Making Amends

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

GIDDY WITH THE SOUND OF KAZOOS and a Yippie sense of the absurd, Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" became a sing-along antiwar anthem in the '60s. "It just popped into my head," says Joe McDonald, who was a 23-year-old Berkeley, Calif., folksinger honorably discharged from the Navy when he wrote the song in 1965.

These days, McDonald's pride in the song has been joined by regret—particularly over such lines as "Be the first one on your block/ To have your boy sent home in a box." His attitude toward the war hasn't changed, but his feelings have for the men who fought it and died and for their families who heard Berkeley demonstrators chanting the lyrics. And so McDonald, 53, is making amends: On the Nov. 11 holiday, 20 years after the war's end, McDonald unveiled a memorial to Berkeley's 22 Vietnam war dead in the city's Veterans Memorial Building.

"I knew of him in the '60s," says Bill Hodges, president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America. "I didn't like him. I damn near fell out of my chair when I heard Joe was doing this."

McDonald is the oldest of three children of radical activist parents who named him after Josef Stalin. He was raised in El Monte, Calif., and has lived in Berkeley since he formed the Fish in the mid-'60s. Married in 1982 to fourth wife Kathy Wright, the mother of two of his five children, McDonald, whose group disbanded in 1970, has performed solo ever since.

With the war over in 1975, McDonald realized his sympathies lay with veterans who were so often scorned in Berkeley. "Blaming soldiers for war is like blaming firefighters for fire," he says now. The memorial, which McDonald conceived, designed and funded, features an interactive computer site with photos and memorabilia of the war dead. "The healing is still going on," he said at a ceremony attended by both vets and former protesters. "It may take the rest of our lives."

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