With These Shackles I Thee Wed

By Cullen McVoy

If I had a song, I’d sing it in the morning,
I’d sing it in the evening, all over this land,
I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out warning,
I’d sing out the love between my brothers and my sisters,
all over this land.

— Pete Seeger

If I Had a Hammer

It was a time when guys were cats, gals were chicks, the police were pigs, and spray-can graffiti said things like, “Up against the wall, Motherfucker!”

I had just graduated from Antioch, a small liberal-arts college in Ohio. Not knowing where else to go, I headed down south to my home town — Gainesville — home of the University of Florida, countless sororities and fraternities, and that celebrated football team, the Fighting Gators.

Five miles out of town stood my childhood home, a Navy surplus dwelling plopped down next to a swamp. There I used to wander among the cypress stumps and palmetto trees, inhaling the hyacinths and stalking the frogs. I was a quiet, passive child with an overriding need to be liked. Early on, I learned that the best way to win a person’s approval was to agree with them. If, in an unguarded moment, I happened to express an opinion and the other person disagreed, an alarm would go off in my head, and I would scramble for damage control. In a flurry of back-pedaling and second-guessing, my views would quickly fall into line with theirs, and a comfortable accord would be restored.

If their black farm laborers tried to leave, the plantation owners would hunt them down, beat them, and send them back to the fields.

My bent for people-pleasing was perfect for the placid fifties, but those days were over. The Vietnam war was raging with no end in sight, raising questions about life at home. Race and gender relations, and even the role of capitalism, were under scrutiny. Grass-roots protest groups sprouted across the country. They placed every dimension of American life under a microscope, and made startling revelations on how the world order had insinuated itself into their personal lives. How discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual preference prevented people from realizing their true potential. How sexism, and the imperative roles of men and women, could kill a woman’s dream of becoming a judge, or a man’s desire to stay home and care for his children. How these roles could dictate who’s on top in sex, or who is allowed to cry.

These were polarized times. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Fence-sitting was not an option.

My parents had long since moved out of town, but my older brother Steve was still there. He was starting his own cable television company and offered me a job setting up the system. A few years earlier I had come to visit him in a remote town near the border of Georgia; he was doing civil rights work for CORE. As I drove into town I was stopped by the police, and when the officer saw my driver’s license, he spit on the ground and growled, “Shit, another one of those MacVoys.” Steve was not popular with the local establishment.

Nearby plantations were practicing twentieth-century, de facto slavery. If their black farm laborers tried to leave, the owners would hunt them down, beat them, and send them back to the fields. Steve and a group of local CORE workers were running a sort of underground railroad, helping laborers to escape from their plantations and relocate to cities up north. As a guest in their house in the woods, I ate succotash and collard greens, arm wrestled with a brute three times my size — who playfully let me win — and heard war stories into the night. Just that week Steve had been clapped into jail. When asked on what charge, the officer replied, “Lying on the Sheriff!” That meant he had said something unflattering about the police. But they couldn’t find such an offense on the books, so they had to let him go.

Fighting for rights and justice often clashed with my personal commitment to peace at all costs.

It struck me that my brother and his cohorts were not stymied or conflicted in these unsettled times. They were taking action. How heartwarming to feel this group’s camaraderie and sense of purpose. On a more intimate scale, it was like the sense of belonging I felt at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where I heard Martin Luther King Jr. cry out, “I have a dream.” There I traded glances with a few thousand people, and each time our eyes met, I felt a glint of recognition. We were there because we agreed on something. Yes, many eyes betrayed anger and suspicion, but they also reached out in welcoming — a figurative embrace I would never forget.

So when I returned to my home town, I found myself joining a small activist commune. We organized sit-ins protesting racism and the Vietnam War, and denounced the university’s investment in war-related industries such as Dow Chemical, manufacturer of the defoliant Napalm, and companies in South Africa with its racist policy Apartheid. Also, among our ranks was a new breed of feminist, from a movement with spontaneous origins in Gainesville and New York City.

I loved being part of a group with a purpose, but fighting for rights and justice often clashed with my personal commitment to peace at all costs. I felt embarrassed and apologetic when confronting the people whose actions I condemned.

There was Mrs. Parker, secretary to the president of the university. She was a kindly woman, whose face you might see on a brownie mix box, and the mother of Julie, a girl I had dated in high school and took to the Senior Prom. When I had come to pick up Julie, Mrs. Parker greeted me at the door, and there I stood in my glossy rented tux, corsage in hand, nodding and grinning, eager to make a good impression. Then recently, meeting her by chance at the door of the Student Union, I stood there in baggy jeans and crumpled sweat shirt, hair a bit ragged and too long, with an armload of leaflets indicting the university for its complicity with the war-mongering Military-Industrial Complex.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Parker,” I said with a nervous smile. “I hope you understand this is nothing personal.”

