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

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Chapter 36—"War"

Friday. November 14, 1969. In honor of the soldiers killed in Vietnam. We dedicate this day.

Michael Volheim, Robert Layman, Roy Clark, James Hickey, Mario Lameize, Roy Robertson, Cleveland Browning, Charles Fleek, Matthew Lozano, Melvin Green, Robert Randall, John Rosemond, Warren Nix, Terry Clark, David Tiffany, Isaac Saap, Forrest Smith, Calvin Cooper, William Smith, Thomas Bliss, Clovis May

Starting at 6:00 a.m. we began to read, quietly, reverently. At one per second it would take fourteen hours to read the names of the almost 48,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam.

Students came in with candles, stayed a while, read, came back and read again. Hour after hour in the candlelit chapel at Lake Forest College, in auditoriums, chapels and gymnasiums throughout the country, the November moratorium was a memorial to the dead. Name after name until we remembered them all. All 48,000. They were my people, my generation. How can a government create a policy that takes 48,000 of the youngest and best and sentences them to death without a judge or jury?

When the last name was read, we headed home to sleep before going to Chicago the next day for what was anticipated as a huge rally, peace march and protest.

That same day, Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean shot off from Cape Kennedy for the second landing on the moon. I wonder what they thought when they looked down at the tiny planet suspended in space, embroiled in war.

Saturday. November 15, 1969. Half a million people gathered in Washington D.C. for the largest war protest ever. At the same time, a hundred thousand gathered in Grant Park in Chicago for the march to the Civic Center Plaza. It was staged as a non-violent protest against the war machine.

Rick, Peter, Marty and I took the early train into Chicago and gathered at Ginger and Jake’s apartment. While the guys strategized, Ginger and I ate blueberry pancakes. “Looks like you tossed the stone,” Ginger pushed the Log Cabin syrup over to me. “It’s good to see you both happy.”

“I guess I needed that push from Hook to see what was in front of me all along. But it’s only been two weeks. A lot can happen.”

“He’s not going to die, Becky.” Ginger could always read my mind.

I was still afraid. The week before I had a nightmare. Marty and Hook walked on the beach getting smaller and smaller. I tried to run but my feet were glued to the sand. I couldn’t move. Neither of them said anything.

When I told Marty about my dream he said, missing the whole point, “I had a dream about Hook last night too. He was patting me on the back with his hook while putting small stones in my hand.” Marty put his arm around me and I lay on his shoulder listening to his breath and feeling his heartbeat. “We almost shared a dream.” Maybe he hadn’t missed the point after all.

We marched about a third of the way through the crowd. Thirty-five thousand marching in front of us. Twice as many behind. The air was festive. The bell-bottoms and long hairs marched side-by-side with business folk and the elderly. We danced down the streets chanting.

Marty took the bullhorn. “What do you want?”

“Peace.”

“When do you want it?”

“Now.”

Chants rolled up and down the crowd. Drummers beat out the beat. Nixon, Nixon, Hey, Hey, How many kids did you kill today?

Then something happened. I don’t know where. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. The rage of the war. The rage of My Lai. The rage of hopelessness and despair. When no one listens you yell louder. Nixon, Nixon, Hey, Hey, How many kids did you kill today? Nixon, Nixon, Hey, Hey, How many kids did you kill today? What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now. Peace Now Peace Now Peace Now. 1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your fucking war. 1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your fucking war. Pigs suck. Down with pigs. Down with pigs. Pigs suck. Nixon, Nixon, Hey, Hey, How many kids did you kill today? Peace now. Peace now. No peace. Please now.

The crowd surged. I looked around frantically. Something felt different. “My god,” I said. “They are beating people with clubs up there. They dragged that guy across the plaza by his hair.” Peace now. Louder. Peace now. Louder. Peace now.

Power. Powerlessness. On both sides of the barricades it was war.

Keep singing. We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall. We shall.

Pigs suck. Pigs suck. Run. “It’s tear gas. Don’t let go of my hand, Becky.” Down with pigs. Fuck the system. We don’t want your fucking war. 1, 2, 3, 4.

What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now. Fuck you, pigs. Fuck you.

“I can’t breathe, Marty.”

