Chapter 14

After Johnny died, I registered for Fall classes at the University of Minnesota because I knew I should.

I moved back home…partly to save on expenses…but mostly to absorb the healing magic that only parents can give you when you’re hurting…I needed a lot of magic right now.

I had packed up all of Johnny’s clothes and had given them all to the Salvation Army because I knew Johnny would like that…except for one blue plaid flannel shirt that I think I wore more than he did…it was ‘our shirt’…it still smelled of Old Spice…Johnny’s favorite after-shave cologne.

I had called Johnny’s mom and asked her if she wanted any of Johnny’s clothes or if she thought Alec would want anything.

“No, Riley.  The Salvation Army is a good place for them.  Alec is having a really hard time dealing with John’s death…he blames his father.”

“He says when he has to register for the draft in two years, he’s going to Canada instead…”

I didn’t know what to say…I wasn’t sure if Johnny had told anyone of my idea for us to go to Canada.  But then she continued…

“John told Alec that he wanted to go to Canada with you…and would have…if it hadn’t been for their father being so against it.”

“I wish he had gone, Riley.  I wish the two of you had just packed up and gone to Canada.”

More tears than I thought possible were falling down my cheeks and stopped me from saying anything more than a choked good bye.

 

Chapter 15

I hadn’t gone to Johnny’s funeral.  His father had planned a huge memorial for his first-born son…full of praise for the bravery John had shown in proudly fighting for his country.

If I had gone to Johnny’s funeral, this is what I would have said to his father.

“He OD’d on heroin, Mr. Taylor.”

“Maybe you’d like to read all the letters Johnny sent me.  They rip my heart to shreds every time I read them.”

“I don’t want to read them…but it’s all I have of him now.”

“He was so full of pain and horror at having…even accidentally…killed innocent women and children…he couldn’t sleep…not without drugs…and sometimes not even with drugs.”

“His heart was broken after watching so many of his friends blown to pieces right before his eyes or bleed to death in his arms…crying like little kids…so scared…because they didn’t want to die but knew they were going to.”

“He was haunted by the blood that poured from the bodies of all the Vietcong soldiers he had killed…some who looked younger than Alec.”

“He wasn’t a brave hero, Mr. Taylor…he was just trying to survive…just like all the other boys around him.”

“They were all just trying to survive and come home…just come home.”

That’s what I would have said to his father if I had been at Johnny’s funeral.

And…that’s why I stayed away.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

A few days after Johnny’s funeral, I marched with about 5,000 other protesters down Summit Avenue from Macalester College to the St. Paul capitol.  There were a lot of speakers that day on the capitol steps and they were all very angry.

President Johnson had just announced a new troop deployment to Viet Nam.

He had earlier ‘leaked’ to the media of a withdrawal of troops, something he often did to appease the war protesters…but the ‘withdrawal’ was just another wretched lie that would send more heart broken families and friends to grave sites over the next days, weeks, months and even years.

As frustration with the war increased, protesters were becoming more militant.  But they were passionately against the war…and that was all that mattered to me.

I was hurting and I needed to do something.

I needed to do more to help end this horror…to stop more young men from coming home in black body bags.

Johnny was gone…he would never hold me in his arms again…never!  I could not get past my sadness…I missed him so much.

I wanted everyone to know the anguish and pain that this stupid war was bringing to thousands of people like me.

I wanted everyone to know and to care and to do something…

I wanted the pain to go away…

I wanted Johnny back.

Chapter 17

One year had gone by…but I was still angry and frustrated.  The war in Viet Nam was escalating and more and more young men were coming home dead…or like Johnny…drug addicts.

It was just after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, 1968 that I met Tommy Clark.

He was currently working toward a law degree on scholarship at the University of Minnesota.

As a student at Berkeley in California, he had been quite active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), organizing many anti-war rallies.

He had just returned from Chicago and still had bruises from his clash with the police at the convention.

He didn’t try to hide them.  He seemed to be proud of them as he was wearing only a raggedy, sleeveless tee shirt on a chilly Minnesota night.

He and a couple of other students were speaking to a very large group of anti-war protesters who had gathered in front of Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota campus.

Protests and rallies and marches were getting larger and becoming more organized…but still in America…in was pretty much business as usual.

President Johnson was still spewing lies to try to keep protesters happy…what did he care?  He wasn’t even seeking a second term.

Civil disobedience was becoming the new catch phrase at protest rallies.

Tommy was calling out for ideas that might grab the attention of the press…noting that there was NO press at this rally.

I was at the front of the group and I called out a suggestion to have protesters chain themselves to the water tower on Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkway…a heavily trafficked area of St. Paul.

Everyone cheered and I looked up at Tommy Clark who was also cheering and clapping.

“And a hunger strike!” I shouted out.

“This country may have become numb to seeing young boys bleeding to death ‘in living color’ on their TV screens…but no one wants to see young college kids starving to death on Snelling Avenue in Minnesota.”

More cheering…

 

Chapter 18

Tommy began to  speak again and everyone looked back at him…but he was talking to me.

“Hey!  I like your idea.  What’s your name?” He called to me.

I shouted out my name.

Tommy said as he pointed to me…”That’s a great idea, Riley,  We need more ideas like that.”

“I think a hunger strike and chaining a few of us to that tower would get a lot of attention…but think…just think what would happen if we just blew the damn thing up.”  And then he paused…

Shocked silence at first…but then quiet murmuring and a smattering of applause.

