Thursday, January 02, 2020

From The Living Archives Of Boston Veterans For Peace-They Ain't Your Grandfather's Veterans-By Site Manager Greg Green-First Night Against The Wars In Boston New Years Eve Day-A Ralph Morris-Sam Eaton Story

From The Living Archives Of Boston Veterans For Peace-They Ain't Your Grandfather's Veterans-By Site Manager Greg Green-First Night Against The Wars In Boston New Years Eve Day-A Ralph Morris-Sam Eaton Story

By Site Manager Greg Green  

“Everybody knows the story about how Ralph Morris and Sam Eaton met and how they got there and how they became VFP stalwarts, right?” asked Don Mack, local Boston chapter coordinator just as the post-“First Night Against The Wars” party was about to begin at his house. The event held each year at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve had become a staple of the yearly activities of the organization since it had been formed by a coalition of peace and social action groups about a dozen years before. After what was usually a cold to bitter cold afternoon’s work the participants and other friends and supporters would meet at Don’s house in Brighton for the annual New Year’s Eve party which would bring in the new year in a somber if not sober way.  

The reason that Don had asked if the people present knew of the Ralph and Sam story is because Frank Jackman, usually pretty knowledgeable about the personal histories of the local members had mentioned to somebody at the anti-war stand-out within Don’s hearing that the pair had grown up together in Carver and had both been in Vietnam, although not together and not at the same times. That got Don to realize that Frank either had forgotten the particulars of their story or had had a senior moment, or both. When Don got a mixed set of answers to his question he realized that perhaps it was the time and place to tell the story, or rather have the pair who were present at the party as usual tell the story as a very good way to show a lifetime of commitment to the anti-war and social justice movements and how that came about. Don had remembered that one night when they were at Jack’s over in Cambridge after an anti-Raytheon weapons-maker stand-out that both Ralph and Sam had declared that if had not been for the Vietnam War and their reactions to what it had done to their respective sensibilities that they would not be sitting in that room ready to bleed out once again their collective story.

Here is what Ralph, then Sam had to say that night to the couple of dozen people gathered around their seats:         

I was strictly a working- class kid growing up in the rough and tumble Tappan Street section of then, as now, run down Troy upstate New York right next to Albany, the state capital. Was the son of a then struggling owner of a small high-end electronics components company which my father had scratched to make a go of. Growing up though we were pretty poor before my father caught a few breaks from the major employer in the area, General Electric, GE, when they were starting to outsource high tech electronics stuff. As you know, when Dad retired, I took over after working many years for him and now that I am retired my son, my youngest son since Ralph III didn’t want to do it finding a career as a senior software engineer has taken over.   

The important part of growing up poor, fairly poor if not as bad as Sam who can tell his own story later was that I shared all the prejudices of my father and the neighborhood’s about things like patriotism, the horrible Russians who were ready to take our bread and freedom away, and especially about race, about keeping black people out of the Tappan Street neighborhood. Maybe those ideas were not just among the poor of Tappan Street and more pervasive in society than we thought but they were definitely a driving force on the social front. I am ashamed to admit it now and it is hard to say but the only word I knew for blacks, for black people, before I went into the Army was the “n” word. It was around the neighborhood like that too. The worse though was that when I was in high school I stood shoulder to shoulder with my father and other neighbors when a black family tried to move into the neighborhood. To keep them out come hell or high water, and we did. Did keep them out.

Given what I just said you can probably guess that it was no big deal for me when it came time to go in the Army, especially as I went in during the early days of the build-up of the damn Vietnam War, the war which would turn me around but which then was just something to do to fight the local commies in Vietnam there who wanted to snatch our bread and freedom. My father and most of the neighborhood fathers had been veterans, proud veterans of World War II and so the idea of serving was seen as a duty. I remember my father refusing a neighborhood guy, my friend Jimmy Snyder’s father Rudy a job at his shop because he had not served in their war. After high school having nothing else going and prodded on by my father to go and learn a trade, learn electronics, then pretty primitive compared to now so I could come work for him after the service. As I just mentioned in a round about way I did that except through the GI bill not through “learning” the trade in the Army. There was never any thought about waiting to be drafted or stuff like that. It just wasn’t done among the guys I grew up with. It was more likely that guys would go into the Army after getting in trouble with the law and taking the Army as the “easy way out” when the judge gave them a choice between the military and jail.       

I signed up, signed up under the gentle guidance of that bastard recruiting sergeant who is probably still laughing at me for believing word one about what he had to say. He had promised me that I would get first crack at electronics school which I mentioned was in its infancy then at least as compared to now. My idea, boosted by my father was that I would “learn a trade,” his trade for after the Army. As you also know and this is no lie just then, just 1967 or so the war in Vietnam was getting ratcheted up by Johnson, McNamara and the gang of hawks who ran the show then and the demand for infantrymen, grunts, cannon fodder as I, we, learned to call it later when we finally figured out what the hell we really were I was sent to AIT after basic training down at Fort Dix, down in New Jersey. AIT meaning Advanced Infantry Training, meaning just enough training to put your ass in trouble, big trouble when Charlie, the name we had for the VC, the Cong, the whole shooting match of soldiers under the authority of the North Vietnamese.        

