By Thomas Tibor
A powerful, evocative novel that transports the reader to a tense period in America, Fortunate Son is set on a southern college campus during the turbulent spring of 1970. Reed Lawson, an ROTC cadet, struggles with the absence of his father, a Navy pilot who has been Missing in Action in Vietnam for three years.
While volunteering at a drug crisis center, Reed sets out to win the heart of a feminist co-worker who is grappling with a painful past, and to rescue a troubled teenage girl from self-destruction. In the process, he is forced to confront trauma’s tragic consequences and the fragile, tangled web of human connections.
“Sorry I’m late,” Reed said as Annabel jumped into the Mustang. “How was your weekend?”
“Forget my weekend. Why’d you have to blab about me? Now they think I’m a wacko!”
“I’m sure they don’t. You’re dealing with heavy stuff right now and need some help, that’s all.”
“Forget that shit. Mom dragged me to a doctor last year. He laid some crap on me about having an anxiety disorder. Gave me a bunch of Librium, which just made me sick.”
Flipping down the sun visor, she inspected the dark circles beneath her eyes. “Dammit, forgot the concealer—I’ll look like a corpse all day.”
Reed tried to change the subject. “By the way, have you written any poetry lately?”
“Fuck no. Gonna burn all my notebooks.”
“What! You can’t do that.”
“Who says? Not like anyone’s gonna read that garbage anyway.”
“Wait a minute. You can’t just get rid of creative stuff like that. Besides, it’s really good.”
“Says only you.”
“I don’t get it. I thought you wanted to go to college and become a writer.”
“Another stupid pipe dream.”
Clearly, nothing else he could say was going to make a difference.
That same day—Monday, May 4—Ohio National Guard troops were summoned to restore order at Kent State University. In the confrontation with protesters that ensued, Guardsmen opened fire, killing two students and two bystanders. Nine others were wounded. News of the Kent State killings quickly spread nationwide.
In the crowded TV room, Reed and Adam fixated on the evening broadcast—Guardsmen firing, students screaming. And a photo of a young woman pleading for help, kneeling next to a guy lying on the pavement, his head in a puddle of blood.
Adam raised his voice above the angry clamor. “I guess American citizens are now no safer than the Vietnamese we’re killing.”
The next morning after drill, Reed stood in the ROTC parking lot and spread the newspaper across the Mustang’s hood. According to the front-page article, the Guardsmen had lobbed tear gas at protesters in attempts to break up the rally. Some protesters threw the smoking canisters—along with stones—back at the Guardsmen, who retreated, except for twenty-eight, who suddenly turned and fired into the unarmed crowd. Over sixty rounds in thirteen seconds.
As he finished the article, students slowed and leaned out of passing cars to jeer.
“Fuck you, ROTC!”
Reed stiffened but didn’t bother to respond, then walked into class.
Captain Harwood joined the class that day to discuss the killings. He began by reading excerpts from articles: “According to the Ohio National Guard, the Guardsmen had been forced to shoot after a sniper opened fire against the troops from a nearby rooftop. Others claimed there was no sniper fire . . . the brigadier general commanding the troops admitted students had not been warned that soldiers might fire live rounds . . . a Guardsman always has the option to fire if his life is in danger.”
The captain scanned the room. “So, what do you all think?”
“Seems to me, sir,” a cadet responded, “it was self-defense.”
Reed raised his hand. “Sir, why couldn’t they have just fired warning shots?”
Harwood was about to speak when he was interrupted by shouting from protesters outside: “Down with ROTC!” “ROTC off campus!” “Burn it down!”
He pressed on. “Once weapons are loaded, Guardsmen have a license to fire. These guys were inexperienced, afraid, and poorly trained.”
As another cadet raised his hand, bricks crashed against the classroom windows, cracking a few panes.
Reed dove to the floor and crouched under his desk. Son of a bitch!
More bricks, glass breaking, and chanting continued until Harwood was able to shepherd the cadets into the hallway amid pounding on the front door.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Campus police soon arrived to clear the front lawn and sidewalk, cordon off the area, and direct the cadets outside.
Reed escaped to his Mustang. It was all too freaking crazy. He drove across the lot, but protesters blocked the exit. Gunning his engine, he envisioned knocking the assholes down like bowling pins. Moments later, the police cleared his path and motioned him through.
Back at the dorm, he ripped off his uniform and rummaged for a clean pair of Levi’s. Adam sat at his desk, furiously scribbling notes.
“Don’t you have class?”
“Walked out,” Adam said.
“Because of what my fascist teacher wrote on the blackboard: Lesson for the Week—He who stands in front of soldiers with rifles should not throw stones.”
“Screw it. I’m not going back.”
“Wait a minute. What about finals next week?”
Adam shoved his notebook aside and stepped toward the door. “Who gives a shit? It’s like that saying, To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men. At some point in life, you gotta take a stand.”
In Political Philosophy class, Reed’s professor was drowned out by shouting from the hallway. “Strike, strike, strike!”
Several students burst into the classroom.
“They murdered four people!” a girl cried. “How can you sit there like nothing’s going on? Strike!”
