A boomer takes us back to campus during Vietnam

As far back as the Vietnam War recedes in our lives, for baby boomers, it never truly disappears. It roiled our nation and helped shape our generation. In her debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, Chicago author Rita Dragonette writes about her personal experiences on her college campus during the war. This excerpt is called, A Campus Vote.

Taylor Adams, the president of the Student Senate, called for order. An Alpha Delta business major, handsome and polished in his pressed slacks and shiny loafers, he had always been respected for his ability to handle the fractionalized Student Senate meetings, with a proven knack for being able to override even Donnell at his most obnoxious.

Author Rita Dragonette

He paused for a long time scanning the crowd, then down at the table before him, and finally straight ahead, seeming to encompass the entire room.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I feel to join ROTC is an individual’s choice. Anyone should be allowed to make it. I’m going to have to veto this.”

The ballroom shrank into stunned silence. The crowd stood with their mouths gaping open, the senators’ heads whipped anxiously from side to side, trying to figure out what had just happened. Swanson stood in the back. It was hard to know what side he was on.

“No,” Wizard said, standing up. “Taylor, I’m sorry. But what may have seemed logical at some point is no longer viable. The stakes have changed. They’re shooting us. You talk about choice? The draft offers no choice.”

“If there was no choice not to go, why should there still be a choice to go?” Donnell chimed in and Judy recognized the argument.

Yes, now it made perfect sense.

“We just voted. Don’t you see that vetoing this takes away the only voice we have?” Wizard said. “How are you any different from the government not letting us vote at all?”

“I’m sorry,” Taylor said, as if he really meant it. “It’s done.” He slammed the gavel on the table.

Screaming and shouting merged into a loud, agonized wail. Judy felt the pressure rush back and was afraid nothing would contain it now. Hundreds of students ran from the ballroom yelling, every fist clenched in defiance. And then, as they passed through the doors and filed down the stairs in front of the Union, Judy heard it—the sound of that first window breaking, a sound as terrifying as a rifle shot, a chilling signal that all bets were off, all order gone.

The breaking glass stopped many. Judy was paralyzed. The crowd stepped over the shards in front of the Union and split up, confused. A contingent headed toward town, but she was terrified of being in the middle of a fractured mob. Repelled and emboldened at the same time, and very, very frightened, she joined the group running for the dorms.

What was left of the ROTC office was being guarded by two rows of men in fatigues standing at attention, probably the entire ROTC cohort. She slowed as she passed, looking for Pete, and lost a step. She couldn’t make out which one he was. She was bumped into then drawn violently back into the crowd just as she saw his head turn toward her. There was no stopping as she was propelled forward.

Hundreds of them ended up in front of the electrical building, two stories of soaring glass windows through which you could see pipes and grid work, all the bones of what was needed to keep the campus illuminated. A nearby pile of construction debris from a new garden feature meant to soften the building’s appearance was irresistible. The first stone didn’t break the glass. The second was bigger, more of a rock. It made a clean round pocket of a hole, edges white with splinters. After that, a shower of projectiles assaulted the building.

“Here’s my vote,” said someone, who threw a piece of metal that hit the building’s façade with a huge screech. Others followed, “Mine, too!” “ROTC off the goddamn campus!” “Stop the War with THIS!” “Remember Kent State.”

Judy saw David, Wizard, Lori, and Achilles pick up stones from the garden and hurl them, again and again, their rage escalating with each loud thwack. Three guys pulled the bowl of a birdbath off its pedestal and smashed it to the ground, then threw the pieces and the pedestal itself against the building to inflict greater damage. Huge sheets of glass hit the ground, shattering as students ran for cover. A street sign was knocked over and its pole and plates were used to finish off the remaining glass. Students were hanging out of the windows of the nearby dorms encouraging them with cheers, many rushing down to join them. It was a bona fide riot, out of control. Judy was appalled by the twisted, triumphant looks on the faces of people she knew, Meldrich, Donnell, even RoMo.

But there were no police, no sirens. It was as if they were letting this part of campus be sacrificed.

Judy and Vida made their way to Wizard’s dorm room, climbing in and out of his first-floor window to monitor what was going on. They heard a series of small, erratic explosions and watched as the electrical building went dark, their lights went off, and the eerie night descended like a heavy, opaque curtain over the campus. They stared out the window at the blackness, until their eyes adjusted, and they could make out shapes and forms by the light of the nearly full moon. They heard shouts, thuds, and the scrape of metal against stone. People were running, yelling—no longer slogans—just to each other for safety.

Their entire group eventually made it to Wizard’s room. They sent alternating sets of scouts to check out the source of shouts and unidentified sounds. RoMo began to scream hysterically when they heard a series of pops while Wizard was out.

Vida took her by the shoulders and shook her. “Get it together,” she said. “We’ve all got to keep it together.” Then RoMo hugged her, holding on tight for longer than Judy thought possible. Sheila was in the corner, huddled with her yarn, knitting furiously like Madame Defarge, while the guys paced in frustration and to keep sharp.

“If this is the revolution,” Meldrich said, “we need to be ready.”

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