Featured Prose | September 02, 2014
v.i.prose: "U.S. and Them, 1971," an essay by Patricia Bjorklund
In this account of her girlhood in the early 1970s, Patricia Bjorklund confirms that ideological and political divides are nothing new in American culture. “U.S. and Them, 1971” is a memoir about a working-class family and Cold-War politics, with a liberal dose of humor thrown in. It first appeared in our spring 2011 issue (34:1).
U.S. and Them, 1971
By Patricia Bjorklund
My father worked in a white T-shirt, off-white overalls and construction boots that were spattered with paint and crusted with Spackle. His fingers looked like wooden spindles, whitish as if they’d been stripped and then antiqued, and no matter how he scrubbed or what he wore, my father always smelled like turpentine: kind of clean and kind of poisonous. Maria said her father was an executive at General Electric. Terri’s father worked at the New York Stock Exchange. Donna told me her dad was a corporate attorney, and I had heard enough. Corporate attorney, commodities trader, CEO: suit-and-tie occupations. With the luxury of sitting behind a desk, my classmates’ fathers might as well be wearing slippers, too. I never went out of my way to tell anyone that my father was a house painter but I never denied him or what he did for a living. Whenever someone asked me who my father worked for, I was happy to announce that he worked for himself. I took pride in the fact that my father really worked for our bread and butter.
But I made it my mission to avoid talking about what my father did—what both my parents did—as patriots. I never said “John Birch Society” out loud. Saying “JBS” was the equivalent of asking everybody to line up for the final judgment. I didn’t know what the Tri-lateral Commission was, but as Birchers, my parents spent a great deal of time trying to expose such socialist organizations. Having heard of forces such as the One World Order (though my understanding was limited), I saw that ultimately each person chose to be on the side of good or evil. My classmates from Assumption—their parents were either in league with the conspiring elite, or they were pawns.
My father headed the greater Bridgeport, Connecticut, chapter of GUUN—GetUS Out of the United Nations—Committee (pronounced gun, not goon). Our dining room at 327 Wade Street was the base of operations. We had equipment: an eight-millimeter projector sat on a TV tray. A stand-up movie screen blocked the hutch and was flanked by six-foot-high American flags. We kept an army of folding chairs standing against the wall. We had a megaphone! On the night of a meeting, my mother piled Dunkin’ Donuts on the table, perked the coffee and waxed the bathroom floor.
I joined the GUUNs. I wasn’t a natural member by birth. My entry into the world of patriotism actually came at an unlikely place and time: not in the dining room, not at a meeting or after a speech, but in the basement. I was watching my father cast plaster-of-Paris bricks for a wall in the kitchen he planned to reface. He poured the floury mixture into clear plastic molds, and after the bricks hardened, he pried bar after bar out of the plaster casts and stacked the bars like a Fort Knox of chalk. I didn’t want to be run off the way my kid brothers were. I wanted to have a reason for being there. I wanted to count and handle the fragile plaster bullion, so I asked questions.
“Dad,” I said, “why do we keep so many American flags in our house?”
“It’s considered an un-American activity to have organized meetings without the old Stars and Stripes present,” he answered.
“Says who?” I asked.
“Says J. Edgar Hoover. Got a problem with that?”
“You know who J. Edgar is?”
“The FBI guy.”
“You’re paying attention,” my father said.
It bothered me—the notion that, for the price of displaying the flag, Communists and Satan worshippers could legally congregate.
I thought back to a church carnival. I remembered holding my ticket and standing in a long line for the Whip—me, my Dad and our priest, Father Carley. Father told my father and me about secret sects: their members were ordinary-looking people who came to mass, walked right up to the altar to receive Communion and then spit the host out into their hands—evil conspirators. They took the Eucharist back to their clan, where they desecrated it in Satanic rituals. If people who weren’t even in the state of grace were allowed access to Jesus’ body and blood, how safe could our country be?
“Dad, what about the people who use the flag as a decoy?” I asked.
My father looked annoyed. “Unfortunately, conspirators and even morons have rights which cannot coexist with God’s will for America.”
I thought my father was thinking like I was: the Constitution probably had way too many loopholes in it, and free will was the worst idea God ever had.
