Ticket to Ride
So let us not talk falsely now the hour is getting late
It was quite a summer for news. President Lyndon Johnson’s effigy was burned on eight different campuses because of the escalating Vietnam war; the number of men drafted per month doubled to 35,000; Medicare was established; Mariner 4 sent back our first pictures of Mars; people who liked folk music were still mad at Bob Dylan for going electric; and for the first and only time, Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News mentioned our little town of Black River Falls, Iowa.
The story dealt with a rather befuddled police chief named Clifford Sykes, Jr., who had joined forces with an equally befuddled local minister, H. Dobson Cartwright, to rid our town of sin by putting all the high school-age boys with long hair in jail. They would be released only when they signed a “contract” guaranteeing that they would get their hair cut within twenty-four hours. Cartwright was of the opinion that the Beatles were instruments of Satan and that long hair on boys was a sign that they had handed their souls over to the Prince of Darkness himself.
It was hard to tell who resented the arrest decree more, the boys or their parents. The CBS story focused on the near-riot that occurred in front of the new police station on the night of July 23 when at least three hundred parents and their long-haired offspring demanded the badge of the aforementioned Clifford Sykes, Jr.
Also present were representatives of the state attorney general, the ACLU, and three members of LEGALIZE POT NOW! The assistant attorney general and the woman from the ACLU addressed the crowd and said that their boys had nothing to fear, that what the police chief and the minister advocated was clearly unconstitutional, and that whoever was hurling rocks at the police station should cease and desist. The three scruffy teenagers with the marijuana organization just watched the proceedings with very glassy eyes.
Now if you were working for the Chamber of Commerce and were trying to attract business to Black River Falls, this was not exactly the kind of story you wanted publicized. The sheriff was clearly a rube and the reverend a crackpot. Walter Cronkite, usually the most proper of men, couldn’t resist a wry smile just before he said goodnight.
That was the amusing part of the summer.
The less amusing part had to do with the doubled draft numbers. Our little town had already lost four men in Vietnam over the past two years. While the majority of folks never questioned what the government did-I suspect it’s that way in most countries-there were some of us who had a whole hell of a lot of questions about why we were there.
And we decided it was time to ask those questions in a public way.
B Y THE TIME THE FIGHT STARTED, I WAS ALL SPEECHED OUT. Even though I was against the war in Vietnam, an hour and a half of listening to the same arguments had turned principle into monotony. The irony was that I was one of the rally organizers.
“How come you keep sighing?” Molly Weaver whispered. “Pay attention.”
In a previous life, the newest addition to the Black River Falls Clarion had likely been a nun of nasty disposition. We’d been struggling through a relationship for the past two months, both of us trying to recover from being dumped by people without the wisdom to love us and love us utterly. With her dark hair, slender form, bright blue eyes, and quick deft smile, Molly gave the impression of what my father would call “a gal who just likes to have fun.” But Molly’s fetching looks were misleading. She was like dating a character from an Ibsen play.
Tonight’s date had taken us to a small rally on the back steps of the Presbyterian church. There were maybe thirty people sweating it out in the eighty-five-degree dusk. Three speakers had preceded the present one. They were as sweaty as rock singers after an hour on stage. But they were only opening acts for the star.
I suppose I had to consider the possibility that I disliked Harrison Doran because I was jealous of him. For one thing, he was not stuck on the lower floors of life’s elevator. He was six-two to my five-six. He had also, though not necessarily in this order, appeared on stage with his good friend Joan Baez at her anti-war concert; spoken at the demonstration in Washington, D.C., in front of 25,000 people; and shared a radio interview with his close friend Norman Mailer. Doran was also due, at age twenty-five, to inherit somewhere in the vicinity of ten million dollars from his father. He had become a star in our little community. Girls trailed him everywhere.
So why would I be jealous? Me? Sam McCain?
The people in the front row held lighted candles in the vermilion moments before full darkness; the people in the second row held bobbing signs.
With his long blond locks and beard and his quarterback size, Doran did have a certain theatrical style, the kind of cavalier who also had a doctorate from Yale. Oh, yes, the town ladies loved him, though after a month of being dazzled some of them were starting to find his narcissism overwhelming. Not Molly. Molly had once dragged me to a dinner in his honor and we’d had the misfortune of sitting near him. I should say I had the misfortune. Molly was transfixed. That she had a crush on him was easy to see.
The speech droned on. I was thinking about the double feature at the drive-in, two Hammer films both with Peter Cushing. They’d be starting in half an hour. I was hoping we’d be there in time. I hated being late to a movie and as much as I was against the war, She and The Evil of Frankenstein sounded a lot better than sweating it out here.
He was just there suddenly, Lou Bennett, or as he prefers to be called, Colonel Lou Bennett. It was a sneak attack. The crowd had been listening to Doran, not paying attention to the fact that a form even darker than the shadows was moving to the top of the concrete steps where a stand-up microphone had been placed.
Bennett wasn’t threatening at first. He just walked over to Doran and stood next to him, a rangy, gray-haired muscular man in a blue golf shirt and chinos. You could feel how the crowd seized up when they saw him. After glancing at the retired Army man, Doran tried to keep talking but quickly gave it up. “Is there something I can do for you, Colonel?”
“Yes, there is, Mr. Doran. I’d like you to give me the opportunity to rebut what you’re saying. I think the people need to hear the other side.”
Stray boos came now. There was going to be a confrontation. When my stomach knots a certain way, it’s never wrong.
“We hear your side of the story everywhere we go,” Doran snapped. “You’ve got the whole government and the whole news media behind you.”
“That’s because they know the truth.” Only now was Bennett’s voice getting tight.
“This is a bogus war, Colonel. I don’t want innocent children murdered in my name.” Everybody started clapping and yelling approval. Hell, even I did. “Now I’d appreciate it if you’d leave and let me finish my speech.”
That was when Bennett shoved Doran aside and grabbed the microphone. “My son Bryce gave his life in Vietnam last year and you people are trampling on his grave.”
And there it was. The unspoken had now been spoken. The death of his son in a far alien place called Da Nang. All over the country this rage and hatred was causing rifts between friends and even family members. Bennett felt the rage and hatred because of his son; we felt it because of the slaughter on both sides and the folly of the whole goddamned thing. Another war. A good share of the country seemed to need one from time to time. There was no other way to explain how easily they could be led into it. And we knew damned well, it would keep