Camel's Hair and Locusts: The Day America Died



On a cold day in April, 1973, I drove quietly up Old 27 so as to pay my last respects to the American dream. Passing the small, struggling old farms of central Michigan, I was on my way to East Pleasant Valley Road, to park in view of my grandmother’s house on the day it was to be burned to the ground to make way for a new subdivision. 

Homesteaded in 1862, the work on the house was finished in 1868 when my great-great grandmother dealt with the hardship of her husband’s untimely death by paying a workman $8 to finish the upstairs.  He had asked for $12, and in the quibbling that ensued, never finished two adjoining bedrooms which were used ever afterward as an attic. In my childhood, this was a vast and dusty treasure trove of outdated items and memorabilia that ranged from my great grandmother's old pump organ to the Atwater Kent battery powered radio that would eventually give way to the 1937 Coronado 810 console that sits on my porch today. The Coronado was purchased when the power lines went through. No Sunday visit to Grandma's was complete without cajoling my dad into a tour of the attic and a game of “what's this?” as we would pick up one odd object after another and be told that it was an old apple peeler, an old flour sifter, an old kerosene lamp, and on and on. The old farmhouse had been an enduring and much beloved fixture in my life for as long as I could remember, and coming to grips with the terrible truth that it was not also a permanent fixture, as I had always supposed it to be, proved difficult to say the least. 

Along with the house, there was the old barn that was of the slant roof variety common before the more modern hip roof style took precedence in the 1880s, and it, as well as the chicken coop and brood house, a milk house built over a free flowing artesian well, and a neat carriage house that in more recent times had been converted into a garage, all gave testimony to the well earned reputation for carpentry that had distinguished the Hutchinson side of my family. All of these buildings were still strong and solid well into their old age, and even after my grandfather’s prolonged illness required slowly shutting down the operation of the farm in the mid and late 1950s, my grandmother managed to keep everything up to an acceptable level, and did so with the intent that one day someone would come along who would put it all back up in operation.

After Grandpa's death in 1963, this all took on an added poignancy. I was nine at the time and the thought never occurred to me that I would be the one to resurrect the last remaining family farm. All I knew was that I loved this place like no other. By this time, it had been reduced to 60 acres, but those 60 acres were glorious. The Little Salt River meandered through the west side of the property, and there was an island that was the result of an oxbow in the old river. Grandpa had a built a little white, wooden footbridge to the island for my mom and my aunt and uncle, and my sisters and I used it just as they had. The grazing cows kept it mowed, and it looked like a primeval garden. I guess it was. On the far end to the east, there was an 11 acre stand of virgin, uncut timber that rose majestically above the new growth woods around it, and which was populated with rabbits and raccoons. There was a beautiful giant oak tree that stood between the woods and the back forty, and this was a picnic spot like no other on a warm summer day, and I took great pride in knowing that it had served the same purpose for three previous generations of farmers and teams. The house sat on a high hill overlooking the river flats, and I remember working my courage up for the thrill of that first ride down this hill on the Flexible Flyer I got for Christmas one year. I was not disappointed. And in those days it never dawned on me at all that this paradise ever would—or ever could—just cease to exist and be gone forever.

I have heard it said by many others, and I have said so myself, that it must be incredibly hard being a kid growing up in today’s world. Or in the world of the 80s, 90s and 2000s when we were raising our family. But it wasn’t exactly a picnic growing up when I did in the 1960s, either. I was aware at the time that it was a blessing that the middle of Michigan was a quiet and peaceful area that not only seemed to be, but was, removed and isolated from all the turmoil that seemed to engulf the rest of the country and the world. However, it wasn't like we were unaffected by it either. 

I remember the strange, sinking feeling that November day in 1963 when Mr. Brock told our fifth grade class that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Like I suppose millions of other kids across the country at that moment, we were asked to lay our heads down on our desks and quietly pray for our president and our country. And, like I suppose millions of other kids across the country at that moment, we did. After what must have been the longest half hour in history, we received the bad news that the president had died, and that we were to leave school quietly and go straight home. 

