I wiped away the warm spit from my face and hair, looking straight ahead, no eye contact made. A federal policeman in riot gear inched me forward, slowly waving his nightstick. “Bubba:” 6 feet 5 inches tall and 300 pounds, was my snowplow, clearing a path to work that day.
“Hey, man, don’t go to work, I’ll pay your salary,” one of the protesters said directly to me. He wasn’t spitting on me--I hesitated.
“Come on, step on him if you have to,” Bubba said, “keep going.” He stooped to move the protester and let me pass.
Luck of the draw: as a second lieutenant in the Army Infantry with a platoon leader MOS, I was assigned to the Pentagon. We wore military uniforms only once a month. We were warned not to stop in uniform to get gas, not to go in a Seven-Eleven, to keep a low profile. Close-cropped hair, shiny black shoes, PX bought sport coats gave us away. We were the enemy in our own land.
My good friends found ways to beat the draft. One guy got braces on his teeth when he heard that would disqualify him. He went in before me. Grad school was a good dodge. Important parents helped sons stay out. Canada got popular. My draft board found me so interesting they wrote me continually. It was a matter of time, I enlisted. Got a direct commission--go figure!
It was 1969, a wilderness of mirrors. Nothing was as it seemed. DC suffered daily demonstrations designed to shut “the war machine” down. Common sense took a vacation, venom flowed. The papers documented the rage, the city torn apart. It was us versus them, black and white, a slam-dunk kind of thing. In the name of peace this day hatred filled the air. We were off the guide rails.
Making small talk with the other side did not seem a prudent move. Besides, my escort, Bubba, was getting impatient. I was not really in the mood for dialog. My first cousin Steve was killed in Vietnam his first day there. Nearly half of my infantry officer basic class was killed or wounded. I met many brave soldiers, regular guys, who had done time. My boss was a quiet, highly decorated combat veteran. Jane Fonda was still Barbarella, John McCain was being tortured in North Vietnam, Lyndon Baines Johnson was driving too fast around his Texas ranch, but now he was doing it full time. Two nights before, I slept fitfully under a scratchy army blanket on the Pentagon’s cold terrazzo floor so demonstrators couldn’t keep me from getting to work.
At the Pentagon’s River Entrance Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two radical Catholic priests, were heaving buckets of blood on the stone columns. A throaty roar wafted down, maybe from them, maybe from people trying to stop them. Cameras flashed. Helicopters rhythmically beat the air overhead, getting it all on tape. I would be on the news, but not by choice.
The protester now was flat on his back. He was playing dead, arms linked with another, waiting to be arrested. I tapped Bubba’s shoulder.
I faced my questioner. “O.K.,” I said. “Here’s the deal: I make about 40 bucks a day. Pay up, I’ll turn around and go home.”
“Hey man,” he said, “I was speaking literally, you know? Literally, man.”
“Wrong choice, man,” I said angrily, stepping over him.
Allegories, symbolism, fables, but not this day, this time. Two people, two ideologies, one chance encounter on a sunny morning. I went to work, made my forty bucks. Later, he got on his bus; well paid for his day’s work as a professional protester. He collected his salary, just as I had. Tomorrow he’d make another appearance somewhere, like me, a pawn in larger events. We each made our choice. Human interaction.
The Earth’s revolved a nineteen thousand times since; many years have passed, but it occurred to me today, things remain the same. Protestors still protest; the reasons are less clear.