The Hippies Who Meant It
March and Countermarch
Eve of Destruction— P. F. Sloan
It was a spring afternoon halfway through the sixties in a modest town in upstate Vermont. Dappled sunlight fell through the tender green leaves of the trees around the central square. A stone church on the west side faced a brick courthouse on the east. In the middle was a bronze statue of a general on horseback surrounded by fresh-mowed grass on which a crowd of young people waved banners, chanted, and danced. Sweet-smelling smoke perfumed the air. Passersby, conservatively dressed for work, school, and shopping, looked askance at long hair, beards, beads, bell-bottomed jeans, colourful T-shirts, and signs using words they never read in newspapers.
Dick Matthews stood in front of the church and watched people his own age demonstrate against a war he did not have to fight. He was a Royal Military College cadet who was out of uniform, absent without leave, and at large in a foreign country. Dick was more than six feet tall, muscular, and curiously bland of expression under his short-cropped fair hair. The first days of spring sun had burned his nose, and though he wore blue jeans as faded as those of the marchers, he was different from them by more than just a few inches of hair. Where they moved with a casual, loose-limbed grace, hours of parade-square drill had stiffened the way he moved and stood.
Joe Franciosi waved a burning Stars and Stripes below the bronze feet of the general’s horse. His jeans were blue-white, his jacket was patched, and he wore a T-shirt that read WAR SUCKS. Long, limp hair framed his sunken cheeks. He had intended to be nowhere in sight when the demonstration against the Vietnam War reached its flag-burning climax, but he had muffed his escape route and timing because, against all his expectations, he had been swept up by the moment and had become the firebrand he had intended to scorn.
A detachment of militiamen summoned by the chief of the town’s six policemen tramped into the square and crashed to a halt. The protesters lay down in front of their booted feet. An officer shouted, deploying his men in baton-wielding pairs. Even though they were not careful of toes and fingers, the young people did not flinch. A little reedily at first but gathering strength as more and more joined in, they chanted “Hell no, we won’t go!” and then segued into “We shall overcome.”
The effect on the cadet and the flag-burner was identical. Their throats tightened and their eyes filled with tears.
The Stars and Stripes in Joe’s hand dripped fire and plumed smoke, causing the captain of the militia to single him out for personal attention. Incensed by the desecration of his country’s flag and infuriated by the shouts of the peace marchers, the officer hurdled the prone protesters, felled the bony young man with an expert thumb thrust below the left ear and, when a blonde girl tried to intervene, smacked her aside. Joe lay with the burning flag on his chest as the captain kicked at him in a frenzy of vengeful patriotism.
Dick was overcome by a quixotic need to become the instrument of divine justice. He vaulted over the demonstrators with as little forethought as the captain, who turned just in time to receive the heel of a hand in the nose. The soldier fell across the smouldering flag, bleeding copiously. Dick stood alone, surrounded by the bodies of passively resisting young men and women, eyed by approximately forty militiamen who had just seen him dispatch their leader. There was nowhere to go, and it was much too late to lie down and go limp, even if he had wanted to.
The militiamen dragged off the protesters to paddy wagons with kicks and arm-twisting as their martial spirits, cheated of a fight, turned to mean-spirited sadism. The circle of bodies around the romantic hero grew smaller. Police sirens brayed and bullhorns croaked, but the young Canadian had long since been deafened by the pounding of his own pulse. His blood was up, and he prepared to go down fighting.
“Shithead, you’re screwing it up. This is a peace march, not a freaking brawl.”
He turned to look down on the blond flower child he had intervened to protect. His jaw dropped, because it was incredible to his romantic soul that so innocent a face above so white a blouse covering (he blushed to notice) such substantial unbrassiered breasts could be speaking the language of locker rooms.
“Lie down. Go limp,” she hissed.
It was not in his nature or training to comply, especially since at that moment a large and pimply-faced militiaman took hold of her left breast and hair while another seized her ankles and spread them apart.
