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New: Another Troop Train Memoir (First Person)

Lee Felsenstein
Saturday August 08, 2015 - 02:04:00 PM

I just read that the Planet was interested in first-hand stories of the Troop Train protest of 50 years ago. Gar Smith mentioned that I had been “on the tracks” and wondered what I had to report. Well, here it is. 

I had been attracted to Berkeley by the beatnik/political scene and quickly became involved in the small group of general-purpose campus radicals upon my arrival in 1963 - I had the honor of picketing Madame Nhu in October of that year with Allen Ginsburg. After service in the Free Speech Movement I was naturally attracted to the Vietnam Day Committee’ efforts to protest the growing war. I hung around the VDC house on Fulton Street and did what I could to help. 

When word came in that troops would be moved by train to debarkation for Vietnam, I was all ears. Being a railfan I had a certain amount of knowledge of train operations an an appreciation for the physics of a rapidly moving mass of steel. I knew about how much distance it took to stop a train - I thought people doing the planning ought to know some of the facts. 

There was the problem of finding the time of arrival. A fellow named Smith at VDC - a natural leader who would be “officer material” in any organization, start dialing up desert stations on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. “Hwut tahm’s the trewp train comin’ thru?” he would ask and the station agents were glad to give him the scheduled time so this patriotic American could come down with his family and wave to the boys. We worked out when the train should arrive this way. 

From my knowledge of rail routes in the Bay Area I found a point on the map in Richmond where someone could observe whether a train was on the Santa Fe or the Southern Pacific - after which it could not switch to the other route. Direct observation would give us for-sure knowledge that the train would be here in so many minutes. As the time approached we dispatched a volunteer to observe the crucial crossing and report in from a phone booth. 

Back at the VDC house the Steering Committee - the “heavies”, including a then-Maoist Jerry Rubin in his trademark jacket and no tie - was meeting to decide the slogans for the signs. We workers, including Bart Abbott - Jack London’s grandson and a Longshoreman - waited for their decisions. We informed the Steering Committee of their deadline for decision - after all, there was a train coming! The deadline passed and we got busy painting signs with any damn slogan we cared to write. “Be a Lover, Not a Fighter” was Abbott’s contribution. “Don’t Die for a Dictator”, "Refuse to Kill for Ky and Thieu” were others. I painted one saying “Were You Volunteered?”, with the long word diagonal, which I carried and which can be seen in the photos of the event. 

Just as we finished someone came in and informed us that the Steering Committee had made up its mind, and then found that they had been rendered powerless by a workers’ revolt. We all went down to the Santa Fe station on University near Jefferson and awaited the train arrival. 

When it came I was surprised to see it spouting a cloud of steam in front of it - it was a diesel engine but as a legacy from the days of steam power had a steam generator to power the heating and cooling system in the cars. The only point to that steam was to obscure what was happening immediately ahead of the engine. They were willing to kill - the engineer had orders to proceed without stopping - but didn’t want the world to see what that killing looked like. That made me mad. 

The train consisted of sleeping cars and we could see the faces of the soldiers passing by. A few were standing in the doorways - the side doors were dutch-doors where the top half could be opened - and some words were hastily exchanged. One of the soldiers in the door pointed to my sign and shouted “Were YOU?”. “We protest!” shouted Pat Porth, who was standing next to me. It seemed like an exercise in futility, but we protestors were used to that. 

A day or so later the protest moved down the line to Emeryville, where the tracks ran down the middle of the street. I was given a red flag on a short stick - the kind used in railroad signaling - and was briefed by one of the math professors active in VDC at the time to wave the flag in a figure-eight motion. I knew this already - it was how you avoided curling the flag around the stick, and I took my place on the sidewalk where a police car was parked with the cop chatting with the neighbors. I knew that I would step out, wave my flag (railroad workers knew that this was an automatic signal to stop) and be arrested by the cop. I began to rehearse my statement to the court. 

The train hove into sight and got about two blocks away - I stepped out and began waving my flag the wrong way, curling it around the stick and rendering myself ridiculous, when someone else charged out into the street a block up the line with a HUGE red flag which he waved vigorously. The cops jumped into their car and roared off after him, and I was ignored. For one brief, futile moment I had been the point flagman, only to be upstaged. 

Not long thereafter the transport of troops to VIetnam was changed to charter air travel, flying into military airfields with vastly fewer opportunities for disruption by civilians. It seemed we did have an immediate effect, but of course, the images of the attempted blockade went around the world