I often travel between the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts and Albany, New York. The part of I-90 that I drive on is called the Berkshire connector. Forty-nine years ago three friends and I traveled on the same road on the way to visit a US expatriate in Ontario, Canada, who had left the US during the Vietnam War era, looking for a different life as tens of thousands of others did amid the upheavals of that historic epoch. Sam left the US soon after his enlistment in the US Navy ended. Like tens of thousands of others who had left the US, Sam had traveled to different countries trying to find a semblance of peace amid all the insanity of that era.
Sam’s homestead in Ontario, in the town Renfrew, about 90 miles north of Ottawa, was a magical place for me. Fields of corn lined the roads up to Sam’s homesite and when my friends and I arrived just before the Fourth of July, he had only built the deck of the first floor of the planned two-story house and only the kitchen area was covered. Sam worked with some friends from the States on the house construction. Houses were spaced widely apart in the area, and a river ran a few hundred yards from Sam’s land.
Why the feeling of magic in such a faraway place and does that feeling have anything even remotely connected to the political? The magic had to do with being away from the turmoil of the Vietnam era in the US and the course of action that I had embarked upon in becoming a resister to the war. I began an informal search for land in the same area where Sam lived and by accident found a real estate agent who was a soldier in the German army during World War II. When I asked him about his feelings in serving in the military during the Third Reich, he said without emotion, “I had no choice, they would have shot me if I had resisted.”
The sense of relief at being away from the turmoil the war, caused another emotion and political consideration, and that was the absence of the contradictions that came with witnessing the massive celebrations of patriotic holidays in the US. Being at odds with the obscenity of the war amid patriotic celebrations and being temporarily separated from them was a point of view that one of the other three friends in the car seemed to recoil at when she read an essay I wrote several years ago about the road trip.
The Vietnam War was one of many obscenities of US policy. When Ronald Reagan attempted to sanitize the war with his “noble cause” revisionist rhetoric, those of us who had protested for years knew the US had no business in Vietnam, fought an exponentially weaker nation, murdered millions in Southeast Asia (with over 58,000 US soldiers dead), poisoned the land of Vietnam, and violated numerous other rules of war including the mass murder of innocent civilians. Some “noble cause” in the US fight against communism!
Ann refused to comment on that writing about the trip to Canada. She, like millions of others from the generation of baby boomers, had become a careerist and seemed incensed at my expressions of solidarity with the left politics of the era. As many of those millions, she changed politics like a change of clothing from one season to another and took on the values of whatever contemporary period in which she lived. Of the momentous Vietnam era, she said, “We were kids,” as if being young meant that protest during the era was a naïve distraction.
One important recollection of the trip is inaccessible to me today. Ann remembers that we were escorted out of a town by the local police in upstate New York on the way to Canada. We had been taunted because both my friend Fred and I had long hair that riled some of the other patrons of a restaurant where we had stopped for dinner. Confrontations like that were not unusual during the 1960s and early 1970s, as part of the cultural and political domestic wars. A guess is that I blocked out that memory because of my fear of dealing with the police then. Some patrons of the restaurant had taunted Fred and me with: “Look at those ladies,” Fred countered their remarks, and hence, probably the “need” for the police escort out of town. Looking back after all these years, the sexism in the taunts needs an accounting.
With each murder by police of a person of color, and the suppression of the resulting protest, I am continually reminded of my distrust of police and government that has its roots in the Vietnam era. Injury is added to insult as communities of color have the highest mortality rates from Covid-19.
Ann’s friend, Fred, was a radical during the Vietnam era, and later took the same path toward careerism. Fred was my best friend in college and a political organizer. After decades of separation because of a personal issue, he talked in the language of careerism and commented that his ex-wife had had an impressive career, rising to the highest levels of the federal government. In his estimation, a person’s status in society comes from the work a person does. When I sent Fred an essay I wrote about the 2003 war in Iraq, he commented that he would not have the physical stamina to run from the police today. During a protest in 1971, Fred and I ran all over Washington, DC, during the May Day demonstrations there. This is how that demonstration was promoted: “If the government won’t stop the war, then we’ll stop the government.” During those demonstrations, I avoided arrest because I did not know that the government was not yet looking for me at that point because of my resistance to the war and the military.
Of the four friends driving to Canada, the only other person on that trip who worked at a job that continued to reflect the values of the era was Sarah. She spent decades working with potential high school dropouts in public schools and earned a graduate degree in mental health. Sarah was never political, as were both Ann and Fred, so there were no contradictions in her life that came from rejecting opposition to the status quo.
I recently wrote Ann, the only one of the four friends with whom I am still in contact, when the news of the death of writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer appeared in the New York Times. Fred, Ann, and I would often eat at Hungry Charley’s in Greenwich Village during the early 1970s when we were students at New York University. I wrote to Ann that I realized, when Larry Kramer’s obituary appeared, that many of the people we ate dinner with and socialized with in those days had probably died during the AIDS epidemic. That reality floored me, but Ann chose not to react to my note. Stunned was probably the right description of my reaction to Ann’s silence.
Sam moved back to the US during the 1990s. He writes novels and works on old race cars in perhaps one of the most right-wing states in the US. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “And so it goes.”
The most pressing issue and emotion that comes from looking back at the road trip of so many decades ago is the feeling of having lived in such revolutionary times seen from today’s right-wing political, economic, and social climate and all the death and mayhem resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s like trying to inhabit two unique worlds or multiple dimensions of space at the same time. In music it’s called dissonance, but in actual life it’s called living in a largely unhinged world where hypocrisy generally triumphs.
Tens of thousands of those involved in protest during the Vietnam War era were playing at revolution; tens of thousands of other people protested in earnest and hold those same values today. The justified outrage and protest that came from the massacre at Kent State in 1970, did not carry over to the massacre at Jackson State for many in the protest movement at that time. The latter is of great importance today as masses of people of color protest in the face of continued police brutality and the militarization of police in the US witnessed by the death of George Floyd and other men and women of color.
People of color have proved again and again that they are the soul of protest in the US. Racism in the US tells much about this society. The US is indeed exceptional, but not in the way that those in power and with wealth want this society seen.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against The Wall: Memoir Of A Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).