Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Roaches and Seeds
Free time was an unknown. Most of us had been students all our lives. Equally unfamiliar was the city of Houston. But time management and strong motivation, make an effective VISTA. Although we numbered 50, including lawyers and supervisors, aside from infrequent post-training meetings, many of us didn’t see each other all that much. The daily demands of our individual projects, the geography, and inconsistent transportation kept us out of touch. Then came the Project House. The former convent, with amenities like large dining and laundry rooms, showers, and well-equipped kitchen served as hostel and meetinghouse. Get-togethers increased. Still, it was not uncommon to hear about what others were up to by word of mouth. Arnie Reichler became the subject of many conversations and rumors.
Arnie, a VISTA originally from Queens, New York, kept us thinking and laughing. Recognizable instantly by his rapid speech and thick eyeglasses, Arnie was one of the only male VISTAs who wore no facial hair. His daily uniform consisted of faded blue jeans held up by a worn, floppy leather belt, white tee shirt, about one size too small, and thick black oxfords. His thinning hair swirled back over his broad forehead in one assertive swoop. Soft, vanilla skin gave way to a farmer’s tan line that took the appearance of a rose-colored bib around his neck. Arnie viewed the world leaning forward, looking through tortoise shell horn rims edging down the bridge of his nose. It’s fair to say that his conception of Houston was much like Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous first impression: “four square blocks of Manhattan set on a plain.” A poet and writer, no subject eluded Arnie. Each day supplied him with an unending string of topics and images. Even though he wrote constantly, Arnie had set upon an ambitious project changing the content of Houston’s libraries. Like many hospitals and schools, one particular library was named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The irony of this library serving mostly Black and Latino communities was not lost on Arne. He set out to fill the shelves with books relevant to those patrons. He was appalled at the lack of material about the lives of those who the library intended to serve. To stock the shelves with materials on Cesar Chavez, or Dolores Huerta, primary source documents of American History, the writings of Martin Luther King and the works of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston was his goal. It was an ideal project because it could be invisibly done.
Arnie was no more histrionic than the New Yorkers in my family, but a New Yorker in Texas is a different animal. Over-zealous about everything he did, Arnie was constantly in motion, constantly rattling off ideas, lines he’d written, his current ailments, or the latest authentic restaurant he’d discovered. Like me, he could be funny, intense, emotional, and neurotic. I began a series of bi-weekly visits to Arnie’s North side home because I wanted to nurture his friendship. He’d studied the fine points of the Selective Service law, and being a fellow draft resister, was always evolving strategies for communicating with his draft board. I thought I might also be useful as a bibliography source for his library project. My undergraduate history thesis looked at the individual and social realities of Black poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay, and I was fresh from other history and literature courses with experts like professors Gary Nash and Ron Takaki. Throughout these years, books by Black writers previously unavailable were being reissued constantly. VISTA was providing book kits for various projects and I reasoned if enough of us received the 25 or so paperbacks we requested, we could donate many copies to local libraries. I’d asked for titles about the blues, social history, current affairs, and various ethnic studies volumes. Mild shock ensued when we actually received copies of Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.
I often encouraged Arnie to submit his poetry to the The Issue and he’d usually give me an on the spot reading, of his latest piece. A prolific poet. I saw him as a budding Allen Ginsburg or perhaps a younger version of Laurence Ferlenghetti. He’d tackle any topic with irreverence and enthusiasm. Fortunately, we were able to publish his work from time to time. He and I even organized a series of poetry readings at the Project House where VISTAs, encouraged to either read their own work or something else they liked, gathered to sip cheap wine while even cheaper candles burned. But curiosity also motivated my visits with Arnie because he enjoyed certain notoriety on the project with regard to his pest control methods. My housemates and supervisors continually encouraged me to witness this first hand.
Arnie’s battles with cockroaches in his apartment were legendary. While most of us simply made peace with them, usually in the form of jokes or planned ignoring, Arnie set out to exterminate every last one. To be unconcerned about the constant presence of these 2-inch flying pests was a badge we wore proudly. I’d find them lurking in piles of dirty dishes in the sink or inside the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. They ambushed the unsuspecting in dirty clothes hampers or cracks in the wall.
“Hey did you see the size of that roach in the kitchen last night? I hear he rides a motorcycle now,” someone would say.
“No I missed that one, but two of his buddies took the car out last night.” That’s how it would go. Where we became accustomed to simply swatting or thumping them off when we awoke, Arne went after each one. He wouldn’t stop until the corpse was flushed away.
Word on the street was that to really appreciate Arnie in action, you had to sit with him over coffee in his kitchen. In the middle of a conversation, if he spotted a roach, Arne would remove his shoe and using the heel as a hammerhead, go after the doomed pest. He took particular pride in whacking Texas cockroaches. “Excuse me,” he’d blurt out in mid-sentence, then slowly rise and became a roach splattering madman. Red faced, sweat dripping, and panting, he’d calmly return to his seat.
“This is the method that works best,” he’d add. “I’ve tried just about everything else.” He wasn’t kidding. Arne’s parents owned a pharmacy and would send him monthly “Care packages.” Aside from his roach fixation, Arne was showing signs of hypochondriasis. His family would send him enough painkillers, bug sprays, stomach upset preparations, shoe insoles, cough medicine, roach traps, chewing gum, toiletries, lotions, first-aid products, and candy bars for the entire project. “Whadda ya need,” would be Arne’s familiar greeting. Carloads of VISTAS would come by for a monthly visit to “Arne’s drugstore.” He believed in sharing the wealth and there was always someone who hadn’t seen the roach terminator in action.
These two are collaborating on something.
For all the entertaining moments Arnie Reichler gave me, I was able to return the favor, unknowingly, a few months before my year ended. One afternoon I received a call from a young woman who was registered in my Rock and Blues Analysis class. She called to say that she had no transportation for the meeting that night and wondered if I knew of anyone she might contact for a ride. I asked her if she could get to downtown Houston and perhaps I could pick her up there and give her a lift. Kim, who was back in Texas, was uneasy about the student.
“How’d she get your number, maybe someone else can give her a ride,” she said. I insisted on following through so we gave the girl a ride. When it was clear she was quite attractive and not particularly pleased that Kim was with me, I made sure that somebody else took her home. What I didn’t know was that Kim had planned a surprise birthday party for me after class that night. Many VISTAS would be there and she needed to arrive with me at exactly 9:30 pm. I asked Arnie if he’d give my “groupie” a ride home and he gladly agreed. But when he didn’t show up later for my party I grew concerned. In fact nobody saw Arnie for three days.
Finally, he surfaced. Hyper as ever, he told me he’d been at the Project House for a few days. It seems that on the way home from my class the “student” was interested in hearing some of his poetry. Rather than drive across town, he took her to the former nunnery because it was right in the neighborhood and an excellent setting for reading poetry. She liked it so well they remained in one of the spare rooms for a few days. According to Arnie, this woman “had a thing for New York Jews.” Arnie was happy to answer all her questions about his ethnicity, his hometown, even his sexual prowess. She had assumed that I fit the bill, but he assured her that was not the case. “I told her you were Jewish, but definitely not from New York. She had some weird ideas, you know how some of these Texas girls are, and somebody needed to set her straight.” Arnie proceeded to go into too much detail about their fun-filled time together. He was particularly fond of the fact that their poetry discussion and the lovemaking that followed were done in an ex-nun’s room under a crucifix. “I kept looking up at that thing,” he told me; “it was a very beautiful experience.” Some new poems followed.
As our Communications Center took hold, so too did our friendships with other VISTAS and our community. Most of the work we did occupied weekdays. Weekends were reserved for unwinding and informal parties. Larry kept his relationship with Deidre, an Austin VISTA, alive by alternating weekends between Houston and Austin. Nancy Hite, a Fourth Ward VISTA, often spent her weekends with David. Just about the time they first connected, we got a call from Nancy one Saturday afternoon.
“What can I bring?”
“Just yourself, and make sure your house mates come with you, we need as many VISTAs from inner city Houston as we can get.”
Nancy was adamant about having a good turnout from the Third, Fifth, and Sixth wards. As the force behind this Fourth Ward open house, she wanted as much support as she could muster. Her little strip of downtown poverty was all set for an influx of direct action. Living in this community composed mostly of decaying shotgun shacks and an occasional church or street corner market, she had a good deal invested in its makeover.
Nancy was a second year VISTA, having endured the political and emotional tornado that was 1968 deep down in the alley of the Fourth Ward. She was tough as scrap iron, having survived a physical assault, numerous verbal threats, and the monthly challenge of making ends meet on a VISTA Volunteer’s scant salary. We needed to be there for Nancy. Hopefully, she would help our fledging efforts further on down the road. That was the VISTA way.
By the time David, Larry, and I arrived, the open house was going strong. The little Community Center was scrubbed and polished. Proud seven and eight year olds stood beside the reading books while their prouder parents sat at card tables collecting signatures: promises to return and contribute something. They needed everything. Books and school supplies, of course, but any working fan, ice trays, educational games; chairs would be nice too. Aside from tutoring, the refurbished center would be used for community meetings, receptions, recitals and the like. Having this facility in the heart of the community would change lives. No transportation needed.
“You don’t have to bring food because the locals will provide that,” she reminded us. “We need you to help organize childcare, talk with or assist the elderly so they can eat and visit with folks, and just be a presence.” Our orders were clear. Nancy urged us to talk up our own projects because that kind of networking might uncover a helpful friend or relative in our neck of the woods.
