JOE STARED IN WIDE-EYED disbelief at the melee playing out in real life. Beneath the Hilton Hotel sign, police and National Guardsmen clubbed antiwar demonstrators senseless, smashing heads, limbs and crotches with reckless disregard of their victims. A store window shattered somewhere, and the cops intensified their assault until blood flowed in the streets of Chicago. Paddy wagons lined the avenues, waiting to cart away those who were arrested.
“Lousy pigs,” someone muttered behind Joe.
For seventeen agonizing minutes, the violence raged, with the crowd of demonstrators chanting ominously, “The whole world is watching.”
Joe was part of the whole world on this last Wednesday night of August 1968. He had been camped in a folding chair in front of the television for three straight hours. His bladder urged him to find a bathroom, but Joe stayed in his seat, mesmerized by the savagery on the television screen.
He was among a crowd of college students who had piled into the tiny living room of Elliot Frankel’s apartment. Elliot enjoyed the well-earned reputation as the unofficial leader of a fledgling student movement at Valdosta State College. He was a novelty among the conservative collegians, most of whom adhered to values more American than apple pie itself. Besides his authentic Brooklyn accent, which was an oddity in itself on the campus, Elliot made a conscientious effort to distinguish himself from the crowd. His jet-black hair flowed in long locks down his back. His diamond-studded earring sparkled too loudly to go unnoticed by anyone within eyeshot. He typically wore an odd assortment of rag-tag clothes, love beads and sandals unless the occasion required conservative attire. Then, he dressed in well-worn blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. On more than one occasion, he had inspired the question, “Is it a man or a woman?”
Despite his peculiarities and shenanigans, Elliot believed substance mattered more than style. He was no ordinary goof ball and refused treatment as such, though several professors had tried without success. He had migrated to the South Georgia college from New York University, hoping to discover firsthand the truth about race relations in the Deep South. He came across as sincere, dedicated to his convictions and resolute in his commitments. When he picked a fight with administrators, professors or fellow students, Elliot argued with passion and persuasiveness.
Joe and Elliot had become friends in the spring of 1967 during an American history class, unexpectedly brought together by their mutual praise for Martin Luther King Jr. In the face of bitter feelings among their classmates, they had defended the Nobel Peace Prize winner as a genuine American hero for his war on injustice and bigotry. Out of their battle scars, a genuine camaraderie had emerged even though they sat on opposite sides of the classroom and appeared socially at odds with each other. When the class ended, Elliot had invited Joe to join him for a bite to eat at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter.
As Joe nursed a Coke and Elliot sipped coffee with the day’s blue plate special—fried beef liver—the young men had spoken frankly of their misconceptions about each other. Elliot decided Joe was an unabashed square, committed to progress as long as it did not interfere too much with the way things were. Joe believed Elliot was a misguided revolutionary, whose freewheeling ways alienated the very people he hoped to change.
“You talk like McCarthy and Kennedy, but you’re Buckley and Nixon in sheep’s clothing,” Elliot declared. “You believe change will occur simply for the sake of change, and you assume it will be change for the better. But while you’re waiting and hoping for the best, very little gets accomplished, Joe. It takes men of action to bring about change. You prefer to sit back, watch and then make observations that more often than not come across as smug complicity rather than constructive feedback. Honestly, Joe, I question your commitment to change, to a great many of the things you profess to believe. With you, everything is a simple question of right and wrong. In my book, that’s a selfish way to look at things. It’s a set-up for a hard and fast fall. I suppose if you want to change the world—and probably you do—then you are one of those people who believe it can be done one person at a time. Assuming you’re right for the sake of argument, then there’s a great deal of suffering to be done while we’re waiting on your piecemeal change. I’m not much for suffering, Joe.”
“You act too much like a hippie for my tastes,” Joe responded in equally plain tones, “and you tend to go overboard with your beliefs. Deep down, you champion essentially sound principles. No one should fault you for your commitment to civil rights, and everyone probably should pay attention to your misgivens about Vietnam. But despite your best effort, Elliot, there’s no way you can make me believe that Americans should see Fidel Castro as any kind of hero. Nor does this country need a social revolution. People make mistakes—me, you, the president, Congress, everybody. But good values never go out of style, and I think most people have good values. You, on the other hand, don’t always advocate good values, Elliot. You want to live in a world where anything goes: Drink this, smoke that, free love, free sex, screw anything that walks and screw the consequences. You’re so danged intent on tearen everything and everybody down that you can’t separate what’s good from what needs to be done.”
