And in Madison, Wis., on that same fall day, a University of Wisconsin freshman named David Maraniss, his eyes stinging from tear gas, was watching fellow students clash with police in a bloody protest against a company that was recruiting on campus: Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm.
Coincidence, fate, luck: Who knows what force of randomness or design brought these three people together decades later and connected their lives and the events of that day? But a portion of that connection will be on view Friday night at Georgetown University, where a dance called “Into Sunlight” will grapple with questions of history repeated. Is there a way out of destiny’s duet with humanity? Can we close the wounds opened in another age and re-inflicted in our own?
If the answers have eluded witnesses, historians and survivors, perhaps it’s too much to hope that art can shed any beam of light. But then, hope is a kind of connective tissue here, too.
How it came together: After he left Madison, Maraniss went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He wrote about the Black Lions ambush and the simultaneous campus demonstration in his 2003 book “They Marched Into Sunlight.” Becker became a dancer and moved to New York, where she founded her own company, Robin Becker Dance. A few years ago, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, she was casting about for a way to shape her unease into a dance.
“I just felt devastated that we were doing this in the 21st century,” she said, speaking recently by phone.
She had come to know Maraniss through a friend; after reading his book, she found her inspiration.
“I inhaled that book,” Becker said with a laugh. “I am too embarrassed to show David how I’ve destroyed his book with highlighting and commenting on the side.
“I was so deeply moved by it. I felt it paralleled so many of the same themes happening now: going to another country, all the young people dying, not having the whole nation on board.”
The book follows the entwined stories of American and Viet Cong soldiers, their families and the student protesters fighting their own battles back home.
“You really get the humanity of all of these players,” Becker says.
While Becker was working on the dance last spring, Higgins, the former soldier, happened to contact her about renting her house in Upstate New York. He lives in Connecticut, where he heads a group called Veterans Advantage, which arranges corporate discounts to veterans.
They were excited to discover they shared the same birthday — and a history with the Vietnam War. Higgins was captivated by the idea of a dance depicting some of the issues he was still grappling with, such as post-traumatic stress.