Many nights after that, I could not sleep, fretting over which was the lesser offense: co-existence with evil or the rights of morons.
The next time the GUUNs met, my father said, “I have a seat for you if you want it.”
My mother came into the room. “Don’t you think she’d rather play Pokeno with Charlotte?” she said.
My father slapped me on the back. “You can’t blame the kid for wanting to be the son of a gun.”
My mother put Saran Wrap on a tray of melon balls and headed over to the Meehans’ for her MOTOREDE (Movement to Restore Decency) meeting. I stapled mimeographed GUUN agendas and handed out American Opinions (AMOPs). My father let me sit next to him and sip from his coffee cup. He wore a polo shirt, cardigan sweater and pressed corduroys. My father had his own style: neat and ready for action.
Nick Bovine sat across from me. Nick had the chiseled features of a Ken doll, and he was spiffy, except for his dandruff. I knew Nick was a serious patriot, but he shouldn’t have tried to look like a federal agent. It seemed to me he would have done better sporting a Hawaiian shirt and waving grill-tongs rather than wearing a navy trench coat and toting a briefcase with a bumper sticker that said I am a secret member of the John Birch Society. A festive shirt and a tropical environment would have flattered him, whereas his fondness for navy blue always emphasized his scalp problem.
Farnum Green was a crisp, eagle-eyed man, a man I could imagine in the cockpit of an airplane. He was confident, and he moved with speed and agility in very expensive suits. When retired generals came to the Klein Memorial Auditorium to talk about how American forces were hog-tied in Vietnam, Farnum was the man who introduced them.
Craig Leary sat across from Nick. Craig was in his twenties. He was average in height, but almost everything else about him was miniature. He had stubby fingers, button ears and other elfish features: sunken eyes and wiry black eyebrows. His sand-colored desert boots were so small they reminded me of my baby brother’s Buster Browns. Craig brought Skippy peanut butter with him to meetings and spooned it out of the jar, right there at the table.
“Let me get the plate Jane fixed for us,” my father said, and he walked into the kitchen.
Craig slid the spoon out his mouth very slowly and motioned toward me with the jar—as if to offer me some.
I waved him off. “No way,” I said. “Why do you come over here with your peanut butter anyway?”
Craig’s eyes widened. “This is pure protein,” he said.
“So what if it is. We’ve got civilized food. My parents always put out a spread,” I reminded him.
Craig capped his Skippy, wrapped his spoon in one of our luncheon napkins and put it into his shirt pocket. “How old are you, Patty? I mean, are you old enough to be a member?”
“Why don’t you ask my father, Craig?” The other men at the table laughed.
My father entered the room with a tray of cold cuts and Portuguese rolls. “Ask me what?”
I cleared a spot for our sandwich fixings.
“Our junior member here,” Farnum said. “I’m glad she’s on our side.” He grabbed the serving fork and speared several slices of salami. “Did you know that salami did not originate in Italy but on the Greek island of Salamis?”
“Now that’s interesting,” I said. “How did you find that out?”
“Books,” Farnum said.
My father popped a small triangle of provolone into his mouth. “It’s not so surprising about Salamis,” he said. “Italy and Greece are the most advanced ancient cultures.”
As I understood the GUUN mission, we were calling for the United States to sever all ties to the United Nations, an international body that had been founded by Communists and other socialist members, nations and individuals whose common goal was a godless one-world government. I was more inclined to read about the island of Salamis than to read the GUUN literature—but I didn’t need to read much. The photos of the UN headquarters told the story: international flags surrounded the building. Other countries were staking claim—symbolically at the very least—to an institution planted firmly inside the greatest city in the US of A. Sure, Old Glory was one of those flags—but our very own banner seemed to stand as a legal loophole for conspiracy. The most powerful nation on the planet—why would we, why should we allow the rest of the world, especially the barely industrialized, and less-than-free world, to get in the way of our manifest destiny?
My father liked a quote from Edmund Burke: All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. “That’s not just some little inspirational motto to keep under a paperweight,” he said. “It’s a warning—a wake-up call, maybe our last!”
