Dan Seeger was a Vietnam era conscientious objector. At that time, 50 years ago, COs had to answer numerous questions before exemption would be granted – one of which was:
‘Do you believe in a supreme being?’
In British law, even as far back as WW1, exemption was not reserved exclusively for religious objectors. But in US law it was.
Rather than answer with a simple yes or no, however, Dan wrote an essay on ‘The knowability and unknowability of a supreme being.’
After protracted considerations and appeals, the Supreme Court of Justice eventually gave him his exemption – and thus Dan helped bring about an important change in the law. A CO could now be granted exemption not just on religious grounds, but also on ethical and moral ones.
It had taken half a century for the US to arrive at a position settled on in Great Britain in 1916.
‘He’s in the audience tonight,’ Bill tells me.
‘Dan Seeger. And he’ll join you for the Q and A, if you’d like.’
Really? Gulp! No pressure then. All I needed now was to be told Joan Baez would also be popping along (and planning to sing something) for me to feel totally overwhelmed.
Yesterday on our drive home from Harrisonburg, Bill took me on a short detour to see the car parking lot where in 1968 the Berrigan brothers and seven others (known as the Catonsville 9) had set fire to a large number of draft cards and records, in protest at the war and ‘to stop the flow of our soldiers to Vietnam.’ The fuel they used for the protest was homemade napalm.
The Berrigan brothers were both Catholic priests. The building, next to the car park, which they broke into to seize the files and records was owned by the Knights of Columbus, this fact arguably increasing their anger: that a Catholic-based organisation’s building had been taken over to store records which furthered this futile war.
It’s mighty stirring – witnessing and hearing about and talking to so many people who have made such passionate stands in defence of their beliefs – and most of whom are still here to tell the tale.
15th Street Friends Meeting House in New York was built in 1860 and is the largest Meeting House I’ve yet seen – and I’ve seen, and performed in, quite a few now.
It’s very echoey as a result, but after much debate I decide not to use a microphone – but also that I will not speak too rapidly and will articulate so clearly my jaw will ache for a week. (It doesn’t really ache – but my ‘speaking muscles’ are certainly given a thorough work-out.)
There are a vast number of events competing for New Yorkers’ attention this Saturday night – a lot of them on nearby Broadway, of course. And also, it’s today that the ‘March For Our Lives’ took place here and in Washington and in so many other cities world-wide – led by school students to protest gun violence, and demanding changes in the law.
It somehow feels appropriate to be doing this play on that same evening.
In the end about 80 or so New Yorkers come along (but no sign of Joan Baez), and there don’t appear to be any complaints about my diction. Perhaps it helps that I alert the audience before we start that although I will be performing in English it will, I’m afraid, be with a British accent.
At the Q and A, Dan Seeger is very positive about the play (phew!), and grateful that it has raised so many of the issues around conscientious objection.
But one audience member, also a Vietnam-era CO, wishes there had been more in the play about the Tribunals the COs had to go before in order to try and claim exemption. He also wishes that the whole spectrum of CO positions from ‘absolutists’ to those who simply wanted to be exempted from combat, had been explored in greater depth.
I take his comments on the chin and agree with him – and apologise, saying that in 80 minutes it’s not easy to deal with every aspect of the subject in sufficient depth – that inevitably some things will only be sketched in.
But the evening comes to an end and I’ve done it – I’ve made my New York debut at the grand old age of …(fill in the correct answer, those who know it.)
Then there’s a slow drive uptown in Saturday night New York traffic before a night’s sleep in a Quaker’s penthouse apartment. (I know; that sentence surprises me too.)
As I drift off to sleep I find myself wondering whether or not I believe in a supreme being – and if so, which one? (And is it just the one?)
By 10am the next morning, Bill and I are driving over the historic Brooklyn Bridge – on our way to Coney Island and it’s amusement parks – to enjoy ‘Opening Day’, Sunday March 25th.
Apart from pacifism and a love of the American railroad, Bill Galvin has another great passion – for roller coasters. He is a member of ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) – and has offered me this chance to experience Coney Island, if I’d like to.
I used to love going to funfairs in north London as a teenager, but I’ve barely set foot in one since those far-off days.
But Bill’s enthusiasm is infectious.
First we go on the Wonder-wheel (amazing views)
then on the the Spookarama (scary surprises), then we try Nathan’s famous French-fries (drat – I was determined to make this blog food-free)
and, after a session on the ‘bumping cars’ (which I’ve always called Dodgems), I point up at the roller-coaster towering above our heads – known as the world-famous ‘Cyclone’.
Over the years Bill has ridden the Cyclone hundreds if not thousands of times.
‘But not since they changed it,’ he informs me.
‘How did they change it?’ I ask.
‘Watered it down – made the drops too gentle, far less steep, less awesome. It’s a shadow of what it was.’
‘So you won’t join me if I go on it then?’
‘No way. It’s a travesty. But don’t let that stop you going.’
Shadow of it’s former self? It looks pretty ‘awesome’ to me – compared to the ones I recall from childhood, certainly.
‘Look,’ I debate with myself, ‘I’ve had a great time this morning. I don’t NEED to go on the Cyclone. And Bill refuses to go. So why should I go? But will I later regret not going? I mean, when will I be at Coney Island again? And anyway, Bill makes it sound so tame. Am I a man or a mouse?’
Not the latter, it seems.
I pay my 10 bucks, am locked into my car, the operator guy releases the brake and the Cyclone, with its three cars full of punters, sets off as it makes its first slow ascent – then, poised at the top for a brief moment before the first descent,
I find myself remembering Dan Seeger last night, and then as the Cyclone suddenly THUNDERS down the perilously steep incline, I find myself fervently praying to none other than the supreme bring; any supreme being; in fact anyone at all out there willing to listen to my frantic appeals…
‘I’m too old for this!’
The drop!!! And then the next drop!!!! And the bends!!! as we hurtle round them at insane speeds…
Through desperately gritted teeth
I vow that not only is this my first time on the Cyclone, it is definitely, if I survive, my LAST time. EVER.
We begin the next ferocious drop and I pray ever more grimly:
‘Listen! Supreme Being! I’ve had enough! Make it end!
Are you there?
Make it end!!!