It was only that we hadn’t been to anything like it that we rushed up there after school to join the rally. I suppose the students sitting all around us knew that was why we were there even if we didn’t dress like them or raise our fists and only Michael shouted out while a tall guy at the mic on the makeshift stage waited for the approving voices to go silent.
The weather was warm that day. Spring had sprung. The birds sang and shot in and out of the trees and the sleeves of my cheap department store shirt were rolled up to my elbows. We were late getting there and had to find a spot at the back, a few feet from the frog pond where the grass was damp so we had to sit on our book bags to keep the backs of our pants dry.
Out ahead the students filled the big, wide field, more denim, long hair and beads than we’d ever seen in one place. The campus security and Felton police were there too. Many of them, and we recognized a few. Sergeant Ryan, whose son Rick was the goalie on our hockey team and Danny Cardillo, who had graduated from our high school a few years earlier. Overall, it was the kind of thing I’d seen plenty of on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The anti-war demonstrations, police barriers and the entertaining posters with slogans, peace signs and doves drawn out in big bold lines.
I tightened my arms around my legs as the next speaker replaced the guy at the mic. She wore faded blue jeans, a purple jersey, and had a big afro. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to her. But her voice was powerful and she’d captivated everyone else so I listened up too. In one hand she held a sheet of paper she glanced at before jerking her head out at the mic. Her other hand was tightened into a fist she used to hammer at the air. This war was an illegal war, she said. It had no clear goals or endgame, she said. The Vietnamese people should be left to settle their own affairs, she said.
Behind me came a tiny plopping sound in the pond, and after a pause the speaker raised her voice and said: “We insist the President tell us the truth about this war. We insist he stop bombing Vietnam’s citizens. We insist he bring our boys home and start bringing them home today…”
We were sixteen that year, from the neighborhood of square blocks with pot-holed streets you got to by going down the hill to the rows of triple-deckers and single family homes. With the corner variety stores, pizza palaces and greasy spoons our families and the students went to for supplies and eats.
“Oh, these kids here, they‘re all right, they’re just townies,” was how one of the students referred to us at the party we’d crashed one Friday night earlier that year.
She’d said it with a smile, and it didn’t offend us. We knew who we were. There was no making believe it was otherwise. We, I say, referring to me and my friends, Michael and Bobby were two, who were as fascinated with what went on up on the hill as I was and couldn’t keep away from it just as I couldn’t. Michael with that strange inflection and those far out sentence structures that got people wondering about him. “We has been here over an hours long, no actions a-curred ba‘tween the long-hairs and blue men that those newsies might hunt and gather ta tell to the pop-u-lace,” to paraphrase something he said that afternoon. And Bobby, red-haired Bobby, with an alcoholic father and a brother, Billy, on his second tour of duty in that far-off land that was the reason we were there. Bobby would be the next to suit up and go over there, but unlike Billy he would make it back standing on his own two feet even if not in one whole piece. And there I was sitting between them. Nothing so quirky about me and nothing so tragic, a little of both maybe, quirky and tragic, the most normal of us you might say, or at least I was content to give off the appearance of being that way.
After more speeches and rallying cries, “Not a son or a gun for Vietnam” “Hell no there’s no way we’re going to go,” the gathering broke up without incident and the students went off to their dorms or the library or wherever they went to do whatever they had to.
An hour later I was back at the triple-decker on Eddy Street, late for the pork chops and side dishes my mother cooked, that left a fatty, pungent odor in the back stairway I went up. I sat on the top step and took off my shoes so I didn’t track dirt in and save my mother from having a fit with me. “Don’t you ever listen to anything I say,” I could hear her telling me. She didn’t tolerate dirt or dust or bugs or anything that might leave a poor impression on visiting relatives and neighbors.
She was at the table with my father and sister. There was a plate, silverware and a paper napkin set up for me at the chair I always sat in. The one with its back to the windows that framed the houses behind us.
“You forgot your own phone number?” my mother said. She was on her feet with my plate in her hand. She brought it over to the stove where she used the carving fork to stab at a chop in the frying pan. “You might have called to tell us you were going to be late.”
“He didn’t have a dime, Mom,” Susan said without looking at me.
“I was hanging with Michael and Bobby, that’s all,” I said and started off to my room to change. “We weren’t sure what time it was.”
“Well, why don’t you just wind your watch and you could find that out real easy,” my father joked. But his attempt to lighten the mood failed.