Archive for July, 2012

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Protest

July 22, 2012

Much has been written about the turbulent days of the late 1960’s. The memories of those who lived through that time invariably will differ according to the specific time and place of their experiences and the mindset of the person involved. But the social and political turmoil stirred up by the conflict in Vietnam is certain to be at the heart of many of these, for this issue polarized Americans like few others in our modern times.

Washington, D.C. became the focal point of protest against the Vietnam war during my college years, and as the groundswell of sentiment against the war grew, so did the size of the protests. In October of 1967, about 50,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. In October of 1968 the number increased to 200,000. But during my senior year, 600,000 demonstrators converged on our nation’s capital on November 15, 1969, in a monster rally organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. What happened that day had a startling and historic impact on the psyche of the nation and the people who were there. I know this because I was one of them.

At Seton Hall University, like most campuses across the nation, students — some of whom would soon be directly affected by the war — organized locally to voice their opposition.  When the opportunity arose to do so on a larger stage, the organizing efforts grew to match the need, and many who may have been silent previously felt compelled to make a commitment.

My friend Peter and I signed up to be part of a contingent from New Jersey that would bus down to Washington for the November mobilization. At the time, we had no idea of the eventual scale of the event, but the immensity of it became apparent once we got down there. I had never before seen so many people in one place at one time. The streets were filled, and though the expected college students comprised much of the crowd, it also included surprisingly large numbers of well-dressed, middle-aged adults.

Shortly after arriving, Peter and I ducked into a local restaurant to try to grab a bite. The place was packed, and we waited for a considerable time. When a spot at a table finally opened, we sat down only to be accosted by an angry customer on his way out.

“Why don’t you kids cut your hair and go back home! We don’t want you troublemakers here!” he spat out with obvious disdain.

Peter and I were taken aback, not prepared for such vehement antagonism. We struggled for a response, but it became unnecessary, for an older gentleman at the next table immediately came to our defense.

“Buzz off! I’m a veteran, and I live here too. I think it’s great what these young people are doing. They have just as much right to be here as you.” His glare clearly signaled that he meant business. The other guy promptly shut up and skulked off.

“Thank you, sir,”  we meekly managed to respond. Perhaps the tone of surprise in our voices prompted him to continue.

“I mean it. I know what war is all about and what it can do. I’m proud to see you youngsters stand up and try to do something to stop it. A lot of folks are waving flags and wagging their tongues without knowing what they’re talking about, including some in our government.  You just keep on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother listening to them.”

We left the restaurant, stomachs full and morale boosted, and headed for a staging area to join one of the protest activities. Neither of us knew much about Washington, so we proceeded on foot the way se saw the masses heading. Deciding to cut over several blocks to get out of the crush of the crowd, we happened upon scores of city buses parked closely together along the side of the street.

There were cops everywhere. I decided to try to squeeze between buses to continue unimpeded, for the other side looked free of people. All of a sudden, one of the cops came running toward me yelling something I couldn’t quite make out. I turned to see what the problem was when I heard a loud WHACK, the unmistakable sound of wood on metal. The cop had swung his nightstick at me but missed and hit the bus. I began cursing, incensed at the injustice of being attacked for doing nothing other than walking down the street. Peter grabbed me and pulled me away, and we scrambled to safety. It wasn’t until later that I realized the buses weren’t merely parked; they had been placed there as a blockade to “protect” the government buildings behind them.

As we finally got within a few blocks of DuPont Circle, shouting erupted up ahead, and hordes of demonstrators began running our way. An acrid odor surrounded us — tear gas! Peter had asthma and needed to use an inhaler; how would this affect him? We hustled down several blocks to get to a safer area, but Peter suddenly stopped, visibly inhaling deeply. Oh, no. Could this be the start of respiratory distress?

“Peter! Are you okay?” I frantically asked.

“Yeah,” he answered in his normal stoic manner. “You know, I’m actually breathing better!” A whiff of tear gas as a temporary treatment for asthma; who knew?

