Salad Days, Part II
Randolph Splitter, Aptos, CA
I was starting to shiver.
"Well, no one likes to kill things, mnnn,"--he made a bee-like humming sound as he searched for my name on the form--"mnn, Henry. Your name's Henry, isn't it?"
"How long have you been a conscientious objector, Henry? Months? Weeks?"
"No, I've always been one. I mean, I filed for CO status a couple of months ago, but I've always hated killing, and violence--"
"And meat?" He smiled. Then he got serious again.
After a moment I said, "Gandhi was a vegetarian. So was Thoreau."
"You know, Henry," said the man behind the desk, "there are plenty of vegetarians in the Army. They eat their peas and their carrots, and then they go out and defend their buddies." He smiled again, showing his teeth. "You would defend your buddies too, wouldn't you, Henry?"
My buddies? Did he mean someone like Epstein? But Epstein wasn't going to Vietnam, and neither was I. That was the flaw in his argument. If none of us joined the army, we wouldn't have to defend each other.
"I told you, I don't believe in killing. I think there are better ways to resolve conflicts."
He wrote something down on the form, and the conversation soon came to an end. I left the cubicle and followed the red line back to the room where I had started that morning. My clothes, my wallet, my keys were still there. I got dressed and joined the other inductees for the formal induction ceremony.
When the moment came to take the oath, I said nothing. The people in charge made me talk to an FBI agent, but they didn't arrest me. As I took the bus back to the college, I thought of the new soldiers who were being whisked off to boot camp in crowded buses of their own that very hour. They would have to wake up early the next morning and get their heads shaved.
A few warm days at the beginning of March had fooled people into thinking that spring had arrived. The snow melted, leaving the campus a marshland of mud. Then blustery winds cooled things off again.
"The Marines are going to be here recruiting next week," I said to Epstein, who was in the midst of eating his salad. It was lunchtime at the fraternity house.
"They've got no right to recruit on campus," he said. "If somebody wants to join the Marines, he can find their number in the phone book."
Perugia, one table down, had overheard our conversation. "It's free speech," he croaked, choking on his grilled cheese sandwich. "The Marines have just as much right to express their point of view as you do."
"They're not coming to talk, Perugia," Epstein shouted back. "They're signing up people for death squads. They want to teach them to use flame-throwers."
Brillo rolled a piece of bread into a ball and threw it across the dining room at Epstein, commenting, "Don't get so emotional, sprouthead!"
Over the next few days the small antiwar contingent on campus--besides Epstein and me, the contingent included the jock Smolinski from Morrison's Greek philosophy class--got together in one or another of our dorm rooms to discuss strategy. Someone suggested burning the Marines' car while they were off talking to potential recruits, but the rest of us thought that was too violent. Someone else wanted to block the road when the Marines arrived, preventing them from reaching their destination, but in the end we decided to sit in at the Dean's Office, refusing to leave until the Dean banned military recruiters from campus.
When the day arrived, five of us gathered in the waiting room outside the office. One or two fence-sitters didn't show up; they didn't approve of the war, but they weren't willing to get in trouble with the college about it. I figured that since I was already in trouble with the selective service system, I didn't have to worry about the college. The Dean's secretary, a lady in her fifties who had probably been working at the school since before we were born, looked up from her typing. We told her that we wanted to speak to the Dean.
"What do you wish to speak to him about?"
"Recruiting," said Epstein. "Military recruiting."
After conferring with the Dean on the phone, the secretary told us we could go in.
The Dean, a portly, red-faced man who was rumored to be an alcoholic, was always short of breath. "Well, what can I do for you today, gentleman?" he said, sucking up air in case he might have to make other pronouncements.
Epstein outlined our position. He explained that we were going to remain in the Dean's office until he met our demands.
"That's not possible," said the Dean. "This is my office."
We argued the point.
After twenty minutes the Dean said, "Look, it's almost noon and I have an appointment for lunch. I'm afraid you'll just have to leave."
"We can't do that," said Epstein. "Not until you change your policy."
The Dean gave some instructions to his secretary. He shuffled some papers on his desk. Then he made a phone call. After he hung up he put on his hat and said, "I'm going out to lunch. You better not touch anything while I'm gone." He hurried out the door, breathing hard. His face was flushed.
The five of us settled down for an extended stay. We opened our books, took out our homework, and began to study. The office was a comfortable, spacious room, the floor covered with plush carpet, the walls lined with books. The Dean's wooden desk, maple or walnut, was large and sleek, far more elegant than the cramped, carved-up desks sitting in the college's classrooms. Grinning, Smolinski sauntered behind the desk and sat, like Goldilocks in the three bears' house, in the Dean's enormous chair. Leaning back, he sank down into the soft green leather. "Ahhh," he sighed blissfully.
Someone peeked outside the door. The secretary was gone.
