40 Years Ago (MLK Assassination - DC Riots)

(Written April 6, 2008) In early 1968 I had just gotten back from Viet Nam a few months before. I still had a year to go in the Army, but I was on medical profile (from injuries in Nam) and so managed to get stationed at a base close to home - Ft Meade, Md. At that point I didn’t really need to use the cane anymore, but I used it anyway, because it helped me get and stay in an office job.

An office job was particularly appealing at the time, because if I hadn’t been in the office, I would have been doing what everyone else was doing - riot control training. The summer of ‘68 we were on riot control standby alert, and had to be ready to roll within hours. ‘Training’ consisted of hours of being side by line in a line, rifles with fixed bayonets held in front of you, and moving together, as a line, yelling “Back!” “Back!”. Hours of this, often in the hot sun, with full gear. Next day, do it again. The office was a really good place to be. I probably had not needed to use the cane, as they pretty well left me alone anyway. I was the only Nam vet in the company, and I had more stuff hanging off my uniform than the officers. They seemed to be OK with me just riding out my final year in relative comfort.

I think the rest of the guys were kind of happy when Marting Luhter King Jr got killed, or at least excited. Not that they had anything against King, but it meant that they would actually get to do something besides walking around in an empty field in the hot sun yelling “Back!”

We were on the road within hours of getting the call. It was evening rush hour, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was nearly a parking lot. No matter. We had a lot of Armored Personnel Carriers (APC’s), big trucks and jeeps, none of which cared if they ran on pavement or not. We roared into DC riding in the center grass median strip, raising clouds of dust and kicking dirt and stones over the cars parked in the traffic jam.

As we neared the city it was getting dark, and there was an unnatural orange glow in the direction we were going - which we finally realized was not a sunset, but DC burning. Things were pretty wild when we arrived, fires everywhere, tear gas hung in the air, store front windows were shattered, and there were people yelling, running, and throwing things about everywhere you looked.


Because of my gimp status, I got to ride around with the ‘command unit’ - running radios and the like. So, I had a front row seat, but didn’t have to get out and mix it up with the rioters. There was never any question of the outcome, but some people on both sides took hard knocks and bruises.

On the one hand, this was kind of low level compared to where I’d just come from. Nobody was getting shot or bombed - this was more like a big brawl - yet it was still doing familiar Army sorts of things.

But, on the other hand it was very surreal. Nam was a place far away, so war kinds of things were ‘far away’. At least in my mind they had been, until then. Suddenly it seemed like Nam had followed me home. This kind of stuff didn’t happen ‘here’…

It became apparent that in many ways ‘here’ was not much different from ‘there’. Lawless happens fast. It seemed like everywhere there were burning buildings, broken glass, wrecked cars, looters, and angry people.

That night we spent the night in the halls of some school, sleeping on the floor. The guys who had been actually mixing it up on the streets began pulling their own loot out of their packs. Mostly stuff like bottles of liquor, which got passed around when no one was looking. A few guys had things like miniature TV’s stuffed in their packs. And everyone telling their stories about various experiences. There is only one story that I recall now, and that was a couple of guys talking about watching some DC cops loading a big TV in a paddy wagon…

I think we spent a couple more days in DC after that, but it was mostly over after that first night. Not to necessarily say it was calm, but with the Army in the streets there wasn’t too much anyone could do.

For us grunts this wasn’t much about any great event having happened. It had just been a break from the monotonous training to go off and have a little adventure and some stories to tell afterwards. After that, there were no more adventures for the rest of the year. We stayed on alert the entire hot summer. The closest we had to time off was being on ‘6 hr’ alert. We were split in rotating thirds. One third was on 2-hr alert, which meant we had to be ready to be rolling in two hours, 24 hours a day. On 2 hour alert you couldn’t even leave the base. 4-hr alert gave you a little breathing room, but you had to be contactable, and close by. 6-hr status meant you could go to Washington or Baltimore, and even spend the night, so long as they had a phone number for you. The days for most of the guys were spent walking around yelling “Back! Back”, or practicing things like putting gas masks on quickly and getting inspected.

For me it was easy. My grandmother still lived in the house I grew up in, less than 10 miles from the base. I was granted a ‘hardship’ status for taking care of an elderly relative and was able to stay with her, even on 2hr status. I couldn’t leave her place on 2hr status, but once I had hit the liquor store I had no reason to. I drank a lot of beer that summer. I had returned from Nam a lean 168 lbs. By the end of that year I was up to 215 - a definite case of Body By Budweiser (or maybe it was Schlitz). I’ve never been even close to that heavy since.

Came cooler Fall days, the riot alert was lifted, and I was looking at my exit from the Army in December. At the end I guess at least one old Sargent thought I had been getting by too easy though. I had been carefully planning my haircuts in order to be able to leave the Army with the best possible start on the head of long hair I intended on growing as soon as I got out. I tried to time it so it would be just on the long side of ‘regulation’ when I exited. It was not to be. On that last day this old sarge refused to sign a critical paper until I had gotten a burr cut. OK, that’s fine - just remind me one more time how much I love the Army. You may have me this one *last time* scumbag, but nevermore!

For me, the King riots were not that big of an event compared to stuff that happened in Nam. But they had an impact none the less. They removed any illusion I might have been clinging to things like that couldn’t happen in the US. After that I knew they can happen anywhere, and a whole lot faster than seems believable.
(Image above from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leffler_-1968_WashingtonDC_MLK_riots.jpg )