The day went well. After all organized activities were completed; everyone went to Nancy’s place where a buffet occupied every inch of her small front porch. With help from her neighbors, about 300 people were able to eat, schmooze, and extend the goodwill into the late afternoon and early evening. With the Orange Crush sky as a backdrop, musicians emerged. The Blues and the Sixth Ward go together like Pearl beer and barbeque. With most everyone filled with short ribs, chicken, and fish, plenty of lemonade and cole slaw, the only thing left to do was enjoy the moment. Kids shot marbles, jumped double Dutch, or tossed horseshoes. Generations swapped stories, talked politics or just listened to bluesy riffs sent adrift by small homemade amplifiers. Yet, in my mind, something was missing. I found a local VISTA and popped the question. “Do you know where we can get a nice watermelon around here?”
At this point, I must interject that I am a connoisseur of watermelon. I unabashedly adore it and I refuse to buy in to all the taboos and caveats about what I consider nectar of the gods. I know, too, about the relationship between racism and watermelon. Sometimes, however, as writer Ralph Ellison noted, in this short life it becomes necessary to own one’s passions. This is one of those times. I wanted nothing more than to contribute to one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Thus began my search for the perfect watermelon.
A colleague and I joined one of the residents and motored over to a nearby grocery store. Pathetic. They had nothing cold; what they did have looked anemic.
“Any other ideas?” I disappointedly asked. “What about that guy that sometimes has a truckload he sells from the vacant lot over near the freeway,” my fellow Vista asked. Strike two. Nowhere in sight. At least we tried; I consoled myself. The horizon flamed burgundy now and the Gulf Oil sign on the Houston skyline had replaced any trace of the sun when the only true Texan in the car suddenly said, “There is one other place we might try, you guys are up for it?” It’ll take about 30 minutes to go there and back, it’s the best I can do.” For a watermelon, the right watermelon, I ‘d consider the ends of the earth.
After a maze of turns and twists, we rolled down a dirt road with no dwelling in sight. Through the last of a half dozen dust clouds, I thought I saw an oasis.
“That’s where Rabbit live,” our guide said. We parked under an arching shade tree that came to resemble the inhabitant of the sheet metal and clapboard house standing nearby. Out of this tumbleweed with windows walked Rabbit. He resembled the male equivalent of Miss Jane Pittman. Introductions followed and he asked me what I was looking for. Somehow a watermelon, or even a big watermelon seemed so inept. I felt like I was standing before the god of all watermelon. “Take a look over here, “ he motioned. We followed Rabbit into a shed that contained a refrigerator. Inside, on every shelf rested watermelons. Some Charleston Grays, a few cut in half, others still covered with a smear of mud. “This what you lookin” for?” our guru said. I nodded, but must have looked puzzled, because he shot back, “How many people you fixin’ to feed?”
I didn’t want to say a few hundred, so I just mumbled something like “as many as I can.” In other words, I want the biggest watermelon you have. Rabbit got the message. “Follow me boys.” We went down a shaky staircase to another room where an old freezer stood. It was so dented and dusty I didn’t think it was working. About the size of a small bathtub, the freezer was plugged in, humming faintly, and wired shut with a knotted old coat hanger.
We offered to help, but Rabbit would have none of it. I watched him take a rusty pair of pliers and painstakingly free the latch. Inside the freezer sat the largest watermelon I have ever seen; at least in person. Deep green and about the size of a standard recycling tub, this was one watermelon for the ages. The old timer estimated the weight near 50 pounds. I was not going to do better; within minutes it was mine. I can’t recall the price, but I know it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars. Back then; the price of watermelon ranged between 5-10 cents a pound. It was never about money.
When we returned to what had now become a block party, we took the ice-cold trophy to Nancy’s house. It took two of us to carry it comfortably. Still reeling from the sheer beauty of this melon, I stood by as some of the more skillful residents of the Sixth Ward did the cutting. Anyone within a mile of that melon who had the taste for some was satiated. Yes, it was cold, sweet, refreshing and visually stunning. With the clean-up organized and in effect, many of the neighborhood kids and I spent the waning minutes of twilight competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. I was much too full to be a serious contender for the title.
That watermelon, like the Sixth Ward community center brought a lot of folks together that night. Like my experience as a VISTA it forced me to go beyond the easily obtainable and look into the heart of a culture. Both leave an unforgettably sweet taste.
I realize that some might unknowingly romanticize poverty or poor people. My intention here is only to recall one time, when in the midst of neglect, want, and dysfunction, something joyful and beautiful happened, if only for an evening. All the fear and uncertainty would surely return with tomorrow’s heat and humidity.
I’d never known anyone from Alabama before, much less an Alabama Jew. Boo Bronson fit the bill. Easily one of the most likable VISTAs in the class of ’69, Boo became a neighbor of sorts. Byron P. Forney, our landlord, had only mentioned the sagging structure behind the house. It was, in fact, the remains of a garage apartment. Overgrown with weeds, the actual garage itself was useless. The small dark space contained only some well-used garden tools and a sparse collection of useless paint cans. But up the small staircase sat a studio apartment with a small kitchen and tinier bathroom. Boo Bronson decided to make the place his own. Sub-letting the place to him divided our rent by four, twenty-five dollars each. After a thorough scrubbing, a new coat of NASA paint, and a few pieces of Salvation Army furniture, Boo’s place was habitable. For someone who probably had the most decrepit living quarters on the project, he also had the best car. Boo’s 1969 Pontiac GTO, complete with DUKE decal on the back window sat proudly in the driveway. He was one of the few Houston VISTAs who used his own car. Not a bad deal considering the government would pay for gas mileage. Despite that powerful pale yellow car, Boo was known for something else. He was a collector of cannabis. Part social activist, part hedonist, Boo Bronson stored his varieties of pot in hermetically sealed glass jars. He enjoyed showing and handling his collection like a gourmet. Cached almost ceiling level in an elevated kitchen cabinet, Boo would gladly get a step-stool and let any visitor sample the aroma and “purity” of his collection.
Of all the people I have ever known who made marijuana a regular part of their life, Boo had it best in perspective. He knew the difference between time and place and lived his VISTA life separately from his social life. Make no mistake; Boo was not a dealer, though he’d part with his specialties if the price were right. He merely knew his requirements for living and settled for nothing less. Toward the mid point of our year together, Boo developed a strong interest in the law and befriended a few of the new VISTA lawyers. He turned his attention to projects involving legal aid. I’d be very surprised if he is not a practicing attorney today.
To the left of Boo Bronson’s garage apartment was a single room directly above what used to be the garage itself. With decomposing walls and a floor of ancient, cracked linoleum, this space went unused until VISTA lawyer Marvin Feingold revealed his obsession. A talented guitar player, Feingold would stop by now and again to play and sing with David. He was particularly fond of David’s Gibson Hummingbird guitar. The instrument is named for the hummingbird design graphic on the face. Marvin wanted his picture taken with the guitar. No big deal, except he wanted to be nude, standing next to the guitar. He wanted the photo to be taken in the shabby room above the garage. For this, he would pay David handsomely. Never one to refuse easy money, David was honored to fill the request. On the appointed day, both musicians spent about an hour in the “studio.” The end product was a gift for Marvin Feingold’s wife. Small in stature like David, Marvin posed in all his glory holding the guitar by the neck at his side. The finished set of prints featured half dozen pictures from various angles. When word got around about this little project, VISTAS from every corner of Houston dropped by to enjoy a peek at Marvin’s full frontal fantasy. I think Marvin was pleased with his portrait and had plans to use the photo for an album cover should the need arise. Like most of the VISTA lawyers I worked with, Marvin was motivated, dedicated, and sensitive to the needs of his community. Still, we never saw this one coming.
That Spring I was again called to appear before my draft board. I’d asked for an occupational deferment because some boards considered VISTA an important job. Mine didn’t. I had no expectations and was not surprised that my request was denied. This was my cue to write a statement of consciousness objection, something I was prepared to do. On my brief trip home, I stayed with my father for three days. I hadn’t been in my family’s home for about six months, but it felt like decades. My entire perception had changed. Even the shabby carpet on the floor looked elegant to me. Had I become that used to no carpet on old wooden floors? The ability to take a shower whenever I wanted made me giddy. Television seemed irrelevant. I had no idea how much I never noticed about growing up in the San Fernando Valley. The neighborhoods looked so well kept and orderly. The visceral tension of my VISTA life was glaringly absent. When I returned to Texas I was delighted to find David and Larry at the airport waiting to pick me up. How nice, what thoughtful friends. They really care about me. Not exactly.
“Here’s your check, we’re going straight to the bank so you can cash it,” Larry announced.
“Then you need to pay the phone bill,” David added, producing an envelope. “If you don’t do this right now, Southwestern Bell is going to cutoff our phone this afternoon. With no phone we have no Communications Center.” Then came a big shit-eatin’grin.
I knew I had to sacrifice my pay this time, but someone would get me another day. That was the VISTA way. That’s how things got done at 1506 Rosewood. We never missed a call. We never missed a meal.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Issues and Answers
Across five states, we were spread as thin as Depression stew. Was that part of the grand design? After a few months of living in and at poverty, most of us were vulnerable to any notion that we’d been co-opted--hoodwinked, into a loosely organized army of rebellious idealists, fanned out over some of the most dangerous turf the country had to offer. Surely the FBI and Selective Service System must be having a good, long laugh over this. After all, what kind of community organizers could we be if we couldn’t even organize ourselves?