So far the protests on this campus had been basically non-violent…peaceful…but some colleges and universities…Wisconsin for example…had seen major conflicts between the police and war protesters.

But so far…not at the University of Minnesota or at any  other locations around the state.

Tommy handled the reluctance and surprise of the crowd with ease.

“But…I wouldn’t want any protesters chained to the tower at the time…of course…” he joked and with that comment he again had the crowd completely with him.

Then he quickly shifted focus and stressed that civil disobedience like “hunger strikes” and “blocking roadways” would get massive coverage in the press…and that was the important thing.

He also mentioned again the “Snelling Avenue water tower idea” and my name…

And then after a couple more speakers… the rally was over.

 

Chapter 19

Later…at a little bar in Dinky Town…I saw Tommy siting with a bunch of other kids I had seen at the rally.  They were all sitting in a huge booth by the back wall.

I went over and introduced myself…just in case he had forgotten who I was.

I told him how impressed I was with his speech and told him I was eager to help in any way.

“Riley.  Of course I remember you!  Here sit down next to me.”  He said and patted the space next to him and everyone slid over.

Tommy said he had been talking to other anti-war protest leaders on other campuses across the country and they had been sharing strategies.

He was flying to Washington D.C. tomorrow to plan the inauguration protest…if Nixon was elected..

We sat and talked that night for hours and over the next several weeks, we got together to plan strategies and share more ideas.

We were all students…so we had to fit everything in around classes…but winter break was coming.

It was the middle of January when Tommy brought up the water tower idea again…only this time the plan was to blow it up.

“It’s the only way to get the press to pay attention,” Tommy said.  “And it will be safe…no one will be around in the dead of winter…I’ve checked it out many times and the place is always deserted…not one foot print in the snow.

“I talked with a couple of guys from New York and California and they all said…and I agree…we have to start making people sit up and take notice.”

“Blowing things up will do that…and we’ll get the front-page headlines we deserve.”

Everyone agreed with Tommy…but I did not.

“No.  Sorry…no violence.” I said.  “I’ll lay in the street.  I’ll get arrested.  I’ll chain myself to a building or whatever…but no violence that could possibly hurt innocent people.  Absolutely not.”

Sheila Baxter and her boyfriend Gerald Michaels were sitting next to me.  They were also working toward law degrees and had known Tommy when he was in California.

They also had come here on scholarship.

Another boy, Mikey Longwell was the organizer of a small group of kids who had been at the Wisconsin Dow Day protest…where there had been injuries…it was the first university protest to turn violent.

They listened to me and then turned back to Tommy.  It was like I hadn’t said anything at all.

I sat for a few more minutes shaking my head in disapproval.

Finally, I had enough.  I stood up and started to put on my jacket.

“I’m leaving.  I’m not doing this.” I said and started to walk out.

Tommy got up and followed me to the door.  He grabbed my arm so I couldn’t leave.

“You better keep quiet about this, Riley.  Remember all those people at that rally a few months ago?”

“They heard one thing over and over again…that ‘staging a protest at the water tower’ was your idea.”

And then Tommy smiled and my whole body suddenly got so cold I shivered.

I knew then that Tommy Clark could be very dangerous if you made him mad.  I think I just did.

I angrily pulled my arm away and walked out the door.

 

 

 

Chapter 20

I immediately went home and told my mom and dad about Tommy Clark’s plans.

They called my uncle, Carl Andrews, a retired St. Paul homicide detective…and then..everything happened very fast.

Within twenty-four hours, Tommy, Sheila, Gerald and Mikey were all  picked up for questioning by the St. Paul Police Department.

I, too, was questioned.  Initially, I was being considered the “instigator” of this plot…since Tommy and his friends had all said it was my idea…but California police records showed quite a history of “trouble making events” for Tommy Clark and that lifted all suspicion from me.

But I did have to admit the “chaining” and “hunger strike” plans were my idea.

We then had to appear before a grand jury to see if there was enough evidence for a felony charge.

Unfortunately, the grand jury determined there was not enough conclusive evidence that a crime was actually going to be committed.

Instead, they determined it was more likely just some “bragging” by some college kids who had had too many beers to drink…

And that Riley Sanderson…who had also been drinking when she had heard of these “let’s blow up the tower” plans…had just misinterpreted the whole thing.

Since no charges were filed, our names were never released but everyone knew quickly who we were…and Tommy was a hero to the more militant side of the anti-war movement.

The University of Minnesota, however, looked at this incident differently and decided to use this as an example to other students at the University who may be planning acts of civil disobedience in protesting the Viet Nam war…

They placed a full-page ad in the Minnesota Daily…citing the University’s policy regarding protests and rallies and consequences for unlawful behavior.

We were all called into the Dean’s office and expelled without any recourse.

Tommy and his friends’ scholarships were rescinded…and everything went on our permanent record.

It didn’t matter to me.  I was heading north as soon as possible.  My parents would be joining me.

“Time for new beginnings…” my dad had said.  “For all of us…”

But…just as I was leaving the building I realized that I had forgotten my gloves and walked back to get them.

Tommy, Sheila, Gerald and Mikey were all huddled together at a table quietly talking.

I could see that Sheila had been crying.  I knew how close she had been to getting her law degree and how much she had looked forward to being a lawyer.

I grabbed my gloves and turned back to the door.  Tommy spotted me.

“This isn’t over, ‘little girl’… far from it.  You made a very big mistake.”

And…then he gave be that chillingly, cold smile that I would never forget.