“I’ll take that under consideration next time I plan a revolution,” Elliot said.
“Likewise,” Joe agreed. “If I ever get around to it.”
Eventually, they had decided their observations about each other probably were as much accurate as flawed and as astute as they were ignorant. But they had walked away from the dime store restaurant with a grudging respect for each other’s way of thinking.
Their newfound friendship had languished soon after the spring-quarter history class ended, and they had lost touch completely when Joe left college to help his father after the fire. But on the evening of April fourth earlier this year, Elliot had telephoned long-distance to inform Joe of MLK’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A few days later, against his family’s wishes, Joe had accompanied Elliot to Atlanta, where they attended the fallen civil rights leader’s funeral. Months later, they had repeated the ritual when Robert Kennedy was cut down by Sirhan Sirhan.
In between the tragedies, Elliot had mentioned casually that Joe might enjoy attending one of the weekly meetings he hosted for “freethinkers” like himself. “There’s nothing official about it or anything like that,” Elliot explained. “It’s a bunch of students and sometimes a professor or two who’re feeling especially brave or oppressed. We sit around, listen to the music, drink coffee, wine, beer, booze or whatever your pleasure—maybe smoke a joint every now and then, and talk about whatever’s groovy or hip.”
“I probably wouldn’t fit in,” Joe surmised.
“You would well enough,” Elliot replied. “Almost everyone who comes is more like you than me and the rest of the hard-core nuts.”
“Who are the hard-core nuts?” Joe asked.
“We represent every stereotype you could want,” Elliot said. “Darris Palmer is black and can’t decide whether he wants to follow MLK or Malcolm X. I keep telling him they’re both dead, so it doesn’t matter. Cecil Bradley is light in the shoes if you catch my drift, but he can argue passionately about why the United States does not belong in Vietnam. Kevin Reid worked in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, then spent two years in ’Nam. He’s generally confused about everything. Then there’s Karen Baxter. She’s a hodgepodge of every stereotype in our little group and then some.
“Do any of those names ring a bell?” Elliot asked.
“I went to high school with Karen,” Joe answered. “She always was a freethinker, I suppose.”
“Yes, indeed,” Elliot sighed. “Karen has a style all her own. What she can do for peace remains to be seen. As a piece, however, the woman’s not bad at all. You come to one or two of our meetings, and you’re likely to learn for yourself.”
“The meeten sounds interesten, but I think I’ll pass on Karen and whatever she might offer,” Joe said somewhat tersely.
Elliot laughed aloud, amused by the serious tone of Joe’s voice. “A caustic comment that begs questioning,” he teased. “But I’ll be a gentleman for once and keep them to myself. Let’s just say, shall we, that Karen makes sure the group’s physical needs—at least those of the male persuasion—are attended to so that our minds might be at their brilliant best to satisfy her lusty liberal leanings.”
“Say whatever you want about her,” Joe said. “I couldn’t care less.”
A few days later, he had attended his first meeting. For the most part, he drank beer while everyone else analyzed a Simon and Garfunkel song. At subsequent meetings, they discussed Vietnam, the Great Society, the upcoming election and how America’s youth was changing the country’s way of thinking. Whether he agreed or disagreed with his new friends, Joe enjoyed the debate, as well as the companionship.
Appropriately enough, he had smoked marijuana for the first time while the group discussed the merits of legalized drugs, an idea Joe found ridiculous and flawed. But he had consumed far too much beer on that night to argue effectively against the notion, so he kept quiet and took a toke on a marijuana cigarette circulating around the room. Even in his alcoholic haze, Joe felt uneasy about smoking pot. But when the drug seemed to have no apparent effect on his behavior, he found it easier to accept the marijuana on the next occasion it was offered.
On this August night, Joe felt no remorse at all when Elliot offered him the remnants of a rolled joint. He inhaled deeply, took another drag for good measure and passed the joint to a girl waiting beside him with a roach clip. Almost instantly, his total awareness dulled as his attention zeroed in on the television screen.
As Joe saw it, the savagery in Chicago was a fitting climax to the carnage that would be remembered as 1968. He thought the violence in Chicago was hardly unexpected.