She reached for her mouth to make sure the right words came out. “I know, Cullen, you’re a good boy,” she said. “So much has changed. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

Talking to me was not easy for Mrs. Parker. I reminded her of all that had gone awry in the world, and in her family. I had looked up Julie when I came into town, and she told me that after graduation she found that “boys are not my bag.” This was just before the gay rights movement came out, starting with the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Of course I was not to blame for her choice, Julie insisted. But her mother was not so sure.

Asking Julie to the prom was not easy for me. Fearing rejection more than a dark room full of edgy spiders, I felt that gender roles were so unfair. While sticking me with the burden of asking, they favored her with enormous power — to inflict a mortal wound with only a two-letter word. So when the women’s movement came along I was grateful, seeing in it my own salvation. After that, I could scarcely mention social or economic oppression without harping on unequal treatment of the sexes.

My best friend at the commune was Chad, a frizzy redhead whose lack of skin pigment made him border on albino. His slight frame carried a head full of weighty ideas. He was a dedicated radical activist, but had a gentle, thoughtful demeanor. An articulate debater, he could always cite facts and history, though at times he could lapse into political rhetoric. Compared to him, I was just winging it.

Free love was one of Mary’s pet peeves. “More like free sex,” she would say.

One warm spring day, Chad and I went to speak before a freshman sociology class. The professor had invited us to talk on the family and society. We had no credentials, other than being known as resident agitators.

“So why did the school ask us in the first place?” I had asked Chad before we came. “We’re not even students here.”

“They want to look hip — like they support free exchange of ideas,” said Chad. “They let us come in and rap awhile. Then they go back to teaching their lies.”

Inside the blonde, oak-paneled classroom, I scanned fifty or so pallid faces lined up along tiered seats. Nothing moved, save for the palm trees swaying in the breeze outside the open windows. The pristine campus beyond, with its angular sidewalks, and demure brick buildings with cement columns, offered reassurance that all was in perfect order, as long as nothing moved.

“Friedrich Engels,” I addressed the class, “wrote a treatise called The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.” I held up a dog-eared paperback book. “As a follower of Karl Marx, Engels was an economic determinist. He believed that economics determined the nature of the most intimate of human relationships, including marriage.

“In prehistoric times, Engels wrote, women were free agents and reigned supreme. Childrearing was of paramount importance, and their progeny belonged to them alone. They raised their children, and passed their names and property onto them. The men had no say in these matters. They were mere hunter-gatherers, and the identity of their offspring was largely a matter of speculation.”

Again I surveyed the tomb-like classroom. Eyes were glazed over: seeing nothing, saying nothing. I cast a nervous glance over at Chad, but he nodded for me to keep going. I took a breath and went on.

“As time passed, the men began to herd animals and till the soil, and soon accumulated great wealth. Unable to pass their names and riches to their descendents, they became dissatisfied with the system of matrilineal descent, and overthrew it by force. From then on, all title and property passed through the men, and to preserve the identity of their offspring, the men established monogamy. Thus was born the institution of marriage, as a vehicle for the subjugation of women. And in many respects it remains so today.”

I talked about how modern marriage perpetuated sex roles, and Chad read some excerpts from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, an analysis of the capitalist system and its inevitable downfall. Not getting any response or questions, Chad and I thanked the class for listening, shook hands with a cordial but uneasy teacher, and walked out.

“Man, that was heavy,” I murmured as we emerged onto the spotless, pastoral campus. I was still wincing at all the stony faces. “They didn’t dig us at all.”

“Marx says the masses are asleep,” Chad replied.

“What does it take to awaken them?”

“Something shocking. A good massacre would do the trick.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Wish I was, but look at the big picture. History shows that countless revolutions were sparked by a pivotal incident — the slaughter of defenseless objectors in the street. They were sacrificed so many more could be free.”

“But they didn’t have free speech.”

“No, but what good is free speech if the country’s asleep?”

We crossed the campus and headed for home, just on the other side of University Avenue. Along the way I looked down to see a small ant hill, busy as a paisley bandana, in the grass next to the sidewalk. Aha! Some movement on this campus after all, if you looked hard enough.

“I was wondering…” Chad said cautiously.

“Wondering what?”

“Did we go too far on the marriage thing? I mean, we told them it will stifle their freedom, and after all, marriage is a big deal to these people.”