I ran into Phil Huffine on the way home from school. He was two years older than me, but he lived just around the corner from my house, and we were friends and hung out together. I was always small for my age and I had a big mouth, which made me a target of the neighborhood bullies. And while Phil was a fat kid and not a tough one, he was still a lot bigger than me and looked out for me. I didn't tease him excessively about his size, and he didn't let me get bullied, and so it worked for both of us. In light of the shocking news of the president's assassination, I suppose looking out for me was what he had in mind when he caught up to me and asked me if I wanted to come over to his house and do stuff. “Stuff” at Phil's house usually meant looking at his comic book collection, or bugging his older brother, Duane. 

Since Grandpa’s death, Grandma spent a lot of time at our house, which worked out well since my mother had recently gone to work for my dad in his auto repair shop. She was sitting on the edge of her chair watching the news on the big, black and white Silvertone in the living room instead of “As the World Turns” as she usually did. Her big collie-shepherd, Buster, lay next to her on the floor, and even he looked concerned and worried. I asked if I could go to Phil’s house, and she thought it might be a good idea if we just played as usual in light of the darkness and uncertainty that was gripping the nation. I was to stay at his house so she knew where I was, and I was told to be home before dinner time.

We walked into Phil’s house just as his mother turned off the TV. She’d had as much of the assassination news as she could take, and told us we could do pretty much anything that didn’t involve watching the TV. The Kennedy news would be all that was on the three networks until after the funeral took place on Monday. This was Friday afternoon. On Sunday afternoon, we would take Grandma to St. Johns for my Great Uncle Archie and Great Aunt Grace’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, and while my folks were getting ready, I sat by myself watching the big Silvertone as Jack Ruby stepped up, put a gun into the midsection of Lee Harvey Oswald, and pulled the trigger. The news came over the car radio on the way home that Oswald had died, and the fact that I had witnessed a man being shot to death on TV became the most haunting aspect of this strange, surreal weekend for me.   

We went upstairs and heard the radio on in Duane’s room. He yelled at us to come in, and we did, and he was sitting at the desk in his room listening to the coverage that his mother had just banned downstairs. He was visibly upset and obviously shaken. “Nothing will ever be the same again,” he said. And he was right. Nothing ever was.

Duane Huffine was a top student and an excellent athlete. He ran track and did so very successfully as I remember. He was two years older than Phil, which made him four years older than me, so I was always quiet around him, while he gave it to Phil as big brothers do. I was always appreciative of the fact that he was usually nice to me unless I did something that particularly aggravated him. And it wasn’t lost on me that the reason bigger kids didn’t bully me when I was with Phil was more because of Duane than it was Phil. One time when we were at the school playground, Danny Crumm and a friend of his who were both Duane’s age started picking on us and, as usual, I made a smart remark that resulted in us getting beat up. Phil got the worst of it and went home with his nose bloodied. When Duane asked Phil what had happened, he told him, and without saying a word Duane grabbed his jacket and was out the door. He was back in about half an hour and only said, “Don't worry. They won’t bother you again.” When Phil asked him what he had done, Duane just told us to forget about it. And we weren’t bothered again. 

With LBJ in the White House, “Vietnam” went from being an obscure country in Southeast Asia that many Americans were vaguely aware of at best, to the lead story on the news every night. The struggle of the black population to achieve civil rights was a close rival. As the war steadily escalated to a presence of well over 500,000 US troops by 1968, so did the objections of the American public. 

A lot of things seemed to come to a head in 1968. The civil rights movement, which had been the domestic equivalent of Vietnam in terms of the way it disturbed and divided the nation, lost its leader when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April. The specter of Dallas in 1963 raised its ugly head when Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was cut short by assassination in Los Angeles in early June. And serving as the backdrop for the great unrest that swept the country was the reality of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which took place at the end of January and into February, and which demonstrated that even the presence of an army of 500,000 could not contain the communists. The word “unwinnable” became linked to Vietnam, and the intensity of the demonstrations in the streets approached open warfare between police and protestors, most notably at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, but in numerous other locations as well. And the race riots in Baltimore and Chicago and dozens of other cities rivaled those of Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.   

