Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Now the story can be told. Our kids are grown and on their own; I have a different job; and the heated arguments over the Vietnam war have subsided. Consequently, I can finally tell the unvarnished truth about my antiwar peacenik activity during the 1970s.
Frankly, it wasn't much. Mostly, it was limited to discussions around the family supper table with my wife and four young children. I was, near the end of the Vietnam war, a dove, having been a hawk during most of the conflict. I was also, at this time, strongly in favor of our country withdrawing our troops from that Asian country. And I spared no words or emotions to express exactly how I felt to my mealtime captive audience.
They, at least the older ones, were in total agreement with me. But they began asking me embarrassing questions about my stand on the war, like, "Why don't you do something about it, Dad?" "When are you going public with your position?" And, "Why don't you march for peace, Dad?"
I kept them at bay by replying, "Kids, if the opportunity ever comes up locally, I'll do something. You just wait and see."
Well, much to my surprise and horror, such a marching opportunity did arise. It was in late 1972. The war was still on. And people were fed up with it, too. The long-awaited peace still hadn't come about. And we all wondered if it ever would. To show that concern, the area antiwar movement decided to have a peace march the following Saturday. The route, according to the announcement in the newspaper, would be from a southside church up a major city avenue to the main post office lawn.
The distance was about three miles, perhaps a bit longer. That, I thought, was surely within my range of physical durability, but just barely. I'd gotten a little out of shape over the previous ten years. In short, I was a physical wreck.
But my main worry was my employer. If I were seen, by my superiors, demonstrating against the war, I was sure they'd be none too happy with me. In fact, they might even fire me. Oh, I'd not be let go for marching, specifically, but for some other infraction. Not being perfect, I could have been fired for any number of reasons.
I was worried, also, that my acquaintances, all of whom were hawks, would get angry at me for my dovish stand, which I'd not told them about yet. Then there was my extended family. Though they lived out of town, these relatives might have heard I was marching for peace and gotten upset with me. They probably wouldn't speak to me anymore. And from then on, I'd be disgraced within my own clan. I'd be shunned at family reunions.
Then again, I had to face my own wife and children. They had heard me spout off about the war for a long time. They really expected me to act now. And I didn't want them to think any less of me. After all, I wanted their respect and admiration, not to mention their love and understanding.
Only my wife truly understood the danger for me if I marched. The kids thought nothing mattered but principles. I guess I was to blame for that. I'd been instilling that idea into them over the years. The kids began teaching me about my being afraid to march for what I believed in. Paraphrasing a line from Thomas Paine's writing that I'd quoted to them often, the kids said to me, "Don't be a sunshine patriot or a summer soldier. Be a warrior for your cause."
To save face, I told my kids at supper one evening that I was participating in the peace march the following morning at ten o'clock. They were amazed and, I think, pleased, judging by their applause. My wife said nothing.
After the children had all gone to bed that evening, however, my wife said plenty. "What if one of your board members sees you?"
"I just hope none of them recognize me."
"But you're liable to be seen on local TV on both the six and eleven o'clock news broadcasts."
"I'll try to stay in the back of the march and blend into the group."
"Just be careful. Peaceniks aren't very well liked by some people. They may throw rocks or shoot at you, too. So please, please duck if they start."
"Believe you me, I'll duck for every and any object heading my way."
Her comments hadn't been reassuring. I slept fitfully that night. The next morning, as time to drive over to the church where the marchers were to assemble neared, I grew more and more apprehensive. I had no idea how many people would show up. But I assumed, based on what I'd seen on TV of other peace demonstrations, like the one in Washington, DC, that there'd be hordes of people. Without a doubt, I could easily blend in with such a large crowd.
Just before climbing into my car, I got a great idea. I'd don a baseball cap and disguise my profile. Few people at work or elsewhere had ever seen me wearing a hat of any kind, least of all a baseball cap. You see, I wasn't much of a jock. When my kids spotted me putting on the cap, which I'd borrowed from one of them, I said, "There's lots of sun today, and I don't want it in my eyes on the march." Smiling, they seemed to buy my explanation.
Slowly, I drove to the assembly point. As I neared the church parking lot, where I thought the newspaper had said marchers would gather, I saw only eight people there. Obviously, I hadn't found the correct church parking lot. Or had I? Confused, I drove right past it.
Several blocks away, I pulled over to the curb and shut the car's engine off. What was I going to do now? It was too late to go looking for the correct parking lot. Maybe I could just kill the morning driving around, and then return home telling my family that I couldn't find the place or that the march was canceled because of too small a turnout. But I felt bad thinking about being devious and dishonest like that. And what if that had been the correct parking lot and, regardless of how many showed up, they marched. My family would hear about it, and I'd be a laughing stock in my own home. What to do? What to do?
