Graduation Protest


It was going to be a warm evening without a cool breeze.  I had been busy all afternoon; a trip to the hairdresser, then home to paint my nails.  I looked at myself in the mirror as I gingerly pulled on a full slip of ivory satin with lovely lace trim.  I didn’t want to disturb the work that went into my hair—teased, sprayed stiff, and ready to defy the elements all evening.  I looked glamorous, just like my aunt Doris, who was the benefactor of my beauty shop experience.  I knew she would approve when she saw me.  Although it seemed too pretty to cover up, I put an ivory lace dress over the slip. 

            Not just any lace dress, but the coolest, sexiest dress I had ever seen.  It had 36 small satin covered buttons running down front from the deep “V” neckline.  They closed with loops of satin, not button holes.  It was similar to the back of a bride’s dress, but this dress was not long, it was a full three inches above my knee.  The sleeves were long with large pointed cuffs, and the same large pointed cuff was replayed at the collar.  The dress had a net lining, so without the slip, it would be easy to see my bra and panties.  I had wrestled with a new pair of ivory pantyhose then my ivory feet went into chunky ivory platform shoes. 

            The dressing accomplished, I sat down in front of a little table and mirror that Mom had painted white to match the rest of my bedroom furniture.  I applied make up, eye shadow and the palest of pearlescent pink lipstick.  As I looked at myself, I felt very satisfied with the ensemble.  Tonight was my high school graduation, and I was ready.  I was ready to start work at the Jay’s Potato Chip factory, that my aunt Doris had arranged with her neighbor, and I was ready to get on with he next step which included college.  I was not ready for what happened at the ceremony.

            In the gym, the class of 1969 was buzzing.  Excitement, laughter, and nervous banter all around me.  My girlfriends and I compared outfits, makeup, and gossip about the parties that were coming.  There were two groups of guys that I studied while the girls giggled and talked.  One group we called the Greasers and one group we called the Preppies. 

            The Greasers all had that James Dean, “Rebel Without a Cause”, tough guy image.  These were the boys that put turbo chargers on their cars and hung out at the Dog and Suds until curfew, when the no-nonsense police of our town sent them home.  The Preppies were the Bobbie Darren, clean cut, athletes with letters on their sweaters and an equal but somehow opposite air of coolness about them.  I was not a popular girl, or “the girl” that belonged to any boy in these groups.  I could only wish for the glory they would reflect upon a female in their company.

            We were told to put on our caps and gowns.  The boys were in gray and the girls were in red, our school colors.  The noise level went down in the gym and the graduates shuffled their feet, and spoke in hushed tones.  We were about to go outside into the football stadium.  There were folding chairs set up in rows, just as they had been the day before during practice.  Family, friends, and neighbors were in the stands.  Some less agile were in folding chairs at the rear of the section for the honorees.  The temporary stage was standing on the fifty-yard line, with red, white, and blue bunting to hide the supports underneath.  There were already dignitaries up there waiting for us.

            The school band began to play Pomp and Circumstance and we made our way out to the rows of chairs in the slow dignity of the traditional song.  Before we sat, we joined the crowd to sing the national anthem, as the ROTC color guard produced the flag on-stage.  A priest from the St Christopher church gave an invocation and blessing.  We sang the school song.  Then came the speeches.  The mayor spoke briefly congratulating us on our achievements.  The principal gave a greeting.  The graduates applauded politely.

            The Salutatorian and the Valedictorian both spoke, each thanking our families, teachers and school staff.  Each challenging us to look to the future, and work hard to achieve our goals.  Each encouraging us to be full adult participants in society by helping our neighbors, and upholding standards of our communal life.  While at the time it was sincere and serious, even then, these speeches reminded me of the line from TV’s Superman—“fighting for truth, justice and the American way”.

            The keynote speaker was to be last, just before the diplomas.  I don’t remember his name now, but I remember he was an important person from the VFW.  His speech was similar to the others in the beginning, and then it changed.  He was talking about the honor of serving in World War II, but the students had their minds on Vietnam. 

Each boy had already registered for the draft, and many knew they would be called.  Those fortunate enough to have a college enrollment would be exempt for now, but a lottery system was being instituted that would change that.  Our community was a small working class, blue collar town.  Typical of the day, most mothers were home with children and fathers were off to work.  Some of the graduates were the first in their family to complete high school.  This demographic put many more of the boys at risk for military service in a war that was loosing support from all sides.

