Moratorium Against the War (1970)

My fiancé was a Navy SEAL officer who served two six-month tours in Vietnam, one of them coinciding with my last semester at Vassar. While he was leading twelve men safely through the military and moral morass of Southeast Asia, I was marooned at Vassar—where I couldn’t find a single person who even knew anyone serving in Vietnam. My sense of isolation was reflected in my senior thesis for the drama department, a reading called “Women in Wartime,” constructed from primary sources dating from World War I and earlier.

Although strongly anti-war personally, I resented the stated purpose of the Vassar Moratorium: to raise consciousness about the war. With the man I loved getting shot at on a daily basis in the Delta, I felt that my consciousness was plenty raised already.

On the last night of the Moratorium, I had an overwhelming urge to go up to the roof of Raymond and express my frustration by setting off my illumination flare. I can’t remember exactly which SEAL had given it to me after I’d mentioned that I thought it was cool. The flare was a fat, foot-long tube. You took off its lid, fastened it to its bottom, and punched upwards. Supposedly, there would then be great noise and light. (These days I shudder at the thought that I brought it home with me on a commercial airliner.)

I had no faith that my arm would be strong enough, so I persuaded one of Vassar’s brand-new crop of senior men to accompany me to the roof. I assembled the tube, gave him verbal instructions, and held my breath.

Chris slammed his fist against the bottom of the tube. There was a pop and huge whoosh, and the dark quad lit up like noon for several minutes as the flare exploded and then floated gently on its little parachute. It was satisfying and beautiful—reminiscent of stories I’d been told about my father, a World War II demolitions expert, whose hatred of Nazi aristocrats had prompted him to blow up their grand pianos because “it made the most beautiful sound.” Hidden on the roof and deeply at peace, I watched the brilliant light flicker and die.

Then we came downstairs to find the quad full of furious students, terrified by this unexpected demonstration of firepower. The recent killings at Kent State had made everyone edgy, and they had feared that Dutchess County sheriff Lawrence Quinlan had decided to unleash WMDs against Vassar’s radicalized student body. Chris and I melted into the indignant mob—and never told anybody.

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