“It was a very disturbing time in the U.S. We were engaged in the Vietnam War, killing people indiscriminately and by the hundreds every week, napalming villages, defoliating forests so we could see better to kill, etc. All of us had friends involved, and probably most of us knew someone killed there. I did not know George before that day.
I had come to campus to work on my doctoral thesis project. A few of us were in a meeting room discussing our next anti-war activity. I didn’t see George pour the gasoline on himself, but we all ran out once we saw him ablaze.
I immediately tackled him and rolled over on him to put the flames out. He was taller and heavier than I thought, so I was glad I hit him hard to get him down. But the fire did not go out easily. You would put some out, and then another part would flare up again. Many others helped with their jackets by then, and someone threw a blanket from a dorm window.
A campus police car appeared on the plaza and took George and me to the hospital. I had burned my arms and face a bit, but I wasn’t in bad shape. Beside me in the backseat, George was clearly badly burned and I knew he would die soon. He tried to talk, but it came out as a harsh, loud whisper. He said I should have let him die. I was hurting and a little angry at him, and I still regret that I had no kind words to say right then. I only said two words in that car, and they were an unkind, “You will.”
But I knew he was right. I should have let him die there, because it would have been quicker and less painful than the days he’d spend in a hospital bed. We all knew that George was a microcosm of the pain that was going on in the war, as we dropped napalm and burned up the residents of hundreds of villages in Vietnam.
He died within days. I was in the hospital a week with dermatologists working on me. His mother visited to tell me how much she loved him, and to thank me for my effort.
I still have subtle reminders, places where funny skin regrew on my hands and face. I don’t regret it at all, but I do regret not saying anything kind before he died.
How should he be remembered? He gave his life in a very painful way to bring attention to what we were doing to people by the hundreds every week in another part of the world. There was sincerity in that, but a tragedy overall.”
– Keith Stowe MS ’67, PhD ’71