Although only a spectator to the Democratic National Convention, Joe had sensed the mounting tension and frustration that triggered this final clash between antiwar demonstrators and cops. For three days, he had watched television and read newspaper accounts of how students trashed police cars with rocks and bottles while baiting officers with taunts and threats. From the moment the cops first fired their guns into the air as a warning several days earlier, he had anticipated a frenzied climax to the madness. But even so, he watched the television in dismay. He was stunned by the show of force as the cops carried out their vicious attack. But his sympathies were tempered by the inclination that the mob of demonstrators deserved a few bruises for their own outrageous behavior.
He was wondering why both sides were not behaving more rationally when Karen Baxter interrupted his thoughts.
“This is mind-bogglen,” Karen said to Joe. “It’s a national disgrace and just goes to prove what we’ve been sayen all along. What about the right to peaceful protest?”
“I haven’t seen anything peaceful about any of the whole sorry mess,” Joe replied without taking his eyes off the television. “But you’re right about one thing: It is a disgrace.”
Karen backed away from Joe, biting her tongue to conceal the anger boiling within her. Once again, Joe had her on edge. She tried to decipher his remark about the bloodbath playing on television. Was there a hidden meaning in his flippant response to her observations, one she failed to understand? Had he intended to ridicule her?
Too often these days, she found herself floundering in Joe’s presence. When Joe was among her circle of companions, she maintained a constant vigil on every word and thought. She felt threatened by Joe, as if he were a secret agent waiting to expose her as an intellectual and New Left fraud. The man’s mere presence frayed her nerves, his smug complacency rankled her demeanor and his casual disregard preyed on her worst fears. Karen resented his intrusion into her elite group of radicals and revolutionaries. Worst of all, she despised having to hide her contempt for Joe.
Still, discretion was an annoying necessity. Karen needed every clever trick to keep these bouts of paranoia from revealing herself as a vain woman instead of the free-spirited intellectual she wanted to be.
She had orchestrated her image as a choreographer creates dance. Each step was planned with precision and flow, embracing every idea that smacked of rebellion. She maintained impeccable grades, yet flaunted her disregard for archaic institutions of learning. She denounced Vietnam, railed against prejudice, applauded Eugene McCarthy and was leading efforts to establish a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society on the VSC campus. She believed in black power, flower power, feminism and free love. She was ready to tune in, turn on and drop out. She was devoted to the ideas of rebellion and repression, revolution and resistance.
More than embracing any particular ideology, Karen adored all things extreme. On a given day, she was a devoted flower child, strolling on air as she sang Are You Going to San Francisco, even while she dreamed of standing side by side with the Black Panthers and making fast and furious love with Eldridge Cleaver. She deplored violence, yet licked her lips in fascination as scores died and flames burned throughout Watts, Newark and Detroit in urban rioting. She encouraged young men to burn their draft cards and flee to Canada, yet was enthralled by the sheer numbers coming out of Vietnam: half a million American soldiers there, fifteen thousand dead, almost two million acres defoliated in a single year. She had believed passionately in Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., but found the men’s violent deaths more inspiring than their principles. Now, she supported no one in the race to succeed Lyndon Johnson unless it was Eugene McCarthy. Even so, she hoped George Wallace would run a good campaign simply for the sake of a divisive election.
Her motives had been sincere at some point. She had come to college in search of liberation and ended up with a carefully cultivated reputation as a radical. She had become the embodiment of the New Left, a radical whose reputation was surpassed only by the antics and maleness of Elliot Frankel. Earning her reputation had been pure bliss. Maintaining it was complicated. As queen of the revolution, she was expected to say all the right things, wear all the right clothes and think all the right thoughts. Often, Karen felt as if she were campaigning to become the next homecoming queen.
She owed her revolutionary status to Elliot. He was one of the few men who had seduced Karen rather than been seduced by her. From the moment she first laid eyes on the man, Karen had decided to sleep with Elliot on their second occasion together. Less than two hours later, she was underneath him, on the mattress laid across the living room floor in his tiny apartment. Men with long hair and earrings attracted Karen in the first place. Once Elliot had uttered his first words of liberal propaganda, she had become putty in his hands.
Karen had discovered the sexual revolution years before it became vogue. Sex made her heady with power and importance. She kept a running list of her sexual partners and the tab numbered more than a hundred. She had slept with schoolboys, collegians, professors, construction workers, a vacuum cleaner salesman and one black man. She advocated legalized abortion and free birth control pills for everyone. She understood the power of seduction, and she used it with great success. On a whim, she would turn a man into a sexual magnet, full of cock and swagger in his prowess. Or she might exploit every inch of vulnerability. On three occasions, she had extorted comfortable sums of money from the ignorant, telling them cash was needed to pay for an abortion. The claim had been true only once.
