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

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AFTERWARDS—Forty Years Later—"With a Little Help From My Friends"

Four years. One thousand four hundred and sixty-one days. In those four years I had ordinary moments and I had moments that unexpectedly became extraordinary.

The gold glint on the lake as the sun set.

Cheese-in-a-Can and oozy éclairs.

Canasta and music late into the night.

A dance in the library and five-flavored lifesavers.

Love when I thought it would never find me again.

Baloney and macaroni and cheese for breakfast.

A weekend of skipping stones and magic

Watching baby chicks hatch.

Coffee and doughnuts.

Puppies and silence.

Swimming in the music and mud.

Whole body hugs.

A kiss in the light of the Milky Way.

Red bandanas

A moment of laughter when laughter had been gone for so long.

Grains in quart mason jars.

Radishes and Oreos when I needed them most.

Tomatoes, cheese and a glass of wine.

Imagining me and you, I do.

Sliding down the green wall of a dirty prison backroom.

Seeing him standing right in front of me.

These are the perfect moments that make up four years over and over again. Days well lived. One thousand four hundred and sixty-one of them.

The day I arrived at Lake Forest College my roommate said, “These four years are going to go by fast.” They did. And the next four. And the next and the next. Ten “four years” later, I sat in a courtroom with my son, arrested for his constitutional right to protest. All ten of those four years shaped that moment and brought me to that courtroom.

The four years rolled by.

Four years after I graduated, I watched the spectacle of the Fall of Saigon on TV and put Vietnam out of my life. The draft ended and the Paris Peace Accord was signed. I was a journalist. I had the Bicentennial preparations to cover, political campaigns to follow, nuclear power protests to write about.

Four years later Vietnam found its way back into my life. I walked into a movie theater to see “Coming Home.” I was seduced by a handsome actor in a wheelchair, not a paralyzed veteran but a blond haired blue-eyed walking paraplegic who came home. Fantasy in a wheelchair. Jon Voight was nothing like Billy.

Almost four years later I went to Washington D.C. to cover the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall with 58,193 names. Hook’s name should be etched on that wall.

“You want to walk the wall with a vet?” I turned and looked at a veteran standing there. “I’m Mickey Coleman,” he said.

Mickey and I walked the wall looking for his buddies. As a medic in Nam he put a lot of these guys in black body bags with white tags. He told me stories.

“This guy was a scout master before he went to Nam. He had the god-awfullest teeth I ever saw.”

“This one got married the day before he shipped out. He never stopped talking about his wife.”

“This one left a pregnant wife and never got to see his newborn child.”

“This one was a track star in college. He was bound for the Olympics.”

You should walk the wall with a vet.

Four years later I did a story on a real wheelchair rolling down the middle of a busy Chicago street. The person in the wheelchair wasn’t a handsome blonde-haired actor but a skinny tired Vietnam veteran with callouses on his hands, twitches in his muscles, sweat pouring off his nose. A sweat stained baseball hat bore the words ‘Vietnam Veteran and Proud of It.’ He pinned his purple heart to the pocket of his army jacket. The pants he wore didn’t cover any legs. Not the kind of veteran Jane Fonda would have fallen in love with. He was a dark-haired, haunted-eyed veteran who only wanted a small business loan so he could keep on living.

Six more four years passed and I sat with my son in a courtroom in New York City where he faced charges related to his second arrest during the Occupation of Wall Street. The charges for his first arrest had been dropped. These charges were more serious.

I took my husband’s hand and held on for dear life thinking of another courtroom, another hand. Matt looked at us. I smiled.

“Is the prosecution ready?” the judge asked.

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“What are the charges?”

“This young man was arrested when he refused to leave the sidewalk after orders were given. He is charged with resisting arrest, refusing to disperse, trespassing, blocking traffic and intent to harm an officer.”

He handed the judge the papers. “Here is the arrest warrant and the testimony from the arresting officer.”

The judge waved the papers away. “I have that here,” she said glancing at the papers in front of her. Then she turned to Matt. “These are serious charges. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, Your Honor.”

