July 4, 1974
The day of the big march has finally come and it’s clear from the very start that we are not going to get the numbers of veterans showing up that we hoped for. The air is hot and sticky, a typical summer day in the nation’s capital. By eleven thirty, fewer than a hundred veterans and our supporters have arrived at Meridian Hill Park, and by noon our numbers have swollen to a measly one hundred and fifty.
Bobby and his little brother Charlie unfurl the thirty-foot AVM banner while Joe, Eddie, and Sharon hand out AVM membership cards and buttons to everyone. There are several American flags that were donated by one of the local VFW chapters and half a dozen red, white, and blue AVM flags on poles that we brought with us from LA. Some guy from Virginia in a Marine Corps dress blue uniform with a bugle keeps blowing “Taps” until we ask him to stop. A few local reporters show up and are milling about the crowd, doing interviews and asking questions as it becomes more and more clear that the Second American Bonus March is going to be a big bust.
I try to put on a brave face as one of the reporters walks up to me, asking where the tens of thousands of veterans I promised are. I don’t know what to say other than realizing in this moment that the reality of the situation has finally caught up with me and there’s no longer room for excuses. I can see by the looks of some of the others around me that they are becoming concerned. Joe Hayward is already joking about how the march is a farce and how this will be the end of the AVM.
I do my best to keep everyone’s spirits up and sometime around two p.m. we begin to move down 16th Street. It’s all getting a bit absurd as we shout and chant and try to look dignified. Marty and Nick are being pushed by some of the other veterans and I do my best to maintain my composure. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry and I feel ashamed and embarrassed as our sorry procession slowly rolls down 16th Street. I can’t wait for the march to end.
The great crowds we hoped for are nowhere in sight. A few people on the sidewalk wave at us and I distinctly remember one old man getting up from his lawn chair and saluting. But for the most part people seem a bit puzzled by our ragtag procession as we head into Lafayette Park to set up our tents.
I am still hoping inside that the image of disabled Vietnam veterans camping out in front of the White House will inspire others to join us, but as we settle in, our dwindling numbers say it all. Fewer than fifty of the original marchers remain. Many say they are tired and want to go home, while others openly admit they are fed up because the march hasn’t turned out the way they hoped it would.
Later that day, my mother and father drop by our campsite—just as they promised—having driven all the way from Massapequa and parked their motor home a few blocks from the White House.
“Happy birthday, Ronnie!” my mother shouts, giving me a great big hug and handing me a present. “You can open it later.”
“We’re really proud of you, Ronnie. Happy birthday,” my father says softly, leaning over and placing his hand gently on my shoulder.
I am so happy to see them, and realize just how much I have missed them. They’ve always been there for me and have never let me down: praying for me at a special novena Mass at our church in Massapequa while I fought for my life on the intensive care ward in Da Nang; visiting me at the St. Albans Naval Hospital with other wounded marines; patiently caring for me when I was at the Bronx VA. They stood by me when I was arrested for protesting the war, and when I shouted down President Nixon with two other disabled veterans during his acceptance speech at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. Even when our neighbors back in Massapequa rejected me, telling their children to stay away from me, afraid I might influence them with my “radical ideas”; and after the many nights I came home drunk from Arthur’s Bar, tormented by the war, crying out and bitterly cursing God and my country, blaming God, blaming everyone.