The Lives They Lived

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Peg Mullen: Cornfield Protest

By Sara Corbett The New York Times

Peg Mullen was at her sewing machine making a new set of drapes when the men showed up with their message. It was February 1970 in Black Hawk County, Iowa — a bright Saturday morning on the empty rural road where she lived. A fresh layer of snow sat on the cornfields; the sky seemed perversely clear. Gene, her husband, a gentle, white-haired man who farmed by day and worked nights at a nearby John Deere factory, was doing his weekend chores outside when the two men walked up the drive. One sergeant, one local priest. Both silent. Gene knew, but he didn’t know. The question, when he asked it, was almost inaudible: “Is my boy dead?”

     

It was Peg who read the official note, while Gene beat the walls, while he yelled. He made a motion to throw a chair through a picture window, but thought better of it. Finally, he sat at the kitchen table, put his head down and sobbed. The oldest of their five children — Michael — had been killed two nights earlier on a hilltop near a village in Vietnam called Tu Chanh, a victim of what the government called “friendly fire,” his heart pierced by shrapnel from a misdirected howitzer blast fired by an American artillery unit nearby. All this happened in the dark, in the jungle, at 2:50 a.m. Michael, who was 25 and previously a graduate student in biochemistry, was asleep in a foxhole.

Peg Mullen hadn’t liked the Vietnam War from the start, but she was also a churchgoing Iowa farm wife busy raising children, cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans in what she called a “conservative community in the heartland of America.” She knew virtually nothing of the antiwar protests that were happening on the East and West Coasts. Her opposition was, until this point, relatively quiet. She would later chastise herself for the obedient way she allowed her son to be drafted and sent to war.

C. D. B. Bryan (who died this month) wrote in “Friendly Fire,” his book about Michael’s death, that Peg’s grief was not a teary grief. It was an “arid furied Medean grief, one in which anguish is indistinguishable from rage.”

Read more at The New York Times

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