“Get lost. We’re trying to study!” a guy yelled.
“They were students, just like you and me!”
As Reed tried to focus, more protesters interrupted the class. Several kids got up and walked out.
The professor stopped writing on the blackboard. “All right, who else wants to leave? If you do, please do so now.”
Should he stay or go? Of course, the killing of the students at Kent State was horrible. Jeffrey Miller wasn’t an activist, just a concerned kid. Sandy Scheuer had been walking to speech therapy class, paying no attention to the surrounding chaos. Allison Krause had put a flower in a Guardsman’s rifle on Sunday. On Monday, she was dead. William Schroeder, age twenty, was in ROTC. Just like me.
Adam’s quote echoed in his head: To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men. Yet what was a strike actually supposed to accomplish?
Reed surrendered to inertia and stayed in class.
Afterward, he drove to the 7-Eleven, yet found no respite from the mayhem. When he walked out, a tearful woman about his mother’s age, wearing a peasant dress, leaned against the Mustang holding a sign: 48,700 Dead Soldiers. Four Dead Students. America—What Are We Doing to Our Children?
Back on campus, a guy shoved a leaflet into his hand: Strike to End the War. Strike to Take Power. Strike to Smash Corporations. Strike to Set Yourself Free!
Reed crumpled and tossed it. Strike for whose power? Smash which corporations? Set yourself free from what exactly?
At Annabel’s high school, tensions ran nearly as high. Kids had commandeered the sidewalk. White-helmeted police officers lined the curb, clenching batons and shielding protesters from passing cars.
“Can you believe it?” Annabel said. “One minute you’re waving some sign, the next minute you’re dead.”
On the way to Jordan’s, traffic was stalled by hundreds of protesters spilling across the road in front of the university’s administration building. When Reed tried to make a U-turn, the police signaled him toward a side street.
Annabel poked her head out the window. “Come on. Let’s park and see what’s going on.”
They walked to the administration building, where a school official stood blocking the front door, trying to calm the crowd.
“I appeal to everyone to use reason. A mob has no reason. Let’s not create a situation that invites the very same violence we all deplore!”
His words were met with a mix of approval and derision.
The next speaker, no older than the students, wore a military fatigue jacket despite the heat and introduced himself as a member of Veterans for Peace. “I experienced enough violence, blood, and death at Khe Sanh for a lifetime. I vowed, never again!”
At the mention of Khe Sanh, Reed glanced at Annabel. She had a faraway look in her eyes. Must be thinking about her father.
The vet continued, “Now that killing is happening here, the time for complacency is over! I’m not a leftist. I’m not a communist. I’m a patriot. I love America.” He concluded by reading from a petition: “We believe in life, not death, love not hate, peace not war. Join us and demand that President Nixon stop this war now!”
Annabel turned away. “I gotta get the hell out of here.”
She remained stone-faced and silent until Reed dropped her off at Jordan’s.
Too agitated to study, Reed parked at the dorm and walked into the student union. On TV, a reporter was asking a middle-aged woman from Kent, Ohio, about the dead students.
“They’re traitors!” she hissed. “They deserve everything they got!”
The news program cut to the streets of Manhattan, where helmeted construction workers hoisting American flags fought antiwar protesters with fists and lead pipes. At least twenty people had been hospitalized. In Seattle, members of a vigilante group ironically called HELP—Help Eliminate Lawless Protest—had also attacked demonstrators.
Reed had had enough and left. Maybe Olivia’s warning of a nation sliding toward another civil war wasn’t off base after all.
When Reed arrived for the free clinic that night, he discovered it had been canceled due to the protests. On the porch, Jordan, Olivia, Meg, and other volunteers were donning red-and-black armbands emblazoned with the number 644,000. Reed now understood it referred to the total estimated casualties so far—soldiers and civilians, both Americans and Vietnamese.
He watched uneasily as Meg distributed white candles. A candlelight vigil march had been planned to honor the Kent State deaths.
Olivia beckoned them to leave, but Jordan lingered and said to Reed, “Are you coming with us?”
He was relieved by her tone—gentle, not accusing. “I don’t know.”
“You realize what’s at stake, don’t you? You can’t stay on the sidelines. Not anymore.”
“Maybe not. But if you’re right and the war is immoral, that means my dad must be a criminal.”
He expected her to argue, but she remained sympathetic. “It’s not for me to judge your father. I’m sure he’s suffering horribly, but what’s happening now all over the country is bigger than one person. Much bigger.”
Reed hesitated, thinking about an argument between Sandy and Mom last fall. Dad had been MIA for two years, but Mom had refused to participate in any protests.
“What if your father really is alive and in prison?” she’d asked. “What if the North Vietnamese saw a newspaper article quoting me as criticizing the government? What if they showed your father a picture of me protesting? It would completely destroy his morale.”
Down the street, Olivia and the others were joining protesters gathering on University Avenue—students and locals, all carrying flickering candles.
What to do? His mother was right, but Jordan was too. He felt his father’s presence—watching, judging—as if they were tethered by a nine-thousand-mile cord. Yet Reed heard no voice in his head, no command, no advice. Nothing…
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