Sunday, May 07, 2017

An Encore- Coming Of Age, Political Age, In The 1960s Night- A Baptism Of Fire-Making War On The War-Makers

An Encore- Coming Of Age, Political Age, In The 1960s Night- A Baptism Of Fire-Making War On The War-Makers

 

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman



He was scared. All of fourteen year old Peter Paul Markin’s body was scared. Of course he knew, knew just as well as anybody else, if anybody thought to ask, that he was really afraid not scared, but Peter Paul was scared anyway. No, not scared (or afraid for the literary correct types), not Frannie De Angelo demon neighborhood tough boy, schoolboy nemesis scared, scared that he would be kicked in the groin, bent over to the ground in pain for no reason, no reason except Frannie deep psycho hard boy reasons known only to himself. Markin was used to that kind of scared, not liking it, not liking getting used to it but he was not tough, not even close although he was wiry, but not Franny heavyweight tough, but used to it. And this certainly was not his usual girl scared-ness on the off chance that one, one girl that is, might say something to him and he would have no “cool” rejoinder. (Yes, girls scared him, not Franny scared but no social graces scared, except in the comfortable confines of a classroom where he could show off with his knowledge of two thousand arcane facts that he thought would impress them but no avail then, later he would be swarmed, well, maybe not swarmed but he didn’t have to spend many lonely weekend nights studying to get to three thousand arcane facts) This was different. This, and his handkerchief-dabbed wet palms and forehead did not lie, was an unknown scared.

See, Peter Paul had taken a bet, a “put your money where your mouth is" bet, from best freshman high school friend Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, if you want to know the full name. Now these guys had previously bet on everything under the sun since middle school, practically, from sports game spreads, you know Ohio State by ten over Michigan stuff like that, to how high the master pizza man and owner at Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, Tonio, would throw his pizza dough one strange night when Frankie needed dough (money dough that is) for his hot date with girlfriend Joanne. So no bet was too strange for this pair, although this proposition was probably way too solemn to be bet on.

 

What got it started, the need for a bet started, this time, really had to do with school, or maybe better, the world situation in 1960. Peter Paul, a bundle of two thousand facts that he guarded like a king’s ransom, went off the deep end in 9th grade Civics class when he, during a current events discussion, exploded upon his fellow classmates with the observation that there were too many missiles, too many nuclear bomb-loaded guided missiles, in the world and that both sides in the Cold War (The United States and the Soviet Union and their respective hangers-on) should “ban the bomb.” But you have not heard the most provocative part yet, Peter Paul then argued that, as a good-will gesture and having more of them, the United States should destroy a few of its own. Unilaterally.

 

Pandemonium ensued as smarts guys and gals, simps and stups also, even those who never uttered a word in class, took aim at Peter Paul’s head. The least of it was that he was called a “commie” and a "dupe" and the discussion degenerated from there. Mr. Merck was barely able to contain the class, and nobody usually stepped out line in his class, or else. Somehow order was restored by the end of class and within a few days the class was back to normal, smart guys and girls chirping away with all kinds of flutter answers and the simps and stups, well the simp and stups did their simp and stup thing, as always.

 

Frankie always maintained that that particular day was one of the few that he wasn’t, and he really wasn’t, glad that Peter Paul was his friend. And during that class discussion he made a point, a big point, of not entering the fray in defense of his misbegotten friend. He thought Peter Paul was off the wall, way off the wall, on this one and let him know it after class. Of course, Peter Paul could not leave well enough alone and started badgering friend Frankie about it some more. But this was stone wall time because Frankie, irreverent, most of the time irreligious, and usually just happy to be girl-smitten in the world, and doing stuff about that, and not worried about its larger problems really believed, like the hard Roman Catholic-bred boy that he was underneath, that the evil Soviet Union should be nuclear fizzled-that very day.

