(Background information: Captain Peter Luton, the novel’s protagonist, has just returned to Chicago on emergency leave from Vietnam following the unexpected death of his mother in August 1968. He was met at the airport by his wife Meredith, their baby daughter Merinne, his brother Jack, and Meredith’s parents, the Kellers. After the funeral, Peter is preparing to travel to Milwaukee with his wife, daughter, and in-laws.)
EVERYONE STAYED AT the Luton house that night. Late the next afternoon, Peter and Meredith said goodbye to Jack and Sally; Peter wanted to spend the last day of his leave in Milwaukee with Meredith, Merinne, and his in-laws before heading back to Vietnam. There were more hugs and tears, and Peter and Jack both promised they would do a better job of corresponding. Then they parted, Peter in his uniform, driving the Keller’s car, his baby daughter in the back seat with his in-laws.
“Mr. Keller,” he asked, “do you mind if we go through downtown Chicago on the way up to Milwaukee? I know this great little restaurant I’d like to take you all to. It’s on Michigan Avenue, up near the old water tower. At least I hope it’s still there.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that, Pete,” the older man replied.
“I’d really like to, sir. It was my mom’s favorite Italian restaurant, where we’d always go on special occasions. I really want to take everyone there tonight. I think it would be appropriate.”
“Sure, that’s fine, Pete. But only if you let me pay. Besides, there was a lot of construction on the Interstates coming down. Afterwards, we can take the scenic route and go up Lake Shore Drive all the way to Milwaukee.”
“Great. I think you’ll really like this place. They have singing waiters and all,” Peter said, as he turned east onto Cermak Road and headed for the heart of the city. As he reached Michigan Avenue, near Grant Park, the car become ensnared in a massive traffic jam.
“What the heck’s going on?” Peter asked, stuck in the web of cars and watching hundreds of young people streaming by, carrying placards on sticks that read, “End The War Now!” and “No More Draft!” and “Peace!”
“Oh, damn! I forgot all about this,” Mr. Keller said. “The Democrats are holding their convention in Chicago and the newscaster on the radio said something about possible anti-war demonstrations. Can we back up or find a side street?”
Peter swiveled his head. “Not a chance. We’re blocked in. Maybe there’s something about this on the radio,” he said, clicking it on and turning the tuning dial until he found WMAQ and an urgent announcer.
“——and the police are reporting thousands of protesters are congregating in Grant Park and creating a dangerous situation. There are reports of rocks and bottles being thrown at police and Chicago Police Chief Orlando Wilson has just issued this message: ‘Downtown Chicago has been cordoned off–please stay out of the area.’ Wow, big stuff going on, hey gang? Now let’s get back to music. Here’s Petula Clark and her latest hit single–”
“Oh, my God, Peter! What are we going to do?” Meredith asked, alarmed.
“Just stay calm, honey,” her father counseled from the back seat, placing a paternal hand on her shoulder as more demonstrators rushed by, rocking the car.
“I’m sorry, this is all my fault,” Peter said. “I should have never come down here.”
Off to their right, they could see throngs of mostly young men packed into Grant Park, shouting slogans and obscenities, thrusting their fists into the air, giving the collective finger to a phalanx of blue-and-white helmeted police that was moving menacingly closer. Others sat in trees or clung to a tall equestrian statue. Several of the demonstrators waved a North Vietnamese flag while an American flag went up in flames and the crowd cheered.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Oscar Keller, emotion choking his words. “In World War Two, if anybody’d waved a Jap flag or a Nazi flag in the States, they’da been lynched!”
Peter felt a fury welling up inside him at these protesters. These are Americans, he said angrily to himself, and they’re on the side of the enemy! What the hell’s wrong with everybody?! he wanted to shout at them.
“Damn hippies!” Oscar Keller shouted out the partially open rear window.
“Oscar! Be quiet!” his wife snapped.
