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May Day

In 1969, journalists Andrew Kopkind and James Ridgeway started a Washington-based biweekly newsletter called Mayday. They were soon enjoined by lawyers representing a publication of that name devoted to safe boating.  (“M’aidez” in French means “help me,” so the term became a signal of distress.) The political newsletter was renamed Hard Times. This piece, which the editors called “Bury the Dead,” ran in late December ‘69. Redding was then a small, rural city. It was another century, fersure.

On December 5, Rod, Ricky, and Dwayne Stevens, Jr., got an order from a court in Redding, California, barring a military funeral for their brother Dennis, 21, killed in action around Chu Lai. Dennis’s legal guardians, an aunt and uncle named James and Joyce Stevens, were insisting that he be buried “with dignity and high military honors.” A hearing to settle the matter took place three days later.

Some 30 members of the Stevens family had come to the courthouse. Powerful men with leathery cheeks and broad hands, mortar under the nails, dressed in windbreakers, gabardine, and Ban-Lon. Grim women in bouffant hairdos. Teeenagers with crewcuts. 

Dwayne Stevens, Jr., who wore granny glasses, said the whole crowd sided with him and his brothers against the Army. He pointed out Uncle Jim – “I don’t even think of him as my uncle now” – standing some 40 feet apart with his wife and stepson and some military personnel.

Dwayne laid out the complicated family history. The older generation of Stevenses – Dwayne Sr., Bud and Jim – had come to Redding from Iowa 30 years ago. Dwayne, Sr. married and had four boys. They were still young when they were orphaned. Rod, Dennis, and Ricky, went to live with their uncle Bud. Dwayne, Jr., the baby, was adopted by a union brother of Bud’s. The four boys grew up in Redding. They were all athletic and good in school.

When Dennis was 15, he spent the summer down in Vallejo with Dwayne, Sr.’s brother Jim. Jim’s wife Joyce had four kids by a previous marriage and she considered Dennis a good influence on them. She invited him to spend the school year and promised him a motorcycle. She also requested and got the $20 a week from Dwayne Sr.’s pension that Bud had been putting into a bank account for Dennis. Joyce and Jim got a court order making them the boys’ legal guardians. Dennis played varsity football at Hogan High School in Vallejo for two years. Then he moved to back to Redding. He later complained that during his stay in Vallejo, Joyce Stevens had dipped into his small legacy to buy a washer and dryer.

Dennis was drafted in the summer of 1968, spent six months at Fort Lewis, Washington, training for the artillery, then shipped out for Vietnam in August 1969. He was killed on November 14. The army owes somebody $10,000 life insurance.

“Joyce is a bit of a flag-waver,” Bud Stevens said that morning outside the courthouse. “But I don’t think that’s her real reason for insisting on a military funeral. I hate to say this about anybody, but I think money’s behind it. She might think the Army will make her the beneficiary just ‘cause she supports the war.” He shook his head and chomped on his cigar butt.

Joyce Stevens a, a stocky woman with close-cropped black hair and a tense manner, seemed upset that Dennis’s high school football coach was not on hand. She had expected him to testify that “the boy loved drill and ceremony. He is being dishonored,” she told me, “I raised him and nursed him when he was sick. We are his legal guardians, his next of kin, and it is so noted on the Army records.”

Her husband, a big blue-eyed man who resembles his brother Bud, stared hard at the ground. None of his relatives would speak to him. Joyce introduced her son, William Koontz, as “Dennis’s brother, who has a top-secret clearance from the Navy.”

I said I thought Dennis only had three brothers. “Dennis was my foster brother,” the top-secret man said.

“They were like blood brothers,” Joyce Stevens added. “And my husband, of course was a blood brother of the boy’s father.”

