March 28, 2015
By Michael A. Calvert
Growing up, I was taught to be loyal to America and those who defended our country. I could not imagine anyone questioning my love for our country. Times changed . The simple loyalty of my youth in the 1950s became more complicated as a young adult in the 1960s. Then some did challenge my patriotism.
How could I not become patriotic? Born when my father was fighting in Italy, and a youngster in the late forties and early fifties, I was infused with the warm glow of America’s victory in World War II. The heroism of our men in uniform had led to a glorious triumph over the enemy who my boyhood friends and I called “the krauts and the japs.” The heroes were our own fathers, uncles, and neighbors who had fought in the brutal trench warfare in Europe and had made beachheads in the South Pacific. All my friends had heard from our parents about at least one of their relatives or classmates who didn’t come home from the war.
Stark back-and-white movies and the newsreels that preceded them at the Ohio Theater and the RKO Palace showed handsome young men attacking machine gun nests, firing big guns on battleships, and signaling “thumbs up” from cockpits before roaring down runways and disappearing into the sky. On the home front, Rosie the Riveter and an army of factory workers labored around the clock on assembly lines spewing forth artillery shells, machine guns, steel helmets, K-rations, and everything else needed by our fighting men. The stirring music that accompanied these patriotic images flashing across the movie screens ennobled the heroism of our men and women at war.
My friends and I played war in our backyards. Some of us had toy guns and some pantomimed with hands gripping imaginary rifles and fingers pulling their triggers while we mouthed the harsh sounds of M-1 rifles, machine guns, and hand grenades. We reluctantly took turns playing the enemy. The only compensation for being a kraut or a jap was to enact the most elaborate death scenes when inevitably shot by the Americans. We all knew the movies about Sergeant York, a hillbilly sharpshooter, who became a war hero and Major Audie Murphy, who played himself in “To Hell and Back.”
Within weeks of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941, my Dad’s reserve unit had been activated. His older brother, Edward, had already dropped out of Ohio State to volunteer for the Flying Tigers in China to fight their Japanese invaders. My mother’s brother, Bill, enlisted and shipped out to the Pacific Theater.
After the war, Dad wore his many-pocketed, olive drab field jacket on weekends for years when I was a young boy. He enlisted my sister Kathy and I to sing the rousing anthem of the Field Artillery with him. “It’s HI Hi He in the Field Artillery. Where’re you go, you will always know that those caissons are rolling along.” Dad taught my sister Kathy and me several verses and we sang it together in the car and around the house. Another favorite was a marching song from a war movie. “You’re in the Army now, you’re not behind the plow. You’ll never get rich, you’ll dig in a ditch, you, …” Dad trailed off, laughing heartily.
Mom frowned and said “Bob! Please!” When Mom mildly rebuked Dad for slipping and saying damn or hell, Dad attributed it to his years in the army. Calendars from the VFW hung in our kitchen. Our flag flew from the front of our home on Veterans Day, Flag Day, as well as the Fourth of July each year. Dad solemnly warned us never to let the flag touch the ground and showed us how to properly fold the flag into a triangle (like the one I have that covered his casket). Our fighting men, who defended America and our freedoms, were held in high esteem in our home.
In my junior year at St. Charles Preparatory, that handsome Irishman, as Grandmother (whose maiden name was Ryan) always referred to John F. Kennedy, was the first Roman Catholic candidate for president since the 1920s. I joined with my family, friends, classmates, and teachers in praying and hoping for JFK’s victory in the 1960 election.
Kennedy was a navy war hero. When his PT-109 was sunk in the Pacific, he towed an injured crewman with a strap in his teeth as he swam to an island. In contrast to the aging President Eisenhower, the victorious Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, Kennedy represented a youthful vigor or “vig-ahh” as he pronounced it. He played touch football on the White House lawn and promoted 50-mile hikes by soldiers, praised the Green Beret commandos, and sternly challenged the Soviet Union in his inauguration speech. I was an enthusiastic fan of this new youthful leader.
My Grandmother was totally loyal to her countryman, and the adults in my family were only slightly less committed to our new president. At St. Charles, where I was a senior, my classmates as well as the priests who taught us Latin, algebra, and physics were hopeful that Kennedy would do well, but worried that he would create enemies and revive discrimination against Catholics.
After he was elected, I closely followed his presidency and fervently supported all his initiatives. Kennedy’s soaring inauguration speech thrilled us. He reaffirmed that America was prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” At school, everyone was impressed with the Ivy League intellectuals appointed to the cabinet. The Peace Corps appealed to our youthful idealism. In response to the first human space travel by Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, Kennedy’s bold pledge to send a man to the moon captured our imagination. After the invasion at the Bay of Pigs debacle, we commended our chastened president for accepting full responsibility even though Eisenhower had set the CIA fiasco in motion. We winced when Khrushchev bullied the young president at the Vienna summit meeting, but cheered when he rallied our allies to confront the Russians and the East Germans in Berlin. Concerns about a clash of armies paled in comparison to the dread of an exchange of nuclear missiles and the potential destruction of cities and widespread death from radiation sickness many times worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki just fifteen years earlier. Civil defense shelters were stocked with food and water, but the prospect of survival seemed slim.