“Marriage?” I gasped. “What about capitalism? That’s a big deal and we were bashing it just as hard. Why should we pull our punches on marriage?”

“I don’t know.” Chad looked in the other direction. “Capitalism is one thing, but marriage, well that’s sacred.”

I had recently driven with Chad to Miami to visit his parents. They were a lovely couple who confirmed what I had suspected all along. Underneath it all, Chad was a nice Jewish boy. Could this be why he had gone soft on marriage?

To my critical young mind, my parents were just the opposite. The way I saw it, they had spent thirty years trapped in a loveless marriage and never had the courage to get out. My father was like a caged animal, bursting with lust for other women, and furious at my mother for not responding to his advances. My mother was soaked in resentment towards my father, who thought only of his selfish needs, and never loved her like another man she once knew, before she married my father.

“Man, I don’t know where your head is,” I grumbled. “You’re saying that in this decadent society, love is more sacred than money?”

“Please, Cullen!” Chad raised a hand as if to push me away. “Just cool it, will you?”

“Why?” I said. “Is there something going on?”

Chad stopped and turned to look me head on. “Look, I promised not to say anything yet,” he said. “I’ll tell you tonight at dinner. Can you cool it until then?”

“Promised who?” I wondered out loud until I caught his glare. With a brisk pass of thumb and forefinger, I zipped my lips shut.

By now we had arrived home. Chad and I lived in a dowdy bungalow with a sandy front yard and a stubby palm tree. A self-styled activist commune of five, we shared most everything — chores, cooking, household expenses, and hookah pipe. When dinner was done, we would pass the pipe around, sing folk songs, and discuss political strategy. I led the singing with my guitar. I had learned to play in college, spending hours alone in my room to escape the tribulations of campus life. I liked intimate songs like “What I Give You Since You Ask” by Joni Mitchell, a song about love and wandering in the woods. But now I was singing protest songs: “If I Had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger, and old union songs like “Which Side Are You On?”

Our group included Chad’s girlfriend, Gracie, a gangly, moonfaced girl who resembled a rag doll. Like Chad, she was a voracious reader, but preferred historical and romance novels over political polemics. She didn’t talk much but had a watchful eye. Quite mellow, really, even when she wasn’t stoned. She and Chad seemed to get along. They never fought, and their bed squeaked every night.

Then there was Mary, a pretty blonde free spirit, who was a model of femininity until she got belittled for it. She was the first woman I ever heard countering catcalls from a group of leering construction workers. She shouted back, “Male chauvinist pigs” followed by insults disparaging the size and serviceability of their equipment. She knew her mind, and seemed to have it all together until you noticed her fingernails, chewed down to jagged pink skin. Mary and I were friends, and could be more, but not without risk. Even with honorable intentions, one wrong move and I could be cast as the oppressor/exploiter — one who would play with her heart to get into her pants.

Free love was one of Mary’s pet peeves. “More like free sex,” she would say. “And mostly for the men. Women pay a price, like getting knocked up or butchered by an abortion. And what about those rashes and God-knows-what-else from taking the pill?” She hated the fact that most of the protest leaders were men, and many used their notoriety and heroic mystique as a magnet to attract admiring female consorts.

It was true. William Kuntsler of the National Lawyers’ Guild was one of the most celebrated advocates of the era. He flew from city to city to represent victims of political persecution in high-visibility court trials, and had a pretty young thing greeting him at every airport. Once he came to Florida to defend the Jacksonville Five in a conspiracy trial. Afterwards, he came to visit our house, and had a girl on each arm.

Our fifth fellow-conspirator was Jack, alias “Radical Jack.” A square-jawed man’s man, this serious sojourner wore army fatigues and chunky black boots. Jack was definitely New Left and a member of SDS. Their manifesto was Tom Hayden’s 1962 Port Huron Statement, which declared that capitalism, and its inherent need for constant expansion, was a major cause of the Vietnam War, and that the only solution was to overthrow The System. Scoffing at protest marches and demonstrations, he believed it was time to bring out the guns, only he didn’t have any.

In our household there was constant debate. “Must we work outside The System to overthrow it, or can we work within The System to improve it?” Either way, we all vowed to avoid entanglements with The System and its institutions. Corporate employment, or working for The Man was out of the question, and marriage — that was just asking for trouble.

That evening we gathered for dinner in our living room, facing each other on two dark, bulky couches separated by an orange-crate table. Chad and Gracie were on one side and the rest of us on the other. The walls had no pictures, only block-printed, black-and-white posters of raised fists and angry shouting faces. But stenciled on the top of the crate was a bright orange sunburst and the words, “Sunshine State.”

