Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oleo Strut – Front Line of GI Protest

Fall 2011, the ‘Austin Lounge Lizards’ and ‘The Possum Posse’ played a benefit concert in the Texas state capital for a contemporary GI coffee house 70 miles down the road in an obscure small town not far from Fort Hood, home to the largest number of GIs in the US. There was much history in the moment. ‘Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center’ sits in a modest building on a side street of Killeen, direct successor to the Oleo Strut GI coffee house of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The wars are different, Vietnam then, Afghanistan today, but the operators of the café and the coffee house share/shared a common opposition to raging wars
which have taken their toll on Ft Hood troops.

As the Vietnam War intensified in ’67, Fred Gardner and a few friends decided it was time to focus on GIs in the antiwar protest equation, up to that time mostly visible as a civilian movement. He approached the SDS leadership with the idea of opening several GI coffee houses outside major military camps. His idea was that the coffee houses would become venues for developing GI organizers for the creation of a GI antiwar movement as well as hip places where off-duty military personnel could relax and read antiwar papers if interested. SDS blew Fred off in what we might be called a failure of analysis – not being able to imagine GIs who were equally opposed to the war and had far more at stake. He was surprised by their unwillingness to act on the idea, then figured it was up to him. Later, seeing Fred’s early success in South Carolina, SDS came around and supported the initiative.

Fred opened the first coffee house near Fort Jackson SC by rounding up private funding with the assistance of Donna Mickleson of Berkeley. He called it the ‘UFO’ in a kind of play on USO or the United Service Organization, the mainstream off-base organization catering to GIs and military personnel. The UFO was a big hit with a lot of young Basic trainees who were not enthusiastic about the Army or the war, so plans were laid to open coffee houses elsewhere. The second one, called Mad Anthony’s Headquarters in the little town outside Fort Leonard Wood MO, was run by Judy Olasov , a University of South Carolina student volunteer from the UFO.

The next location scheduled was near Fort Polk LA, but the local authorities were so hostile that they hustled the organizers out of town almost immediately. Instead, during summer ’68, ‘Oleo Strut’ became the third coffee house outside Fort Hood TX. Named for a helicopter shock absorber, the ‘Strut’ was co-managed by Josh Gould, a civil rights activist, and Janet ‘Jay’ Lockard, a Radcliffe dropout. Among the early staff volunteers were Tom Cleaver, an ex-Vietnam sailor; the late Dave Cline, a thrice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran who had mustered out at Fort Hood; and David Zeiger, decades later the director of Sir! No Sir!, the award-winning documentary on Vietnam GI antiwar protest dedicated to Jeff Sharlet and ex-Vietnam Marine John Kniffen.

Home for the ‘Strut’ was a storefront on the main drag of the small grungy army town of Killeen a couple of miles from Fort Hood, stateside base for the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions. The base was a small city in itself with 39,000 troops either bound for or just returning from Vietnam, and 65,000 military dependents in the environs. Some 2/3rds of the troops had served their 12 months in Nam and were ‘short-timers’, army slang for guys waiting out the remaining months on their service obligation.

♫So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh, babe, I hate to go*

Killeen itself was grimsville USA, or as a Washington Post story described it, “a forlorn, single-story town that looks like a set from Bonnie and Clyde.”** The Strut was on Avenue D, a street lined with loan sharks, pawn shops, pin ball joints, a pool room, greasy spoons, and rip-off flashy jewelry and clothing stores, in a word, a typical garrison town. The Strut staff operated as a social collective, earning very modest wages for serving coffee, cider, and soda as well as doughnuts, pie, and ice cream and rapping with GIs who came through the door. The place had light yellow walls with about 20 tables covered with orange cloths. GIs were welcome to play the stereo in the corner with its collection of rock and pop records.

GI protest and movement literature, including Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI), was available for reading or carrying back to the post. House copies of Rolling Stone and Village Voice were on hand as well. On the walls were giant foto blow-ups of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Malcolm X, and Mohammad Ali among others. When possible on weekends, the Strut booked music groups from Austin, the capital, for a nominal door charge of 50 cents a head. Occasionally nationally known musicians would perform, one time the folkie Pete Seeger, on another occasion Barbara Dane the folk, blues, and jazz singer. There was an unwritten rule on drugs, ‘no holding, no scoring’.

The Oleo Strut was a venue for performers such as Barbara Dane, right

Getting the Strut up and running in a gung ho army town and keeping it going was not easy. Harassment was a regular occurrence – by the cops and civil authorities, by local rednecks nicknamed ‘goat ropers’, and by the military. Most common was being flagged down for alleged traffic infractions, being singled out for parking tickets where no other violators were ticketed, and being stopped for ID checks while walking in town. The Killeen Fire Department dropped by frequently for quickie inspections and gigs. David Zeiger remembered being arrested several times – for hitchhiking, for swearing in front of a cop, and once for having a dirty license plate. Civil and military surveillance occurred when the Strut staff organized outdoor events. Local police, Military Police (MPs), Army criminal investigators, and even the FBI would show up, snapping fotos of the activists.

