This is an excerpt from a memory book I’m writing about being a kid and young adult in Dracut, Mass., a semi-rural suburb of Lowell, the textile-mill city where my ancestors had lived since leaving Quebec, Canada, in 1880 to seek opportunities in America. In 1956, when I was two years old, the populations of both places were approximately 9,000 and 95,000, respectively. The town boomed to 21,000 people by the time I moved away at twenty-four. My public high school class had 330 students. The course offerings included accelerated math and science courses as well as foreign languages, including Russian. It was the Space Age, and we had a Cold War with the Soviets, after all, plus the war in Vietnam. The country was modern and moving forward. I was inclined toward politics and government after seeing President John F. Kennedy in action. That set me on a path to being a class officer in high school and an attempt to be elected to the town school committee when I was eighteen years old. In the ninth grade, I had civics, taught by my baseball coach, a course I wish I could have taken each year at levels of increasing difficulty. I was too young to march in the streets in the turbulent 1960s, but I found another way to get engaged in community affairs. It was a start.
Pete Seeger and Civics
BEFORE SUMMER VACATION BETWEEN JUNIOR AND SENIOR YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL, my guidance counselor, Gertrude Belanger, told me she had recommended my classmate Dan Wyman and me to the Leo C. Roth American Legion Post in Dracut as candidates for the annual Boys State convention at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Seventeen-year-olds named by local Legion posts gathered for four days in a mock state government competition to learn about representative democracy and civic values. The local post sent Dan and me to the gathering, all expenses paid. We were opposites, with Dan being reserved and focused on doing well in his studies, sometimes wearing a dark suit and tie with white dress shirt to school, while I had dived into school activities by my junior year, not too concerned that I wasn’t in the top math class. For their reasons, the Guidance Department staff zeroed in on us for the civics camp.
Boys State is the same program that put young Bill Clinton’s hand in President Kennedy’s hand at the White House, a moment of inter-generational contact preserved in a photograph that became iconic after Clinton won the presidency. The American Legion initiated Boys State in 1935 in response to the Young Pioneer training camps in the Soviet Union, a popular youth program sometimes compared to boys and girls scouting programs in the U.S., but with socialist political theory instead of the American civic creed informing the experience. Two years later, the American Legion Auxiliary sponsored Girls State with All Girls Nation as the culminating event. In 2011, Massachusetts held its first combined Boys and Girls State gathering.
Participants at Boys State enact a convention-type situation where they caucus, nominate candidates, campaign for votes, and elect a slate of state senators and executive officers up to governor, plus two U.S. senators who go to Boys Nation in Washington. Our kid-governor John Pothier stayed in the same dorm as I did. He was a star from day one: bright, articulate, and appealing as a kid from a TV show.
The Boys State counselors were not American Legion-types at all, but more like hotshot campaign operatives. One of them, Lawrence “Larry” DiCara, a short guy whose dark hair was already receding, won a seat on the Boston City Council at age twenty-two and became well known in state politics. He had been to Boys State in 1966 and returned as a counselor, remaining active in the program for decades. One counselor heard that Pete Seeger, a folk music legend by then and survivor of the American communist hunts of the 1950s, was on campus for an environmental conference. A few years before, he and his supporters had adopted the polluted Hudson River in nearby upstate New York as a public cause. Green activists sailed the sloop Clearwater, a replica of historic river ships, up and down the Hudson promoting its clean-up and heightened ecological consciousness about the planet.
Pete Seeger singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Video courtesy of Percivaldurham on YouTube)
Seeger agreed to give an impromptu concert in a campus auditorium. In our red trimmed Boys State T-shirts, we walked from the dorm in a group. Tall and skinny as a broom handle, Seeger wore a light short-sleeved shirt and dark pants and played all the familiar songs, from “If I Had a Hammer” to “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Little Boxes.” We sang along, glad protestors. Legion officials in the back looked on approvingly. Pete must have thought, “A concert for the American Legion kids. Times really have changed.” Picking banjo notes, Seeger began “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” a song we recognized from the Peter, Paul, and Mary recording. When he got to the lines “Where have all the soldiers gone?/Gone to graveyards every one./ When will they ever learn?” some of us cried a little inside knowing that the fight in Vietnam was raging and that we would soon be subject to the military draft lottery. A few Legionnaires looked down at their shoes.
We were in the flow of death and destruction. In June 1971, 239 Americans were killed in the war. Another 441 died that summer. South Vietnamese military casualties topped 700. The military reported more than 18,000 killed or wounded for Vietcong and North Vietnamese army fighters. Civilian casualties were said to be in the hundreds, but that statistic seems low to me.