Jack lit up the hookah, a round, clear glass water pipe with a long black hose. One puff saturated the air with the beguiling aroma of smooth hashish. Jack passed the pipe around, and when it came to Chad, he took a deep draw, closed his eyes and said:

“We want you all to be the first to know. Gracie and I are getting married.”

Nobody reacted at first. We were all pawing through the mist in our minds, trying to find an opening to see out. Jack was the first to get it. Leaping from his seat, he locked his eyes on Chad as if down a rifle barrel.

“I don’t get you at all. You’re hell bent on toppling The System, and yet you want to plunge right into one of its most insidious institutions.”

“We’re not plunging into The System,” Chad began evenly. “We’re attacking the institution of marriage from the inside.” Gathering resolve, he mounted his political soap box. “We’ll infiltrate it, and transform it from an instrument of subjugation into a catalyst for freedom.”

“Dazzling rhetoric,” Jack sniffed. “But I think you’re looking for a personal solution.” We all knew what that meant. Personal solution was a derogatory term for when members of the privileged classes use their advantages to create their own little utopia, insulated from the oppressive social order and oblivious to the suffering of its victims.

“You’re both from middle class families and have a college education,” Jack went on, “You’re about as equal as a couple can get within The System. So even if you do achieve some measure of freedom in your marriage, you won’t have changed the institution one bit. You’ll just be co-opted by The System, bought-off by your privileges, and useless when it comes to social change.”

“You’re wrong!” Chad spat back.

“Am I?” Jack stuck out his chin. “Let’s play this out. You get a job, Gracie becomes a housewife, you have children, you have a house, a mortgage, and responsibilities.” He dragged out that word to sound deadly onerous. “Then one day The Man comes down hard, and it’s time to strike back. So where are you? You’re standing there with your nose up The Man’s butt.”

“Jack! Cool it will you?” Gracie jumped in. “You know we’re not like that.”

But Jack was on a roll. “You could always go work for the government, and help build Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” With exaggerated fingers, he mimed peeling the backing off a tiny bandage, and dabbing it onto his cheek. “No need to off The System, just patch it up here and there. You’ll be heroes. Dig it?”

Chad leaned over, head in hands. I had never before seen him at a loss for words. Finally he looked up at the ceiling, clenched his fists, and cried out, “For God’s sake, we love each other. What else can I say!”

This got Mary going. “What the hell does love have to do with it?” she railed. “You love each other, so shack up together. You don’t need permission from The System to love each other. And if you get it, then you’ll have to follow their rules.”

Mary leaped over the arm of her couch and landed next to Gracie, staring her in the face at close range. “You’ll stay home and cook and clean and take care of the kids. Don’t you want more? Find out what it means to be a woman?”

Gracie sat there withering, the hookah pipe resting in her limp hands. I wanted to help her but didn’t know how.

“Look, Sister,” Mary sighed. “No offense to Mr. Right over there, but you’ve been hanging out with the oppressor too long, and your brainwashing is starting to show. You need to come to my rap group and get your head screwed on straight.”

“Yeah, right on,” Jack sneered. “Be a women’s libber. Join Betty Friedan and her NOW group, and go for gender equality. Get out the petticoat vote. No need to patch up The System, just cover its flaws with mascara.”

“That’s not us, Jack,” Mary retorted. “NOW just helps women be more Butch, and elbow their way up the male corporate ladder. Who the hell wants to be like those power-hungry, emotionally hamstrung men?” She raised her arms grandly. “We are more like the Black Panthers. They spit in the face of CORE and the NAACP for advocating racial equality, which comes down to helping Uncle Toms get a bigger piece of Whitey’s pie.”

“The Panthers?” Jack rolled his eyes. “I don’t see the resemblance.”

“We’re separatists. My rap group gets together without men so we can talk freely, about what sexism feels like, how we get enslaved by marriage, and how our oppression makes us ashamed of our bodies.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. You sit cross-legged in a circle and stick test tubes between your legs, all the way to the cervix, so it’s all displayed under glass. Then you examine each other and say, ‘How beautiful we are inside. I’m so proud to be a woman!’” He slapped his knee. “Sounds like a bunch of dykes.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Jack. Many women are taught that it’s shameful down there. So it helps to take a good look.”

“Hey man, that’s equality,” Jack snickered. “Chicks have their own circle-jerk.”

“Good thing men aren’t allowed,” Mary came back quickly. “You’d be doing just that.”

“Hey you two,” I finally cut in before knives were pulled. “Did you forget? This is about Chad and Gracie.”

“OK, I’ll shut up if Mary will.” Jack leaned back and folded his arms. “So, Cullen, we haven’t heard from you. What do you think?”