Karen was indeed queen of the revolution, and she enjoyed her favored status. But the mere presence of Joe Baker tarnished the luster of her crown. He evoked memories of the girl who had longed to be a hell-raiser while cast amid a sea of fuddy-duddies; a closet revolutionary who wanted to shake America at its roots while her peers thrived in their contentment; the siren who satisfied her restlessness by bringing to life the vivid fantasies of youthful lovers. Joe’s presence was a direct link to the perky cheerleader, the Sunday school sweetheart, the bouffanted prom queen—all roles Karen had played at one time or another. But those were feelings that any of her high school classmates could have dredged to the surface, the cool and the popular ones, the jocks and the brains, the weirdoes and the wallflowers, even those who barely counted.
She felt ill at ease around Joe. She was jealous of his poise and unwavering self-assurance. His presence undermined her self-control, and his seeming indifference provoked her pettiness. He jeopardized her status, leaving Karen one slip of the tongue away from losing her credibility with the group.
On the first night Joe had attended one of Elliot’s gatherings, Karen had picked the topic of discussion—an analysis of her favorite song, Dangling Conversation, by Simon and Garfunkel. The discussion had been probing, a free-spirited consideration of life’s values and a welcomed relief from the endless dialectic over war, politics and violence. The lone dark spot had been Joe, who sat in his chair looking as if he deigned the entire exercise a waste of time. Irked by his silence, Karen had made a blunder. She had challenged Joe to contribute to the conversation, hoping to expose him as shallow and unable to grasp the subtle elements of the song. If she had thought first, she would have remembered Joe was a sponge, always aware of everything and willing to meet a challenge. But Karen had forgotten.
“You haven’t said a word all evenen, Joe,” she commented during a lull in the discussion. “Are we boren you? Or does the song have no meanen for you?”
“I like the poetry of Robert Frost,” Joe answered with a shrug of his shoulders. “But I don’t care much for Emily Dickinson. I don’t understand her—maybe because I can’t or don’t want to identify with her.”
When it became apparent Joe would say nothing else, Karen had pressed the issue. “You’re missen the complexities of the song, Joe,” she said with the slightest touch of condescension. “I don’t think poetry has much to do with the message. It’s about how superficial people are.”
Joe considered the suggestion for a long moment. “Perhaps,” he shrugged finally. “I tend to think it’s up to each person to decide for themselves what is and isn’t superficial. It’s certainly not my place to make that decision for them.”
“Right on!” said Darris Palmer, pumping his fist and winking at Joe.
“I agree,” Elliot added quickly before his eyes turned lethal and his tone lecturing. “Besides Karen,” he said. “Since when are we keeping score on who contributes what to the discussion?”
“I wasn’t keepen score,” Karen replied calmly, mustering a warm smile for Joe. “I happen to know Joe from way back when. I was hopen—maybe even expecten—somethen more profound from him.”
Then, she had laughed ea
sily. “No harm meant, Joe,” she added, diffusing the tension. “You know how obsessive I get about things important to me. Didn’t you once call me a bulldog?”
“I don’t recall,” Joe had said, shrugging off the incident as if there were no need for an apology.
From that point on, Karen had focused on making Joe feel accepted. She had smiled at him until her jaws ached and tried to draw him into conversation. But nothing she did commanded his attention. And although she had a strong inkling why he avoided her, Karen seethed over his rejection. Animosity festered within her like an infected sore, threatening to burst in an ugly spray of malice and envy.
Suddenly, a warm breath ran down her neck and across her throat. “I’d like to be inside that pretty head of yours now to see what wheels are turning,” Elliot said. “What has Joe Baker done to inspire this gaze of fierce intensity?”
Karen tipped her head back and smiled through gritted teeth, allowing Elliot to muzzle her cheek with his day-old beard. “Was I staren,” she asked. “I didn’t realize.”
“I didn’t think so,” Elliot laughed. “Nor do I really care.” He pulled her against him. “Suppose you stick around tonight after everybody leaves,” he leered. “We could stage some violence of our own, compromise each other and then make peace.”
The suggestion appealed to Karen, and she knew suddenly what needed doing. She would bed a man tonight, but not Elliot Frankel.
“I don’t think so, Elliot,” she replied at length, slipping from his embrace. “Some other time. Tonight, I’m taken care of unfinished business.”
