Excerpt from Chapter 2, So Much Older Then. Coming of Age When the World Is Coming Apart

Viva la Huelga!

“Viva la huelga!” cried Matt at the top of his lungs.

“VIVA!!!!” all 20 of us responded in unison at the top of ours. “BOYCOTT KROGERS — BOYCOTT GRAPES!!”

We repeated the chants over and over as we marched up and down the sidewalk alongside the Kroger grocery store in downtown Kirkwood, waving our picket signs emblazoned with the slogans we were chanting. The store was just a couple of miles from my parents’ house, and I was pretty sure that one of our neighbors or church members would drive by and see me as they went about their Saturday shopping. The grape boycott was relatively new and still controversial, especially the grocery store picketing. The likelihood that some of my parents’ friends would see me doing this and then, maybe, call them, made it doubly exciting for me that morning. I wanted to shake all of these suburbanites — especially my parents — out of what I saw as their complacency. If one of them picked up the phone and reported to my mom they’d seen me, I knew that would really get her attention.

Little did I know at that moment that the events that were about to unfold over the next few hours would not only get my parents’ attention, but also that of the FBI.

After returning from the Easter retreat in Houston and learning of Vic’s death in Vietnam, I was determined to get into the action. During the retreat, I had seen and heard firsthand how all the issues I was concerned about were connected to each other. Racism, poverty, the war in Vietnam, and world hunger were all tied together in a system that I now understood as fundamentally unjust and unfair, favoring the few at the expense of the many. Christians, especially, I thought, were required to respond to these urgent needs. To do otherwise was the height of hypocrisy in my book. And action required more than talking about things with your friends or just giving money to various causes. Action meant doing, real doing — literally putting your body on the line.

In Houston, our speaker from the United Farm Workers (UFW), Jorge, had told the story of his own work in the fields in California, Arizona and Texas. What he told us of his personal experiences of low wages, racial slurs, and terrible living conditions in the camps made me feel both enraged and somehow guilty — a confused set of feelings that I had experienced reading James Baldwin and talking about racism with Darrell. Yet I came away feeling connected with Jorge, and sure that the only way migrant farm workers could get better lives was by unionizing. Jorge emphasized that the best way for people who cared about farm workers to show their support was to join the national boycott of grapes that UFW was organizing to put pressure on the big growers. After his talk, I asked Jorge if the UFW had supporters in St. Louis. Before we left Houston, Jorge got a list of contact numbers to Frieda.

And so, the week after I got back from the retreat, I screwed up my courage and called the St. Louis contact number and connected with Matt, who was very welcoming. He told me that they met up with supporters every Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Teamsters’ headquarters in St. Louis and went off in groups of 15 to 30, depending on the day, to as many grocery stores in the area that they could cover with picket lines for a couple of hours.

Now, in mid-June, after participating in the picket lines for almost two months, I was a veteran and had become pretty good friends with Matt and Verna, the full-time UFW organizers, as well as a handful of Teamster members and shop stewards who were regulars most Saturdays. My sister Susie had started to join me sometimes since she was home from college for the summer and was with me this particular Saturday morning. It was going to be my last picket line for a while, since I would be taking off in a week for a two-week long Youth Leadership Institute sponsored by Walther League in Chicago.

I was thrilled to have been invited to the Institute on Frieda’s recommendation. I hoped I would be able to meet her and the national leadership’s expectations of me. I was also secretly fearful that they would figure out I wasn’t really cut out to be a leader and send me home. After the Institute, I would travel from Chicago to Denver, where the national convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was scheduled to take place. The League was bringing as many of its youth leaders as possible to Denver to witness to the church’s leaders about hunger and its root causes, as well as provide a “human face” for the League, as more conservative church leaders were beginning to attack it as it transformed to being “youth-led and issue-oriented.”

