August 22, 2008

Duck and Cover, McCarthy, Assassinations, Vietnam

This is a picture of Robert Kennedy speaking at my graduation from Fordham University in 1967. RFK was running for president in 1968 when he was assassinated June 5, ten days before my wedding. I had a final wedding dress fitting the day of the assassination, and I was in tears the whole time.

My first specific political memory centered around the duck-and -cover, hide-under-our-desks, exercises that were a regular feature of my early school life from age 5 on. I knew enough about nuclear war to be terrified. We lived one mile away from an air force base, and I used to go out to the backyard, look up at the planes, and try to determine if they were American or Russian. I remember getting a book out of the library on aircraft identification. When I heard Joseph Stalin died, I remember asking if that meant no one would drop atom bombs on us.

In 1954 I had a severe case of the measles and Grandma Nolan came to help nurse me. She was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. Hatred of McCarthy's voice might have shaped my entire political development. In 1956, just turning eleven, I fell madly in love with Jack Kennedy as he made an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidential nomination. A good catholic school girl, I was initially attracted by his Catholicism; ten minutes later I was smitten by his intelligence, wit, and charm. I was luckier than his other women. Loving Jack Kennedy was good for me. I read about politics and history. From 1956 to 1963, I read everything I could about Kennedy, politics, American History.. When I was 15 I did volunteer work for his presidential campaign.

In high school we had political debates to imitate the famous Kennedy/Nixon debates and I represented Kennedy. What he believed in, I believed in. Gradually I moved to the left of his pragmatic liberalism. Certainly Kennedy was responsible for my decision to major in political science in college. Kennedy's assassination, occurring in the fall of my freshman year in college, devastated me. I felt like there had been a death in my immediate family. I quickly transferred my political allegiance to Bobby Kennedy.

I cannot precisely date my interest in and commitment to civil rights. When I was a freshman, I joined my college's Interracial Understanding Group. I was envious of those college students who could afford to spend the summer down south registering voters and didn't have to worry about money to pay their tuition.

Gradually during college I became a pacifist. Opposition to the Vietnam War right from the beginning was the catalyst. My husband to be, John, applied for conscientious objector status and was willing to face jail rather than be inducted. We became very active in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resister's League, all pacifist organizations. We went on several anti-war demonstrations both in New York and Washington. I briefly attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez's future husband, spoke out eloquently against the war.

My first job after Stanford was as an assistant to Victor Riesel, a labor columnist, who had been blinded by acid thrown in his face by the mob who controlled the waterfront he was exposing. My assignments included reading the AP ticker to him every day, clipping and reading articles in about 20 newspaper and labor papers. This was in 1968, when King and Kennedy were assassinated, when anti-war protect was at its height, so thinking about politics was my job.

After I returned from Stanford, I had rented a room from an elderly women on the Upper West Side, who supported herself by taking in borders. I spent most of my time with my fiance and didn't want my parents to know it. (I now know they saw through me.) I wasn't supposed to use her phone. I had gone to bed very late; I had stayed up to hear the results of the California primary. I was ecstatic; Bobby had won. I always woke up to a clock radio. As I groggily came to consciousness the next morning, it took minutes to penetrate what they were saying. At first I told myself they were talking about someone else. I crept into the hall and used the telephone for the first time to call John. I was crying so hysterically he thought something had happened to my parents or brothers.

I was working for Victor Riesel, the blind labor columnist. He had been blinded by racketeers because of his investigations of waterfront corruption. Acid had been thrown into his eyes. He was too proud to learn Braille, so he always hired bright young political women to be his eyes. My job was to read about 7 newspapers and 40 labor newspapers and bring to his attention anything that might provide column ideas. The equivalent of the internet was a constantly running ticker tape. All day and all wee I had to read him about the assassination between my tears. This was less than two months after MLK had been shot. The world was shattering, and it was my job to read about it and talk about it all day, everyday.

My husband escaped jailed by getting a high number in the 1969 Draft Lottery. I will never forget the night. I arrived home from work when they had reached 50. As time when on and they didn't call out John's birthday, I was convinced he had been in the first five. His number was 339. For the first time in two years, we could plan our lives together without worrying about a jail sentence.

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