The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter 5
April 22-24, 1971: Blowin’ In The Wind
It was a long drive, but the Impala ate highway effortlessly. In the back seat, Sharon and Tom speeded up the miles by leading them in singing peace and protest songs; Tom had room enough to play his guitar, since Vicky had chickened out at the last minute and decided to stay for exams. But Nancy sat next to him and sang along, and the sense that they were doing something necessary and right overcame the anxiety about what would happen next.
The more he thought about it, the more important protesting seemed. It mattered so much more than just going to classes. Last September, he’d driven the Impala to the rally at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and saw Jane Fonda and David Sutherland, and even a ‘Nam vet named John Kerry, all of them talking about why the war was wrong and had to stop. He’d missed a bunch of classes, but it hadn’t seemed to matter at the time. Nixon’s October promise that the U.S. would pull out another 40,000 troops before Christmas was only a partial answer. Nature had taken a hand with a massive monsoon that dumped so much rain on the country that the war ground to a halt for days, but once the ground started to dry out, the killing started up again. Nixon made a big thing about handing things over to the South Vietnamese, and touted that as a success in the news stories on November 5 that only 24 more American soldiers had died that week, the lowest number in five years, and then the following week, on November 10, when for the first time in the whole war, a week passed with no American casualties reported.
But they never had reported on the Vietnamese casualties, so that didn’t really matter.
The wrongness of the war made the headlines in November with the start of the trial of Lieutenant Calley for the My Lai massacre of 22 Vietnamese civilians. It took until the end of March, but at least he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The trial brought out all the divisions in the community, though, and even Jay Bird’s saw a few fights between students and some local vets, who always argued that the lines weren’t as clear as Stuart knew they had to be. Even the entertainment world reflected the split that he saw in the town; when that new comedy All In The Family premiered in January, he thought he was watching the social macrocosm played out on screen in that little TV family. The sad thing was that the Archie Bunkers of Lawrence never seemed to get that the commentary – and the joke – was really on them, not on the “meathead” who represented the students’ views.
The February invasion of Laos had heated up the protest movement again. Stu had become an organizer for the student body in Lawrence, and since he had a big car, also became their liaison with groups on other campuses. He did a lot of driving, loading the trunk with pamphlets and supplies, going from rally to rally all over the Midwest and even down into the South. He’d met Nancy at a little rally right in Lawrence in November and they’d started dating; from that moment, he had a companion on a lot of those drives. Since he always had room to haul both papers and people, it almost seemed the Impala turned into the principal vehicle for the anti-war movement in Kansas. His grades slipped as he cut more and more classes to keep abreast of the protest movement’s needs, and his parents sent worried letters.
But this was the big one: a march on Washington, DC. Take the word right to the politicians; surround the White House and Congress so they’d have to see that they were being watched, and make a noise for peace so loud they’d have to hear. Along the way, they crashed at safe houses set up by students and other anti-war sympathizers, sleeping on couches and floors, eating pizza and potluck. They never had to wonder about their next meal; there was always someone who wished they could go and offered food and shelter as a way to be involved.
Close in to Washington, the traffic got crazy. He’d studied the maps and gotten advice from people who’d been at other rallies, but it was still a challenge. The cops diverted traffic away from the Mall, but he eventually managed to squeeze the Impala into a tight spot on D Street. They joined the milling throng that eventually sorted itself out, marching east on Constitution Avenue, curling around through Lafayette Park to come close to the White House, and then thronging near the steps of the Capitol. The organizers kept chanting, “What do you want?” and he shouted “Peace!” right along with everybody else, followed by “When do you want it?” and the answer, “Now!” By the afternoon, he was tired and hoarse, but buoyed up by the power of the group. He’d never seen so many people. The Mall was crammed almost solid, with people climbing on the statues in the fountains and into the few trees on the sides in order to get a better view. They had microphones set up on the Capitol steps for music and speeches, and everybody sang along with John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary. When PP&M prefaced Blowin’ in the Wind by saying they’d first sung it at a civil rights demonstration for Martin Luther King in 1963, Stu felt the weight of history descend, along with the urgency that things had to change now, so they wouldn’t need to be singing it again. The whole crowd joined in singing Give Peace a Chance; half a million voices raised to the skies, calling out to Nixon, to Congress, singing to the vets, singing for the casualties, begging for peace.
