Chapter 10

When I look back now…I think I truly fell in love with Johnny Taylor at that 8th grade Halloween Party…and never really fell out…

He agreed…but then…he always agreed with me.

Within a week, I had moved into Johnny’s apartment.

It was like we had been together forever.  Everything fell so easily into place.  There was a bus line that went right down Snelling Avenue to the East River Road and into the U of M campus…no one wanted to drive a car to the U. if there was some other way.

I got a job as a waitress at Pierre’s Pizza, just a short one-block walk from our apartment and my student loan had kicked in so I could quite my other job as…

Yes, I had gotten the weekend popcorn girl job!  Even after only a couple of weeks I knew I was going to miss that butter  I mean…popcorn.

Johnny, who had been close to failing ALL of his classes, cleared his mind, stopped partying and began to study…and not just to please me…but to please himself…to please us.

When we weren’t being in love, making love, working or studying, we spent every minute doing whatever we could to protest the Vietnam War.  We marched.  We made signs.  We went to meetings and protest rallies.  We wrote letters.

But still…more and more young men were coming home in body bags…shown in full color on CBS news.

Every night there was  footage…showing young men…somewhere in Nam…either bleeding from wounds or shooting at the enemy.   It was horrible to watch.  But I felt I owed it to every soldier to do so.

One night…as we were drifting off to sleep…Johnny, holding me close to him as he did every night, softly whispered.

“I don’t think I could ever kill anybody, Riley.”  And then…even softer…

“I don’t want to…”

 

Chapter 12

At the airport…Johnny held me in his arms as tears poured down my face and my body shook with sobs.

“It took so long for us to find each other…” I cried.

“Please don’t leave me, Johnny!!  I will die without you!!  I will!  I will die!”  And my voice rose…causing others nearby to look away from the painfully sad couple…

Johnny pulled back…and took my face in his hands…as I had done to him so many times in high school…but this time he was forcing me to listen.

“I will never leave you again, Tinka…I promise!  When this year is over…I will come home to you and we will always be together.  I promise you.”

And then he kissed all the tears from my cheeks and held me so tight I could hardly breathe and then…before one more second passed…he quickly turned and walked away.

One year later…Johnny Taylor came home…as promised.

Fucking Amen.

Chapter 13

MANY, MANY YEARS LATER…

So…there I sat…in the restaurant section of Larson’s grocery store…watching dead leaves swirl around on their charming but now “Closed for the Winter” patio…leaves whistling by…like the memories from so many years ago…

I finished my coffee and looked out the window and wondered how soon it would snow…

I had been gone from Minnesota for a long time and had only returned a few months ago to help Alec’s wife, Cara, deal with the crushing burden of his unexpected illness and impending death.

Alec had joined me in Canada rather than register for the draft in 1969, secured a college degree, met the enchanting Cara, got married and then returned to the United States in 1977 after President Carter issued amnesty to those men who had moved to Canada rather than go to Vietnam.

He and Cara had visited me several times each year…they had no children…so we became a “family”.

Dearest Cara…confined to a wheelchair after a car accident several years ago…had reluctantly asked me for help…and I had come down with no hesitation.

I was pretty confident that enough years had gone by for any of the ghosts from my past to rise up and cause me any problems…I was pretty sure of that by now…sure that they were all dead.

I got up, grabbed my purse, turned and started to walk toward the grocery area of the store…when suddenly there was a slight tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and looked at a white-haired man…about my own age…maybe a couple of years past seventy.

He tilted his head a bit but didn’t quite smile.  Then…in a low, gravelly voice…that is usually the result of years of smoking and drinking…or both..he said…

“Remember me?”

And…at first, I didn’t remember.

But then I looked a little harder…past the many years of living that can sometimes change a person completely.

I looked at his odd eyes.  He was wearing bright, blue contact lenses.

I thought…how strange for an older man to do so…

But then he smiled…and suddenly I knew exactly who he was…

“I thought you were dead, Tommy.”

 

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 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 21

…Larson’s Grocery…

…NOW….

I stepped back…I could not believe that Tommy Clark was standing less than three feet in front of me…smiling that disgusting smile of his.

My heart began to pound like a jack-hammer.

I had been wrong…all these years…I had been so wrong.

Not everyone was dead after all.

They say…that if you are ever confronted by a vicious  animal, you should never run.  They will instinctively think you are prey and chase you .

And when they catch you…and they will catch you…they will kill you.

Instead, shout as loudly as you can or grab a couple of rocks and bang them together.

Your chances are good the animal will be momentarily startled at least for a short time…giving you a chance to escape.

I had no rocks.  My mouth was so dry I could hardly swallow…much less shout. And what exactly would I shout?   So I stood and waited.

“You look good, Riley.”

I suddenly felt dizzy and I swayed just a little.

“I need to sit down…” I said and made an effort to walk back to where I had been sitting.

But Tommy took my elbow and steered me out the door of Larson’s.

“I think what you need is a drink, Riley.  I know I could use one.  There’s a friendly-looking little bar a couple of doors down.”

It had started to rain ever so  slightly…and still holding tightly to my arm…he led me down the block.

Maybe Tommy had mellowed.  It had been so many years.  Maybe this was just a chance encounter.

Maybe his frightening smile was just a…smile.  Maybe this was a dream and I would wake up.

And maybe pigs could fly…

 

 

Chapter 22

Two doors down from Larson’s was the kind of neighborhood bar that seldom saw strangers…especially in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

Sure enough…when we walked in…the three men at the bar turned at the sound of the door opening…stopped talking and just looked at the two of us.

Tommy gave them a nod and then guided me to a booth way over in a corner by a window.  It was stuffy in the bar and Tommy opened the window a little.  The cool air felt good.

An older woman…perhaps in her sixties came right over and leaned against the side of the booth.  I had a feeling she may have been the owner.

She gave us a cool smile…and I’m sure she was thinking…”Now…who the hell are you two?”

But she said pleasantly, “Nice rainy day, right?”

I returned her smile…and desperately tried to think of something I could say or do to get me out of this booth…and away from Tommy.

I had decided…pigs can’t fly.

“Where is the ladies’ room?” I asked.

She looked away from us and pointed to a neon sign on the other side of the bar…past a few tables.

I made a move to get up…but Tommy reached across and put a restraining hand on my arm…

“Riley, can you hold on for just a couple of minutes?  Let’s order first.  I’m starving.”

He gave the waitress a big smile and said, “We’ll need a second or two.”

He reached for the little menus propped up by the salt & pepper shakers.  His jacket fell open a little.

That’s when I saw the holster…and the gun.

“Sure, blue eyes…I’ll be back.”

Tommy smiled at her again and then turned back…but there was no smile for me…he knew I had seen the gun.