It surprised no one that Duane Huffine, a straight A, straight laced, clean cut and patriotic young man, enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating from high school in 1967. What surprised Phil Huffine and I was how much he had changed and how different he was when he came home on leave in what I believe must have been the fall of 1968. I don't know what Duane did, and if I knew exactly where he served I’ve forgotten it, but I do remember that he grabbed Phil and me by the front of our shirts, drew us up into his face, and said angrily, “If either of you is stupid enough to enlist in the Army like I did, I will personally kick your ass.” Since there were few persons on planet earth that I respected like I did Duane Huffine, this was an unveiled threat that I not only found shocking, but took to heart.

From about this time, the Vietnam War loomed in my consciousness like a great and terrible storm on the horizon that grew nearer to me as I became older and more aware of what it truly was. A meat grinder, an abomination, a horror, and such other things it was called, and I agreed. In the fall of 1968, I was a sophomore in high school and turned 15. Duane Huffine is a personal example I cite here, but he was only one of many guys coming home from Vietnam with the same message for those of us a few years younger and in danger of heading down the same path: “Don't.” 

My “radicalization” had begun. I soon discovered that radicals, that is those who opposed the war, showed up in some seemingly unlikely places. One was my elderly and stern Geography and World Affairs teacher, Mrs. Ruth Woods, and another was my own even more elderly grandmother. 

In the fall of 1968, Mrs. Woods did a class project on the Vietnam War in which we were split into teams and had to research the enemy casualty figures for the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, as reported by the United States Military. The numbers we came up with were astounding, and there is debate to this day as to whether, or how much, the numbers may have been padded to make it seem that we were winning a war that was, in actuality, a perpetual stalemate. The number we came up with through 1967 was around 800,000 enemy dead. In total, it was widely held that during the course of American involvement in the war, well over 1,000,000 North Vietnamese regulars and Vietcong had been killed, and even if there is truth in the Defense Department’s later claim that these numbers were inflated by as much as 30 percent, it still meant that Mrs. Wood's point was well taken: With an estimated total population of 15 million, the US should have already killed virtually every North Vietnamese man who was of military age. [1] Yet the communist forces kept growing, and the casualties inflicted kept mounting, and more and more American troops were called into the fighting. “Where are all the communist soldiers coming from?” Mrs. Woods asked rhetorically. Pulling down the retractable map of Asia above the blackboard, she tapped her pointer on Communist China. Moving the pointer to Vietnam she said, “Since some of you may be asked to go here in a few short years, I thought we should explore why so many are now saying that this war is unwinnable. You may face some very hard decisions, and I won't tell you what I think you should do, but I will tell you that any decision you make should be an informed decision.”

My grandmother’s radical nature was a little more subtle, as she had my patriotic, World War II era parents to contend with, and it was never her nature to be confrontational. During a car ride on a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1968, I made the comment that I thought a lot of what the demonstrators were protesting about the war was legitimate. This seemed an outrage to my parents, and brought on a lesson in patriotism that centered around blind trust in the government, especially in matters of war, and then morphed into a conversation about how much they had enjoyed their own military experience on Long Island, where my dad had been stationed. As they were talking, Grandma leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I don't see anything wrong with protesting the war. I’m still protesting the last three.” By that time we were approaching the Giant Super Market, and my mother had turned the conversation to the disgrace and dishonor the long hair and beards worn by so many of the protestors brought upon the nation. When Grandma spotted someone with just such long hair and a beard coming out of the store, she piped up and said, “Why, look at that young man! He looks just like Christ! Worse than that yet!” She had made her point and silenced my mother, while my dad laughed so hard that he almost ran into the building.   
           
