Today at lunch in school I read Edward Nudelman's article "Boom, the Sixies and Me" and just smiled...and thought to myself, "Oh those sweet years...those years when we wore our ideals on our hearts and in our minds." Then tonight I found Mariana T's article "Were You Around in the Sixies" and I just laughed...yes, she would know about the sixties...those wild sixties with long hair, bell bottom pants, cheap wine, long granny dresses, a zillion beads around the neck, mariana would know! Just now I read Colonel Possum's take on Brokaw's book and just hooted....yes, he too was there with the best of us...thinking that with song and dance, prayers and protest, we could change the world. Did we change it? I don't know...we tried our best, we gave what we could...but there's still much work to be done. It's time we stopped thinking about the past and think to the future: What can we do now to make this world a better place?
It was another time, another place, and another war. And yet, so many things about that time are very similiar to the place we are now. It was the fall of 1967 and I had just received my draft notice. You might question why a girl would receive a draft number in the 60's. It just so happen that I had received a boy's name at birth. Robert Ketchen Mills my father proudly named me. Later, at my baptism, I would receive the name of Elizabeth, my god-mother's name, to pacify the priest performing the sacrament. But to the government in 1967, I was Robert, and I was needed to provide fodder for their mistakes.
Rather then just go home and explain everything to my folks and bring the matter up with the draft board, I decided to join a group of friends on the Boston Common who were protesting the war. It seemed natural as we were listening to debates, chanting, and singing all those wonderful protest songs to take out my draft card and wave it in the air. One thing led to another and soon we were surrounded by some rather angry Irish Boston cops who were not too thrilled with our actions. They were rather heavy handed with their sticks and in protest, I threw the draft card into the flames. The partialy burned card was rescued by a heavy, red face cop and soon I was in the paddy truck headed to the Skully Square Police Station. At the station I was questioned and the police were rather surprised to learn I was a senior at Regis College, a Catholic school for girls. "How could a nice Catholic girl be involved in flag burning? And who is Robert Mills?" Although it was against the law to burn a draft card, after much discussion, the policemen decided that they would not arrest me and that I should call my folks to pick me up. Instead, I decided to call my English professor from freshmen year. Sister Theresa was now the President of the college and a good friend. At the time, I really felt she would be more understanding then my parents. I loved my family...but they were God-fearing, Americans who believed that the President was RiGHT and that if we didn't stop the Commies in Vietnam, then you would have the dominoe effect and those damn Commies would be on our doorstep. And everyone knows how dominoes fall. Besides, my folks were hard-working blue collar workers sacrificing all to educate their daughter. Besides, my sister's husband was in DaNang and "protesting the war was a slap in the face to our young men fighting for our freedom".
So, in the end, I called Sister Theresa. She was kind, though not sympathic, and came right away. The twenty mile ride down Route 20 to Weston was long and silent. When we arrived at the college, Sister asked if I would like to come in to the sitting room for tea. I actually thought a beer would be fine, but that wasn't offered. Tea was served and then the questions were asked. What did I hope to accomplish with burning a draft card...a draft card that meant nothing, since in the end, I would not be sent to war? If I was a young man, she would respect the decision. But I was a girl and it was just an empty gesture. Ummm...I had to think about that. It was true... I knew that fighting in Vietnam was not in my future but I had to do something dramatic. Participating in protest marches, working for George McGovern in his political office downtown licking stamps just was not cutting it for me. We talked through the night. She talked about ideals and how people can choose positive or negative actions. In the end she told me how Regis College had a lay apostalate program where you gave a year or two of your life teaching in the missions. I was hooked. Where? She told me they had missions in Aruba, the San Juans, the southwest and the Phillipines. None of those places appealed to me though two of my friends did eventually go to Aruba.
"Alaska? What about Alaska...do you have missions there?", I queried.
"Absolutely not.... the Jesuits are in Alaska."
"But I read Ice Palace by Edna Ferber in seventh grade and I've always wanted to go there?"
When she saw that Alaska was the only place I would consider, she said she would contact a Father Jim Sebesta at Weston Seminary and perhaps he would talk to me about being a Jesuit Volunteer. With my friend Nicola, I went to the seminary for a meeting with Father Jim. He was not at all what I expected. He was tall and wiry and had a huge grin and he just chuckled through most of our meeting. On the walls of his den were huge photographs of Native faces and he talked about these individuals with warmth and kindness. Father Jim had been a young bush pilot in Alaska and after visiting many of the villages and having contact with the various "bush" priests decided to become a Jesuit and he was in Weston studying. At the time, I thought it sad....here was a guy obviously misplaced in Massachusetts when his heart was in Alaska. I was hooked. If I couldn't do anything about the war, I would just go to Alaska and be a teacher in a Jesuit mission for a year or two. That would be doing something positive!
At Thanksgiving I told the family. Of course I didn't tell them about the draft card burning, nor about the ride in the paddy wagon. "I've applied to be a Jesuit Lay Volunteer and I'm going to go to Alaska." Instead of enthusiasm, I was met with disbelief. For Christmas, the big joke was the one piece red longjohn set with the pull down seat! It was obvious to me that my family was not going to be supportive of my "grand scheme to save the world" so I would just go about my business of applying to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and say little on week-ends if and when I came home.
Spring was hard. The day after Martin Luther King died, I received my acceptance into the Corps. I was being assigned to St. Mary's Mission on the lower Yukon River to teach history, anthropology, and economics. I knew I could handle the American and World History courses, but an Alaskan History course for sophmores? The only thing I knew about Alaska at the moment was what Ferber had written and that wasn't really history! St. Mary's was a village and home to a Jesuit boarding school for Yupik high school students from southwest Alaska.