So, a couple of days away from my seventeenth birthday — as well as the start of new adventures — I was in high spirits, marching and shouting outside the store. We had been there about 15 minutes when a KMOX-TV van rolled up and started filming us, with the reporter interviewing Matt on camera about the boycott. Just as Matt’s interview was ending, Kirkwood police cruisers began arriving, pulling into the store parking lot, with lights and sirens going. The cameras kept rolling, but shifted focus to a police officer who got out of one of the cruisers with a megaphone and began addressing all of us in the picket line: “Attention! Attention! This is an illegal assembly! You are in violation of the law in the City of Kirkwood and must disband immediately. You have two minutes to disband.”

I could feel my heart racing — this was totally outside my experience! I wanted to shrink away, but was carried along by the momentum of the picket line. As the cop was speaking, additional cars kept rolling up and about a dozen officers formed a loose line behind him in the parking lot. Radios crackled and the cars’ bar lights kept flashing in the moments of silence that followed the announcement. Then, Matt and Verna swung into action, Matt walking over to the police with the cameras trailing behind him and Verna shouting encouragement to us on the line: “It’s OK, it’s OK. Keep walking, keep moving.” Then shouting: “HUELGA! HUELGA! VIVA LA HUELGA!”

“VIVA!” all of the Teamsters responded while giving encouraging looks and nods to the rest of us, a motley mix of suburban housewives and high school and college students. “ BOYCOTT GRAPES, BOYCOTT KROGER!!”

From 50 feet away, I watched as Matt seemed to become more agitated talking to the police officer, turned his back on him, and walked over to the picket line. This didn’t seem like a good outcome to me. Matt got into the line next to one of the Teamster stewards, said a few words to him, and then joined in the shouting. The police officer stepped forward with his megaphone: “Time is up! Disperse now. Cease this illegal assembly immediately or you are under arrest.”

Matt stopped walking and motioned and called us all over to him.

“Look. These suburban cops are dopes. We can walk on public sidewalks and exercise free speech. But, they won’t listen and will arrest any of us that keep the action going. OK if you need to go, I understand, nobody signed up to get arrested. But, Verna and I and our Teamster brothers are staying put, and you can join us. We will likely go to jail though.”

With that, Matt hoisted a Boycott Grapes sign and began walking down the sidewalk. Verna and the four Teamsters followed suit. I looked over to Susie and she said, “What the hell?” and joined the line again. I followed her, along with another three or four students whom I knew vaguely from previous Saturdays. The rest of our group faded off into the parking lot, while the cops watched those of us marching, our line of about a dozen now picking up energy and shouting again, while the TV cameras rolled.


The leading cop had put his megaphone down on the hood of his car and now walked over toward the picket line, motioning the other officers to follow him. He stopped and stood in front of Matt. “You are under arrest for illegal assembly. Please come with me.”

The officer took Matt by the upper arm with one hand while taking the picket sign out of his hands. Matt offered no resistance and looked toward the camera. “BOYCOTT GRAPES!” he shouted one more time as the cop led him over to his car, put the sign on the ground, opened the back door of the cruiser for Matt and guided him into the seat, closing the door behind him. He then watched as his men walked over to the rest of us to follow his orders.

The cop walking toward me seemed to be moving in slow motion. He had a slight grin as reached out and grabbed my upper arm while simultaneously grabbing a hold of one of my sister’s arms. He turned us around and began walking us down the sidewalk toward his cruiser. I could feel my heart pounding, racing in rhythm with my thoughts: Was this really happening? Were they going to take me to the infamous juvenile detention center, where somebody was likely going to beat me up? Wouldn’t Frieda and the other Walther League leaders be proud of me? Was I going to have a criminal record now? Forever? And what on earth would Daddy do?

Surprisingly, they put Susie and me in the same cruiser, and we had a minute to talk before the cops got in the front seat.

“Daddy is going to be livid! Why didn’t you tell me this could happen?” she said.

“I would have left if you wanted to. Jeez!”

“Sure, sure. God, this will probably be on the news tonight and everything. Man, he is going to kill us for this,” she said.

“Look, whatever happens, we’re in it together,” I reminded her.

