No Country for Old Men

In 1970 I entered the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sanford, Maine  office looking for some soils maps of the homestead place. A man named “Sid” was behind the counter that day. He asked about the farm’s location. He brightened in recognition when I described it. “Oh, I know that place,” he said. “That’s only good for woods, wildlife, and whoopee.”

Pat and I have spent most of our lives trying to prove Sid wrong as we’ve stubbornly cropped that sandy ground, pulled rocks, blasted boulders, dug irrigation ponds, and knocked back the woods and scrub that constantly try to re-occupy the fields cleared by Robert Cole and the others since 1780.

This was not the American life for which we’d been prepared. It was long-assumed that we would get our college degrees and then be fitted into Business-as-Usual USA. But in May, 1954, when I was only 9, watching TV cowboys, Indians, and a slightly pudgy guy with a signature forelock leaping “tall buildings in a single bound” in defense of “Truth, Justice, and The American Way,” the French were losing their Indochina colonies (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam.

The US had been bank-rolling France’s continued colonial efforts since at least 1950. Though “displaced” by the Japanese during World War Two, when French General Jean Leclerc returned in 1945, he pointedly announced, “ I didn’t come back to Indochina to give Indochina back to the Indochinese.” (See Killing Hope, William Blum, p.123).

“American bombers, military advisers and technicians by the hundreds were to follow the first aid shipments, and over the next few years direct military aid to the French war effort ran to about a billion dollars a year. By 1954, the authorized aid had reached the sum of $1.4 billion and constituted 78% of the French budget for the war.“ (See Blum)

This history, carefully assembled by the US Defense Department, and later read/ entered into the congressional record by Alaska Senator Mike Gravel  (“The Pentagon Papers”) was, of course unknown to most of us as we entered our teen years.

But we learned: Those on campus, from the books we found, and the drafted soldiers; deployed “to go and kill the yellow man”  (see Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”) by what they saw there as the military became “broken” by its brutal neocolonial mission and the strategic tenacity of General Giap’s troops.

The sleepy Michigan town where I went to college wasn’t exactly a hotbed of campus “radicalism” but as LBJ’s escalation churned on, structural and economic connections began to dawn on us.  Pat and I rode in a bus caravan organized by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, May, 1968. The assembled “motorcade” journeyed from a Dow Chemical stockholders meeting in Ann Arbor, to the company town of Midland, Michigan. The purpose was to highlight the profits and pain involved with the production and use of Dow’s jellied gasoline / “incendiary gel” product called Napalm—— a weapon which a song of the time acknowledged, “sticks to kids.” (See Wikipedia) (also quoted in “An Officer and a Gentleman”)

It was educational of course. We were not welcome guests as we walked the Main Street of Midland, past the fuming local merchants. Clearly we were “outside agitators.” Only later we learned that Dow also produced a defoliant known as “Agent Orange” which continues to poison Indochina’s population but also injured US forces as well.

About the only on-campus statement I ever made however, was wearing a (Eugene) McCarthy pin on my graduation robe. Driving back from Michigan, we heard that (allegedly anti-war) presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.  Hubert (“the Happy Warrior”) Humphrey lost the upcoming election to Richard Nixon, who proclaimed he “had a plan” to end the war against Vietnam.

Pat enrolled at the local Saint Francis College. I taught school in ’68-’69. In 1970, just a month before her graduation, it turned out that Nixon’s (Kissinger) “plan” apparently involved following the French example and re-invading Cambodia. College campuses erupted and on May 4th four Kent State students were shot dead by nervous Ohio National Guard troops. Students at Saint Francis declared a strike. Media accounts named “Patty Garnache” as one of the leaders.

A national student strike had been called on May 5th.  May 6th, the Humanities Division of the St. Francis faculty voted 13-1 favoring a strike on May 6th. By campus-wide referendum vote, students endorsed a strike.

On May 7th an outraged mother wrote to St. Francis’ “Dean Warner” bemoaning the college’s bowing to a democratic process and being “intimidated by rabble-rousers and students who have forgotten how to be Americans.” (See “Strike Folder,” University of New England)

Many wars-of-opportunity later, we’ve reportedly remembered “how to be Americans.” Police are routinely turned loose against dissident students today. And the earnest  “outside agitators“ who once trod the sidewalks Midland, now bend to more prosaic  pursuits.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

– William Butler Yeats

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: