I was afraid and asked my father what I should do if the draft was reinstated and I got drafted.
He responded, “Well, you have to go. That’s all.”
I responded, “But what if I die? Are you saying you want me to go to war and die?”
“Of course not, but you have to go in the military if drafted?”
“Were you drafted?” I asked.
“No, but I served in the reserves.”
I told my father I had a friend who told me about consciencious objectors but my father, in his inimitable over-simplified but correct and persuasive way, said, “You don’t want to do that. You couldn’t live with yourself afterwards. You just go if you are drafted. That’s all. Just one of those things you have to do. And it probably won’t happen anyway.”
So, there you have it. I was ready and willing to serve if called on. But, like the band members of CCR and Eddie Vedder, I did not volunteer. What does that mean now? It means if I met the members of CCR today and they called me a “fortunate son,” I’d tell them to “Suck it,” and add I work 14+ hours a day, was willing to serve in the military if called to duty and am proud of the life I have built for myself and my family and grateful for privileges I had and hope I have used them well—and am proud of my country and support our military.
But if I met Eddie Vedder that same day and he called me a “fortunate son,” I would probably be more apologetic and say something like, “You know, Eddie, you are right. I have had a lot of privileges I don’t deserve and do feel guilt about them. It is unfair. And it stinks for others not as fortunate.” I would not tell Eddie Vedder to suck anything. I like him more than CCR.
And that sums up about how I feel about it all. Sometimes with some people on some days, I am at peace with it. Other days with other people under other circumstances, I feel that piercing shot of guilt—the same one I felt when I heard Anne Richards that same night tell George Bush Sr he was born with a silver foot in his mouth. I laughed at first. But a few minutes later realized she was also talking about people like me. And stopped laughing as hard…. and hoped nobody noticed.
And I still love the song Fortunate Son (both versions—CCR’s and Eddie Vedder’s), whatever it means. And don’t apologize for that. It’s a good song. And I’m proud to post it. As a Fortunate Son myself.