“Before I pass sentence, do you have anything to say?”

“Yes, Your Honor. I legally walked down the sidewalk during a constitutionally protected protest when a man in a dark shirt attacked me and knocked me down. He never identified himself as a police officer or said I was under arrest. Four other cops landed on me. The guy with the dark shirt smashed my face into the ground, a cop pounded his knee into my back. It’s pretty hard to disperse when your face is in the ground and a cop is sitting on top of you.” Matt took a deep breath and looked back at us. I nodded.

“Two cops grabbed my arms and pulled them behind my back while the fifth put handcuffs on so tight my hands stayed numb for three months. It’s hard to resist arrest when five police officers are on top of you. And I’m unsure how I could harm an officer with hands cuffed behind my back. They put me in jail for thirty-six hours. When they handed me my things on my release, my car keys were missing from the key ring and my cell phone was smashed. I am not guilty, Your Honor. I’m pretty sure I know who is.”

The judge looked at Matt then down at the papers again. She said to the prosecutor. “Is the arresting officer here?”

“Yes, Your Honor.” He pointed to a police officer who stood.

The judge asked, “To the best of your recollection is the arrest warrant accurate?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” the officer said, without looking at any papers.

“Looks clear cut to me. Do you have a recommendation?” the judge asked.

“Yes, Your Honor. Ninety days in jail.”

The judge looked at my son and quietly said, “I find you guilty, young man. While you may believe in your cause, you broke the law.”

“Walking down the sidewalk is now against the law?” my son asked.

The judge paused for a second. “The charge of intent to harm an officer is a serious charge. I sentence you to ninety days in jail. Bailiff, take the prisoner.” The gavel fell.

Matt’s head dropped for a moment. He shook hands with his attorney. Then he came over and hugged us.

As he walked away in handcuffs, Matt leaned over to the bailiff escorting him and said something. They both laughed. He looked so much like his dad at that moment.

My husband turned to me. “Becky, we raised a good son. You should be proud of him.”

I smiled. “He takes after his dad,” I said, thinking, Fuck pride.

The register at the small New York market rang up $19.68. I stopped to buy Matt a book, some Skittles and a bag of Dove dark chocolate squares, the ones with a message in every wrapper. “Nineteen Sixty-Eight,” the cashier said to me.

I handed him a twenty-dollar bill and said, “1968 was a great year.”

“It sure was.” He counted out thirty-two cents and handed it back to me. “I was born in 1968. Why do you think it was great?”

I thought for a moment. 1968. One thing after another. The escalation of the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive. More soldiers killed in Vietnam than any other year. Martin Luther King assassinated. Bobby Kennedy assassinated. Riots erupting in most major cities. Raw violence in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Riots on college campuses. Boycotts. Occupations. A great year?

“It just was,” I said. “I was 18.”

More than 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam. How many Vietnamese soldiers and civilians? Half a million? One, two, three million? How many children? Millions upon millions? The living still breathing in the more than eighteen million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on their land. The veterans still feeling the effects of Agent Orange. Generations destroyed.

1968? It was about death. The whole ugly dirty war when I was 18 was about death.

Veterans are still dying from wounds or illnesses related to combat in Vietnam. When they die, a name is added to The Wall.

Did it matter what we did? The protests and marches, the chants and songs, the occupations and boycotts. Did it matter at all?

I know for sure. We didn’t finish the job.

That’s why my son occupied the streets of New York City in 2011. And that’s how I came to be lying next to this man in a hotel room in New York City. My husband took me in his arms and I curled up beside him. “He’ll be okay,” Marty said. “I promise you, he’ll be okay.” Marty should know.

So the story ends. I like endings. I don’t like beginnings. For me, beginnings are hard. They are filled with sad leavings, death and assassinations. But endings? They always signify that something new is coming. That I can handle.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 58,282

Arrests: Almost 8,000 occupiers were arrested in the U.S. during the Occupy Movement.


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