In a conversation about gun control following the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjorie Stoneman High School, l I commented that there was no earthly reason that a civilian hunter needed a rifle whose trajectory over a hundred meters rose and fell only two inches. and whose muzzle velocity exceeded the speed of sound by a factor of three.
The M-16 (civilian model is AR-15) shoots NATO-standard 5.56mm bullets propelled by a cartridge about the size of a man’s thumb and when illicitly modified to military spec, fully-automatic-fire, will shoot about 800 rounds per minute. A hunter hitting a deer with one of these will not need a butcher.
My surprised companion said she didn’t know I was a gun enthusiast.
“I’m not. I haven’t fired a gun in many years.”
“Well how do you know all that stuff?”
Such comments would, for decades, stop a conversation dead and in some circles still will. But mostly now they elicit curiosity and I’m happy to fill in the blanks as the nation slips yet again under the spell of war propaganda. Though, this time it’s Iran.
How I came to know that stuff goes back fifty years to 1968. Some of you will remember 1968. That year was for me the year that set me to questioning how I framed my world. I was 20 that year.
In March of ’68 I got a letter from President Lyndon Johnson. It said “Greetings from the President of the United States. As Commander in Chief, you are hereby ordered to report for induction into the United States Army on 21 April 1968.”
By the end of March Johnson had announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection in the fall. He had determined that his advisors had lied to him, that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a fraud and that the war was not winnable. None of these details was known publicly at the time. They would have to wait for Daniel Ellsburg to publish “The Pentagon Papers” in 1971 after I was a civilian once again. Ellsburg was charged under the Espionage Act with spilling state secrets, the precident for many indictments under that act, most recently Julian Assange.
April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; later I came to understand that act to be connected to his public anti-war stance and a speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day before his assassination.
April 20, late at night, I got a phone call from a friend of a friend who was an anti-war activist. He spent a long time trying to convince me that I didn’t have to report for the draft. But I had no support system that could offer an alternative. My father, a decorated WWII officer would drive me to the induction center. At 4:30AM the alarm went off and fate took its course.
April 21 I reported to basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, twenty years to the day at the same place that my father had mustered out after WWII. That morning, as I stepped off the bus at Ft. Lewis, corporals began screaming obscenities at us and I believed I’d made a terrible mistake. While in basic training I was made to memorize weapon specifications, along with the serial numbers of the weapons issued to me. I could also field-strip and reassemble an M-14 rifle in the dark.
June 6, Basic training Ft. Lewis. While standing in formation in a pouring rain, the company commander announced that Presidential Candidate Robt. F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
By July I had made my way across the country to my new duty station at the Army Signal School, Ft. Monmouth NJ.
On an August weekend trip to New York City I chanced across a group of flower children chasing a pig through Washington Square Park. I later learned that it had been Abby Hoffman and the Yippies – The term Hippie had yet to be coined. The pig was named Pigisus and was official presidential candidate of the Youth International Party.
August 27th I sat in the sticky heat of the Company X dayroom watching the Democratic Convention on TV. Reporters Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were roughed up by security as the cameras rolled. The TV cameras panned Lincoln Park showing a full-scale battle between police and protesters. Walter Cronkite was enraged on air. Mayor Daily cut off the microphone during a Humphrey opponent’s speech.
Following the convention things on Ft. Monmouth continued with business as usual; except the top brass formed a Riot Control Squad, to which I later had the misfortune to be assigned. We drilled every Saturday in case any Yippies tried to leaflet the post or let the pig loose at the front gate, which eventually they did.
In September news came from Viet Nam of yet another phase of the Tet Offensive of ’68 with heavy casualties on both sides. This was, of course, a concern for all of us who were yet to be permanently assigned following training.
The holidays came and went. I visited my aunt and uncle in New Hampshire and was shunned by my eldest cousin and her husband who was morally superior for having joined the Coast Guard rather than the Army. My uncle however, was a retired Air Force colonel who had spent recent time at the pentagon in intelligence. We got on famously until he died about 25 years later. He was a great help to me in interpreting the bewildering events I found myself in over the next several years.
For me, 1969 wasn’t much better as it involved a trip to Viet Nam but that’s a story for another day and long in the telling.
And so 50 years later, my head is still filled with troublesome memories and useless trivia regarding weapons.
Today as I write fighter jets from Whidbey Is. Naval Air Station shatter the silence of the Methow Valley as they practice mock strafing runs a couple hundred feet above my head.
Tom Allen – March 28, 2018