Dusk brought news of sporadic trouble in several areas of the city. Peter and I were scheduled to participate in a candlelight memorial for soldiers who had died, but as we walked toward the appointed meeting place, a surreal scene unfolded that I will never forget. As the protesters filed down one side of the darkening street, on the other stood a long line of National Guardsmen shoulder to shoulder, rifles positioned at the ready. The silhouettes of the weapons in the soft light of the street lamps created a bizarre and menacing image. An eerie silence enveloped us save for the muffled tramp of feet on the sidewalk. I kept thinking, here I am, walking in the capital of my own country with my fellow citizens across the street — many no older than I —  prepared to fire on me. How could this possibly be?

Suddenly, from our side of the street, the sound of shattering glass broke the silence followed by another and then another as the store windows were smashed. Who could be so crazy? One nervous reaction from a jumpy soldier and a chain reaction of disastrous proportion could erupt. I believe I held my breath and fixed my eyes straight forward for the remainder of the trek.

The candlelight memorial took place as planned in a dignified manner, and it made a deep impact on most of us. Each marcher carried a candle and the name of a serviceman or woman killed in the course of the war. The procession solemnly moved in a single file up to the front of the White House  gate. The names of the deceased were read aloud one by one, their names echoing in the night, imbuing a haunting human quality devoid of politics or rancor to the tragedy transpiring on the other side of the world. These weren’t merely soldiers, pawns in the game of military decision-makers, but our brothers and friends and classmates and neighbors who would no longer enjoy the lives that should have lain before them. I remember being moved to tears as I shuffled forward in that heartfelt gathering. I regret not keeping the slip of paper with the name I read.

That night we stayed in Arlington in the homes of kind souls sympathetic to the cause. We gratefully slept on floors and couches, bunk beds and cots. As I lay in that makeshift dorm, my mind raced.  What had others seen? What had they done? Most of all, I wondered what would be the result of all that had occurred that crazy unforgettable day?

As it turned out, it proved to be a powerful force that would accelerate the momentum of the sentiment to end the war. More and more Americans began to come to the conclusion that this had been a long and costly mistake that must come to an end.  Unfortunately, the final chapter hadn’t yet been finished, and even more soldiers were to lose their lives. After the miscalculated Nixon incursion into Cambodia, further upheaval ensued back home culminating with the shootings at Kent State.

Our final semester in 1970 ended prematurely because of the unrest, and Peter and I graduated into a new decade fraught with problems and the palpable feeling of being on the precipice of major change. Some of our classmates would be drafted into the armed forces, victims of the bad fortune of receiving a low number in the recently imposed draft lottery system. And some of those inducted never returned.

The war slowly ground its way to a halt in April of 1975, an unsatisfactory conclusion devoid of the honor about which many politicians had crowed. The after-effects still resonate to this day in the mental and physical scars of those who served, in the families of those who never came back, and in the memory of a nation that seemingly lost its way.

I think of this now as I watch the weekly parade of photos of young men and women who have perished in Afghanistan, strangely aired only on the PBS News Hour. For some of my generation, Afghanistan has brought back the specter of Vietnam as history appears to repeat itself in a different geography, though I wonder about the curiously apathetic public.  Where is the outcry? Why the complacency?

Perhaps the distractions of the current era and the peculiar insulation from this war have desensitized many of those whose voices might otherwise have been raised. I am neither expecting nor hoping for a return to any “good old days” of dissent, but in its ostensible absence, I worry about the soul of this great nation. If one of its important freedoms, that of an openly expressive democracy, atrophies in a miasma of egocentric materialism and self-interest, our national conscience may be reduced to a few Cassandras who, as poet Robinson Jeffers put it,  “mumble in a corner a crust of truth.” Perhaps the days of protest are gone, and that would be a real detriment, for a cornerstone America’s proud heritage will have crumbled.

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Jill

July 17, 2012

They came to see her,

to say goodbye

to the flower-covered coffin

with the pictures of a happier day.

I looked at their  faces

and tried to envision her

with each of them,

what they could have done,

what they might have said.

.

I thought back to the time

I knew her,

those small moments

that freeze themselves in memory

apropos of nothing:

a joke told

on a rainy spring day,

a momentary communion

in a simple glance.

.

As I walked out into

the dark summer night,

I imagined all the memories

rising,

an invisible monument

to a soul

shared by so many.