“Right, sure, whatever. I hope we won’t be in jail for a long time. Jesus, this is — ”

Wefell silent as the two cops got into the front seat, started the car, and gave a few whoops with their siren. I looked out the window and saw the TV cameraman still filming other arrests as we pulled away. The cops up front mumbled to each other and their radio crackled. They didn’t say a word to us, and we kept our silence as they drove the five minutes over to Kirkwood’s city hall and pulled around the back to park. They got out of the car, opened our doors, and each of them took one of us by the arm and led us into the building, up the stairs to the police department.

Soon there were 10 of us standing together in a group surrounded by a loose circle of six or seven cops in the reception area outside the police department in Kirkwood City Hall. Matt and Verna were smiling and joking with everyone. I realized that I had been trembling inside. I took a deep breath and looked over at my sister, who was talking to Verna like nothing special was happening. I found myself smiling a little, thinking that somehow, some way, this was going to be all right.

After a few minutes, the cop who had had the megaphone — and turned out to be the shift lieutenant — addressed us. He said we were going to be processed now and taken to cells. They had already contacted the municipal judge, who would be there in an hour or so to determine our bail and then, we would likely be able to get out of jail if we had someone to bail us out. He said this would apply to everyone who was an adult and that if anyone was under 17, they should let him know and they would call a juvenile officer and probably take them over to juvenile hall in Clayton. Susie glanced over at me and I shook my head, slightly, “no.” I was three days away from my birthday, and there was no way I was going to get pulled out of this into the juvenile system. Neither of the other two students said a word.

Wewere told to line up in two lines, one of men and one of women. We stood in front of a desk sergeant who motioned impatiently for each of us to step forward, one at a time. As each of us stepped up in front of him, he glanced up, gave us a withering look, and barked out the same set of questions and commands:


“Spell it?


“Phone number?”

“Date of birth?”

“OK. Step over there for prints and pictures.”


When it was my turn, I subtracted a year and gave 1951 as my birth year.

“Almost your birthday, huh, fella?” the sergeant noted after I gave my information. “18 soon. This here is not going to be enough to get you out of the draft, though.”

I smirked, moved over, and stood with the other men, waiting to get our mug shots and fingerprints done. I looked over to Susie in the women’s line. For an instant, she met my eyes, smiled, rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say she couldn’t believe what I had done. Then she turned back and continued her conversation with Verna. When we had all been fully processed, a couple of cops shuffled each of the groups off to cells. We had two cells for the men in one section of the jail, while the three women were put together in one cell in another section. As far as I could tell, there were no other prisoners of either gender in the Kirkwood city jail that afternoon, but apparently they had protocols to follow that included segregating the sexes.

The expected one hour stretched into two, and then three. During the first half hour or so, we busied ourselves with chanting back and forth, between the men and women, repeating the slogans from the picket line. Soon, even we were bored silly by that. The Teamsters taught us some labor songs, like “Solidarity Forever,” and everyone knew a few of the civil rights standards, like “We Shall Overcome.” Soon enough, though, we had exhausted our repertoire and fell quiet. A few more minutes passed, and then I heard Susie’s voice singing a round that she had learned years ago in Girl Scouts, “White Choral Bells.” She and Judy and my mom knew a whole bunch of these rounds that my brothers and I thought were completely inane, but were always a part of long family car trips and singing around the campfire on our camping trips. “Jesus,” I thought, “spare me from my sister’s stupidity.” She and Verna and the other woman in their cell kept at it for a while, though, and no one in our cells seemed to mind.

Matt and another guy stretched out on the steel shelf beds and fell asleep. The rest of us found seats on the floor. There was a little small talk and long stretches of silence. From my perch on the floor in the front corner of the cell, I could see down the hallway to the door that led back into the police station. I sat staring at the door, willing it to open, to no avail. I leaned my head against the bars, closed my eyes, and began to think about what would happen when we got home….

