Do you, Mister Jones… by
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(63 Stories)

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Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones
Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965

 

As a teenager I participated with the Quakers to ban the bomb. I celebrated the March on Washington and survived Mississippi Freedom Summer. I learned to play blues and folk tunes with people who would soon form Students for a Democratic Society, the largest and most influential student organization in U. S. history. I joined them at the outset. In short, I came of age as the great resistance movements of the 1960s were born.

Not everyone had access to these movements. Beneath the horror and the bullshit, the Vietnam War was a class thing and — as the war divided America — it divided our youth. With the escalation of the war and the descending shadow of the draft, life and death could turn on what you knew… or what you didn’t.

At demos, I remember standing opposite my peers, separated only by their helmets, flak vests, and bayonets. Electric storms flashed between soldier and protester. Boy soldiers who looked like my high school friends glared at us or avoided eye contact. We would shout, beg, and urge them to put down their arms and join us. A few did, but most stood grim, silent, aware of the baton-wielding U.S. Marshals standing behind them, keeping them in line.

If you stripped away the uniforms and class differences, they were us; we were them… only not.

The guardsmen who faced us had joined the reserves, to help pay for a college education, keep a job, to avoid combat status to stay with their growing families. During times of civil strive — including our massive march on the Pentagon when we levitated the place in October, ’67 — our working-class contemporaries were called upon to protect the national welfare from our commie-manipulated assaults.

Most of those guys didn’t want to be there, but once you joined the reserves, if the National Guard needed you, you went… unless you knew better.

I knew better. What a privilege.

Being a radical in the 1960s was not just about sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll, although there was plenty of that. The Movement could be terrifying, frustrating, and exhausting, but it was a joy and a privilege to live amid such intensity, passion, ingenuity, and joy. Why privilege? Because, even in the midst of weirdness and chaos, I knew what was happening. Or so I thought.

Truth be told, I didn’t understand how the disparities of class and culture played out until I graduated. The comfortable umbrella of my student–exempt draft status dissolved and zoom! I was out there.

I knew I would never fight. They could put me in jail or I’d split for Canada. One, two, three four, I won’t fight your dirty war.

Despite my boisterous resolve, I didn’t want to go to jail and I didn’t want to split for Canada. But the great river of class, culture and convictions afforded me a way out. I would become a 1-O, a conscientious objector.

In 1967, few Americans knew what a conscientious objector was. Selective Service defined it as “a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war by reason of religious training or belief.”

All I had to do was go up before my local draft board in leafy-green, upper crust Groton, Massachusetts and prove the sincerity of my objection. I wrote up my argument and appeared one late May evening at the New England town hall where the Selective Service board kept its chopping block and cleaver.

Trembling with anxiety, I walked into the musty, austere chamber. Portraits of bewigged and bewhiskered town fathers frowned down from the dark paneling. Late afternoon light filtered through high windows.

Beyond double doors, a carpeted aisle catapulted me toward the tribunal, seated on a raised dais. There they sat, my local draft board, three straight-nosed, ruddy Yankees, confident in their integrity, corseted by Brooks Brothers blazers punctuated by bow ties.

A grandfather clock ticked solemnly in the foyer. I felt like Kafka. But beneath my terror, a quiet voice counseled me — Brooks Brothers, bow ties = boys’ club.

There was no introductory chitchat. I was identified by name and purpose. An age-spotted hand signaled me to get on with it.

“War is a serious matter,” I began, voice quivering, “with bitter consequences for both the victor and the van…”

“The what? What’s that?” A Brooks Brother cupped a hand to his ear.

Oh wow, I thought. This guy is deaf. By the time I finished hollering for peace, my voice had stopped quivering but my speech notes rattled like the tail on a diamondback rattler.

I stood before the Brothers Brooks, sweat soaking my collar, mouth full of cigar ash. Under my sport coat, armpits ran rivers. I waited.

The tribunal never left the room. Whistling softly, a crew cut gent with a bowtie leafed through my selective service record. “Just graduated, eh?”

“Yessir.”

“Harvard, right? What house?”