On June 2nd I graduated from college....and Bobby Kennedy was shot. Since home wasn't a refuge at the time and I wouldn't be leaving for Alaska till August, I decided to try my hand at waitressing on Nantucket Island and just forget about the war, the killings, and the pope's latest message to the faithful about birth control. Nantucket, at the time, was a place for the rich (who were waited on) and the poor (college students looking for a good time). I, along with three other girls from Regis, rented an attic space on Orange Street in the center of town. We waited on tables, rode our bikes all over in quest of the perfect beach, and sang Simon and Garfunckle songs under a street light drinking Boone's Farm Apple wine. We rarely read the paper nor did we listen to the news. We had no television, nor did we have a radio and that was fine with us.
On August 7th I took the ferry home and on the 9th I left for Alaska. Over the summer I had become abit apprehensive about the "course I had planned". Did I really want to go to Alaska? Did I really want to be at a religious place. I had just finished eight years of Catholic education, what was I thinking signing up to teach in a mission? Was I crazy? I think Dad understood my predictament because at Logan Airport over eggs and bacon, he said, "Bob, you don't need to get on that plane. We can walk right out of this airport and in an hour we can be home. Noone, and I mean noone, will ever mention Alaska again." I declined the offer and walked stubbornly out onto the tarmac and climbed the stairs.
I took a window seat. Shortly there after, two young men in uniform sat down beside me. Holy shit, I thought to myself... for the next six hours I'm going to be sitting next to baby killers, mother rapers and I have no place to go. The young men tried to make conversation, I was mute. No way was I going to talk to these guys. When the stewardess stopped by, I ordered a Singapore Sling. They ordered beer. Then I had another and another. One of the guys said, "You better slow down, your drinking those pretty fast. Now if you were going to Vietnam like us, I would understand, but what are you, a college kid?" At which point I just looked at them and I could see I was sitting next to two poor souls who didn't want to go anywhere, especially not to Vietnam. They just had low draft numbers. Damn. Those guys actually could be me...if I had been a boy. I had a low draft number. So I spilled my guts. "I'm going to Alaska and I'm going to teach in a Catholic mission and I'm not even religious and what if everybody there is really religious and praying all the time and I really don't think I want to go." We commiserated all the way to Seattle with several more drinks and with their help we all got on a Wien flight to Anchorage. Before saying good-bye in Anchorage, they made sure I was on the right flight to Fairbanks where I arrived totally drunk! Believe me, I was feeling no pain. At the airport, Father Jim Gallagher and another volunteer, Rich Scholl, met me. All Father Jim said was "Rich, I think Bobbie would love to see some of our coffee shops in town before going back to Monroe High School, our orientation site for two weeks. And so I saw the coffee shops of Fairbanks. Around dinner time (when they knew all the rest of the volunteers would be in the cafeteria) they brought me back to the school where they settled me on to a nice cot in one of the classrooms and let me go to sleep. The next morning, refreshed and relieved that I had no hangover, I met my fellow volunteers. I believe there were forty of us in '68. Some of us were assigned to St. Mary's, some to Copper Valley, others to Nome and Kotzebue and some would stay at Monroe. We came from all over "lower '48", we were all 21 or 22, and to my relief, we were all just college kids, not a holy-roller in the bunch! My wildest nightmares had not come true!
Over the next two weeks we learned about the places we would be going to and about the people we would serve. I, along with eleven others, would be going to Saint Mary's. Until orientation, I had no idea that St. Mary's was WAY out in the bush. Although there was an airport, a bush plane only flew in on Tuesdays and Thursdays and that in the real winter, a plane might not be able to land for two or three weeks. The airport was three miles from the village. This was the only road in St. Mary's. On top of that, there was only one store, Northern Commercial Company, twelve families in the village and the mission (which housed maybe sixty high schoolers from up and down the Yukon and the coast, two priests, two Brothers, and several old nuns). And lastly, St. Mary's Village Council had voted the town "dry" in the last election. With each revelation, it was no wonder, many of us would make our way out to the Howling Dog Saloon, "to store" one last drink for the winter.
Two weeks later, the eleven volunteers were on what we called a "pregnant" plane headed for Bethel, the largest Yupik community in southwestern Alaska. We were amazed with the dry fish hanging from the racks, the mangy dogs tied up near plywood shacks, and the never ending treeless tundra. We were shocked that this was "a big town" compared to where we were going. That night we slept on pews in the local church. The following morning we flew to St. Mary's. Father Astrik and Father Mueller greeted us and assigned the eight girls to a small cabin next to the mission/school. The three guys would share the dormitory with the high school boys.
Our cabin was very small. There was a main room 8' by 10 and four bedrooms with just enogh room for a bunkbed and one dresser drawer. For a bathroom, we had a honey bucket. We had no running water. I was fortunate to have Ann Harrington (Harry) from Butte, Montana as my room-mate. She had graduated from Gonzaga University with Mary Thiebes, another volunteer. Harry, Thiebes and myself were all scheduled to teach in the high school along with Rich Scholl, a graduate of Berkeley. The four of us became fast friends. "I think we're going to like this place".
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps has a saying that once you become a JV you are "ruined for life". That may be true. Out of life, you want the simple things. You want food in your belly, a shelter over your head, thoughtful conversation, and a loving community where people really care and help one another. I found all that at St. Mary's. When my mind wanders back to my time in St. Mary's, I think of some of the crazier moments...and there were many....and it brings a smile to my face. We shared wonderful moments both with fellow volunteers and with our students. But I will save those "wild tales" for another time.