BY NT FRANKLIN
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS balmy and clear skies, a picture-perfect day in May. A beautiful day for a protest. Monte was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and bell bottoms, like most of the participants. The antiwar protests were increasing across the country, and Maine was no different. Throngs of long-haired youth, male and female, held signs protesting the Vietnam war. The protest was in front of the police station in defiance of the no march order. Monte was on the front line. He was alive!
They’re coming out in riot gear,” called one protester.
And the police did come out. And fired a couple tear gas canisters at the gathering. A woman kicked one back at the police line. This caused the police to raise their shields and march forward.
“Pigs!” the mob shouted.
His eyes burned and his throat burned. At least he wasn’t coughing and gagging like those on the other end of the mob. Some protesters were scuffling with the police, which escalated the violence. Monte raised his protest sign like a club. Two officers grabbed him. Another one punched him in the stomach and head and a foot to the back of his knees dropped him. A knee pushing on his spine immobilized him. The officer’s command of “Don’t move” wasn’t needed. Monte, along with dozens of others, were carried or dragged into the police station, and arrested and booked.
In jail, a fellow protester chatted Monte up. “Hey guys, Monte here is a first-timer! And it’s his birthday!”
Clapping and cheers broke out.
“Bring the kid to the front so he can get released first.”
Monte knew he had done the right thing.
His mother had no idea Monte had skipped school that day to join the protest movement. She was rather surprised to receive a call from the police station to come pick him up.
“Your father is going to lose it, Monte. What on earth possessed you to do such a thing. Arrested! Protesting! You’re in high school, for God’s sake.”
“The war is illegal and immoral. People need to speak out.”
She pulled into the driveway and looked at him. “Monte, you stay in your room until I can speak with your father. I’ll try to explain the situation and calm him down.”
“Mom, you don’t have to do this. I’m 18, an adult, I’m responsible for my actions.”
“Yes, but this, I have to do, she said. “Your father won a silver cross, his father won a Silver Star. Military service has always been important for him. You protesting the war will set him off.”
Monte watched out his bedroom window. It wasn’t long before a brand new 1970 Gran Torino with Grabber Blue paint pulled into the driveway. It was less than one month old, and his dad’s latest favorite possession.
Sam got out, took a step back to admire the vehicle, and softly shut the door.
Inside the house, he was greeted with “Sit down, Sam. I have some news for you to digest.”
“My car’s okay, the house is here, how bad can it be?”
“Monte was arrested today.”
“Christ. What has that idiot done? I wouldn’t have posted his bail. A couple days in jail might do him some good. How much was his bail?”
She wrung her hands at the Formica table. “The Freedom Brigade posted his bail, along with dozens of other protesters.”
“Who the hell is the Freedom Brigade?”
It was at that time, Monte chose to come out of his room. “They are a group against the war in Vietnam and they bail out protesters that are arrested,” Monte said.
Sam stared at Monte. There was an eerie silence that lasted ten seconds. About nine seconds too long for Monte.
Sam rose from the table and pushed the chair back in. “Marilyn, go to the bedroom and shut the door.”
Her hands were shaking, but she stayed at the table. “Sam, calm down, don’t do something you’ll regret.”
My dad went six one and was pretty much square. His marine haircut didn’t soften his look. He surprised me with his quickness and had a big hand around my throat. He lifted me off the ground a couple inches and held me there until I started to lose consciousness, to the point my mother’s screams were fading.
He let go of me to face my mother and I collapsed onto the floor in a heap, gasping for air.
“Marilyn, go to the bedroom and shut the door. He’s going to be fine.”
That time she did.
I started to get up and a foot crashed into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. The impact bounced my head against the wall and I threw up.
“Big man now, huh?”
I couldn’t move.
He stood over me, glaring down. “Clean that mess up and get out of my house. Don’t you ever set foot back here, or I will kill you.”
“I’ll wait for your apology before I set foot back here,” I said.
My dad retreated to the bedroom and shut the door.
I regained my breath in twenty minutes and cleaned up the floor so my mother didn’t have to, all the while hearing her crying in their bedroom.
Not knowing where to go, I went to my Aunt Martha’s house. She was the family favorite and youngest of the four girls, my mom being the oldest. Besides, her daughter Amy was my best friend.