In the “revisionist history” of this time, we are rightfully supposed to be appalled at the fact that so many of our proud sons coming home from Vietnam were spit upon and ridiculed. What has been lost sight of is the fact that much of this reaction from the patriotic “God Bless America” public was due to the fact that so many of these young veterans came home cursing the war and denouncing the nation’s participation in it: denouncing the nation itself. The anti-war movement really took off and really began to rock the streets of America when it became impossible to pass it off as merely the cause of hippie college kids strung out on drugs, sex and rock and roll. And the word “revolution” had taken on a more ominous tone due to the disillusioned and angry Vietnam vets, who were professionally trained soldiers, and who were now quietly and rapidly swelling the ranks of the revolutionaries. High school age children like myself began to be swept up in the events of these times, as we began responding to the fact that our big brothers, older cousins, and those of our friends, were coming home disillusioned, more than a little crazy, and very angry; and they were telling us why. Some didn't come home at all, and many of those who did were saying to us, “Hell no, don't go!” And by 1968, a much bigger crowd was taking to the streets and singing along with Buffalo Springfield, “Stop, children, what's that sound?  Everybody look what's going down!”

What was going down?

By the dawn of 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been law for approaching 4 years, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for nearly 3. The protests and demands of black Americans had turned to not if equality and justice would ever become a reality, but when. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had, by this time, become a public figure of wide renown who was widely and greatly respected across a broad spectrum of the American population, and particularly among the youth of the nation. For those too young to remember Dr. King, it is impossible, even through the films and recordings of his speeches and sermons, to properly capture the full charisma of the man or the influence that he grew to wield beyond the civil rights movement. While his “I Have a Dream” speech, given at the March on Washington in August of 1963 is his most famous, a lesser known speech today entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” is easily his most controversial. In this April, 1967 address given at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, he denounces not only the war in Southeast Asia, but human injustice of all kinds. Let his own words speak to us in this excerpt:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Many feared him to be a particularly marked man from the point of this speech on, and, one year later, on April 4, 1968, on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was shot to death.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had earned the respect to be referred to simply as “Dr. King,” so Robert F. Kennedy had earned the affection and familiarity to be referred to simply as “Bobby.” And as Dr. King did not shy away from the highly charged word “revolution” in the speech cited above, Bobby Kennedy created in the public mind the idea that this revolution could be won from within the political system rather than through the violent overthrow of it, as was supposed by so many of the radical left extremists of the day. Sensing correctly the political vulnerability of LBJ in his narrow defeat of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12 New Hampshire Primary, Bobby announced his own candidacy for president on March 16, and until his death by assassin’s bullet on June 6, the chants of “Bobby! Bobby!” grew louder and louder, and the crowds he drew grew larger and larger, until he was filling venues like the rock stars of his day, and was greeted with the same kind of emotion, devotion and enthusiasm. In the aftermath of the King assassination, Bobby had picked up the mantle of the civil rights movement and, like a snowball rolling downhill, his campaign picked up not only blacks and other minorities, but the poor and disenfranchised, and captured the imagination of Americans who saw in him the legacy of JFK not only completed, but perfected. As Martin Luther King captured the vision of a society “Beyond Vietnam,” so Bobby Kennedy captured the vision of bringing this society about with a presidency “Beyond Camelot.” In California in early June, his defeat of the once highly favored McCarthy signaled that he had gained the support of the youth anti-war movement as well. The juggernaut of his campaign now looked unstoppable, as he closed his victory speech with the words, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” 

Moments later he was fatally wounded.

In the summer of 1968, I encountered another unlikely radical in our pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Ross Macdonald. Ross was a Canadian from Hamilton, Ontario, and a terrific minister who had built our little church into a very viable Christian community during the few years he had been there. He was an avid baseball fan, which endeared him to those of us who were afflicted with the same passion for the game, so much so that we even tolerated his affection for the Los Angeles Dodgers and tried to be sympathetic, as he still bemoaned their move to the west coast from Brooklyn. Our church youth program was outstanding, and through selling Christmas trees and by operating a food concession wagon at local fairs and festivals, we made enough money each year for a summer retreat to some distant locale, and in 1968 the destination chosen for this was Cambridge, New York, where we would spend half a day working on a painting project at an old folks home and the other half having fun. Which we did.

The radical part came into play as we made our way to Upstate New York via Hamilton, Ontario, where Ross’s brother, Murray, pastored a much larger Presbyterian Church. Hamilton was the halfway point in our journey, and Murray’s church was kind enough to put us up overnight both coming and going.  The church had a gymnasium and the gymnasium had several large rooms that were set up as dormitories. The girls were sequestered in one of these rooms, and we boys shared space in a couple of others with a group of young men who apparently lived on the premises. There were maybe a dozen or so. Maybe more. We didn't think too much about it, and thought maybe it was another church group on retreat. One of Murray’s sons was a year or so older than I was at the time, and offered to take some of us boys on a ride up to see the city lights from a high hill overlooking the city. The view was breathtaking, and as we sat there talking, I asked our host how Canada viewed the Vietnam War. He laughed and said, “We consider it a big joke.” Suddenly sensing our ignorance, he asked, “Don't you know who those guys are staying in the dorms? They're Americans, like you but a few years older. Don’t you get it? They didn’t go to the Army when they got drafted, they came here. I shouldn’t have told you, so nobody say a word, okay?” We agreed and we didn't.

At least I didn’t until we were back home. One night after a youth group meeting, I asked Ross about the young men at Murray’s Church, and he quickly ushered me into his office and shut the door. He was evasive and never said that he knew what we both knew about the young men in Murray’s dorms, but he did tell me that the Presbyterian Church had what he referred to as an “underground railroad” that helped move young men from the United States into what he called “living situations” in Canada.  He told me that all I needed to know was that, given the horrible escalation in the war over the past year or so, and the great political uncertainty in the country at that time, I had what he called “another option” than military service. Finally he let down his guard a little and said, “Look, I’m a Canadian citizen and I don't have the emotional investment in this stupid war that your folks do. I’m also a guest in this country and I like it here. However, I do have a commitment to do what is right and what is Christian for you boys, and the point of stopping at Murray’s was to let you see that you have this other option. Keep it quiet, respect it, and just know that it’s there if you need it and choose to use it.” My usual big mouth aside, I suddenly found myself mature enough to keep this quiet, and it was some years later, when none of this mattered anymore, before I finally discussed this with my friends who were there in Canada with me. And who at some point had the same quiet talk with Ross that I did. Eventually, this would influence me towards studying for the Presbyterian ministry, but that’s a story for another time.

The November election in 1968 was between LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the Republican, Richard Nixon, and third party “segregationist” candidate, George Wallace. Like many others, I feared a Humphrey presidency would prove to be merely an extension of the failed Johnson Administration, and that for me this would result in either a military career in the jungles of Southeast Asia or a lonely new life in Canada. Wallace was essentially campaigning as the “anti-Dr. King,” as many white Southerners saw support for the passage of the Civil Rights and Voter’s Rights legislation by the Johnson Administration as a betrayal of the Southern “Dixiecrat” base. Fortunately, a majority of white people elsewhere had come to accept civil rights as an idea whose time had come, and Wallace’s strident presence in the election actually helped gain support for civil rights by demonstrating the ugliness of the bigotry against it. Nixon campaigned on the promise to “deescalate” the war and eventually end it through what he promoted, in true Nixonian fashion, as a “secret peace plan.” And he vowed to restore law and order to the streets.

Mercifully, 1968 finally ended. Richard Nixon was elected president and eventually the Vietnam War ended, and the progress towards racial equality was not turned back to the days of Jim Crow, though there were some like George Wallace who tried to make this happen. However, the “revolution of values” that Dr. King spoke so eloquently about never happened either, and virtually all of the injustices he spoke of in April of 1967 are with us today. Many are worse now than then, and we’ve managed to add some new ones. Before he left office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned the nation to “beware of the military-industrial complex,” and if he was to speak his words of warning today he would likely add the abortion-eugenics complex, the medical-pharmaceutical complex, the banking, financial and insurance complex, and the corporate agriculture-genetic modification complex. I’ll let you cite your own examples. There are many.

The war did deescalate and by the time I came of draft age in 1971, the draft lottery was in place and the draft itself was coming to an end. I drew number 230 and those with numbers of 215 or higher were never even called for physicals. Those who were a couple of years older than me had experiences similar to my cousin, Dave, who spent his time in the Army painting rocks at a base in the Arizona desert. The men in his unit were never even assigned rifles and carried wooden replicas in their marching drills. De-escalation meant men coming home from Vietnam with no replacements going over. 

History does not look kindly upon either the presidency or the person of Richard Nixon, but I remember him kindly and perhaps even owe him my life. His first term in office became defined by the horrific incident at Kent State University, and his resignation shortened second term by the Watergate scandal, but in the end he did much to bring a nation tired of war and dissent back to a more peaceful way of life. As two of my closest friends and I rode around town listening to the church bells ring in celebration of the ceasefire in Vietnam on the night of January 27, 1973, I was proud that the first vote I ever cast in a presidential election went to Richard Nixon. I am not ashamed of it now. 

But the superficial peace of 1973 did not mean a revolution in values had taken place in America due to the Nixon Administration. To the contrary, it merely meant that those forces which had made blood flow in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and which profited from this and the numerous other injustices listed by Dr. King, now offered a small slice of the money pie to those who had previously supported this revolution of values, and who had called for the change necessary to bring it about in the person of Bobby Kennedy. For a period of some years after, those of my generation would point fingers at each other and hurl that greatest of insults, “sellout.” And eventually this stopped because eventually we all did.
           
In the fall of 1971, I turned 18 years old and in January of 1972, changes in the law would make me an adult. I began my first year of college that fall because it was something that it seemed everyone else thought I should do, and I was a very miserable student and had the grades to prove it. I began stealing an afternoon or so a week in which I would drive my 1965 Triumph Herald up to my grandmother’s farm, and I would take the little car down the tractor path along the back forty and end up under the big oak for a quiet time of thought and meditation. I desperately needed a change in my life, and as I thought about what this might be, I would look across the landscape of the old farm, sometimes walk the river flats, and, on this crisp and sunny October day, with the old growth woods in full and glorious color, I suddenly realized I was looking at it. This was where I wanted to be. This was what I wanted to do. This was home. 

Many times I would come to the farm when my Grandma was at our house in Alma. It was only 7 or 8 miles, but it was just far enough to be inconvenient to check on a regular basis, so I got so I would do it as an excuse to go there. I’d take Grandma’s extra key from its secret hiding place, and I would check out the house, always neat as a pin and clean as a whistle. I’d look in the garage, check out the barn, sometimes open up the chicken coop or the milk house. On a warm day it was always a good thing to turn on the power to the pump at the deep well by the barn, and wait as the angle iron mechanism of the old pump worked itself slowly up and down until the cold, crystal clear water would come tumbling out of the spigot. Grandpa’s heavy glass beer mug was still in the little wooden box he had built for it Lord knows how many years before, and a mug of this water seemed to have the power to quench any thirst.

On this day, Grandma was home and I decided to stop and say hello and talk to her about the future. It was a very interesting talk. She told me that her old age had become a time of waiting and wondering about what would become of the farm. This seemed like a preordained que, and I proceeded to spill out to her all I had been thinking about: How much I loved the farm, how much I wanted to see it fixed up and up and running again in some fashion. We talked for a long time about the way the world was then, and about how much at it had changed since she was born in 1890. Even I was smart enough to know that operating the farm as a farm as originally intended wouldn't work, and it was impossible to make a living doing this. But with a good job and with some time to learn and grow into the responsibility, neither of us saw any reason why I wouldn’t be able to a least preserve the beauty of the property and the idea of the old farm, if not the actual reality of it. And it would be a glorious place to live.

So, the plan we came up with worked like this: We would go through the winter and neither of us would say anything to anyone about this. Before spring, she would change her will so that in the unhappy event of her death, I would inherit the property. She realized that this would result in some wailing and gnashing of teeth from the heirs to her estate—my mother, my aunt and the descendents of my late uncle—but since none of them had any real affection for the property or a desire to preserve it, she was willing to endure that. They would have to be happy with what she divvied up for them from her small savings and personal effects. I would move into the farmhouse in the spring, and she would continue to split time with my family in Alma, with the farm continuing as her primary residence. We would evolve a plan for transferal of ownership when I was ready, and she would teach me how she currently managed the property by renting out acreage to cover the insurance and the taxes. I confided in her that I did not like going to college, and she told me to make my own decisions and run my own life, and to trust in God that it would all work out according to His plan.

Well, it turned out that God’s plan was far different from the one we envisioned. On the night of January 29, 1972, while carrying a roasting pan heaped with her famous fried chicken up a steep flight of stairs to a dinner at the Shepherd Oddfellows Hall, my grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack and, as her life ended, mine changed forever. I told my parents about what Grandma and I had talked about, and my mother derided me first for making up such a tale, and secondly for actually being stupid enough to think that I could do something so far beyond my level of talent and intelligence as to take an old farmstead and turn it into a viable life for myself. In another time and another place, I would do exactly this, and I would do it in part just to show her that I could, but, again, this is another story for another time. My mother, her sister, and her sister-in-law unanimously agreed that the farm was to be sold, the contents auctioned, and the proceeds split evenly between them. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, and my mother and her family sold mine for $60,000. Grandma gave me the 1937 Coronado on the porch, so I still have that. I’ve rebuilt it, and in the summer, I listen to the Detroit Tigers on it like Grandpa, and sometimes I still wonder why I can’t do so on the same front porch that he did.

And so there I was, on a day a year removed from when I should have been moving into my future, instead parked and looking at the old house as it stared blindly back at me from it’s smashed out windows, and, as the flames began to crawl up its sides and emerge from its interior, I watched it become irretrievably and forever a part of my past.

Dr. King told us over 45 years ago that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” In those years, this has continued unabated and it continues unto this very day. Those who remember the tumultuous times of the 1960s honestly are aware that none of the reforms he so envisioned have been truly realized; that racism is a reality that still swells our prisons with black faces as it did then, that poverty is an even greater reality, that the distance between rich and poor grows rather than shrinks, that war is still the way of settling differences, and that all of these things, now as then, remain unjust. The question then becomes, just when did America encounter the spiritual death that Dr. King warned of, and when was the day America died? Many say it was the day President Kennedy was assassinated, or the day when it was Dr. King, or the day shortly thereafter when it was Bobby.  In the end, it is the day in which one’s heart is finally broken, and so for me, America died on a cold April day in 1973.

In contrast to the “revolution of values” called for in the 1960s, it is a travesty of our times when a machine politician from Chicago, cut more from the political cloth of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is claimed instead to be descendant to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. When terms such as “hope” and “change” are bandied about as hollow political slogans, and such an injustice as murder of the unborn can be added to the list of injustices so attested to by Dr. King, it makes one realize how far we have fallen since hope was a revolution of values, change was the courage to attack a corrupted political system, and Christian men were willing to be martyred for their faith in God and in an America that demanded something better than politics as usual. It has been said that Dr. Martin Luther King was the last Christian to proclaim the gospel in the public square, and, if this is so, then Bobby Kennedy was the last Catholic politician to put the social teachings of the faith ahead of his own political agenda; indeed, to make it his own political agenda.  And he did so that government of the people, by the people, and for the people might have one last chance to not perish from the face of the earth. Surely those who remember the man and remember the times can paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s words to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debates: Mr. President, we knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of ours. Mr. President, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” We also knew Dr. King and we knew Bobby. They were friends of ours. And he isn’t them either.

In 1968 those with hope who demanded change stood in the streets shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.  Hope was killed on a balcony in Memphis. Change died from wounds received in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of these times, America has become a spiritually dead land of political zombies who roam our streets devouring the brains of the public, as they substitute rhetoric for action and claim sin as the realization of our goals. For 45 years we have walked the road to hell paved with our own good intentions, and if this is the moment in history to stand up once again in solidarity and try to do something about it, then we should realize the truth and the reality of what this means: Radicals may be found where you least expect them, but solidarity ain’t no party.  It’s a revolution. 

Phil Ropp

Phil Ropp publishes the online news portal  Radio New Jerusalem