The two part-time soldiers later confessed that they were impressed. One fell with a groin kicked so hard he was excused duty for two months. The other, letting go hair and breast, got in one ineffectual swing before being hip-checked and then rabbit-punched as he slid to the ground.
Other militiamen stopped hauling off bodies and closed in. This they understood. It took about seventeen long seconds before the romantic Canadian went down under a fivefold assault of nightstick-wielding enthusiasts. Some of them hit each other, and one had to be treated for a bitten hand. They all loved it.
Citizen bystanders watched as the militiamen shoved the protesters into paddy wagons for the short ride to the back of the courthouse.
As Dick gradually regained consciousness, he blinked up at the underside of a long wooden bench and the feet of the people who sat on it. He turned his head and saw the lanky flag-burner getting painfully to his feet. Around them, the advocates of peace, love, and mutual coexistence sat on benches and talked about the wild man who had ruined their peaceful demonstration. Dick slowly realized that he himself was the militaristic, violent, aggressive warmonger they were rebuking in terms ranging from the vulgar to the obscene. As the events of the day came sluggishly to his mind, Dick felt humiliated by incomprehensible failure. The dragon he’d slain had turned out to be the languishing maiden’s favourite pet. He lay back on the floor, his head pounding from the physical and verbal abuse.
“Hey, fella, who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Matthews. Richard … Dick.”
“Well, Dick, I guess you blew it. We both did. I was planning to be long gone when the shit hit the fan, but hot damn, I got right into the scene. Hey, I’m fucking glad you were there. That son of a bitch lieutenant was set to have my balls. I saw you hit him just before I passed out. I hear you did up a few more.”
Dick nodded, and then winced.
“Well, get your shit together. We go in front of the judge soon.”
Policemen shouted commands, and the protesters made ready to play the parts they had rehearsed. Once in the courtroom, they non-cooperated, stood in dumb insolence when questioned, blew covert raspberries when the police and militiamen gave evidence, and succeeded in making a mockery of the court. The judge, a lean, grey-haired individual with horn-rimmed glasses to whom civil disobedience was a novelty, wanted them out of his jurisdiction as speedily as possible. His strategy was to threaten lengthy stays in jail and then to levy small fines for misdemeanour, contingent on the young people returning to their homes. Since few of them were local people, they soon grasped the logic and paid up.
At last, Joe and Dick faced the judge who sensed that the police and militia had needed to see someone suffer. He fastened onto the burning of the American flag as a clear and punishable crime, spoke of a serious prison sentence on conviction, and set a stiff bail. Joe winced, but nodded in an approximation of respect.
Then it was Dick’s turn. The judge was back in control and determined to keep it. Unlike the protesters who had slouched, strolled, and sauntered to their places in front of the court, Dick marched forward and stood at ramrod attention. The judge, suspecting ridicule, centred his glasses on his nose and employed the stare he reserved for unrepentant criminals.
Witnesses gave testimony to Dick’s last stand. The pacifist resisters disowned him with boos and hisses. Even the least colourful version made it clear that he had been subdued by overwhelming numbers. Curiously, this made Dick earn respect in the minds of both the judge and the citizens who had come to see justice done. His partly closed right eye and pavement-marked cheek seemed honourable scars, and the lone combatant grew in stature with each of the catcalls he steadfastly ignored.
Dick answered questions evenly and with respect. He said he was Canadian. Questioned further, he admitted to being a cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. When pressed, he said only that the soldier had assaulted a girl. Protesters booed, and citizen observers wavered between disbelief and grudging admiration.
The judge considered the implications of a complex international trial only three months before his impending re-election. He cleared his throat and embarked on the lecture he used on lawbreaking children of well-connected parents with whom he would later ingratiate himself to his political benefit. It was a fatherly, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger speech, and it went over well with all but the hard-core protesters and a couple of badly bruised militiamen. Nominal bail was set and paid, and in minutes Dick found himself on the steps of the courthouse.
