By John Linnemeier
He looked out of place. Quiet and observant… appeared to be about thirty…neatly pressed khakis, simple black belt, oxford style blue shirt, spit-shined shoes, short dark hair with a razor-sharp part… a small black backpack settled squarely over both shoulders…pants fly, belt and buttons all lined up in what, back in Officers Candidate School, we used to call a “straight gig-line.”
He said he was a Navy veteran. When I asked what had brought him there he was hesitant, noncommittal and seemed a bit nervous. Maybe it’s come from a lifetime of traveling to dangerous places where smelling people out becomes a necessity, but I knew surely and instinctively: this guy was spying on us.
It was the 4th of July, 2013, and I was furious. Edward Snowden had just released the shocking news that the NSA was secretly and illegally collecting information on virtually everyone in America. The NSA is an impenetrably clandestine organization with God-knows-what agenda. Its director lied about the existence of the program to the Congressional committee tasked with overseeing it, while its agents spied on them as well.
With the exception of Washington, DC, Indianapolis has more space dedicated to war memorials than any other city in America.
For over a hundred years, my extended family has met near Popcorn Valley to celebrate Independence Day. Under ancient beech trees, we eat mutton from a sheep slaughtered for the occasion, cooked over an open pit. My mother’s family, the Armstrongs, are mostly cattlemen…successful ones with big spreads of a thousand acres or more. My son and I and just about all of the men in the family have served in the military. Before we sit down to eat together, an elder leads us in the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not a formality. We feel those words deeply. It’s part of the glue that holds our family together. If I’m in the country, I never miss it, but I couldn’t go that year. All the high fallutin’ talk about the land of the free and the home of the brave would have rung hollow. I decided to skip the picnic and drive up to Indianapolis to be part of a demonstration.
I parked in the multi-leveled underground lot adjacent to the Indiana Museum. It was a short walk to a wooded park near the White River. In a small stone shelter house surrounded by great dusty-leaved sycamore trees, forty or fifty of us gathered. For half an hour or so, while the man in the blue shirt looked on impassively, several of us related our backgrounds and talked about why we were there.
I spoke about my service in Vietnam and how troubled I felt that our nation had become so cowardly that we were willing to forsake some of our most basic freedoms. Others voiced their outrage as well.
Then we all trooped off as a group to The War Memorial, the hub of this “Circle City.” It was only four or five blocks away, but I was 69 years old and had recently undergone surgery. My gait was clump-footed and tentative. My shoes slapped the pavement as I gazed up at the perfect blue sky, falling behind the pack on this gorgeous summer day.
With the exception of Washington, DC, Indianapolis has more space dedicated to war memorials than any other city in America. Monument Circle is a brick-paved street that intersects Meridian and Market Streets in the precise geographic center of Indiana. In its center sits the neo-classical, slightly preposterous looking Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a gigantic obelisk carved from the finest oolitic limestone, capped with a thirty-foot tall statue of “Lady Victory.” The monument is only 15 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty and reportedly would cost half a billion dollars if it were built today. Horses, cannons and determined Union army soldiers jut out in all directions near the base. At its feet are pools and fountains. Broad stone steps on both the north and south sides lead to mighty bronze doors and through them to a stairway that leads to an observation deck. From there you can see almost to the suburban malls of the largest city in the nation not founded on navigable water.
A few blocks away on Pennsylvania Street, I’d worked with disabled veterans at the VA Regional Office for three years. Upstairs in the huge cafeteria, a panoramic photo covering an entire side of the dining room shows the victorious troops returning from WWI marching down Meridian Street to the circle. Every fifty feet along both sides of the route, perched on Corinthian columns and decked out like sylphs, slender young girls holding wicker baskets shower flowers on the returning doughboys back from the “war to end all wars.” Flags are everywhere. From the windows of the buildings above, shredded paper rains down on the returning heroes, back from the unspeakable horror of the trenches of Flanders Fields. Those young Hoosiers marching along so smartly must have felt like they were entering heaven.
All this patriotic corniness doesn’t offend me. The idea of America as a beacon of liberty and humane values speaks to my very core. An America where torture is condoned and spying on each other is justified is a betrayal of everything men and women like these fought and died for. That’s why I was here today.
At Monument Circle, I was surprised to see another group with about a hundred additional demonstrators had beaten us there. We were a motley-looking crew with many agendas. At the top of the steps of the memorial overlooking the fountains a contingent of half a dozen “open carry” gun people waved their AR-15s menacingly. The rest of us milled around, talking and checking out each other’s signs while enjoying the summer weather. Several people dipped bare feet in the cool water of the fountain. A few cars honked in support or opposition to the protest. The whole thing was pretty pathetic to tell the truth.
I had my iPhone with me, and on a whim I thought I’d take a short clandestine video of our young undercover man, now milling about aimlessly, looking slightly bored. I suffer from a severe tremor so I asked a young lady standing nearby if she’d take the video for me. Before I could stop her she walked straight up to within three feet of the guy and began filming. He immediately realized what was going on. Since I figured I was already busted, I impulsively walked up to him myself, threw an arm around his shoulder, and looked him straight in the eye.
Immediately, a young couple with long hair and tattoos rushed up and with feigned courtesy asked if they could take my photo with their Nikon. When I firmly refused, all three of them abruptly scurried down the steps to a police car with blacked-out windows parked on the street directly in front of the protest and hopped in. I spent the rest of my time at the demonstration making a point of not facing the squad car.
When things broke up, with my complaining old body supported by a walking stick, I headed off across the circle in the direction of my car. The dark-windowed squad car ominously crept around the circle toward me. Before it could get too near I turned my back to it.
Since the circle was one-way, they couldn’t stop or turn around, giving me just enough time to shuffle into a multi-storied parking garage with multiple exits. Safe for the moment, I tried to gather my wits while checking anxiously for the squad car I assumed was cruising around somewhere outside. A few moments later I slipped out a random exit and hobbled across an open field scanning the area.
From a block away we sighted each other. I heard him hit the brakes hard. They were headed north on Capitol, but again on a one-way street. He’d have to circle the block. It gave me just enough time to scurry flat-footed across the field, up a side street and down an embankment to a crowded pedestrian walkway that skirted a narrow canal. From there it was a short distance to the underground garage and my car.
My heart was pounding as I slipped behind the wheel. My sweaty shirt stuck to the leather upholstery as I caught my breath. I sat there in the cool darkness of that cave-like space gathering my thoughts. Three years later I’m still gathering them.