Willowy arms wrapped around Joe’s shoulders, breaking his concentration on the televised spectacle that would go down in infamy as the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. One hand caressed his chest, while another brought a taste of hard liquor to his lips. The hardened nipples of firm breasts pressed against his spine, and moist breath whispered in his ear. Joe knew Karen Baxter was seducing him. He decided to play along with her for a while, admiring her moxie if little else.
“Vodka on ice,” she said. “That is your preference, Joe?”
“It is,” Joe answered as she nibbled on his ear.
Karen was oblivious to the long-lived effects of her passionate dalliance with Joe years earlier. In his twenty-two years, she was the only woman who had come remotely close to claiming his heart. Joe counted his former feelings for her as nothing more than puppy love, and he regarded the lost relationship with casual detachment. Still, Karen intrigued him. And although he knew better, Joe was still captivated by what he saw as a delicate quality to the woman. More than once recently, he had caught himself fantasizing about making love to her, wondering about the passion they could create if they took the time to appreciate each other.
These thoughts were ridiculous, he knew, a complete waste of time. His infatuation with Karen was irrational, though less now that he was older and wiser. Joe harbored few illusions about her. He knew people who piled puppies and rocks in burlap bags, then tossed the bundle off the nearest bridge, and they had more heart than Karen. Furthermore, he suspected she was the reason he approached any relationship with a woman like a skilled bank robber, making his moves only when he was certain of the getaway.
Maybe that explained why he was willing to play along with her seduction. She was skilled at the art, a mixture of coy, cunning and straightforwardness in her quest to bed him. Above all, she was relentless, charming Joe with the fickle spells of enchantment and whim that had first attracted him years earlier. On this night, he was of mind to wait and see whatever sleight of hand Karen would play.
Hours later, Karen snuggled into the crook of his arm as Joe smoked a cigarette. She sighed contentedly, watching Joe blow smoke rings. They were sweaty, exhausted and satisfied.
“This beats the backseat of the family car, huh?” she giggled.
“Yeah,” Joe said.
“Can you French-inhale?” she asked.
“I haven’t done that in years,” Joe answered, exhaling a straight line of smoke. “I pretty much stick to the basics.”
“Do it for me,” Karen said.
Joe drew on the cigarette, opened his mouth and breathed slowly, rotating the smoke in a circle between his nose and mouth. Karen giggled, pushing closer to him, resting her palm flat against his stomach.
Joe quickly exhaled the smoke and pulled away from her, pushing away the sheet as he sat up on the edge of the bed. “What time is it?” he asked, searching around the one-room apartment for a clock.
Karen rolled on her side and retrieved a clock from the floor. “It’s three-thirty,” she informed him. “Come back to bed. Let’s sleep late and see if we can stage a repeat performance when we wake up.”
“I have to get home,” Joe replied. “We’re diggen sweet potatoes today, and Daddy wants to get an early start. If I leave now, I can catch a little sleep before it’s time to get up.”
“You’re leaven me?” she asked, disbelieving.
Joe stood unsteadily, found his clothes and put on his underwear and jeans. “It was fun, Karen, but I have to go,” he said a moment later, his tone far more casual than his feelings about this encounter. “I guess we chalk this up as one for old time’s sake.”
“Beats the backseat of the family car,” she said softly as Joe buttoned his shirt, stuffed socks into pants pockets and sat down beside her to tie his tennis shoes.
Joe looked at Karen for a long moment, appraising her petite figure, her milky white skin and soft brown hair. He wondered if a goodbye kiss was in order.
Karen sensed his mixed emotions. “Don’t forget the protest,” she reminded him. “We’ll start the fall quarter off with a bang.”
Joe shrugged. “I’m not sure I’ll be there,” he replied.
“You have to be there, Joe,” she cried. “You promised.”
Joe tried without success to remember the promise. “Believen the war is wrong is one thing, Karen,” he said. “Protesten against it is somethen else again. I’m a veteran for gosh sake. I’m not sure I’d feel right about doen that. Those things have a way of getten blown out of proportion. A person ought to be damn sure about what—and whom—he’s protesten against.”
“We’re sure, Joe,” she argued. “We’re demonstraten to stop the war in Vietnam, clear and simple.”
“It’s not clear and simple, Karen, and if you believe that, then you’re sellen yourself a bill of goods,” Joe fought back. “My best friend in the world is over there right now, right this moment. Guys you and I went to school with have been and are there now. Remember Scotty Dean. He went over there and came back without a leg, Karen. How do you think Scotty’s gonna feel when he sees his friends protesten against the very thing that cost him such a high price?”