The stakes were high. The survival of the planet as well as the “American way of life” was threatened. Priests in the pulpit and at school solemnly warned that churches would be closed and atheism would become the official state religion. Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, Catholics and protestants, ethnic and racial groups, and a broad majority of Americans came together to defend America and our freedoms against world domination by communism led by the Soviet Union and Red China. I was a staunch patriot.
After graduation, I reluctantly decided to postpone college until the winter quarter to earn enough money for tuition and books and a 1948 Nash for $100. A humpbacked gray hulk of a car with a gear shift on the floor, the Nash was no more than transportation. I worked nearly full time as a cashier and stock boy at Kroger’s and caddied at a country club.
I followed the fortunes of my president’s first year in office in the newspapers. Some people doubted that young Kennedy’s leadership, but everyone I knew supported our military as the first line of defense of our country from the Soviet Union and the threat of totalitarian communism. Since the late 1950s, the Strategic Air Command at the nearby Lockbourne Air Force Base had B-52s with nuclear bombs on board patrolling the arctic circle ready to proceed over the north pole to counterattack the Russians in the event of a sneak attack. We were often reminded of the lessons of World War II. With a strong defense, there would be no appeasement for communism
As a new freshman at Ohio State in January, I was introduced to the procedures of college life at a large auditorium in Hagerty Hall. The leader of our freshman orientation session counseled us that developing good study habits and scheduling our time would be key to graduating in four years. He warned us that more than one of every five of us would flunk out at the end of our sophomore year for failure to maintain a C average.
“ROTC is an easy A,” he added. “If you show up, it’s hard not to get a C. This could help you stay at Ohio State and graduate. Of course, ROTC is no longer mandatory. A handful of pacifists and students protested a few years ago, so the Board of Regents conceded that other courses could be substituted for Military Science or ROTC. You can take an upper level courses in mathematics or philosophy in lieu of ROTC. It’s your choice.”
If you sign up for ROTC in your freshman and sophomore years, you will be eligible for Advanced ROTC in your junior and senior years. Then you could complete your military obligation as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, Air Force, or Navy when you graduate. The alternative is that you’ll receive “greetings” from your draft board within two weeks and serve at least two years as an enlisted man. Their monthly pay is $78 per month. You decide how you want to fulfill your military obligation and serve your country.”
I didn’t hesitate to check the box next to Military Science. Advanced ROTC was a n attractive opportunity. I knew my Dad would be pleased if I chose the army. The easy A was also an incentive. Although I had done well at a respected preparatory high school and scored well on the ACT test, I privately harbored some doubt. I worried that I might be a minor league player who wouldn’t make it in the big leagues. An A in ROTC offered some insurance.
The first ROTC course was the history of the U. S. Army. Colonel Sykes dutifully began a monologue describing General Washington’s difficulties raising an army and continued through the Whisky Rebellion and other minor military actions as well as the Civil War and the major wars of the Twentieth Century. It was not like history in high school – it was easier, more like grade school. Multiple choice quizzes on names and dates served more as a record of attendance than knowledge of military history. I wondered if our laconic instructor hated this assignment on a Midwestern college campus lecturing to kids who mainly wanted to know what was going to be on the quizzes. He could be stationed in Belgium or Japan, and enjoying the company of others who had fought in World War II and Korea.
The only lesson the colonel cared to convey was that our politicians had allowed the military to atrophy after every conflict. We detected a hint of passion when he deplored the lack of preparedness for World War II and the Korean conflict.
I appreciated receiving A’s in all my Military Science courses in my first and second years at Ohio State, but I also enjoyed them. After the history of the army, we learned how to locate targets on maps with compasses if we ever had to guide troops moving forward to take defensible positions on ridges and behind outcroppings. I thought of my Dad using the same geometry to call back to artillery gunners with adjustments for their next salvo at the battle of Monte Casino in Italy when he was my age. One quarter, we reported to the rifle range and learned how to use a rifle safely and then took target practice. The best cadets received marksmen badges with crossed rifles that they could pin on their jackets. I didn’t get a medal, but I did get an A.