I had tried to keep quiet, not take sides, and stay out of the fray. I had tried to convince myself that I had no opinion. But the more I heard the others talking, the more I realized that I too had strong feelings on the subject, only for different reasons. I had a grim view of my parents’ marriage, and couldn’t bear the thought of Chad and Gracie on the same doomed course.

Gracie reached across the crate and handed me the pipe. I took a deep drag and placed it squarely in the middle of the orange sunburst. Mustering my most rational, diplomatic tone, I faced both of them and said:

“You know we’re all friends here, and only want what’s best for you. But let me ask one thing. Chad, every morning when you wake up with Gracie beside you, you know you’re with her because you love her, and she’s there for the same reason. You’re not together because you went to a minister and said some vows, and signed a license that’s filed with the county clerk. What if you knew you had to be together —  would you feel the same way?”

Chad looked at Gracie. She nodded that he should answer. He folded his hands on his lap. “Yes, I would freely choose her now,” he said, looking around at each of us, “and freely promise to be with her forever.”

We sat in an uneasy silence. The smoke from the stationary water pipe drifted in a straight column up to the ceiling and mushroomed out to the walls. Then it descended over the angry posters and finally came to rest on the crate and the joyful orange sunburst. Nobody was convinced, but the magic of the hashish finally did its work, and the angst of the moment folded into itself and disappeared amongst a lazy haze of dreams. “Far out,” said Mary with a wheezy sigh. “So when’s the wedding?”

The weekend came, and Chad and I set out walking to a sit-in at the NASA Building. After a couple of blocks in quiet thought, Chad finally spoke.

“Hey man, about the wedding, it’s going to be outdoors by Lake Griffin, a few hours south of here. I want you all to have a good time. What would you think if we all got high? Not just grass or hash, but something really out of sight, like mescaline?”

Still smarting from the other night, Chad was worried that our objections might mar the wedding. He wanted something to smooth things over, like champagne lubricates a traditional wedding, salving the friction among the in-laws.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’ve never done anything hard like that, not even acid.”

“It’s cool,” said Chad. “You know Mike, the cat that comes to our meetings? He just scored a big stash. The stuff takes a while to kick in, so we could take it on the road, like two hours before we get there. That way we’ll be high from the start.”

“What about the drivers?” I asked.

“No sweat,” he said. “They can take the stuff an hour before, just to be sure.”

“What kind of high is it?” I asked.

“Real intense. Everything in your head gets real intense.”

“Even your feelings?”

“Everything.”

“That could be a bummer.”

“Yeah, but if anybody trips out, we’ll all be there to pull them back.”

Tripping out was not my fear. I still had grave doubts about the marriage. What if the drugs magnified my doubts into adamant objections? What if the minister said, “Speak now or forever…” and I couldn’t hold my peace?

“I’m there,” I replied, stuffing my misgivings.

Arriving at University Avenue, we heard a polite blip on a car horn. A plain black Ford sedan with black-wall tires pulled up beside us. Inside was a clean-cut man wearing a dark suit and maroon tie, waving out the window.

“Hey Chad, Cullen, want a ride?” he called out with a jovial grin.

“Thanks, Brian,” Chad replied cheerfully. “But we’re just headed for a protest on campus. Defense contracts, you know. Leaflets are all over campus.”

“Yeah, I got mine,” he said, patting a black briefcase on the seat beside him. “Later, man. See y’all there.” He gunned his engine and continued down the street. Despite his efforts to sound hip, everything about the man and the car screamed government issue. Brian was an FBI agent — our own personal FBI agent — assigned to report on our every move. The FBI took protests very seriously, ever alert to the possibility that a legitimate exercise of free speech could be a subterfuge for a plot to overthrow the government.

Brian had tried the cloak-and-dagger approach, peeking and hiding to avoid detection. But in this bucolic southern town there was simply not enough cover — few crowds to get lost in or back alleys to duck into. The magnolia bushes were too transparent, and the palm trees, with their slender trunks, could not have hidden Twiggy. Then one day at a protest march, Chad walked up to him with an armload of leaflets and said, “You seem to be a regular. Want to help pass these out?”

Turning crimson to his hairline, Brian said, “Thank you, Sir. But I’m just here to observe.”

“Curious?” Chad pressed.

“Sort of.” He glanced around to see if anyone was watching. “It’s my job.” Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a badge, held it chin high, and said in his most official tone. “My name is Brian Hawkins. I’m an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and I am here on official business.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Chad tried not to laugh. “We’ll give you the dope. All you have to do is ask.” After that Brian offered us rides to our own sit-ins.