The military men hovering around the scene were a Major Workman Sergeant Richard Moulton, a tall fat man with “Escort Duty” inscribed on his nameplate. He had accompanied Dennis’s body to a funeral home in Redding, He said his orders listed James and Joyce Stevens as next of kin. Escort duty is voluntary in the Army. You have to be very humane or very malign to want the job of telling people their sons are dead. “It’s funny,” Sgt. Moulton reflected, “but I had a very similar case just two weeks ago in in Columbus, Ohio. The boy had been recommended for a private showing, but that was somebody’s error of judgment. He’d had a lot of wax work, and his parents just couldn’t recognize him. They insisted it wasn’t their son. Said they couldn’t locate a certain scar. In the end it turned out all right though.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, they took my word it was him.”

Dennis Stevens, in letters to his family and friends in Redding, had described his increasing opposition to the war. Most of the people gathered outside the courtroom had gotten a letter from him. The letters said that Dennis’s battery had been decimated – 23 men were left out of 130– and that he had been reassigned to an infantry unit by a captain who hated him. “Now you’re gonna get it, Stephens,” the captain had promised.

“If you ask me, the Army killed him,” said Glen Jeffries, a retired plasterer who, with his wife, had raised Dwayne. “He had no infantry training and they put him in the infantry.”

Ricky Stevens, home on emergency leave from Fort Dix to attend his brother’s funeral, had a letter saying, “The captain told me he was going to send me into the field with ‘A’ company. That’s the infantry. Rick, if you can, get the fuck out of the fucking army, do it!”

Dwayne, Jr. says simply, “I won’t go. That’s that. Don’t ask me ‘what if…’ I’m telling you I won’t go.” He is a student at Shasta Community College, where “Just about everybody’s against the war. They support us in what we’re doing about the funeral.”

“What about the vets?”

“Especially the vets! They’ve been coming up to me after class to say we’re doing right fighting the Army.”

The hearing itself took only 10 minutes. Rod, 22, the oldest of the brothers, testified that he was next of kin and wanted to make the funeral arrangements. Then Joyce Stevens showed her certificate of guardianship to the judge. “According to army regulations,” she testified, “he never changed his status with respect to these papers, as would’ve been his prerogative.”

Maj. Workman confirmed that even though Dennis had turned 21 in Vietnam, the Army recognized the legal guardianship of James and Joyce Stevens. 

“Doesn’t the army recognize the legal impact of adulthood?” asked the judge.

“No,” the major said.

The judge scowled and ruled in favor of the brothers.

A woman was sobbing in her daughter’s arms. “It don’t bring anybody back to life, does it?,” she asked.

Joyce Stevens went into consultation with Maj. Workman about when the life insurance payment would come down.

“Do you know that the policy was made out to you?” I asked.

“The paperwork is in the hands of the Sixth Army,” she replied. “Processing takes four weeks.” Major Workman nodded.  Then he put on a smile and approached Rod Stevens in the hall outside the courtroom. “I’m here to be of assistance to you,” he said. Rod just glared at him. Dwayne said, “First you kill him then you want to help.”

Jim Stevens was trying to get a hello out of some of his relatives but to no avail. Bud walked up to him and said quietly, “You shouldn’t have pushed it this far, Jim. The boys have a right to bury their brother the way he would’ve wanted.”

An hour later a CBS TV crew showed up at the Stevens’s house where the brothers were drinking beer and listening to Santana. The interviewer asked, “Which did he object to, exactly, the military or this particular war?”

“Well, he hated the military,” Rod said, “and he hated this war. He hated them both.”

“There seems to be particular feeling against this war,” the CBS man said.

“He hated this war and he hated the Army.”

“Why didn’t he resist the draft?”

“How could he know before he went in what the Army was like and what the war was all about?”

“Why do you think he disliked the Army?”

“He hated the army,” Rick corrected him. “He wrote my brother Rick he should get the fuck out.”

The interviewer stammered, and cut off the conversation. He asked if they had a photograph of Dennis around. Rob brought out a Polaroid shot of a broad shouldered, handsome young man in fatigues. In the background was thick jungle foliage. The soldier had a flower in one hand and was giving the peace sign with the other.

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