From 1968-1971, before I entered flying training, I was assigned to a staff position in a command post in Washington, D.C. This was a time of great upheaval in America.
In April 1968, two months after I arrived at Bolling Air Force Base, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The city of Washington erupted: large sections of the city burned, businesses were looted, and for all practical purposes martial law was put in place. For the two months before Dr. King’s death I had taken public buses to go downtown or walked, the week of his murder I picked up my first car. As I drove on I-395, an elevated interstate near the U.S. Capitol building, I could see large plumes of smoke rising in the distance as the city burned. I was very glad I had a car as I no longer felt safe on a public bus. For several weeks after it was not safe to go into many areas of Washington. The city had become a war zone.
This was my introduction to a whole new world.
I had grown up in a very small town in upstate New York, about 600 people. The most exciting thing that happened was the annual snow fall season when we would get about 100 inches of snow and school would be closed. We had visited Washington in high school in 1962 on a senior class trip, but Washington in 1962 was a far different place than it was in 1968.
By 1968, unrest around the county had spread significantly as civil rights protests and anti-war sentiment grew. In the summer of 1968, the chaos of the Democratic National convention was shown nightly on TV, which coupled with the daily reports of the war, put the nation’s capital on an alert status. I would spend a great deal of time in the command post during this period, basically as a duty officer in case any incidents occurred. It was in the command post that I watched the 1968 Olympics on TV and saw American athletes give the black-gloved salute to the world.
Forty five years ago, 500,000 protestors gathered on the National Mall. While, demonstrations and marches were common, the November 1969 march was the largest political protest in American history. The marchers gathered at the Washington Monument, and famous antiwar activists such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and others performed for the crowd. Jane Fonda, who later was not too popular with the armed forces, may have been there as well.
As usual I was in the command post waiting to refer problems to the appropriate base agencies should they arise. We had national guard units camped on the base in case they were needed to respond should the demonstrations get out of hand. From a perspective of 45 years later, it is hard to believe how bad things were.
For all those today who think the 1960s was all love, peace, Woodstock, and flower children, it was not. Viet Cong flags were carried by Americans, while many, many young Americans were dying in South East Asia. Young men and women in uniform were spit on. The American flag was burned. The country was nearly ripped apart. In the early 1970s things would go from bad to worse. All in all it was a sad, sad time.
And the war dragged on and on.