Duck and Cover, McCarthy, Assassinations, Vietnam
by redstocking, Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 10:54:33 PM EDT
My first specific political memory centered around the duck-and -cover, hide-under-our-desks, exercises that were a regular feature of my early 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. What I thought I could do about it, I don't remember. I even checked a book out of the library on aircraft identification. When I heard Joseph Stalin died when I was 7, I remember asking if that meant no one would drop atom bombs on us.
In 1954, when I was 9, I had a severe case of the measles and my Grandma Nolan came to help nurse me. My eyes hurt so much I had to stay in a darkened room and couldn't read. Grandma was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. Hatred of McCarthy's voice might have shaped my entire political development. 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 schoolgirl, 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.. From 1956 to 1963, I read everything I could about Kennedy, politics, and American History. I read the newspaper from cover to cover daily.
When I was 15 I did volunteer work for his presidential campaign. 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. Kennedy was responsible for my decision to major in political science in college and graduate school. Kennedy's assassination, occurring in the fall of my freshman year in college, 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 hometown on Long Island was integrated. 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.
Gradually during college I became a pacifist. Opposition to the Vietnam War right from the beginning was the catalyst. I briefly attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez's future husband, spoke out eloquently against the war, while inside the classroom, my professor was determined to transform political science into a quantifiable science. 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. We both did draft counseling.
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. He never learned Braille, preferring to hire bright young college grads to be his eyes. My assignments included reading the AP ticker to him every day, clipping and reading articles in 7 newspapers and 40 union papers, bringing to his attention any possible column ideas. He taught me a tremendous amount about socialism and about unions. Riesel spoke Yiddish fluently. When he was annoyed at me, he would phone his wife and rant about my latest atrocities in Yiddish.
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 Chris and naively thought I could keep it a secret from my parents. I wasn't supposed to use Mrs. Berger's phone. I had gone to bed very late; I had stayed up to hear the results of the California primary. I was ecstatic; Bobby had won. I always woke up to a clock radio. As I groggily came to consciousness the next morning, it took minutes to penetrate what they were saying. At first I told myself they were talking about someone else. I crept into the hall and used the telephone for the first time to call Chris. I was crying so hysterically he thought something had happened to my parents or my brothers.
At work all day and all week I read Riesel the news about Bobby's assassination and funerals between my tears. I had been similarly traumatized by Martin Luther King's assassination two months earlier. The world was shattering, and it was my job to read about it and talk about it all day, everyday. The weekend after the assassination was the final fitting for my wedding dress. I sobbed throughout, not caring if my tears spotted the dress.
My husband escaped jailed by getting a high number in the 1969 Draft Lottery. I will never forget the night of the lottery. 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. His number was 339. For the first time in two years, we could plan our lives together without worrying about a jail sentence.
My brother Richard came within a week of refusing induction two weeks after his wedding. HIs wife's parents about no idea she might be marrying a felon, and my family nervously kept the secret. My parents hired William Kuntzler, the famous political lawyer, and his firm managed to get a conscientious objector status for my brother on appeal to the presidential appeal board.