Saturday, April 08, 2006


On the occasion of Richard Nixon`s second inauguration, I accompanied my brother Mike and my best friend Ed on a trip to Washington to join the protest against the Vietnam War. It was a warm day for January and our trip down Interstate I-95 was uneventful. Music on the radio; FM free form music was fairly new. The front seat passenger, mostly Ed, was responsible for the station search. As we traveled south from Philadelphia, fewer and fewer rock and roll stations were to be found. It wasn`t until we reached the outskirts of Baltimore that Ed could relax his search. My brother Mike was much younger than Ed and I and he seemed excited to be joining us in this adventure.

Provisions in the car consisted of a cooler of beer and marijuana. Many younger readers may be outraged at me driving under these conditions but that was the way of things at the time. Furtively passing a joint, bending down to take a swig of beer. It soon became evident that most of the cars heading south on I-95, cars bearing Pa, New York, Jersey, Mass plates, were full of long hairs, bending like chickens feeding, like those mechanical birds that everyone had in their homes, dipping, dipping, finally the beak in the water.

Lots of smiling and waving, car to car. Peace signs, V`s everywhere, like a Masonic symbol of brotherhood. Around Baltimore, much less hiding. It`s become evident to the pilgrims that there are too many of us! There are many State troopers parked on the side of the highway but it seems as if they have been given orders, “Let the crazies through”. Few of them are cruising, no one is being stopped. Peace signs are replaced by beer can salutes. Lots of smiles, Further!

We arrive in Washington, start looking for a place to park. Ed has an idea. Let`s find the Watergate Apartments, where it all started. We ask for directions from a well-dressed couple and amazingly, we are parked a block from the Watergate in 20 minutes. Joints rolled and in Ed`s pocket, a six pack of beer in my hand, we turn a corner and it`s like Woodstock revisited. The Grateful Dead blasting on radios, thousands of people, beer and that evil smoke.

In the midst of all this, I looked at Mike, saw an abandon in his eyes that gave me pause. My brother was six years younger than I, two years out of college, an Oriental History major, and was teaching middle school in New Jersey. All of this craziness was new to him and I couldn`t help but feel responsible for his safety. Yet he seemed to fit in, was laughing, looking around in wonder. I relaxed, passed a lit joint back to Ed as we followed the crowd heading to that vast expanse of green in front of the White House, the home of our national monuments.

I looked at Ed, thought of how momentous this day must be for him. He and I had joined the PA National Guard together in 1963. As the war in Vietnam became larger, as U.S. involvement became more than advisory, our unit was placed on alert status. We began attending meetings every other weekend, ostensibly to prepare for the eventuality of being activated for the war. Most of these meetings were spent at our local armory. Ed and I were truck drivers for Headquarters company, along with most of the college graduates in our outfit. I had always wondered how this amalgam happened and had posed that question to the others. The answer was simple; when enlisting, each of us was permitted the option of picking our specialty, our area to receive advanced training. The road that got you back home as quickly as possible, out of active duty, was to become a truck driver. Driving required the least amount of training, the least intelligence. For that reason alone, most of the college grads in our troop were truck drivers.

Ed was a union printer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, making great money, driving an Austin Healey [wow, what a car, put my MG to shame]. While taking his annual physical for the paper it was found that his blood pressure was extremely high, so much so that he was given two weeks off work and put on medication. The time off planted an idea in Ed. He researched Army regs and found that his blood pressure disqualified him from active duty and that he would be given an honorable discharge from the service if activated.

Ed also realized that his blood pressure would qualify him for long-term disability if he could get that kind of insurance. Through mutual friends he met an examining Doctor in a bar in center city and over a vodka martini and after a large money exchange, Ed was certified to have normal blood pressure and shortly received his disability policy. Within months Ed applied for disability and was approved. His life then consisted of getting up around noon, having breakfast and driving to the golf course, playing with some of our friends who also had lots of time on their hands.

It was then time for the second part of his plan. Ed stopped going to most of our National Guard meetings and when he did show, he was drinking heavily and was passively belligerant to the officers. Eventually, the company commander released him for assignment to active duty and Ed arrived at Ford Meade MD, for his active duty physical. Unfortunately for him, the months off from work golfing and relaxing had taken their toll on his blood pressure, which was now normal. Ed was in Vietnam in 3 months, driving a gas truck up and down the length of South Vietnam. Like many others working 18 hour days over there, he began to use vast quantities of speed and marijuana.

I can still remember the first time I saw him after his tour of duty. I was a graduate assistant at Temple University, in the Ph.D. program and Ed came to the Testing Bureau where I worked. He was utterly psychotic, paranoid, seemed schizophrenic. That`s what speed can do to a man. I referred him to a place where he could get help and spent many a night talking, over grass and beer.

Eventually, Ed`s head cleared a lot from not using speed and his anger and frustration surfaced. All of the months driving up and down the length of South Vietnam, being shot at, never knowing when the truck might explode, had caused a fundamental change in this Philosophy major. He wanted revenge, wanted a chance to fight back.

Rather than serve his remaining year safely in the U.S., Ed volunteered for assignment as a machine gunner on a helicopter and returned in-country. He spoke little of those times but when I next saw him he was a deeply committed anti-war activist. It was for him that Mike and I were here now, to protest this evil war, this thing that had killed more than 50,000 young Americans.