In the fall class, we began to learn the commands for marching in the May Day Parade. “Forward, March” would sound like “Forr-werd, Harsh. We learned to sing out “Hup, one, two, three” in unison over and over again. Flanking and column movements were diagrammed on the blackboard. Following the signals conveyed by the guidon waving in the breeze in front of our platoon was a cardinal rule. Finally the day came when we were to get our uniforms. Thankfully forrest green had replaced the well named olive drab. As we approached, sergeants barked questions about our sizes, but they largely decided on the basis of a quick glance which pants, jackets, shirts and belts to put in our outstretched arms. Another sergeant asked for shoe and hat sizes. I knew my shoe size, but not my hat size. Again a quick look and he pushed a peaked cap at me. I was pleased that we wore officers caps rather than the service caps that reminded me of an inverted envelope. Remarkably, unlike the army comedies I had seen, everything seemed to fit, more or less. Then, with our arms already full, heavy overcoats were added. They were grey-brown with wide lapels, shoulder pads, cloth belts and they extended to mid-calf if not our shoe tops. These greatcoats and our peaked officer’s caps made us look like the Russian army in World War II movies.
When we reported for drill, sergeants divided us into platoons, assigned us to a second lieutenant, and sent us to the parking areas surrounding Ohio Stadium, the 82,000-seat behemoth where the Buckeyes played football on a half a dozen days in the fall and the intra-squad game that concluded spring practice in May. Under the watchful eye of a sergeant, our lieutenant, a junior who was only a year older than most of us, introduced himself in the deepest voice available to him and promised us that we would look sharp on May Day when were marched on the Oval in the center of campus on May Day. Soon he was shouting “TEN-SHUN and FORR-ERD, HARCH” and other commands that we had learned in class. After a ragged start, we began to look a little like soldiers by the end of Fall Quarter. An hour of drill was great fun for two days each week.
After the holidays, we returned to the ROTC Building for more drill in the particular commands to be given on our May Day Parade. For instance, we practiced “Eyes Right” for the moments when we would pass the reviewing stand with visiting officers with medals arrayed on their chests and gold braid on their shoulders. We didn’t practice “Eyes Left.”
When there was snow on the ground, drill moved under the massive concrete stadium built by convicts in 1926. The multiple pillars presented a challenge to our young lieutenants. More than once, we were mistakenly marched into pillars. As good soldiers, we kept marching as ordered until we were bumping into the cadet in front of us. Some even tumbled to the ground like wind-up toy soldiers. Officers came running to help the embarrassed cadet lieutenant restore order.
Some of the undergraduate ROTC officers strutted around campus with their shoes properly spit-shined, posture rigid, chins stuck forward. We referred to them as “gung ho.” When they spotted my black tie loosened or my green jacket unbuttoned, these undergraduate cadet officers approached me, looked at the name tag pinned on my jacket, and sternly said “Mister Calvert, you’re out of uniform.” Some offending cadets complied like contrite school boys with or without an eye roll or an exaggerated smirk and others responded with a one-fingered salute. I contained myself and protected my grade.
“Watch this,” said one of my fellow cadets when we saw a lieutenant riding a bicycle toward us on a walkway on the Oval. As he approached, my friend snapped to attention and saluted. The lieutenant, who had several books and a binder in his right hand, tried to shift them to his left hand and lost his grip on the books just as he raised his right hand to return the salute. The bike careened off the walkway onto the grass and the flummoxed officer barely stopped his bike without falling as his books and papers scattered behind him. Then he stood astride the bicycle and returned the salute wit a scowl.
In the early fall of 1962, I was stunned to see Tim Dempsey coming toward me on his way to the Student Union. Tim was part of the crowd that revolved around Big Joe, the neighborhood bookie who was my best friend’s dad. Tim graduated from Aquinas High when I was a freshman. He was around for poker games and parties and worked at a Westinghouse dishwasher plant. Tim had decided to make a desperate try at college before he was drafted into the army.
I helped my older friend learn the ropes on campus in those early weeks. Tim and I were awed by the intellectuals at Ohio State, and befriended the nonconformists who appeared to be dedicated to the life of the mind. We found them in the Music Room at the Student Union where serious students hung out between classes. These young men and women included graduate students and all were ostentatiously unconcerned about their hair, clothes, and shoes. Unkempt beards and long uncombed hair was the norm. They lounged on the angular modern furniture and padded around the room in their stocking feet. The atmosphere was that of a library with classical music.
The Music Room habituates also had unconventional political views that were all left of center. Some argued about the differences between the philosophy of Trotsky and Mao with passion. The fine points of the New Left were debated. Some students ridiculed their parents’ misplaced belief in Lenin and Stalin. Tim and I were stunned to learn that their parents had been members of the Communist Party. The Music Room was a long way from our parochial schools where nuns and priests repeatedly warned us to be prepared to become martyrs in the fight against worldwide domination by godless, atheistic communism. Redundancy was permitted for emphasis.
