Saturday, October 23, 2010
Chapter 6-Washington DC
War can only be understood and put an end to if you and all those who are concerned very deeply with the survival of man, feel that you are utterly responsible for killing others. What will make you change?
- J. Krishnamurti
They knew they couldn’t stop us. Everyone on the project wanted to go to the November Moratorium. When we promised to return in within two weeks, the matter was closed. Our individual efforts in the war on poverty would have to wait. It became paramount to go to the nation’s capital and speak with body and mind. True, famous folks from entertainers to politicians would be there, but this was no rock concert, no block party. Moratorium meant halt, meant enough with a collective voice of half a million. We wanted to be part of the sound of that voice. The war dragged on despite Nixon’s “secret plan” to end it. By the time we figured out transportation and lodging, the American death toll topped 32,000. Nothing mattered more at the time.
Every time I looked over the maps, the result was always the same. Getting from Houston, Texas to Washington D.C. would involve Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. Alabama, in particular gave me pause for concern. The Civil Rights marches in Selma and Birmingham were all too recent. White northerners passing through needed to be careful. Young white northerners, with long hair or out of state plates needed to be extra careful. Perhaps we’d be able to bypass Mississippi. The murdered civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi and countless other slain or missing people conjured up fear and suspicion. At least, I’d have the company of my housemates on this mission. David, Larry, and I rode with Pat McNieve, a VISTA originally from Kansas who had escaped the priesthood and seminary life just a few months earlier. Pat was an affable loner who we all wanted to get to know a little better. He was also a very funny man. The way he talked about his experiences in the seminary could fill a room with laughter in minutes. He’d imitate Italian or Irish priests with perfect accents.
“ Look at the papers, these fine young lads arrested for drug possession,” he’d say in a perfect Brogue. “And all of them Catholic lads…” Pat was part stand-up comic, part lost adolescent who entered VISTA in his late twenties to reclaim his life while being of service to others. His 1962 Dodge Polara, complete with a Kansas license plate, would serve us well. It provided a trace of anonymity through the Deep South.
Most of the trip to DC was uneventful. Interstates and gas stops, a comment now and then about what city we just passed or the climate of the region. The weather was mostly overcast or raining, the dark hours passed consumed by catnaps, long looks at cotton fields, farm towns, and rural railroad crossings. Then Pat produced a joint. His newfound freedom, like his experimentation with recreational drugs, was euphoric at times and he didn’t always think about the consequences. A discussion ensued about what might happen if we somehow got caught with marijuana. Pat’s naiveté had caught up with us. It would have been fine with me to just ditch any dope, but that proved too unpopular. Finally, consensus reached: let’s just smoke up everything we have now. (A VISTA tradition) Pat began to loosen up and started telling more stories and jokes about the seminary. Nothing seemed funny to me. He’d giggle over jokes I’d heard in the 7th grade.
“Hey did you ever hear the one about Pastor Fuzz?”
“Yeah Pat, that was like 15 years ago.”
“What about Johnny Fuckerfaster?”
“Just drive Pat. And hurry up with that joint, these state patrols have dogs that can smell anything.”
I assumed every car that passed us on the interstate could see the thickening cloud of smoke in our vehicle. My paranoia turned into a sense of the absurd by the time we reached the edge of Virginia. Pat’s car battery began overcharging wildly. The battery gauge seemed about to explode. Looking at the flailing needle nonplussed, he announced, “This is not a big deal, all I have to do is turn my lights on, watch what happens.” Sure enough the needle returned to “Normal.” “What’s so awful about driving with our lights on in the daytime?” he questioned. Normally nothing, but on this day that was not the case. Apparently a pro Vietnam War group had organized a counter rally for November 15. In an attempt to show support for their viewpoint, they instructed all those who supported the war to drive to Washington with their lights on. We had no choice. Maybe this would make traveling without police harassment possible after all.
With four in the car, we could change drivers every few hours and go straight through. Yet Pat insisted on doing most of the driving. Our destination was Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb on the outskirts of D.C. Pat knew a woman who lived and worked there who graciously allowed 12 people, mostly from the project, to squeeze into her small one bedroom apartment for three days.
Kim, no longer in VISTA, drove in with some friends from Chicago. When thousands of young people achieve critical mass in the nation’s capital, accommodations get crowded. About three carloads met at the apartment. David reunited with his girlfriend Nancy and quickly grabbed the bedroom with another couple. Another six people occupied the living room and small dining area. Kim and I shared a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor. Privacy demanded a price. Looking up from my bed on the linoleum, I noticed a large iron skillet sitting on a front burner. I quickly cleared the stove of anything that might fall and tried to take a nap. By Friday, November 14, everyone had settled in. After reading the local papers and walking around DC a bit, we decided to participate in a march taking place the evening before the big rally set for Saturday the 15th. This event was more to my liking because it involved walking past the White House en route to the Capital building. I wanted to play an active role, not watch a show and listen to speeches.
