Excerpted from For All the Saints
Father Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, Tom Lewis, an artist, and me, an alleged poet, were veterans of the civil rights movement of the Sixties. Having experienced the thrill and power of resistance and protest with the civil rights movement, we whites moved over to the peace movement, to protest the Vietnam War. I worked as a draft counselor for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), supporting myself with part-time jobs for the City of Baltimore’s Department of Welfare and as a librarian at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at The Johns Hopkins University.
My Motives—a Hairball
If I assign myself the role of artist (the role of my dreams), I look back on our pouring blood on draft files, on October 27, 1967, to protest the Vietnam War and going “underground” (as we did not turn ourselves in and the FBI had to pursue us) and prison, which followed, as fabulous sources of drama and intensity, like a journey to Oz.
For me, my activism was simply a turn “from dissent to resistance.” We weren’t the ones who coined the phrase which was also used to describe the mass demonstration against the Vietnam War on October 21st, one week before our blood pouring.
The motives that took me to the blood pouring were various—a mix of the influence of the civil rights movement, Phil Berrigan as a father figure, and rebellion against my own father, who like so many of the men of his generation, did not express his feelings. As a professor of the philosophy of religion and a minister, he was very aware of the prophets of the Old Testament and their protests against the Kings of Israel; once he saw the connection to our blood pouring, he approved. My mother was very sympathetic to my peace movement activities from the beginning, when I applied to become a conscientious objector. I had received the designation of I-A-O, meaning, I would be sent to Vietnam as a medic. (In prison, my draft board in Towson, Maryland, changed the status to 4-F, meaning unfit for service—as an insult, no doubt!)
Both Mother and Father had attended Union Theological Seminary and were vaguely aware of the pacifist teachings of Union theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer was later executed by the Nazis). Bonhoeffer asked the question, “Would you grant absolution to the murderer of a tyrant?” His church had been bombed by Nazis after a sermon he gave with the title “God Is My Fuhrer.”
I was in a car with Martin Niemoller, another reknowned resister to Nazism (my father helped drive him to speaking engagements). I first became aware of World War II when listening, during that war, to the Presbyterian Church’s radio program One Great Hour of Sharing, a program on which the program described the deportation of the Jews. Thus I had experienced war since my birth in 1941. To me that war was the only just one for U.S. participation.
Another part of the hairball? I felt like Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s famous novel Catcher in the Rye, who was able to sniff out bullshit and everything phony and expose it. Like him, I rebelled against the preppiness of my private school, Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, and the grey suits of the Fifties.
Ego was another factor. I had a romantic desire to do something exceptional and wanted to have something to write about: I was bored with my job teaching at a private school, Boys Latin School, in Baltimore. I did not want a boring life. I had the vague sense that risk was required, that you would have to sacrifice to learn. Also, in the “write what you know” department? I knew nothing—and I knew it!
Another motivator was my love of “guerilla theatre” à la the Yippees (members of the Youth International Party), part of the counterculture of the Sixties. Never forget that we had fun. Fun was especially key for those of us who considered ourselves artists or poets. We saw that our parents did not necessarily enjoy stifling and oppressive jobs. Mine, at least, had careers as Christian teachers and believed in what they were doing.
Some have told me they want to know more about me. Partly, I was in a fog at the time. I don’t want to go on exhaustively about my or Phil’s motives. You can read our beliefs in our statement written for the blood pouring. I have been able to describe my motives only after the passage of time, just as I have been able to describe Phil’s character, only after rooming with him in prison, speaking with him years after the blood pouring, and reflecting upon it all, as you shall see.
Interfaith Peace Mission, Blood Pouring
With Tom Lewis, my friend from the civil rights movement, and others from the Interfaith Peace Mission, of which I was the secretary, I took part in more and more protests against the Vietnam War: We picketed local city draft boards with placards showing skulls and crossbones and stating, “Draft cards are death warrants” or “End the war.” We applied enough pressure that Selective Service consolidated its Baltimore draft boards at the downtown Customs House, on South Gay Street, near the Baltimore harbor.
Authorities threatened Tom and me with prosecution when we ripped up a crude painting of the American flag at a local coffee house. We worked closely with the media, who seemed to sympathize with us and enjoy our antics.