The national voting age dropped to eighteen years old the month I turned eighteen in January of my senior year in high school. In March, I announced as a candidate for town school committee, possibly the youngest person in the state at the time to run for office. The war has pressed the politicians to lower the voting age. If you could be shipped to Vietnam to face bullets and mines and be asked to kill, then how could the politicians stop you from having a say in the matter at the ballot box? Similar logic led Massachusetts politicians to lower the drinking age in the state to eighteen, another lucky happening for me when my birthday came around in 1972. My friends and I took full advantage of being legal. Doors were opening. Permissions were granted. I had a taste of school politics from our student government involvement with the elected officials. The process had been demystified. If my friends and I could vote now, why not take the next step? The national and state news was churning. President Kennedy’s words burned in my mind: “Ask what you can do for your country.” I was in a hurry.
Late getting into the school-committee race, I paid a local printer to produce stickers that matched the ballot format and could be licked and stuck to the ballot in the place for “other”—and then X’d by a voter. I ran against an otherwise unopposed veteran school committee member, Bernard Bettencourt, a fine man active in town and school affairs. I told the Sun newspaper that I was running to give voters a choice and to encourage my generation-mates to get involved in politics. I banged together a few campaign signs in my cellar. My classmate Gregg Otto put one in his yard on busy Sladen Street near the Goodhue School. I staked one on my front lawn. The race included a candidates’ night speaking program at the Greenmont Avenue School cafeteria. Each candidate for the board of selectmen and school committee had seven minutes to talk. After making general comments about school policies and pitching for a larger budget, I closed with a quote by Thucydides on the Funeral Oration of Athenian leader Pericles in 431 B.C.—
“Our citizens attend both to public and private duties, and do not allow absorption in their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of the city’s. We differ from other states in regarding the man who holds aloof from public life not as quiet but as useless.”
A dozen of my friends helped the campaign, skipping school to distribute stickers at voting places on election day. Bernard defeated me 4,000 to 400, approximately. We had a little party at my house for the campaign team. Fresh from the spring election, I showed up at the annual Town Meeting and spoke in favor of increased school funding. I have no idea what the principal and vice principal thought of my activism. I was revved up. They never spoke to me about it.
That past January also marked the end of draft call ups, the conveyor belt to the Vietnam War. I caught a gigantic break. President Nixon announced a halt in what may have been a cynical attempt to defuse anti-war protests and, more of a reach, an appeal to young people for support in the November election. In 1969, responding to criticism that the military draft was unfair, Congress had changed the system to one of random selection. To that point, college students, for example, received “deferments” while in school, making them a protected category at a time when the war was increasingly deadly.
For the lottery, sealed envelopes with birth dates inside were pulled from a tumbling drum in Washington, D. C. Anyone with a number below one hundred expected to be called up and sent for a physical examination prior to induction into the military. In the year I was eligible to be drafted, my birthday, January 26, was the thirty-sixth number pulled from the drum. The Selective Service chief kept choosing numbers even though the actual draft process had been suspended. Just in case. Not all of my peers dreaded the draft. Some of them came from families with a tradition of military service. Others heard a particular call to serve. Several classmates enlisted in the Air Force, Marines, and Army.
I had been so concerned about being drafted that I had applied to only one school, Merrimack College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in the area. I had expected a momentous decision point: report for military service or drive north to Canada to avoid the draft. Spared that choice, I felt even more responsible to make a contribution with the gift of time that I had received.
My brothers’ experiences were different. A stroke of grace saved Richard, who reported for his military physical stricken with kidney stones and using a cane to walk. He received a medical deferment. He recovered and was able to continue with his public-school teaching job. After college, David, who had been living in New Hampshire, a college student on the way to graduate school, joined the National Guard in that state as an alternative to the draft. He landed one of the limited number of slots and reported for duty. David was assigned to an artillery company, completed ten weeks of Basic Training, and for six years did two weeks of field training and monthly weekend shifts. To this day his hearing is not right because of repeated exposure to cannon fire.
I had come a long way from writing an eighth-grade term paper in favor of the war, complete with a collage of combat pictures cut from Time and Life magazines on the cover page. I had read and re-read PT-109 about Navy Lieutenant, junior grade, John F. Kennedy and Guadalcanal Diary along with other accounts of my father’s war, World War II. While I was checking out those books at the Dracut library, I picked up brochures for the Green Berets, the elite Special Forces soldiers who were among the first American forces on the ground in South Vietnam. It would take the turmoil of 1968, assassinations, riots, political chaos at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, for my judgment to mature and political views to become more critical concerning the war.
Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, I moved from being a middle-of-the-road Democrat to the anti-war wing of the party and favored reforms promoting social justice. I didn’t know where else to begin other than town politics, the place to put civics into action. It was time to run for office, serve on committees, do the small “d” democratic work day to day. As I had done for years in the classroom, I raised my hand, this time to volunteer for community service.