I saw him in the rearview mirror, his grim face like a mad dog's, and his scarred fingers gripping the wheel to his car as if he wished it a weapon.
He was about my age, although he had weathered worse than I had, bearing the haggard look I had seen on other Vietnam era veterans to whom life had been less than kind. He hadn't shaved recently, gray stubble that only added to his disheveled appearance.
He reminded me of the working men I used to see in Paterson when I was 17, World War Two and Korean veterans, struggling to make ends meet in an era when many white males were making their fortunes, part of that class of people who struggled to keep up payments on houses they had purchased as part of veterans packages, with flag poles on the front lawn and a VFW stickers on the windows of their cars.
Like those characters in Paterson, this one glared at me as we weaved through the thick traffic of central Jersey City, his 1970s car testimony to the era he still lived in, a rusting monstrosity with a front hood large enough to serve as a airport runway. He kept his bumper close to mind, as if fearful I might slip away from him, traffic lights often separating cars. He ran more than one light
just to keep up with me as I drove my usual route towards Hoboken.
I didn't have to look back more than once to see his outrage. While he displayed no flag on his car, he was clearly upset with the peace signs I had installed on mine, huffing and puffing as we made our way down the Palisades -- he waiting for his opportunity to confront me.
His kind in Paterson had often threatened to beat me up for displaying such symbols during the Vietnam conflict, as if I betrayed some fundamental belief to which all Americans were expected to subscribe. Indeed, the 2001 rebirth of patriotism seemed to echo those men's sentiments, giving them credence they lacked during the height of the 1960s protests.
My shadow through Jersey City seemed consumed with my individual protest. While I agreed that the terrorists were bad people and should be punished, I had no other way to protest the fact that our administration -- President Bush and his collection of Washington D.C. hawks – also bore responsibility for the disaster, following a policy that helped encourage such violent characters. Each public enemy during the 1990s seemed to have receive their start from CIA operatives, and the World Trade Center disaster could be traced back to policies that started under Ronald Reagan and continued under King George the First during the Gulf War. King George the Second seemed determine to erase his father's errors by drumming up support for a
never-ending war against anyone and everyone.
My peace sign wasn't free speech to this man, but a violation of faith.
Vietnam veterans suffered under the cloud of having fought a bad war. Even Ronald Reagan's term of office could not remove the shadow of doubt that hung over many soldiers, for whom no marches were held, and no proclamations for heroism were made. Some vets I met found themselves hurt by the attention the public paid to soldiers going off to the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, a subtle display of envy they were reluctant to admit.
Over the years after Vietnam, some veterans became embittered at the war and the policies that led up to it; others turned into hawks, hoping for the day when the country would come to understand their values. All seemed to count on a "good war" that would erase the tarnish the peace movement put on the profession of soldiering.
Even as we drove, I could read from the face of the man who followed me his stream of thoughts -- how no war could be so righteous as the one into which America now plunged, and how anyone daring to question American policies must approve of the slaughter the terrorists caused in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
The long ride through traffic seemed to increase his outrage, so did the fact that when he finally pulled up beside me to give me the finger, I laughed and gave him the peace sign back.
My laugh probably hurt him most -- as vicious an assault on his dignity as the bastard hippies who spit on returning Vietnam veterans three decades past. I didn't mean the laugh to hurt. It was merely a reaction to how little had changed from Paterson, and how little such people really believed in my right to free speech. I was required to wave a flag or face violence. Indeed, the
character pulled his car over and fully intended to get out and catch me. I pulled back into traffic, and saw him pull back behind me, this time bent on catching me in the narrow streets of Hoboken. I turned and turned again, more concerned with his damaging my car than me, since he looked too out of shape to do much damage to anyone -- his large belly a testimony to his lack of
exercise since those days when the military had whipped him into shape.
In his large car, he found it equally difficult to keep up with me, as I put several cars between his and mind during the multiple turns, and later, after making a left, he failed to make, I saw his car moving aimlessly through the streets of Hoboken, seeking me just as he had the answers to his own misery, seeking someone to blame for how his country had mistreated him for all he had done in the war -- one among many veterans through many wars America discarded after their military usefulness had been used up.