Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For What It's Worth

One day in October, Steve comes home from class and reports that the Baggers have overtaken the Business Building to protest the fact that Dow Chemical is on campus, doing job interviews. Dow makes napalm, which is being used to make the incendiary bombs dropping on Vietnam—“jellied death,” the Baggers call it, because it burns the skin of its victims right down to the bone.

“Goddamn Baggers,” he says. “It’s mess over there. I couldn’t even get to class.”

There are more of them on campus this year, but they don’t all wear Army Surplus clothes and carry green rucksacks. Some wear ratty jeans and Levi jackets. They’re regular kids from the dorms, upperclassmen who live off-campus, even the occasional fraternity or sorority member. They wear buttons that have a circle with a straight line drawn from the top through the center on them, overlaid by an inverted “V.” Peace. They hold up their index and middle fingers in a “V.” Also peace.

The rallies in Dunn Meadow are getting bigger. There’s this song on the radio all the time, the Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth.” Ominous and addictive. A slow tremolo on the electric guitar bending the notes, the dirge-like rhythm of the bass drum. “There’s something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

Meanwhile, Steve works two jobs, goes to class, studies. I’m mostly home, taking care of Jenny. I go to campus twice a week for the sociology class I’m taking, but I feel like a ghost and don’t linger.

I only know enough about the war in Vietnam to know it’s nothing like World War II. I know Vietnam is a country somewhere in Eastern Asia. I know the Vietnamese didn’t attack us; we’re there because if that one small country falls to the Russians, it will tip the scale and set off a reaction like Dominos falling. According to the American government, it is our duty to halt the spread of communism throughout the world. It is crucial to ensure our safety and the safety of the rest of the free world.

I know about napalm, which horrifies me.

Steve would be headed for Vietnam when he graduated if he hadn't dropped out of R.O.T.C. the minute he could. And last winter, when his entire hometown found out "had" to get married, a family friend who worked at the draft board sent him a married-with-dependents form to fill out. This deferment was discontinued recently, she said, but there was this one form left and if he filled it out and got it back to her immediately, she could push it through--which she did.

My brother is going, though. Soon. He got in some trouble and the judge said he’d dismiss the case if he enlisted upon graduating from high school. He didn’t wait that long. He dropped out of school, joined the Marines, and went to boot camp in the spring.

He’s in Vietnam when the Tet Offensive starts at the end of January and, suddenly, it seems like the war is everywhere. Newspaper headlines, radio, TV. Once, at the shopping mall, I’m mesmerized by a display of a dozen or so televisions lined up in rows, the same image on every screen: huts on fire, dead bodies stacked like cordwood, survivors running or on their knees, screaming. Above it all, helicopters hovering like giant black birds.

More and more people, important people, are starting to say the war is wrong. Senator Eugene McCarthy, the “peace candidate,” wins 42% in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, to Johnson’s 42%.

“We have misconstrued the nature of the war,” Bobby Kennedy says soon afterward. “…We have sought to resolve by military might a conflict whose issue depends the will and conviction of the South Vietnamese people.” He announces his own candidacy, admitting personal responsibility for the early military buildup, then states, “…past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” He says that if elected, he’ll actively seek peace.

In a surprise move, LBJ announces he won’t seek or accept the nomination for president, and it looks like Bobby’s going to be the Democratic candidate. But he’s dead within weeks, assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. the night he won the California primary. McCarthy scares the crap out of most grown-ups, even those who oppose the war—a situation exacerbated by the riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention at the end of August. Vice President Hubert Humphrey wins the nomination, an old pol with a predatory, shark-like grin that makes my skin crawl.

I cast my first vote for Nixon in the fall. Not because I like him, I don’t. And I really don’t like his running mate, Spiro Agnew, who’s a loud-mouthed jerk. But I loathe LBJ—and choosing Humphrey seems like choosing to stay on LBJ’s path.

Truth be told, it’s also true that I’m somewhat put off by the “peaceniks.” I agree that the war is wrong, I want peace as much as they do. But I also want what I wanted when I made up my mind I wouldn’t live the way my parents did: a college degree, a family, a nice house, clothes—lots of them, a reliable car. Most of the people I know who’ve gotten involved in the antiwar movement are kids from well-to-do families, for whom everything I want would simply have been given to them—if they still wanted it. And If, eventually, they get tired of protesting and decide they want a comfortable life, their parents will be more than pleased to help them make that happen.

We have no such net. Ready or not, we’ve got a grown-up life. Steve took a job in Indianapolis after graduating in June. We have an apartment, two cars. A funny, feisty one-year old girl just starting to talk. “Want,” she says, holding out her hands. “Goggie,” at the sight of any four-legged animal. “Fass,” when I push her on the swings.”

The war seems far away. I keep busy learning to be a wife. A friend I’ve made in our apartment complex teases me because I always take a shower and put on something nice when it’s time for Steve to come home for work. Because I’m always glad to see him.

But I am always glad to see him. He’s so certain—that he loves me, he loves Jenny. That we can handle anything that comes our way. That everything will be just fine.

Where were you when this song was playing on the stereo?

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