Book Cover Image

February Fourth—Plus Forty

What My Mother Keeps Teaching Me About Death

Mom (2)


February Fourth

It was the right choice to leave

the cramped theatre and its droning actors behind

and make our way back to your apartment.

Fueled with wine and cigarettes your stories became a time machine transporting us to

your mis-adventures as a 22 year old secretary in the Purina headquarters

during World War II; how you and your girlfriends

trolled for the cute boys who thought they were picking us up

 at the ASO dances on Fridays; then where and

exactly how you met my father when he returned to St. Louis after the war.


Long past midnight you gave me your very last kiss

and watched through the back window while I made my way

to my rusty orange Pinto where I shivered on the cold, crackling plastic seat

cranking, cranking, cranking the frozen engine until it finally caught

and I crept away over the rutted snow, waving to your silhouette

in my rear view mirror.


Two mornings and no phone calls later

I was back, peeking through an opening in the

blinds covering your living room window

I saw your three cats, frantic

jumping from windowsill to furniture to floor again and again

all constant motion, having knocked over and jumbled

your entire jungle of houseplants

and rowling their displeasure with you

lying there

on the couch unmoved, unmoving,

your glasses on, a book folded open across your chest

coffee cup, cigarettes, lighter, ashtray within reach on the table


Minutes later

bursting through your apartment door

with the burly, black cop in his creaking leather jacket

rushing to you through the sweet smell of death

certain that if I could only seize the monstrous steel pistol

from his holster and empty it furiously into the ceiling


you would sit up, startled

in the swirl of smoke and plaster dust

shake your head in disbelief at all the fuss and mess

and pad off down the hall

to feed the cats.


Forty years ago today my Mom died. She was young, just a few months past her 56th birthday. And we—her 5 children—were, of course, even younger: in our twenties and early thirties. Her death was sudden and not expected. This despite the fact that she had had another heart attack a few years before, in late 1974, and heart disease management was nothing like it is today.

Each year as February 4th rolls around, I pause and let the immense loss and sadness I feel move in and occupy me for a while. The sadness feels so familiar, a companion I have had for nearly two-thirds of my life. And like an old companion I know well, this sadness and loss has changed over the years. It used to have a huge component of anger, now faded. And for years the loss was so raw I could barely stand to examine it, let alone touch it. Now it is more bittersweet, made up mainly of favorite memories in combination with a variety of regrets: that she never held or knew her grandchildren, or got to see this or experience that, or shared her insights with us when we likely needed them.

I am now a decade older than she was when she died. This seems so strange to me. One element of the strangeness is that, since she is perennially 56, I have been thinking of her like one of my peers in their 50’s or 60’s. As an honest peer she would know that death is out there and, while we cannot know or predict, it is not too distant. Not as distant, for example, as our youth.

When I think this way about her and about me, if I am not careful, my old companion of sadness and loss can turn wistful. I can begin to pity myself. Instead, I try to reach back and draw upon what I have taken from how my mother lived her relatively short life. She would, I know, have me remember that there is work to be done to make the world a better place, children to be loved and raised, books to be read and stories to be told, friends and family to be nurtured, and, yes, animals to be fed.

“You’d Better Bring a Lunch…”

President Wilson had a big problem. He had succeeded in getting Congress to declare war on Germany in April, 1917, BUT it was a war that the vast majority of Americans opposed. Further, the largest ethnic minority in the country were Germans. These Americans were both recent immigrants and those, like my ancestors, who had been in the country for generations and had nurtured and sustained their German culture through devotion to their language, food, community groups and institutions.

Immediately after war was declared, the Wilson administration launched a number of major initiatives to mobilize the country for the war. This included instituting a military draft and passing the Espionage and Sedition Act to quash dissent and opposition to the war. These efforts were bolstered by an official propaganda campaign in support of the war that framed it as a glorious crusade in defense of democracy, and ‘a war to end all wars’. As the enemy, Germans were demonized and portrayed as barbarians that were less than human.

