The March Against Death

by Jeff Richards

I was standing on the steps of the Lee Mansion looking down on the crowds crossing Memorial Bridge and beyond that Lincoln Memorial. The crowd split and went to either side of the Memorial. It looked like a million people though I’m sure it was much less. There was a slight breeze coming up blowing the leaves off the trees and sending them scuttling across the cement walkway. Directly below me was the Eternal Flame where both assassinated Kennedys were buried and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guarded by soldiers in blue uniforms marching back and forth in perfect cadence. I was thinking, Jeez, I was surrounded by dead people and before long, if we kept it up in this country, we’d have to build skyscrapers on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery to house more dead people. I mean how many wars did you have to fight to make the world safe for democracy. I didn’t answer that because I didn’t think I could, but I had a creeping suspicion that we already fought too many. Anyway, I tried to focus on the individual dead soldier because that was the purpose here. We each were supposed to yell out one of those names as we passed in front of the White House, so President Nixon would get the idea from the living yelling out names how many dead people there were as a result of his policy. We walked down the slope of the hill and took our place at the end of the parade.

It was twilight. We lit candles and held them aloft. I let the candlewax drip down on my hand. It dried quickly, and I let more drip down until it covered my hand down to the palm. It took three or four candles to do this, but we had plenty of time because it took three hours to get from the Virginia side of the Memorial Bridge to the front of the White House, maybe one mile. I handed the name I was supposed to yell out to my friend, Joe Johnson, because there weren’t enough names to go around and he deserved it more than I. He was a veteran. Joe spent most of his time rocking back and forth in a conning tower of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. But that was closer to the action than I was. Pie held a candle aloft that she kept waving back and forth. She chanted “Peace now! Peace now!” along with the rest of the crowd, mostly long hairs like ourselves, but also parents with their children, grandmas and such. I think Rick was there waving the candle with his sister. He was my roommate in college and Bill Barbour, a Marine stationed at Quantico. Rick gave him a name to yell out. It was of a guy from Springfield, Virginia, where Bill grew up.

When we reached the black wrought iron fence in front of the White House, we were joined by two men in black suits. They weren’t Secret Service. They were drunks.

“What’s thish?” said one of the drunks.

“I don’t know, a parade,” responded the other.

Itch a Halloween Parade.”

“Halloween wash two weeks ago.”

“It’s a march against the war in Vietnam,” I told them.

The two men straightened up as if they were trying to act more dignified. They tried to march with us, but they were marching more sideways than forward and bumping into people in the crowd.

Joe and Bill yelled out the names of their soldiers who died in Vietnam, and we marched on, craning our necks to see if we could spy Nixon standing at a window in the White House.

At the Treasury building we spiked our candles on the metal fence. We turned around as we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to see the lower perimeter of the building all lit up like a birthday cake and the marble edifice reflecting the dark, flickering shadows. I took the melted wax off my hand. The wax fingers were green, arranged in a grip as if they were clutching a knife. I thrust the hand at Pie. She jumped back as if frightened and laughed.

The Mobilization March

Two days after the March Against Death, we drove downtown and parked. We followed the crowds towards Lafayette Square. Green D.C. Transit buses were lined up front to back to block the demonstrators from getting near the White House. We stopped by St. John’s Episcopal Church on the north side of the square, an imposing yellow church with a white steeple and six white columns in front. Blayney Colmore, a friend of my sister’s, was standing in front of the church. He was an Episcopal priest in long black robes wearing a silver cross, a handle bar mustache, and a toothy smile. He gave me a big hug. My sister told him I was coming.

“You be careful,” he said. “No telling what the police are up to.”

“They won’t be up to anything,” said Rick with a goofy grin on his face. He was stoned. “Too many of us.”

“Five hundred thousand,” said Pie raising five fingers.

“Could be. Could be,” said Blayney rubbing his chin. “Then you be careful you don’t get trampled to death.”

We circled around the buses and down towards the Mall where the main gathering was to take place. We were inching down 15th Street past the Treasury Building where we’d spiked our candles. We saw a puff of smoke followed by a band of raggedy long-haired freaks exiting F Street and scattering in every direction. One blended into our part of the crowd. I swear it was Abbie Hoffman.

“Tear gas?” I asked him.

“Smoke bomb,” he said, catching his breath. “We were burning an American flag when the cops showed up, so we set off a smoke bomb to screen our getaway.”

He laughed and jumped on the steps of the Treasury Building, waving his headband, a Viet Cong flag.

The crowd was so tightly packed like an anaconda snake twisting down Pennsylvania Avenue. We were forced to follow. I checked out the signs that the protesters were holding aloft:

SILENT MAJORITY

FOR PEACE

MAKE LOVE

NOT WAR

IMPUDENT SNOBS

FOR PEACE

I was sure this last sign came from Spiro Agnew, the Vice President, who said in some speech or another: “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” We all knew at that time the real intellectual was Agnew with all his big words and such.

I checked out some more signs:

HELL NO

WE WON’T GO

I DON’T GIVE A DAMN FOR UNCLE SAM

I’M NOT NOT GOING TO VIETNAM

BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE

FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY

STRAIGHT MIDDLE CLASS TYPES

FOR PEACE

DROP ACID

NOT BOMBS

We broke from the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue and wove our way towards the Mall near the Washington Monument where a bandstand was set up. Pete Seegar was singing a John Lennon song that the crowd was picking up, “All we are saying is give peace a chance” interspersed with phrases like “Are you listening Nixon…Are you listening Agnew…Are you listening Pentagon.” And then we’d sing it all over again, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” The chant moving up and down the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial in an echoing wave. And as far as you could see in every direction, a sea of protesters. It was sort of awe-inspiring.

On the way home many hours later, I saw a middle-aged woman leaning against a tree, a fur hat askew on her head, a blue cotton coat with big blue buttons open to the wind. She was shivering, but I don’t think it was from the cold air. Beside her was a sign that showed the photograph of a young man in an army uniform and below it the caption:

MY SON WAS KILLED IN VIETNAM. WHAT FOR AMERICA?

I pointed her out to Pie and Pie thought we should comfort her, but as soon as the woman saw us heading in her direction, she narrowed her eyes and gave us such a nasty look that we turned away.

About the Author

Jeff Richards

Website

Jeff Richards second novel Lady Killer is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing, his first, Open Country: A Civil War Novel in Stories, was published by Paycock Press in 2015. His fiction, essays, and cowboy poetry have appeared in over 27 publications including Prick of the Spindle, Pinch, New South, and Southern Humanities Review and five anthologies including “Tales Out of School” (Beacon Press), “Letters to J.D. Salinger” (University of Wisconsin Press), and “Higher Education” (Pearson), a college composition reader. “The March Against Death” is an excerpt from his memoir in progress about the sixties titled Nothing Left to Lose. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, with his wife and two dogs.