The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter 4
August 27, 1970: Culture Clash
“War! Ugh - good God, y'all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Palms drumming on the Impala’s steering wheel, Stuart belted out the lyrics along with Edwin Starr as he passed Bert’s Barber Shop and angled the car into a spot not too far down the block from Jay Bird’s Diner. Since his car windows were wide open in the summer heat, he got more than a few looks from passersby, but he didn’t care who knew his opinions on the war. He leaned across the long seat and rolled up the windows before getting out of the car.
On the map of the usual tensions between town and gown in every college town across the country, Jay Bird’s Diner was neutral territory. Even though classes weren’t in session yet, he hadn’t been in Lawrence for a week before figuring that out, along with which joints catered to students and which ones were just asking for trouble. Scoping that out was simple survival in the wake of Ohio State, the Hard Hat riot in New York, and Jackson State University in Mississippi. College kids had died in anti-war protests that spring; only a fool wouldn’t pay attention. And whatever his parents thought, Stu wasn’t a fool. Hey, he’d settled for the secondhand Impala when what he really wanted was the new Pontiac TransAm; he understood what he (and they) could afford.
Jay Bird’s hired both college students and the local high school ones, mixing the townies and the college kids without regard for background. The diner was affirmative action dispensing with segregation between the college and the town and succeeded where others failed; after all, everyone needed chocolate shakes. Not to mention burgers and coffee.
He banged through the door, and heard the Beatle’s The Long and Winding Road playing in the background. The diner featured a gentler playlist than the rock station he favored in the car: no Black Sabbath, no Zeppelin, no Grateful Dead, but at least he’d heard Free’s It’s Alright Now once during lunch while he’d been hunting for housing. (He was unspeakably grateful he wasn’t a freshman and expected to live in campus housing …) He suspected the diner’s owners of being more into Simon and Garfunkel and the Carpenters, but he had no objections to the former and could live with some of the latter, although the saccharin level sometimes gave him spiritual tooth-rot.
He grabbed a stool at the counter next to a black-haired kid nursing a chocolate shake, and ordered a burger, fries, and a Coke without bothering to look at the menu. An earlier diner had left his newspaper behind; Stu flipped through the pages, and snorted when he hit the op-ed page. The kid next to him glanced at him curiously with a raised eyebrow, and he tapped the paper in explanation.
“This is bogus,” he said. “Some dude is grumbling that rock festivals are corrupting today’s youth; he says the Isle of Wight Festival concert is just the latest, along with Woodstock, Monterey, and Altamont, to extol drugs and make light of war. We’re not making light of the war, man – just the opposite. We’re protesting the war – and that’s deadly serious.”
The kid just looked at him for a minute, and then shook his head.
“Doesn’t really matter to you, does it? You’re not going.”
The scornful dismissal in the kid’s voice cut deeper than he thought it would, and he flared up in automatic defense.
“What do you mean, kid?”
The kid’s blue-grey eyes were dead level.
“I mean, you’ve got a student deferment, right? So you’re not going to ‘Nam, are you?”
“So the whole protest thing falls kinda flat. You’ve found a way around having to put your own life on the line; you’re not going to be called up. So protesting about those of us who are and calling us bad names is kinda, well, a cop-out.”
He looked more closely at the kid. He was probably sixteen, maybe seventeen, but seemed both younger and older: younger in his innocence, but older in his eyes. Encouraged by Stu’s silence, he kept talking.
“A lot of us can’t afford college. But we’re not going to dodge, either. My Dad was a Marine in World War II; I figure, when I turn 17 next year, I’m going to enlist and be a Marine, like my Dad. Beats waiting to get drafted and winding up in the Army, anyway.”
“That argument sounds like you’re just picking the lesser of two evils.”
“So? At least I’m picking, and not running.”
That cut to the quick.
“I’m not running. I’m going to school; there’s a difference.”
The kid sucked noisily on the straw at the bottom of his drink, chasing down the last of the chocolate and ice cream, and then pushed the empty, fluted glass away.
“Couldn’t prove it by me,” he said, and dropped two bills on the counter, nodding at the counter man. “Thanks, Dave.” He slid off the stool and looked thoughtfully at Stu before heading for the door. “Do you really believe the war is wrong, or do you just don’t want to go?” he asked, and then was out the door before Stuart could respond.
His burger and fries landed in front of him, and Stu found himself just looking at them instead of digging in. What the kid had said hurt in unexpected ways. He really believed the war was wrong – just look at the whole My Lai thing, for one – but he also remembered having had to register for the Selective Service, and seeing his number come up in the draft lottery last year He’d been scared spitless, and then pathetically relieved when he’d been accepted at the university, meaning that he could submit the deferment papers letting him off the hook until he’d completed his four-year degree or turned 24, whichever came first. Transferring for his sophomore year from Alabama to the prestigious sociology department at Kansas, the very home of sociology, he hadn’t even thought about the deferment – he’d been more caught up in being able to justify getting his very own car, and making it that black Impala – but it was still there.
And now, finally, prompted by that black-haired kid, he wondered: how much of his opposition to the war really was on moral grounds, and how much on his own fear?
Author’s Note: To me, 1970 was the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. I remember kids I went to high school with – although they were in classes ahead of me, since I was born in 1956 – who wound up drafted, and some of them didn’t come back. For me personally, the biggest thing that year was Apollo 13, and the memory of a lunar mission that almost didn’t come back, but Apollo wouldn’t have mattered that much to Stu. The second thing to stir my aeronautically inclined soul was the first flight of the Concorde, but again, not something relevant to Stu.
And if you think you recognize that black-haired, 16-year-old kid in Jay Bird’s Diner (and for those of you who don’t know, Jay Bird’s is a tribute to the Jayhawks, the University of Kansas athletic teams) – you’re right. I didn’t expect John Winchester to turn up quite so early or quite so young in these stories, but I guess that just goes to show that even writers can get surprised by the stories they tell!