He blinked, trying to hold back tears that had nothing to do with the judge’s admonitions. Thanks to a stupid bet, his life was in ruins. He knew that now he had been caught, the Royal Military College could not turn a blind eye, as they would have for a successful prank. His well-bred mother would shun him. His father would be ashamed in front of his cronies at the Vimy Ridge branch of the Royal Canadian Legion at which Dick had been shown off, resplendent in his scarlet uniform, the previous Christmas.
“Hey, Dick. Let’s you and me split. Those militia dummies are too damn close.”
The man Dick had protected was at his elbow. Joe had removed his jacket, and his boney arms poked out of his hand-lettered T-shirt. Beside him, Dick’s six feet two inches of football-playing, obstacle-course-running, square-bashing strength made the pair of them resemble before-and-after photographs in an advertisement for bodybuilding.
“Listen, Canuck, stay away from that asshole,” said a militia sergeant whose left eye was already turning purple. “He’s no good.”
The lean protester pulled at Dick’s sleeve.
“Joe Franciosi doesn’t forget any guy who goes to bat for him. First thing, we split. Then maybe a drink.”
Dick blinked stupidly and followed. People in and out of uniform pointed and whispered. Blushing furiously, he followed the man with the Italian name as he cut a way through the crowd with the ease of a man from a big city.
Around the corner and down an alley was a Volkswagen Microbus painted in shimmering whorls and curlicues of DayGlo orange and purple. The side door slid open as they approached, and they piled onto the mattress that occupied the entire back of the vehicle. From there, Joe clambered into the front seat, the noisy little engine roared, and the Microbus lurched abruptly into action. Dick fell from his hands and knees onto a painful shoulder. He struggled to his knees, only to be thrown sideways as the vehicle cornered recklessly. His head struck something solid, and he let himself collapse onto the mattress. It felt so good to lie still that he closed his eyes and unexpectedly fell deeply asleep, rocking and bouncing gently as the Microbus roared out of town.
Dick awoke as the vehicle pitched onto uneven pavement on a darkened country road. He sat up, bumped his head again, and swore petulantly.
“Climb up front,” called Joe from the driver’s seat.
Dick looked out at the night. He was heading north, driven by a hippie anarchist in a New York taxi-driver’s leather cap. He had put all his cash toward bail and was now in the process of jumping it.
“I got to go back,” muttered Dick around a cut lip.
“What the fuck for?”
“Forget it. If I go back, they’ll have found out some stuff they didn’t take time to check, and I’ll be in the slammer. We’re taking you home.”
“The chick you were sleeping with.”
“I wasn’t …”
“Guess you didn’t notice her.”
“The goddamn things I do to get laid. Like that freaked-out circus back there. ‘Let’s make a statement before we leave,’ she said, and I was so hot to go on making her that there I was, out of my gourd, burning the flag and digging the scene all to hell.”
“You’re a draft dodger?”
“No, man. I’m no peacenik. I’m 4-F, legit. Nobody’s going to put Joe Franciosi into a chopper so’s he can get shot for Uncle Sam. Like, I’m for peace, but I’m no flower child. No way.”
The Microbus swung onto a main road and roared up to its noisy top speed.
“Where are we going?”
“Canada. I was on my way, but Beth wanted to make the protest scene just once before turning Canadian.”
“But I thought you said you weren’t drafted.”
“You don’t have to get your ass caught in a grinder to know how the damn thing works. It’s been going full bore ever since November 1963, and JFK wasn’t the first to die. I’ve seen too many people get screwed, and I figure there aren’t so many screwers up there in Canada. I’m bugging out to this little place in Nova Scotia where they don’t even lock their doors, for Christ’s sake. Freaked me right out when I saw it. A guy goes into a store, leaves his keys in the ignition, a case of beer on the seat of his truck, window down, and when he comes back, they’re all still there.”
“My home’s like that. Oxford, Ontario.”
“Far out. I’m from the Bronx. Shit, you don’t leave nothing valuable you can’t carry, and you lock your door three times — and that’s just against your relatives.”
Dick thought of his cousins in Oxford, and his stomach lurched.
