Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Which side are you on, boys?

I admired Len Edgerly's column Tuesday on Medium: "Dalton Trumbo: 'It will do you no good to search for heroes and villains.' " It's notable in its restraint, a parable for our times. It's about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the 2015 film that portrays his run-in with the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. Len is a fine writer and someone I worked with in the arts for many years in Wyoming. His post includes excerpts from a speech Trumbo delivered in 1970 that looked back upon the blacklist era. It's notable that he delivered this speech during another time when young men were once again trying to sort heroes from villains.
The blacklist was a time of evil. And no one who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. 
It was a time of fear. And no one was exempt. Scores of people lost their homes. Their families disintegrated. They lost — and in some, some even lost their lives. 
But when you look back upon that dark time, as I think you should every now and then, it will do you no good to search for heroes or villains. There weren’t any. There were only victims. Victims, because each of us felt compelled to say or do things that we otherwise would not, to deliver or receive wounds which we truly did not wish to exchange. 
I look out to my family sitting there, and I realize what I’ve put them through. And it’s unfair. My wife, who somehow kept it all together, amazes me. And so what I say here tonight is not intended to be hurtful to anyone. It is intended to heal the hurt, to repair the wounds which for years have been inflicted upon each other and most egregiously upon ourselves.
I know a few things about Trumbo. He was born in Montrose, Colorado, grew up in Grand Junction, and went to school for two years at CU-Boulder where the "free speech fountain" is named after him. That namesake fountain sometimes inflames the passions of CU conservatives and, yes, conservatives are allowed into Boulder just as liberals are allowed to dwell in Cheyenne. For now, anyway.

Trumbo was a commie or at least a fellow traveler. Those terms were used to brand liberals or progressives during the Cold War. Baby Boomers know the sting of those labels. Most people didn't lose careers after being publicly branded a communist, as did Trumbo. He resurrected his career by using aliases, even earned two Academy Awards, one using a fake name and one using a "front." When he openly won scriptwriting Oscars for Spartacus and Exodus in 1960, the blacklist was officially over.

But he paid a price. Was he a hero? Maybe not. Hero, of course, is used indiscriminately these days and has lost its meaning. Ditto for villains. I volunteer for Cheyenne's Old-Fashioned Summer Melodrama. The plot is a fiction wherein the hero rides to the rescue and rescues the damsel in distress who has been tied to the railroad tracks by the mustachioed villain in the black cape. We cheer for the hero and boo the villain.

Were it only that simple.

Len and I and many others were college freshman in 1969 trying to sort friend from foe. My U.S. Navy ROTC commandant at the University of South Carolina was a Marine colonel whose son had been killed in Vietnam. He told me that the Viet Cong were the bad guys which was why us -- the good guys -- had to fight and possibly die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. President Nixon, my future commander-in-chief, said the same thing. So did the members of the "best and brightest" brain trust who designed the foolproof Vietnam War strategy. Many of them were Harvard grads.

The SDS, at Harvard and on my campus, said that the U.S. was waging an immoral and unjust war and soldiers were baby killers. Some young women on campus thought that we midshipmen looked dashing in our uniforms. Others would not give us the time of day. Some campus longhairs spurned us buzzcut guys. Others were happy to share a joint with us, even friendship.

Most of us felt we had to choose sides. That was difficult if you planned a military career. Your military leader said do this and you did it. Our civilian leaders said do this and you should do it but was it the right thing? Our fathers were all World War II veterans, guys that had saved us from the Nazis. These guys were our heroes. Wasn't it our turn next?

"Which side are you on?" That's a famous union organizing song by Florence Reece, wife of union organizer Sam Reece. The chorus asks a key question, one that many of us have been asked over the years. We may be asked again, here in 2017:
"Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?"
If you were organizing for the union in 1931 in Harlan County, Kentucky, whose side would you be in? When mine owners sent the sheriff to arrest Sam Reece, he fled to the hills. Union organizers sometimes ended up dead in mysterious circumstances. Who were the good guys then? Many musicians have sung "Which Side Are You On?", including Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg. This rousing song urged audience to take a side, whether it was during a union battle, the civil rights struggle or the Vietnam War. Or now.

In his column, Len writes that his father sat him down and told him that he would cease to pay for college if his son became one of those campus protesters. My father, formerly a Democrat, had become a "Southern Strategy" Nixon man in 1968. That year, my father sat me down and informed me that he had lots of kids to feed (nine including me) and that I would have to figure out my own way to get to college. He urged me to go to Annapolis or get an ROTC scholarship to the university of my choice. Become an officer, said this former Army dogface, sail the ocean blue and stay far away from Vietnam.

I was only an alternate for the U.S. Naval Academy but my book smarts helped me land an ROTC scholarship. In January of 1971, the government took away my scholarship for some bad choices I had made. I could say I was the victim but that's not true. Several cultural waves broke over me and I got swept up in the currents. As a surfer, I should have known the dangers. Losing my scholarship would have forced me to drop out and instantly be eligible for the draft. My father, who'd just lost his job, borrowed a semester's worth of tuition from his parents. "No son of mine is going to Vietnam," he said.

I chose a side. My father chose a side. We all do. Even not choosing a side is making a choice.

Many years from now, someone might ask this grizzled old guy: Who were the good guys and bad guys during the chaos created by a Donald Trump presidency? My answer may be this: "It will do you no good to search for heroes and villains."

The questioner might persist: Which side were you on? Did you choose?

I chose.

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