Monday, June 5, 2017

Excerpt: Bread & Puppet Theater

Note: taIWWan is posting excerpts from David Barry Temple's three historical novels. 

In this scene from his first novel,Smoke No Fireit is Moratorium Day on a beautiful Saturday, November 15, 1969, in the National Capital. Young rebel, Johnny Livewire, gets his first taste of solidarity in Washington D.C.

"You dudes okay back there?"

      "Yes, we're okay, but my buddy has to take a leak."
      "We'll be making a rest stop in about fifteen minutes."
      "Great. Where are we, anyway?"
      "Maryland, near the Delaware border." Three different people were answering from the front of the bus; not the driver, Peter. He paid attention to the road religiously. Behind him in the converted school bus, with only a little of the original yellow left between the multi-color Peter Max style motif, red, blue, green; behind him were three double seats left, on each side of the aisle. Between those seats and Johnny Emerson and Tony's nook at the rear emergency door, were a dozen or so ten-foot diameter heads, caricatures of villains like Agnew, Nixon, Kissinger, and assorted fairies and well-groomed men, all paper mache, all reaching the ceiling of the bus and busting at the windows. Johnny rested his jacket on Nixon's nose; very convenient. Tony reclined between a pinwheel and a calliope.

      The Bread and Puppet Theater were news to him and Tony. If not for Walter's introduction, they would never have known about them. They were prepared to catch a Greyhound to Washington. This trip saved them money. They weren't even able to contribute to the gas pool and were never asked. They were, however, asked if they would carry some equipment and costumes out, which they gladly agreed to do.
      The Bread & Puppet Theater shared the space over the Purple Onion in the East Village. Walter worked with them before they moved to Plainfield, Vermont in June 1970. There they were the ‘theater-in-residence’ at Goddard College. Later, they would move on to Glover, Vermont, and convert an old barn there into a museum to house their puppets and homemade instruments, sculptures, and things. They even gave workshops in mime and storytelling there. 

      Now, they were headed to D.C. to give another of their

performances against American involvement in Vietnam. Their goal was to entertain while teaching about the social injustices of war, hunger and oppression. Johnny had never seen them perform. The driver, Peter Schumann, the man who formed them in West Germany in 1962, was a nice to them, offering to share food and drink and making room for them in the back of their bus. 
      Guerrilla theater they called it. Until someone informed him, he thought it was the primate they were referring to since they seemed to be monkeying around with tsetse masks and stuff. These radical activists like the San Francisco Mime Troupe that Bill Graham belonged to before he started the Fillmore rock 'n' roll shows, were very popular at demonstrations. Abbie Hoffman used guerrilla theater when he and the other Yippies took over Wall Street in August 1967. It created quite a media-frenzy and pushed the anti-war movement onto the front pages of the Daily News and Post. It certainly annoyed the business people who were ridiculed and satirized by them. 
     Guerrilla theater was going to be used by the Bread and Puppet Theater in Washington that Saturday and Sunday at the Moratorium.

The bus arrived at the Tidal Basin in Washington Friday evening, seven hours after it had left Union Square in Manhattan. Everyone was told to meet back there at 5 pm on Sunday if they wanted a ride back to New York.

     He and Tony made it to the church that had opened its doors to demonstrators. Sure, they had to sleep on the floor in the basement but it was off the street. Perhaps a hundred people took cots and stowed their things for the night. What a night. Nothing going on outside but in his mind, the sirens were blaring. A headache like he had never felt before pounded his head. He was sure that it had something to do with the church. Perhaps because he was Jewish the spirits in the church were rebelling against him. All night long he stayed up.

     "Are you okay?" she said standing over him draped by a thin blanket the staff had handed out."

     "I have a terrible headache," moaned Johnny as he glanced over to his travel partner fast asleep beside him.

     "That's easy; come across the street with me to the rectory. I believe they have some medicine." She helped him to stand up and get his bearings and left the church. As soon as he passed through the door onto the street, his headache went away. 

     "I can't believe it; my headache is gone."

     "You can't be serious."

     "Yes, it's gone. Maybe all I needed was some fresh air." They went to the rectory anyway, sat in the kitchen and had tea together, something called herbal tea." Judith was her name. The night in the church was long and their conversation lasted until dawn, a dawn they spent rolling on the grass behind the Lincoln Memorial emancipated from the burdens of sleeping in the church, despite the chilly air, wrapped together with Judith in the thin blanket until the park service officer happened upon them. They had to leave, and so they strolled back towards the church where both of them had stashed their belongings. They said goodbye. When they returned the demonstration was already starting.