“That’s why we have to protest,” she pleaded. “So not one more person comes back maimed or worse. You know what we’re up against, Joe. Those of us who oppose this war have to demonstrate our opposition. We have to show people the war is wrong.”
“I’ll think about it,” Joe said. “That’s the best I can do.”
Karen exhaled an angry breath, sat up in bed and pulled the sheet against her. “Same old, Joe,” she scoffed. “You’re never able to come through when the chips are down, are you?”
“Exactly what does that mean?” Joe interrupted.
“It means you have the most half-assed convictions of anybody I’ve ever known,” Karen said scathingly. “You start things, but you never finish them. It’s one of the things that always bugged me about you.”
“If it’s somethen I believe in strongly enough, Karen, I’ll see it through to the end,” Joe said. “But I won’t be pressured into doen somethen I disagree with or don’t fully understand.”
“What exactly do you believe in?” she asked scornfully.
Unexpectedly, surprising himself, Joe touched her face. Karen glanced up, and he saw her discontent.
“A long time ago,” he said, “I believed I loved you.”
She shook her head in disagreement. “Nothen but an infatuation,” she replied without emotion.
“Maybe,” Joe agreed, withdrawing his hand.
“Besides, Joe,” she added. “I told you once: You and I aren’t cut out for love.”
“I’m not sure I believe that,” he said. “What makes you so sure?”
“Because we’re not willen to invest that much of ourselves,” she snapped back. “You’re just like me, Joe; you want to run away from everything that’s familiar—from Cookville, from your home, from your family. We’re gonna spend our whole lives runnen away and breaken ties.”
Joe regarded her carefully. “That’s a harsh life sentence to hang yourself with, Karen,” he replied at last. “I don’t buy it, at least not for myself. When and if I leave Cookville, you can be assured I’ll be runnen to somethen. Maybe that’s the difference between us. There’s nothen or no one here that I’d ever want to run away from. It all means too much to me.”
She shook her head to break the moment. “Just go, Joe,” she urged softly, looking away and drawing up her knees. “Get out of here and go home.”
He stood and left the room quickly, with a polite goodbye and without even looking back at her.
In the middle of September, Joe found himself standing on the edge of a group of students who intended to stage the first antiwar protest on the Valdosta State College campus. He was a dubious participant, reluctant to settle a battle of mind-sets that pitted his sense of loyalty against the growing notion that America had no business waging war in Vietnam. His final decision to participate was calculated, based on the facts as he saw them. His indecision arose from a belief that feelings as fierce and passionate as loyalty—whether to one’s friends, family, country or brothers in arms—defied logic.
The call had been close, but Joe had gone with his head, because his heart told him the war was a mistake. No one back home knew of his decision to demonstrate against the war. Until a few minutes ago when he arrived on campus for the rally, his intentions had been declared to only one person, his best friend, who risked his life daily in the jungles of Vietnam.
In his frequent letters to Tom Carter, Joe had mentioned his concerns about the war, always careful to conceal any blatant antiwar sentiments. In writing to Tom several days earlier, Joe had chosen the words carefully to tell his friend about the upcoming protest. But he had not minced the truth about his decision to join the demonstration and his opposition to the war.
“I suppose I could keep everything a secret, Tom. I could simply attend the protest and never speak of it. But I don’t want to lie to you. I’d rather lose your friendship to honesty than betray you with deception. The truth is that I think this war is a mistake.
“For years, I’ve watched the civil rights struggles and wanted to join in the fight. Maybe, too, I have in a small way. But I wish I could have done more to fight for something I believe in. Now I have an opportunity to make my voice heard. Although my opposition to the war in Vietnam is a murky issue compared with my belief in simple human dignity, I feel compelled this one time to join the front line of the battle rather than offer quiet support from the distance. Of course, once I get there, I might beat a hasty retreat. I wish you had that luxury.
“I have one last thing to say on the matter, and then I’ll be quiet. Please don’t consider my opposition to the war any reason to believe you have less than my full support for the job you’re doing and the cause you’re fighting for. I suppose that’s an easy sentiment to lay claim to. Perhaps, too, it sounds like a coward’s way out or nothing more than a feeble attempt to salve my conscience. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way, Tom, or for feeling I’ve betrayed you in some way. But know this: I think about you every day over there, and I wish you were home, making babies with my sister and tending fields beside my daddy or on your own place. You belong here, Tom. Of that, I am certain.”