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The John Dumm Connection

July 15, 2012

Most of our lives have been influenced by certain individuals we have met along the way that have had a disproportionate impact on us. Where and when this will occur is unpredictable, but the effects can be significant and the memories long-lasting. When I was a sophomore in college, I had the good fortune to meet three such individuals. This trio of upperclassmen who lived in my dorm became a personal holy trinity during a critical developmental period of my adult self.

One of these was a senior named John Dumm. He happened to be friends with the other two, all of whom I considered to be intellectual giants walking amongst the rest of us empty-headed oafs. They read books by Sartre and Camus and Mailer. They watched Fellini and Godard movies. They spoke thoughtfully and seemed to know quite a bit about nearly everything. All three wove parts of their essence into my existence in different ways, but a unique connection with John Dumm occurred through a whim of fate.

After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps, something I had thought of doing since high school though I never before knew anyone who actually did. He wrote me letters from the far side of the world — I had never received mail from a foreign country before, either — and that further fanned the flames of my inspiration. I admired him greatly for his leap into this idealistic adventure, and it seemed quite exotic to have this connection to it.

I subsequently followed through on my own Peace Corps dream, and in the early spring of my senior year I received my acceptance letter. I would be heading off to Micronesia, a small island nation somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, not long after, I found a second notification in my mailbox. My country of assignment had been changed.  My new destination would be the Philippines.

The Philippines?! That’s where John Dumm was! Of all the countries in the world with Peace Corps involvement, what were the odds of that happening?

My path to the Philippines took me through several months of training, first in Vermont, then Montreal, and finally in-country. The last phase took place in Manila, and I began my inquiries into the whereabouts of John. He  lived a seemingly surreptitious gypsy existence with frequent changes of location, and in an archipelago of hundreds of islands, he could be virtually anywhere. My investigation reached a dead-end, and I resigned myself to my only hope, that of an accidental encounter.

When the sessions in Manila concluded, each group of volunteers shipped out to the province in which they’d be living and working for a final period of orientation. My destination was Camarines Sur at the southern end of the main island of Luzon, the province of my eventual assignment. After meeting our provincial director and the local officials with whom we’d be working, we broke up into small groups of four or five to spend a weekend in the field with a current volunteer who would give us insights on what our lives would be like for the next two years. I would be going to a remote island off the tip of Luzon called Catanduanes.

“So, who will we be staying with?” I asked Fran, our director.

“A very interesting guy by the name of John Dumm,“ he replied. My double-take must have been quite emphatic for he immediately inquired, “Do you know him?”

“Know him! You bet I know him!”

ferry to Catanduanes

The next morning the five of us so assigned boarded the small ferry for the ride to Catanduanes. Everyone’s anticipation level was high, but none more so than mine. As the ferry slowly approached the arrival dock in the port of Virac, I could see John standing at the end of the pier. He expected some newcomers but didn’t know about my presence in the group. The boat was secured and the gangplank lowered. I strolled off the ferry and with my best nonchalant act greeted John.

“Hey there. How’ve you been?”

“What!” he exclaimed, “Daborn?! You’ve got to be kidding me! What the heck are you doing here?”

“Well, the same as you, I hope.”

Much catching up over more than a few beers followed as John regaled us with stories both of his recollections of our shared lives at college and his current endeavors in the Peace Corps. Because he lived in a small place in a rather remote area of the island that made travel difficult, we stayed at the lone and rather rustic hotel in Virac. Or at least that’s what he told us; other possible covert reasons fueled my imagination for months to come.

Over the next year our paths crossed several more times, though not in Catanduanes. John’s exceptional abilities propelled him into a succession of innovative positions within the Peace Corps Philippines hierarchy. I usually ran into him in Manila while he was between trips to far-flung places. There were always the tales of his adventures, and I looked forward to them for he was a master storyteller.

