Saga of Cowboy Hat, “Milwaukee 14” Viet Nam War Protesters

“Where’d ya leave your horse?” a stranger called out.

Midway through a salad bar line in a fast food diner in Tucson, Arizona, I glanced at a derelict seated in the third booth from the back. He was dirty and disheveled, red eyed and stubble faced. Had he been a horse, I would have said he looked like he’d been ridden hard and stabled sweaty.

The stranger was the kind of person we usually try not to see on the streets when they approach us from some doorway with their hands out; one of the invisible homeless folk who have a lot of time to fill and nowhere special to go. I don’t know about you, but I feel more guilt than annoyance when I see people in America in such dire straits. And guilt is a lot more uncomfortable than annoyance, so I try to move more quickly past, and get it behind me when I have nothing extra to give at the moment.

This particular guy apparently had scraped up enough coin for a Coke with a few buddies. A night out at a Jack-in-the-Box.

“Where’s your horse?” he called again. He clearly was addressing me, although every time I looked his way, he ignored me to stare down other customers, nonchalantly crunching ice between his teeth. Obviously, this sort of rude behavior was sport for him.

I knew why he had called out what he did. Fact was, I had sold my interest in a horse (a brood mare named “Blaze”) when I moved from Denver to Wisconsin. He couldn’t have known that, but he could plainly see that I had a Biltmore [quality 6-X] beaver cowboy hat sitting squarely on my head. I still favored a good hat at the time. I was a quick adopter of boots, hat and a neat country two-step when we moved to Denver, and slow to abandon country fashion after leaving. Whenever I traveled east of Iowa at that time (early 1990s), the first thing I did was pull on my favorite boots and grab that Biltmore. Usually I more or less blended into the crowd, except at this restaurant on this particular night. I looked around; sure enough, I was the only one wearing a cowboy hat.


Jody (standing, wearing the Biltmore) with her mother Joyce, taken in Denver the year before the encounter with Joe Fletcher.

I turned my eyes back to the assorted salad condiments. If he wanted to pretend he hadn’t shouted out to me, so much the better. I really wasn’t up for a scene.

“You from Colorado?” he yelled.

I considered my options: Was it better to answer him or to ignore him? Now that he was looking directly at me, everyone else in the dining area was, too. “Hey, I’m talking to you, cowgirl,” he confirmed, turning up the volume just enough that I understood it to be a warning. He might be more or less invisible on the streets, but I had entered his space now. He wasn’t going to be ignored in here.

I turned to my dinner companion, a lady I’d met at a conference. We’d agreed on an impromptu dinner, and I’d pushed her wheelchair the three blocks from the conference hotel to this restaurant for a cheap meal. We were going to have to go three blocks back, too, and suddenly that worried me. Maybe if I humored the guy for a minute or so, he’d later let us leave without a hassle.

“I lived in Denver,” I replied, spooning salad dressing over frozen peas and lettuce. “But now I live in Milwaukee. Left my horse, but couldn’t give up the hat.” Hoping to conclude that matter there and then, I offered a slight, polite wave and slid into a chair opposite my new friend’s wheelchair.

“Well, now, ain’t that what you’d call a real funny coincidence,” the man guffawed, pushing prematurely long gray hair behind filthy ears. He stood and brushed crumbs from his faded jeans and jean jacket and produced a cigarette from some niche inside a black T-shirt. He then turned to his small group of hard-luck buddies for a light; obviously, he was to be their entertainment and all he needed was a volunteer from the audience. He took a great, long pull off his cigarette, and said in a gravel-rough voice, “Just so happens, I’m from Milwaukee, too, little lady.”

I looked back to the woman seated across from me. “I’m a nut magnet,” I admitted under my breath. “They always find me.”

She winked and gave me a knowing smile, and I was relieved that she didn’t appear to be overly concerned about the intrusion.

“You know where Oak Creek, Wisconsin is, then,” he said, and his tone dared me to deny it as he approached our booth. “I had some friends there.” He held out his hand and introduced himself: “Joe Fletcher, of the original Milwaukee 14, true patriot rebels of the 60s.You remember us?”