I drove back to that church parking lot. With an air of confidence, I strode over to the church door steps where the few remaining people were clustered. A young mother was sitting on the steps nursing her baby there in plain sight. So this was the new generation, I mused, averting my eyes from mother and child. No wonder those other two people left.
Everyone was chatting, unconcerned, with the mother as she fed her child. I asked of no one in particular, "Is this where the antiwar peace march is assembling?"
I fully expected to hear them all chuckle and say, "No!" But, instead, they all chuckled and said, "Yes, this is the place."
Adrenaline surged through my body. My eyes watered. And I felt a compelling urge to run to my car and get out of there. It wasn't only the nursing mother and child that bothered me, but the imminent march with this handful of people. I'd stick out like a sore thumb. I couldn't allow that to happen. I'd be seen, for sure, and then I'd be out on my ear at work. My time of earning a living for my family would be over. Who would hire a peacenik after he'd marched for peace and been fired from his job? My future looked bleak indeed.
Still, I thought about my kids. How could I possibly face them if I didn't put my money (or my feet) where my mouth was? This was a tough decision. My mind raced back and forth between my fear of exposure and my fear of losing my family's respect.
Thank goodness, within the next five minutes several more marchers arrived (perhaps they came late to avoid seeing that young mother nursing her baby). In all, there were seventy-five of us. And it helped me to make up my mind to march.
Three participants, I'd say, were definitely hippies, two others could have been, depending on how you judged psychedelic pants. The rest of the people, though, looked like ordinary folks to me. And all of them acted like marching was old hat. I was especially impressed with the comments being made by a young minister who was dressed in his church's garb, including clerical collar. I decided to stick close to him. It wasn't his wisdom I was after. But I doubted if counter-demonstrators would attack such a person of the cloth or those nearby.
Our march leader, a bearded young man, and, I believe someone said, a Vietnam war vet, rounded us up and said, "Let's get started." We lined up, two and three abreast, including the young mother and her baby who was now riding in a stroller.
I suggested to the minister that we march directly behind the mother to kind of watch out for her and the child. He agreed. The truth was, I was pretty sure no one would throw rocks at her, the child, or anyone close by. In brief, her presence made me feel even more secure. I only hoped she wouldn't spoil it all for me by nursing her kid while we marched. I didn't think I could stand it.
As we stepped off, I pulled my baseball cap down as low over my eyes as I could without completely covering them over. The churchman noticed and said, "I sure hope the sun shines today." He also began telling me not to worry, for we were now being protected by you-know-who. I wanted to believe him, too. Anyway, he then told me that he'd been on many other marches and at demonstrations without incident. That reinforced my feeling about his uniform being protective.
His stories braced me until we began marching through a residential neighborhood. There, without warning, a middle-aged man came charging out of his house and began yelling at us, calling us Communists. He also made threatening gestures at us with a garden rake he was holding.
I was stunned, not to mention scared. The rake-holder was yelling primarily at those among us (not me, thank goodness) who were carrying placards. Such provocative sayings as "Make Peace Not War" and "God Loves The Little Children" and other slogans which, to the angry man, doubtless seemed hate-mongering. It was, therefore, understandable that the guy with the rake was upset. I half-expected, at any moment, that he would wield that heavy rake at some of us with disastrous results. But he seemed content to just call us every foul name under the sun.
As I walked past him, he yelled at me, "You lazy bum. You ain't never been in the service. You never did nothing for your country. Why don't you move to Russia, you pinko, if you don't like it here?" Though sorely tempted to tell him about my three years in the Marine Corps and the meaning of the Bill of Rights, I decided against it. He didn't appear to be ready to listen to reason anyway. I felt great relief when we got beyond that man's home.
A peaceful group, we continued moving on the sidewalk. We talked and joked among ourselves, yet we certainly weren't what you'd call noisy. But the numerous cars and trucks that slowed when they drove past us were. When the occupants of the vehicles determined what we were marching for by reading our placards, many of those men, women and children shouted rude words and comments. Some of them honked in support and agreement with us, too. This, above all, lifted our spirits.
I was still worried about someone recognizing my facial profile which, it had just occurred to me, would also have made an excellent target for a sniper. But aside from the baseball cap, there was little else I could do about my face, or head for that matter. To make things worse, I had more than those two features to worry about. The shape of my belly and the way it hung over my belt was as well-known in local circles as the shape of my face and head.
So, for part of the march, I held my stomach in as much as I could. After walking like that for a block, however, I finally had to exhale. And I let it all hang out again like it normally does. Now I was more identifiable, but I was also more comfortable. I figured the trade-off was worth it. Moreover, I found that breathing helped steady my nerves. Yet, in trying to avoid detection, I did take one other precaution: I walked on the part of the sidewalk away from the street. The extremely thin minister next to me hardly hid me from the passing motorists' view, but the religious man did block out some of my silhouette, which helped.