Some sort of newsletter or magazine to inform and inspire would be ideal. The transitory nature of the program made previous attempts at a regional publication difficult, if not doomed to failure. Yet, with our new cache of materials from NASA, an electronic stencil cutter, and a high-speed duplicating machine, we kicked around the idea from time to time. The catalyst came with news from Marshall, Texas where the entire VISTA project was suddenly ousted because of a publication. It was a local offering, aimed at empowering the black community. It didn’t help that the VISTA sponsored newsletter had the look and sound of the radical press. Words like “struggle” and “revolution,” found their way into community news items. Terms like “establishment” and “white power structure” amplified every fear fantasy the God-fearing townsfolk could muster. Clenched fists don’t play well in rural Texas. Perhaps if the VISTAs from neighboring communities or even states had been effectively organized, the Marshall project may have been saved. It was yet another example of well-intended volunteers trying to make change in a community with draconian institutions and ultimately being left hung out to dry. Months of delicate networking, coalition building, and trust, evaporated overnight. Promises, friendships, emboldened community organizers, all shown the door.
During an informal gathering at our Communications Center soon afterward, the conversation quickly turned to resurrecting The Issue. This now defunct monthly periodical once gave VISTAs all over the Southwest region a forum to share their stories, vent, write poetry, and unbraid the knots in their heads about the work they were doing. Some of the VISTA projects in more remote areas tried to initiate alternative publications. The idea was sound, but the cost usually prohibitive. When the Southwest regional office in Austin agreed to give us contact information, Larry, David, and I went to work. Within a week we produced a modest, revised, version of The Issue then waited for the response. I was struck with how easy it was to scan and then duplicate the Office of Economic Opportunity’s “All Postage Fees Paid “logo. A little press type and some cover stock gave our initial copy of The Issue an appropriate, if not professional, look. Within days, we began to hear from VISTAs scattered throughout the region. In came their ideas, complaints, poetry, and opinions. Letters with art work, drawings with poetry, journal entries, sketches, an errant joint or two, a recipe, a photo, a five-dollar bill. With each additional Issue, we published both regional and national news. Isolated VISTAs from Arkansas to New Mexico, Oklahoma to Louisiana suddenly had an audience and a forum. They wasted no time using it.
While the Rosewood St. Communications Center wasn’t quite the floor of the New York Times, it felt like Grand Central a day or two before publication deadlines. Specific roles emerged. Larry handled editorials and newsy items, as well as assistance with the layout and printing. David helped with all things technical, made decisions about paper, cover stock, and tended to the machines. I was the poetry editor. That meant that I solicited, read, selected and ultimately edited all the poetry published. I also obtained graphics, did the layout, and readied the final copy. Everybody stapled.
Our version of The Issue would be different. It would be by, for, and about the VISTAs in the Southwest region. That message got through and within a few months, two concerns generated the strongest feedback. Not surprisingly, the VISTAs of the Southwest region were grappling with the same questions we in Houston spent many nights debating: Are we being set up for failure by our government? Shouldn’t we be increasing our efforts to organize the middle class?
A contingent of VISTAs from Oklahoma likened their treatment to the “bait and switch” techniques used by car salesmen. Writing about a committee that sought their involvement and feedback for revamped training sessions, they warned the region that these committees could suddenly appear and disappear. In parenthesis after the text of their letter, Larry noted a similar experience with the State Training Board in Texas.
The Oklahoma letter as it originally appeared, complete with ink drawing.
If The Issue did anything, it provided volunteers in the field with an outlet for their ideas and emotions. It’s appearance in their mailboxes every month said, we know you are out there and what you are trying to do, while seemingly impossible, matters. That rough little collection of news, reprints, poetry, letters, and illustrations, said you are not alone. It said, tell us what you need, and don’t give up; don’t ever give up.
In December of 1969, after mailing out one of our first editions of The Issue, we received a letter forwarded to us via regional headquarters in Austin.
This is a personal statement of gratitude for you efforts in preparing
As one who was inappropriately accused of having produced “that VISTA
paper” in Marshall, Texas, I can say with sincerity that The Issue is a real
…(It) is not published by others for VISTA but …with a real involvement
of VISTAS in the field. This is what gives it its unique stance in…OEO
literature and what calls for its continuation.
Your editorial comments re the misuse of VISTA have expanded the scope
of my thought about my work.
…keep up the good work; you have my utmost support.
Karl was particularly thankful for our re-publication of selected articles from major publications like the Washington Post, New York Times, or the local press. We gave all authors credit, but I don’t believe we ever asked for permission. It wouldn’t have mattered. The information mattered, nothing else. This kind of feedback kept us going. Within the next few months a clear dialogue emerged on what turned out to be the hottest of all hot topics: organizing the middle class.
“VISTA exists to co-opt us; it’s another way our racist, imperialistic, government can channel potential revolutionaries.”
“You knew your resources would be limited and these communities were dangerous before you signed up, didn’t you?”
All our social gatherings usually began with this conversation. Knee deep in this quagmire, the emphasis of our work was beginning to shift. The realization of our condition, white Middle Class college graduates, miles from home, economically marginalized, distrusted by and alienated from our communities became our paralysis. Obsessed with this unexpected existential dilemma, we began to engage a new enemy in the war on poverty: ourselves.
When Jose Arcaya, one of the few Latino VISTAs on the project submitted an article that was subsequently published in Volume 3 of The Issue, the conversation took on a personal tone that escalated to accusatory. Entitled “While in VISTA,” Arcaya lamented the cynical, fatalistic, tone invading the discussions among Houston’s Volunteers. In essence he called for the “few measly, middle-class, white Volunteers …in strife-ridden, incredibly alien…hostile communities” to stop intellectualizing our way out of the task we originally volunteered to do—work with poor people at their own pace and level.” The article went on to acknowledge and even agree with some of the opinions and concerns about Volunteers being tokens of a patronizing federal government trying to channel young dissidents away from potential revolutionary activities. Arcaya recognized, too, that VISTA was concerned only with the symptoms of poverty and had no interest in dealing with the real causes. But it was the last paragraph that enraged many on the Houston project. Arcaya wrote:
If VISTAs don’t do anything else during their year, they ought to at least
immerse themselves in the poverty experience. They ought to use the year
to be taught by poor people the meaning of poverty, not to fortify some college
SDS prejudice about the causes of poverty. They ought to arm themselves with
enough gut and intellectual experiences from the ghetto that when they resume their
non-VISTA lives they can propose realistic, concrete solutions to poverty. The
Revolution won’t do the poor much good if they die by bullets instead of by hunger
Hugh and Sue Grady bristled with anger. Former SDS organizers at Fordham University, they were one of the few married couples on the project. The Gradys assumed Jose’s article was a personal attack and therefore did what most politically active radicals would do; they called a meeting, an emergency meeting, at their modest apartment.
I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed the role of a journalist on assignment. Besides, I was eager to get a glance at the Grady apartment because I’d heard conflicting stories about the décor. Some said if the Houston Police ever looked inside anyone within 50 feet of the place would be arrested. Sure enough, entering the small flat in North Houston, I came face to face with a large portrait of Chairman Mao taped to the living room wall. To the left, Che Guevara stared back at me, to the right the unruly mane of the king of beasts himself, Karl Marx, dominated the wall. Revolutionary graphics detailing various marches, political texts, and portraits of lesser-known leaders covered every inch of that apartment. A bookcase of brick and pine contained everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to a first edition of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. A hardcover copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice dangled off a stained, peeling coffee table no doubt obtained from the nearby Goodwill. Across the room, facing inward and away from daytime sun stood a tall, rough-hewn oak cabinet. Inside two elegant glass doors, on all three shelves sat Shakespeare: every play and a good two-dozen volumes of criticism.
Hugh Grady, twisting the ends of his wispy red moustache offered wine. Hugh was originally from Savannah, Georgia. Southern radicals held particular fascination for me. Rather chunky, Hugh reminded me of a Georgia planter. He spoke slowly, eliciting each syllable with the confidence and resolve of an aristocrat. Yet his politics were left of left.
“Ah wonder what makes Jose so sure he undahstans mah motivation for comin’ here?”
“Does he really think we’re… what did he call us, homespun Marxist-Leninists? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Sue Grady emerged from the kitchen and set a plate of corn chips on the large wooden spool that once held electrical cable but now functioned as a coffee table. She had the look of a New England librarian. Her long auburn hair was usually pulled straight back and tied; its thickness complimented her strong face and delicate mouth. Her vocabulary could be challenging, but tonight her anger made every sentence understandable.
“I think he’s got power issues,” she said. But if some asshole is going to insult me, I’d wish he’d have the cahones to do it to my face.”
“Ah don’t quite know what to make of it,” Hugh said. Red wine had trickled unnoticed and imprinted the front of his white T-shirt with three distinct droplets. “Doesn’t he know we’re about organizin’ the poor? Doesn’t he undastan’ a fuckin’ thing about oppressive governments?”
About a dozen VISTAS from inner city Houston showed up that night. After reading Jose’s article together the general consensus was that we could function as a project with individuals using whatever strategies felt most comfortable. As long as we were after the same goals, each other’s means justified the same ends. Nobody said anything but there were many in attendance at the Grady’s that evening who lost a little sleep wondering if anyone on the project was working undercover. We knew this was a governmental protocol. We had been to universities where not every student in the room was a student. A disquieting malaise, like the jaws of an enormous, vice began closing in. First came the desperate on the street. Fueled by drug addiction, hunger, and rage they twisted one end of the handle. A deceptive, duplicitous, government took hold of the other end. Only the families that we knew, the faces we encountered daily, could help us slip this grip. They seldom questioned our motivation. The poor are among the most generous people I have met.
My poem “Miguel” as it appeared in The Issue
Six months earlier, a Houston VISTA originally from the East coast had a carload of friends drop by on their way out to Los Angeles. They had been to the Woodstock Festival, and gave us an eyewitness account.