“You don’t sound it. Beth! Get the food. We’ll stop. Dick’s been mixing it up with the local rednecks, and he needs food.”
A tousled blond head appeared between them, and greenish eyes were caught by the light of an oncoming car.
“Where are we?”
“Close to Ogdensburg.”
“Wanna blow a joint, Joe?”
“No way. Just leave the stash where I put it, and if you’ve got any yourself, stick it in with mine. You too, Dick.”
“Me? Oh. No. I don’t …”
Dick’s mind snapped back to a first-year lecture from the college medical officer on the inevitable progression from marijuana to heroin and on to inevitable, hopeless doom.
“We all got to look real straight at the border. You got ID?”
“Yes, a license, but …”
“Well, flash it real good, and they won’t look too close at us. You’re solid gold, Dick. You sound real Canadian.”
Dick shuddered. He recalled that smuggling drugs across the border could carry a sentence of seven years. Fine blond hair tickled his cheek, and a female voice spoke close to his ear.
“Say, Dick, forget what I said back at the rally. You were great. Really. I mean, you didn’t dig the peaceful protest bit, so you did your own thing.”
Dick turned his head. Her face was intimately close, her eyes catching the light from the dashboard, and when he looked down to avoid her gaze, he found himself staring past two or three undone buttons into the hollow between her breasts. In an embarrassed moment, he realized she had been the one he had tried to protect. Vibrantly feminine and unselfconsciously provocative, she looked at him from a distance of a hand span. His mind slowed.
“Nobody seemed to like it much.”
“I sure did,” said Joe. “You fuckin’ saved my life, man. I got three foot less intestines than most folks, and one kick in the belly could put me away. I could have been wasted by that hyena if it hadn’t been for you.”
He slowed the car near a bridge over a small stream and pulled well off the road before stopping. He cut the engine, and they were enveloped by country silence. Beth passed New York deli sandwiches. Joe flicked on the radio. An American voice sang about sunshine in his life.
“Steve’s too mellow,” said Joe, twirling the dial.
An English voice sang about a yellow submarine.
“Fuckin’ Ringo. Jive-ass shit. The asshole should stick to his drums.”
Dick studied Beth covertly by the dim glow of the Microbus’s overhead light. Green eyes glanced back at him. She smiled, and he blushed again, this time because the word that had just come into his mind was “bouncy.” She was not at all like the cool, slim girls in strapless gowns hemmed well below the knee with whom he had circumspectly waltzed and foxtrotted in his scarlet uniform at the annual Christmas Ball.
Trumpets in close harmony blared from the radio.
“That’s BS&T,” said Beth through a mouthful of sandwich. “What’s the name of the song, Joe?”
Joe listened, mouthing the words, then echoed the radio.
The word had an immediate effect upon Dick. The food he was eating sat in a cold lump in his stomach, and his abdomen clenched around it.
“Gotta go for a walk,” he mumbled, stepping out into the night.
He blundered down an embankment of rattling gravel and stood beside a stream where moonlight wavered on the water and frogs croaked a high-pitched spring chorus. Mosquitos puffed up from the grasses, but he ignored them.
It all seems such a waste, he mused bitterly. I survived the first year with all its chickenshit drill. I passed all my exams. The abuse from the upperclassmen is over. I have the second-fastest time ever on the assault course. I went to town with the guys and climbed back in through the dorm window. Then I had to go one stupid boast further and bet I could cross the border and bring back a can of US beer to prove it.
A car’s headlights flashed into his eyes. Behind him, in the still spring evening, the car radio spoke of the devil’s wisdom and the death of soldiers.
“Hey, Dick,” said Joe from above him on the bridge. “Takin’ a leek? Listen, stash this under the bridge, will ya? Toss it in the stream. Nobody looks under bridges.”
He dropped a .38 down to Dick, who caught it reflexively, his hand closing around the butt in the grip he had learned on the ranges.
“You need a piece in the city, just to wave. I never used it. But you gotta have something if you’re my size. Now I’m going to Canada and I don’t need it, right?”
