Statement of Paul L. Atwood, Student and Senior Lecturer

I first enrolled at UMB in the Spring of 1968 after discharge from military service. To be honest my prime motivation was the check I would receive from the Veterans’ Administration for G.I. benefits. I had no interest in attending classes. The Catholic high school I first attended practiced corporal punishment and I was finally kicked out after a confrontation with a teacher. That’s what I associated with school. I was often in trouble too. Borrowing other people’s cars without their permission was a sport among teens in my Boston neighborhood but I got caught once too often and so a judge told me I needed discipline. Hence, the Marine Corps at the age of 17. Ironically the teacher I just mentioned had been a marine himself and he really believed the physical discipline he and others meted out was good for us. But enlisting in the Corps was jumping from the frying pan into the fire!

When first observing the rented building at 100 Arlington Street, I thought I might well get a diploma from the Boston Gas Company, which had originally constructed the building as its headquarters. I had been in Harvard Square and around BU and this place didn’t look anything like those places! If I finished I would be the first in my family to go to college and since this place looked like a fake college I though I’d have a cakewalk.

My freshman English professor was Mary Anne Ferguson. My first thoughts were “What is this old- fashioned schoolmarm going to teach me.” Well, the first thing she did teach me was that I didn’t know how to write. She insisted that sloppy writing equaled sloppy thinking. She added that I might possibly learn but that was up to me. She was withering in her criticism but for some reason I began to pay attention to her advice. If I know how to write today it is because she was able to motivate me. As it turned out in a class of about 25-30 students, seven of us were vets. Professor Ferguson told us we reminded her of Ohio State University after World War II when so many G.I.’s enrolled there. Professors appreciated having mature students for a change. I wasn’t so sure about my own maturity but my fellow vets were slightly older and they seemed mature so I took my cue from them.

Well those were heady times. The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were in full bloom, and feminism was stirring. 1968 was also the worst year of the war and every time I looked at a newspaper
or magazine I got really angry at the sight of another wounded G.I. or some terrified Vietnamese child or
villager and I did feel guilty that I was back home. I had learned to hate the war in the Marine Corps itself and in 1967 I went to New York to join in protest. I was really alienated from my parents at that point. My father had been wounded as a Marine in the Pacific and my mother was a Navy Wave. They couldn’t understand how I had changed so profoundly. UMass-Boston, like all the others, was afire with antiwar fever but, unlike the others, antiwar activity among students was led by Vietnam veterans Against the War. Before long all my best friends were antiwar vets. In fact I made far better friends after the military than in it.

But my first was to be my last semester for awhile. Home was not so safe and sound after all. On September 6, 1968 I got shot on Huntington Avenue in front of Northeastern University. I was lucky though. All I got was a shattered leg. Two other people were killed. I had made it through the Marine Corps with only a concussion and cracked rib only to get shot at home by a crazed fellow American! This is a story worth telling.

I had a part time job down in the old Quincy Market unloading trucks and was running late. So I was galloping at full tilt for a streetcar when suddenly I heard the report of a weapon as my leg blew out from under me. I remember intense pain at first but then I guess I passed out. When I came to my leg was bent at an obscene angle and blood was pooling beneath it. I kept thinking that someone would get help but people just kept walking by. Some gawked but none stopped. I did have long hair and I hadn’t shaved since discharge so maybe they thought I was a reprobate or something. Finally a little black kid, about 9 or so, stopped and said “Mister, mister what happened to you?” I asked him to get help. Before he ran off he folded his jacket and put it under my head. Soon he was back with a Northeastern security guard, so he then had to call the real cops. I think I spent at least an hour on the ground before the police arrived.

This big Boston cop stood over me, and while pushing my broken leg with his foot said, “Drug deal gone wrong? What the fuck happened to you?” To which I replied, “I’ve been shot.” “So how do you know you’ve been shot? Did you see the perp?” “No, but I just got out of the Marine Corps and I know what a gunshot is.” To which one of Boston’s finest exclaimed, “They let you in the Marine Corps! No wonder we’re losing the fucking war.” Then he asked me if I’d like to go to the hospital!

As the cops loaded me into the back seat of their squad car-no ambulance- I remembered the little kid. In all the confusion I would have liked to get his name and address so I could write his mother and tell her how she had done something right. The kid didn’t see a honky on the ground but a wounded human being. But I didn’t get the kid’s name or address and I regret it to this day. I hope that life turned out fairer for him than it was for most black kids in those days, or now.