VISTA Nancy Hite at the DC Vietnam Moritorium
By late Friday afternoon, we headed to Arlington Cemetery where the march was to assemble. People poured in from coast to coast; a rainbow of license plates lined the city.
They had walked out of classrooms and work places. They had abandoned all obligations. College decals or parking stickers from San Diego to Boston, Florida to Oregon adorned buses, vans, new sedans and barely running clunkers. Being my first time in Washington, I opened my senses to take in everything from the crisp air, the deep reds and rusty gold of the autumn leaves to the striking architecture of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. My field of vision looked like enormous post cards. Part of me felt like I was in Disneyland, the other part held contempt for the halls of power so close at hand. As always, the nagging contradiction of risking arrest to protest a government that was my employer irritated me as well. But there was another contradiction taking root too: the dichotomy between country and government.
“You can still love your country and hate your government,” the bespectacled twenty year-old wearing a monitor’s armband sternly told a flag waving contingent who began to congregate around the march’s starting point.
“How dare you question my patriotism,” his girlfriend offered. “These people over here,” she said pointing at us, “they are the true patriots, what makes you think they don’t love their country just as much as you do?”
Official VISTA ID; useful in case of arrest
The march was extremely well organized. Monitors wearing armbands that read NPAC (National Peace Action Coalition) funneled us into long lines behind a row of tables spread out over the rim of a meadow about the size of a football field. They handed us literature that clearly explained what we’d be doing and how we were to do it. The handouts noted that up to this moment in time, there had been just over 32,000 U.S. deaths in Vietnam. Each marcher would receive the name of a fallen soldier, and a candle.
We’d be marching across the Potomac River and through D.C. until we reached the steps of the Capital building. Once there we would see enormous black coffins placed on various steps to the building. We were instructed to remove the name we carried and place it into one of the coffins. Once that had been done, our role in the march would end. When I got up to the table, a friendly organizer asked me where I’d come from. I mentioned that I was originally from California, and she informed me that I’d be carrying the name of a Californian killed in Vietnam. She handed me a rectangular cardboard placard that was about eight inches wide and two feet long. Thick string had been tied to the card to hold it in place over my neck. In large, neatly printed black letters on one side of the white card the name GARY LYLE RICHARDSON was printed. I took a six-inch candle from her as well and then joined the main formation with my friends. We merged with 32,000 others and waited to begin the trek.
It takes a good while for thousands of folks to walk across D.C. When the cold rain began, keeping the candles lit became our chief concern. Many of the monitors had lighters and appeared out of the night to keep those candles burning. Finally someone handed me a paper cup with a hole in the bottom that provided just enough protection from the wind and rain to keep the candles burning. Nobody mentioned it, but I’m sure we all thought of the symbolism connected to those candles. They must remain lit at all cost. When the wind chill factor on the bridge over the Potomac kicked in, I was glad to be obsessed with keeping my candle glowing. It gave me something to focus on aside from warming my hands. By the time we approached Pennsylvania Avenue I noticed thousands of others lining the streets of DC. It soon became clear, when some folks joined a name carrier and marched alongside that these were relatives of the fallen soldiers. There were parents, siblings and aunts and uncles all along the way. At any time someone who knew the person behind the name could come out of the dark and join the march. It could be a girlfriend, a neighbor, or a member of the clergy. With every step came more searching faces. All along the route, people were monitoring the names, looking carefully, and checking again, and then, if the name they were hoping to see appeared, they’d tearfully join the march. It was as if the deceased had suddenly come back to life.
I kept thinking about Gary Richardson as I walked. I wondered if he were anything like my friend Bill Garcia? Two California boys, out of 32,000, who possibly had someone waiting in the frigid shadows of this night. Two guys who would never see their 21st birthday or marry, know fatherhood, or even see their families again. While some of the marchers were singing, most walked mutely, lost in thought. I conjured up that Life magazine cover of 100 and tried to imagine 32,000 graduation pictures in print. I thought about the Vietnamese people too. With the Tet offensive the previous year had come so many haunting images of death and destruction. I thought about the anti-personnel weapons in use with metal shavings taking out the eyes and organs of children and their grandparents. I heard my government’s continual denial. Vietnam changed how we conceptualized war; it revolutionized the role of the media and brought the daily reality into our living rooms. With each step of that pilgrimage, I rewound every image and diatribe I connected to Vietnam. I saw Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. The fatherly “most trusted man in America” would reveal the statistics every Thursday evening. His familiar face superimposed over American, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, and Vietcong flags that detailed the weekly casualties in inanimate, obscene numbers. We called it the scoreboard.