Damn, I thought. I’m trying to make a life-and-death point here. I’d poured my soul into this argument. I’d drawn on every ounce of education, experience, and youthful conviction. I’d invoked Thoreau, Emerson, Mahatma Gandhi, Wilfred Owen, the young British poet who’d been killed in WW I, a week before Armistice was signed. I’d set out to convince these guys that war is not only hell, but useless and immoral, and they wanted to know what Harvard house I lived in? Damn.

I began to feel light-headed. The bloody mary I’d chugged earlier to calm my nerves threatened to come up.

The Brooks Brothers leaned in, blue-blazered shoulders hunched, and began to mutter. Finally, they straightened up, folded their hands, and looked down upon me.

“Well, young man, I’m not sure I catch your drift, but…”

“Walden Pond eh? Used to fish out that way.”

“Concord River too… What house was that? I was in Kirkland.”

All right already, I screamed inside. What’s the verdict here?

“We’ve decided to grant you status as a conscientious objector. You will need to register with the clerk in the morning.”

“Don’t he have to do community service?”

“I’m sure he’ll find something suitable.”

Hell yeah, I thought. I’ll find something suitable. I was headed to San Francisco to join a radical theater troupe. Community service that, old guys. But on that night, I was one of them.

The rest was a blur. I felt hollow. Limbs buzzing with fatigue and the release of adrenaline I stumbled down the courthouse steps and drove the familiar Groton roads in the soft light of a near-solstice evening. I passed kids in junk convertibles, young farmers in pickups, guys with no place to go.

I realized that, because of what I knew, I would not be going to Vietnam. One of these guys would take my place. Some of my high school buddies had already gone. I’d lost track of them, but they were over there, and their little brothers were about to follow. No wonder I felt hollow.

In the warm May evening, a great injustice had been done. I vowed to rail against the inequity of my acquittal and right the wrongs of war, regardless of cost. I embarked on my predetermined plan: return to San Francisco and overthrow the government of the United States through theater, music, and film. And with a little help from my friends, we damn near did.

# # #

GatesCover.Tiny

I set Gates of Eden in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. The first novel in my “resistance series,” Gates is published by Harvard Square Editions.

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    Your story vividly portrays, I think, a great awakening that overtook our generation in those years. We had always been told that America was the land of equality, opportunity, and benevolence. But as we learned about the inequities of our system at home and the injustices we perpetrated abroad, we were outraged—even if we were the beneficiaries. That may have been a first.

    • Outraged beneficiaries… Great perspective on the issue, JZ. And today, it is sometimes difficult to understand or recall just how angry and frustrated we were, living in the belly of the beast. It drove many to madness but all of us to a victory whose outcomes survive today — feminism, environmentalism, collective power, and the will to resist, rebel, and love. Tks for your comment. — CD

  2. Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for sharing, so vividly, your moments of truth. Beautifully written, you capture the time so well.

  3. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    Wow, Charles, that was very moving! Thank you for your description of something that most of us only heard about but didn’t experience. And by the way, what house were you in?

    • Thanks, Suzy. I’m honored you persevered thru my writing! I was in Quincy House for a year, then took a year off to work with SDS in an economic organizing project. When I returned, I lived off campus with a menagerie of fringe folks and somehow graduated! Although I missed much academically by disenfranchising myself from the house system, I felt plenty enriched by the denizens who came to roost in that Putnam Ave apartment.

  4. Profile photo of smithlouise smithlouise says:

    My father fought in WWII and Korea; he disinherited my brother for refusing to fight in Vietnam, even rejecting a National guard slot. Understanding both sides, I was torn and sympathized with both. Those days of the passionate protest Charles speaks of died out as America went back to business. But the will to protest wrong has roared back. Three generations of our family have recently been part of huge masses of protesters who have only begun to fight.
    Louise Farmer Smith

  5. I understand your position and remember those devastating father/son conflicts all too well. However, I have a brighter (perhaps myopic, perhaps not) sense of what came after. Yes, America went back to business (Had they ever stopped?), but out of the resistance came 2nd-wave feminism, environmentalism, new and effective community-organizing procedures, battles and victories for minority-studies programs, the list goes on. As with any rebellion, many of us who dreamt of revolution came to appreciate the gains we made in society and re-entered the system, not as a sellout, but as a forum to continue our struggle for social and economic justice.

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