By Ed Staskus
The year my class graduated from St Joseph’s High School was the high point of the Vietnam War. It was the low point of the American War, which was what the North Vietnamese called it. It was 1968, the year nearly 600,000 American troops were fighting Victor Charlie up and down the country and the year 80,000 Victor Charlies struck back during the Tet Offensive. They hoped to ignite a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. During the month-long battle for the city of Hue, the city was destroyed.
In 1964, nine years after the start of the Cold War-era undeclared proxy war, it got roaring with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Just ten-some years since the end of the Korean War, the United States military began bleeding back into Asia in force. By the time the war ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 servicemen lost their lives, along with 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, as well as a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians.
There was no use trying to count the maimed fractured shrapnel-scarred napalmed and dismembered. Eight million tons of bombs, two-and-a-half times as much as was dropped on Europe from 1940 to 1945, was dropped by the US Air Force. Who knows who was down there?
I didn’t know the Gulf of Tonkin from the man in the moon the summer before my freshman year. I barely knew anything about the Vietnam War. I had a vague idea where Vietnam was, which was somewhere near China. I had never heard of the domino theory or the idea of dying for it. Four years later I knew more, although sometimes it did me more harm than good. I knew enough to stay away from the dean’s office and the kind of trouble officialdom could bring to bear, which was at least something.
Many of my friends at St. Joe’s, on the east side of Cleveland, were Lithuanian Americans. The neighborhood was crawling with us. We were all Roman Catholic and the school was Roman Catholic, within walking distance for most of us.
We were taught math history religion science civics and English. There were vocational classes and there was an honors program. The football team was big and bad, playing for titles. We were taught to be good Catholics and good citizens, God and country.
None of us worried about the Vietnam War as freshmen and sophomores. We had other things to worry about, like getting to the next class on time, homework, pep rallies and school assemblies, dances in the gym, our status and looks, part-time jobs, outside activities, and summer vacation. The greasers had cars and we could only look on enviously. The jocks had good looks and never mind getting a good look at their girlfriends. The smarty pants had brains and were looking towards the future.
It changed fast our junior and senior years. President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1967 was bleak. It was bad no matter if you were the parent of a draft-age young man or if you were the young man.
“I recommend to the Congress a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, to last for 2 years or for so long as the unusual expenditures associated with our efforts in Vietnam continue. I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony,” he said.
Nobody liked the cost part. He proposed a record-breaking $135 billion-dollar federal government budget. My father, an accountant, was shocked. I didn’t know how to count that high and kept quiet. I didn’t like the agony part.
Our last two years in high school, nobody wanted to not be going to college. A student deferment wasn’t a sure thing, but it was better than nothing. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered the country’s young men to get up stand up and fight. It didn’t matter that twenty-five years earlier LBJ had largely avoided WW2. What mattered was what he said now.
Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, ordered draft boards to stop granting deferments so that more men would have to join up. College students found themselves being reclassified. When the Selective Service Qualifying Test came into play for everyone who wanted to keep their deferments, students took to the streets. The next year “Hershey’s Directives” ordered draft board to punish anyone who protested against the Vietnam War.
After that the shit hit the fan until the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.
The year after we graduated was the year the Selective Service started drawing lottery numbers determining who would or would not be drafted. The drawing was televised live. Everybody aged 19 to 26 stayed glued to the tube. If you were born on September 14th, your number was number one and you were going to be drafted the next day, or sooner. If you were born on March 14th, like me, your number was 354 and you weren’t going to be drafted and weren’t going anywhere more dangerous than your own backyard. No Victor Charlies were going to be firing 1,800 MPH lead-filled dominoes at you in dozing your hammock.
I was dismayed when I found out the lottery in 1969 didn’t apply to me. I entered high school early and wasn’t quite 19 years old. I would have to wait a year. I was worried that lightning might not strike twice. Was it possible to replicate the luck of a number like 354 out of 365?
Two of my friends, John Degutis and Algis Karsokas, were shipped to Vietnam as riflemen for tours of duty fighting Commies in God-forsaken jungles. They didn’t know what they were getting into until they got there. When they came back, they weren’t the same. Another one of my friends, John Skardis, a National Honor Society student, enrolled in Columbia University and joined Students for a Democratic Society, later splintering off into the radical Weathermen, and then the even more extremist bomb-throwing Weather Underground. If he ever came back from the anarchist trenches to Cleveland it was under lock and key. He thought he knew the plan for fighting the man, but he was wrong.
When Mark Rudd, a national leader of the Weathermen, snuck into Cleveland for a February 1970 meeting with the local boys and girls, he said they were going underground for “strategic sabotage against all symbols of authority” according to an informer.
He called for urban guerilla warfare.
From 1965 to 1972, 150,000-and-more men of draft age lived in Cleveland and within surrounding Cuyahoga County. About 60,000 of them served in the military, many of whom enlisted, the others drafted. More than 90,000 never served in the armed forces. Nearly 4,000 of them were draft dodgers and the rest deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service. Of those who served 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 were stationed in Vietnam but saw no fighting, and some 10,000 experienced combat. 427 of them were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.
The odds weren’t bad, but who wants to roll snake eyes in the crap game of a meaningless war?
