This fellow was a gem. He's at that point in his life when old men wear caps, even indoors; when a few wisps of hair, each individual strand several inches from its nearest neighbor, slip out the backside of the hat. It's the age when any normal guy starts copying down Kevorkian's 1-800 number.
As the television cameras moved in, this vet started rapping about lesbians and feminists.
"How many of you girls even been in the military?" asked the veteran.
When Susan Barber began to debate the little troll, he told the lady, who is of half-Korean ancestry, that she ought to go back to whatever country it was that she came from.
Barber, natty in her flag-decorated footwear, exploded that she was born in America.
From across the room, two black women asked in loud voices, "Why are the TV cameras focused only on old white men?"
"Bring your nigger faces over here, and they'll film you," said the exasperated veteran. At this point, some pointy-headed liberal told this cracker that he wasn't much of an American.
"We'll take care of you later," threatened the vet.
One young woman who spoke with an accent and defended the show clearly got under the skin of the veterans and their fellow travelers.
"This is very interesting," said Anne McKinney, formerly Anne Haack of Germany. "I've been called an asshole twice today already. My mother grew up in Berlin during World War II. I heard all about the Nazis and free speech from her. . . . I'm a United States citizen now, and I vote in every election, even the little bond elections that no one follows."
People had surrounded all four sides of Millett's jail cell and were arguing heatedly with each other. Faces pushed through the bars as individuals fought over what the flag meant.
It was quite something.
A photographer standing nearby said people normally only get this worked up over sports. It was great, said the man, to see folks so animated, so ready to fight about art and democracy. He thought that Millet's jail cell now looked like one of those free-for-all wrestling cages.
Much of the yelping was grotesque, some of it was only silly.
One Elvis impersonator asked a defender of the art, "What if your mother's head was in that toilet? Think about it, darh-lin'."
But most of the veterans didn't talk like bigoted morons. They and their supporters just wanted to see a little more respect shown to the flag that so many of their friends had died defending.
Later in the day, I asked the museum's director, Jim Ballinger, why he let the veterans dismantle the exhibits. I asked him three or four different ways, and I never did get a straight answer.
It was like watching a snake, slipping and sliding, trying to form right angles.
All of the slithering boiled down to one thing: Ballinger had decided that he didn't want any further trouble.
And what's that supposed to mean, I asked.
Suppose me and a few other middle-aged sour apples jump in the car, get jacked up on AC/DC and come down to the cowboy art show you stage every year and just start dismantling the exhibit, saying this drivel isn't fit for human consumption. If that happens, Jim, you're going to be saying, "Hey, Mike, it's okay. Just go a little easier on the espresso next time. That's your response?"
Yeah, I didn't think so.
Later that afternoon, though, I got a very uneasy feeling. I realized that Ballinger's behavior had a precedent.
Twenty-six years ago this month, this newspaper started with a flag fight.
When four kids were shot dead at Kent State University in 1970, thousands of students at Arizona State University surrounded the school's flagpole and demanded that the stars and stripes be lowered to half staff.
Then-governor Jack Williams ordered the flag defended at all costs, but only a small handful of cops stood between the mob and the mayhem. The head of campus security, a former FBI agent named John Duffy, ignored the governor and lowered the flag to avoid bloodshed.
You know how kids are; no one knew what to ask for next, so we broke up and went home.
The first story in the first issue of New Times was an interview with a construction worker at the Kent State candlelight vigil in Tempe. The interview was interrupted when the laborer excused himself long enough to punch out the teeth of an antiwar leader nearby who had a flag sewn upside down on his blue jeans.
Feelings ran high in those days, on both sides of the fight about Vietnam. Looking back, I can see that Duffy did a very good thing when he lowered the flag that day.