Yesterday it was listening to a program on NPR about the sixties. Maybe it was “This American Life” or ‘The Takeaway,” but the host was interviewing men who had been conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. One of them had been at Cornell with Daniel Berrigan; he recounted his tale of objecting to the war on ethical, not religious, grounds and going back to Oklahoma to confront the draft board there rather than staying in New York. Oklahoma at that point had given no one, not even Quakers, deferments for any reason, so returning home meant a prison term. He decided that to make the point that the war was immoral he had to be willing to make sacrifices.
Earlier that day I had been reading over my journal from 1966, the winter term of my freshman year at Allegheny College. Bill and I have been rearranging our respective studies, so that I can have his drafting table in my office for my painting, and in the process I have been moving books and papers. You know—we get this impulse to put our lives in order; it makes us very happy for a time, until the inevitable chaos resumes and we spend a good bit of our time looking for things.
Anyway, I decided to put my dozens of journals in order. I have kept them for decades, starting with 1966. There are lots of gaps from then until around the late 1970s, so I was glad to see I have an early record.
What a pivotal year that was for me. Since I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, I had been overwhelmed the first weeks. But when I started recording my days that second term, I was happy and in love with Allegheny. Everything there was magical and meaningful. I had forgotten how many important friends I made that year—such a varied lot, male and female. Most of my entries are full of my encounters, conversations, and mini-dramas involving casual dates, would be dates (should I ask Bob Metting to the Sadie Hawkins dance or not? etc.), and imaginary lovers—but also the classes I was taking and the ways my mind was being stretched and re-shaped. I was terrified in speech class, worried I would make a fool of myself in front of whatever male I found desirable at the time. And sure enough, after my first speech I record, “I looked up and saw John Boughton laughing.” I was still determined, though. After that I worked very hard on my next speech. My journal records that trial:
I have rehearsed my speech five times aloud. I spent considerable time researching it (3 ½ hours), considerable time taking notes (2 1/3 hours), considerable time writing it (2 hours), and a fair amount of time practicing it (1 hour). I believe that adds up to approximately 9 hours. That sounds about right. Let’s see. 9 x 60 +540. 540/7 = 77.0, or 77 ½ minutes preparation for every minute I speak. How can I flub it up?
I was self-conscious, but I also had a growing political awareness that I don’t think I would have ever developed in Titusville. I still believed in my religion at that time, and I spend Sunday evenings at meetings hosted by our college chaplain, Dick Devor. We had discussions, did role-playing, and had speakers. We learned about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “pecca fortiter” (sin boldly), and we took ourselves very seriously: we really believed that we could change the world. Remember that this was just after the terrible summer of 1964, when the three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi and after the assassination of John Kennedy. America was changing, and we wanted to be part of this revolution. I read Nat Hentoff’s The New Equality, Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, Le Petit Prince, watched Last Year at Marienbad, and did scandalous things—I went alone to David Frost’s apartment to listen to jazz while he smoked dope. . . . And I even learned to swim well that winter. You see, you could not graduate from Allegheny without passing a swimming test, using four strokes. I hated coming from the basement gym on cold winter days with wet hair, but I loved my teacher, Pam Westerman, who had long blonde hair and the brightest blue eyes. I thought she was one of the coolest women I had ever met. And despite my initial trepidation, I grew to enjoy my swim sessions with her.
So, for a while yesterday I was there, fully immersed in those transcendent moments. I saw the person that I was and I liked her. Although she was naïve, she cared about her family, the people around her, and the entire world. And she made me laugh. By January 1966 the Vietnam protests had begun in earnest, and Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, was not to be left behind. We also protested other things: hunger among the Ibo in Biafra, racism, poverty. I joined in these protests, but I kept my head and did not let them submerge my own sensibilities. I will end with my entry for 6 February 1966. Now my lists makes me laugh, but when I compiled them I was deadly serious. That was my job: to learn how I fit in the world.
Why I am skipping dinner to take part in the Vietnam protest fast:
1 I believe that
a. the war should not be escalated;
b. the Viet Cong Liberation Front should be considered a bargaining
c, the government should thoroughly and conscientiously re-examine its
policy on the war in Vietnam.
2. I believe that individuals have the right, and duty, to say “no” to the
a. they are acting in accordance with their principles;
b. they have thought carefully about what they are doing.
3. I believe that I should take a stand on the fact that no one is “asinine”
for acting on what they sincerely believe in.
4. No human being has the right to judge the acts of another human.
[And here is the kicker! Evidently the local committee has decreed that we skip meals for a day and a half, but I couldn’t go that far, even though I knew it was the right thing to do.]
Why I am not fasting for 36 hours:
1. As far as I cam concerned, it would accomplish nothing.
2. I want to protest as an individual.
3. It would interfere with my learning.
4. I can’t swim twice in one day on an empty stomach. . . . .