Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Cruelty of Hope

In 1968, this was a happy day. There weren't many that year. But the night before, on March 31, President Johnson ended a TV address with the words we thought we would never hear, "I will not seek, and I will not accept" the Democratic nomination for reelection to the presidency.

I watched it on the nearest TV set, which was several doors down First Street in Galesburg, Illinois, at the home of my writing professor (who was married, with two young daughters, and not more than 5 years older than me.) It was literally shocking, the kind of statement that displaces time: you feel you started to hear the words before he said them, and then afterwards you can't believe that he actually said them.

LBJ was stubbornly expanding and prosecuting the Vietnam War, and the demonstrations that were growing in size and emotion routinely included the chant, "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" But now, in an instant, he was not going to be there, and the only two declared Democratic candidates were running to end the war: Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. We were really going to end the war!

Of course, I knew that in some ways it wasn't going to be soon enough for me. I'd already had my pre-induction draft physical, and despite total deafness in one ear, and to the complete shock of several sets of draft counsellors I saw in Chicago, I'd passed. (They were already telling me about how to appeal.) I was a senior in college, and in a few months, my student deferment would end, and with draft calls still very high, I'd probably be drafted. I still hadn't decided what to do, except I knew what I wasn't going to do--I wasn't going to kill any Vietnamese. There was a lot of talk about options, but in the end no one else could really understand this decision--not parents or teachers, friends or certainly girlfriends. You were alone on this one.

But that was a couple of months away at least. I was about to direct a play I'd written, with its own statement about all this, and after that I could probably tie up the draft process long enough to somehow work for Robert Kennedy's campaign. And it was April--spring was short but intensely beautiful in Galesburg--and the barrier of LBJ was gone.

There'd been dancing in the streets on campuses across America the night before. There hadn't been anything that public on our small campus, but we'd probably celebrated enough to be seeing the first April morning through a slight fuzz. There was hope now-- the war might end, and that immense burden on every single hour of every day.

April 1--April Fool's Day. Before the month was out, Martin Luther King would be assassinated, and hardly more than a month after that, I would spend my graduation day watching Robert Kennedy's funeral. Then would come the hot shambles of the Chicago convention, Humphrey, Nixon and more war--much more war. "April is the cruelest month," T.S. Eliot wrote, as we students of literature well knew.

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