The teenage cowboys, the goat ropers, sons of the town fathers whom the cops tended to view benignly, would attempt to break up off-premise Strut events, or cruise by the storefront trying to pick fights with the GIs. They generally threatened to destroy the establishment; the smashed front window may have been their work. By far though, the most dangerous harassment came from the local klavern of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). One time a carload of Klansmen with an M-16 drew up to the lead car of a caravan carrying Strut people to a Houston demo and tried to shoot out its tires. Other times the KKK would circle the house where the staff collective lived, leaving behind stickers saying “The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are watching you.”

The Oleo Strut drew full houses its first summer of ’68 in spite of the hassles and became the hub of GI antiwar organizing to the deep chagrin of the Hood brass: In-house, around town, and even on base through sympathetic GIs picnics were held; teach-ins staged; GI papers, especially VGI, the Ally, and the Bond, were surreptitiously distributed at Hood; and later, marches were organized and GIs driven up to Austin for political events. The Strut also assisted antiwar GIs with launching their new underground paper, Fatigue Press, an alternative to the official Fort Hood paper, the Armored Sentinel. However, by far the most momentous event for which the coffee house served as a kind of communications and coordination center was the Fort Hood Strike of August ’68.

Since most of the Vietnam veterans at Hood were ‘short’ in terms of army time and had no formal duties to speak of, they were trained for riot-control duty. Black uprisings in the northern urban ghettos had begun in ’65 and spread to major cities across the country. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, spring ’68, Fort Hood riot control troops had been airlifted to Chicago to help cope with the ensuing Black riots. As the Democratic National Convention scheduled for Chicago late August ‘68 approached and the New Left had announced its intention to disrupt the event, plans were afoot at Hood to again dispatch troops to assist the Chicago police.

Just before liftoff, 43 Black soldiers refused to board the planes and deploy against their own people in the ghetto. To avert any suggestion that they were cowards, only Nam vets who had won the Bronze Star for valor and had been wounded in battle participated in the refusal. Fort Hood command reacted predictably – first trying to cajole wayward troops, then sending in the MPs to beat them, and finally bringing severe charges against the 43 soldiers.

The incident and the Strut’s role in the affair brought renewed joint civil-military pressure on the coffee house. Just hours before heading to the airport to fly to Chicago for the great protest against the Democrats, co-manager Josh Gould was stopped by the police for allegedly making an illegal right turn and then charged with possession of marijuana after the cops claimed they found a few grains on the car floor. Bail was set at $50,000. Two weeks later, after finally identifying him as the underground editor of Fatigue Press, Private Bruce ‘Gypsy’ Petersen was arrested on another setup drug charge while “standing in front of the Oleo Strut.”*** Subsequently convicted, sentenced to 8 years in prison, and dishonorably discharged, he was eventually exonerated, although it took 18 months to get him out of Leavenworth.

Coffee counter at the Oleo Strut
Photo courtesy of the Roz Payne Archives

Many years later in a memoir by a former Counter Intelligence (CI) officer at Fort Hood, the full extent of command’s disquiet over Oleo Strut in their midst as a threat to the ‘good order and discipline’ of the Army was revealed. Posted to CI in the spring of ’68, the young officer found that the only files the section maintained were mainly dossiers tracking the activities of the civilian and GI activists at the Strut. His first assignment was to operate as a plain clothes undercover agent visiting the Strut regularly for the purpose of coming up with something which would justify placing it ‘off limits’ to military personnel. A budding antiwar GI, the lieutenant chose to quietly cast himself as a ‘double agent’, nominally representing the military, but privately protecting the Strut. As he put it, “I planned to see as little as possible and above all, to keep completely to myself whatever I did observe that might potentially incriminate someone.”****

GIs rapping at the Strut under the gaze of Muhammad Ali on the wall, ‘68
Photo courtesy of the Roz Payne Archives

Throughout his tenure as VGI editor Jeff Sharlet travelled the country frequently, visiting GI coffee houses and nearby bases, interviewing returning Nam vets, counseling GIs considering starting underground papers, and raising money to support the printing and distribution of VGI. In late November ’68, Jeff spent a week at the Oleo Strut, talking with staff, rapping with GIs, and enjoying the music. It was there he and Tom Cleaver were reunited; as young ex-Vietnam veterans, the two had met and hung out in Chicago, summer ’67. Tom was the Strut’s music coordinator, bringing music groups down from Austin. Jeff also met Dave Cline in late '68; he had just gotten out of the hospital, having recovered from wounds received in Vietnam, and would return to work at the Strut after his discharge from the army.  That was to be Jeff’s last trip since the illness which took his life seven months later had begun taking its toll.

From its inception in July ’68, the Oleo Strut, a front line strong point in the GI resistance movement, continued on until ’72, although along the way it was often staggered by financial problems, riven by internal political differences, and shorthanded on staff as dedicated volunteers came and went during that transient time of their young lives. Nevertheless, the Strut in particular and the coffee houses in general were, as an expert has written, “central to the rise of a broader, global” GI antiwar movement.*****  The contemporary Under the Hood Cafe carries on the work today.  It was created in '09 on the initiative of Tom Cleaver with the assistance of fellow '60's activists Alice Embree, Jim Retherford, and Jeff Segal, among others.

 *Leavin’ on a Jet Plane by John Denver, 1966
**Washington Post, 14 July 1968
***Vietnam GI, Stateside edition, August 1968
****Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening (2007)
*****Derek Seidman, The Unquiet Americans: GI Dissent during the Vietnam War (2010)

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