The NASA building was an unobtrusive block of concrete stuck away in a quiet corner of the campus, nearly concealed in a grove of southern pines. Its diffident facade seldom entertained any sign of life. But today we arrived to find the entrance lined with stone-faced, helmeted men in heavy boots, and belts laden with cartridges and clubs. They held their rifles in readiness, pointed at the ground just in front of them.

“There goes free speech,” Chad muttered.

The students began to arrive, gathering on the sidewalk facing the grim riot squad. We passed out leaflets and worked the crowd to answer questions and explain our position. But the students were distracted. Their eyes darted furtively over at the helmets and guns. Chad stepped out and addressed the group.

“NASA would like us to think their research is only for space exploration. But in fact it’s helping Army helicopters drop napalm on innocent villages in Vietnam. We demand that the university cancel its contracts with NASA. They’re supporting an unjust war!”

An angry voice rang out from the crowd. “Stop the war! Stop the war!” Others joined in, shaking their fists above their heads in a rhythmic chant, their eyes gyrating and their faces clenched. I felt my shoulders meld with those on either side of me, and my mind merged with theirs. Once again I was reminded of the March on Washington, where I swam in a warm sea of humanity, all moving with the same current, driven by the same dream.

Not long ago these students had been Mom and Apple Pie supporters of the war effort. But after years of bloodshed abroad, many had lost friends, brothers, uncles, and fathers, and heard revelations that their government’s motives may have been less than pure, its methods less than humane. Outraged by betrayal, the erstwhile supporters cried foul, and now they stared down the barrels of a domestic army, seeing for the first time the dark cheek of Uncle Sam.

Scanning the faces of the riot-geared police, I knew they were not the monolith they were supposed to be. They were faced off against folks who could be their sisters or their sons. Beneath those bullet-proof visors, their eyes flickered, as if darting back and forth at their would-be victims, wondering which one would be the first to fall. Like steel-studded paper dolls, they stood in a row, poised and ready, petrified to hear the next command.

The crowd pressed toward the police line like a ponderous barge. The gap was narrowing; the rumbling throng was closing in. Soon we would cross the line of no return. The air sizzled with expectation of rash acts, acts that would surely be cause for regret.

Maybe Chad was right. Maybe it takes a massacre to mobilize the masses. Is that what we were going to get? There would be headlines across the country. The shot heard around the world. The beginning of the end of the war. What a triumph of terrible fate! But under the veil of agitation and angst, I could feel that neither side wanted to collide. They all longed desperately to turn on their heels and go home, and so did I.

Just then I heard a crackling sound and smelled smoke. There were gasps, and heads spun around like turrets in unison. A young man was on his knees in the grass. In one hand was a cigarette lighter, and in the other a small American flag. He had just set the flag on fire, and was standing it up in the ground as it burned to cinders.

The crowd fell silent. All eyes were on the burning flag, following the smoke and feathers of ash as they splayed upwards and scattered into the sky. When the air cleared, the flag was but a black spot on the ground. Fists unfolded into flaccid palms. The crowd began to murmur and mill about, and finally trickled away along foot-worn paths through manicured shrubs. The officers, acting in crisp unison, shouldered their rifles and marched to the street; then climbed into a waiting blue and white van and were gone.

The young man was prosecuted under the federal Flag Protection Act of 1968 and sentenced to three months in prison. It didn’t help him that twenty-two years later, William Kuntsler, in the case of Texas v. Johnson, convinced the Supreme Court that a flag-burning law violated free speech.

All this stemmed from reports by Brian, our personal FBI agent. He must have opened FBI files on all of us, and they’re available for inspection on request. I have never asked to see mine, so I don’t know what Brian wrote about me. I hope he was kind.

Walking home, Chad and I sifted through what had happened, and the worst that could have happened. When we were done I had a confession to make.

“Maybe I’m not cut out for this work,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Something shocking could have gone down. It might have jump-started the whole anti-war movement. But I couldn’t see the big picture.” I stopped and put a hand on his shoulder. “Those folks were like my family, even the ones with the silly guns. All I cared was that nobody got hurt. I wanted to stop it.”

Chad’s face wrinkled into a grin. “Maybe the big picture was of something else,” he said. “Thank God for the guy with the burning flag.”

The wedding was an informal affair. There were no invitations, no tuxes or gowns, no flowers, no band, no photographer, and the minister had been ordained by mail for a fee of ten dollars. The ceremony would be performed by the guests. Each was asked to do something, whatever they chose, to honor the occasion.

