Friday, September 25, 2009

When Are Men Dangerous?

In today's uber-patriotic atmosphere, sometimes it is forgotten that in every war, there have been those who believe violence is wrong, for any reason. This was true even during the Great War (World War I) and The Good War (World War II).

William Stafford, a World War I conscientious objector, published Down in My Heart in 1947, through the Brethren Publishing House.

An excerpt, set on a Sunday afternoon in spring, 1942, at an Arkansas Civilian Public Service Camp:

"When are men dangerous? We sat in the sun near the depot one afternoon in McNeil, Arkansas...Bob was painting a watercolor picture; George was scribbling a poem in his tablet; I was reading off and on in Leaves of Grass and enjoying the scene.

"When are men dangerous? It was March 22, 1942. The fruit trees at the camp farm were in bloom...we spoke of the war and of camp and of Sunday as we hiked through the pine woods and past the sagging houses. We knew our way around...our project superintendent had warned us against saying "Mr." and "Mrs." to Negores, and we had continued to use the stormy night when no doctors would come out, some of the men in camp had given first aid to a Negro woman, who husband led them through the pine woods to the cabin where the woman lay screaming. Thus we had become friends with some of our neighbors...but it was harder with others.

"When we had hiked into McNeil we had found a few men loafing around in the shade. The stores were closed...we too relaxed for our Sunday afternoon. Bob set up his drawing board; George got out his tablet and pen; and I sat leaning against a telephone pole and began to read - among dangerous men.

"It takes such an intricate succession of misfortunes and blunders to get mobbed by your own countrymen - and such a close balancing of good fortune to survive - that I consider myself a rarity in being able to tell the story...but just how we began to be mobbed and just where the blunders and misfortunes began, it is hard to say. We might have lived through a quiet Sabbath if it had not been for Bob's being an artist; or especially if it had not been for George's poem; and on the other hand, we might have become digits in Arkansas's lynching record if Walt Whitmen had used more rhyme in his poetry...

"I went back to my book, and I'll never be able to remember whether I was reading, when it happened, "Come, I will make the continent indissoluble..."

"A young man spoke, not directly to us, but to other townsmen...about us being CO's. There was more muttering, in which we began to hear the quickening words - "yellow" and "damn". At first these words the men said, about us, to each other; then the faces were turned more our way when the words were said.

"We ought to break that board over their heads," someone suggested. Several others repeated the idea; others revised the words, expanded the concept, and passing the saying along. Some spoke of "stringing them up."

"Finally to our great relief, the police car from Magnolia rolled up. A policeman was driving; a man in plain clothes was beside him. These two representatives of the law took over, got our names, and gravely considered the indictments of the crowd.

"The mob scene was over; our possessions were returned to us. At camp we doubled the night watch, for fear of trouble, but nothing happened.

"The next morning before work, we three stood before the assembled campers and gave our version of what had happened, in order to quiet rumors and to help everyone learn from the experience.

"Our camp director, a slow-talking preacher, gave us the final word: "...don't think our neighbors here in Arkansas are hicks just because they see you as spies and dangerous men.

"Just remember that our government is spending millions of dollars and hiring the smartest men in the country to devote themselves full-time just to make everyone act that way."*

*Sold yesterday from Chewybooks on Amazon, the memoir of a World War I conscientious objector: Down in My Heart, by William E. Stafford, published 1947.

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