Vietnam Stories: The education of a young Vietnam protester

  • Anti-war demonstrators gather on the Ellipse in Washington on May 9, 1970. AP

For the Monitor
Saturday, December 02, 2017

On a cold mid-December evening in 1969, I lay on my bed in the attic of my grandfather, a place my family had moved after my Dad’s first and only independent business venture had failed.

I had just turned 19 two months before, a senior in high school, healthy, athletic, maybe not too smart and prime fodder for the U.S. military’s draft. There, in my room, alone with peace and anti-Vietnam War posters on the walls, I listened to the Selective Service’s draft number lottery.

My attitude at the time was, “If I’m called, I’ll go and serve my country.” The male voice in the radio called out birthdays. Mine wasn’t first or second or 100th. “Number 220,” the radio said, “October 10th!”

There it was, my draft eligibility number.

In the spring of that next year, 1970, construction workers were bashing the heads of anti-war protesters, four killed at Kent State University and two killed at Jackson State College. I was sure the “revolution” had started.

I was involved in, and primary organizer of, a protest at my upper-middle-class, politically conservative high school. Our demands were: One, to fly the American flag at half staff as long as the killing in the war went on; two, have one day of no classes to create time for open discussion on the war; three, that was a long time ago and I don’t remember No. 3.

On the appointed day, I arrived at school wearing an old white World War II Civil Defense helmet of my grandfather’s, riding my sister’s banana-seat, monkey-handlebar bicycle. We, about 20 student protesters, headed from the bus drop-off main entrance to the side of the school where the flagpole stood. There we met my lacrosse team and coach, all with their lacrosse sticks in hand, ready to protect the flag and maybe, if we tried to lower the flag, to bash our heads in. Maybe I wasn’t so dumb – I had a helmet on.

Some college students from nearby Hofstra coming back from their protest of sitting and stopping traffic on the Long Island Expressway joined us. The principal, Mr. Thompson, arrived to establish order and rules. The college students were not permitted on high school grounds, and the high school students would be in trouble if they did not get to class.

We protesters moved off school property across a road to a small grassy traffic island. Now we high schoolers are not in class and off school grounds. Mr. Thompson was a personal friend of my parents and had been to our house for dinner several times. And, since my family had moved to California for a new job my Dad had taken, I stayed to finish the year, which Mr. Thompson knew. He threatened to kick me out of school.

An agreement was made. There would be an open discussion for the whole school. The 20 or so high school protesters marched across the road and into the 1,000-seat auditorium where five or six teachers and administrators were. One or two of the protesters had gotten up on stage to speak when I noticed faces of students in all the auditorium door windows. The rest of the student body had been locked out or we had been locked in. A wave of fear, panic and betrayal overcame me.

The agreement had been that these discussions were to be open to all the students. I freaked.

In a moment of clarity, I jumped up on stage, barked out that the students had been locked out, a breach of the agreement we had made with Mr. Thompson. I’m sure I yelled out a few more words of distress and betrayal. I then turned and walked calmly backstage and down a hallway I had used many times, being involved with stage set-up for school plays, and out a door. A “door” through which came great relief, freedom and a commitment to never get myself into a trap like that ever again.

That was the end of my outward public protest of the Vietnam War. That year of 1970, my draft board got up to number 180 and after that, the war started to wind down.

I never had to make the decision to serve in the military or seek an alternative.

(Geoff Hubbell lives in Canterbury.)