Thursday, October 6, 2011

Story / Last night

ON THE SWELTERING but beautiful summer evening of the Fourth of July, 1971 -- when Richard Nixon was in the White House, the country was painfully split over the Vietnam War, and I was 19 years old -- I drove my two younger brothers and myself into Washington DC from our home in the nearby suburbs. A family crowd estimated at 400,000 had spread their blankets on the vast lawn surrounding the Washington Monument, to picnic and wait for the upcoming fireworks. We found a spot up the hill, and sat down to watch the show, which turned out quite differently than all 400,000 of us had expected.

In a small area over toward the Reflecting Pool, the authorities had fenced off an area of lawn, and inside this barricade five thousand dressed-up VIPs were seated in rows of folding chairs, watching the entertainer Bob Hope and a singing group named the Lennon Sisters perform a show was that being televised live to the nation. A sound system was set up to, theoretically, allow the rest of us to hear the songs and Bob Hope’s banter. But the sound system was lame, the show itself even lamer, and no one in the larger crowd was paying attention anway. Because off to the side of the fenced-in area a much more interesting spectacle was playing out.

Fifty DC police mounted on horseback were lined up to protect the VIP area from a small, boisterous band of heckling hippies clustered at the edge of the sprawling crowd. These hippies had started a chant -- “F--k Bob Hope…! F--k Bob Hope…! -- and now it was starting to spread through the rest of the crowd. “F--k Bob Hope…!” At first it was barely audible, but then, even though it was not exactly family entertainment, it grew to a roar. Hope was seen as a symbol of the hugely unpopular Vietnam War, and a crony of the widely unpopular Richard Nixon. “F--k Bob Hope.”

A no man’s land of maybe seventy-five yards of green lawn separated the horses from the hecklers, one of whom, quite prominent, looked like a feral Greek god. As he ran around exhorting his small band of pranksters, his long, frizzy, Old Testament hair flew behind him like a black tornado. He wore patched blue jeans and was barefoot and shirtless -- his torso and his stomach muscles looked like something from an anatomy textbook. He would shout encouragement to his crew, wave his arms overhead like an orchestra conductor -- “F--k Bob Hope!” -- then sprint alone to the middle of the no man’s land and shake his fist at the line of horses. One or several of the officers would charge forward and drive him back toward the crowd, and whenever wonderboy would retreat, so would the officers.

This skirmishing continued for fifteen minutes, maybe more. Riveting entertainment. Truly. And then, on one of his forays, our action hero stops in the no-man’s land, turns, bends, points his blue-jeaned rear end toward the army, raises his open hand to his mouth, dramatically kisses the tips of his fingers, holds his hand skyward, palm open, stares back at the line of horsemen for two or three long beats, and then slaps himself on the rump. Kiss my ass.

And suddenly the whole damn cavalry is galloping toward him. The horses pull up short of the crowd, however, and retreat. But just seconds later, from behind the police line, a smoking tear gas canister comes whistling through the air and lands at the edge of the crowd. Is our action hero deterred? He runs to the canister, picks it up in his bare hand (‘Nam vet?), runs toward the police lines and hurls it (outfielder for the old Washington Senators baseball team?) back into the midst of the army.

That’s all we saw. Within seconds the tear gas cloud had wafted into the larger crowd. In ripples, 400,000 of us rose to our
feet, put our hands to our stinging eyes, grabbed our stuff, and disappeared.

An hour or so later my brothers and I walked into our living room. Our parents were watching Bob Hope and the Lennon sisters on television. The cameras picked through the VIP crowd, sending out to America images of guffawing power guys in coats and ties, or cute young girls rapturously adoring the Lennon Sisters.

Our parents asked us, “How was it?” It was fine, we told them.

FORTY YEARS LATER, at about 11:30 last night , I had to walk through two lines of police to reach the folks at If it is possible to read faces, I promise you this: Most of those police, half my age, and barely older than most of the campers, wanted to be someplace else. They had no heart for what they knew they were about to be ordered to do.

Yesterday, just before the march up Market Street, I shook hands with three of the Fed’s security police. One of them, in full earshot of his partners, told me, “Hey, man -- we support you.” Anyone on the street is part of the 99%. Someday soon, I believe we’ll all be one hundred percent clear about that.

By the time the powers that be ordered the troops to move in last night, I was home in my warm bed. No hero here. But to me, these kids at (and all the occupiers around the country) are heroes. They could use our help and encouragement.

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