Thursday, July 10, 2008

Duck and Cover, McCarthy, Assassinations, and Vietnam

I was born July 17, 1945, the day after Trinity, the first atomic bomb test. My first specific political memory centered around the duck-and - cover, hide-under-our-desks, exercises that were a regular feature of my grade school life from age 5 on. I knew enough about nuclear war to be terrified. We lived one mile away from an air force base, and I used to go out to the backyard, look up at the planes, and try to determine if they were American or Russian. I remember getting a book out of the library on aircraft identification. (I don't remember what I planned to do if I spotted a Russian plane.)

When I heard Joseph Stalin died, I remember asking if that meant no one would drop atom bombs on us. This terror continued; I recall my best friend and I fully expected to die during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That fear motivated my intense involvement in the Nuclear Freeze Movement of the early 80s.

In 1954 I had a severe case of the measles and my grandma came to help nurse me. She was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. Hatred of McCarthy's voice might have shaped my entire political development. To my fevered mind, he seemed to personify absolute evil. In 1956, just turning eleven, I fell madly in love with Jack Kennedy as he made an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidential nomination. A good catholic school girl, I was initially attracted by his Catholicism; ten minutes later I was smitten by his intelligence, wit, and charm. I was luckier than his other women. Loving Jack Kennedy was good for me. At age 11, I complusively read zealously read the newspapers, news magazines, everything I could find about Kennedy and American politics. When I was 15 in 1960,I did volunteer work for his presidential campaign, handing out flyers and making phone calls.

In high school we had political debates to imitate the famous Kennedy/ Nixon debates and I represented Kennedy. What he believed in, I believed in. Gradually I moved to the left of his pragmatic liberalism. Certainly Kennedy was responsible for my decision to major in political science in college. Kennedy's assassination, occurring in the fall of my freshman year in college in Rochester, devastated me. I felt like there had been a death in my immediate family. I quickly transferred my political allegiance to Bobby Kennedy.

I cannot precisely date my interest in and commitment to civil rights. My home town (Uniondale) was very gradually become an African American middle-class community.When I was a freshman, I joined my college's Interracial Understanding Group. I was envious of those college students who could afford to spend the summer down south registering voters and didn't have to worry about money to pay their tuition. I would have gone if my family could have afforded to give up my summer earnings.

Gradually during college I became a pacifist. Opposition to the Vietnam War right from the beginning was the catalyst. My husband to be, Chris, applied for conscientious objector status and was willing to face jail rather than be inducted. We became very active in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resister's League, all pacifist organizations. We went on many anti-war demonstrations both in New York and Washington. I have seen Washington DC mostly behind a picket sign. I briefly attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez's future husband who did go to jail, spoke out eloquently against the war. Meanwhile, my political science professors were intent on turning political science into a quantifiable discipline.

After I returned from Stanford, I had rented a room from an elderly women on the Upper West Side, who supported herself by taking in borders. I spent most of my time with my fiance and didn't want my Catholic parents to know (I didn't fool them.) I had gone to bed very late; I had stayed up to hear the results of the California primary. I was ecstatic that Bobby had won. I always woke up to a clock radio. As I groggily came to consciousness a few hours later, it took minutes for my befuddled, sleep-deprived brain to understand what they were saying. At first I told myself they were talking about someone else. When the horror sunk in, II crept into the hall and used the telephone that I had no privileges to use to call Chris, crying so hysterically that he couldn't understand me and thought something had happened to my parents or brothers.

My first job after Stanford was as an assistant to Victor Riesel, a labor columnist, who had been blinded by acid thrown in his face by the mob who controlled the waterfront he was exposing. M Living and breathing politics was my job. Riesel had never learned Braille, so he always hired bright young political women to be his eyes. My job was to scan 7 daily newspapers and about 40 labor papers, clip, and read to him anything that might provide ideas for his daily column. The internet equivalent of the internet was a constantly running ticker tape. All day and all week I had to read him about the assassination, the train procession, the funeral; I could hardly read, blinded by my tears. I had reacted the same way to Martin Luther King's assassination two months previously. The world was shattered, and it was my job to read about it and think about it all day, everyday.
The next day I had to get fitted for my wedding dress, and I wept throughout the fitting, not caring if tears spotted my dress..

My husband escaped jailed by getting a high number in the 1969 Draft Lottery. I will never forget that night. I arrived home from work when they had reached 50. As time when on and they didn't call out Chris's birthday, I was convinced he had been in the first five and I was frightened by how I would cope with his imprisonment. His number was 339. For the first time in two years, we could plan our lives together without worrying about a jail sentence.

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