“Did you see what those hooligans are doing, Edna? They’re burning an American flag! If I didn’t have this damned heart problem–”>
“Well, I don’t have a heart problem,” Peter said, putting on his overseas cap and opening his door and starting to get out.
“Peter!” screamed Meredith, grabbing for his arm. “Get back in the car!”
Peter heard her cry but disregarded it. He was going to give those demonstrators a piece of his mind. They were burning the flag, his flag, America’s flag. Maybe somebody who was actually in Vietnam could get them to come to their senses. Maybe it was time he started standing up for those things in which he said he believed. But before he could get anywhere close to the flag-burners, a tidal surge of humanity blindsided him and carried him toward the stores and hotels fronting the park along the west side of Michigan Avenue. People were yelling and screaming, and he looked to his right as the wall of bodies crushed against him, seeing and smelling a cloud of tear gas, and suddenly his eyes began to burn and water, and mucus began to flow out of his nose as if someone had turned on a tap, and he couldn’t breathe. On the other side of the gas cloud was a rank of policemen–maybe more than one, he couldn’t tell–all wearing gas masks and carrying plastic shields and swinging long black nightsticks. Peter could hear the sickening, thunking sound of wood against bone, could see policemen with cans of chemical Mace squirting it directly into peoples’ faces, could hear people screaming in pain and terror and others yelling, “Fascist pigs!” and the harsh sound of bull-horns ordering the crowd to disperse.
Peter tripped over something–a curb or a body–and fell to the concrete, skinning the heels of both hands and losing his hat. More bodies fell on top of him, and the thumping of the clubs and the screaming became louder until he felt a solid blow on his right shoulder and the pain flashed through his arm and back and neck like an electric shock and the tear gas set his eyes on fire. At least, down here, on the ground, he was below the main cloud of gas, and the front rank of police passed over him. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them, but they only burned worse. He tried to see the Keller’s blue Chevy but there were too many people, too many cars, too many policemen mounted on horseback, too much chaos.
Peter staggered to his feet, feeling his hands bleeding and the knees of his uniform trousers ripped, and turned around to face another line of baton-wielding police moving toward him. One was about to bring his cudgel down on Peter’s head when he saw that Peter was an Army officer. “Get the hell out of here, captain! You don’t want to be here!” the policeman yelled at him, trying to be heard above the screams, some of his spittle hitting Peter in the face.
“I can’t see,” Peter cried.
“Then get back there,” the cop said, grabbing Peter by the lapels and propelling him to the rear. “There’s some water in that ambulance. Wash your eyes out with that.”
But Peter could see no ambulance. All he could see was another blurry wave of policemen carrying shields, marching shoulder to shoulder toward him like a Roman legion, trampling everything before them. He lurched across the sidewalk to find safety against one of the buildings, the Conrad Hilton Hotel. He barely made out the forms of a well-dressed, middle-aged couple that had just exited the hotel and were standing, shocked, in front of the revolving doors. Suddenly, three policemen rushed the couple and, with their shields, shoved them back through the hotel’s large plate-glass window, and great shards of glass came crashing down on them, and the man and woman both screamed in agony.
Peter turned away, sickened, and tried once more to find his way back to the car. In front of him, a group of teenage girls, sitting innocently in the traffic jam in a red convertible, were attacked by a group of club-swinging policemen and left bloody and hysterical. “Stop it!” Peter screamed at the whole world, but no one heard him.
Terrified, he began snaking his way through the stalled mass of cars when a small group of scraggly-haired, shirtless youths spotted him. “Hey, there’s a soldier! Let’s get him!” one of them yelled, and they rushed Peter, battering him with their fists and trying to kick and knee him in the groin. He went down onto the street as they flailed away at him, yelling, “Kill the baby killer!”
Peter managed to roll under one of the stopped cars and the youths marched on to find new victims. Gradually, he became aware that the running battle had moved northward, that the police and demonstrators and tear gas were heading toward the Art Institute and the Prudential Building beyond.