Reflecting on the letter, Joe muttered a quick prayer for his friend and pushed aside his earlier doubts about joining the protest. His conscience was clear, and he was a willing soldier, at least for today, in this war against the War.
A group of nearly one hundred had massed beneath a grove of ancient live oak trees, draped with Spanish moss. Most were collegians, but the crowd also contained several professors and a smattering of local high school students. By far the most notable personalities gathered among the group, however, were three women whose sons had died in Vietnam. Elliot Frankel had persuaded these Gold Star mothers to share their grief, as well as their rage against the war. Their presence alone had guaranteed news coverage of the event by local newspapers, radio and television stations.
Fifteen minutes past the three o’clock starting time, the rally began officially. As Elliot stood on a flimsy wooden podium welcoming the group, Joe scouted the crowd. Several faces surprised him, belonging to people he would not have suspected to have strong sentiments against the war. About half the group carried signs and placards with antiwar messages. But generally, the protesters appeared hesitant and uncertain, almost as if they lacked the will or backbone to carry forth their cause. They shuffled their feet restlessly as Elliot outlined the itinerary and introduced the speakers, including the three bereaved mothers.
Astute as always, Elliot had asked the newest addition to the Gold Star club to deliver the first speech. The ploy seemed like shameless exploitation to Joe, who had heard Elliot predict the woman would break into tears almost at the onset. His assumption proved correct. Speaking just two weeks after burying her son, the woman lasted less than a minute at the speaker’s stand before dissolving into sobs. She was ushered to the side to regain her composure as Elliot made a public offering of condolence. Still, the deed was done. The mother’s loss was fresh, and it struck a sympathetic chord with the crowd.
The next Gold Star mother’s speech was equally brief and soft-spoken, but she made an impression on the protesters. “His name was Mike,” she said, holding aloft an eight-by-ten photograph of a young man with blond hair. “He was my son, and he was killed last year in Vietnam. I miss him terribly. I always will. I do not believe he should have died over there. I wish there had never been a war in the first place. But most of all, I wish it would end.”
People hung on those words, and the number of demonstrators was rising steadily as the third Gold Star mother took the podium. She appeared frail, but her voice was strong, and the woman delivered a resounding denouncement of the war. She tugged at heartstrings with fond reminiscing about her nineteen-year-old son and chilling details about his death. He had died on a routine mission in a village beside the Mekong River, she said. Viet Cong sympathizers had ambushed the patrol, killing three American soldiers, including her young son. The woman was crying softly as she finished her story.
“I came here today against the wishes of my husband,” she concluded, taking a deep breath to control her tears. “He believes that I am betrayen the legacy of our son. But I felt it was important to add my voice to those who are callen for an end to this dreadful war.” She paused, then added, “If for no other reason, then because I wish with all my heart that not one more mother would have to hear the awful news that her son has died in Vietnam.”
Murmurs of sympathy rose from the crowd, which had quickly swelled to around two hundred fifty people. Soon, the hushed whispers turned to shouts of outrage as the protesters found their voice. Elliot Frankel grabbed the megaphone, chanting the first of several antiwar messages. Immediately, others joined him, their voices clamoring underneath the afternoon sun. With Elliot and the three Gold Star mothers leading the way, the crowd surged from beneath the shady canopy of moss-laden oaks, committed to their goal of occupying the college’s white-stucco administration building.
Traffic halted as the throng of protesters crossed the major thoroughfare that paralleled the college grounds, picking up recruits by the dozens as they invaded the campus. They marched past the gymnasium, moving along a winding road that cut through the heart of the campus, singing We Shall Overcome as they neared the administration building. By now, some three hundred people were active demonstrators, with half as many standing on the sidelines. Some of the onlookers were simply curious; others derided the protesters.
“I’m glad you came,” a voice whispered behind Joe as he trudged along the road.
Turning around, he found Karen Baxter beside him, holding a heavy, painted placard. She lowered the sign and pressed against him as the crowd ground to a stop near the administration building.
“What about you, Joe?” Karen asked. “Are you glad you came?”
“No, Karen,” he answered, wishing the woman was somewhere else, wondering how she had managed to find him in the crowd. “I can’t say I’m glad to be here, or that I’m particularly proud of it. But I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
“Always a rebel with a cause,” Karen smiled at him. “One day, Joe, I’ll probably regret giving you the big brush-off. Maybe you were right after all. We might have been good together.”
“No, Karen,” Joe said with a benign smile to mask his utter contempt for the woman. “I was dead wrong. Just slow to see it.”