The local Induction Center was in the Baltimore suburb of Dundalk, at Fort Holabird, and one day we decided to up the ante from the usual leafleting of the busses that left from the Customs House. We got onto one of the buses with the inductees. An informant had given authorities advanced notice, and they had the whole bus route blocked off, adding motorcycle police in front of and behind the buses, not realizing that we were already on board the bus. We enjoyed our tomfoolery, and the young men about to be processed greatly appreciated us. They were our peers.
On another occasion, we decided to picket the homes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Fort Myers, which is adjacent to Arlington Cemetery and the Robert E. Lee mansion, in Virginia. I thought of Normon Morrison’s self-immolation at the nearby Pentagon as we took out our placards beside the cannon pointing across the Potomac River toward the U.S. Capitol—beds of chrysanthemums as crisply spiky and as orange and yellow as flame in the cool autumn air. Base authorities sent an Army bus to take us off the base, but as we left the bus, who remained behind, hidden at the back and starting to sing but Jim Mengel, who would join us for the blood pouring. M.P.s dragged him off forthwith.
We got back into cars and, followed by a reporter for the Associated Press, headed right back to the Joint Chiefs’ bungalows. This time, they let us demonstrate until we decided to leave.
Origin of the Baltimore 4
My memory blurs the events. This memoir—writing things down—is an attempt to capture the truth: what actually happened. What we remember may differ from what actually happened! I definitely remember the most momentous events of my life. But—and this is partly the theme of this book—the events may help me become a greater whole of myself only upon later reflection!
The fact that my version may not square perfectly with the facts, the realization that there are details of the action unfamiliar to me, annoys me to this day! It’s not enough to be included in events gone by—I want the right details.
As time passes, my memory makes a necklace of my peace movement past, stringing the dates together like so many beads. But time happens to each of us, like the string itself without any pearls or polished gems.
I see these memories as the great explorer John Lloyd Stevens describes ancient Mayan ruins at Palenque, Mexico, which I have visited. The pyramidal temple is misty, and howler monkeys surround it, hooting and roaring. Great roots, the distance of time, smother the stelae, on which the hieroglyphs are now barely decipherable. The glyphs are obscure. I write about the incidents of my past. Stevens’ illustrator, Catherwood, copied the glyphs, one for the great emperor Pacal, who shares my birthdate, March 26! The meaning of the glyphs becomes clearer.
Consider the image of a library—memory is a library; the synapses flash, and a moment of the past presents itself boldly. Sometimes I want to tidy up and go back over my memories, as if I could organize them better. Layers upon layers—how the brain works, firing, the smells soy and ginger.
And then the memories of persons who, as in the great American poet William Matthews’ poem “A Happy Childhood”:
It turns out you are the story of your childhood
and you’re under constant revision,
like a lonely folktale whose invisible folks
are all the selves you’ve been, lifelong,
shadows in fog, grey glimmers at dusk.
And each of these selves had a childhood
Leftist Lawyers Needed!
Thank God for leftist lawyers. We followed Phil Hirschkopf’s suggestion to get Baltimore attorney Fred Weisgal for our defense.
I joke today with Phil Hirschkopf about the gestation of the blood pouring and his role in it: “You ruined my life.”
“Rather,” Hirschkopf wisely retorts, “I saved you guys from blowing up the Customs House.” (I’m sure we wouldn’t have). He tells me that he had never run scared out of his office upon hearing about our scheme, as Bill O’Connor’s account had it (how memories twist the past!).
At the big Pentagon demonstration the week before the blood pouring, I remember holding hands with fellow demonstrators in a grand circle around the Pentagon. The Yippees were trying to levitate the building in an exorcism. I was buoyed up by the spectacle of the crowd and the socializing—and the fun. And proud to be planning our own action, proud that we would also practice guerilla theatre on a grand scale!
Just Do It!
Our group was set—the “Baltimore 4”—I, artist Tom Lewis, Phil Berrigan, United Church of Christ minister Reverend James Mengel.
On the morning of October 27, 1967, we met at Phil’s parish, St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, on Pennsylvania at Fremont, in Baltimore’s west side ghetto. We proceeded to South Gay Street and the Customs House, which now housed all the city’s draft boards. The ever-present (because invited by us) media were especially helpful that day. It was they, employees of the Baltimore Sunpapers, who drove us to our staging area, an artist’s loft across from the Customs House. They could have been indicted as co-conspirators, but those were different times from today, when progressive media are practically non-existent.