 

But Peter Paul kept egging the situation on. And here is the problem with a purist, a fourteen year old purist, a wet behind the ears fourteen year old purist when you think about it. Peter Paul was as Roman Catholic-bred underneath as Frankie but with this not so slight difference. Peter Paul’s grandmother, Anna, was, and everybody who came in contact with her agreed, a saint. A saint in the true-believer catholic social gospel sense and who was a fervent admirer of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker for social justice movement started in the 1930s. So frequently The Catholic Worker, the movement newspaper, would be lying around her house. And just as frequently Peter Paul, taking grandmother refuge from the hell-bend storms at his own house, would read the articles. And in almost every issue there would be an article bemoaning the incredible increase in nuclear weapons by both sides, the cold war freeze-out that escalated that spiral and the hard fact that the tipping point beyond no return was right around the corner. And something had to be done about it, and fast, by rational people who did not want the world blown up by someone’s ill-tempered whim. Yah, heady stuff, no question, but just the kind of thing that a certain fourteen year old boy could add to his collection of now two thousand plus facts.

Heady stuff, yah, but also stuff that carried some contradictions. Not in grandmother Anna, not in Dorothy Day so much as in Peter Paul and through him Frankie. See, the Catholic Worker movement had no truck, not known truck, anyway with “commies" and "dupes”, although that movement too, more than once, and by fellow Catholics too, was tarred with that brush. They were as fervent in their denunciation of the atheistic Soviet Union as any 1950s red-baiter. But they also saw that that stance alone was not going to make the world safer for believers, or anybody else. And that tension between the two strands is where Frankie and Peter Paul kind of got mixed up in the world’s affairs. Especially when Peter Paul said that the Catholic Worker had an announcement in their last issue that in October (1960) they were going to help sponsor an anti-nuclear proliferation rally on the Boston Common as part of a group called SANE two weeks before the presidential elections.

Frankie took that information as manna from heaven. See, Frankie was just as interested in knowing two thousand facts in this world as Peter Paul. Except Frankie didn’t guard them like a king’s ransom but rather used them, and then discarded them like a tissue. And old Frankie, even then, even in 1960 starting to spread his wings as the corner boy king of the North Adamsville high school class of 1964, knew how to use his stockpile of facts better than Peter Paul ever could. So one night, one fiercely debated night, when Frankie could take no more, he said “bet.” And he bet that Peter Paul would not have the courage to travel from North Adamsville to Park Street Station in Boston to attend that SANE rally by himself (who else would go from old working- class, patriotic, red-scare scared, North Adamsville anyway). And as is the nature of fourteen year old boy relationships, or was, failure to take the bet, whatever bet was social suicide. “Bet,” said Peter Paul quickly before too much thinking time would elapse and destroy the fact of the bet marred by the hint of hesitation.

But nothing is ever just one thing in this wicked old world. Peter Paul believed, believed fervently, in the social message of the Catholic Worker movement especially on this nuclear war issue. But this was also 1960 and Irish Jack Kennedy was running, and running hard, to be President of the United States against bad man Richard Milhous Nixon and Peter Paul was crazy for Jack (really for younger brother, Bobby, the ruthless organizer behind the throne which is the way he saw his own future as a political operative). And, of course, October in election year presidential politics is crunch time, a time to be out hustling votes, out on Saturday hustling votes, especially every Irish vote, every Catholic vote, hell, every youth vote for your man.

 

On top of that Jack, old Irish Jack Kennedy, war hero, good-looking guy with a good-looking wife (not Irish though not as far as anyone could tell), rich as hell, was trying to out-Cold War Nixon, a Cold War warrior of the first degree. And the way he was trying to outgun Nixon was by haranguing everyone who would listen that there was a “missile gap,” and the United was falling behind. And when one talked about a missile gap in 1960 that only meant one thing, only brooked only one solution- order up more, many more, nuclear-bomb loaded guided missiles. So there it was, one of the little quirks of life, of political life. So, Peter Paul, all fourteen year old scared Peter Paul has to make good on his bet with Frankie but in the process put a crimp into his hoped-for political career. And just for that one moment, although with some hesitation, he decided to be on the side of the “angels” and to go.

That Saturday, that October Saturday, was a brisk, clear autumn day and so Peter Paul decided to walk the few miles from his house in North Adamsville over the Neponset Bridge to the first MTA subway station at Fields Corner rather than take the forever Eastern Mass. bus that came by his street erratically. After crossing the bridge he passed through one of the many sections of Boston that could pass for the streets of Dublin. Except on those streets he saw many young Peter Pauls holding signs at street corners for Jack Kennedy, other passing out literature, and others talking up Jack’s name. Even as he approached the subway station he saw signs everywhere proclaiming Jack’s virtues. Hell, the nearby political hang-out Eire Pub looked like a campaign headquarters. What this whole scene did not look like to Peter Paul was a stronghold place to talk to people about an anti-nuclear weapons rally. Peter Paul got even more scared as he thought about the reception likely at the Boston Commons. He pushed on, not without a certain tentative regret, but he pushed on through the turnstile, waited for the on-coming subway to stop, got on, and had an uneventful ride to the Park Street Station, the nearest stop to the Common.

