November, 1962, aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Topeka, CLG8, anchored off of Hong Kong on a rest and rec stop. The XO comes on the squawk box to inform ship’s crew that JFK had just made a speech about what soon became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The XO adds that the ship’s journalist is preparing a short version of the speech for the ship paper.
At that moment, the ship’s journalist, me, was polishing his shoes for an evening of wanton liberty. I ran to the radio room and pulled the speech off the teletype, wrote and passed out the short version. (I still have the full version—about eight feet long on aging yellow paper.)
Next morning, after a night of intentional debauchery—a function of not knowing when we would next go ashore—we were herded into company formation. Our crusty officer in charge said that some of us were about to receive our first campaign medals. In the last row, I restrained myself from saying: “Hey, college drop-out over here; don’t need to get into anything heavy.”
Bottom line: in the Navy, I went along just to get along. If I had any political or social inclinations they were centrist at best, better described as undeveloped and unexplored.
Fast forward one year: I’m an English major at Colorado State University and, after the Navy, really enjoying the coed existence. A friend of the family, Brendan Walsh, career FBI agent, talked to me about coming to Washington D.C. and working for the Bureau. Fantasies almost bowled me over: going to work in a three-piece suit with a .38 caliber revolver under my arm sounded as good as it could get.
Click on “Follow” at the top of the column on the right to receive posts of Writers With No Borders via email.
A few months pass; I was now a trained FBI fingerprint technician and a part-time student at The George Washington University. Life was good then—lots of partying but, according to the rule, only with other FBI employees. I was still managing to not explore a more complex world, one where I might have to be positional.
Things change. On March 11, 1965, Unitarian Universalist and civil rights worker Rev. James Reeb died. Two days earlier, he had come to Selma, Alabama, to participate in a civil rights march. On March 9, Reeb and two other ministers were attacked with clubs and severely beaten by a group of white men.
Late that afternoon our carpool of FBI employees drove by the White House, as we always did, on our way to the late shift with the Bureau. I’m guessing there were close to 3,000 people marching in front of the White House and protesting the assassination. Things became heated in our car. One woman, daughter of the police chief in a small Ohio town, argued that Rev. Reeb shouldn’t have been in Selma in the first place.
Just past midnight, our shift was over and we were in front of the White House again, having picked up the argument as if there had been no interruption. I told the driver to let me out.
Enthusiasm contagious: I walked across the street where the crowd, now about 300 people, was picketing and yelling. A police officer, not unkindly, told me to either pick up a sign and march or go back across the street. Not having the courage of my emerging convictions, I crossed the street to Lafayette Square and began aimlessly walking.
A young black couple was just in front of me, excited about having protested at the White House. Their enthusiasm and certitude were contagious; I crossed the street again, picked up a sign and began yelling at the President. By about 3 a.m., our army was down to a few dozen marchers. Someone yelled out that we should move on to the Justice Department. I yelled back that I worked for the Department and couldn’t join them. A few dark looks and then I was considered okay again.
Another young student and I decided it was time to pack it in. As we walked away, three thugs stepped out of the bushes and wanted to know what we n—- lovers thought we were doing. My friend wanted to duke it out with them. I did the math and suggested we just move along.
That’s pretty much it. Less than three months later my contract with the Bureau expired and I moved back to Colorado. Since then, I’ve participated in numerous marches and civil and political campaigns. I’d like to say that I’ve become seasoned; no longer likely to feel weakness in the knees, roiling of the stomach when it’s time to engage.
That would be a lie. Part of my being is timorousness—I’ve come to accept that. I’ve also accepted that my feelings cannot outweigh the need to keep on doing what seems right. Especially now; especially now.