When his tour of duty ended, he made a legendary return home, buying a motorcycle in Jolo in the Muslim-controlled southern end of the islands and making a dubiously legal exit to Indonesia by boat. He biked through Asia and North Africa and up into Europe. He survived a crash and attributed his rapid recovery to the restorative sun and salt water of the Mediterranean. As word of his trip reached me, I marveled at this modern-day Marco Polo with great enthusiasm and envy, for I hadn’t the courage to undertake such a journey myself.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, I lost track of one of the important influences in my life. My bumbling attempts to locate him through Googlesque methods always came up empty. However, since fate unexpectedly brought us together once before, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that some day, when I least expect it, it could very well happen again. I’ll be sure to let you know.

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My Night in Jail

July 1, 2012

I suppose it goes without saying that doing foolish things is the province of the young. Normal rules of common sense fly out the window and impulsive decisions rule the day. How I ended up spending a night in jail falls firmly in this category. It didn’t involve anything nefarious. Rather, it was the result of an unpredictable series of events creating a path that led several friends and I to a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, jail cell.

In the summer of 1970 I began my Peace Corps training. Although I had been assigned to a tour of duty in the tropics, the Powers That Be had us train in the green mountains of Vermont. Thus Vermont Academy in the bucolic village of Saxton’s River became our home base, and for two months an eclectic assemblage of thirty or so young adults, mostly recent college graduates, spent many hours involved in intensive language study, technical training, and cultural acclimation. The combination of this full schedule and the lack of diversions in the rural isolation of the area fueled the scheme a small group of us hatched to go to the beach at the first available chance. We had heard stories of former trainees making their way to the only beach accessible, that of Portsmouth, about a hundred twenty-five mile drive across the southern segment of New Hampshire. Unfortunately, the only means to get there was to hitchhike, a practice frowned upon by the training staff. But the idea of spending a free weekend in the sun and sand proved too powerful an attraction, especially for several of our party from the Midwest, outweighing any potential downside, at least in our naive reckoning.

The opportunity for that free weekend finally arose, and the five of us set off bright and early Saturday morning. A sympathetic instructor, a former Peace Corps Volunteer himself, dropped us off several miles away on the highway running east. We excitedly started hitchhiking, something in which none of us had much experience. The excitement wore off after several hours of standing, thumbs extended, in the hot July sun and getting no rides. The previously unconsidered prospect of failure began to creep into our collective psyche, furtive glances at wristwatches and deep sighs punctuating our futile attempts at snaring a lift.

Just about the point of throwing in the towel, someone started pulling over. Could this be? Yes! A ride! A beat-up pickup truck rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust a few yards ahead of us, and we rushed in unison to the passenger side door. Through the open window we caught our first glimpse of the occupants, two scruffy men in their late twenties. The driver leaned over and said, “You need a ride?” His companion on the passenger side flashed a wide grin revealing several missing teeth.

Now, I know you’re thinking, who in their ever-loving mind would get in such a vehicle? I can’t say that very thought didn’t cross our minds, but our long-awaited ride had arrived, and the vision of our revelry on a sunny beach blinded us to any prospective hazards involved in undertaking the journey with these two.

“Sure,” we said. “Thanks a lot.”

“Well, two of you can come on up in the cab with me. Frank here’ll go in the back with the other three.” Frank began climbing out before we could even respond.

The two girls got in the cab, figuring the driver would be otherwise occupied operating the vehicle and thus be no problem. As we three guys clambered into the cargo bed, I mollified myself with the thought that Steve and Greg were pretty big guys, and after all we were three to his one should anything untoward occur. In spite of that, his crazed look was more that a bit unsettling.

The driver poked his head out the window. “Where you headed?” he asked.

“We were trying to get to Portsmouth, so as far east as you’re going would be great.”

“Well, hell, we’ll take you all the way! Me and Frank here ain’t got nothin’ better to do anyways!”

We smiled nervously as the pickup lurched forward, not sure if this latest news was a stroke of good fortune or the knell of death.

The girls appeared to be attempting light banter with the driver, so we settled back as comfortably as possible amidst the rattling tools. As we barreled down Route 9, Frank began rambling on about his various adventures and misfortunes in life. The most memorable of these dealt with his heroin use.

“Yeah, man, I know it’s supposta be bad for you and all, but, man, I just love the shit!”