     They were to meet the Bread & Puppet Theater at the base of the Washington Monument at 8 am. Somehow, it was easy to find directions; everyone sleeping in the church were heading to the Monument or the Reflecting Pool. He and Tony found Peter and the troupe by spying the large Nixon and Agnew heads being propped up. They pitched in, as they had promised, and helped get all the sets ready. There was even some talk about Johnny being a Viet Cong soldier but then they found a replacement.
The show began, if you can call it a show. He had never seen anything like it before.
      Later, Ramparts magazine detailed the performance for posterity: 
"A squad of soldiers moved through the part adjoining the U.S. Capitol. They were grubby looking troopers, clad in jungle fatigues and "boonie hats" with wide brims turned up. Jumping a low fence, they began shouting at a group of tourists. 'All right. Hold it. Hold it. Nobody move. Nobody move.' Their voices were full of tension and anger. A man broke out of the crowd and started running. Several soldiers fired at once, and the man fell, clutching his stomach. Blood could be seen on the clean sidewalk. The tourists turned away in horror. 'Get a body count,' a soldier yelled.                

"Another squad of soldiers emerged from under the Capitol steps.’All right. ID. ID,' they screeched. 'You got no ID and you Viet Cong.' They quickly grabbed a young woman and led her away, binding her wrists behind her back and prodding her with their rifles.... They grabbed [a] young man and threw him on the ground, tying his hands behind his back. Several of the soldiers kicked him, seeming to aim for his groin.

"Then someone took out a long, thick hunting knife and lifted up the man's shirt, holding the knife to his bare stomach, and pushed against it slightly. 'You VC? You VC?' The man said nothing. He was pushed to his feet and shoved down again. Then he was told to get up. This time the knife was pushed to the side of his neck, and the same question was repeated. Still no answer. The man was dragged away.... Then the soldiers left, and a smaller, less angry group of men dressed in khaki fatigues passed out leaflets to the astonished tourists.
"A US Infantry platoon just passed through here!" the pink colored piece of paper read in big bold letters. "If you had been Vietnamese... We might have burned your house. We might have shot your dog. We might have shot you... HELP US END THE WAR BEFORE THEY TURN YOUR SON INTO A BUTCHER OR A CORPSE."
       How much of Johnny's  trip was revolutionary and how much was it recreation? They were both at the same time. Getting a ride with the theater was great but they had their own ideas about what they would be doing in D.C. that weekend in November.

      “Georgetown is just across the K Street Bridge over Rock Creek Valley, left up Virginia Avenue Northwest, then right on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest ,” said the sweet young thing that happened to be seated on the grassy hill sloping down from the Washington Monument. Police had put high chain-link fencing around the rotunda at the obelisk’s base, but the lawn belonged to the people, most of them, like him, close to the age one had to register for the draft lottery. Julia didn’t have to worry about being drafted females weren’t targeted then. Julia, being all but fifteen, had only flower power in her bright blue eyes, no shades of politics or war. She chanced to live in a suburb of Washington D.C. which was neither a residence to poor underclass of African- Americans nor the home to denizen scions of diplomats. Her father, from a working class family, was a mechanic at Temple Motors in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. She was visiting the apartment her older brother shared with his classmate who was an undergraduate at Georgetown University. It was a beautiful Saturday, November 15, 1969.
      “Clear the area now or you will be in violation of Chapter 1, Section 7.96 ‘Parks Service Regulations – National Capitol Region.”
      “What did he say?”
      “He said the Parks Department wants us out of here.”
      “Why? We’re not doing anything bad.”
      “They’re flying kites?”
      “What did you say?”
      “They’re saying we can’t fly kites here.”
      “That’s ridiculous. Who said so?” A young bearded man in an Indian peasant shirt and beads handed Johnny Emerson an official flyer with the Parks Department logo on top.

