Memoir of a War Resister—A Novel of the 1960s

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Chapter 30—"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag"

The war escalated that summer of 1969. Three thousand young men were given a free, all-expenses-paid trip to Vietnam. Two thousand five hundred U.S. soldiers died.

I spent the summer working as an intern at the local newspaper. Marty worked in a law office. Peter raised vegetables, some of which he sold at a stand by the side of the highway.

July 20, Peter, Marty and I gathered on the couch, a plate of carob brownies on the coffee table in front of us. If all went well, man would walk on the moon that night. That’s if all went well. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. I knew those names like the back of my hand. That’s all anyone talked about since they launched four days earlier.

We had been to the moon and back but never landed on the moon, walked on the moon, sent pictures back from the surface of the moon. I heard the sequence over and over. Armstrong and Aldrin would move to the lunar module, Eagle, and separate from Columbia, the command module. Collins would keep orbiting and if all went well, the lunar module would slowly make its way down to the moon’s surface.

If all went well. “This is pretty scary,” I said taking another brownie from the plate. Suki and Racer saw the brownie in my hand and jumped up on the couch to join me. “What happens if something goes wrong?”

“What kind of question is that?” Marty asked. “If something goes wrong, then something goes wrong. They die and Collins flies all the way back to earth by himself, leaving his dead friends. Their wives will forever look at the moon and know that their husbands are up there dead. That’s what’s going to happen if something goes wrong.”

“You’re scared, aren’t you?” I said to Marty. I turned to Peter. “He’s scared, isn’t he?” I could always tell Marty’s emotions. Any minute I expected him to start talking to the command module.

“Am not.” He poured himself another glass of wine from the gallon jug of Pisano on the counter. “Anyone want wine?”

“Not me,” I said. “I want to be sober when they land. If something goes wrong, I want to be ready.”

“Ready for what?”

I had no idea what I needed to be ready for. So much had happened in the last two years that I felt like I always had to be ready for something. Maybe if they crashed on the moon I could be ready to cry. Or if they actually made it to the moon and walked on the moon and made it back to the command module I could be ready to celebrate. I turned my attention back to the television set.

“Three minutes to landing,” the announcer said. I grabbed Marty’s hand and held on for dear life. “Going for landing, going for landing. Go. Go. Go. Go. 3,000 feet.” They sounded so in control. So sure. I didn’t hear fear. I didn’t hear hesitancy. “Go. Go. 2,000 feet. Still looking very good.” I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled, inhaled and held it again.

“1,600 feet. Eagle looking good. 540 feet. 220 feet. Moon getting closer. 100 feet. 75 feet. Looking good. Sixty seconds. Picking up some dust. Drifting to the right.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “Go left. Go left.”

“Thirty seconds.” And it went dark. “We copy you down Eagle.” Where are you Eagle? Where are you?

And then the voice, “Houston.” A pause. What? What? What? “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

We breathed. They breathed. Everyone breathed. When I let go of Marty’s hand he shook it and said, “Shit. You’ve got a grip.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Later Neil Armstrong took the first step on the powdery surface of the moon, “One Small Step for Man. One Giant Leap for Mankind.”

Ironic, isn’t it? Two thousand five hundred soldiers died in a small country in Southeast Asia that summer with little fanfare. And the world rejoiced as three men traveled 480,000 miles on a round trip in a giant leap for mankind, landing on the moon and returning safely.

On August 10th, Jake and Ginger married in a quiet ceremony in the courtyard at the hospital where Jake was completing his alternative service. Ginger wore the beads she took from Hook’s room.

Marty walked me in, one hand in mine, the other brushing back the hair from his eyes. We were barefoot. Peter handed a daisy to everyone who came. Parents and family. A few college friends. A few childhood friends. A few administrators and colleagues from the hospital.

They wrote their own vows.

“Ginger, I love you. I have loved you for a long time. You are my past, my present, my future. I am not perfect but my love for you is. Now. Forever.”

“Jake, I love you. You are my soul, my rock, my very best friend. I have loved you from the first moment I saw you. You are my everything. Now. Forever.”

The hospital chaplain pronounced them man and wife. They kissed. And we danced the night away.

I didn’t want to say good-bye. My time with Ginger had changed. She would be a phone call away. A train ride away. But away.

Marty, Peter and I tried to convince Ginger and Jake to honeymoon with us at a music festival in New York. In the end, they decided not to share their wedding week with what was expected to be 50,000 other people. We headed east and they started their lives together.

We left Lake Forest early Thursday morning on August 13 heading to The Woodstock Music and Art Fair at Max Yasgur’s farm near Bethel, New York. We planned to drive about seven hundred miles, spend the night in a camp ground about one hundred miles out, rise early the next morning, drive the last couple of hours and arrive before the concert started late afternoon on Friday. We were too late. As we headed to Bethel, we heard radio announcements, “The roads are clogged. No more cars can get through to the festival site. The police are closing the roads. We urge you to stay away.” We weren’t staying away.

