Grief is a sacred journey

Make Love Not War: 1967

Elaine and Vic dancing 1967

Elaine and Vic dancing 1967

I lean into Vic, tucking my shoulder under his arm. Feeling me tremble, he unzips his jacket and wraps it around both of us. I’d rather be in bed, pressed against his naked body, but instead I’m shivering in the March wind.

We’re near Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY. It’s March 25, 1967, Easter Sunday morning, and we’re protesting the war in Vietnam with a group of Quakers. Last night, we ate small bowls of white rice and green tea, Vietnamese poverty style, in the basement of a nearby Unitarian Church. Fifty people gathered in a circle of folding chairs to plan strategy and receive working orders.

“Stay with the group,” we were instructed. “Do not respond to violent actions or words, be respectful, keep a peaceful mind. You are witnessing for the suffering in Vietnam.”

Somehow, in that circle of eager inspired faces, Vic and I agree to be two of the ten protesters to carry medical supplies for both South and North Vietnam across the Peace Bridge. It’s a humanitarian gesture, although our government accuses us of aiding the enemy.

Peace Bridge (Wikipedia)

Peace Bridge (Wikipedia)

Now, it’s 4 A.M. We stand in a park near the bridge entrance with other protesters, silent, holding our signs, and witnessing. My toes are ice cubes, and the bitter wind burns my face and numbs my thighs. My body aches for sleep. Young men scream obscenities at us out car windows. Why aren’t they home in bed? A battered car swerves up on the sidewalk toward us, but then swerves back onto the road. We silently hold our ground. A guy in the passenger seat rolls down his window and screams, “Love it or leave it.” The driver hits the accelerator and the wheels screech, leaving the stench of burned rubber.

When the cold night breaks into a gray comfortless dawn, we hurry back to the church basement for steaming tea. A woman hands me a blanket. Moving close to Vic, I drape the blanket over our shoulders. This will be all right, I tell myself. It has to be all right.

At 9 A.M., one hundred protesters congregate on the United States side of Peace Bridge and move forward silently, close together. Many carry anti-war signs. Vic and I carry cardboard shoe boxes filled with gauze bandages and wrapped in brown manila paper. Bandages: value $1.00, we had written on the yellow customs paper. Destination: Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon. Near the customs booth, most of the marchers stop while those with boxes continue forward, silent and orderly, following the Quaker leader. Police surround us. How did I get here, herded by men with cold eyes and loaded pistols? The cops funnel us into a small room.

“What do you have to declare?” the uniformed customs officer demands, taking his part in this drama seriously.

“Medical supplies, sir,” we say, handing over our customs forms, “for South and North Vietnam.”

“Sit down over there,” he orders, pointing toward a small waiting area at one end of the room. “You are being detained.”

New York City Anti-war Protest 1967

New York City Vietnam War Protest, 1967

My heart pounds with fear, but the Quakers are calm, even serene. We sit on hard benches for one hour, for two hours. There are whispered negotiations between the customs officers, the police, and the Quaker leader. I fret over the secret decisions being made by men who do not care what happens to me. I will be OK as long as they let me be in the same jail cell as Vic, but I know I will not be in the same cell as Vic. Please, don’t let them arrest us, I plead to some distant deity who is unlikely to intervene. I’m only 21. I don’t want to go jail. Let me lie naked in a clean bed tonight, pressed against Vic’s warmth. Please God, let us go home.

We sit until mid-afternoon, scared, hungry, and exhausted. Then, without explanation, the Quaker leader tells us to follow him. We silently walk to the Canadian side of Peace Bridge, hand our packages to the Canadian Quakers who wait there, and walk back to the US side of the border. The police have disappeared, along with the tension.

Someone decided that our symbolic act of civil disobedience isn’t worth a hassle. Larger protests brew like the marches in New York City on April 15 and at the Pentagon in October. The United States government has bigger fish to fry.

***

Have you been involved with political protests? Follow this link for more posts about ecological and political action. An earlier version of this article was posted in August 2012, but with battle cries in the air, it feels important to post it again.

