When I made the decision to take this WW II exhibit on the road, one of my high school classmates and son of one of my subjects, Ernest Paulin US Navy, emailed me “Why not start in Amherst?” It was an obvious choice though not to me. But it was the right one. Six of my portraits are of Amherst men (I have since added a woman veteran’s portrait and story).
Amherst is also where I went to college at UMass, class of ’72. It was during the height of the Vietnam war. The draft had been re-instituted and my number (138) was well within those being called to serve. It was a student deferment that kept me from that fate. The spring of my freshman year, Kent State’s student body faced down National Guardsmen who shot and killed four anti-war protestors. Across the country, more protests erupted and classes all across the country, including UMass, ended early. It was a time when the world was so naively divided. One was either for or against the war. Returning troops were categorized as “baby killers” and shunned. I was part of that naivete who pointed a finger of blame.
Returning to Amherst with a tribute to the Second World War has opened my eyes to the reality of this place. For two years while I was at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, people wrote wonderful tributes to the troops past and present, both in my guest book and on the wall next to my easel. The reminder of where I was, here in Amherst, came quickly. A week into the exhibit, I noticed someone had written a long missive in my guest book. Instead of the expected praise, I was slammed for glorifying war. It went on chastising me for having an equal number of women and men’s portraits as it didn’t accurately reflect the real war and the final dig was that my “painting style wasn’t very good.” Later comments from others included calling me a “war profiteer”.
My initial reaction was anger. I felt caught off-guard. it was a reality check that bringing anything related to war to this town was going to be slammed by a small percentage of the locals. Amherst remains, as some have said to me, in a glass bubble. Or as the local saying goes: “Amherst: where only the “H” is silent” meaning everyone has an opinion.
I found myself looking at many who flowed through the library, wondering which ones were making the negative comments. And I stereotyped. An older man with a long grey queue whom I pegged as a possible anti-war candidate came up to me one day. “I think your exhibit is brilliant,” he said. “You’ve really captured the humanity of war.” We talked more. He is anti-war. But he also knows sometimes we are forced to make choices that require action.
I have accepted that more negative comments will come. I now mostly chuckle. None of these individuals have the real courage to talk to me, talk to a veteran, let alone talk to a veteran of WW II. I accept that even a conversation with them would not change their opinion. That is the downside to living in an intellectual college community where the real world sometimes remains outside the bubble. I know. I once had this smugness. I once breathed the air within this bubble.