We abandoned our car four miles from the entrance to the festival. By the time we arrived at the grounds, over 200,000 people were already there. When all was said and done, 500,000 people showed up. For that weekend, it ended up being the third largest city in New York.

We brought sleeping bags and rain gear. I carried a dozen oranges and a jug of water. Peter carried a nut and seed concoction. Marty brought a tarp, blanket and three packages of Oreos.

“Testing 1. 2. 3. Testing 1. 2. 3. If we’re going to make it you had better remember that the guy next to you is your brother.” I was sitting on the ground, sandwiched between Marty and Peter, my arms hooked in theirs waiting for Richie Havens to sing.

Havens said, strumming his guitar, “No other place appropriate at the moment than to do this song that I still haven’t learned yet.” He played the music to a song he didn’t know but I knew well, “With A Little Help From My Friends.” That’s how I fell in love. That’s how I got through. I closed my eyes, tears streaming down my face as we swayed back and forth. “Let the neighbors know how you feel,” Havens said. I squeezed Marty and Peter tighter. They squeezed me back. “Can’t hear you. I’m sure no one else can.” He couldn’t hear me because I couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t sing. I saw Jeff’s face, felt his hand in mine. I felt Hook’s arm around me. I was okay. I needed my friends. I needed them all.

When it was over Marty looked at me. “You look terrible,” he said and took the bandana from his belt loop and wiped my eyes and nose. He gave it to me. “Keep it. You might need it again.” Then he brushed back his hair. My collection of bandanas was growing.

The rain started as a drizzle and continued all night. We didn’t care. We sat on raincoats with the tarp over us, leaning into each other, singing, laughing. I smoked a little dope when it came my way. “Hey man, far out, like the New York Throughway is closed. Like man we closed the throughway,” Arlo Guthrie announced from the stage in the rain. He didn’t have to tell us. We’d walked it.

Joan Baez ended the night with “We Shall Overcome.” We could and we would, whatever came our way.

We curled up together under the tarp and slept until late morning. When the music started again it didn’t stop until Monday morning except for set changes and a major thunderstorm on Sunday. Sing like you mean it, man. We’ll never have peace if you don’t sing any louder than that.

It turned out to be a free concert. Festival goers cut fences, broke down gates, and clogged roads and fields. They brought singers in by helicopter.

Max Yasgur didn’t expect half a million people to come to his farm but he became part of the legend of Woodstock. He took the stage, a thin man with glasses, over thirty, over forty, it was hard to tell. “I’m a farmer and I think you have proven something to the world and the thing you’ve proven is that a half million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and I God Bless You for it.”

Vendors sold anti-war buttons, anti-war shirts, bandanas. Musicians gave anti-war speeches from the stage. And it rained off and on for three days drenching the half million strong.

“This is amazing,” Marty said as the warm August rain fell. We were lying on the ground. I was making mud angels, spattering mud everywhere. Peter lay still, eyes closed, arms out.

I jumped up, grabbed Marty’s hand. “Let’s go for a swim. You on, Peter?”

“I’m fine. If I lay here long enough, the rain will wash the mud off.”

Marty and I headed for the river. I took off my clothes, put them on a rock and ran into the water. I dove under, came up and wiped the water out of my eyes. “Come on in. It feels great.”

Marty took off his clothes, folded them neatly and put them on a rock next to mine. He came in the water, scooped me up, twirled me around, dunked me. We floated there in the water, clinging to each other, bare skin to bare skin.

“This is magical,” Marty said. Then he pulled back and looked at me. For a second I thought he was going to say something significant, something important. Instead he said, “Hold your breath. We’re going under.”

When we came back up, I said, “Let’s go under again. I am going to sing a song underwater and you try to guess what it is.” We played until our fingers and toes wrinkled.

Back with Peter we danced with a half million others. Then Joe Cocker sang his version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” I needed everyone’s version of that song. I was drenched and completely dry, tired and completely awake, hungry and completely satisfied, happy beyond words. He sang and I sang and we sang. And I got by.

When he was done the thunder and lightning came, the wind picked up. We huddled under our tarp. I have no idea why. We were already wet. But we huddled and ate nuts and seeds and shared our oranges with our sisters and brothers. Bonding a generation.

Two people went to Woodstock who never made it home. Babies were born there. Everyone was changed and that changing cemented the belief that 500,000 or 500 million or the whole world could do this. When you’ve shared communal bathrooms with a half million other people, anything is possible.

The leaving lingered as long as the coming. A ghost town remained filled with a legend that grew bigger and better as time went on.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 44,467

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