Not surprisingly, this government-sanctioned propaganda campaign had real consequences on the lives of ordinary Americans and their communities in late 1917 and 1918. As documented in books like Burning Beethoven by Erik Kirschbaum and Degrees of Allegiance by Petra DeWitt, thousands of anti-German incidents took place in communities across the country, ranging from book-burnings to public shaming of ethnic German opponents of the war and forcing them to kiss the U.S. flag to the lynching of an ethnic German in southern Illinois. The German language press was censored and hundreds of newspapers and magazines were driven out of business. Churches were forced to stop conducting services in German and the teaching and speaking of German in schools was forbidden in multiple states and cities.

Also not surprisingly, Americans from all walks of life, in communities large and small, pushed back against the propaganda and defended themselves and their German-ethnic neighbors. In September of 2016 I learned of an example of organized resistance from that time when I visited my cousins in Altenburg, Missouri, a small town of three hundred-plus souls 90 miles south of St. Louis. There, one hundred years ago, a group of nine young men pictured here — -including my great-uncle Ernst — -organized the Altenburg Militia to defend themselves and their community from the rash of anti-German activity in neighboring towns.

The Altenburg, Missouri Militia, circa 1918. Standing, from left: Theo Buck, Emmanuel Schmidt, Arthur Schmidt, Henry Mueller and Rudy Lohmann. Front row, from left: Ferd Buck, Adolf Richter, Ernst Kuehnert and Theodore Mueller

According to Mary Beth Mueller Dillon in her book Altenburg Missouri, a sign hangs below this picture in the Perry County Historical Society Museum in Perryville, MO which reads: “During WWI, the German-Americans who had lived in this region for more than half a century were threatened by the anti-German movements in neighboring counties. German books were burned in the region during raids. The local folklore states the Altenburgers were notified that they were going to be attacked. The Altenburgers responded, “You better bring a lunch, because it’s going to take all day.” They formed a militia and waited, but they did not have to defend their freedom.”

The Altenburg Militia drilling.

Dillon goes on to quote Robert Fiehler who stated: “…it was during WWI when this took place. Around Altenburg most everybody was all German. If there was an Englishman in here, they didn’t say much…This is just hearsay, they threatened to come up here into these towns and tar and feather some of these people and burn the German books…They told Fred Taraton over in New Wells, a blacksmith, that they were going to come and tar and feather some of you guys. So they said, well just tell them to come on. They were just waiting for them, they had their guns loaded, they took that pretty serious.”

Having only these few pictures and quotes, we can only imagine how the anti-German campaign in 1917–18 shaped the lives and choices made by the nine men of the Altenburg Militia and their neighbors. Otherwise, the story of the Altenburg Militia is largely lost.

I felt the loss of the details of this story and its lessons very acutely when I drove through Altenburg last Fall and noted the proliferation of Trump-for-President yard signs. The targets of xenophobic rants and nationalist jingoism used by a cynical president have changed. The human cost in fear, pain and suffering are unchanging.

What will be the story we leave behind of our response to these times?

Vic is dead.


AsI left homeroom and joined the surge of students in the hall, I heard a voice calling my name: “Paul, PaUL, PAUL!” I looked far down the hallway and saw a big, chunky guy with glasses standing off to the side and motioning to me with his hand that was not holding a load of books. It was Steve Musko, once my closest friend and now pretty much a stranger, a varsity football lineman and a part of the jock crowd that I had nothing but contempt for.

I glanced briefly over to my friend Tim who had followed me out into the hall from homeroom and jerked my head over in Steve’s direction. “I have to go see what this guy wants. I’ll catch up with you.” He nodded and went on his way. I looked over toward Steve again, now about 15 feet away and he said, “Come on, man, I have to tell you something important…pick it up!”