10 Comments
  1. Beautifully written, Elaine. It definitely jives with the vibes of war in the air today. It’s been a long time since I took part in protests. It was a big part of my life in the sixties. It may be time to march with signs again soon.
    Cheers!

    • Recently, I march with “Save Seneca Lake” and “No Fracking” signs, but they’re beating the war drums in Congress. Seems like we can only cause more devastation, but all god’s critters love to fight. Vic was my protest buddy, so I miss that part of our relationship. I was never arrested, although there were a few close calls.

  2. Elaine,

    I wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on back then when it came to peace marches and war protestors. But now I am an adult with a son who is active duty Army. His roommate from Officers Candidate School was KIA on May 23, 2012 in Afghanistan. (IED)

    I hate war. I hate violence. I loved that you and Vic stood your ground for peace. My heart raced as I read your essay…I could feel your fear, your uncertainty.

    Thank you for this. I will share.

    Kathleen

    • Thank you, Kathleen. I wonder about all the members in congress who send soldiers into harms way for poor reasons. It’s alarming to learn how few Congress members and how few of their children have been enlisted soldiers, so they don’t take the personal risk as your son does. If we could solve problems by doing more bombing in the Middle East, it would have happened by now, but it’s a worse quagmire than Vietnam. So I fret and remember that somehow or other a country mobilized in the 1960s to say “No more war.” Not sure if this will happen now. There’s lots of money and energy interests in making war. I have other friends whose children seek the hero’s journey of soldiering. We need them, but they need to trust they are under fire for good reasons and will be supported when they return home. Thanks for sharing my piece, Kathleen.

  3. I’m trying to understand why this post has me weeping. How our misguided hyper-masculine war-and-profit culture destroys everything that gets in its way, certainly that. My personal memories of you and Vic, of course; that runs through all of your posts. And most poignantly and powerfully, the beauty and love and courage and strength in the young woman who, trembling with fear and cold, marches anyway. To recognize the power of that light to shine in the darkness, carrying out its ageless agenda to succor and comfort and heal, that’s it.

    • Dear Fred, I was afraid at all the marches, but marched anyway. There was much support for our actions on the Cornell campus and Vic was at my side. A group called EarthVigil is now doing sitting meditation once a week outside the gates at the gas industry site on Seneca Lake. I hope to join them next week. What can we do as our world is threatened by profit seekers on so many fronts? Thank you for letting me know your feelings about this piece. It moves me, too, because this brave and afraid young girl surfaces again in me. I love and need her.

  4. Elaine, I bumped into this blog post about anti-war protest in 1967. I was involved in NYC when MLK marched to the UN. Your description is strong. I am writing my memoir about that year 66-67 when I was 17-18 years old. those times made a deep impression. glad you are still holding witness to it. Noticed you work in nutrition also, as I do – kindred spirit. Take care, Namaste

    • Hi Janet. I was 22 i 1967. Values haven’t changed. I’m still against the war machine, but now focus on keeping fracking out of NY State and LP gas storage away from our beautiful and clean Seneca Lake. Gas industry is another destructive firce. I’m a nutritionist, but since my husband’s death, I focus on writing and bereavement work. I include nutrition and exercise in my hospice bereavement support groups–self-care helps women finding their way after a tough loss. Yes, kindred spirits. Thanks for making contact and taking time to write a note. Namaste

  5. Make love not war indeed. I have a friend who was a Christian Brother who has an FBI file because of his community organizing efforts in that era and his connection with the Milwaukee 14, who, like the Catonsville 9, burned draft records. (What would we burn now, the Internet?) I’m glad you got to make love instead of going to jail. The idea would petrify me too. I’ve seen too many women’s prison movies. And I look horrid in orange.

    • Paula, I was good at staying just this side of arrest through my years of underage beer drinking in college, anti-Vietnam War work and demonstrations, and more recent environmental protest. (My brother ended up in jail for a week in CA around 1967 in a huge group pen with the protest party of 100 people, led by Joan Baez and her husband. My brother had stories to tell and songs to sing, but he hated being locked up and knew he would never go to jail again.) What would we burn now? Good question. The focus seems to be on incendiary words.

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