By Bruce A. Smith
The closing of the borders of the United States to Muslims and refugees this week brings to mind the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the shooting of four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 by Ohio National Guardsmen, and the national protests that followed.
This story is about Frank, a buddy of mine from the old neighborhood in New York, who joined a protest against the Kent State Massacre, and years later paid a huge price courtesy of the US Army. His experience shows the massive scale and sophisticated capacities of the government to conduct surveillance of the public, particularly college demonstrations, even peaceful ones.
Given the advancement of technology since 1970, the current abilities of the government to spy and monitor its people must be even more pervasive and far-reaching.
The day after Kent State, May 5th, college students across America became outraged with the government and the Vietnam War. Many universities went on strike, with most canceling classes and students occupying administration buildings. I had dropped out of Lehigh University the prior September, and since I was living with my parents on Long Island I gravitated to the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, where Frank and many of my hometown friends attended. I hungered to join kindred spirits that were feeling shocked and angry.
By this time, Frank had dropped out of Hofstra, too, but was still hanging around, especially with his fraternity buddies. By mid-afternoon on the 5th, Frank and I – independently of each other – and thousands of other young people coalesced in the main quad section of south campus, adjacent to the main admin building, which had just been commandeered by student radicals of the SDS movement, and where speakers were beginning to foment a rally.
Somehow, the idea emerged that we should all march down Hempstead Turnpike – the main drag from Hofstra to the nearby commercial district of Hempstead – and hold a second, more visible rally to voice our rage at the shooting deaths of fellow Americans protesting the war. Peacefully and organically we began moving from the quad to a local street, and then headed to Hempstead Turnpike a couple blocks away.
Seamlessly, we funneled out of the side street onto the main thoroughfare, and a half-dozen cop cars miraculously appeared. A contingent of officers directed us to the two and three westbound lanes of the roadway, while they held back traffic going eastbound so we could cross safely.
With little ado, I joined the throng heading to Hempstead. As we marched, word passed quickly that we would re-group at “A&S” the giant department store in town that was the cultural hub of central Nassau County. A&S stood for Abraham and Strauss, and was so popular that everyone called it by its initials. It was also becoming a symbol of American decadence, and thus a suitable destination for a day of protest.
As we strolled along the pavement, I marveled at being in a spot where normally thousands of cars would be speeding by. It was intoxicating. Glancing around, I noticed that some students were walking on the double-yellow lines that separated the eastbound from the westbound traffic. Looking more closely, I realized that these special students wore red armbands. I didn’t know any of them, and later learned that Frank was among them, as they were all members of various fraternities. They had been asked by the cops to act as guardians, so that all the marchers would stay safely on our side of the road.
There was an element of risk in marching to A&S even though the traffic behind us was detained by the cops. However, eastbound traffic still flowed, albeit at only 20 mph, but was just a few feet away. Given the political and cultural tensions in the country, it was not unthinkable that a crazy right-winger might want to swerve in the wrong direction.
But nothing happened, and the rally at A&S was anti-climatic. The demonstration dissipated, and as darkness approached we dispersed.
Six months later, Frank told me he was going to volunteer for the Army. I was aghast. Frank was no wild-eyed radical, but he listened to all the same music I did and took acid, so I figured he was strongly anti-war. He never presented himself as a gung-ho guy for global American hegemony. Besides, he seemed smart enough to know that just his presence in the Army could mess up his mind. At the very least, Vietnam was where guys our age were getting killed by the thousands, let alone killing millions of Vietnamese.
Frank tried to reassure me that he had a plan. As a volunteer, he was given a guarantee by the Army that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam as long as he passed all the requirements to remain in his chosen field of enlistment, which was radio electronics. Frank saw it as a career move when little else was going on in his life that either made sense or felt satisfying. A lot of men felt that way, but not I. It was tough to accept Frank’s decision, and he went off into the Army without my blessings. It signaled the beginning of the end of our friendship.
Nevertheless, I would hear from him periodically throughout his early Army experience. First, boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then out to Monterrey, California for advanced electronic training. After about a year or so, the Army taught him Russian in preparation to ship out to Alaska and monitor Russian military radio transmissions. Frank was enthusiastic at the prospect of living and working Alaska – the wilderness appealed to him as much as having something worthwhile to do with his time.
However, his assignment was canceled just before he departed for Alaska. Frank was summoned by his commanding officer in Monterrey, and as Frank walked in his CO asked him to down in front of his desk. The CO opened a file and took out some photographs. He flipped a few of them in Frank’s direction.
“What the hell are these?” the CO asked.
They were pictures of Frank walking down Hempstead Turnpike in 1970 with a red arm band on.
The CO then told Frank that his security clearance had been revoked. Therefore, he was no longer eligible to monitor Russian military communications, and as a result his electronics outfit no longer had any use for him. He was being reassigned to advanced infantry training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, which was often called the Gateway to Vietnam.
Frank was stunned. So was I when he told me the story. How did the Army get the pictures of the march from two years before? Sure we all knew that the FBI was talking pictures of all the anti-war rallies, but Frank was so insignificant. He wasn’t SDS, or a protest organizer. He was just a young kid trying to help out and keep his fellow students safe during a march.
Plus, how did anyone know his name? He was a drop out, and only an “associate” member of the fraternity. He probably wasn’t even on any roster of “brothers.”
So, how did he get identified at the only protest rally he ever attended, and then how did those photographs get sent to an Army officer’s desk 3,000 miles away and reviewed two years later?
The fact that the Army was able to identify Frank before he even joined the Army, and then track him once he did sign up, shows the Army has incredible access to information – access to thousands of photographs, access to plenty of informants who can identify every individual of note. Then a huge staff to catalog that name and file it away somewhere and still be able to retrieve it years in the future.
Was my friend really that much of a security risk? Was it really unsafe for our country if Frank listened to Russian chit-chat on the radio? The reality is that the Army is clearly concerned, and it has the means to do something about its fears.
Which begs the question: If the military can track someone as far from public recognition as my old friend Frank, then what can they do with someone who writes a story like this?
More troubling, what will they do to people who read stories like this?
Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in “Campfire Tales, True Stories Not Everyone Believes,” originally released in November 1990.
Post script: Frank never regained his security clearance, but he never went to Vietnam, either. He and his family fought the Army, and they got political help from our local congressman. Eventually, Frank was assigned to become an Army specialist in pensions and healthcare issues for active duty soldiers. He stayed in the Army as a lifer, mostly in Florida, where he has lived for many years. I have not spoken to Frank in over 30 years.
Bruce A. Smith. Picture courtesy of Guustaaf Damave.