By J. Richard Devlin
Tim cringes when Father tells Peter to say grace. “What’s the point?” Peter says. “God is dead. I read it in Time magazine.”
Tim is twelve and scared. Tumbleweeds blow through the shriveled corn fields and pile up against the house. The setting sun gives the dried-out hamburger casserole a spoiled pink cast. Everything smells like the nearby feedlot. Father is at the head of the table in his dingy underwear, ready to explode.
It’s 1966. The changes sweeping the country finally make it to the family farm twenty miles southwest of Wichita. Fifteen-year-old Peter moves his bed to the unfinished basement where he listens to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album and grows his hair in solitude. The newspaper says that there are 385,000 American troops in Vietnam, a sixteen-fold increase in two years. Lyndon Johnson is president.
Mother and Father both launch from their chairs. Her specialty is pulling hair, a much easier task with Peter’s long hair. Father’s is the belt, but since he’s in his underwear and is so uncontrollably angry, he uses his fists. The beaten Peter gets sent to the basement without dinner. Tim tries to be invisible as the parents continue to hurl curses at Peter’s empty chair.
The night he learns that God is dead, Tim sneaks food down to his brother. Peter is in bed with dried blood on his face, listening to music on his headphones. Tim asks why he does things to make the parents so mad. “No one ever changed the world by doing what people tell you to do,” he says.
Peter gets busted for smoking weed at sixteen. Mother punishes him by boiling his records in a large pot, pushing them down with a spoon like dry spaghetti from a box. He gets suspended for organizing an antiwar protest at his high school. He puts “McCarthy for President” bumper stickers on his school books. Father covers his pickup bumper with flags and “Nixon for President.” The bumper sticker war escalates to Peter and Father’s defining principles: “Make Love, Not War,” and “Our Country: Love it or Leave it.”
It’s 1968 now. There are 536,000 American troops in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson says he won’t run for reelection. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are assassinated. Protesters descend on Chicago for the Democratic National Convention and get bloodied by police. Nixon gets elected, giving new life to the war. Families tear apart. The country tears apart.
Peter leaves home. He goes from campus to campus, grabbing microphones, encouraging walkouts. Nixon dismisses the protesters as a small vocal minority; he calls for support from the silent majority.
It’s 1970 now. Anger and hatred overflow: four students at Kent State pay with their lives. Peter is shot in the heart the next day as he leads a protest march at a small New Jersey college. The shooter says, “We need to take back our country.”
And now Tim is in the packed church filled with television cameras. Peter lies in his open casket by the altar, hair pulled back, looking angelic, not at all like a fallen leader in the war against war.
Tim is not expecting much from God’s emissary, Reverend Babbler, the man who tries to keep his small congregation together by avoiding controversial subjects. Reverend Ostrich. He approaches the lectern like a condemned man walking to the electric chair. He pulls out his prepared remarks, turns on the reading lamp and drops his head. He starts: “God’s plan is sometimes hard to discern,” classic Babbler bullshit as Peter would say. But then Babbler does the unexpected: he looks up, puts his notes to the side, and says: “God’s plan was clear in Peter’s case: Peter died so that thousands of others would be spared the horrors of war.” He says he is proud and honored to have played a small role in Peter’s life. He calls Peter a hero.
Mother sobs; Father storms out, shaking his head. Tim stands, and the church holds its breath, waiting for Tim’s next move. He claps, alone for many seconds, and knows that his life of accommodation is over.