Monday in school, my younger brother, Sam, Jr., asked me what happened because Mom and Dad wouldn’t tell him anything. He wasn’t impressed when I laid the details out. His crew cut and build made him look like a small version of Dad. When he spat on the floor next to me, I knew I’d lost my brother that day. Home, parents, and now brother, my life completely changed in a matter of a couple days.
Finishing the last month of high school from Aunt Martha’s house wasn’t that bad. My Mom visited the first week and she said I’ll be able to come home soon. I was sure it wouldn’t happen. She didn’t cry as she left. I tried not to.
Living at Aunt Martha’s house, I grew closer to Amy, made a new group of friends, things went well. That was, until I registered for the draft, as required. Late, but I did register. Draft numbers were by birthday; when the lottery came out, my number was three. Automatic draft. Aunt Martha suggested I enlist so I could choose what to be trained in. Amy suggested I not enlist if I didn’t want to.
The Vietnam war was against everything I believed in. It was wrong. At least Amy thought so, too. My new group of friends agreed with Amy. None of us wanted to be drafted into a war we didn’t believe in. That pretty much was the discussion among the four of us in Benny’s apartment one afternoon.
“Good weed,” I said, breaking a long silence. But everyone was deep in thought.
The three others just nodded. The silence continued when Gordon Lightfoot’s song, Sit Down Young Stranger played on the radio. The deep baritone voice was mesmerizing and the lyrics resonated with the four of us. The song was a welcoming message to Americans wanting to avoid the Vietnam War.
Benny, the one we looked to for leadership, suggested an alternate plan to enlisting. The following weeks were a blur of plans and arrangements. Always at Benny’s place, away from prying eyes.
The second week in August, I told Amy I was going to the Creedence Clearwater Revival Concert in Philadelphia with friends. We all agreed that we would tell no one the truth. I mailed a letter to Amy on the way out of town.
We loaded into Benny’s van and entered Canada at St. Leonard, New Brunswick. Immigration officials at the Canadian border did not ask about military status if immigrants showed up seeking permanent residence. We made our way to Toronto that day. With help from the Toronto Anti-Draft Program, we became settled and obtained legal status in Canada. That was 22 years ago.
I enrolled in college while the other three became involved with local protests. We quickly drifted apart. In school, it was clear that that I inherited my mother’s penchant for numbers. I blazed through accounting courses with the top scores. A crappy job and student loans got me through the first two years. I wasn’t the only recent US immigrant. After the first year, no one even asked or cared. Scholarships and the same crappy job got me through the next two years. Even before graduation, I had four job offers.
Two years after I’d left, Sam, Jr. enlisted and was killed in action the first week he was on the ground in Southeast Asia. I could not return to the US to attend his funeral. Amy wrote that it was as though the rest of my Mom died that day and didn’t think she would ever recover from the loss. I was never sure how much of it was me not attending.
President Carter signed the Amnesty Bill in 1977, welcoming home draft dodgers. Shortly after that, Amy wrote that my Mom no longer asked when I was coming home and it probably would be best if I didn’t come home. It seems that my father blamed me for Sam, Jr.’s death and had taken to drinking. He was becoming violent all too regularly. So far, it cost him his job. Nothing I wanted to deal with. In Toronto, my life was going well. A successful senior accountant, I was more than comfortable. Canada was home.
Twenty-two years later, Monte was still not one of Vietnam-era immigrants that returned to the U.S. after 1977. The closest he came was when he went to the Blue Jay’s home games when the Red Sox were in town. That was enough for him. Then Amy called.
“Monte, I have bad news,” Amy started. “Your mother died yesterday in an auto accident.”
Monte sat on his couch. “What happened?”
“Your father was eight sheets to the wind and passed out while driving the car. Once he woke up, he walked away with only a bump on the shoulder. Your mother bled out in the car while he was passed out, according to the report.”
“Are you still there?”
“Yes,” came the soft response.
“He’s already out of jail,” Amy said.
“The graveside service is scheduled for Sunday morning. You need to know that your mother told me that she didn’t want you to come to her funeral. Just thought you should know that. Didn’t say why, just said it to Mom and me last week.”
“Thanks for letting me know, Amy. All my best to Aunt Martha.”
Monte sat at a table in his loft and poured a tall glass of single malt. It was going to be long night. He needed to reflect on how his decisions had affected people that were, at one time, close to him. He had a lot to think about.