The day before the blood pouring, we emptied the liquid soap from Mr. Clean bottles. A nurse friend was going to draw our own blood to fill them. The only syringes available were oversized; so we supplemented the few drops of our own blood with duck liver blood purchased from the Gay Street Market (Polish Baltimoreans used it to make sausages). The FBI analysis done of the blood for the trial showed it to be “poultry,” which led some conservative journalist/wag from the News American newspaper to declare it to be “chicken blood”—that is, poured by cowards. I was later told that a friend squeezed the livers to add yet more blood to the concoction.
I met Louise, my “flower girl” (she actually did look like one of the Hours in Botticelli’s painting of “The Birth of Venus”, one of the hours off to the side, wearing a negligee of flowers) at a CORE meeting. The daughter of a Presbyterian Synod Executive in Detroit, who had come to Baltimore to help set up the Cooperative Ministry in the then new city of Columbia, Maryland, she shared the same values as mine. She was a strong, quiet blonde bombshell.
On the night before the action, Phil married us in a highly abbreviated ceremony. A dramatic thing to do, it fit with that wonderful slogan of the time, “Make Love, Not War!” Like soldiers going off to war before me, I worried about the wolves who might steal my girl while I languished in prison. Besides, Louise’s standing beside me just before I acted conferred some kind of authority. I had a lot of respect for her, and in fact, she was the compass for my boat heading into prison. Phil, who supposedly opposed marriage for those participating in the draft actions—thinking that it would mean they would not want to part from their families—did not oppose ours. He later married himself, and letters got him into trouble in the Harrisburg 8 case—letters written from prison to Elizabeth McCallister, his future wife, which Milwaukee 14 member and Dorothy Day expert Jim Forest described as love letters.
Looking back, I’m lucky she agreed to such a marriage. What I was about to do would be okay if she approved; she was, after all, someone my own age, of our generation. I never could quite be sure about doing something the oldsters approved of. Not unless it was someone of Phil’s stature.
Louise and I in 1967 in our apartment on Madison Street, after the blood pouring. Note Louise’s unforgettable knees and curls (I do!). Photo by Gary Florian. Poster by Tom Lewis.
Our generation had good reason to distrust “anyone over 30,” as have many generations before and after! The blood pouring, first and foremost, had to feel right to me, but it was good to have peers, like Tom and Louise, who agreed. At 71 years of age, I am still distrustful and disdainful of adults! (And now—alas—I am one!) So few have any élan vitale, any ability to take risks, to protest. Every day we notice life’s injustices. What do we do about them (another major theme of this memoir).
We were about to turn our backs on our “normal” lives. Jim asked how our families might be affected, and Phil said, “You’re joining the family of man.”
Tom Lewis was to give us an “all clear” signal as he mounted the Customs House steps. He pulled out a hanky but only to blow his nose—a false start.
We crossed South Gay Street and strode through the massive doors of the Custom House. We gained entry to the draft files using various ploys: I pretended I needed to see certain records to assist a counselee; Phil expressed concern about a draft-age parishioner; Jim Mengel, our lookout, waited at the door into the file room, to divert any security guard who might arrive. With a photographer from the Baltimore Sun nearby, shooting film, we pulled drawers out and drenched the files with blood. Clerks stood by, aghast, until we finished. We returned to benches set aside for waiting by the main door. As had Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we would accept the consequences.
Philip Berrigan pouring the blood while Tom Lewis is held by a draft clerk.
Because I knew to pull our 1-A (qualified for induction) files, my pouring came closest to actually obstruction of induction, although the files were not really damaged. They could easily be washed, pulled apart, and reread. The files Phil and Tom were defacing—who knows what they were? At least they made the action available to the photographers and thus to the rest of the world. (Our “15 minutes of fame” or rather, my 15 minutes—Phil’s well-deserved years of fame were just beginning.) Not that this country’s media ever covered him very much.
We waited excitedly about an hour for the FBI to arrive. We tried to hand out paperback bibles and the following statement:
On Friday, October 27th, 1967, we are entering the Customs House in Baltimore, Maryland, to deface the draft records there with our blood.
