Mike McCormick: 1970 Anti-War Turmoil

Haverhill Student Protests/CSN&Y (1970)

By Mike McCormick

My mind swirled as I drove to Haverhill High School one early May morning in 1970.  The day before, a group of classmates had begun protesting President Nixon’s April 30 decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia.  Another set of classmates, including several football players, resented the distractions the protests caused in our school and city. Kent State shootings - Wikipedia

The killings at Kent State University, May 4, 1970. Ohio National Guard troops fired on students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which expanded the battlefield of the long-running Vietnam War. Mary Ann Vecchio is seen kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller. (Photo by John Filo)

Tensions escalated. Fistfights broke out. A group of students overturned a vehicle. Protestors stomped roofs of parked cars. A football player swinging a long chain tried to attack a group of so-called hippies. As I pulled into the parking lot I understood that a major showdown was expected on campus that day.  If a battle broke out, I was uncertain which side I would choose to be on.

I was a member of the football team. I understood that it was important to  get along with teammates. I knew that some of the team’s leaders would expect me to share and support their actions and ideas. I didn’t want to even consider doing anything that would diminish my place on the squad.

On the other hand, I was more than a little sympathetic to the protesters, some of whom I enjoyed talking to about music.  When Country Joe asked “What are we fighting for?” in his “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” we wondered about the purpose of our country’s Vietnam involvement. And when John Fogerty pointed out in “Fortunate Son” that working class and poor Americans fought battles that the rich and well connected sidestepped, we understood.

I ‘d recently turned seventeen. In another year I could be drafted. Although I expected to get a college deferment if I was called to serve, I recognized others at our school would not be as fortunate.

Soldiers from Haverhill had been fighting in Southeast Asia for years. Marine PFC Ralph Basiliere, Haverhill’s first casualty, (the Basiliere Bridge between Haverhill and Bradford is named for him) died in South Vietnam in May 1966.  By the end of the conflict, thirteen Haverhill men would lose their lives.

The halls were buzzing when I entered school.  Students who planned to demonstrate trolled the corridors trying to persuade classmates to skip out in protest of the war. Most of us struggled to respond to this pressure. We wondered what our parents would say if we joined the demonstrators. Would skipping classes hurt grades? College chances?  What would the punishment be if you got caught? Would demonstrating really help end the war? What if the police came? What is the right thing to do? Are these actions giving Haverhill High School a bad name? What are my friends going to do?

Most of us had spent our lives doing what our parents, coaches, teachers, and religious leaders told us to do. Now, we had to examine and act on our own core beliefs. The complexities involved in trying to decide what to do were bewildering.

Fortunately, I got unexpected help. The football team was summoned to the gym for a required meeting. Head Coach Carven delivered a brief, clear, message. Under no circumstances should any member of the Hillies’ football team confront the protestors. He ordered, “If the protestors walk east, you will turn and walk west.”

I decided that I would not join the student war protests.

Almost as soon as the day’s first class commenced, someone pulled a fire alarm. Students dashed to join demonstrators as they walked around the building chanting anti-war slogans. When a second fire alarm blared, more students bolted from classes. The marchers’ line grew to perhaps fifty people. Some students didn’t march but clustered on a strip of grass watching the proceedings. Others got into their cars and headed home.

Mindful by Coach Carven’s directive, I stayed in class throughout the morning. At lunchtime I bought an ice cream sandwich in the cafeteria. When I looked for friends, I couldn’t locate any mates. I finished my ice cream and headed to my car for a solitary drive home.

In large part due to Coach Carven’s intervention, our campus remained free of significant violence through the remainder of the year. In the weeks that followed, most Haverhill High students focused on classes, sports, romances, finding summer jobs, and music. But student protests continued elsewhere throughout May.  Besides the actions in Haverhill, close to 150 other protests occurred throughout the Bay State at colleges, universities, and a handful of high schools.

As Memorial Day approached, I heard a fiery new song on the radio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSN&Y). “Ohio,” written in about ten minutes by Neil Young in response a Life magazine picture and story of the May 4 Kent State shootings, was recorded in mid-May and slated for a June 1 nationwide release. In those years before personal computers and digital music, the idea of writing, recording, and releasing a recording on a major label in less than three weeks time was unprecedented.

The band seated and performing onstage

Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills, c. 1970

CSN&Y was the hottest, coolest band in the country. The group’s current album, Déjà Vu, (which now has sold over eight million copies) released in late March, was riding high on the charts. “Woodstock,” a song on that album, blasted during the closing credits of the soundtrack of the box office smash. The hit version of the song was still clinging onto the charts as a new single, “Teach Your Children,” started its rise.

When I found out about that the quartet had scheduled a performance at Boston Garden on Friday May 29, I raced for tickets.

The show still stands, fifty years later, as one of the most engaging of the over seven hundred concerts I’ve witnessed in my life. CSN&Y performed just two songs (“Carry On” and “Teach Your Children”) from its current album. Each band member previewed songs from upcoming solo projects. Only thirteen of the concert’s twenty-four numbers had been released in any form prior to that evening.

Four songs into the show’s second set, the band unleashed a searing, passionate rendition of “Ohio.” Unveiling the anthem for possibly the first time ever before a concert audience, the band burned. The furious vocals, unmistakable anti-Nixon/anti-war message, and sinuous guitars drove the audience, heavily laden with college students involved in the protest movement, into a frenzy. The transcendent performance fueled fans’ passions for weeks, months, and years.

After twenty-three numbers and a thunderous, ecstatic standing ovation, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young circled center stage for the show’s encore. Stills introduced the final offering with deft finger picking on an acoustic guitar.  The singers harmonized together without added instrumental accompaniment on a simple song (originally written but never used for the movie Easy Rider) that would come out in a few days as the flip side of “Ohio:”

“Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.

Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down.”

The song stunned and silenced the audience. As the band turned to leave, someone near the front of the stage pleaded for “Woodstock,” the band’s biggest hit to date. David Crosby stepped back to his mike and quipped, “It’s in the movie. Check out the flick.”

With that, the lights were up and the capacity crowd shuffled into the night pondering the somber ideas “Find the Cost of Freedom” presented to us all.

Although I never marched against the Vietnam War, the student uprisings and music of the time provided a political awakening and spurred me to try to live life as an informed and active citizen. CSN&Y, along with many other recording artists of the time, expanded my political horizons and reinforced the idea that music could be thought-provoking and inspiring.

As I navigate in this Covid -19 world, I continue to listen to the music and turn to thoughts, values, and ideas first formed in my Merrimack Valley teen years.

2 Responses to Mike McCormick: 1970 Anti-War Turmoil

  1. DickH says:

    Mike, thanks for this important story. I was a little too young to understand the import of all that was happening at this time but it had a profound impact on my life when I got older. I’ve long maintained that to understand why America is as it is today, the starting point must be the Vietnam War.

  2. Steve O'Connor says:

    Thanks, Mike. Brings back a lot of memories. The music back then was
    an integral part of our lives, and of what was called “the counter-culture.”