The graduates shifted slightly in their seats.  I can’t say what sentence set it off, but after a passionate sentence, two guys stood and turned their folding chairs around and re-seated themselves with their backs to the stage.  A small ripple went through the graduates, some in the back couldn’t see what had been done and they were straining forward to get a look.  Then the two started the chant: “Hell NO, we won’t GO!”

            The defiance multiplied, as nearly one-third of the three hundred graduates also turned their chairs, and the chant grew louder.  Greasers and Preppies alike joined in.  It was electric.  It was stunning.  I felt a spark of excitement colored with fear.  I remembered the television scenes from last summer in downtown Chicago.  I knew what could happen if the crowd rose off their seats.  I looked around for a way to escape.  I saw nothing encouraging.  I felt frozen to that folding chair.

            One of the coaches blew his whistle close to the microphone, and it startled the crowd into a momentary silence.  The principal spoke with barely controlled fury.  We had embarrassed our school, our town and our guest speaker.  He declared that if we did not return to quiet, the police would be called to disburse us.  There was a hush that he allowed to continue for a full two minutes.  Then he thanked the man from the VFW, and apologized for the rude behavior.  He announced that we would continue with the distribution of diplomas—only if there was silence.  He directed that the graduates would get their diplomas, and we would close the proceedings after that.  He warned that no loitering would be tolerated, so he expected everyone to leave as soon as we were dismissed.

            The uneasy silence that followed allowed for the plan to be accomplished.  The graduates facing backwards did not turn their chairs to the front, but they did not chant any more.  After the diplomas, the priest prayed the blessings of benediction and peace upon us.  The principal again warned us to leave the school grounds.  The tension seemed to have been released, and the graduates filed out of the stadium.  We milled around the long driveway that went to the parking shed that held all the snow and lawn equipment.  Parents quickly appeared, claimed their young adult, and quickly disappeared. Mom, Dad, and Aunt Doris found me.  After hurried hugs and kisses, my father ushered us to our car without comment.  The drive home was silent. 

            At home, there was a cold ham, salads and a molded jello with fruit inside.  My dad opened a bottle of beer and sat on the front porch.  It was only 8:00 p.m. now and the sun had slipped down but not yet set.  My aunt and mother were washing the dishes and chatting.  Tomorrow would be a picnic party replay of today’s dinner, with my grandparents, and our next door neighbors.  I shed my lace and pantyhose in favor of shorts and a tee shirt.  I sat lower on the steps near my dad.  We listened to the crickets, they were beginning to sing in the dense bushes, along the front of the house.

            “Dad?”  I just let it dangle there like an invitation.  I hoped he wouldn’t express disapproval of the evening, but I really expected him to.  I waited.  He had been a Shore Patrol officer in the Marine Corps during WWII.  He still wore his Marine crew cut and he was always aware of his surroundings.  He was the one who taught me how to scope-out the escape route in the movie theater, just like I did in the stadium today.  He took safety very seriously.  He was a patriot, and he was a thoughtful man who encouraged discussions of the issues of the day.

He called me Pumpkin as a nickname that he often shortened to Punk. “Well, Punk… Three things.  One:  The keynote speaker was speaking of his own experience.  We should respect that.  Two:  Those boys have a point too.  This war seems to be very different from WWII, and it even seems different than Korea.  I don’t think our guys over there know who is with us, and who is against us.  Three:  If not this war, then the next will probably have women drafted too.  You should think about that.  You should definitely think about that.”   He was silent for a few moments.  “Had you figured out your escape route?  A crowd that size is a dangerous animal, remember that.  I’m very grateful it turned out safe, but it could have gone either way.  I’m not sure the demonstration achieved anything, but I’m proud that it was peaceful not like that mess last year downtown.” 

            “Me too.”  I said.  I looked up the steps at him and smiled.

            “You sure looked beautiful tonight.  You should go in and thank your mom and Doris.”

            “Thanks, Daddy!”  I stood up and gave him a kiss on the top of his head as he sat there watching the last of the day disappear. 

            As I went inside to help put away the clean dishes, I noticed that Mom and Doris were talking about the dresses the ladies in the crowd wore.  They discussed the pros and cons of some the hats and gloves they wore too.  They complimented me on how pretty I was in the lace dress.  I thanked them for the dress, and the beauty shop.  They seemed somewhat detached from the demonstration.  The only comment they offered was, how rude the students were on such a special day.  In a short, passing thought, I wondered what they would be talking about, if girls were drafted too.  I let the thought slip away as quickly as it came.  That seemed as far away as a country called Vietnam.

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