We shed our blood willingly and gratefully in what we hope is a sacrificial and constructive act. We pour it upon these files to illustrate that with them and with these offices begins the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood 10,000 miles away. That bloodshedding is never rational, seldom voluntary—in a word, non‑constructive. It does not protect life, but rather endangers it.
We wish neither notoriety nor labels of martyrdom or messianism. We desire merely to stand for human life and human future. We realize painfully yet clearly that what we have done goes beyond the scope of Constitutional right and civil liberty, and is therefore not to be taken lightly.
WAR AND PROPERTY: We believe that war proves nothing except man’s refusal to be man and to live with men. We say that man must end war, or war will end man. We deplore our country’s hot and cold warring and its crime against the often unwilling and powerless bodies behind these files.
Thus we unite with our servicemen against their real enemies. We shed our blood as they do theirs. We disrupt our lives as the draft does theirs.
We quarrel with the idolatry of property and the war machine that makes property of men. We confront those countrymen to whom property means more than human life. We assert that property is often an instrument of massive injustice—like these files. Thus we feel this discriminate destruction of property for human life is warranted.
Nonetheless, we take every measure to protect the personnel here from hysteria or injury. We are content to remind them of their complicity in the untimely death of young soldiers, in the murder of innocent civilians, in the pain of parents and sweethearts. We ask their resignations.
AMERICA: We agree that America is the greatest manufacturer and salesman of violence in the world today. We feel this is so because power rests not with the people to whom it belongs, but with an economic, political and military cabal whose aims can tolerate neither foreign autonomy nor domestic freedom.
We charge that America would rather protect its empire of overseas profits than welcome its black people, rebuild its slums and cleanse its air and water. Thus we have singled out inner‑city draft boards for our action.
We love our country and celebrate its greatness. But our love cannot accept its evil with silence and passivity. We withstand that evil with our consciences and bodies, and invite the punishment that this entails.
LAW: We state that any law which forces men to kill and face death furthers war as surely as it encourages those who profit from war. We feel that Vietnam is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight—it is an unjust war backed up by unjust laws of conscription, tax preferences and suppression of dissent.
We indict such law with our consciences and acts and we appeal to Americans to purge their law, conform it to divine and human law, apply it impartially, and build at home and abroad with it. We cannot accept the law as it protects injustice. This is not law but a travesty of it. Thus we refuse any counsel that would bargain for our benefit within the law, and stand on our merits alone.
We seek neither to avoid detection nor to escape, but submit to apprehension and the consequences of our action.
We implore our countrymen to judge our action against this nation’s Judeo‑Christian tradition, against the horror in Vietnam and the impending threat of nuclear destruction against, finally, the universal human longing for justice and peace.
We invite [this was the conspiratorial part] friends in the peace and freedom movements o continue moving with us from dissent to resistance. We ask God to be merciful and patient with us and all men. We hope he will use our witness for his blessed designs.
One of the clerks took a paperback Bible from Reverend Mengel and bopped me on the head with it. Maybe it gave her a Christian feeling.
© David Eberhardt
David Eberhardt was born March 26, 1941. As a peace protester, he was incarcerated at Lewisburg Federal Prison in 1970 for 21 months for pouring blood on draft files with Father Philip Berrigan and two others to protest the Vietnam War. He is retired after 33 years of work in the criminal injustice system as a Director of Offender Aid and Restoration at the Baltimore City Jail. He has published three books of poetry: The Tree Calendar, Blue Running Lights, and Poems from the Website, Poetry in Baltimore. He is at work on a memoir, For All the Saints, influenced by Thoreau, Nabokov, Mailer, Agee, Thomas, and Cousteau. His website is http://davideberhardt.webs.com.
David Eberhardt said:
two other prose writers of influence- peter matthiesen (especially snow leopard) and eugene lecky (my helmet for a pillow)
daviderh eberhardt said:
also Piper Kerman- Orange is the New Black
david eberhardt said:
Actually, the great Mayan King Pacal- was born on March 23rd. – not the 26th, as I had hoped (Beethoven DIED on the 26th!!!)
david eberhardt said:
My brother has pointed out that mom and pop did not attend Union Theological but another institution- New York Biblical Seminary?