Shortly before we reached the White House, the monitors informed us that we could briefly stop the moment we were in front of the gate. They encouraged us to make an abrupt right face and shout the name we carried as loud as we could. We all knew that President Nixon wasn’t home that night. He’d gone to Camp David, I think, to watch college football games and avoid the influx of his “fellow Americans.” The monitors reminded us that our pause had better be quick because anything out of the ordinary would result in one of the nearby guards arresting us post haste. My moment at the palace gate wasn’t wasted. I could see the white mansion in all it’s neatly trimmed detail far off in the distance. I could touch the iron bars of the front gate with ease. Uniformed security officers lined the entranceway, and I came face to face with one when I made my pivot. I didn’t want to screech my assigned name, yet I wanted to be loud. What if my emotions got the best of me and I cried or choke-up? The three names poured out of my well-chilled body with clarity and volume. I shouted: Gary… Lyle… Richardson. A few steps later, overcome with emotion, I took a deep breath and gathered myself for the final push: the Capital.
The White House that night
It’s difficult to see the U.S. Capital for the first time and not think of all the government textbooks you’ve ever seen. At least for me it is. The halls of democracy always seemed so pristine, so rational. I thought too, of my red, white, and blue education, my Eagle Scout badge, and how remote the mud and blood of Vietnam was from the spot where I now stood. The rain had finally abated and the glowing chalky walls of Washington were near blinding. But there was another light emanating from the area as my section of the march prepared for the final leg. Small twinkling lights seemed to be covering the Capital steps. Making my way forward, I noticed the first of many oversized black coffins. The big painted plywood boxes adorned the steps of this historic landmark. One by one, marchers removed their name signs and placed them in the coffins. When each one was filled, the top was lowered and an empty one soon took its place. The mystery of the twinkling lights revealed itself as well. People were placing their cupped lit candles on the closed coffin lids before disappearing into the blackness. I did the same. About 30 seconds later, I turned around and looked over my shoulder. Candle-lit coffins scattered in front of the capital, growing smaller with each step; I wanted to place that image in my mind forever. On the way back to our car I noticed one of the monitors taking off his armband. Before he could discard it, I asked if I could have it. I wanted a talisman. I wanted to remember this night always.
It was early the next morning before we got back to Gaithersburg. Thoroughly chilled, sleep came quickly. Kim and I chose to spend the next day together and forego the rally. The decision not to attend the Saturday rally was difficult but the right one. We each had to head back the next day; time to talk quietly and simply catch up on each other’s lives was at a premium. Some of the rally was televised so we were able to see much of the music and speeches. Dr. Benjamin Spock, on whose ideas our generation was raised, gave an impassioned plea to stop the war. Entertainers like Joan Baez and Ritchie Havens followed. Even some currently in Congress like Ted Kennedy gave carefully worded speeches. By late afternoon the media carried another story. As is often the case, a radical faction estimated at 2000 had broken off from the mass of marchers and a violent confrontation with police and National Guard troops reinforced by 9000 infantrymen brought in for the event followed. One of the second year VISTAS in charge of transportation home grew concerned and the call came to begin to round up everyone and figure out how we were going to get back to Houston. Pat planned to make a stop in Kansas on his way back so David, Larry and I took a ride with Eric, a second year VISTA and acting supervisor.. With Kim safely on her way back to Chicago, my attention turned to getting back to Houston in time for the first meeting of the next Rock and Blues class.
We made one sweep of the D.C. area to see if any VISTAS might be stranded. Dupont Circle was empty, save for the litter and lingering tear gas that hung like frost over the nation’s capital. My mood was solemn if not depressed. That evening we drove straight through to Atlanta. Except for an hour spent in traffic court in North Carolina, we made excellent time. I never realized that small town’s with speed traps would give violators the opportunity to settle up and move on within an hour. Eric, the driver, had some extra money from the project for emergencies. After he paid the fine, he mentioned that we were to rendezvous with another carload of VISTAS in Atlanta and
I would be flying back from there with two others to Houston. The logic being that the second term of the University of Thought needed to start on time and I would benefit from an extra day or two to prepare. I didn’t know it at the time but David and Larry decided to spend a couple of days in Atlanta and then to hitchhike back to Houston. I got worried when I hadn’t heard from them for a week. They finally called collect from Rayville, a town in northern Louisiana. Seems as if they’d been stuck there a good while until a trucker gave them a lift part ways. We had all seen the film Easy Rider a few weeks before and the ending would not leave me alone. People disappeared on country roads in northern Louisiana. By the time they stumbled in a few days later, everyone on the project was relieved to see them back in Houston.
That weekend and my participation in the placard carrying march remain as one of the most profound experiences of my life. I subsequently found out that approximately 46,000 people made that trek from Arlington to the Capital. It took 40 hours to carry those names past the White House and fill those coffins. Even President Nixon would concede that the 500,000 that rallied On November 15, 1969 impacted his decision not to use his “secret plan” to end the war. That hidden solution, it was later revealed turned out to be tactical nuclear weapons.
Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile up
At the ones who stand and frown
Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile up
At the ones who stand and frown.
We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other's wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep, the dark away
So raise the candles high
'Cause if you don't we could stay black against the sky, oh
Oh, raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain.
“Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”