We struggled to respond in a manner neither antagonistic nor encouraging of further conversation. No such luck, for Frank continued with great fervor.

“Yeah, I shot myself up in my arms for a while, but them tracks it leaves was no good, so I started sticking myself all kinds of other places.”

We hoped further elucidation on this aspect of the topic would not be forthcoming, but Frank was on a roll.

“Yup, I stuck myself here, and here, and even there.”

We gulped and grimaced as one.

“Then I took to sticking myself between my toes cuz no one usually looks there. Ain’t that a hell of a thing!”

Good information to have in certain quarters, I supposed, but his discourse had become even more uncomfortable than the bumpy ride on the ridged floor of that pickup. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we pulled into Portsmouth.

“Where do ya wanna go now that we’re here?” the driver inquired.

“It would be fine if you just drop us off right here. We really appreciate the ride.”

“You sure?”

We responded emphatically that yes, we were quite sure.

“Yeah? Well, okay then,” he shrugged.

We scrambled out, waved good-bye, and as the strange duo pulled away, simultaneous waves of great relief washed over us.

The beach in Portsmouth is small compared to those of the Jersey shore I was used to, but it mattered not, nor did the fact that we arrived quite late. Taking a walk by the ocean side in the fading evening light, we basked in the joy of having made it there successfully.

The next problem was one that strangely we hadn’t considered: where to stay. We had little money between us and certainly not enough for a motel. We walked around for a while as night fell looking for a park or some other acceptable place to spend the night. One of the girls suggested going to the church. “Surely they’ll take us in!” she exclaimed with a confidence born of a Catholic school upbringing. When we finally found one, however, the doors were firmly locked with no one in sight to come to our rescue.

As we wandered disconsolate and aimless, a patrol car pulled up alongside of us. The officer rolled down the window and asked, “Can we help you folks with anything?” Our forlorn expressions must have been sufficiently pathetic, for when we told him of our plight, he replied, “Come with us to the station. I think we can help you out.” Exactly what he meant by that we weren’t sure, but since it appeared to be our only alternative, we went along with him.

Though technically a city, Portsmouth had the character of a smaller town, both genteel and old-fashioned, and the police station recalled the one in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. When we arrived, the officer requested that we sign in at the front desk (“Just for the sake of keeping proper records,” he assured us) and then led us inside.

“There’s no one in lockup tonight,” he explained, “so I suppose there’s no harm in you sleeping in our cells. Don’t worry,” he continued, no doubt noting the nervous looks on our faces, “we won’t lock them.”

The accommodations were Spartan to be sure — a hard bunk bed with faded sheets and a flattened pillow — but quite welcome nonetheless, and we settled into our jail house lodging after the doors clanged shut. We left the next morning with copious thank yous and assurances that next time we would think our plans through more thoroughly. The ensuing hours at the beach were pleasant though short since we figured we needed to give ourselves more time for the return trip than we had previously.

Once back on the road, it became apparent that our luck had run out. The several short rides we did manage to get interspersed with tedious hiking left us well short of our destination, and it was getting very late. Fewer and fewer cars appeared in the darkness, and the point of no return arrived. We were forced to call the head of our training facility to beg for a ride back. He was none too pleased, but faced with the choice of retrieving us or leaving us to our fate on the side of the highway all night, he really had no choice. The next day a terse but stern edict was posted absolutely forbidding any further hitchhiking by trainees with the threat of unspecified harsh consequences.

In the many  years since, I have rarely been in the position to need to hitchhike. In those rare situations when it was necessary, I always thought back to that day in New Hampshire. Images of Frank in the pickup truck and our night in jail immediately flash through my mind. I thankfully haven’t had the occasion to spend any other nights in jail, though. I have a feeling that probably can’t be said for the pair who picked us up.

Recently I visited my good friend Greg, one of my stalwart hitching companions who coincidentally now lives just outside Portsmouth. We drove around looking for the old police station to check it out, but we couldn’t find it. Greg thought it had been knocked down to make way for one of those modern municipal complexes. It would have been nice to stop in to see our former cells for old times sake, but it was not to be, for they were gone,  gone as crazy Frank and the old pickup truck, now just memories of a youthful misadventure from long ago.