“It was fantastic, so many people enjoying the music together, sharing food, getting high, living and loving the moment. It’s gonna happen every summer from now on, man.”
To hear them talk, it seemed as if that scene would be reproduced all over the country. Someone on the project had saved enough to buy the first album of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, so we had some idea of what took place. The consensus was that young people had actually figured out how to live their values. That thousands of people could come together and peacefully enjoy their music, protect the land and each other, and change the image that often plagued their counter-culture. To hear them talk, it seemed it would only be a short time before Houston saw such a gathering of the tribes. Some from this Woodstock army tried to convince us we might be wasting our time trying to effect change with the poor. Again, they reminded us we needed to take a hard look at the government that was supposedly sponsoring our presence.
When the time came for these folks to move on, one guy in the group made a last ditch attempt to convince his friend to leave VISTA and find a job in the film industry with him.
“So how many lives did you save today,” he chided. “It’s not like that,” she tearfully replied. “It takes time to get people to trust us; go on, make a movie, I’m not ready to leave.”
His summer was very different from ours, but it jolted me into wondering if I was going to exit this year a different person. With the exception of friends who were married or had children, I expected others I knew to be willing to lay their bodies on the line for what they believed. That’s why I have always detested the term draft dodger or evader. I considered myself a resister. Similarly, if my country granted me the right to dissent, I gladly would serve its best interests. The V in VISTA was for Volunteer. The war at home, in my mind, was a higher priority than the one in Asia. I know now, the truth of that sentiment.
Another way VISTAs in the Southwest region supported each other was with friendly visits. Big cities like Albuquerque Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock were popular destinations. It was economy travel at its best. Usually a phone call would be enough to set up a trip. It was like having a free place to stay in five states. Granted, the lodging was in the worst neighborhoods these urban centers could offer, but the innkeepers were gracious and felt like old friends.
I was dying to go to New Orleans. The six-hour trip was nothing for five VISTAs and one GSA car. Besides it was a working vacation because collaboration with other VISTAs proved valuable. When the opportunity arose I jumped on the chance. David, Nancy, Kim, Larry and I headed toward New Orleans about 3’oclock one Friday afternoon. We were cleared until Monday. The small towns of East Texas were fascinating to me and when we crossed the border into Louisiana I was intrigued with a huge sign that greeted visitors. “Welcome to Louisiana, The Only State That Refuses to License Chiropractors!”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked. Nobody knew. Was the state proud of this fact or were Chiropractors condemning the state? A few miles down the road we stopped for gas. I kept telling myself, you are in Louisiana, and you talk differently, look differently, and think differently. But then I felt that way in small Northern California towns I’ve driven through. When the good ol’ boy at the gas pump, wearing a small red and white polka dotted cap, smiled hello, I wondered, am I being too harsh? Inside the restroom I glanced at the abundant graffiti. On a condom dispenser, neatly printed, were the words:
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty,
Nigger pussy, good as any!
No, I was not in California. That sense never left me.
Welcome to Louisiana; we’ve got what you need.
One of the films we saw during training involved some New Orleans VISTAs who had organized in a most unusual community dubbed “Gert town.” The poverty and living conditions in this strip of New Orleans ghetto rivaled any shantytown in the world. As with many small pockets of inner city in the “Big Easy” Gert town had it’s own distinct history and story to tell. Originally part of a large plantation, Gerttown became a maze of mostly unpaved streets and a fertile breeding ground for crime and poverty. Historically, many of the cities main streets stop just short of Gerttown. Yet the area is rich in jazz history having been the home of something dubbed “cutting” a forerunner to a modern day “battle of the bands.”
The VISTAs in Gerttown were excellent hosts. First we walked through the French Quarter, sampling some of the affordable neighborhood seafood places. One bar had an inexpensive Happy Hour that featured oysters on the free spread. Everyone learned how to eat crawfish and “suck the head” properly. Then we spent a little time in Jackson Square and ultimately worked our way down to the Mississippi River. I could hear Ramblin’ Jack Elliot singing in my ear, “Did you ever stand and shiver, just because you were lookin’ at a river.” As night fell, Gerttown assumed another personality. The muddy streets became less evident and the area’s numerous juke joints and nightclubs flashed their harlequin designs. Glowing reminders of Pearl, Jax, and Dixie beer provided more light than any street lamp.
To get the full flavor of Gerttown, one of the New Orleans VISTAS suggested we go to a neighborhood place right across the street. Probably converted from one of the numerous shotgun shacks, the establishment had a small crescent shaped bar and about a dozen small tables scattered throughout. Five of us surrounded one of the tables. Annie, the New Orleans VISTA informed us that things were done a bit differently in Gerttown bars. “You buy a bottle at the bar, then bring it to your table. Don’t worry, they have all sizes.” Two of us retrieved 5 small glasses and a pint of vodka. It was all right to bring in your own mixer, but all alcohol had to be purchased at the bar. We had a drink and took in our surroundings. A live DJ was spinning records and putting out a wall of Motown punctuated by an occasional funky blues. Kim, as she was wont to do, began to feel the music. A few couples danced, many more kept to the task of serious Saturday night drinking. A willowy woman in a short burgundy dress was doing her best to attract the attention of one man at the bar. Occasionally she draped herself over him like an oversize cape. He just hunched his shoulders and she’d back off. This dance continued for about 20 minutes. It seemed to me that she was getting more looks from other women than the object of her affection. Kim and I soon joined the couples dancing. We’d been the only whites in juke joints before, but the atmosphere here was somehow different. These folks all knew one another. This was their turf and we needed to be aware of that. Urgency seemed to define their actions, like an invisible timer ticking. After about half an hour the bartender slipped out from behind the bar and placed a fifth of whiskey on our tiny table.
“A welcome gift from this gentleman,” he said. A well-dressed black man in his 40s with a broad grin and an apparent appetite for whiskey soon joined us. Mr. Alexander proved to be a thorough gentleman. He danced with the women and told a few stories, before moving on to other friends at other tables. As the evening wore on, we wore out, still feeling the effects of the long drive. Annie set our unfinished bottle on the table of a friend and after nodding thanks, we walked back across the street. Thoroughly tired and slightly buzzed we crashed on the living room floor. About 2 o’clock in the morning we all awoke with a start. Annie ran in and shouted, “don’t put the lights on.” She proceeded to peep outside through the closed blinds. We took turns looking soon after. The small bar had emptied into the street. A chaotic haze of noise and movement enveloped the scene. All I saw were frenzied, shadowy figures. Police lights and sirens followed. An hour later it was dead quiet. Annie had slipped out to a neighbor’s place and returned by 3:30 with a full report. When she began with, “You remember that woman in burgundy at the bar,” I knew what was coming. Jealousy came armed here. Fortunately nobody died. An angry woman had pulled a gun or a knife; people hit the floor. Most took off before the police disarmed her and took her downtown for disorderly conduct. Saturday night had again surrendered to Sunday morning in Gerttown.
The relationship of violence to change lurked behind most political discussions by the end of my year. Just as the Civil Rights movement had given rise to more aggressive leadership, so too did the anti-war movement grapple with the pace and methodology to reach its goals. The Black Panther Party left no doubt where they stood. Marching into the California State Capitol building with guns was both a photo op and a declaration of war. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown had ties to SNCC, (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) but their rhetoric left no doubt that non-violence was no longer a guiding principle. So too had white radicals upped the ante after Chicago 1968. With the Jefferson Airplane singing “Up against the wall motherfucker,” and the Beatles multiple versions of “Revolution” confusion reigned. People were fed up with tear gas and billy clubs being a regular part of their First Amendment expression. The war in Vietnam was escalating with new fronts in Laos and Cambodia a real possibility. Political assassination was becoming the preferred tactic to deal with the growing Black Panther Party. Activists of all stripes were wrestling with the question of violence as a viable tool to seek retribution and achieve change.
Against this background, Abbie Hoffman made an appearance in Houston. One of the notorious Chicago Seven, Hoffman easily attracted attention everywhere he went. In Texas, Abbie Hoffman was like an organic farmer at a pesticide salesman’s convention. If one person could epitomize everything that was wrong with the youth of America in the eyes of President Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” Hoffman was the one. He was radical youth incarnate. While Rice University students battled with their administration over Hoffman’s right to free speech on the campus, he addressed an enthusiastic group off campus. My housemates and I attended. The audience contained sympathizers, undercover cops, the morbidly curious, and a handful of folks too stoned to be anything other than wasted at the time. Hoffman had recently published Steal This Book and after encouraging those in attendance to do the deed, he launched into tirade against those officials blocking his appearance on the Rice campus.
“Let’s go down there now and take that building over,” he shouted. “If you want to see who is prepared to act on their beliefs and force these corporate motherfuckers to stop stealing your education, then let’s go down there right now.”
He was making converts by the second. Even the stoners were wider-awake. By midnight the frothy mob moved in the direction of the university. We went home. I didn’t lose any sleep over making that decision, but sleep nevertheless came reluctantly. Dr. King was gone. The war in Vietnam showed no signs of winding down. My generation was losing patience and now the Klan was on my trail. I longed for the luxury of college to sit and sort out my morality with friends. How much was I missing? What else was going on while I’d been stuck in Texas making $6.00 a day? And then the final thought to be fingered like jagged rock: What if I never get out of Texas?
I read in the paper the following morning that a handful of students were arrested for creating a disturbance. Abbie Hoffman somehow managed to slip away.
“I wonder where he went, or where he slept last night,” I asked.
“That’s what always seems to happen, these guys think they are the voice of the people, the soul of the oppressed; wonder how long he’d last in the Fifth Ward?”