A few days later as I lay with my leg in traction at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital a couple of detectives dropped in. They said that they had caught the perpetrator. They had the bullets from the two people who had been killed (they were shot about a mile distant), though not all of the bullet that hit me. Some of it is still in my leg. They had the guy with the gun that matched the ballistics, It was, they said, a cut and dry case of racial violence. The guy was black and the vics were white. They then showed me a picture of a black man whom they said was the accused. Then they asked me to sign a piece of paper identifying him as the one who had shot me. The problem, however, was that I had never seen who had fired. I just went down. So I refused to sign. The cops argued with me back and forth. If it was so cut and dry why did I need to sign? Finally the lead detective said “Kid, he’s just a fucking nigger! Sign the damn thing! We need every bit of evidence we can get to nail this guy. Otherwise some bleeding heart lawyer or judge will let him off.” I didn’t sign. As it turned out the man was adjudged criminally insane and remanded to the lockup ward at the Bridgewater State Hospital. I have a good idea what made him crazy. A lot of the evidence of our racist society had been in my hospital room. Had been in the Corps too! I never heard a Vietnamese referred to as anything but a ”gook,” a “slope” or a “dink” by any one- white or black. Yet the humanity of my little 9 year old friend did leave room for hope.

Well I lost that entire academic year and more. I was in the hospital for a month and a half-body cast for another five months and even then had trouble walking. And frankly I was depressed. The society was coming apart and the government wasn’t listening. Violence seemed to rule the world. A few months earlier M.L. King had been murdered, in June RFK was killed, in August the Chicago police riots occurred. I became ever more alienated and cynical, imbibing the age old tranqs, booze and drugs. Somewhere along the line a little voice inside me said that I had to get out and make something of myself.

So, I finally picked myself up and re-enrolled at UMB in the spring of 1970 just on time for Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia, and the explosions that followed after Kent State and Jackson State and ultimately most large campuses across the nation. By then antiwar activity was in overdrive. I remember clearly the human chain of antiwar activists who surrounded the main building at 100 Arlington, preventing anyone from entering and effectively shutting the university down. I recall also the 50 page pamphlet some students put together from research on the Board of Trustees showing their financial connections to the war machine. In fact readers can see it on this website! That didn’t go over well with the trustees or administration but facts were facts and we deserved to know them. Today as well!

Boston Common, the perennial site of protest, was just down the street. At one massive rally with about 100,000 crowding the Common I encountered Howard Zinn for the first time. What I recall most about his speech that day was my surprise that he was a World War II vet. The only ones I knew were from my own family and neighborhood and they were all knee-jerk supporters of the war. My father and I didn’t speak to each other for years because of our differences over the war and the meaning of “patriotism.” When I did visit my old neighborhood to see my mother and sisters I would have to pass by the barrooms where my old man hung out. His buddies knew me and were merciless in their ribbing about my long hair etc. But hearing Howard speak added some moral fortitude to my own desire to speak out. So too did a speech by John Clifford, a fellow student I had seen around campus. He had served in the 9th Marines, the outfit with the highest casualties of the war. He delivered a passionate indictment of the war on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and I knew that day that I had to get involved.

At about the same time William Sloane Coffin, the outspoken anti-war chaplain of Yale University, organized a mass turn-in of draft cards at the Arlington Street Church. All men between the ages of 18-
26 were required by law to have their Selective Service cards on their person, even those of us who had already been discharged from the military. So I turned mine in thinking it was a simple symbolic protest. About three months later as I walked through the lobby of the main campus building I was accosted by two FBI agents who hustled me into a nearby empty classroom and began to grill me. They had gone to my mother’s house looking for me but she didn’t know where I lived. However, she told them I was a student at UMB. So the agents went to the registrar’s office and got my ID photo and then stood around for who knows how long, waiting to spot me. I was hardly intimidated. I laughed at their threats of jail for violation of the draft laws. “What jury would convict me?” I said. I asked if they were also wasting man hours on the other 5,000 students who turned in their draft cards that day. “Why don’t you spend your time tracking down the mobsters who are killing each other all over the city, and flooding the city with heroin,” I said. No answer for that! Finally I just walked away asking if they were going to haul me back in to the military and send me to Vietnam. There is an old saying among activists that if you don’t have an FBI file you aren’t doing enough. I must say I’m proud of mine.

As far as my coursework was concerned…what I wanted was answers. Why was the U.S. in Vietnam? My unit had invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965. What was THAT about? What was U.S. foreign policy about? What explained our unjust and unequal society? What might be done about all this? UMB
turned out to be just the place for those answers. Bored with high school, now I couldn’t get enough information, knowledge or discussion. I soon realized how much both the faculty and other students had to offer. My mind was stimulated as never before and I began to devour books far in addition to those assigned in my classes, as did almost everyone I knew. I made many fast friends among students and faculty alike, many whom I see to this day.