     “It is covered in Section 1.5, ‘Closures and public use limits’,” said the young man sitting near them. “Look at Item #13. Under the title ‘National Mall Superintendent’s Compendium’ addendum to 36 CRF with an additional set of discretionary restrictions specific to the National Malls under Section 1.5 Subsection (c), it says, ‘Public Use Limits’ and the all important Item #13 which, indeed, prohibited flying kites [using glass-coated or other abrasive non- biodegradable kite string…”
      “Enough already!”
      “But it’s so nice here. Why would they want us to leave?” Julia got up from her spot on the grass and scanned the scene, her hand over her eyes for shade. She saw thousands of young people like herself down the slope and surrounding the Reflecting Pool leading up to the Capitol Building. The disturbing sound of helicopters droned overhead. An occasional caravan of police vehicles, sirens screaming, red lights flashing, sped down Madison and Jefferson Drive. A troupe of D.C. police waited down the side of the Monument, helmets on, visors down, batons in hand. The warning came again out of the mouth of a bullhorn from among their ranks.
      I don’t want to leave,” Julia protested. “It’s so nice here.” She passed half of a tangerine someone had given her. To her, it was a picnic for thousands who didn’t mind getting grass stains on their jeans. Julia preferred to sit on one of the large Moratorium broadsides someone had handed out. It was larger than the Revolutionary Worker newspaper which is the only reason why she kept one instead of the other.
      “You have fifteen minutes to clear the area or you will be arrested.”
      “You said Georgetown wasn’t far, didn’t you?” he queried. “Could we walk there from here?”
      “Or take a train or bus.”
      “I don’t think any Metro trains or buses are running near here now.”
      “No, I guess not. Yeah, we could walk there. Why?”
      “How long?”
      “I don’t know about an hour, half hour…I never tried walking,” said Julia squinting her eyes in the sun.
      “You look so adorable when you do that.”

      “What. What was I doing?” said Julia as she squatted back down to see him face to face.
      “Oh, nothing. You were squinting your eyes in the sun and your nose looked so cute all scrunched up.” Julia put her hand in front of her mouth, chuckled, and smiled into Emerson’s eyes.
      “You’re a nice person, Johnny Emerson. Would you like to meet my brother? He knows more about what’s going on. The two of you could be good.”
      “Where is he?”
      “Oh, he’s down there near that red banner.” Julia pointed to the left side of the lawn where a group of students from a Georgetown University organization for peace had set itself up.
      “Come on. Let’s go down and get a drink. They have some cold lemonade there,” said Julia as she jumped up from her squat and put two hands out for Emerson to be pulled up by. They laughed as he took hold of them and both nearly tumbled back to the ground by his weight.
      Her brother was packing something when she startled him with a hello.
      “Julia, you’d better leave now. It looks like it is going to get ugly around here,” said Matthew, her be speckled brother, his long blond hair tied at his shoulders.
      “Go back to my place and wait for us there. Sunny?” he called out and gestured to a cooler near his classmate, a young woman with a sunflower painted onto her cheek. “Could you go with Julia back to the apartment and bring this with you?”
      “Here, let me take that,” said Johnny  reaching down for a handle on the heavy cooler.
      “Matthew, this is Johnny Emerson. He’s from Lawrence, Massachusetts.”
      “Lawrence, eh. Site of the Strike for Three Loaves. Right?”
      “That’s right. For thirty-two cents that the bosses cut from their salary.”

      “It’s nice to meet you. What group are you with?”
      “I came down here in a bus with the Bread & Puppet Theater but we got separated. I also lost my classmate, Tony. I hope to meet up with him and them at the spot they said they’d be leaving from late Sunday afternoon.”
      “If we stay here we’ll get arrested, you know,” said Matthew as he scurried to collect some brochures and pins the group had placed on a bridge table. They were packing up and getting ready for the siege.
      “I’ll come back and meet you, if you don’t mind, after we drop off Julia and the cooler,” he said as he and Sunny lifted the cooler.”
      “If we’re not here when you get back, we may be in RFK Stadium. That’s where the pigs are putting demonstrators, I heard,” said Matthew.
      With that, he and Sunny headed west off the Monument lawn with Julia holding a bag and a backpack. They headed toward Georgetown. They had just gotten down to K Street when they heard a roar from up the Washington Monument hill. The police were slowly walking in line up the hill and surrounding the demonstrators, Matthew among them.
      “They’re taking Matthew,” yelled Julia and turned to go back.
      “There’s nothing we can do,” he said putting the cooler down with Sunny and turning to see the police line moving up the hill, faster now, the people inside scampering and defending themselves.”
      “Your brother will be okay. He’ll know what to do. Let’s go before we get trapped, too.”

      The three of them followed with the crowd heading away from the ruckus. Still others circled around to join the main demonstration near the Reflecting Pool. Johnny, Julia, and Sunny headed past the Watergate Complex and across the bridge to Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. 

No comments:

Post a Comment