I understood that I had to know more than my fair share about the sad state of affairs in the world. American citizens had fallen for the propaganda and become puppets. The puppets were: (1) people stupid enough to own a pet rock; (2) women who took the pill; (3) folks who failed to realize that the so-called peace symbols they flaunted were actually the calling cards of Satan and (4) a growing number of citizens who voiced more skepticism about the will of God than the existence of Sasquatch.
For the rest of us, the literate, unbrainwashed, God-fearing Americans, it was triple duty. This was why the John Birch Society employed the slogan For God, Family, and Country—an authoritative equation as firmly established as the Holy Trinity. The Birch Society’s forecast for America was bleak. Most people didn’t want to know the unhappy truths, but I knew I had been born to face them.
Jim Meehan, our neighbor and my best friend’s dad, was the co-chair of GUUN. I liked him. He was a bit older than my father. He made more money: they had a stucco house, the kids had gyroscopes, and they always brought us back maple syrup from Montreal. It seemed to me that the most painful personal cross Mr. Meehan had to bear was his strong resemblance to one of his archenemies, Richard M. Nixon. He had Nixon’s hairline, nose, jowls, even his physique. Like Nixon, Mr. Meehan was a shirt-and-tie guy. Mr. Meehan had gone to MIT. I didn’t know what that stood for, but I understood that he was one of the few people who had not been corrupted by an institution of higher education. He had fought in the Korean War, and now he was a civil engineer employed by Hubble.
Mr. Meehan stayed tight-lipped when I asked him about the Sputniks eavesdropping on us from space, but I got him to tell me about trench foot, and he gave me the real facts about army rations, specifically a meal they called “shit on a shingle.” Though my father wore coveralls and Mr. Meehan wore old suits to work, they still seemed more alike than different. They were men who took the state of affairs in the world personally. Mr. Meehan also liked to hear my stories. For instance, I told him about a day I spent on Pleasure Beach—the time I discovered a mass of heavy, rubber-like hosing in a polluted section of the sound. I’d stood at the shore and kept reeling it in—whatever it was. I glanced back at my mother, who was far away but gesturing, trying to wave me off. I ignored her. Eventually I pulled up about twenty feet of what police later said they believed to be human intestine. My mother was distressed, even in denial over the whole episode: the entrails, the crowd, the body bag. She was mortified by the fact that I had to give my name as the person who made the find. But when I told Mr. Meehan about my adventure, he slapped me on the back and laughed, and said, “You probably dredged up what was left of a gangster from Long Island.”
I went out in the field with the GUUNs too. One Saturday we dressed in our Sunday clothes, my father, Mr. Meehan and me. We canvassed the mall parking lot and stuck GUUN leaflets beneath windshield wipers. We popped open a card table and stationed ourselves outside at the marble storefront wall between Parade of Shoes and Baskin-Robbins. I wore a white ruffled blouse and a yellow-checked maxi-skirt. I was there for moral support, which I knew to mean that I represented moral youth, as opposed to the “counterculture,” i.e., impressionable youth who could be brainwashed into committing acts as horrible as stabbing a fork into Sharon Tate’s pregnant belly, or having sex.
A leggy woman beamed from her Mercedes: Jiffy-white gloves, canary A-line dress, perky dark hair—a Jackie Kennedy look you’d see all over Fairfield County, even in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The woman’s hair was swept up on the top of her head and wound into a smooth, shiny bun. She paused, pursed her lips and looked away.
My father was unfazed. Mr. Meehan pursued Mrs. Honey Bun in an attempt to hand her a pamphlet. It featured a cartoon image of a pistol with its barrel twisted into a knot—a stunt Bugs Bunny frequently performed on Elmer Fudd’s hunting rifle.
“Miss,” Mr. Meehan said, “imagine being held prisoner in a foreign land, an American citizen, pleading your innocence, seeking justice and a fair trial. Then imagine finding yourself at the mercy of a tribunal: delegates from places like the USSR, Cambodia or what they’re now calling Tanzania.”
“Uhm, maybe later,” the woman said. She pressed her sunglasses deeper into her brow.
She strutted by my father. He said good afternoon. She paused. “I’m sure you’re a conscientious citizen,” my father said. The woman removed her white-framed Ray-Bans. “I believe you’re someone who cares enough to take some educational literature home with you.”
The woman opened her beaded wicker purse, held it in front of my father, and he dropped the pamphlet inside like a ballot. “You gentlemen have a good day,” she said.
My father and Mr. Meehan stood together with the same posture and expression as they watched her walk on by. “Westport,” Mr. Meehan said.
“Yeah,” my father agreed.
Most people avoided our GUUN table as if we were selling tickets to the draft. It was hard to witness how the average citizen cared so little about our country’s imminent demise.
As the woman’s heels clicked off a short distance, I yelled, “We want out of the United Nations!”
“Hey, you!” my father said to me. “We’re not the Black Panthers here. What’s with the fist?”
“I dunno. Nothing.”
The sure things: (1) I liked being with my father, with the men, being mobilized; (2) I could never be turned into one of Charles Manson’s minions; (3) Hollering at strangers agreed with me.
A man in a straw hat who looked like Bing Crosby headed our way at a tourist’s pace. “What are you folks raffling off?” he said.
“Sir,” Mr. Meehan said, “we’re here today because the United Nations is threatening to take away the God-given rights on which our nation was founded—the right to self-defense.” Mr. Meehan offered a friendly hand, but the man raised his arms as if this were a holdup.
“Young man, I’ve got arterial sclerosis,” he said. “The hardening of the arteries,” he said louder, and as if this was worse. “I’m just out for a little ice cream. My doc’s not keen on the idea, but there you have it.”
“Got it,” Mr. Meehan said.
The old man pointed a finger toward the Baskin–Robbins. “It’s a good day for a little pistachio,” he said, “don’t you think?”
“Sure, sure,” Mr. Meehan said. “Pistachio.”
The man shuffled off in his huarache sandals and cardio socks.
After he was inside the ice cream parlor, Jim said, “Yeah, pal, make it a double—you and your doctor, cause we’re all going to Hell in a handbucket.”
I was beginning to notice that my father and Mr. Meehan had their own distinct ways when it came to the enterprise of trying to save our country.
A sleeveless biker with club insignia came our way. My father called out to him, “The United Nations wants to take your gun!”
The guy wiped his face and bald head with a red bandana; he picked up the clipboard and nodded his head as he read the petition. “Get us out of the United Nations . . . hmm,” he said.
“Can you imagine Americans giving up their rights for so-called international law?” my father asked.
“I’m with you on this, man. It’s all wrong,” the biker said, “but I can’t give you my John Hancock—nothing that can be traced.”
“Who is it?” my father asked. “The IRS?”
“No. My ex-old lady.”
My father leaned back and laughed. He stood in front of one of the concrete pillars with hands in his pockets—not the working man he was during the week, a guy in drippy painters’ pants, but a dark man in a smooth Banlon shirt and preppie khakis.
“This is my daughter, Patty.”
I nodded as the biker introduced himself. I was no more eager to catch his name than he seemed to be to know mine, but I gave him free merchandise: American flag decals, Pray the Rosary pins and two copies of None Dare Call It Treason.
I watched the men ease into conversation, joke around like guys I didn’t quite recognize. They understood each other, shared something I couldn’t identify, even though I was looking right at it: I failed to see any connections between conservatives and bikers, but I was mesmerized by the guy stuff. I saw a boyish quality about them, the same jubilance I’d seen on the school playground. I started to see my father as a man of necessary urgency. He was shorter than the other two, but he was swift and muscular, olive skinned, with Brylcreemed hair. He was not just the father who demanded that we read more Baltimore Catechism and watch less TV but also a dad who, despite my mother’s protests, once woke me up in the middle of the night to watch a gargoyle movie with him. And now, here he was befriending one of the Huns—my father—a man who only finished the tough Jesuit prep school he attended to win a car from his father.
I thought about an old black-and-white photo—the only picture I ever saw of my father before he married my mother. His hair was thick, wavy. He had a sly-clean look, like Elvis. His hands just rested in his hip pockets; his legs were spread, and he was standing in front of his prized set of wheels—a ’57 Studebaker that could have been the biker’s Harley.
One Saturday my mother shook us out of bed as if it was Christmas morning and she was the only one who knew it. We yawned as she corralled us into the living room. She opened the Venetian blinds to showcase a sky streaked with pink. “Look!” she said. “It’s a gorgeous day—gonna be a hot one! Let’s have some fun.” She looked at my father. “I say we go out to the International House of Pancakes.”
“For breakfast?” Johnny-Boy asked.
“For fun,” my mother said. “Call it brunch if you like. You kids have never gone for brunch, have you?”
“Of course not,” I said.
My mother looked at me. “Just smile,” she said.
My father shrugged. “Well, let’s go if we’re gonna go,” he said.
We quick-brushed our teeth, left the sand in our eyes and packed into the Caddy while the idea was still fresh. We came to a complete and law-abiding stop at the intersection of Wade Street and Wood Avenue—and from nowhere, our car was pelted with a monstrous plant—roots and all. A baseball-sized wad of dirt smacked us in the windshield.
“What the—!” my father said.
My mother flinched and covered her face. “Mother of God!” she said.
In the backseat, I was the first to hit the floor. I pulled Joe-Bins down with me, into the shallow rut of carpeting. It wasn’t textbook—I mean, I knew how to survive on the street or in the house, but I didn’t recall ever hearing what to do if you were in a motor vehicle when the atomic bomb hit.
My father put the wipers on, and the blades slapped the plant down on the driver’s side and spread dirt in every direction. He rolled down the window and reached for the clot of soil with tentacles of green leaves.
“No! Don’t touch it!” I said. “It’s radioactive!”
“Don’t be an idiot,” my father said.
“Roll up the window before we’re all contaminated by nuclear fallout!”
“I said, stop being ridiculous,” my father said.
“Well, it’s our life too!” My father turned to look at us. “Get off the floor for godsakes!” he said. He turned off the wipers, tilted his head and massaged the back of his neck.
“But who? Why?” my mother said. “What just happened?
“This is Bridgeport, Jane!” my father said, “The armpit of Connecticut, reminding us what an armpit is.”
We pulled into the nearby Shell station, and a happy bell rang. An elderly attendant hustled out from the garage. He grabbed the squeegee and raked the dirt off our windshield without asking how it got there. “Where are you folks headed?” he asked.
“We’re just drivin’,” my father answered.
“Ah! Since you folks are going to see a movie at the drive-in, I’ll get those windows sparkling so you’ll be able to see the picture just as clear as life.” The man held up his hand. “Wait right here,” he said, and he walked toward the front office.
“Why did you say that?” my mother asked.
“Why did you tell the man we’re just driving?”
“I’m not on parole, here! Since when is it necessary that I giv an accurate report of my comings and goings to this guy?”
“I’m just saying, why didn’t you tell him we’re going to the International House of Pancakes? What’s wrong with the simple truth?”
“Simple truth? The guy is deaf, Jane! If I told him we were headed to an execution, he’d still be out there trying to detail the car.”
Each of us, from our various windows, watched. When the man came back, he said we were a fine family, and he gave my mother a handful of Bazookas “for the handsome bunch in back.” We worked our wads of bubblegum and studied the man with the shell on his cap. He had arthritic-looking hands but happy wrinkles around eyes as crisp and blue as aftershave. He pulled an oil-soaked roll of paper towels from one of the deep pockets on his uniform, and from another pocket he produced a bottle of yellow fluid that looked like anything but Windex. We couldn’t stop this Good Samaritan, all of us seeing his kindness but not quite feeling the joy of it. The more he rubbed, the worse it got. By the time he was through with our windows, we would have had better visibility in a Pyrex dish my mother had greased with Crisco.
We smiled and offered up a family-sized bouquet of waving hands and cheery good-byes. My father slowly rounded the block and pulled us back into our driveway. “Everybody out,” he said.
My mother pulled out boxes of Life and Lucky Charms and let the cabinet door slam shut. She piled cereal bowls and a handful of teaspoons on the table for us before she went upstairs.
My father gathered up the hose, the Palmolive, the Armor All and the Minwax from the garage.
Herman came out of his dog house, traveled the length of his chain and flopped down like a rag by the bucket to watch my father put a shine back on our car.
Golda kept an eye on my father and the hose as she licked herself clean in the shade beneath the pricker bushes.
Shoulder to shoulder, my brothers and I sat at the island counter. We looked out the window over our backyard. We crunched and slurped our cereal, and we could see the threat of an unstable world right from where we were sitting.
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