Now Park Street on any given Saturday, especially in October after the college student hordes have descended on Boston, is a madhouse of activity. College student strolling around downtown looking for goods at the shops, other are just rubber-necking, other are sunning themselves on the grass or park benches in the last late sun days before winter arrives with a fury. Beyond the mainly civilized college students (civilized on the streets in the daytime anyway) there are the perennial street people who populate any big city and who when not looking for handouts, a stray cigarette, or a stray drink are talking a mile a minute among themselves about some supposed injustice that has marred their lives and caused their unhappy decline. Lastly, and old town Boston, historic old town Boston, scene of many political battles for every cause from temperance to liberty, is defined by this, there are a motley crew of speakers, soap-box speakers whether on a real soap-box or not, who are holding forth on many subjects, although none that drew Peter Paul’s attention this day. After running that gauntlet, as he heads for the Francis Parkman Bandstand where the SANE rally was to take place he was amused by all that surrounds him putting him in a better mood, although still apprehensive of what the day will bring forth.

Arriving at the bandstand he saw about twenty people milling around with signs, hand-made signs that showed some spunk, the most prominent being a large poster-painted sign that stated boldly, “Ban The Bomb.” He is in the right place, no question. Although he is surprised that there are not more people present he is happy, secretly happy, that those twenty are there, because, frankly, he thought there might be just about two. And among that crowd he spotted a clot of people who were wearing Catholic Worker buttons so he is now more fully at ease, and was starting to be glad that he came here on this day. He went over to the clot and introduced himself and tells them how he came to be there. He also noted that one CWer wore the collar of a priest; a surprise because at Sacred Heart, his parish church, it was nothing but “fire and brimstone” from the pulpit against the heathen communist menace.

Get this-he also met a little old lady in tennis sneakers. For real. Now Frankie, devil’s advocate Frankie, baited Peter Paul in their arguments about nuclear disarmament by stating that the “peaceniks” were mainly little old ladies in tennis shoes-meaning, of course, batty and of no account, no main chance political account, no manly Jack Kennedy stand up to the Russians account. Peter Paul thought to himself wait until I see Frankie and tell him that this little old lady knew more about politics, and history, than even his two thousand facts. And was funny too boot. Moreover, and this was something that he had privately noticed, as the youngest person by far at the rally she, and later others, would make a fuss over him for that very reason talking about young bravery and courage and stuff like that.

Over the course of the two hours or so of the rally the crowd may have swelled to about fifty, especially when a dynamic black speaker from the W.E.B. Dubois club at Harvard University linked up the struggle against nuclear weapons with the black struggle down South for voting rights that those in the North had been hearing more about lately. It was not until later, much later, that Peter Paul found out that this Dubois club business was really the name of the youth group of the American Communist Party (CP) at the time but by that time he was knowledgeable enough to say “so what.” And it was not until later that he found out that the little old lady with the tennis sneakers was a CPer, although she had said at the time he talked to her she was with some committee, some women’s peace committee, within the Democratic Party. Oh, well. But then he would also be able to say “so what” to that accusation in proper “family of the left” fashion.

 

But forget all that later stuff, and what he knew or did not know later. See, that day, that October 1960 autumn day, Peter Paul learned something about serious politics. If you are on the right side of the angels on an issue, a central issue of the day, you are kindred. And although there were more than a few catcalls from the passers-by about “commies”, “dupes”, and “go back to Russia” he was glad, glad as hell that he came over. Although nothing turned inside him, noticeably turned inside him that day, about his politics and his determination to see Jack Kennedy and the Democrats take the White House he thought about those brave people at the bandstand and what they were standing for a lot for a long time after the event faded from memory. Oh yah, it was good to be on the side of the angels. And it didn’t hurt that he won that Frankie bet, either.

No comments: