1968 - Plattsburgh - a university town and the home of one of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command bases - where I’ve been teaching and conducting research for the academic year and playing four-wall handball at lunchtime in the university gym - the sticks, the boonies, the antithesis of the New York City I consider home. It has also been a surprisingly interesting and comfortable experience for me. I meet interesting people. I make good friends. I think my work is almost relevant. Yet I have no idea what I’ll do next: maybe live in the California near the Pacific where the air is warm and you can smell the salt floating in the fog, wear shorts and sandals 365 days a year, finish my PHD, maybe stay here and teach at the University a second year in this frozen northeastern outpost of a disintegrating culture. Well that’s what I was thinking.
But then, some time after Christmas break, I decided I could not stand idly by, privately espousing my abhorrence about the immoral war in Vietnam, but not taking stronger action to confront and undermine it. And while I contemplated a series of guerilla actions involving suicidal assaults on the Air Force base I was not courageous, desperate, or stupid enough to really want to do it and, honestly, I didn’t think it would be a particularly effective strategy anyhow. Oh, it would make a momentary statement, like a monk immolating himself does, but I would then be arrested, jailed, and taken out of effective circulation for decades. The tides would roll in and erase my footprint. No masses of people would pick up my cudgel. My actions would have served only as a temporary salve to my anguish, but not to advance the larger cause of peace and reformation. This theme of efficacy is one I will return to and be consumed by for decades.
And it is in this mode of ruminating that I conceive the idea of mounting a visible protest that might galvanize public opinion in Plattsburgh and in the university community against the war and perhaps even lead to transformative action. My plan was simple. I would picket the draft board in downtown Plattsburgh each day at lunchtime - at the immense sacrifice of my four-wall handball game - walking to and fro with pictures from newspapers and magazines of maimed and dead victims of the war, both Vietnamese children and American GIs.
I buy two very large pieces of art board, maybe two feet wide by four feet long, and paste the pictures I’ve collected onto the boards, Vietnamese casualties on one board, American casualties on the other. I draw large red octagonal highway stop signs on the boards and write in bold print “Stop Killing Our Children!” I affix the signs to one another at the top with pieces of twine at each upper corner so that I can drape it over my neck and shoulders like sandwich board advertising. I like the emotionality of the sign, the balance of American and Vietnamese loses, the sense that I wasn’t necessarily taking sides, that I was just declaring that the war must end.
On the first day I carried my signs to the draft board headquarters, put them on over my jacket and began walking back and forth like a solitary striker on Main Street. Plattsburgh is a quiet town in which nothing much happens on the surface. But having someone walking around on Main Street with a sandwich board sign saying “Stop Killing Our Children” though silent was not quiet. So I did get a certain amount of attention in the sense that people looked, but no one said a word. And after an hour I took my signs off, walked back to my car, and drove back to the university, an apparition.
The next day the apparition was back, and it kept coming back every day for weeks. And soon a dozen students had joined me, on a good day two dozen. And a newspaper reporter came by to interview me and take pictures. And an article appeared in the Plattsburgh Daily Gazette. And the president of the Masonic Lodge in town called to ask me if I would be willing to be a guest speaker at their next monthly meeting and I accepted, of course.
I thought long and hard about my speech. I decided that advocating protest per se was inappropriate, that I had to speak in a manner that captured the tension in our democracy between loyalty and dissent. When I delivered my talk I distinguished between the state and the nation. I argued that the nation was a body of ideals and principles around which a people organized themselves, principles to be guided by and to work together for, while the state was the organization established by the nation to help execute its ideals in a pragmatic way. The question I posed was what happens when the actions of the government (the state), appear to be at odds with the values established by the nation. I gave as an example the question of slavery. I argued that the notion all persons are created equal could not conceivably be reconciled with slavery, and yet the government did just that, which then forced individual citizens to have to choose between loyalty to the government or loyalty to the higher ideals that informed and presumably guided the state. And people of good conscience broke the slave laws precisely because their moral conscience and compass required they do so, and in that defiance they honored the nation while breaching the will of the state. There were other examples I cited, the very birth of our nation born in rebellion, and now the war in Vietnam, which so clearly, at least in this citizen’s eyes, was the result of the decisions made by the few, who had hijacked the state, and saw the survival of the state in terms of dominoes rather than in terms of self determination and struggles for freedom of choice and liberation.
I was brilliant. The Masons applauded. They gave me a certificate suitable for framing that commended my participation as an honored guest speaker. They shook my hand. Then they went to the president of the university and said, “Fire him.” And the president said, “Don’t make a scene about it, boys, the academic year draws to a close. Just trust me. He will not be rehired.” And he wasn’t. And I learned something valuable from the Masons, which is that any time you want to sacrifice yourself for a principle, there will be no shortage of those ready willing and able to help you immolate yourself. And at the end of the academic year I was in California.