Friday, November 04, 2011

Thank God for the Renegade

During the American Revolution, a great portion of the population were Tories and remained loyal to King George. But when it was safely over, they celebrated July Fourth with everyone else.

This was true later in the the Texas Revolution. In the days leading up to the revolution, William Travis, Sam Houston, and the rest were denounced by many Texians as hot-heads, crackpots, and renegades. If they’d had the term “conspiracy theorist” in those days, they would probably have used that one too.

Then Santa Anna marched on Texas, slaughtered hundreds of men at the Alamo and Goliad—and when the dust and smoke had cleared, and Texas was free, these ex-Tories named cities and counties and schools after the very patriots they had previously condemned.

When I was growing up in North Texas, decades ago, nearly all the people around me—the adults, people I was supposed to respect—supported two things: Segregation and the Vietnam War. They thought these things were good and right and ordained by God, and they looked with contempt on those who sought to end racial injustice and the war.

I remember how they laughed when civil rights demonstrators were fire-hosed in the streets of Birmingham. “That’ll teach those niggers,” one man said in the barber shop one day. “And if that don’t do it, a bullet in the head’ll do the trick.” And every man in the barber shop knodded and grunted with agreement.

And I remember how they lauded Lt. Calley as a hero, and spoke approvingly of the My Lai massacre, and how when four students were gunned down at an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, they spoke approvingly of the National Guard and Nixon, and said, “Those draft-dodging hippie queers deserved it.”

And now surfaces another memory, something more personal, and so painful that for a long time I didn’t like to remember it. And still don’t, really. But here it is …

Shortly after the Kent State killings, a woman walked into my father’s newspaper office, almost doubled over in laughter. She had just seen the funniest thing on the news: a large group of construction workers, 200 strong, had broken up an anti-war demonstration on Wall Street. With great relish, she described how the “hard hats” (as they became known) “grabbed those hippies by their long hair and beat the tar out of them …”

“And as soon as they’d beat up one bunch,” she cackled, “they’d go back and beat up some more!”

Everyone in the office was laughing and lauding the “hard hats” as heroes, including my father. Everyone except me.

To fully appreciate what happened next, you must understand that I was 16, painfully shy, and totally lacking in self-confidence. I had never openly expressed an opinion contrary to my father’s, nor had I ever spoken to an adult with anything less than respect.

But, on this day, as I sat there listening to this woman and everyone laugh and laugh, my throat began to tighten. And suddenly—to everyone’s surprise, including my own—I jumped up from my desk and screamed, “That’s not funny! They’re not heroes! They’re just bullies and creeps!”

Today, I would give a better, more articulate, speech, but at 16 that was the best I could manage. Oh, how often I've wished I could go back in time and revise that speech, but it’s too late now ...

At any rate, articulate or not, the speech had its effect. The office went silent, and everyone—there were several people present, the woman, my father, the girl who worked the front desk, a city councilman, and two or three others I don’t remember—they all turned and stared at me in horror.

I was horrified too, mortified by what I had just said. I bolted from the front office and ran back to the darkroom. And locked the door. I knew I was in Big Trouble.

I sat there a long time, ashamed of myself, and crying. Any moment my father was going to appear, and it would not be a pretty sight.

After a long time, the door knob turned. But the latch kept the door from opening. This was followed by a light knocking. On the other side of the door, I heard my father say, “Mack?”

It was no use trying to avoid him. Sooner or later I would have to face the consequences. Sick with dread, I got up and let him in.

“Sit down,” he said.

I sat back down on the stool.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I was too choked up too reply.

He put his hand on my shoulder. Which made me cry harder, I think, than if he had taken off his belt. I managed to choke out the words, “You’re not mad at me?”

He was silent for a long time. “Oh I’m mad at you all right,” he said. “That outburst of yours happened in front of one of our best advertisers.”

I buried my face in my hands, wanting to die.

“But,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I’ll say this. You stood up for what you believe in, and I guess I respect that.”

Then he walked away.

My father didn’t magically transform from a Hawk into a Dove that day. He continued to support the war, at least for a while. Then, as I got closer to draft age, his support for the war began to waver. One night shortly before my 18th birthday, he said, “If worse comes to worst, we’ll send you to Canada.”

As it worked out, I didn’t have to go to Canada. The draft ended before my lottery number came up, and shortly afterwards the war itself ended.

My father’s opinion changed, yes, but most of the older people I knew—the Silent Majority, as Nixon called them—supported the war till the bitter end. But, when the war was over and South Vietnam had fallen to the North, you could not find a one of them who had ever supported it.

“I always knew that war was bad,” one of them said later. “Knew it from the start. We never should’ve got into it.”

As Mark Twain wrote, “In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot …”