A Granny for Peace told of finding young allies in the struggle against military recruiting. Due to the PATRIOT Act, she wishes to remain nameless.
It’s never easy being a parent or a child. The generations always have friction between them, a conflict between the elders’ need to give guidance and youths’ need to find their own way. I grew up in the 1950s, when the USA was very conservative and bound by traditions. My parents’ generation had grown up in the Depression amid poverty and then struggled through World War Two with its threat of death and destruction. By the time they were ready to start families, they were fixated on stability and security. They measured their progress by their possessions: buying their first car, first television, first house. Their morality centered on controlling sexuality and protecting private property. Their religion was a death cult of stern patriarchs, obedient virgins, innocent babies, and threats of eternal torture. Their deepest philosophy was, “There is no free lunch.” The peak of their scientific achievement was the hydrogen bomb. Fear was their strongest emotion.
I was raised in an ethos of striving for money. My parents were landlords. With the help of a small inheritance to my mother and my father’s unionized factory job, they’d bought a duplex house on a long mortgage. They rented the other half out, scrimped and saved, and were able to get another mortgage on a rundown four-unit apartment building. They worked every weekend fixing it up and in a few years had enough equity to buy another building. My dad was able to quit his factory job and devote full time to property management. The more money he made, the harder he worked ― it was a drug. He and my mother were always fixing places up, showing them to prospective tenants, shopping for new properties, and fighting with tenants over rent raises. They ran on coffee and tranquilizers and were always exhausted. Dad had ulcers and mom psoriasis. By the time I was in high school, we lived in a great big house and they owned a dozen buildings filled with factory workers like he’d started out as. He said they could all have what we had if they weren’t so lazy. Conveniently forgetting the inheritance that had given us the initial advantage, he was now the American dream of the self-made man.
That’s when my parents and I started getting into fights. I couldn’t articulate my feelings about it, so they came out as sullenness, but what I sensed was that dad and mom had sacrificed everything for money and now that was all they had, and it wasn’t worth it. The money itself came from the tenants ― where else? The high rent those people paid kept them poor, locked them onto the proletarian treadmill with their labor generating prosperity for my parents and the factory owners. I didn’t think the tenants were lazy. I thought they wanted to do something else besides work all the time. When they saw what wrecks my parents were, who could blame them for not wanting to scramble all their lives to build a real estate empire?
My friends too were having lots of fights with their parents. We were alienated from their values and determined not to end up like them. We’d grown up with financial security, so it meant little to us. We could see how our parents’ obsession with material objects, their sexual repression, and their constant anxiety had warped them. We didn’t want to pay such a high psychic price for security, so we rebelled. We rejected their morality, their culture, their racism, and their wars. And they fought back bitterly, accusing us of scorning their sacrifices, of trying to destroy the institutions they’d worked so hard to sustain.
And it was true. Destruction was my generation’s greatest talent, and we were surrounded by a society that needed destroying. We arrogantly defied their attempts to make us obey and disdained their efforts to preserve the old ways. We dismantled as much as we could: segregation, the draft, chastity, gender roles. In our rage to change, we kicked holes in the walls of a constrictive environment. We didn’t break out of this dungeon, but we let fresh air into the stagnant atmosphere we’d inherited.
My parents hoped I would marry a guy with good business sense, and we would take over and expand their properties into a dynasty. They were disappointed when I married a sociology student, but they gave him all sorts of unwanted advice about how once he had a job he could buy and fix up properties in his spare time and rent them out. Chris, my husband, explained how a compulsive drive for money squelches the human psyche and how landlords are a parasitic class in society. They reacted as if they’d been insulted, and I guess they had been. Disappointed that we were rejecting what they most valued, they predicted a life of deprivation for me, a sinking down to the level of their tenants, from which they had worked so hard to escape.
Chris and I became professors (anthropology for me), and although our income isn’t high, we have enough.
My parents were delighted when we had a child. They doted on Josh, and he liked being with them. They even put a bumper sticker on their Cadillac: “If we’d known grandchildren were so much fun, we would’ve had them first!”
My generation expected our kids would finish the job we had started and tear down the social walls, breaking on through to liberation. But our expectations met with as much disappointment as our parents’ had. The new generation enjoyed the fresh air we’d provided: creativity, sexual permissiveness, tolerance of diversity, self-expression. They took these values for granted, just as we had with the material security we’d grown up with. Of course some kids weren’t this docile and did oppose established power, but they were the exceptions. Most didn’t protest. Their main goal was something we paid lip service to but deep-down distrusted: enjoying life. Many things displeased them ― lower wages, expensive education, shrinking opportunities ― but the hard battles needed to overthrow corporate rulership didn’t appeal to them. Rather than rebelling, they accepted the well-ventilated dungeon they found themselves in.
Josh is sensitive and caring, a much more easy-going person than I was growing up. But changing the world isn’t his priority. In high school he started working for his grandfather, painting and doing odd jobs on the properties. The two of them got along great.
Although Josh is bright, he didn’t study particularly hard and stopped his education with a junior college degree, then went to work full-time for his grandfather, moving up into the business side of it. He met a nice girl, and they got married. He didn’t have his grandfather’s energy and ambition, but he was making a decent salary and had a free place to live, so he was content. He and his wife became gourmet cooks.
I have to admit I was disappointed by his complacency, but I was also thankful that he and his wife were wholesome, not into drugs or self-destructiveness. They were a pleasant, stable family. Their son, Mark, was a delightful boy, and then they had a daughter, Linda, a real dear. I didn’t mind baby-sitting at all.
As our grandchildren grew older, my husband and I enjoyed an easy communication with them. By the time Mark was in high school, we were having real intellectual discussions. I didn’t have to persuade him to be against the war, he was that way spontaneously.
When the army set up a recruiting booth in Mark’s school, he decided to oppose it with a counter-recruiting booth. This is now legal, thanks to long court battles fought by the peace movement. Grannies for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and the War Resisters League ― my favorite political organizations ― have programs to defend kids against the lies that recruiters use to round up new bodies for the war.
Mark told his school administration he wanted to put a booth next to the army’s. They told him only registered student groups were allowed booths, he couldn’t do it as an individual. So he decided to form a club. Finding enough students to join was the easy part; the hard part was clearing all the bureaucratic hurdles the administration put in their way.
Finally Students for Peace was approved and given permission to set up an information table. It couldn’t be right next to the army booth but rather across the hall “to avoid congestion.” Linda (she’s in junior high now) and I painted banners proclaiming “Not Your Soldier!” and “Recruiters Lie!” and ordered brochures about what to really expect when you join the military and about ways to finance college without enlisting in Murder, Inc.
Josh and his wife were worried their children would turn into troublemakers and were perturbed at me for “egging them on.”
The students had the great idea to dress up in Halloween skeleton costumes and to hand out glasses of red cranberry juice that looked like blood. As Mark told me later, the costumes and drinks were a great hit. They totally undermined the “career counseling” the recruiters claimed to be offering and showed what the military was really about. The two sergeants complained to the principal, who agreed with them that this was unfair. An info table was one thing, but ridicule was going too far. Plus the school dress code didn’t include skeleton costumes. Either change clothes and get rid of the cranberry juice, or he’d shut down the table.
Mark and his friends obeyed, but then began singing the Funeral March: “Gone to the morgue, that’s the only place for me,” just loud enough so people at the recruiting booth could hear. A crowd of students had gathered by then, and a lively open debate was going on about the pros and cons of enlisting. The school has a Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program, and the members were there in uniform supporting the recruiters. Some of the future officers got upset and frustrated by the debate and turned over the counter-recruiting table.
The principal came back mad and said Students for Peace were causing a disturbance and he was putting a stop to their “publicity stunt.” He had the janitor remove the table to the storeroom and ordered all the students to clear the hall.
Next week when the recruiters were due to come back, Mark and his friends asked again to set up a table and said they wouldn’t sing. The principal refused, saying they had violated school regulations, and if they pulled anything like this again, he would dissolve the club.
The students met at my house, angry about these repressive tactics. They decided that if they couldn’t set up an info table, there wasn’t much reason to have a club, so might as well keep protesting even if the club got banned.
I loved these kids ― they were so smart, full of spirit, and unintimidated by authority. They were much bolder than I was at that age. But they were also more rash and reckless.
As Mark told me later, they organized a counterattack. One of them found on the internet instructions for making a stink bomb, some disgusting mix of sulfur, hair, and rubber bands. They got a trash can and painted “Death Stinks” on it, then glued the stink bomb to the bottom of the can. Mark and a friend lit the bomb outside the school door, slapped the lid on the garbage can, and carried it inside, wearing ski masks to hide their faces. In front of the recruiting booth, they pulled the lid off the can, shouting, “Death stinks!” as putrid smoke billowed out.
“Get those guys!” the recruiting sergeant ordered the Junior ROTCs standing next to the booth. Mark and his friend ran out the door, but the ROTCs caught up. Mark tried to ward them off using the garbage can lid as a shield, as if it were a jousting game. But the ROTCs were mostly jocks, tough and mean, and were after blood. They kicked and beat the two boys, pulled off their masks, and held them there until the principal arrived. He suspended the two of them from school for a week but didn’t do anything to the others.
Hurt and mad, Mark went home, got a hammer and nails, and returned to school. In the parking lot he found the recruiters’ car and pounded a nail into each tire.
He and his friend were arrested for vandalism, malicious mischief, and destroying government property, and were expelled from school. The police told them they had ironclad proof, but if both boys pleaded guilty, they could get off with probation. If they pleaded innocent, though, they’d get at least three months in juvenile hall and their parents would have to pay a five thousand dollar fine. All that time in juvie would mean they’d fail a semester of school and wouldn’t graduate with their class.
I visited Mark in the detention center. He was scared by the police threats, but we wondered how they could have proof. He was sure no one had seen him. Even his friend didn’t know what Mark had done, but the cops claimed he was part of it. We decided they were probably bluffing to get them to confess.
I hired an attorney, and she urged both boys to plead innocent. The police made more threats but eventually had to drop the charges for lack of evidence.
The principal said they were still expelled from school, so they would fail the semester and not graduate. At this, the lawyer threatened to sue the school. Expulsion is much more serious than suspension and requires evidence. The school backed down and readmitted both boys.
The best news, though, was that the recruiters decided this school wasn’t worth the hassles and stopped setting up their booth. To celebrate the victory, my husband and I took all the Students for Peace out to dinner. They’re a great bunch of youngsters. I’m so glad there’s a new crop of activists coming up.
Josh and his wife were upset about Mark getting into trouble, worried this would damage his future. To them it was the same as if he’d been arrested for drugs or shoplifting ― a black mark on his record. They were angry at me for “putting him up to it.”
Their discomfort about defying authorities reminded me of something my father had told me before he died. He confided to me that during the 1930s his father had joined the Communist Party, was arrested several times for agitating, and was fired from his job due to his political activities. Dad was embarrassed to tell me this, as if it was a shameful family secret he had to get off his chest.
I never knew my grandfather, but hearing the story, I very much wished I had. We could have enjoyed the same cross-generational bond I now treasure with Mark and Linda.
“Generations of Resistance to War” is a chapter from Radical Peace: People Refusing War, which presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Other chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website.