After AIT, after the inevitable orders to report at Fort Lewis in Washington state for transport to Vietnam, that “inevitable orders” just then since Uncle Sam, a mythical figure who actually got his start out in my part of New York, just then was in desperate need of replacements for the infantrymen who were being chewed up and spit out like crazy when Charlie pulled the hammer down. I had no more thought of not going through with my orders than the man in the moon. Although I was uneasy about what I had been hearing as the war dragged on it kind of went over me. There was no way in my life that I would join the various resistance and refusal movements either civilian or military at the time. If anything I saw things the other way, saw the “hippies” and resisters as cowards and unpatriotic. That was then, that was before the baptism of fire.

I won’t go through my experiences in Vietnam, not for this crowd, and I don’t feel any need to. This is how I have put it for a long time. I did things, saw others do things and most importantly saw my government do things to people I had no quarrel with than even now I cannot live down although working the peace movement for this long time helps some. I was pretty shattered coming back to the “real world,” had a very hard listening to guys like my father who were still red meat hawks, hell, he would support the war even after all was lost. Got by some kind of osmosis into something of a semi-hippie mode when I met a girl who was a wild child in Albany. Overall though outside of the drugs and alcohol things were pretty hazy and loose, I was drifting.      
Then in early 1970 I was walking down the street near Russell Sage College, that wild child girlfriend was going to school there, or pretending to, in those days things were pretty loose then on the campuses when I saw, not heard, a group of guys, mostly guys, some in military garb, some looking the classic hippie look of the time walking silently down the street to some kind of marching cadence.

I saw a huge banner being carried in front by about four guys all in military garb which read “Bring The Troops Home”-signed Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). There were other signs, home-made signs but that one stuck out. As did the only voice you could hear over the megaphone. “Any Vietnam vets who hated the war, hated what they did, join us, fall in.” And without hesitation I did. Right after the march I joined VVAW, learned more about the group, learned about the war I had fought in than I had known before and I had fought there and took part in all the demonstrations and actions they sponsored in Albany or in Washington, the ones I could make since I was taking some classes in electronics through the GI bill. That was why I was in Washington, D.C. during May Day, 1971 when National VVAW called for us to try one desperate attempt to shut down the government if it would not shut down the war. Everybody knows, and if you don’t, I was arrested that May Day and thrown in RFK stadium, the overflow holding area we were put in. That is where I met Sam when he saw my VVAW button and we started talking, talking about how I, and he, had gotten into that jam. Sam can now tell you his story, but let’s take a little break and have some wine and some food.                

And after the break with a couple of people drifting away from the talk Sam gave his story:

Its funny that I am talking about this experience since I thought everybody kind of knew about Ralph and me, thought it was kind of an unspoken legend. But maybe it is good to run this against and maybe since I am the writer of the two of us, although when Ralph gets motivated his can whip my ass writing anti-war stuff sometimes, I will write it up and put it on the website, or in the archives. I really think that one of the things that has held Ralph and me together in this antiwar business is that we came essentially from the same kind of backgrounds, working class, working poor so we knew a few bumps already unlike some of the anti-war activists from other organizations. I grew up south of here, down in Carver, down in what was then called “bog” country, down where they grew cranberries in the bogs used to product the crop.         
They called those who worked the bogs, my family, “boggers” and that was not meant as a compliment, kind of drew what I would later call the class line between us and “them” in town life. It came up in strange ways like I remember liking a girl in high school who also liked me but when she found out I was a “bogger,” or maybe her parents did that was that. Stuff like that.  

The big thing you have to know, the thing that got this whole story business rolling was that while I am a proud member of VFP I am not a veteran, am as you know we have a “supporter” member, an associate. The reason I am not a veteran, although in other circumstances I might have been, was that in 1965 just as the Vietnam War was beginning to take its bite out of a whole generation which can be felt even today my father, my “bogger” father had a massive heart attack and died leaving my mother alone with four sisters and me. I might add that whatever caused the heart attack my father was a drunk, drank away many a dollar in the town bars and elsewhere. Even now I bristle when I say this. In any case I was the sole male supporter of my family and the local draft board of the time exempted me from military service for that reason once I graduated from high school in 1967. The way I supported my mother and sisters was working in Mr. Carey’s print shop on Washington Street during high school and later when I graduated. As some of you know after my “wild days” in the early 1970s I would take over that operation from Mr. Carey when he retired and run it until my son who is much more tech savvy than I could ever be knowing which way the wind was blowing in the printing business took it over a few years ago.         