We were all feeling the tension these kinds of conversations spawned. Wanting to effect change in our assigned communities at a faster rate, wanting to be in touch with the larger issues going on in the country, and grappling with the inner turmoil that was tying our personal sense of ethics in knots. If he did noting else, Hoffman’s visit to my world gave me the impetus to explore the limits of my conscience. After that evening, I pulled back. I revisited the writers and thinkers whose ideas resonated deeply and stoutly within my mind. My draft board had rejected my claim for an occupational deferment so it was time to take the next step. I set aside any anger about the inequities in the Selective Service System to focus on my own belief system. I would spend the next week writing my statement of conscientious objection. This phase of my battle with Local Board #82 would continue for the next four years. But I couldn’t see that in the spring of 1970. All I could do was deconstruct my moral consciousness; find the depth of my own religious beliefs, my own concept of God, and my own political compass.
At first I relied on my knowledge of humanism. From the poetry of Kenneth Patchen to the texts of Gandhi and Dr. King. In time, all the beautifully turned phrases became echoes in an empty classroom. I turned to my senses and found time spent listening to music or riding my horse, or simply walking around looking deep into people’s faces helped my ideas about the sacredness of human life crystallize. When I set aside to write the statement the task became effortless. Yet, there was never a moment, from my initial introspection until the last sheet of my essay sprang free of the typewriter, that I expected it would ever influence a member of my board. To be sure, they would probably read every word. I imagined the thoughts drifting through their brains at the time. I could almost hear their snickers, see their physical discomfort. This would be just one more semi-eloquent, bundle of half-truths penned by a coward who never thought about what it took to keep this country free. My Eagle Scout distinction would be a momentary flare up of static in the military march soundtrack of their lives. I knew then that my statement of conscientious objection was for me and me alone.
Even though my Conscientious Objector’s statement looked less like an intelligent essay and more like answers to required questions, it came from my soul. My attempt to inform my reader about what influenced these beliefs was both intellectual and experiential. I wrote:
When I was 19, my mother became critically ill with cancer. She lived eight months knowing, as did my entire family, that she would soon die. Being my first intimate experience with death, this period of my life had a tremendous influence on my religious beliefs. Often, in her last few months, my mother and I spoke of life, death, God, and man’s relationship to other men. After her death, my religious beliefs became more firmly entrenched and now manifest themselves in my writing. Set against a background of increasing social change, the violence of war and racial strife, I became further resolved to act against the suffering of mankind, in the only way I could: non- violently.
I wrote about the sacredness of human life, quoted the Bible and Koran, and concluded with the statement:
To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,
Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:
There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
My draft board might be smirking, they might be pissed off, or they might actually be thinking about something I wrote. I knew then that whatever they thought was irrelevant. When that statement, with all its Registered Letter tags and stickers left my hands, I took my stance. I have never been more certain of any ethical belief and never more proud of my ability to be honest.
Shortly before his death in 1989, a pensive Abbie Hoffman, in trying to summarize the ‘60s said:
… in the nineteen-sixties, apartheid was driven out of America. Legal segregation - Jim Crow - ended. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. Now, it doesn't matter who sits in the Oval Office. But the big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, and headstrong - and we were right. I regret nothing
I don’t think he saw Iraq coming.
Monday, November 8, 2010
c2008 B. Greene
Saving our Land
I told Sam he could fuck the war,
and got a busted jaw
for sayin “fuck the law”
If you wonder why I’m mad, check the record
What's a nigga gotta do to get respected
Sometimes I think I’m getting tested, if I don’t say “yes”
a nigga's quick to get arrested
My relationship with the South has always been bittersweet. Like my love affair with the blues, I’m attracted to the cultural intensity and authenticity, but repulsed by the history of pain and hardship. Houston, Texas came to hold a similar position in my mind. Houston longs to be linked with the Southwest, and all that connotes, but remains, geographically and historically in the South. That means that all things Southern are all things Houston. It means, too, that parts of Texas continue fighting the Civil War, and parts are still resisting postmodern social theory. Like the rest of Texas, Houston is not without complexity. Politically progressive groups from mainstream Democrats to more radical elements have always struggled to maintain a foothold. The power structure of Houston, including city government, law enforcement, and social services was unabashedly protective of the status quo. Given this reality, I was never without fear and doubt about my safety. The work we were doing, like our idealism and politics, ran counter to the majority view. Despite the protection of the U.S. government, we were targets, and needed to remember that always.
Occasionally, hints of our vulnerability came in the form of phone calls at 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock in the morning. It seems that our local KKK chapter was encouraged to give us these “wake-up “ calls in the form of mild threats.
“Y’all need to reconsider what yur doin’ here and get the hell out.” Our niggers are happy without you messin’ in their bizness. If I were you, I’d go back where you came from and don’t send any more long haired nigger-lovin commies where they’re not welcome.”
Nobody took those threats to heart until a recently updated VISTA phone tree list, with street addresses, fell into the wrong hands. An anonymous tipster informed our supervisor that the Klan definitely had the new list. My concern went through the roof because I had recently moved. When Julie, my horse- owning partner, found an inexpensive 2-bedroom garage apartment in the North side barrio, she convinced Kim and me to share the cost.
“It’s a great little garage apartment. There’s a bedroom you guys can have and a dining room that I can use for a room. Besides, it’s only $25.00 a month rent. Think of the money you can save.”
“Are you sure about the rent?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Martinez, who owns the house in front is very partial to VISTAs. She has a history of renting to the project. She likes to think that by keeping the rent low she’s making her little contribution to the project. Can I tell her you guys want the place with me?”
One look at the apartment and the deal went down. It was clean, had beautifully kept hardwood floors, seemed quite roomy, and truly did rent for $25.00 monthly. My portion of the rent was going to be $12.50. The stolen list had this new Cochran Street address; it was clearly a recent addition. The local Klan chapter probably knew my new address better than I did.
I felt targeted. I worried that Mrs. Martinez might be too. But I knew that this type of harassment came with the territory. Certainly it was no more than many before me had felt. Sometimes, on steamy nights, unable to sleep, I’d think about the fire bombings of Black churches all over the South and the constant threats against all who marched, spoke out, or ultimately gave their lives for what they knew to be right. I’d think about the people who were lynched for exercising the right to vote and soon the more notorious cases like Emmet Till and Medgar Evers would drift through my mind. One evening, after realizing that there was absolutely nothing I could do if someone decided my presence warranted removal I thought deeply about my own political evolution. Like all kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, the black and white TV images of the Civil Rights Movement, fire hoses turned on demonstrators, dogs tearing clothing, God-fearing, Bible toting women spewing verbal venom at 6 year old school children, were seared in my brain. But that particular night, with the realization that my name had found its way into the hands of Klansmen, my fear dissipated when I recalled the moment I knew I wanted to be an agent for change. My 11th grade U.S. History teacher, Mr. Ellcot, had assigned a term paper. Using historical texts and current periodicals, I wrote about the struggle for voting rights in the South. In one Newsweek article I came upon some literacy test questions used to deny Blacks the right to vote in Alabama. There, in my high school library, with my American Literature anthology and my history text, The Pageant of American History, weighing me down, I read the question: “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap.” For me, the meaning of democracy changed forever. This new fear was nothing. Looking back now I realize feeling threatened for ethical beliefs is something that never leaves. Like hunger, once endured, it becomes a permanent part of the psyche and shapes all that follows.
The List. (Kim’s added notation: the address of her friend Clarence. Fortunately the KKK didn’t get this copy!)
Soon afterward, the entire project learned that there was a direct link between the Houston Police Department and the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. That explained our contact information forwarded to the Klan. It followed that the Mayor of Houston at that time, Louie Welch, was a passive overseer of all this collusion. If Welch was passive, Police Chief Herman Short was on the front lines. Short, whose 10-year reign as Houston’s top cop from 1964-74, left no doubt. His overtly racist attitudes and policies shaped the tone of the entire department. In fact, the KKK openly recruited in the police locker room. When a local newspaper fortuitously captured a picture of a Houston Klansman dressed in white robes getting out of a Houston police car, police chief Herman Short was quoted in the Houston Chronicle saying, “I see no contradiction between being in the Ku Klux Klan and being a Houston police officer.” The department knew that and acted accordingly.
What else can I say? Photo: Ron Laytner, Edit Int.
This alleged connection between a hate group and a police department invites skepticism. None existed on my part. Further evidence for the link came when I attended a demonstration against police brutality one Saturday afternoon. On advice from Lee Canales, one of the VISTA Supervisors in Houston, we remained on the sidelines throughout most of the march. With local media coverage, the demonstration of solidarity went off without a hitch. Some of us made our way into the march itself carrying signs, chanting “Stop police brutality now” or “Hey Hey, Ho Ho,” Herman Short has got to go.” A few VISTA lawyers present in the crowd of onlookers noted down the make, model, and license plates of cars that seemed to be following the proceedings with a critical eye. Most of their drivers were clicking cameras in our faces. The cars had Louisiana plates. We saw those same cars, usually white with blackwall tires, a few weeks later with plainclothes policemen and Texas plates. The lines were drawn. Anybody who had ideas that ran counter to the conventional wisdom about “social change” would hear from the white power structure. Cops or Klan, that’s how it was done.
I snatched this off a telephone pole on South Main St.
The Houston police were notorious for their methodology. In their desire to protect and serve, people often came up missing. We heard all about the questioning of suspects down on Buffalo Bayou.* Thus far our only skirmishes with the police took the form of patronizing warnings to keep out of poor communities or an occasional case of flat out harassment as in Kim’s arrest and “trial.”
