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

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Chapter 43—"Let It Be"

Marty’s senior year ended with a whimper. We continued our boycott of classes. On graduation day, he dressed in a clean pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, a black band around his arm. He walked across the stage as Mom Olsen, Billy, Julie and I watched. It was a somber affair. I don’t know if it was because of the shadow of Cambodia, Kent State and Jackson State or if it was the fact that all the young male graduates who won the lottery would get their prize that summer.

After school let out, Rick left for the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to do some sociological research. Marty and I spent the summer digging in the dirt, planting flowers and vegetables for the summer, not saying what we both knew. Marty might not be around to pick the flowers or eat the vegetables.

“I have to go to court.” Marty and I pulled weeds in the greenhouse one Saturday in early August.

I stood up, dirt covering my hands, dug into my nails. “What? When did that happen?” All summer we avoided the conversation. We didn’t say we weren’t going to talk about it. We just didn’t. Kind of like if you didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen. What if they gave a war and no one talked about it? That’s what we did.

He sat down, took his dirty hand and pushed the hair out of his eyes, smearing dirt on his forehead. He looked at me, then his gaze shifted down.

He patted the ground next to him. I sat down. “About two weeks after graduation I got a letter telling me to report for my physical.”

The day Marty got his diploma was the day his draft status shifted from “2-S—Registrant Deferred Because of Activity in Study” to “1-A—Available for Military Service.” Why didn’t they call it what it was? “1-A—We Can Send You to Die if We Want.” Why the obfuscation?

“I didn’t show up,” he said.

What a difference a day makes. God, why was he born on November 8th? If we were conceived on the same day, why wasn’t he born on my birthday? Why then? Why not then?

“Why the hell didn’t I run over your foot with the car?” Then his status would have been “IV-F—Registrant Not Qualified for Any Military Service.” In other words, you are safe, young man. You’ll never walk again but at least you are safe.

Why didn’t we go to Canada? Why didn’t he have braces put on his teeth or at least try the drug route? He didn’t. He didn’t show up. He plain and simply didn’t show up.

Marty put a dirt covered hand in his back pocket and pulled out the letter he received the first week in August. He handed it to me. I wiped as much dirt as I could from my hands and then brushed back the few wisps of hair that escaped from the bandana tied around my head. I took the letter.

“You have been summoned to appear in court for failure to respond to your selective service notice by reporting to your pre-induction physical.”

“When were you going to tell me?”

“Right now.” He grinned.

“This isn’t funny, Marty. You knew all summer that you didn’t show up. I didn’t know you didn’t show up. Now you think it’s funny that you have to go to court and we didn’t even talk about it?”

“I couldn’t face it,” he said. “I couldn’t worry you.”

“You could not show up again. What can they do? We can go to Canada. It’s not too late. You could change your name and we could go into the witness protection program.”

He laughed. “Like the government will protect me from itself.”

“This is not funny, Marty.”

He looked at me. “I know it’s not funny, Becky. We’re talking about my life here. It is not funny.” He crumbled up the letter and threw it in the lettuce. I picked it up in case he decided to go and needed to know when and where.

He got up and pulled me up next to him. “I’ve got to get out of here.” He wiped the tears and dirt off my face with the bandana he always had tied to his belt loop. Then he wiped his own. It only smeared the dirt more.


“I don’t know. I have to think.”

“I’m going with you.”

He hugged me again, a sob escaping from his throat. “I’ve got to do this alone.”

“But this decision affects both of us.”

“I know that. But I’ve got to get my head clear alone.”

A shower and an hour later he was in the car. He kissed me through the window. “I won’t be long.”

I watched him drive away, his hand waving out the window as he disappeared from sight. I understood. It’s like when I ran after I heard that Hook died. If you go long enough, maybe at the end it will be different. It never is.

I sat down on the ground and looked around. The world didn’t make sense, none of it. We weeded lettuce and then he’s in the shower and then he drives away. What was I going to do? Peter was gone. He couldn’t help. Rick was doing sociological research on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He couldn’t help. Ginger and Jake were on their way home from a vacation in Vermont. They couldn’t help. Hook was the only one who could help me. He couldn’t help. I picked up a handful of dirt from the ground next to me and let it sift through my fingers.

I went inside and called Mama McKinney. I cried outright when she answered the phone.

“Hi, it’s Becky.” That’s all I got out.