Dick held the weapon at eye level and checked it in the moonlight according to the drill he had learned. The words of his instructor-sergeant tramped across his brain: “Check safety, check magazine, don’t point it at your buddy or your foot, hold it up and away, finger outside the trigger guard …”
“Say, Dick, Beth likes you. No shit. She digs what you did, even though she’s non-violent. Good, huh?” His voice dropped. “Listen, if you and her want to get it on, it’s OK with me. I’m not into the ownership-property trip. Anyway, you and me are brothers now you saved my life. So, you want to get in the back, and well … shit, you know. When you’re having a bad time, there ain’t nothing better for you.”
Dick stood looking at the .38 with the concentration of a monk in vigil before a crucifix. A deep sadness enveloped him, almost a caress in its blend of tension and the end of perplexity. He tasted his own sorrow and pushed aside Joe’s words as crass temptation above which he soared in an ecstatic purity of resolve. He saw in his mind’s eye the girls at the Christmas Ball, and he imagined Cathy-Ann, whom he had inexpertly kissed as they held hands and muttered fragments of promises too vague to be kept. He tried to subdue a quick throb of lust with chaste images of white dresses.
The solution to his disgrace beckoned. He clenched his fist on the .38 until his knuckles gleamed in the moonlight. A mosquito stung his nose. He thumbed off the safety catch and cocked the weapon with a gesture a part of his mind approved for its military precision. The metal gleamed, and the snub-nosed barrel stared at him like the black pit in the middle of an eyeball. The lights of a passing car slid along the weapon as he tipped it up to his slowly opening mouth. He felt the muscles of his wrist tense. He came to attention, took a deep breath, touched the muzzle to his lips and discovered to his dismay that he had a tremendous erection. Thinking that it too would soon be gone, triumphed over, never to trouble him again, he felt for the trigger.
Joe’s voice was calm, as if about to offer a coffee. Dick was momentarily distracted by curiosity. His hand shook.
“No way, Dick. That’s not you, man. You just don’t do that scene. You got more guts. It’s an easy out, and you don’t take easy outs. Listen, I know. I been there. When my mom kicked off, I was where you are now. If I can handle it, you can.”
As he was speaking, Joe edged closer, shuffling down the embankment until he stood beside Dick.
“Now listen to me, man. Take that cocksucker away from your mouth. ’Cause if you do it now, I’ll get your brains all over me, and I don’t dig messy scenes.”
Dick’s hand slowly reversed the process through which it had gone, and once again the .38 pointed skyward.
“Put it on safety, and give it to me.”
Joe’s voice hardened just enough to recall the drill sergeant. Dick uncocked and safetied. Joe took the weapon from his hand and, with a quick swing of his arm, threw it under the bridge. The splash as it hit the water came at the same moment a huge sob erupted from Dick. He slumped forward toward the stream.
Joe’s arms were sinewy around his chest as they fell sideways together onto the damp grass. Huge, muscle-wracking spasms shook Dick’s body.
“You Jesus motherfucker,” whispered Joe softly. “You crazy-ass sonofabitch,” he crooned as Dick heaved up the sandwich he had eaten. “Listen, you asshole,” said Joe as if he were praying. “You saved me, and you got no fuckin’ choice except for me to save you.”
Except for when he had been tackled on a football field, Dick had never been held by a man before. Appalled, he struggled to his feet, panting as if he had been running. A hysterical laugh warred with another spasm, and a high-pitched giggle came out of his throat. Joe looked at him as he stood swaying in the moonlight, and he chuckled.
Suddenly they were both rushing up the embankment, shouting with laughter. Arms around each other’s shoulders like drunks, they wove their way back to the Microbus, shrieking and whooping. They piled in, still howling and pounding each other’s shoulders.
“Can we go now?” asked Beth. “These mosquitos are the end. The absolute living end.”
The Microbus roared into action, the radio blaring Credence Clearwater Revival. Dick imagined the .38 settling rolling on the river, sinking into the mud. He shuddered.