I wanted to write a song for Chad and Gracie, and sing it with my guitar. But the images of my trapped parents still haunted me. I had to find hope that my friends would not fall victim to the same fate. The song must say that if they struggle hard enough they can win. I took the old union song that went: “Which side are you on, boy? Which side are you on?” and changed the words to: “Do you dare to struggle? Do you dare to win?”

We all rode to the wedding in Chad’s 1960 salmon-colored VW camper. We downed our tablets at the two-hour mark, while Chad waited the extra hour. By the time we arrived at Lake Griffin we were well on our way, and the groom was soon to follow.

As I stepped to the ground I knew what Chad meant by intense. Just a small, chalky-white, empty house on the cattail-lined banks of a lazy southern lake. But looking out over the surface, I could feel the restlessness of its ripples, and the insistent weight of the water pressing against the shore. The loneliness of the house cried out to me. Inside the kitchen there was no table or chair, and the barren floorboards yawned for someone to skip across them. The balding front yard appeared to double as a cow pasture, which placed unreasonable demands on the surefootedness of the chemically altered guests.

The guests numbered two dozen or so: a mixed bag ranging from flower children to look-a-likes of Fidel Castro. Mary and some others wore tie-dyed kaftans and clay beads, their waist-length hair arranged much as nature had left it. Pony tails were for the men, along with bell-bottomed jeans, and colored T-shirts with slogans like “Save the Earth.” I was monochromatic in khaki, but with cowboy boots I had bought in Mexico.

We all had taken the same happy pill, but reactions varied. One man patted the grass with his hands as if he had landed on the moon. A woman danced about running her hands over our faces, exclaiming, “How angelic,” or “How enigmatic.” A man arrived stiff and vacant, and promptly stalked into the woods. I don’t recall his coming back. Jack sat under a tree, his forehead melded into his knees. Mary and I acted more or less normal, but we weren’t. As we tossed around a Frisbee, my mind leaped into that spinning disk and rode it nearly all the way to the sun. “Whee, let’s go there!” I cried, as Mary squealed with delight. But when we returned to earth, I retreated inward and began to worry. How can I control my excitations when they come at me tenfold?

It was late afternoon when the ceremony began. We gathered in a semi-circle facing the shore, every face bathed in the golden patina of the western sky. Lithe breezes off the lake tickled the cattails like harp strings, sounding nature’s quintessential chords. There, at the quiet water’s edge, lilting waves patted against moist earth, and far from the roar of industry and war, the elemental forces of yin and yang sought resolution in the unification of two human souls.

“We are here today to share in the joining of Chad and Gracie, and to rejoice that they have found each other,” began the minister. “Each of you has brought tokens of your love and support, and I now invite you to present your offerings.”

Mary gave Gracie a hand-made, burnt-orange shawl with layered fringes of faceted crystal beads. She whispered, “May your feminism complement your femininity.” Gracie wrapped it around her shoulders, and the beads crackled like the lively chatter of bridesmaids stirred by a dream: “Next time it could be me.”

Jack gave Chad a little red book — Quotations from Chairman Mao — saying under his breath, “A bedtime companion to keep you both on track.” Others chanted native Indian prayers or read passages from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: “Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

Come time for my song, my mind was turned up to full volume. Every fleeting thought was deafening. I clumsily collected my guitar, sat down on a rock facing the couple, closed my eyes and started strumming. Instantly my head was besieged by all the goblins that had haunted me before; the miserable faces of my mother and father, trapped like rodents in the same cage. Then came Chad and Gracie, twisted in agony, their bodies clamped together in iron shackles.

I began the first verse, but my voice was shrill, screaming to the heavens.

They say that getting married,
You’ll soon drop out of sight.
But not for Chad and Gracie,
They’ll carry on the fight.
Do you dare to struggle?
Do you dare to win?

I kept on playing, but each time I stroked the strings, another raw, impudent truth slapped me in the face.

Strum! How dare you desecrate their union with your pathetic demons.

Strum! They are not listening to your song.

Strum! They don’t need to struggle.

Strum! They are in love.

How can I stop this? I opened my eyes and looked up at Chad and Gracie. They hadn’t noticed anything. The sunset graced their angelic faces, and they were lost in each other’s gaze. I quickly retreated into the privacy of my mind, where a scattered confetti of colors swirled about and then abruptly coalesced into a portrait of my mother and father. To my surprise their faces sparkled with affection for one another. Whatever antagonism I had witnessed, they too must have had their own special bond. Could their misery have been my own creation? “Yes,” I marveled out loud. “Only a child’s opinion; and the child grew up but the opinion did not.”

The faces quickly morphed into Chad and Gracie, and I knew where I had gone wrong. But the chords on the guitar had come around, and it was time for the next verse.