And then there was the case of Lee Otis Johnson a former SNCC member turned Black Panther. After a violent confrontation on the Texas Southern campus in 1967, in which one Houston police officer was killed and almost 500 students arrested, Johnson became the target of the Houston Police Department. Students were beginning to listen to his speeches carefully. If SNCC was non-violent, the Black Panther Party was clear about adopting Malcolm X’s strategy, “By any means necessary.” The story of Lee Otis Johnson’s arrest was well known throughout Texas and frequently mentioned during our orientation to Houston. At a party, a Black, Houston undercover officer passed Johnson one joint. For the possession of a single marijuana cigarette, he was given a prison term of 30 years.
That was Texas. Lee Otis Johnson’s story was constantly with us when dealing with the police. We saw the same tactic used with Kim’s friend Clarence. The relationship between the District Attorney and law enforcement made this sort of thing a common occurrence. If any explanation came down to the word of a cop against the word of a suspect, or even a witness, case closed.
We really didn’t have much planned for the weekend. When Miles Simmons, the head VISTA supervisor called, late Thursday I told him so.
“Bruce, I need you to do something this weekend. Listen carefully, I can only tell you so much, and you have to do exactly what I say.” Now I was intrigued.
“Can I take Kim along?” I asked.
“Yes, you can, actually I was hoping she’d go with you, but if she doesn’t, I need you to do this.”
“OK, what is it that’s so mysterious and pressing?”
Miles proceeded to give me a set of specific instructions. He wanted me to take my GSA car and drive out to a lake about an hour out of town. There I would meet him and receive some camping equipment, food for two days, and a few dollars. He advised us to take a book or radio because we’d be at the lake for 48 hours straight. Finally, Miles explained that we’d be sharing a campsite with a man and his young son. On Sunday afternoon, we were to return them to the Project headquarters.
Kim was cool with the plan, so we threw some clothes together, found an old portable radio, grabbed a few books and magazines and headed for the lake. The April weather was blustery. Swimming was out of the question. We found the lake and designated campground and met up with Miles and his “friends” easily. He introduced us to Enrique and his 8 year-old son Luis. They spoke very little English, but my limited Spanish served me well. Before Miles left, he reminded me about the time and place for our return Sunday. He and I unloaded some food, tents and sleeping bags, and firewood from his car. I was overjoyed when Enrique produced a fishing pole and I remembered seeing a bait shop within walking distance from our site. Miles gave me his usual warm smile and whispered, “Thanks, see you in a couple of days.”
Because of the wind, the campground was fairly deserted. The first evening I fished with Luis and Enrique for a bit. They retired early. Kim and I began to speculate about the nature of this big hush-hush assignment. Because a child was involved, our thoughts centered on Luis. Perhaps he was being protected from something. Saturday dragged along. A cold wind whisked the lake to white caps. Fishing became difficult, so we all settled for a brief hike along the shore. The dry, cracked ground was an ugly gray-brown. I was beginning to think we were becoming increasingly vulnerable in this hostile spot. Toward the end of day my thoughts focused on why we were sent out of town and who Enrique might be. Kim and I began to speculate. He obviously was in some kind of danger, yet he didn’t seem like many of the Chicano leaders we knew. They were bi-lingual, verbally engaging, and defiantly proud. Enrique seemed almost to cower in our presence. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or his own timidity or embarrassment at having to have caregivers accompany him on an outing with his son. He never initiated much conversation and seemed as anxious as we to return on Sunday afternoon.
Late the next day, with Enrique and Luis safely delivered back to their family; Miles called me and filled in the blanks.
“Did you notice the scars on his face,” he asked. “I guess so, I replied, but I thought perhaps they were just pock marks or the remnants of teenage acne,” I said.
Miles told me they were more the results of plastic surgery. He proceeded to explain that Enrique had been the recipient of a beating by the Houston police. Rather than throwing him into Buffalo Bayou, as was often the custom, he was discovered and sent to Jeff Davis Hospital. Here’s where the story went from interesting to extremely interesting. Apparently, among the bones broken in Enrique’s face was one that rarely gets broken. Miles reminded me that he was not privy to any medical facts but added that a young intern in the ER who treated Enrique was so fascinated by this fact that he took an inordinate amount of photographs. That documentation was to become part of a lawsuit against the Houston Police Department. Enrique’s lawyers were afraid that something would happen to him before the case went to trial. To insure he survived, they were taking turns moving him around until his deposition was completed. We merely played a small role in insuring that justice would be done.
I’ve always been relieved that I knew very little during that weekend. I can only imagine how often I’d have looked over my shoulder on that camping trip. In an ironic twist, VISTAS were experiencing much the same fear and distrust as those whom they endeavored to help. I don’t think we ever thought just by physically putting ourselves in these communities we could immediately effect change. It’s difficult to say now, as it was then, just what we thought we could accomplish. What was clear, however, was that this “Other America” did exist, and anything we might be able to bring to the table would help. Exposing the glaring inequities of the world’s richest democracy was definitely heady stuff as well. Yet, contradictions and paradoxes lurked behind every other thought. As one Oklahoma pastor asked us the last week of training, “Could you lie for the same reasons you’d tell the truth?” Looking back, I see his point was not really a question; he was letting us know what we’d be up against at every turn. Like the cops with duel license plates, and the civic officials, and in some cases, the very people we were trying to help, the message was clear. Any attempt to mess with the status quo would have consequences.
By November, the University of Thought for high school students was in its second semester. Patterned after a growing “new schools” movement, the idea captured the imagination of teens and young educators. The VISTA sponsored Free University sought to offer Houston’s high school students classes in subjects they wanted. Many local teachers volunteered their time and resources for the pilot program. Rice University offered us classrooms and evening hours. Everything from language classes to art history to photography and writing workshops made the initial schedule. The class that received the most sign-ups was Rock and Blues Analysis. When the organizers of the program elicited my help, I volunteered to teach the class. I was sure I could do justice to the subject. I knew I wanted to go into teaching after my battle with the draft was over, and I felt qualified given that my undergraduate history thesis was in African-American studies. I’d even done a major research project on the blues. I ached to teach the class.
One of Saul Alinsky’s key tenets of political organizing was that the middle class makes a better target than the underclass. That’s where the power is, he reasoned. I’d been to enough political meetings in L.A. with Black Panthers and other less aligned radicals telling Whites to organize their own communities before building agendas for underrepresented Black and Brown people. The content of any Rock and Blues Analysis course would contain the foundation for a larger ethnic studies program. In exploring the origin of African-American music, White middle class kids would be exposed to a rich curriculum detailing the impact of African roots, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement on the music they loved. In the 60s the blues enjoyed an enormous revival that resurrected the careers of ageing legends and gave recording contracts to young Whites retooling old songs and calling themselves blues bands. Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton enjoyed simultaneous success. Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, Howlin’ Wolf and Van Morrison, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Canned Heat, J. Geils Band--all prospered. It was nothing short of a golden age of blues. Rock and Blues Analysis was the vehicle to bring a comprehensive approach to ethnic studies to students whose libraries and social science curriculum were “whitewashed.”
When the University of Thought kicked in, immediate success followed. The local press showed up to the first meeting of Rock and Blues Analysis and with a feature story in the Houston Post, enrollment swelled. Once a week, for the six-week duration of the course, I made the trip across town from the suffocating heat of the 3rd Ward, to the air-conditioned oasis of red brick and ivy at Rice University. The students were bright and engaged. We traced the African retention of sound, lyric, and beat to three specific styles of blues music. Using recordings, excerpted texts, my own harmonicas, and my students’ talent and enthusiasm, the course ended a resounding success. Looking back now, with 30 years of teaching experience under my belt, I can see how I might have done some things differently. Yet, given my limited resources and experience, I’m pleased with the job I did. Though I did not know it at the time, I have come to believe that we teach best what we love.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
I'm just a typical American boy from a typical American town
I believe in God and Senator Dodd and keeping old Castro down
And when it came my time to serve I knew better dead than red
But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said
Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, my feet are flat, and my asthma's
O think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old
Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a goin' to school, and I'm
working in a defense plant
Draft Dodger Rag
...You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do
Masters of War
There was never a day I didn’t think about the draft. It hovered over my head like a red white and blue guillotine. The growing dissent and unpopularity of the war in Vietnam made the ongoing struggle bearable, but for most of us, a personal confrontation with our very own draft board was always looming on the horizon. Most cities had competent draft counselors. Informative, accurate, and affordable books on the subject were easy to come by. No amount, however, of imaginary rehearsals, daydreams, or nightmares would ever be enough for the day of reckoning sure to come.
For my generation, Vietnam became the defining issue. The war divided friends and families, traumatized our moral emotions, and forced us to re-examine our understanding of U.S. history. The conclusions I was beginning to draw from studying U.S. foreign policy were reinforced in nightly newscasts. Every time I saw film of bombing runs, napalm being dropped, and villages and Vietnamese people on fire, I imagined myself an eyewitness. All the patriotic parades, the brassy marches, and uniformed heroes from my childhood seemed hollow. I was beginning to realize how manipulated and distorted the media, the history texts, and the true believers could be.
For me, the conflict centered on the ease with which most people I knew and respected could accept the brutality of war. Why didn’t they see what I saw? Why didn’t the screaming, naked children, with clothing burning or defolients used to pollute and annihilate rivers and countryside, food supply and entire villages of this ancient culture have the same impact? Who needed atomic fallout when the Dow Chemical Company could produce weapons that would have the same effects for less money? The mindless arguments regurgitated to rationalize what we all knew were the most infuriating.
