Honor America Day 1970
by Bill McGowan
It was early or late spring 1970 and the country was in the midst of many anti-war protests. When the “silent majority” decided to organize a protest of their own. Not so much a pro-war demonstration but something to show that America was still a great country despite the divisions caused by the Vietnam War.
Myself and my Brothers Bob and Mike were fringe members of a group called Young Americans for Freedom. We were not active, just liked to ride around in their van with a loud speaker promoting their candidates running for office. Turns out the Young Americans for Freedom were going to be ushers for this giant 4th of July holiday concert called Honor America Day. Tickets for the bus ride to Washington D.C. were only $5. How can you pass up a trip to D.C.? Take in the museums during the date and go to this concert in the evening. Come to think of it, what was Marty doing that he missed out on this opportunity?
As soon as we got off the bus in D.C. we were in the midst of typical war protesters. VW Microbuses painted in psychedelic colors and tents that reeked of marijuana. Me and Bob and our friend Brian Gillen looked at each other and we took off our red armbands (that designated us as ushers) and put them in our pockets. At least until the concert started. We went to some museums in the meantime but also saw some anti-war demonstrators in or near the tidal pool which is in the middle of the great mall in D.C.
One of the most horrible things I saw was from a hill near the tidal basin when a man started screaming and then grabbed an American flag that someone was holding. He broke the flagpole in half, threw the flag on the ground and stomped on it. And he kept on stomping on it. Then a fist fight broke out. We could only look on at the spectacle.
After that the hippies the anti-war protesters started wading down the the tidal pool in about a foot of water. But at the end of the basin about 20 mounted policeman awaited them. Once they came close to the horses and the horses all reared up and the demonstrators dispersed – no cause was worth walking into a rearing horse.
After the museums closed about 5 p.m. everyone started walking down towards the concert area. They said later the crowd was estimated at about 500,000 people but as I looked behind us there seemed to be an endless wave of people. We put our red YAF armbands back on to help us make our way to the front of the crowd.
There were a lot of big name performers at the concert but I only remember Bob Hope was the M.C. and Glen Campbell was one of the stars. We were at the verge of the VIP section (seats) and the hippies and protesters were making a lot of noise trying to crash the concert. The cops kept lobbing tear gas at them but one time – maybe the wind shifted – the tear gas got too close. Someone knew what to do and told everyone to put your shirt or bandana over your face – especially your eyes and nose. We did this and did not feel the gas so much. Fortunately that was only that one time and the concert continued.
I had mixed feelings about being there that day, maybe I was on the wrong side but you also had to honor the troops that were dying over in Vietnam. Two of my friends on the track team had their brothers killed in the war and my next door neighbor also served a tour of duty over there.
Many years later, during my brief time as a substitute teacher in the Syracuse school system, I had a class of English as a Second Language. There were about 12 students in the class ranging from the 4th to the 8th grade. They were mostly Vietnamese with a couple of latinos. One of the older Vietnamese girls was the leader and helped me run the class. They were a pretty quiet class by Syracuse standards – the only thing they did that might have been called disruption was that they would run to the water fountain just outside – without permission. At the end of the class the older Vietnamese girl wrote a letter apologizing for the bad behavior of the students. It was addressed to Mr. McGowan and she made everyone in the class sign the letter. These extraordinarily polite people were the descendents of Vietnam War era refugees. This war ravaged their country and divided ours. I was shocked to receive this letter but it showed how thoughtful and polite the Vietnamese Culture could be. It is hard to believe we fought a war against these kind people. At least the few I knew were.