And the march continued. Actually, we weren't marching in step. It was more like seventy-five people shuffling in the same direction. I did try, however, to stay in step with the mother ahead of me so I didn't kick her or the stroller accidentally. Having marched everywhere in the Marines, I knew how to avoid that possibility.
On the route, we received many other hoots, calls, jeers, taunts, and some really vulgar comments from area residents and passing motorists. But, after what seemed like several hours, we neared our destination: a grassy knoll in front of the main post office.
Oh, oh, I said to myself, they already have TV cameras set up over there where we're going. And just as the cameras were being turned on us, another protest group ran up, from a side street, and joined in our line of march. They hadn't asked permission or so much as said, "By your leave."
They held a long banner that read "Antiabortion" and other such slogans. I resented them co-opting our march, especially at the last moment like this. But the minister said, when I griped aloud about the Johnny-come-lately marchers, "There's little you can do about such tactics, so ignore them, keep marching, and relax."
Then only a short way from the knoll, another smaller group of people, carrying a banner announcing that they were "Anti-capital punishment," joined our march, too. But this time I didn't get angry. I just remembered the minister's earlier comments, and I let my resentment go.
Across from the grassy knoll, a group of military veterans were lined up in formation. Several of them held American flags unfurled. These men yelled nasty epithets at us as we moved past their formation. They told us we'd think differently if we'd been in the military or had lost a loved one over there. (My first cousin had been killed in Viet Nam in 1971.)
By now, the three local TV stations had their video cameras locked on us. Immediately, two local newsmen recognized me and asked, "What in the dickens are you doing here?"
"Protesting," I responded.
They both shook their heads in disbelief.
At this point, I really tried to get lost in the group. It was now bunched up and sitting down on the knoll. I sat in the very back away from the TV cameras. But, before I knew it, my two TV newsmen friends, probably trying to do me a favor by getting me coverage on the news, came around to the rear of the group and zoomed in on me. In my mind's eye I saw my career going up in smoke. But it was too late now to worry about that. I was committed to the cause. The march had tempered me. I was proud of what I'd done. And I could face my wife and kids. (I just hoped against hope that I wouldn't have to face them and say I'd lost my job, too.)
While I was thinking those morbid thoughts, the protest march leader had us sing "We Shall Overcome" and other peace and civil rights songs. Honestly, I never in all my life expected to do that in public. I'd seen Martin Luther King, Jr. and others doing that on TV. And now I was doing it too. I felt proud.
Finally, the TV cameras backed off and despite the commentary being given now by the leader and others explaining why we had done what we had, the TV people, obviously uninterested, packed up their gear and went back, presumably, to their studios.
Now I began to relax, to feel extremely good about myself, and to feel a real kinship with the other marchers, even with the nursing mother, who, I'm sorry to say, was at it again in plain view. Then someone in the crowd yelled, "Hey, look over by the post office." And we all did. An official of some sort, dressed in a nice suit, was taking our photographs, one by one, with a 35mm camera and a telephoto lens. No one had any doubts about who the photographer was working for.
That night, I saw myself, vividly, on the six and eleven o'clock news, on all three network channels. Despite my baseball cap, you'd have been declared legally blind if you couldn't recognize me. So, on the following Monday, at work, I waited all day for the shoe to drop. But nothing happened. Then I waited for several days. Still nothing. No one had seen me on TV, or at least I hadn't been recognized. Frankly, I was a little disappointed.
Of course, I couldn't brag, outside my home, about my exploit for fear it would get back to my superiors. And, therefore, none of my friends knew what I'd done, either. I gained absolutely no celebrity or notoriety for being an antiwar protester, except in my own home, of course.
From it all, I got a big bunch of self-esteem. And my kids showed me more respect, for a while anyway. That made it all worthwhile. My wife, of course, was just glad it was all over, and that I hadn't been caught.
Since that event, the war, as everyone knows, ended. Now, I don't claim that my marching, alone, stopped anything. But maybe it had a tiny bit, with all the other protest marches, to do with bringing the conflict to a conclusion for America. In any case, I've not marched since then for any other cause. But I'd like to think that I still might, if the occasion arose locally. I would only hope that the nursing mother doesn't show up again.
Jim Sullivan has been a history museum director, bank public relations manager, and funeral home assistant (read gravedigger), as well as life insurance, car, and tombstone salesman, office manager, truck driver, employment counselor, postal clerk, and a few more things besides. He's been published in Words of Wisdom, Cooking Light, Tucumcari Literary Review, Poultry, Innisfree, The Small Pond Magazine, and others.