A surge pushed us deeper into the crowd, closer to the barricade, nearer to the swinging billy clubs, nearer to the tear gas. People ran in every direction trying to get away. We were stuck in the mass. Hysteria grabbed the crowd. Cheers became jeers. Peace Now Pigs. Peace Now Pigs. Down With Pigs. Peace Now. The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

There was no peace anywhere.

Somehow we got separated from the rest. I was no longer linked to Ginger. Marty was no longer linked to Rick. I couldn’t see Jake or Peter.

“Where is everyone? We have to find them.”

“Don’t let go, Becky.” Marty held my hand tighter and tried to push his way through the crowd.

I yelled for the others. They were gone.

“We have to find them, Marty.”

“Don’t let go.”

The crowd pushed and retreated, pushed and retreated. Panic set in. Be calm. Be calm. We shall overcome. Peace now. Make love not war. Run for your life, they’ve got more tear gas. They’re bringing in the hoses.

What happened to the peace generation? What happened to the flower children? When did they get so powerless? Kennedy, King and Kennedy died. The war kept happening.

The police continued to beat us down. Did anybody see? The whole world was watching but did anybody see?

We got stuck in the crowd being pushed, punched, pummeled. The front row was ordered to disperse to a place they couldn’t get to, beaten by clubs. It took us two hours to find our way back to Ginger and Jake’s apartment. They had just arrived. Peter showed up silent an hour later. We waited and waited for Rick. Then the call came.

Rick ended up on the front lines trying to restore order out of chaos. Instead of stopping the police, they stopped him. He had a broken arm and spent the night in jail after his arm was set at the local hospital. All charges were dropped against him. No one was holding the police liable. We would. We would be back.

The next afternoon we gathered in Hixson Lounge to process what happened. Organizers already planned another rally the next Saturday. Mayor Daley was pressed to okay the parade passes. He knew that all eyes were on Chicago and the whole world was watching him. We will keep marching until we can do so without fear. The constitution, Mr. Daley, gives us the right to assemble. We will march and we will speak and we will keep coming back.

In the meantime, up in space, Conrad, Gordon and Bean were sent news from earth each day. Despite hundreds and thousands of demonstrators in moratorium actions across the country, they received no word of the war protests.

Once again this country sent three men up to the moon and back safely but the war raged on. We had the technology to conquer space but we couldn’t conquer our fear. There is no technology to love.

“I don’t want to go back,” I told Marty the following Friday.

“We have to. We can’t let them beat us.”

“They already have.”

The group was smaller, maybe 20,000. We were ready. We had our uniforms on, bell bottoms or faded and torn blue jeans, worn at the knee, worn at the butt, frayed at the cuff, red cotton bandanas through belt loops. I used the one Marty gave me at Woodstock. Fringed moccasins, peasant blouses, t-shirts with slogans, long hair, parted in the middle covering eyes, hair bands, beads. We smeared Vaseline on our faces to prevent tear gas stinging. The cotton bandanas to cover the mouth.

Organizers with bullhorns prepared us for the worse. “We are determined to make our voices heard. We will continue to march until we are heard. Are you with us?” “Yes” “Are you with us?” “Yes.” “ARE YOU WITH US?” “YES.”

On to the Civic Center. What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!

We got it. From the park to the plaza. The speakers we hadn’t heard last week spoke as much to the police and the country as to the crowd. “You will not intimidate us. You will not take away our voices. Chicago. The world is watching you. And we will keep on coming back.”

How can we stop a war overseas if there is violence in the streets of America?

We were tired when we got back home. Not tired from the march. Bone deep tired. Discouraged tired. Angry tired. Fear tired. Hatred tired. War tired. Nothing was getting better tired.

We sat around the living room trying to make sense of it. Rick with his arm in a cast, Peter with his dogs on his lap, Marty with his hand in mine and me.

But we couldn’t make any sense of it. What is so hard about wanting peace? How does peace get so violent?

“I don’t get it,” I said. “We come in peace and they bash our heads in.”

“There’s nothing to get,” Rick said. “The war is not going to stop until they want it to. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

“Then why are we doing what we’re doing?” Marty asked.

“Because we have to.” Peter said. He was right.

Three days later was the first anniversary of Hook’s death. The hurting was less but it would never go away. I would always keep the promise I made to Hook’s mom. I would always remember Dennis McKinney.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 47,975

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