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.
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.”
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.