It was only that we hadn’t been to anything like it yet ourselves that after school we rushed up to the campus to join the rally. I supposed the students sitting all around us knew that was why we were there even if we didn’t dress like them or didn’t raise our fists and only Michael shouted out while the speaker at the microphone waited for the approving voices to go silent.
The weather was warm that day, it was spring, finally, and 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, just 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, their eyes attentive to the small platform stage with the speakers and microphone, more denim and long hair and beads than we’d ever seen in one place. And there we were in our stiff school clothes and buzz cuts that met Felton High’s strict appearance code. The campus security and police were there too, of course, many of them, and we recognized a few. Sergeant Ryan, whose son Rick was the tight end on the football team and Danny Cardillo, who’d graduated from the high school five years earlier. Overall, it was the kind of event I’d seen plenty of on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The anti-war protests and police barriers and the entertaining posters with slogans and peace signs and doves drawn out in big bold lines.
The speaker wore faded blue jeans and a purplish jersey. At first I didn’t pay much attention to her, my eyes more interested in the coeds in cut-off shorts and halter tops or loose cotton dresses. But her voice was forceful and I saw she’d captivated everyone else and eventually I listened up too. She was black, and the college was the only place we could go to see them in Felton, as if it was a trip to an exotic land we were making. Which it might just as well have been for us in those days. In one hand she held a sheet of paper she glanced at before jerking her head out at the microphone. 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 nor end to it, she said. The Vietnamese people should be left to settle their own affairs, she said.
Imagine that, I thought, tightening my arms around my legs, a female, one not so much older than us saying stuff like that in public. That wasn’t the way I’d been brought up. Women, especially young women, my sister Susan I’m thinking of who was nineteen at the time, weren’t supposed to raise their voices. They weren’t supposed to have opinions or make demands. And if they did they were called problems or some other names I shouldn’t mention but that were much worse.
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 small, single family homes, with the variety stores and markets and pizza palaces and greasy spoons our families and the students went to for supplies and food.
“Oh, these kids here, they‘re all right, they’re just townies,” one of the students had referred to us as at a party in the Usen Castle 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 and there was no making believe it was otherwise. We, I say, referring to me and my friends, Michael and Bobby most notably, 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 started people wondering about him “We’s 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,” I recall him saying later that afternoon. And Bobby, red-haired Bobby, with his violent family life and brother Billy on his second tour of duty in that far-off land that was the reason for the event we were attending. In another year he would be the next in his family to suit up and go over there, but unlike Billy he’d make it back standing on his own two feet even if not completely 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 and so for now I’ll just leave it at that.
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 rally 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, have sex maybe; our interested ears had heard there was plenty of that going on up there.
We took the path through the woods and down the hill and an hour later I was back on Eddy Street, late for the pork chops and side dishes my mother had cooked and that left a fatty, pungent odor in the back stairway I went up. There were four apartments in the building, two on either side, and we lived on the second floor, on the left-hand side as you faced the front with the five cement steps and screened-in porches. I sat on the top step and took off my shoes so I didn’t track any 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 in declarative form. She didn’t tolerate dirt or dust or bugs or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be living with us, anything that might leave a poor impression on neighbors and visiting relatives. She was at the table with my father and sister, finishing dinner. There was a plate and 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 forget your own phone number?” my mother said. “You know you might have called to tell us where you were and you’re going to be late.”
She was on her feet with my plate in her hand and brought it over to the stove where she used the carving fork to stab at a chop in the frying pan
“He didn’t have a dime, Mom,” Susan said. She sat across from my father with a big grin on her face.
“I was hanging out 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 wristwatch and you could find that out real easy,” my father joked. But his attempt to lighten the mood failed once again.