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Page 37
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Ben Chitty - ¡Presente!

By Priscilla Murolo

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Priscilla Murolo's tribute at Ben Chitty's memorial

Ben Chitty knew a lot about pain and how to make it a force for good in the world.

Below you can see Ben before he had learned much on either subject. He did know discontent. He had inherited an enticingly comfortable spot in a very small world and yearned for something more. He didn't yet know that the something more can hurt like hell. This Ben Chitty had his picture taken in San Diego in 1966, right before he went to Vietnam for the first time. He was eighteen years old. A few months earlier, when he had visited me in Connecticut, my sixteen-year-old eyes had seen him as a man of the world. He was scarcely more than a child.

Now, consider Ben Chitty, the scholar of medieval studies, upon his graduation from Swarthmore in 1972. That man, age twenty-four, had more than a passing acquaintance with pain. A knee he had injured in high school had been re-injured, much more seriously, in Vietnam when an explosion caused a large radio to fall on him. For the rest of his life, he would walk with a cane and ache to the point where he needed aspirin or some other analgesic at least twice a day. The war had marked him in other ways, too. He was less self-assured than that smooth-faced kid of eighteen and now sought to withdraw from the world beyond his little corner. When I asked him some years later what had attracted him to the life of a medievalist, he spoke about his experience as a petty officer during his second tour in Vietnam and how bad it had felt to go back to that war, this time guiding others into the fire. As a medievalist, he'd never again have to do such a thing, and maybe he'd even forget he'd done it in the past. But, of course, that memory refused to go away.

Ben was thirty-seven and already an experienced labor activist before he figured out how to transform his pain from Vietnam into a lasting good. Max and Tony had nudged him in that direction by hanging onto his every word about matters of war and peace; they badly wanted to learn from his experience. But the main impetus to make good out of pain came from a different quarter—Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which Ben had joined shortly after his discharge from the Navy and then, somehow, let slip away. It re-entered his life in the spring of 1985. I was writing an article about how Americans remember the Vietnam War, so I made a date to get together with two VVAW members who did counter-recruitment, going into high schools to share their first-hand knowledge of the war and refuting the false promises of military recruiters. Ben accompanied me to that get-together, and it very quickly became clear that the guys we were talking to—Clarence Fitch and Dave Cline—cared a lot more about mobilizing Ben than about talking to me. When we got home, Ben went into our bedroom with a bottle of whiskey and stayed there for at least 18 hours, thinking through what he had for so long sought not to remember. Within days, he had re-joined VVAW and signed up for duty as a counter-recruiter, and he would later take on many, many other missions under the auspices of VVAW, Veterans for Peace, and a slew of ad hoc peace projects.

This takes us to the photo of Ben above, where he's standing next to fellow Vietnam vet Dayl Wise at a rally to protest George W. Bush's speech at the United Nations in September 2006. Ben, who has just turned fifty-nine, looks like the happiest guy in the world—as he did every time he mustered (his word) with the veterans' peace movement. Very seldom did he invite me to come along; that movement was his thing, not our thing. I learned a lot from watching him, however. Not least, I learned to convert my own demons into generosity to young people encountered over the course of a long teaching career. And Ben supported that without reservation, even when it required significant sacrifices on his part. As he knew—as he taught me, as his smile in this photograph attests—in such things, there is not only salvation but also a great deal of joy.

You're about to view a film clip of VVAW's counter-recruitment work in a Bronx high school in the late 1980s. In addition to Ben, you'll see the guys who pulled him back into VVAW—Clarence Fitch and Dave Cline—plus their comrade Greg Payton. Especially when Ben is speaking, the process by which pain becomes a force for good is so obvious on the screen that I needn't explain. But, before we move on to the film, I want to say one last thing, directed in particular to Ben's brothers and sisters in the veterans' peace movement. Thank you for making my husband's face beam and for making his life matter in ways that could never have happened without you. Should you ever need anything from me, just ask.

Priscilla Murolo first met Ben Chitty in 1962. They married in 1994. She and Ben co-authored From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: An Illustrated History of Labor in the United States

Ben Chitty and Dayl Wise, anti-Bush Demo in New York, 2006.

Per Odman and Ben Chitty at Vets Day Parade in Manhattan, November 11, 2008.

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