“There will always be poverty and war. It’s just human nature.”
“If my country needs me I’m there. We shouldn’t question our leaders, after all they were elected by the people and this is a democracy.”
I began to feel alienated from all but my own generation. Talking to neighbors at a summer gathering or my friend’s parents proved to be too confrontational. Best to avoid them unless they would listen to another view. Vietnam soon became only the tip of an iceberg so enormous and so submerged that any simple conversation about the conduct of the war, the troops or the president could result in disparaging remarks about everything from Disneyland to Little League, to U.S. Imperialism during the Spanish American War. I braced for my community to perceive me as a radical, a communist sympathizer, a coward, and an impressionable fool. Even in the face of astonishing statements made by respected U.S. military figures, many Americans remained loyal and sacrificed critical thinking for blind faith. In March of 1968, American journalist Peter Arnett interviewed an American Major after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre. The officer’s response, serves to encapsulate all the irrational, mind-numbing, convoluted outrage that many of us felt. He said, “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.”
Hidden, of course, were the psychological basket cases, the desensitized, shell shocked, and sociopathic, who, if they were fortunate to free themselves from an inept Veterans Administration, were released into star-spangled communities to either re-live their traumas or recreate them. For a person who had always enjoyed the support of family, teachers, Boy Scout troop masters, and other authority figures, I was now the rebel. I was the one who defied his country, his government, his elders, and certainly, in their view his God.
Television changed all that. Much as it did with the Civil Rights Movement, the war went from the jungle into our living rooms. It arrived in color, with the sound of bombed out villages, the cries of bleeding army privates, and the rolling thunder of exploding napalm enveloping the terrain and bodies of Vietnamese in the liquid fire that most often burned and maimed. There was less instant death from napalm; it rolled over and on to homes and their occupants like molten Vaseline. Human beings were doing this to other human beings. No stirring speech, military march or crisp dress uniform would ever camouflage the sickening feeling of combat video TV newscasts and documentary films presented daily.
On December 1, 1969 all the VISTAS from the entire Houston area jammed into a newly opened Project House to watch the televised draft lottery. The Project House, formerly a convent, served as a safe haven for VISTAS between living situations, new people to the area, and an increasing number of VISTA lawyers sent to the region. We watched with grim faces and hostile humor as numbers emerged, were plugged into birthdays, and our fate determined on national television. Birth dates turned into death dates. From 1 to 365, each day of the year turned into a paroxysm of grief or relief.
Alun Richards, a VISTA originally from Wales, got number 2. I had forgotten that even non-U.S. citizens were eligible for the draft too. His usual toothy smile evaporated. Alun returned to Wales a week later. His VISTA girlfriend, Julie Shaw, cried for days. She then moved into a small vacant space at 1506 Rosewood for a short while just to be around people. With each new number called my VISTA peers breathed a bit easier. The guys with numbers over 200 tried to suppress their joy and relief. My number was 147, a decent draw for most guys. But I knew immediately it wasn’t high enough. My draft board, the second largest in the country, would easily get to 250 at least. I knew too, that I was in for a battle. But this was one fight I was willing to engage. The way I figured it, I needed to confront the system head on. Anything less would be inauthentic. I was an admirer of David Harris, the former Stanford student body president who, along with his wife at the time, Joan Baez, asked young people my age to think critically, if not differently about the entire military paradigm and its tactic of “channeling” men between the ages of 18 -26 to fight and die for a foreign policy that was deceptive and inept at worse, questionable and ineffective at best. Sleep didn’t come that night. Some of the guys who knew they would not be called were in a celebratory mood. But this was not making the basketball team, or the dreaded “being cut” in Little League. This was answering your government’s call, protecting democracy, taking a human life. No party followed. Sympathies exchanged, we filed back to our communities wondering how it would all play out.
Donovan’s version of Buffy St. Marie's "Universal Soldier" played in my mind like a broken music box. I knew all the verses, but kept hearing just four:
He’s five foot-two and he’s six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears,
He’s all if thirty-one, and he’s only seventeen,
Been a soldier for a thousand years,
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew,
And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend, and me for you.
And he’s fighting for Canada, he’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan,
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way.
And he’s fighting for Democracy, he’s fighting for the Reds,
He says it’s for the peace of all,
He’s the one who must decide, who’s to live and who’s to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.
My orders were beginning to” come from far away no more.” If thinking deeply could be measured, I was in the Earth’s core. The last line of that song became an endless loop: “This is not the way we put an end to war.” In my restlessness I conjured up the number 147. How fitting. Fours and Sevens have always been a big deal for me. Since my birthday is 4/7/1947 and my time of birth is 7:47 pm the synchronicity was not lost. If only a three had appeared. Number 347 would have made me safe; 147 only bought a few more months before the inevitable. Deeper into that night, the song became a sound track for a replay of my meeting David Harris the previous year. Harris, the former Stanford Student Body President was making headlines for his vehement war resistor stance. Marrying singer Joan Baez, already targeted by Right Wing pundits and politicos as a “Commie,” made the bulls eye on his back just a tad bigger.
On a warm spring morning in my senior year David Harris visited the UCLA campus and spoke to a modest crowd of mostly draft age students. Accompanied by Baez, who said very little but never left his side, he invited any interested students to reconvene after the official presentation concluded. About 10 of us ended up under a nearby tree. There, under the shade of the willing elm, Harris answered questions about the quirks and inconsistencies of local draft boards. His eyes were deep and clear, his resolve as genuine as gold. Harris’s voice was soft yet firm. Empowering, yes; but an air of sadness always surrounded David Harris. It wasn’t until I received a letter from him a few months later that I smiled. I’d written him asking about how his own case was going and a planned war resisters initiative scheduled for early the next year. With the lottery slated to kick in, I wanted to learn everything I could about my alternatives and the burgeoning resistance. Harris outlined the details of his case for me and noted he didn’t expect to win. Like most draft resistors, he would not be tried on the sincerity of his beliefs, but only on the fact that he refused induction. On the back flap of the green yellow and brown flowered envelope he wrote, “Please excuse the stationery, it’s my wife’s.”
David Harris and Joan Baez
My first draft board appearance came in early fall. It had taken six months to get the appearance and most of the counselors I’d spoken to felt my board would not grant the occupational deferment for VISTA.
“It doesn’t matter what some guy’s board in Ohio says, it’s all random,” my main counselor said. “Your board is in the East Valley and they have huge quotas to fill; don’t count on it.” That was the bad news; the good news was that asking for the occupational deferment would buy time. Then, when that deferment was denied, I could file for conscientious objector status. An appearance for that request would take another six months to get.
Besides, the counselors all agree, that’s the appearance that will determine the course of you life. I needed to get over the fact that the system was so unfair, so inconsistent. Sure, some of the male VISTAS received occupational deferments for their service but my board had never granted that status to anyone. Some guys I knew made appearances and simply told their board members that they did not want to kill any body and were immediately reclassified. My board reputedly relished asking difficult questions. I knew I was in for a battle when 147 finally came up. The only unknown was the time frame for this drama to play out.
In all, I made two appearances before Local Board #82 The first one in October of 1969 went quickly. They asked me a few questions about my work in VISTA and simply concluded that while it was an honorable sentiment to serve the poor, it certainly wasn’t worthy of a wartime deferment. In their eyes, there was only one war going on. The following month I was reclassified 1-A; when my number came up, I’d receive a notice for physical exam. One option remained, declaring myself a conscientious objector and asking for a personal appearance to state my case and defend my beliefs. The way the law was written, that belief had to be based on a concept of God. I saw no problem with that because I regarded human beings created in the image of God. If human life was sacred, and humans were God, how could I kill God? You want God, I thought, I’ll give you God. I began work on my official statement the day my new draft card arrived.
During this period I went to visit VISTA Arny Reichler. Aside from being a loyal friend, Arne was an ally in my struggle with the draft. He also made me laugh. With his thick wire rimmed glasses constantly sliding down his nose, Arny loved talking about his draft board. He’d take large gulps from his coffee mug, swirl his thinning hair out of his eyes and begin his monologue.
“I’ve really figured out how to drive my board nuts. The law says they gotta put everything you send ‘em in your file. So I send ‘em telephone books and old encyclopedias.”
Arny also sent his draft board a new poem each week. He would carefully number each poem because he sensed that after a while everything would just automatically get dumped in his file. Arny had no intention of sending a #17 poem. He knew that by the time he had sent in over 100 poems he could easily make the case that the board lost #17. This procedural error might be just the ticket to keep him away from Vietnam. Like all of us, Arny knew a few other methods to buy time from the military, but he preferred to do it his way. But sharing the folk culture of draft resistors was something we did if only to keep options for others open. He’d tell me about one guy who stuck crunchy peanut butter up his ass so he could reach down during his physical in front of the army doctors and transfer the contents to his mouth. If it worked in one part of the country, it just might do the trick in another. I’d tell him that someone told me to soak a cigarette in iodine overnight and then let it dry out. Supposedly if you smoked it and slowly inhaled the smoke, your lungs would be temporarily spotted and you’d be classified 4-F. (Physically unfit)
Because the draft was a constant concern of male VISTAS, Arny and I tried to disseminate as much information as possible. We knew that the best draft counseling came from the east or west coast so we did out best to pass along anything we knew. One VISTA, Hugh Grady, from Savannah, Georgia, had a most uncommon struggle with his board. Former SDS members, he and his wife Sue had joined VISTA upon college graduation together. Hugh was straightforward with his board and told them that he had belonged to an organization that advocated overthrow of the government. He knew that there was a provision in the draft law, added during the Cold War’s inception that might disqualify him for holding that belief. The board didn’t go for it. After a lengthy battle, Hugh invited us all over for a get together where he announced that he was going to go in rather than flee to Canada. Standing in front of a wall of posters with images of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, he spoke. “I’ve decided to organize from within,” he solemnly announced. “I think I can do more to end this war that way.” The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was just beginning to form and we all had heard stories about fragging (enlisted men killing their officers) in Vietnam. It seemed a brave and logical thing for him to do. When Hugh returned home the evening of his scheduled deployment we were dumfounded. Just before his final physical, he told a sergeant he was gay and then did his best to act the stereotype. “I was just trying to fuck with their heads, “he told us grinning like a mule eating saw brier. “See, in Georgia, I guess they’re more afraid of a gay man than one who believes in overthrowing the government.”