Shaking, coughing, torn, and bleeding, Peter emerged from beneath the car, startling its occupants, and once again began desperately trying to find Meredith, Merinne, and the Kellers. He staggered south down one row of cars for two blocks without success, then moved to another row and tottered north, until he heard Meredith shouting, “Peter! Over here!” He could vaguely see someone waving her arms, and he headed in her direction. As he drew closer to the car, Meredith and Mr. Keller got out and embraced him.
“Look what those sons of bitches did to you!” Mr. Keller said through clenched teeth. “If I only had my old machine gun right now–”
“Oh, Peter, Peter!” Meredith cried, covering his bloody and bruised face with kisses. “Oh, darling, why did you go out there? Look what happened to you!” She began crying, using a tissue in a vain attempt to clean and soothe him.
Up ahead, it looked as if the mob and another cloud of gas were about to surge back their way. “Quick, get in the car!” Mr. Keller directed, and the three of them scrambled back into the Chevy, where little Merinne was screaming in Mrs. Keller’s arms.
Meredith continued to minister to her battered husband with spit and a Kleenex, and berate him for being so foolish. But Mr. Keller, in the back seat, said, “Hush, girl. Your husband’s a hero. He tried to stop them from burning the flag.”
“My husband’s an idiot!” she shot back at her father. “He could have gotten himself killed! Oh, Peter, why did you do that?”
“I…I just had to,” he said quietly, his nose running like a faucet, his throat and eyes burning.
Meredith continued to dab and weep. “Oh, right–like you had to go AWOL to play soccer…or you had to leave the bench to try and make a touchdown!”
“What are you talking about, Mere?” her father asked.
Suddenly, Peter held his face in his hands and began sobbing. “What are they doing to our country?” he wailed, and no one could answer him.
PETER FOUND HIMSELF on another 727 heading back to Vietnam, his mind replaying the funeral and the riot and his all-too-brief time with his wife and baby daughter. He dejectedly recalled his and Meredith’s last night together, and how disappointing their lovemaking had been. He was still hurting from his injuries and she was still angry with him but pretending not to be. It was almost as if they had tried to recapture the poignancy of his departure in January, but the effort had gone flat, like warm, opened champagne. They had argued, too, about his getting caught up in the maelstrom, which hadn’t helped matters, and he had an odd urge to get back to Vietnam, back to where life was simpler and clear-cut and there were no anti-war demonstrations going on and where the fantasy of love as expressed in Meredith’s letters was more real than the actuality of being with her.
He was wearing the heavy, winter-weight green uniform he had worn in Germany, as his tropical-weight uniform was back in Milwaukee, bloody, covered with dirt and grease, and ripped beyond repair. Among the frightened eighteen- and nineteen-year-old draftees on the plane, he felt like an old man, a grizzled veteran. He went up and down the aisle, gently joking with them, telling the kids who looked the most scared not to worry, telling them how to recognize the sound of incoming rounds, telling them about some of his more humorous adventures in Vietnam, telling them the little bit he had learned from others about how to stay alive. They thanked him for his concern and he hoped that they–some of them, at least–wouldn’t think that all officers were pompous, pretentious jerks.
As Peter settled into his seat in this plane that was returning him to war, he could not help but think about something Major Edrington, his ROTC instructor, had said, many years before, a lifetime ago, on the day Kennedy was shot: Nothing was more important than the mission. All the things that Colonel Aholm and Todd Gorman and the Aussie captain had said, too, swam back to him, and a new and frightening course of action began to assemble itself in his mind. It was not something he wanted to do, but rather something he felt compelled to do, and the thought of carrying out the plan made him sick to his stomach. But he believed deep in his being that, unless he went through with it, he could never live with himself. He decided he would not tell Meredith about it until he had completed it, for there was no sense in unduly worrying her.
The plane made it all the way to Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon, and Peter hitched a ride with a couple of MPs who were heading to his base at Long Binh in a jeep. They didn’t ask him about the cuts and bruises on his face and he didn’t volunteer any information.