One of them is Susan Brown who has worked a UMB since her graduation. One cold, rainy and windy spring day she and I were walking down Stuart Street when we looked up at the main building on Arlington Street. There, perched on the ledge about six inches wide and 12 stories up was a young woman who appeared about to jump. We both rushed into the building and up the elevator and burst into a room where a faculty meeting was being held. As we threw the door open we were greeted with the shocked faces of faculty who assumed we were students once again intent on disrupting their business. Instead we rushed to the window. I stuck my head out and begged the young student to work her way back in. She did but went in the opposite direction and from there fled down the flights of
stairs. I chased her down to the street level and then across Park Square where I finally cornered her and persuaded her to talk to me. After hours sitting in a coffee shop she finally told me the phone number of her psychiatrist, whom I immediately called. He came shortly after and picked her up. I never saw or heard from her again. I did call her psychiatrist again but was told by the receptionist that no
information about a patient could be given. The shrink himself never called back. I hope she has managed to cope with the demons plaguing her at the time.

Thinking about this episode has brought to mind two vets whom I knew who committed suicide, and at least another half dozen who did it the slow way with alcohol and drugs. It is extremely painful to realize how little we as a society have learned from the Vietnam War. Forty years ago I was certain we would never again listen to lies, destroy whole societies, and sacrifice the lives of idealistic and ignorant young enlistees. Remember when Ronald Reagan said that Vietnam was a “noble cause” betrayed by those at home who stabbed the troops in the back? The VA admits that about 100,000 Vietnam veterans killed themselves directly or by self-destructive behavior after that war, just as it admits that 20 vets commit suicide each day now. How do “noble causes” nurture such a grim outcome?

I must emphasize that my experiences at UMB led me down a road quite different than the one I was on previously. Shades of the road not taken! I was challenged and prompted to live up to my own potential as never in any other institution. Ultimately I graduated with honors and then went on to teach in an alternative high school for low-income dropouts. From there I went to the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and from there back to UMB to direct the Veterans Upward Bound Program and eventually to lobby on Beacon Hill with many fellow vets to win support for the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. While working as its first co-director I acquired another master’s degree in American Civilization here at UMB with Professor Irving Bartlett where most of my independent study was focused on U.S. foreign policy. As a result of having come to admire the work of Howard Zinn I invited him to speak at UMB in the early 1980s on the issue of Agent Orange. Ultimately the Joiner Center sponsored the very first conference on Agent Orange that brought together scientists, political figures, and veterans. It is no exaggeration to say that the statewide Agent Orange Study the Joiner Center mounted with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Affairs contributed in a major way to raising consciousness in Washington and ultimately led to the award of benefits to veterans afflicted with the consequences of dioxin poisoning. I only wish that the American people would see that we owe as much, or more, to the Vietnamese, whose land and water were poisoned, and who may
suffer the greatest number of birth defects on the planet. I say “may” because the depleted uranium weapons used by the US in Iraq are causing similar nightmares there, and maybe on the same scale.

I became friends with Howard Zinn who ultimately made it possible for me to acquire my Ph.D. in American foreign policy studies at Boston University where I wrote my dissertation under his guidance and influence. In turn, that enabled me to join the faculty at UMass-Boston where I have tried my utmost to give back to current students some of the inspiration and encouragement I received earlier here as a student myself. I hope I have succeeded to some small degree.

Howard’s example in his renowned work, especially Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and his popular A People’s History of the United States, inspired me to write a book of my own entitled War and Empire: The American Way of Life and I am now working on another about the mythologies of US involvement in World War II. But I would be remiss if I did not add that without the inspiration and high standards and expectations demanded of me by all my teachers and friends at UMass-Boston, I might well have given up that bloody September day 45 years ago.

One Comment

on “Statement of Paul L. Atwood, Student and Senior Lecturer
One Comment on “Statement of Paul L. Atwood, Student and Senior Lecturer
  1. Thank you for this memoir. My life covers roughly the same decades. In fact as a nurse at Peter Bent Brigham I could have crossed your path in 1968, though I think you were likely put on one of the wards with the beds arranged in a big circle with only curtains for privacy, whereas I worked on one of the “private” wards with two beds in a room. I also attended that Boston Common rally in the 70s and have gradually over the years become aware of the progression of US wars and the immoral course of the American empire. Thank you for describing how you came to be engaged with education, for not going along with the racism of the police, for your work at the Joiner Center, and for opposing and speaking out against the US rampaging war machine.

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