If you think about it there is nothing in that profile which would lead anybody to believe, to believe today at this far remove, that I would wind up as a long-time peace activist with some arrests for civil disobedience and other things. I, like Ralph, and many others if you heard their stories was as patriotic as the next person, drew in the full propaganda about the red menace and other Cold War bullshit. Believed that we needed to destroy the commies root and branch, go after them to save the world. Believed fully in that domino theory that was touted then as the reason to go to war in Vietnam even if I couldn’t explain the theory then. For me the thing the sole thing that switched me on the war and then on a lot of other things was the death in Vietnam of my best friend from second grade on-Jeff Mullins. Sorry, I still shed a tear every time I say his name, get worse every time I pass the town memorial or I go to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington where his name is etched in black granite with thousands of other names.    

Like I said I had known Jeff from early childhood so I knew him pretty well, knew that when he said something it stuck. He had been gung-ho to go into the service as much for getting the hell out of “bogger” Carver to see the big wide world as he said and away from horrible parents as patriotic fervor but that was serious factor. He also bought into all the myths that I had as I mentioned before. I wish I could talk about him more about his dreams, but you get the idea.  A few months before Jeff was killed down in the Mekong Delta while on patrol, he had sent me a letter, a long letter basically foretelling his doom and his hatred for the lying war. Made me promise that if anything happened to him and he couldn’t get back to tell the real story, his story about the goddam war that I was to do so. Once we got the message that he had been killed I went crazy -and went to work.

Of course I knew there were people against the war, you could not watch the news at least in Boston without seeing somebody demonstrating against the war or resisting the draft which despite my lucky status I still supported or maybe resisting to the thing is what bothered me, but I was clueless how you would contact anybody especially down in Carver where I don’t think anybody was publicly against the war. So I started from scratch a funny scratch when you think about it since what I did was go to Cambridge one Saturday afternoon to see if anybody knew anything about the anti-war struggle. I hear laughing, knowing laughing but like I say I didn’t know anything about what was happening except that something was. I had never been to Cambridge before or at least I wasn’t aware of it so the whole thing was not only an adventure but very informative as well. As it turned out the best way then to find out what was happening was to look at a place like the world-famous kiosk in the Square at the posters that were plastered on poles or anything that would take paper and glue, or wallpaper paste. What I noticed was that there was to be a big SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, meeting later that afternoon to plan something for what was called the Spring Offensive. SDS then pretty notorious and another grouping that I had previously scorned but I figured I was young enough to fit in. 

That was decision was decisive in a lot of ways since at that meeting people were encouraged to speak up about why they were there and what they expected to do for the Spring Offensive. There were probably a hundred people in I think it was Memorial Hall, or a large room off of it and when I stood up and trembling told the crowd my reason, the death of Jeff Mullins I was applauded which I couldn’t understand until later because I thought they would hate the idea that I was doing this to support a fallen soldier. That was one off the great lies of the war that these anti-war people for the most part were hostile to the private solider. Although it would not be until about a year later that there would be any serious attempts to link up to disgruntled and war-weary soldiers. In any case off of that meeting I met Jim Thorn, the big local activist who kind of took me under his wing, taught me plenty about the ins and outs of the war and how it got out of hand and got a lot of young guys who had plenty of other stuff to do with their lives killed for no good reason. Two or three weeks later I went to my first anti-war demonstration in downtown Boston, on the Common, sponsored by SDS and a bunch of other groups, none still around at least in that form. That demo was the first leg of a planned Spring Offensive to stop the war and I was very happy to walk the walk holding a photograph of Jeff with the legend “No More.”        

That is the important part and I would attend many more such events in Boston, New York and Washington. Along the way I got my speaking voice, spoke from the heart about my mission for Jeff, and would sometimes read a few passages of that Jeff letter urging me to fight the good fight if he didn’t make it back. Along the way I got as frustrated as almost every young person and got progressively more radicalized as the Cambridge milieu went further to the left and with more aggressive tactics. That led up to my going to Washington with a Cambridge group called the Red Brigade to stop the government if it would not stop the war. And the fateful meeting with Ralph after seeing his VVAW button. Sometime let Ralph and me tell you about the details of that meeting but tonight we are about how we met. And remember Ralph was the real deal antiwar Vietnam veteran and I was and am a supporter of VFP except not a veteran. Let’s have a drink.       


Save The Date- First Night Against The Wars Stand-out Copley Square Boston New Year’s Eve Afternoon December 31st  

The Smedley Butler Brigade, VFP, Chapter 9 has helped sponsor along with other peace and social action groups the annual (this the 13th year) First Night Against The Wars stand-out at the Boston Public Library entrance across from Copley Square on December 31st, New Year Eve’s afternoon starting around noon until about five o’clock.

Usually the weather is cold on that day so we ask people to volunteer for an hour or two during the day. Dan the Bagel Man has his food for activist operating to keep us in hot drinks. If you are coming and have a flag or a poster please bring whatever you have with you. Hope to see you there. 

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