“My dear, are you okay?”

“No.” That’s all I got out some more.

“Take a breath, dear and tell me what’s wrong.”

“Marty has to go to court for not going to his physical. They can throw him in jail if they find him guilty. What am I going to do? I’m not sure I could survive that.”

But I knew I could. And she knew I could. That’s why I called her. I needed Mama McKinney to tell me I could survive whatever happened. I needed to feel her hug through the telephone wires.

I spent the next two days in limbo. Saturday night I watched Bonanza on TV. Little Joe got his heart broken again by a young schoolteacher who was killed by a random bullet. That always happened on Bonanza. Little Joe fell in love and then the girl he was in love with always got killed. Little Joe never got a break. When it came to love neither of us ever got a break, except for our hearts. They broke too often.

Sunday, I wandered around the house picking up things and moving them to new places, picking them up, moving them again. I went to my internship at the local paper on Monday morning. I wrote an article about a 50th anniversary celebration wondering if I’d ever have one.

Marty showed up late Monday afternoon. I heard the horn honk and met him at the back door. God, I never wanted to let go of him again. He took my hand and sat me down at the kitchen table. “I’ll get us some tea.” He turned to the stove.

“Why do you always offer me tea?” I asked as I stood up. “It’s hot out. I don’t need any tea.”

Marty came back to the table and gently sat me down again. He sat next to me, took both hands and looked straight at me. I was already crying. He let go of one hand and handed me his bandana. I blew my nose in it. “I thought a lot about this.”

I stopped him. “I don’t want to hear it. Whatever it is don’t tell me. Let’s go to Canada. Let’s hide in the woods somewhere.”

“Becky, I need to make my statement in court. I need to stand before the draft board and the court and tell them that I won’t go, that I won’t be complicit with their war.”

“What good will that do?” I asked him. “What good will it do to stand before some judge and tell that judge that you refuse to go to Vietnam. No newspaper is going to pick up the story. Nobody will know. Nothing will change.”

“I’ll know.” Marty stood up and walked towards the refrigerator. “Iced tea?”

“Shut the fuck up about tea,” I said to him. He came back to the table and sat down. I looked at him. “What will happen?” I knew the answer before he told me.

“Probably twenty-five months.”

I stopped breathing. Then I stood up and slammed my hand on the table. “1-2-3 Bam. Remember? Let’s all jump and change the course of history. 1-2-3 Bam. Well, it didn’t work.” I needed to run. “All for not wanting to take a gun and shoot someone in the face. All for not being willing to drop napalm on a forest or bombs on a city. Something is wrong with justice in this country. That’s not fair.” Then I looked at Marty. It was his life. He was the one going to prison.

I reached up my hand and put it gently on the side of his face. “You know I love you, don’t you?”

“More than tongue-can-tell,” He took my hand holding onto him. My mom always said that when I was young. It took me a long time to realize a person named Tunkin Tell did not exist.

“Right back at you.” I wiped the tears out of my eyes.

Marty could not show up again. Courtrooms and draft boards couldn’t handle all the cases brought before them. But Marty had to speak, to make his voice heard, to make his statement. That’s one of the things I loved most about him.

Ten days later we went to court. I sat in the courtroom next to Marty, holding his hand, waiting for the judge to call his name. Rick came back from the reservation to be with us. Billy, Julie and Mom Olsen came from Springfield. Jake and Ginger came, back from Vermont. Jake had finished his first year of law school. Ginger was six months pregnant. I pulled a package of five-flavor lifesavers from my pocket and handed it around. Marty took the red one. I didn’t care. At that point, I didn’t even care if I ended up with the green one, the one that tasted like the stuff you clean the kitchen floor with.

Even when you’re right, there’s nothing more demoralizing than a courtroom. It seemed like a good idea when the Bill of Rights was written, speedy trial, jury of your peers. The problem with justice, though, is that a judge or jury get to decide your fate whether they are right or not, whether you are right or not. Marty was right. It didn’t make a damn bit of difference when it came to justice.

I heard Marty’s name. He hugged me and leaned over to shake his brother’s hand and nod at everyone sitting there.

Marty stood before the judge next to his attorney. “Mr. Olsen. You are in court because of a failure to appear at your pre-induction physical.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Can you explain why you didn’t appear?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Care to enlighten me?”

I held onto Billy’s hand. “I won’t go,” was all Marty said.

Chants ran through my mind. Hell no, we won’t go. Hell no, he won’t go. That means jail. It’s easy to chant it. Then you have to live with it.

The judge replied, “You understand that it is against the laws of the U.S. government and Selective Service to refuse induction?”

“I do, Your Honor.”

I put a pineapple lifesaver in my mouth, chewing it, not even savoring the taste. Why do you keep saying ‘Your Honor?’ There’s no honor here. I gripped Billy’s hand so hard he probably thought it was going to break.

The judge said, “Then I must sentence you. Do you want to say anything before I do?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

Stop the ‘Your Honor’ crap, Marty. Run. Run like hell. Run as fast as you can. Run to Canada. I thought, squeezing harder.

Marty turned to us. “I’m sorry. I love you all.” He looked at me briefly. I smiled. He turned back to the judge. “If there is a god, that god does not want me to kill. And whether there is a god or not, what the government is doing in Vietnam is wrong. I will not be, I cannot be complicit with the evils perpetrated on the people of Vietnam in the name of our government. I cannot serve two masters. I cannot serve the United States government and the morality of my soul. I choose my soul.”

The judge looked at Marty and smiled. He cleared his throat and wrote something on a piece of paper in front of him. “You are a courageous young man. I wish there were more young men like you in this country. If there were, we might see an end to this damnable war.”

The judge looked at us. “You should be proud of him,” he said. Fuck pride, I thought.

“Despite my feelings about the war, I must follow the laws of this country. I hereby sentence you to twenty-five months in prison.” One month more than the obligation of the draft. The gavel fell.

I saw Marty’s head drop. Then he turned, looked at us and brushed back his hair. He looked at Billy and grinned. We hugged him before the guard took him away. I needed that hug to hold me for a long time.

As Marty walked from the courtroom, hands cuffed behind his back, his hair falling in his eyes, he whispered something to the guard. They both laughed.

He did it. He spoke his conscience. A lot of good that did. God, I would miss him. Relentless time seemed to swallow me again.

Marty’s mom touched me on the shoulder and I turned. Her son had just been sentenced to jail. “At least he won’t die. At least he’ll get to come home,” she said as she hugged me.

I walked over to Billy and leaned down to hug him. He pulled me into his lap and I laid my head on his shoulder while he stroked my hair and let me cry. “You should be proud of him, Becky. He did the right thing for him. That’s pretty obvious.”

“Proud? Fuck pride. Fuck the right thing. How am I going to live through the next twenty-five months?” I wanted to stay in Billy’s lap the whole time, to not get up and make my bed and brush my teeth and eat breakfast and sweep the floor and take a shower and put one foot in front of the other. I was tired of putting one foot in front of the other. I wanted my feet to be rooted for a while.

Billy kissed me on the head and I looked into his eyes, at his hair, at the red bandana. “The same way you lived through the last twenty-five,” he said.

We stayed at the courthouse only long enough to find out details about where Marty would be taken, when we could visit, when we could call, how we could send him care packages. Then we left and went our separate ways.

Rick took me away from the courthouse in Chicago, away from the tears, back to the little white clapboard house near Lake Forest, back to the comfort of a bed and a pillow and posters on the wall. While my lover was spending the first of seven hundred and ninety-one nights in jail, I smoked a joint with Rick.

“I’m riding on this huge Ferris wheel that’s been spinning around and around for three years. Now it’s stopped with me at the top. I am suspended in space, rocking back and forth, no firm ground to stand on, nowhere to go, just a constant rocking,” I said as I brought the Winnie-the-Pooh cookie jar to the couch and picked out two cookies.

Rick picked through the cookies and found a lemon cream one. “The cookie stash has improved this summer.”

“That’s Marty,” I felt the tears come. “One day he said, ‘Enough with Oreos and Vanilla Wafers’ and he went out and bought four packages of random cookies.”

Rick handed me a napkin to dry my tears. “When you are on a Ferris wheel, eventually they get to you. They let someone out at the bottom and keep going around. They finally put up your bar and you walk sure-footed on the ground again.”

I was bone tired. He was gone. Goddamn war. It ripped out my heart time and time and time again. Maybe I didn’t have to worry about being drafted and going to Vietnam. But when the war touched everyone I cared for, it touched me and the touching wasn’t that of a lover. It was the touch of sand paper on raw skin. It hurt like hell.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 52,237

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