Staggering wearily back to the car at the end of it all, he felt an indescribable mix of heady power and exhausted futility. Nancy snuggled close under his arm, and he hugged her gratefully.
“Was it worth it?” she asked, and he squeezed her shoulders.
“Every minute,” he said, and meant it. She went quiet for a while as they got back into the car and joined the slow queue of traffic trying to escape the overcrowded city. In the back seat, Tom and Sharon fell asleep leaning on each other, the guitar silent across Tom’s knees. Stu turned on the radio and nodded approval to hear Janis Joplin’s cover of Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee, but kept it soft, not wanting to disturb them.
“You missed a lot of finals to make this trip,” Nancy said, finally voicing her concern. “What happens if – what happens if you can’t make them up, and you lose your scholarship?”
And that was the 800-pound gorilla in the car, the specter that haunted his convictions. His draft deferment lasted as long as he was in school pursuing a four-year degree; he’d only be in school as long as the scholarship money held out, because there was no way he or his parents would be able to pay for it outright. In a stupid double-bind, even though they couldn’t pay for his board and tuition on top of their mortgage, his folks still made too much for him to qualify for financial aid. His advisor had already been on him about the drop in his grades; missing the finals might just be the straw that broke the camel’s back and ended his deferment.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just – this just seems more important, you know?”
“Will you go to Canada?”
Crossing the border into Canada had become the most popular tactic for draft dodgers. Canada wouldn’t deport draft-age young men who took refuge there, but the big problem was, they could never come back; the U.S. made a point of announcing that draft dodgers who returned to the U.S. would be arrested, tried, and go to prison, and they’d made examples of a few who’d tried. He couldn’t see himself doing that, no matter his objection to the war; the mere thought brought back the echo of that black-haired kid who’d said that at least he wasn’t running. For him, at least, Canada would be running.
“No,” he said at last. “I guess – if I lose the deferment, I’ll go. I just – I’ll try not to kill anyone. But I can’t run away from the things that vets like Kerry faced. I won’t let my Dad or anyone call me a coward.”
“It wouldn’t be cowardice to claim conscientious objector status,” she said, but he shook his head.
“I don’t think I could do prison, Nance. And after all I’ve said … how could I look myself in the mirror if I didn’t take the same chance as everyone else with a draft card?” He shook his head, then smiled at her. “Besides, we’ll push the drive back home. Maybe I’ll be able to make up the tests, and all this will be moot.”
They finally got across the river and onto the freeway, and traffic started moving. He fed the gas, and the Impala bulled forward, heading north and west, back to Lawrence.
Author’s Note: The April 24, 1971 march on Washington attracted 500,000 people, one of the biggest demonstrations to date. You can find some footage of it up on the web, including the performance by Peter, Paul & Mary, who were joined on stage by John Denver. The “Vietnamization” program to put the South Vietnamese military in charge of their own defense did allow for the drawdown of U.S. troops, decreasing the number of American soldiers in country to 196,700 by the end of October (the lowest number since 1966), but the draft still continued and U.S. forces still experienced significant losses. Vietnam vets were usually met with insults and scorn by protesters, who didn’t distinguish between the soldiers and the political administration; in that one respect, things have improved since ‘Nam. Calley, by the way, was eventually pardoned and released from prison.
For me personally, 1971 was the year of Apollo 14 and 15, which no one remembers despite 15 being the first mission with a lunar rover, a motorized riding vehicle on the Moon. The television networks were already cutting back on coverage, which had been extensive on Apollo 13 only because of the problem that nearly became a tragedy. I was acutely aware whenever we had a mission up, and couldn’t understand how and why space travel had seemed to become so extraordinarily blasé for everyone else.