Together they’ll be stronger,
A mighty pair they’ll be.
To cast aside those shackles,
And finally be free.

Do you dare to struggle?
Do you dare to win?

My song had missed the point. As in Pete Seeger’s “If I had a hammer,” I sang about the struggle and the fight, but I didn’t sing about love.

Deeply ashamed, I put down my instrument and scrambled to face the honored couple. “I wish you much happiness,” I said, with a sigh that carried across the lake and back.

Now they were archetypal lovers whose union was destined to burst the bonds of millennia of history. I was convinced of something that, in my normal state of mind, would have seemed pure arrogance and naiveté. Yes, it’s true that the world order can shackle its creatures in their search for the sacred state of intimacy. But what if, overcoming all odds, two of them still manage to find each other? Doesn’t their personal triumph, in some small way, transform the world order?

I looked around at the other guests, wondering if they might have suffered similar torment. But no, their eyes were fixed firmly on Chad and Gracie, projecting vectors of warmth, and cradling them in goodwill. An ethereal likeness of me melted to the ground, spread out in their direction, and wrapped my arms around their feet. Merging with the masses was what I did best. That’s why this perennial peace-seeker found himself at sit-ins and protests, and other palpable venues of struggle and strife. From all accounts, these were times of harsh dissension that was tearing the country apart. But underneath, it was just the opposite. People were seeking out one another as they had never done before, and bonding with those of like heart. I longed to be among them.

My transcendental adventures on that extraordinary day were dissolved into a bubbling chemical vat in my brain, and peed out onto the grass behind a tree. But I still recall that evening by the quiet lake, when, in the midst of ad hoc nuptial rites, with a cacophony of drugs and devils thrashing at my brain, I finally saw the truth — that my good friends Chad and Gracie were in love — and with that I gave them my blessing.

I fell asleep in the house on a wooden floor in an empty bedroom. The next morning I woke up staring into the hairy nostrils of a big brown cow. She was craning her neck through an open window just above me, nudging my cheek. I reached up and stroked her chin.

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About Cullen McVoy

A  chronic daydreamer, Cullen often had to be awakened at the end of class.  Later, the demands of corporal life took their toll. He stopped delving into the recesses of his mind, forfeiting the inspiration he found there.

A United States Foreign Service brat, he lived in different parts of the world.  Back home in the turbulent 1960s, he was plunged into unwelcome strife. Desperately in need of a thicker skin, he decided to become a lawyer. 

In the 1970s, when his law firm disbanded, he began writing day and night, driving cabs when he had to. Again, the demands of making a living took their toll and he dropped his writing mid-sentence.  

Joining the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, he became its Chief of Litigation, and handled public interest cases such as Rent Stabilization Association v. Higgins, which upheld the right of gay, senior, and other unmarried partners to succeed to rent regulated apartments when their significant other died or moved out. He found that legal briefs were much like non-fiction. You tell your client’s story in a way that makes her the hero, and hope the judge is moved to write her a happy ending. 

When they were married, his wife Elizabeth had not expected him to share her spiritual interests. But in the 1990s, Cullen wrote and self-published a book entitled Finding Ro-Hun, Awakening Through Spiritual Therapy. It sparked the revelation that his childhood daydreaming had made him a natural trance channel.  After that he practiced law by day, and gave trance-channeled readings by night, bringing him back to his internal world.

Now Cullen is semi-retired from law, and writing about his life. He wants to look back and get a deeper grasp of what happened to him. Getting a second look is a must, since the first time around he was hardly paying attention.

4 Comments

  1. Susan Kim
    Posted May 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    This is a fine and vivid essay that reflects the feelings we all have when our friends get married, regardless of the era. I love the cow at the end of this!

  2. Posted July 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Great essay.

  3. Posted August 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Boy, did this piece bring back memories, conflicts, rites of passage and the existential pursuits that nearly pushed me over the edge. In fact, I’m still teetoring on it. The generation that ‘fought for peace’ is now battling a proliferation of STD’s, four wars (or is that five now), the downfalls of yuppie greed, botox, medications for everything from a mood to eating too much GMO pizzas. What happened to our pursuits — those of the 70’s that we marched and wanted to die for??

  4. Amy
    Posted March 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Maybe if you’d been in love yourself at the time, you might have viewed their relationship differently. BTW, we seem to have a lot in common: I dropped out of law to write, throwing newspapers at 3 a.m.; and I knew a group of people very similar to these, a while back…only our group was of 6 rather than 5.
    All in all a very interesting, evocative tale…thanks for sharing it now.

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