Free speech was an issue on campus. Herbert Aptheker, an avowed Marxist and a member of the Communist Party since 1939 who had written extensively on racial discrimination, was denied permission to speak at Ohio State. In California, student activist Mario Savio had become nationally known for the Free Speech Movement when he told demonstrators at the University of California in Berkeley. “put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, and upon the levers to make it stop!” Several people we knew from the Music Room were inspired by Savio’s example and became leaders in the effort to appeal to university authorities including the State Board of Regents to allow Aptheker to speak in furtherance of academic freedom and free speech.
Denis Kneply, an articulate, clean shaven student with rimless glasses, emerged as spokesman for free speech. Others from the Music Room and across campus threw in their lot and formed a protest group like Mario Savio’s Free Speech Front. Soon the student newspaper, The Lantern, was reporting on manifesto’s issued by the newly christened Students for Liberal Action and the response from the universitry administration.
Tim joined with the SLA and threw himself into the advocacy group. He met his future wife, Margaret, there and was fully committed. Later he was arrested by Columbus Police for hanging the American flag upside down in front of his apartment. I was more cautious. My Uncle Edward’s lost his security clearance because his father had some association with a Marxist group in California years after he left his family in Ohio when my uncle was 12 years old. This despite his service as a decorated fighter pilot in the Flying Tigers during World War II. I did not want to be telling a similar story for the rest of my life.
After class, a speaker was addressing several dozen people in the middle of the Oval where sidewalks converged. An earnest young man was standing on a wooden box calling for volunteers for Mississippi Summer. Volunteers would live together and register Negros to vote. You’ve got to put yourself on the line. It’s dangerous work, but if you believe in freedom, join me in Mississippi this summer. A noble cause that responded to the brutal discrimination that I had read about in sociology class and Newsweek magazine. I was disappointed that the president and his brother brushed aside the injustices of “Jim Crow” to curry favor with Southern racists in congress. In any case, I needed to make some money during the summer. A convenient, but valid, excuse.
Other instances of America’s questionable policies became apparent. I did a paper on our gunboat diplomacy on behalf of the United Fruit Company in Guatamaula and read that Castro may not have embraced Marxism if the U. S. had not pressed him about the claims corrupt officials and exploitative landowners. The Russians and the Chinese were beginning to act like rivals rather than communists ideologues. Every reform was met with the charge that it would weaken capitalism and contribute to the advance of socialism and communism.
As I became aware of the flaws in my government’s policies, my faith in America remained firm. I continued to respond emotionally to the “Star Spangled Banner” before ball games on TV and the flag filled the screen. I wore my ROTC uniform on campus with pride and kept trying to spit shine my shoes although, on drill days, I didn’t frequent the Music Room. I even considered Advanced ROTC.
The day of the 1963 May Day Parade was sunny and warm. We were sweltering in our wool uniforms. . Despite instructions not to lock knees while standing with our hands behind our backs in “Parade Rest” formation while we waited our place in the parade on the Oval, several cadets apparently ignored the order, passed out and slumped to the grass. As instructed, the rest of us stared straight ahead while a sergeant brought smelling salts to the fallen cadet. After an eternity of speeches, we marched in good order past the reviewing officers, swiveled our necks when an officer shouted “Eyes Right” and received salutes from the assembled brass. Soon we were dismissed in a nearby parking lot. My military career had concluded with my honorable service in ROTC.
On that sunny day in May, I doubted that I would ever see the ROTC march on the Oval again. If I was not working, I would not take time from my studies in a lounge or, more likely, sitting at a canteen table in the Student Union to watch uniformed sophomores parade before a reviewing stand heavy with brass.
In 1965, my senior year, I did return not as a spectator, but as a demonstrator protesting the Vietnam War. I had come to believe that the “domino theory” was bunk and Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist. I had neighbors and students who had flunked out who were serving in the military and could soon be at war in the mountains and jungles of Vietnam. Needlessly.
I stood with Tim Dempsey and a couple of dozen students behind a single strand of rope that had been strung on poles as a temporary boundary for spectators. As we stepped over the rope, a short older woman, dressed for church, jerked up and glowered at us. Other called us “commies, pinkos, traitors, punks, queers, pussies, cowards,” and other names that only made us more confident and righteous.
A few radicals had wanted to stand in the path of the parade and block the cadets, but most of us did not want to risk arrest. We settled on a raucous chant to the passing sophomore cadets. “Peace, Not War!” was alternated with “We’re Not Going to Study War No More.” Campus police gathered on around our group with billy clubs in hand, and prepared to make arrests if our protest went beyond verbal assaults. After the last cadets passed our position, we went to Larry’s Bar on High Street for toast each other and congratulate ourselves for speaking truth to power. It was spring. The sap was running. Our blood was stirring. We were alive and involved in the world.
Tim and I did not doubt that we and other protesters were the true patriots. We told each other that we following Thoreau and Gandhi in pursuing loftier moral principles and a better country through civil disobedience. There was some narcissism and exuberance of youth in the spring, but the perspective a half century later confirms our choices in 1965. We were indeed patriots.