Kent State happened in May 1970. The spring quarter was coming to an end. Warm weather was busting out all over and everybody wanted to be out in the sun. Some three hundred students were protesting the war when Jim Rhodes, the four-term “Get It Done” governor, had enough and ordered the Ohio National Guard to put down the fanfare. When they had enough, they started shooting. Four students were killed and nine wounded.
Before the shooting the Tower of Rhodes said the squawkers were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” After the shooting he said, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.”
The bloodshed turned the mess into a place on the map busting out across the country. Crosby Stills Nash & Young wrote a song about it.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
We’re finally on our own,
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.”
Gerald Casale, who later became lead singer and bassist for the rock band Devo, was there.
“All I can tell you is that it completely changed my life. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. I was a hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles on two people I knew. We were all running our asses off from those motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition, none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running away from them. I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”
The shootings ignited outrage on campuses around the country. More than 4 million students participated in walk outs at hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities. It was the largest student strike in the history of the United States. Everything at Cleveland State University, where I was a student, stopped dead in its tracks. Kent State University was 30-some miles southeast of our downtown campus.
We all thought it was a horrible thing. Everybody knew Kent State was a chill campus, and even though somebody had burned down the ROTC building the night before, the demonstration was restrained as far as riots go. Coarse words and billy clubs would have done the trick.
I was shocked the next week when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students, 11% blamed the National Guard, and 31% expressed no opinion. I was surprised that one of three people didn’t know what to think about it. Many people confuse feeling with thinking. Didn’t they even feel bad about what happened?
The tabloids sided with the soldiers, but the national press didn’t agree.
“The National Guard insisted that their men fired as they were about to be overrun by the students. But if the troops were so closely surrounded, how was it that nobody closer than 75 feet away was hit? And if the rocks and bricks presented such overwhelming danger, how did the troops avoid even one injury serious enough to require hospital treatment?” wrote Newsweek magazine.
The average distance from the soldiers to those killed and wounded was the length of a football field. It was a turkey shoot, especially since the students didn’t have two derringers to rub together. In the end, none of the triggermen took the dead undergraduates home for their roasting pans, turkey shoot or not.
“It took 13 terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation,” wrote Time magazine.
Less than a week after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and the killing of unarmed if unruly students.
“The city was an armed camp. Mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. That was the student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter from 1969 to 1974.
President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David for two days for his own protection.
John Skardis went on the run after he and a gang of Weathermen rampaged through a new indoor mall in Cleveland Heights, smashing plate glass windows and terrorizing mid-day shoppers. He was arrested but after his parents made bail for him, fled the state. The FBI got involved, naming him a Federal fugitive charged with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution.
“Attended Columbia University in 1968 and 1969 and was involved in student disorders. Joined the revolutionary Weatherman group and took part in several violent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago and Ohio. Entered the Weather Underground in early 1970. He has used the alias Jonas Rytis Skardis,” said the dryly worded wanted man poster.
In 1975 he was named by United States Senate investigators as one of 37 members of the Weather Underground who the FBI were still looking for after 19 politically motivated bombings since 1970. The year before the group had managed to plant a bomb in the State Department building in Washington. Although they avoided blowing people up, they scared the hell out of a lot of people in power suits.
When John Skardis and a companion surrendered the following year, they had been traveling for many months in several European countries under U.S. passports issued in false names on false ID’s. After he was extradited, he disappeared down the rabbit hole.
Although I went to an anti-war demonstration on Public Square, I avoided the clouds of tear gas and confrontations with the Cleveland Police Department, especially the cops on horseback. I bided my time until next December and the next Selective Service drawing. When the time came, I found my hopes for another draft-defying lottery number were fool’s gold. My number came up 12. I was going to Vietnam to fight in a failing war that most people, whether they said so or not, didn’t believe in anymore. In 1965 about 80% of the American public supported the war. Six years later it was down to 40%. By the end of the war, it was 30%.
I had to appear at my draft board for a physical, which went well, thanks to my having been a Boy Scout for many years. But I was determined to not go to Vietnam. “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” was the handwriting on the wall. I was willing to volunteer if the Viet Cong invaded the United States, but I wasn’t willing to put myself in harm’s way in anybody else’s civil war, especially not insurgents nine thousand miles away in Southeast Asia who had been fighting for self-determination since 1943. It didn’t seem like they were about to give up anytime soon.
Young men were burning their draft cards coast to coast. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t even have a lighter.
I had to pull out all the stops. First, I declared myself a conscientious objector. The draft board laughed it off. Then I told them I had been an altar boy and objected on religious grounds. They laughed that off, too. Finally, I told them I was just as likely to shoot an officer as I was to shoot a gook if I was shipped overseas. That was no laughing matter to them.
They sent me to a Master Sergeant who chewed me out, who sent me to psychiatrist, who finally wrote me up as hopeless. He gave me a 4F deferment, meaning I was “physically, mentally, or morally unfit to serve.”
I was OK with the snub.
In the meantime, my father a God-fearing faithful Republican, and I got into several mean- spirited arguments and I moved out. I dropped out of Cleveland State University for half-a-year and discovered the bohemian beatnik hippie enclave on the city’s near east side. I had grown from one end of high school to the other, but I hadn’t grown up as much. Cooking and cleaning, making the rent, and meeting folks in my new haunts outside of my old world started me up that road.
I hoped Johnny came marching home, but I got to thinking the lockstep mindset might not be the best and brightest way for me to go when catching a ride at the crossroad.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”