The word on the street about my board was very different. If anyone tried to claim they were gay, the Sergeant in charge would immediately bark, “Good, then you’ll love the army.” Just who they were was uncertain, but I was expecting them to be extremely testy. I knew my personal references needed to be exceptional if I was to have any chance of believability. I lined up what I considered to be three of the best. Miles Simmons was a minister. As one of my VISTA supervisors he was qualified to comment on my spiritual side. Lee Canales, my other supervisor was a veteran. A former MP in charge of guarding top-secret materials he was like so many Latinos I met in Texas in that he had a different view of the military. For Latino men who grew up in the barrio, the military represented a way out. It was three meals a day, it was a college education, and it was travel. Canales respected my position, and I his. Handing me his letter of reference to be sent in with my statement of conscientious objection, Lee could hardly contain himself.
“Wait till you read this letter Bruce, I think I’ve given them something to think about.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well there’s a line in there where after I tell them about my MP background, I say that you are about the last person I would want next to me with a gun in a combat situation!”
“Hey, that’s good,” I said, trying not to have my male ego shattered. Would I be seen as weak because I refused to take a government issue M-14 and kill people? A momentary thought. Nothing more. Certainly my Eagle Scout rank would validate my ability to survive in the wilderness. Inside, I was thinking, it’s very logical, very honest, I certainly would hesitate to kill; maybe one of those guys will have some doubt swimming upstream inside his head? I just hoped they wouldn’t ask to see my Eagle Scout badge. Shortly after the 1968 Democratic Convention I had removed the Sterling silver eagle from the medal and replaced it with a peace symbol. Hanging underneath the red, white, and blue ribbons, it seemed more functional that way.
My third letter came from my father. He was more than happy to support my beliefs and in his comments traced their origin by detailing the kind of child I was, what values my family had imbued in me and his estimation of the depth of my sincerity. I was tickled that he mentioned I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. I wanted my board to know that this was one thinking, competent, patriotic young man who refused to participate in the national nightmare of Vietnam.
By April 10, my CO statement was ready. I argued that the basis of my claim was my belief that human beings were created in the image of God. I quoted both the Bible and the Koran and clearly stated my thesis: To kill a man is to kill God. I pointed out that my belief system held God and love as synonymous and concluded that to kill God is to also kill love.
My religious beliefs tell me that this is the greatest wrong a man
can do. God loves; he creates; and so it is for man born of Him,
born unto his likeness and oneness to so the same; to love and create
not to kill and destroy. To destroy by killing human life is not only
to perform the greatest wrong against man, it is to perform it against
life, and thus against God.*
On April 30, I flew home make my appearance. I had been in Texas 10 months. With a poor drug store photocopy of my C O statement, I took the Rapid Transit bus to North Hollywood and walked over to Colfax Avenue where Local Board # 82 stood like a sun-bleached, uninviting dental office. The Venetian blinds were ureic yellow. In front of me stood a young man already waiting at the counter. One of the secretaries, old enough to be my grandmother, was trying to contain her smile because the nineteen year old had placed a squeaking kitten on the counter and momentarily lost the handle. The ball of orange fluff scampered to the end of the countertop and I began secretly hoping he would relieve himself before being corralled. My fantasy was growing and I saw cat piss on the files, blurring the lottery numbers of all those who were scheduled to appear this day. No luck. My appearance was scheduled for 1:30. At 2:17, I was still sitting in the waiting area. I reviewed my carefully rehearsed responses to any question I might get. I knew that sometimes very unexpected questions could be hurled at very unsuspecting registrants. I also knew that there was one final question that I should ask when given the obligatory opportunity that signaled the end of the appearance: “Is there anything that I have said that makes you doubt my sincerity?” I was ready to rock and roll. Inside my head the last lines of a Phil Ochs tune played:
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more.
It was my own private pep rally. At 2:29 p.m. The door opened and I entered the tribunal.
The seating arrangement formed a square. The three board members, left center and right. To ease my growing tension I conjured up Alfalfa of the Little Rascals. I could hear him reciting the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Only now it was “Selective Service to the Left of me, SS to the right of me…” The humor lasted an instant and the first board member, a thin, slightly gray, very bland man addressed the group. He may have introduced the other three men in the room but their names never stuck. A secretary was also present, sitting in a corner to my left. She took shorthand from the moment the first member spoke. I brought no witness.
Once the questions started, I hardly had time to breathe.
Why have you come before the board today? You say you’re against the Vietnam War, why didn’t you express that belief when you first registered? What religion are you? You know this classification is not granted to anyone, you have to be religious. I referred the members to my statement and letters of support. They were not moved my Kenneth Patchen’s poetry or the words of Dr. King or Gandhi. Not religious enough. When I told them I had recently received a degree in history in response to a question about my education, out came the heavy artillery.
The line of questioning that followed traced my beliefs to the popular culture of the age. The oldest board member, who I am sure was a retired officer, asked me how my beliefs would translate to other situations.
“What other situations,” I said, “I am against violence in any form and could not participate in any organization that used violence to pursue its objectives.”
“What about the Nazis, they were brutal killers who massacred Jews. Would you just stand by and let that happen?
There it was, the Nazi question. I was expecting the rape of my grandmother to come next.
“This is obviously a difficult question to answer, but for me I must tell you that my religious beliefs do not permit me to use violence.”
“So you’d sit there and let people be massacred?”
I referred to my statement and reminded the board that my beliefs did not permit met to use violence in any form. I repeated that there were non-violent alternatives to war.
“Does the same hold true for members of your own family when threatened by violence?” Would you just stand there and watch? You mean you’d do nothing if your own family were threatened by physical violence?
I held my ground. In my mind I knew I would do what I must. I also knew I would have none of this illegal, immoral war.
“So, Mr. Greene, it seems as if your beliefs will allow you to serve on a non-combatant basis? Wouldn’t you agree that your beliefs would allow you to serve as a medic?”
“Again, I must respectfully remind the board that my beliefs do not permit me to be part of any organization that advocated the use of violence. But I am willing to accept alternative service. In fact, that is one reason why I volunteered to serve my country in VISTA.”
A few short questions about my work in Vista followed, but it was clear that Local Board #82 wasn’t interested in my efforts to promote poetry or musical knowledge, or welfare rights in the Houston ghetto. If they read the entirety of my statement they would have read two of my poems dealing with conscientiousness. They would have also read an excerpt from a Kenneth Patchen poem I included.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
The man who says, “I don’t believe in war
But after all somebody must protect us”
Is obviously a fool and a liar.
That who supports murder is a murderer?
That who destroys his fellow, destroys himself?
By the end of my appearance, I was certain that I had convinced no one. By using the Patchen quote I had essentially called them all fools and liars. I felt satisfied. In truth, Patchen, King and Gandhi were worthy of worship more than a God who sanctioned napalm, anti-personnel bombs, and Agent Orange.
The personal appearance gave me an opportunity to check in with a few friends I left behind. It also insured that I’d be able to complete my VISTA service because it would take anywhere from two to six months to receive the board’s decision, be reclassified to 1-A, take a physical, and then deal with the business of refusing induction.
Before returning to Houston I found time to see my friend Kenny. His daughter Alex had died two months earlier. I didn’t know that her one-year of life began and end on the same day.
“She died on her birthday,” Kenny said clearing a place to sit in my old bedroom. His face drained. He brushed his shoulder length hair aside. His voice was barely audible.
“We were on the way to the hospital and stopped at a gas station first. I knew she wasn’t going to make it; I think she might already have been gone. It was so strange not bringing her home with us.”
I felt like crying but held in everything to protect Kenny. We all knew that Alex, who had been born with a brain abnormality, was going to have an uphill struggle. Perhaps this was for the best. I didn’t even have time to see Carol, but he intimated that she wasn’t into visitors right now. I was concerned for their future together. We tried to talk about music and sports. It didn’t work. There would be no stopping by the Ash Grove, our favorite music venue. No late night drives through Laurel Canyon or trips to Westwood Village. No human be-ins, love-ins, or teach-ins. My life was no longer in Southern California. It was hovering, on hold, somewhere between Texas and Vietnam.
The spring of 1970 saw the Southeast Asian war widen to Cambodia. Not surprising, new outrage and demonstrations at home followed close behind. I had two months to finish my work in Texas and prepare to deal with the inevitable collision coming with my beliefs and the Selective Service System. If my government was dragging its heels on an exit strategy from Vietnam, my own plan for exiting the war at home took vivid shape. I would complete all work and current obligations by early May, travel the length of the country, and position myself for a final confrontation with Local Board #82. I considered myself a draft resistor not a dodger. The expression “draft dodger filled me with anger and contempt. I was avoiding nothing; I was facing the selective service system head on. Despite my fear of prison and the consequences for my family, my resolve was inviolable, my decision made. If saying to my government that I will not kill a human being became the defining moment of my life, I could live with that.