Her face was crestfallen as Joe turned away to survey the situation.
A line of police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers had blocked the protesters’ path to the administration building. Dressed like storm troopers, armed with billy clubs, rifles and tear gas canisters, wearing hideous gas masks, the lawmen had marshaled their forces about fifteen yards in front of the demonstrators’ target.
Joe was wondering what would happen next when someone pushed against his back and someone else yelled in his direction. Catching his balance before stumbling, he whipped his head around to see who was causing the commotion and found himself staring into a photographer’s camera lens. He glanced away almost immediately, though not before the shutter exploded several times.
Seconds later, Elliot Frankel leapt atop the front hood of a blue Pontiac parked on the street and raised the megaphone above his head in a wordless demand for silence. The crowd quieted almost at once, with only the occasional sound of static from the police radios piercing the quietness. When he commanded the group’s full attention, Elliot lifted the megaphone to speak.
“In the scheme of things,” he began, “what we are doing here today may not matter much to many. But it is important. There have been bigger and better-organized peace marches, and there will be more. Thousands already have marched on our nation’s capital to criticize this immoral war. Doves are on the march in cities and towns all across our country. Students are rising up on university and college campuses with reputations far exceeding that of VSC. Still, our protest is equally important. The powers-that-be cannot dismiss our actions as any less important than those who march on Washington. We are a part of the groundswell of voices against the war rising up in this nation. We are just as committed to the cause of peace as those we see on TV. We are just as committed as those who protested for peace on the bloody streets of Chicago several weeks ago. Our voices count.”
A smattering of applause greeted his message, and Elliot seized the moment like a seasoned politician. “You and I,” he said, before pausing until the noise died. “You and I,” he declared, “are here today because we believe the American government is waging an unjust and unnecessary war on the people of Vietnam and on the people of the United States. Our government is sending thousands of young men—our friends, sons and brothers—to perpetuate unspeakable acts of violence in that little corner of Southeast Asia. The politicians tell us America is fighting in Vietnam because the Vietnamese people want us, because our presence is necessary to stop the spread of communism. They are noble intentions, perhaps. But when the very people who supposedly want them there kill our troops, I’m not convinced America is welcomed in Vietnam. And I’m not convinced the threat of communism in Vietnam or any other country in Southeast Asia merits enough concern to warrant the loss of thousands of American lives.
“I am Jewish, and I still shudder today at the atrocities committed against my people in another war not so long ago. I was not born when Hitler and the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews. But my relatives were there. Some of them died in those horrible gas chambers at Auschwitz. Others starved in Dachau. My parents were fortunate. They fled from Germany to the United States. They saw this country as a beacon of hope, and they believed in its greatness.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m ashamed today—ashamed to see the government of the United States of America committing similar atrocities on the people of Vietnam. Maybe six million Vietnamese people have not yet died in the five years we’ve been fighting over there, but plenty have. Even more have suffered unimaginable pain from weapons that are every bit as vile as Hitler’s gas chambers, weapons that never should have been invented, much less used on fellow human beings.
“My generation grew up fearful of the Bomb, that awesome weapon of destruction that obliterated two cities and thousands of people in a matter of seconds. The Bomb is frightening, but I wonder whether the Bomb is as gruesome as napalm.
“Do you folks know what napalm is?” Elliot asked, pausing like a teacher waiting for an answer.
“Napalm,” he continued at length. “Napalm is a chemical weapon used by our military in Vietnam. Jet fighters fly over the lucky village of the hour, and they drop napalm bombs. There’s no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Napalm sticks to the flesh of mothers, fathers and children, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. And it literally melts their flesh.”
His tone, which had been thunderous at times, slowed as Elliot allowed every word to sink in deep and strike close to home among the crowd.
Without warning, he drew a cigarette lighter from the front pocket of his tie-dyed T-shirt and lit it. Everyone—protesters, police and bystanders—watched with rapt attention. With his eyes fixed solidly on the crowd, Elliot raised his arm and moved the lighter beneath one of his hairy wrists. The flame incinerated the black hairs, sending a wisp of smoke rising in the air and sparking an audible gasp of horror among the crowd.
“Napalm hurts,” he said in carefully measured words. “It burns. The pain is excruciating. And children in Vietnam, and their parents, too, wish the pain would stop.
“Just like this.” He snapped the lighter shut, flinching as the flame died.
Buy Plowed Fields Book Three
The War, The Dream and Horn of Plenty
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