Couldn’t say I did. But then, I spent the late ’60s singing “I Love the Land of Lincoln” in junior high school in Macomb, Illinois. I was nowhere near a big city, or big city protestors. While I remembered the Chicago Seven because my dad said they were communists every time their faces were shown on TV, the Milwaukee 14 drew a blank.

“In the ’60s, we was famous draft dodgers,” Joe said. “The Feds wouldn’t have minded that so much, if we hadn’t taken over their building and set their presses and stuff on fire. That got their attention big time. It was a sort of a protest, if you know what I mean.” He made a great show of faux winking at me. “Anyways, we was big news before anybody ever heard of the Chicago Seven.”

A vague memory flirted: “Wasn’t there something about an arsenal? A fort or something somewhere nearby?”

“That was my place,” he giggled gleefully. “We stashed enough guns and explosives there that they said in court that if someone dropped a cigarette in the air, a quarter of Milwaukee would have blown up. Poof, gone!”

My new acquaintance also took credit for being the one who tied up a cleaning woman at the federal building. “She really looked like a cleaning woman, too,” he chortled. “Then I helped torch the documents. We made our own napalm. Whoosh! It was cool, man.”

Joe’s Tucson friends look like they’d heard this story before, but it was obvious that he had a measure of credibility with them. Perhaps this solidarity was forged in prisons, as Joe said he served time in Menard and Statesville, as well as other prisons in Minnesota, New Mexico and California.

“They kept moving us around so we couldn’t serve time together, ’cause we was some dangerous hombres. You know, I can make a bomb is easy as tie my shoes,” Joe bragged. “Ask these guys. They’ll tell ya. I served time in lots of places since then. I’ve been in more than out. But those are the places I spent time in for tying up the old lady and stuff.”

His immediate troubles were nearly as interesting. He was three days shy of getting his food stamp allotment and was sleeping in the streets, but looking for an abandoned car for protection from the weather and thugs.

“I vacation in Tucson every winter,” Joe quipped. “That’s my habit when I ain’t in jail, ’cause I can sell my blood for pocket money here. But in the spring, I like to meander on over to Iowa City. I can make the most money there for aluminum cans.”

About that time, a restaurant employee materialized and warned Joe to stop panhandling or, she said, she would call the police.

“Heck, I’m not bothering this lady,” he challenged. “I was just getting her address so’s I could send her a Christmas card. We are friends by as-so-ci-a-tion because we both come from Milwaukee. Ask her; she’ll tell you I ain’t botherin’ nobody.”

While I concurred with this story, I also used the restaurant phone to call my hotel to arrange for shuttle service with a wheel-chair accessible ramp. I didn’t feel like taking the chance of continuing the discussion with Joe and his new disciples later…. somewhere in the dark between the diner and hotel where I feared I might be the one who was invisible to passersby.

 

Though our meeting was quite a while ago, I thought about Joe in May of this year, unexpectedly, when I heard that Rev. Lawrence Rosebaugh of Milwaukee was shot several times in Guatemala City by masked gunmen who stopped a car carrying him and four other missionaries. The news report said that in 1968, Rosebaugh was one of the Milwaukee 14 who publicly burned 10,000 draft files taken from the Milwaukee Federal Building, for which he served time in prison.

I did a little digging then. There actually is footage of the group burning the military records. The Milwaukee 14 was comprised of educated men, many of them involved with a religious movement, and I’m actually a little sorry to say that Joe Fletcher’s name isn’t among them. Maybe he served time with one of them in prison and was enamored with the story; maybe he was part of another group at another time. I don’t know. All I know is what he told me.

And I also know that I really am a nut magnet, as I said, and sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you don’t. That night, I didn’t. But looking back, Joe remains my clearest memory of Tucson, Arizona.

Maybe that’s what he wanted all along — to be seen and remembered by the lady wearing the cowboy hat.