By Aline Soules
“How many placards have we made over the years?” I ask my protest buddy, Clare, as I rip tape from a roll and piece together our latest. Clare, the artist, writes the words on Bristol board with calligraphic ease. We’re in a production line in the local school gym, along with other mothers and grandmothers, and students.
“God, thousands. What was our first?”
“I think it was We demand an end to police violence.”
“When was that?”
“’63, maybe ’64.”
I affix the sign to the wooden stick someone will hold during our upcoming march and reach for the next sign on the growing pile.
“Then there were all those Vietnam War years. How many Hell no, we won’t go posters did we make?” I ask.
We talk through the afternoon, bound, as ever, by our shared politics. We’ve been protesting since the sixties. We began in college because everyone was marching, shaking fists at politicians, or holed up in sit-ins against the war. Our brothers and boyfriends were sucked up by the draft, some never to return.
I was in love with Clare’s brother, Jim, and Clare and I flew to San Francisco one week in late 1969, rejoicing that he’d come back from ‘Nam alive. He hugged us with his shaking body, wouldn’t eat dinner, and smoked pot non-stop, raising our fear that we’d be arrested. Clare and I had planned that the three of us would fly home together, but Jim wouldn’t get on a plane. “Never again,” he said, disappearing into a seedy hotel in the Tenderloin district.
We went back to the hotel the next morning, but Jim wouldn’t come out that day or the next. On the third day, the old man at the counter said Jim had checked out and shrugged when we asked if he knew where Jim had gone. At the police station, the desk sergeant filled out a form and told us to go home.
We’d said the war was wrong many times, yelling it in the streets, writing it on placards. That week, we learned what war meant from the inside and went home determined pacifists.
Thinking up good slogans is challenging, but making placards can be boring. Clare and I have been in the gym making signs for three hours so far with the rest of the day ahead. We recall years of signs about the death penalty, birth control, abortion, voting rights, women’s rights, climate control, Black Lives Matter, and the ones we’re making today.
Protect kids not guns.
Save our daughters, stop the slaughter. Save our sons, regulate guns.
How many more?
As I pick up another roll of tape, I think about how changed we were after the last time we saw Jim, our intensity increasing as we went to civil rights and anti-war protests week after week, weekend after weekend. Clare leaned on her long-time boyfriend for support and got engaged. I fell in love with a guy who lucked out in the first government lottery in December 1969, getting #292, safe from conscription. He still protested with us. In May 1970, we all traveled on a bus from Detroit to Kent State to protest against the Ohio National Guard. They’d killed four students and wounded nine in a peace rally against expanding the war into Cambodia. We, and students across the nation, were shocked that, for the first time, our country was willing to kill its own people protesting in peace.
Both of us married that year, me in June, Clare in October. Clare had two children within the next few years. My husband and I were married for eight years before I got pregnant, and we were thrilled.
The months passed, and my pregnancy went well. I turned into the requisite beach ball, then went into labor. At the hospital, because everything had gone smoothly, I was okayed for the birthing room. It looked more like a hotel room than a hospital room. The birth moved along as it should until near the end, when the fetal monitor showed our baby was in distress. We later learned that our son’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his shoulder, but, at that point, we didn’t know what was wrong and it was too late for a C-section.
The nurse pushed my husband aside and leaned over me, while the doctor stayed at the foot of the bed.
“Push,” they said in unison.
“Fast,” the doctor urged. “The baby needs to get out and breathe. I’m worried about oxygen levels.”
I groaned out a push until I ran out of air. The baby’s head crowned; then I needed another breath. While inhaling, I couldn’t push, and the head slipped part way back into the birth canal.
Desperate, I rolled over and got to my feet to use gravity to help me.
“Get back on the bed,” the doctor protested. I ignored him.
The nurse tried to force me to lie down, but I shoved her away.
One last push and our son was born. His Apgar score was only 5, but after five minutes, it rose to 9 ½, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. My husband came back to my bedside and sat in the chair next to me while the nurse took the baby to the side to clean him up and weigh him, while the doctor stitched me up.
The nurse brought our son over, and we saw his face for the first time.
All those years of believing I was a pacifist disappeared into his blue eyes.