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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

ODE TO THE OLEO STRUT

by Clay Coppedge
While Fort Hood and Bell County was not considered a hotbed of anti-war activity during the Vietnam War there existed in Killeen, from 1968-72, a coffeehouse known as the Oleo Strut. It was named for a shock absorber in a helicopter's landing gear.
Like its namesake, the Oleo Strut was meant to soften the blow for GIs returning home from Vietnam. The coffeehouse and an anti-war newspaper published there became a center for what was known as the GI Movement, an antiwar group made up of current and former soldiers.

The coffeehouse and its newspaper might be better known today than it was in its heyday because of a recent documentary film called, "Sir! No Sir!" that focuses the GI Movement. The film is produced and directed by David Zieger, who worked at the Oleo Strut back in the day and helped put out an anti-war newspaper called the Fatigue Press.
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In interviews since the movie's 2006 release Zieger has described the old coffeehouse as "a wild place." He booked live music from well-known folk singers like Pete Seeger, who played to a packed house at the Oleo Strut in 1971, Country Joe McDonald and Phil Ochs. Jazz singer Barbara Dane, who doubled as a folk singer in coffee houses like the Oleo Strut, visited the place two weeks after it opened in 1968. She wrote about it in an article for the July 1968 issue of The Guardian.

"I arrived on Wednesday afternoon to find the place already bustling," she wrote. "When I left on Monday, I had yet to see the place quiet.

"It's easy to get down to serious talk with anyone, They are full of puzzling thoughts, unresolved conflicts, loneliness."

Not everyone was so enamored of the Oleo Strut, which was located at 101 Avenue D in Killeen. Zieger said in an interview with a Californianewspaper that the coffeehouse was the target of several attacks from locals.

"They'd come and try to bust the place up. And every time we'd put the sign up, someone would come and throw red paint on it. The coffeehouse building has been changed into an office complex, but there's still red paint on the sidewalk," Zieger said.

Zieger said that Fort Hood served as sort of a "holding center" for Vietnam veterans who had more than 90 days left to serve.

In the summer of 1968, not long after the Oleo Strut opened, Fort Hood troops were assigned to Chicago to serve as reinforcements for the Chicago Police at the Democratic National Convention.

The soldiers refused to go. Court martials followed.

"We came home from fighting Vietcong and now they want us to fight Americans," one dissenter said.

Zieger said the soldiers' refusal to go to Chicago had an effect on what happened at the '68 Democratic Convention.

"Governments do not put troops into the street they cannot depend on completely," he said. "Thus, the troops stayed on the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and the Chicago PD knew they had no back-up. The Great Chicago Police Riot at the Democratic Convention was the result."
Much of "Sir! No Sir" centers on activities at the Oleo Strut, and a couple of added features with the DVD version include footage of the old coffeehouse. Zieger has said that one of the acts he booked at the Oleo Strut was a blues band from Austin that featured a pretty teenage guitarist by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Though a fairly thorough biography of Vaughan by Bill Crawford and Joe Nick Patoski makes no mention of it, Zieger's recollections of Vaughan were vivid in his interview with that California paper.
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"A young teenager with a good blues band drove up from Austin to convince me he should be hired," Zieger said.

"The band sounded good and they were willing to work for the peanuts I could pay. The GIs loved them and they became regulars.

"In 1986, Stevie Ray Vaughan came over to me at the US Film Festival in Dallas and told his friends how I was the first guy to ever offer him a paying gig - he was that kid 18 years previous. Who knew?"
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By 1972, the Oleo Strut, like most of the old 1960s coffeehouses, was gone.

Even today, I imagine the mention of it, like the mention of almost anything from the 1960s, triggers strong emotions that run the gamut from nostalgic to indignant.

The same can be said of the 1960s and the movement represented by the Oleo Strut and others of its ilk.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
September 3, 2007 Column
 
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