I pushed my way through the crowd and stood in front of him, the flow of students eddying around us, considering some sort of smart-assed comment when I looked up into his face and saw his mouth in a tight grimace and his eyes welling up: “It’s Vic, ”” he blurted, then continued in a trembling voice. “Vic. Dead. Over there. Fucking stepped on a mine or some shit like that, I don’t know. But Vic is dead.” He took a deep breath, sighed, and continued: “I thought you should know and you probably didn’t. I ran into Renee and her Mom last night. It just happened, like, last week or something…”

“Vic? Vic? Jesus…” I croaked, and stopped. Vic was one of the kids from our neighborhood. Older than us by a couple of years, we had spent hours and hours together with Vic over the years, playing, talking.

Steve’s eyes quickly searched my face. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder, taking in the thinning crowd as the last few of our fellow students were now scurrying to beat the bell that would mark the start of the first class period of the day. I stared into the space over his shoulder, saying nothing.

“Look, man, I’m sorry, but I had to find you and let you know. It sucks. I guess I better get to class. Maybe I’ll see you later or something.”

Steve strode away quickly while I stood there for another half-minute until the bell jarred me out of my reverie. I shuffled off to class.

Vic was Victor John Cartier who had lived with his Mom and sister, Renee, a few houses down Summit Ave. from Steve. He was three years older than Steve and me, while Renee was the same age as us. He was part of the two dozen or so kids that gave substance to the ‘baby boom’’ in our neighborhood in Webster Groves, a leafy, middle class suburb of St. Louis. Over the decade-plus of our early and middle childhoods from the mid-1950’s to the late 1960’s, in larger groups we played endless hours of baseball, football, kickball; while in smaller sets of 2 or 4, we roamed in and out of each other’s homes, playing games, watching TV and eating lunch and dinner with each other’s families.

Because of the age difference, Vic wasn’t a huge part of Steve’s and my life’s until we got into middle school. Then, Vic was going to the all-boys Christian Brothers College Prep school where they wore military uniforms, marched and drilled, and were a powerhouse in St. Louis high school sports. Vic always had really cool cars: first a Pontiac GTO and then an MG-B convertible. We hung out and watched as he and his best friend, Bob, worked on their cars, ran errands for them and sometimes got to go for rides, speeding through Webster’s sleepy streets and listening to Vic and Bob talk about their adventures that always involved some mix of football, girls, alcohol, drag racing and cops.

By the time I was in high school myself, I had pretty much lost interest in hanging out with Vic and Bob, and, even, Steve. When I would see Vic, we would stop and talk, but we had less and less in common and little to talk about. Still, I wasn’t totally surprised when he joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in late 1967. But by the time he came back on leave in early 1968 and was walking around the neighborhood in his uniform, the Tet Offensive was underway in Vietnam, and millions of Americans (including my parents and my older sisters) were increasingly disillusioned about the war. So, I had no idea what to say to him when he told me he was going to be going to be shipped out to Vietnam after his leave. He was doubt-free about it — -in fact, said this was what he had trained for and was looking forward to fighting.

Over the next ten months, while Vic was fighting in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, I was reading everything related to the war in Newsweek and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and listening to Walter Cronkite give voice to his own disillusionment on the evening news. Anti-war protests were becoming larger and my parents, sisters and friends all reinforced my growing belief that the war was wrong.

As a sixteen year old living in Webster Groves, it was interesting and exciting to engage in learning about something important, happening in real-time and affecting our country and the world. And, it was safely half the world away.

Until Vic changed all of that for me when he stepped on that mine on April 8, 1969. Vietnam became real. And very personal. Vic’s death at age 19 threw some kind of switch in me.

Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, November, 1969

I realized then that, in a little more than a year, I would have to make my first choice about Vietnam: what to do about the draft. The growing anti-war movement had within it a growing faction that advocated for active non-cooperation with the draft by not registering, or, if already registered, burning or turning in your draft card and refusing induction into the armed forces. I had read a number of first-hand accounts by self-described war resisters and I was drawn to their clear sense of responsibility, conscience and action.

Right then, it did not strike me as being terribly odd that, as a 16 year old, I was contemplating some kind of action that could land me in court, in prison and, ultimately, shape the rest of my life. No more odd, I thought, than a decision Vic and many others had made to fight and that, ultimately, led to their deaths. So, some fourteen months after Vic died I took my stand and publicly refused to register for the draft.

