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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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…

 

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.