"Well, what do you think he's going to do?" someone else said.
"Maybe he's going to call the cops."
"Nah," Smolinski declared, "I think his plan is to eat lunch and hope we're not here when he comes back."
Epstein announced that he was hungry. Smolinski offered him a Snickers bar, but Epstein declined the offer. I tried to concentrate on my Russian history book. I had a test coming up on the movements that led to the Bolshevik Revolution. The clock on the wall said ten past twelve.
The next time I looked, the clock said 12:30. I was getting impatient, bored, restless. I had expected something more confrontational, more dramatic, involving tense negotiations with the Dean, jeering spectators, riot police with tear gas or water hoses. Something like the sit-ins to integrate Woolworth's lunch counters in the South. I was starting to get worried. What if the Dean didn't come back? What if he simply abandoned his office to us, to do with as we pleased? The life of the college would go on, recruiters would come and go, the war itself would continue. The death toll would mount.
At that moment I heard muffled noises that seemed to come from the outer office. Was the Dean's secretary back from lunch? Suddenly the door burst open. Goon, Brillo, Perugia, and a bunch of their friends spilled into the office, hooting and yelping like animals just released from their pens.
Epstein started to say something, but before he could finish, Goon barreled into him like a rogue elephant. A vase fell and broke, spilling water and flowers on the floor.
"Commie assholes," muttered Brillo, grinning, waving a bat.
Goon's glasses fell on the floor, where they were stepped on and smashed. "Oh fuck," he said, "I can't see who I'm hitting without my glasses."
In the meantime, Perugia sneaked behind the Dean's desk and, like Smolinski, sat down in Papa Bear's vast, luxurious chair. He began to leaf through the letters and memos lying unprotected on the desk in front of him. Taking a Magic Marker from his pocket, he picked out several papers and drew long red streaks over them.
I felt like a spectator at some strange performance, some avant-garde ballet that managed to be graceful and awkward at the same time. While I was watching Perugia, someone grabbed my history book and tore the pages out. "Hey, what are you doing?" I yelled, but it was too late.
Seeing Brillo pound Epstein in the chest, while Goon pinned back his arms, I ran across the room to help. I tried to pull Goon away, but he was too strong for me. His arms were as big as some people's legs.
"Fucking Jew," said Brillo, still grinning. "I knew,"--he took a quick breath--"I knew we shouldn't've let a fucking Jew into the"--breath--"fucking fraternity."
This time I hit Goon in the back of the neck. Suddenly angered, as if a mosquito had bitten him, he released his grip on Epstein, whirled around, and landed a blow that caught me on the side of the jaw. I staggered backwards.
On the other side of the room, Perugia was tossing pieces of paper into the air. They floated uncertainly for a few seconds and then, like damaged paper airplanes, fell heavily back to earth, the red streaks like bloody gashes in their paper bodies. I thought I heard Perugia say, "Brooawrp," in frogtalk.
The fracas ended as quickly as it began. Two or three cops arrived, putting an end to the fighting and restoring order. The Dean regained possession of his office. Epstein, Smolinski and I straggled off to get something to eat. We were sore but otherwise unhurt.
As it turned out, the Dean didn't change his policy on military recruiting. He even charged us for the damage to his office, saying we had provoked the brawl. But the sit-in had another result: Epstein and I quit the fraternity house. We decided we really didn't belong there after all.
In June we graduated. After a dismal spring, the weather had turned hot and sunny. The trees were thick with green leaves. At the commencement exercises Professor Morrison gave a speech in defense of ivory towers. But wearing my cap and gown, seeing Epstein in his, I thought of old black-and-white photographs I had seen of nineteenth century student revolutionaries. Looking stiff and serious in their high-buttoned jackets, they probably had one hand on the bombs in their pockets. As the fight in the Dean's Office proved, the outside world had a way of intruding upon ivory towers.
I entered law school in the fall, having escaped the draft on a technicality. I lost touch with Becky, who got a job as an editorial assistant in another city. Epstein and I corresponded intermittently over the next year or so. He went through a succession of odd jobs: bookstore clerk, taxi driver, playground aide in an elementary school. The last I heard, he was working in a hospital, doing his alternate service as a conscientious objector.
The war in Southeast Asia touched the life of every young man who reached draft age in those years. For some, like me, the impact of the war was fleeting--the embarrassment of the induction physical, the sudden violence in the Dean's Office. Others, like Epstein and Brillo, were affected more deeply. I read in the college alumni magazine, one spring or summer, that Brillo had been killed in Vietnam.
Randolph Splitter, who currently teaches English at De Anza College, has published fiction, journalism and literary criticism. During his college years in the middle and late sixties, he did civil rights work in New Orleans, participated in the antiwar movement, and then moved to Berkeley to attend graduate school. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war.
Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999