Nearly fifty years later I am amazed at Vic’s and my audacity — -as well as our courage. Our audacity was born of our passionate conviction in the righteousness of our cause, whether the cause was framed as duty and honor by Vic, or peace and justice by me. Our courage was born out of the necessity of responding to what was demanded of us in those times by our country, as well as the hope that what actions we took would make a difference. All that, and a big measure of our youthful sense of invincibility.

Semper Fi, Vic. And peace.

“Yes. Conscience against conscription.”

Just over one hundred years ago  my great-uncle and namesake, Paul Jacob Kuehnert, went to his polling place in the little Mississippi River town of Wittenberg, Missouri and registered for the draft. In and of itself, that act was unremarkable. Roughly 10 million American men between the ages of 21 and 35 registered that day in compliance with the Selective Service Act passed by the U.S. Congress the month before after it declared war on Germany in April, 1917.

But, as far as I know, he was the only man among the 1,100 that registered in his rural county 100 miles south of St. Louis that publicly protested the draft that day.

Uncle Paul protested by writing in a unique claim of exemption on line 12 of the registration form. There in his neat handwriting that befit his job as a clerk in a general store he wrote in answer to the question, “Do you claim exemption from the draft (please specify)”, four powerful words: “Yes. Conscience against Conscription”.

Paul Kuehnert’s draft registration form, June 5 1917

Uncle Paul was not a radical. He was not a member of a traditional ‘peace’ church, such as the Mennonites, Brethren or Quakers. He was not a militant trade unionist nor an active member of the large peace movement that spanned the country in the years before the U.S. entered the war. He was twenty-three years old and still lived on his parents’ farm a couple of miles from Wittenberg, back in the hills of rural Perry County, Missouri. He was the second-youngest of five boys who were the second generation descendants of one of the hundred and thirty or so families that had emigrated from Saxony for religious reasons in 1839. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been elders in Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg, Missouri, one of the founding congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His oldest brothers, Arthur and Theodore, were a pastor and a school superintendent in the Synod.

Until that point in his life, Uncle Paul was clearly living in the mainstream of his rural Missouri community. And his protest gave voice to the majority viewpoint on the war and the draft in that part of Missouri — -in fact, most of the Midwest and West — -at the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWI. Books on WWI and Missouri by Christopher Gibbs and Petra DeWitt have documented that as many as two-thirds of draft-eligible men in Missouri claimed exemptions from military service during WWI and that there was widespread non-participation in and some active resistance to campaigns ranging from food production to the purchase of war bonds. Uncle Paul’s conscientious objection to conscription itself was consistent with both Lutheran theology and the history of democratic movements in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. (More on these points in future posts!)

Uncle Paul’s exemption was not granted. His lottery number, drawn in August, was eleven. He was drafted in September, decided to serve. He did so, with the Company G of the 354th Infantry of the U.S. Army, part of what became the U.S. Expeditionary Force led by General Pershing. He was wounded in the battle of St. Mihel in the spring of 1918, recovered and remained in France until discharged after the armistice in early 1919. He then returned to Perry County, got married and raised his two sons in Cape Girardeau, MO.

On another June day some fifty-three years after Uncle Paul’s protest action I took a similar stand on the draft and the war in Vietnam by not registering for the draft when I turned eighteen. I, too, made my decision public, sharing my decision with members of my community. Unfortunately, I could not benefit from Uncle Paul’s experience and advice. He died a decade before I was born. I have not been able to find any letters or other written records that describe how and why he took the highly risky, public stand against the draft and war as a young man in 1917.

We live in times in which many are, once again, calling for increasing national security and war readiness. I would not be surprised if we hear more and more about the need to revive the draft as part of the push for preparedness. Those of us that believe that security is best built on a foundation of justice, reconciliation and peace have our work cut out for us. A part of that work is making our stories of building the movement against the draft in past wars — -especially Vietnam — -much more widely known.