“I see a black light.” – Composer Joseph Haydn’s last words – and he had never seen a lava lamp.
Word went around Madison that summer of 1970 that something “heavy” was “coming down.” Already, the New Year’s Gang, a local terror cell of SDS Weather Underground, had bombed both locations of campus ROTC and the power plant that supplied Badger Ordnance – makers of napalm – on the outskirts of town. On New Year’s Eve, they had bombed – from the air symbolically in a stolen plane – the bomb plant itself – and had even – in an attempt to firebomb Selective Service – bombed UW’s famed Primate Lab by mistake. The Kent State shootings were barely three months old; the new National Anthem was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” Little wonder that by August, talk of all-out revolution was in the air.
No one was surprised that Weather was behind it. Just down I-90 in Chicago – the same route that later that year would bring us, as The Movement went “grassroots,” the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Hound Dog Taylor – national SDS had been on a rampage since the previous June’s national convention. At that time, the violent Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction had split with pacifist Progressive Labor to form the Weather Underground. (PL – whom Tom Bates in Rads, his book about Army Math, called “Ivy League Maoists” – believed “the revolution” would be created by a union of students and workers; Weather cast its lot with the Black Power movement. As a result of this schism, SDS had come unglued.) Under the leadership of Chicagoan Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, a local girl from Milwaukee, Weather joined forces with Black Power to implement a violent line. (PL refugees wandered off to join various pro-labor movements.) In September of ’69, on the opening day of the Chicago 8 trial, a “revolutionary action” outside the Cook County Courthouse resulted in 19 arrests. The following month’s “Days of Rage,” also in Chicago, netted “pig city” 287 felony arrests – and 50 injured swine.
But now it was 1970, and Weather had ratcheted up the “direct action.” No more demonstrating and folk-singing and draft-card burning. It was time to bring the War home to America. In February, the group issued a Declaration of a State of War with the US Government, turned out the lights in Chicago’s national office and went underground. (Some went to Cuba as part of the Vinceremos! sugar-cane brigade where they helped Fidel bring in the crop. In Terror Network, author Claire Sterling asserts that sugar cane was really just a cover for terror training. The Anarchist’s Cookbook is said to be the textbook created from these terror-camp curricula.)
In March of ’70, there was a setback. As they assembled a nail bomb in their Greenwich Village safehouse – planned for a noncom officers’ dance at nearby Fort Dix, New Jersey – it detonated, killing Weathervolk Ted Gold, Terry Robbins and Bill Ayers’s significant other and fellow Chicagoan Diana Oughton. Such was the magnitude of the blast – the townhouse was packed with explosives – that the NYPD used paint spatulas to recover the bodies. It is said it took four days to collect Diana, who was identified by the tip of her right little finger. (By the way, this event was the basis for the Sissy Spacek movie, Katherine.)
Undeterred, the survivors disappeared underground and over the next five years unleashed a radical whirlwind of more than 25 bombings, including the Pentagon, the US Capitol and the State Department. In June of 1970, they hit the New York City Police headquarters, and later that year, the home of Judge John Hartaugh who was trying the “Panther 21” for attempting to blow up the New York Botanical Gardens.
(Again, SDS’s Weather faction, with its agenda of complete societal reform – including especially white privilege – had from the get-go formed a strong relation with Black Power. It is no accident that Black Panther founder Bobby Seale was one of the Chicago 8 – along with SDS founder Tom Hayden. (Seale would later be separated for contempt of court – he called Judge Julius Hoffman a “fascist dog” – creating the better-known Chicago 7. For a time, prior to his removal, he was bound and gagged, inspiring Graham Nash’s hit song, “Chicago.”) As late as the 1981 Brinks Truck Robbery in Nuant, NY, Weather personnel helped the Black Liberation Army steal more than $1.3 million – killing two New York State troopers and a security guard in the process. It is this backstory – and the shared terrain of Cook County, Illinois – that has brought scrutiny to the Barack Obama-Bill Ayers relationship. In truth, however, mellowed-out, middle-aged, Middle-Western lefties of all stripes have found a home in Chicago’s liberal and pro-labor (Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders/Hog Butcher for the World”) Democratic Party – where they rub shoulders with up-and-comers like Obama. The consanguinity is no more significant than that. More than anything, the Radical 60s/70s was the return of the American Left from its 1950s McCarthyite exile, and ten years on, it found a mainstream home in the Democratic Party. (Black America found the Party through Earl Warren, JFK and the Civil Rights Movement.) Thus, Billy and Bernie are hardly strange bedfellows for Barack: they are simply the rank and file of today’s Democratic Party – same as other old Sixties radicals and black leaders on the order of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Lanny Davis, Al Sharpton, Bill Richardson, Julian Bond, Terry McAuliffe and Donna Shalala, herself a UW alumna. (And too, Billy and Bernie’s fever for things that go boom in the night has not proven infectious – and by all accounts, they themselves are fully recovered.) In sum, the election of America’s first black president is right out of the Weatherman playbook and is giant-stride toward the fulfillment of their central dream – the classless society of Utopian Socialism.)
As for radical Madison, so strong was the cross-pollination with Chicago that none of Weather’s political actions went unnoticed. Though Weatherman was too anti-establishment to have members, the Madison “cadre” was quick to follow the anarchist cookbook of its national brethren. After all, it was all about “bringing the war back home” – opening a Second Front for the Vietcong here in Nixon’s Amerika – and the Third Coast on Madison’s Isthmus had a special target – a target better even than napalm-cooking Badger Ordnance.
Located in Sterling Hall, the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC) was an oft-mentioned target of lefty rage. Articles in UW’s student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, detailed the treachery of mathematicians in stoking the War Machine. (Did you know that the Claymore mine’s convex shape, size of the C-4 strip and number and placement of the ball bearings are all part of a mathematical formula?) The subject of special ire, however, was a radiant-energy camera-sensor used on the underbelly of surveillance aircraft. The device was so sensitive, the articles said, it could detect the heat signature of a group of Vietcong standing together beneath triple-canopy rain forest. Such a device had been used in 1967 to locate and kill counterculture icon Che Guevara in Bolivia – and it had been developed right here at Army Math.
As for me, I was just up from North Carolina, from UNC Journalism School to work on a master’s degree, but really to find the Great American Novel in the turmoil of the time. (The Great American Screenplay had yet to be invented.) Green writer though I was, already I could see that Lajos Egri’s Unity of Opposites – “warring factions” being the source of all conflict and hence, all drama – was achieved by Generation Gap antagonisms held in proximity by the institutions of family, community, even nation. (And friendship too: my best friend from childhood had been overrun by the Tet Offensive at a firebase near Pleiku. His homecoming in Oakland had been a gauntlet of baby-killer jeers and cannabis-laced spittle. After a near fistfight – he wasn’t sure what a “running dog” was, but he didn’t like the sound of it – he and I were no longer speaking.) As I saw it then, my job as a writer was as simple as finding these “affinities & repulsions” – from another screenplay teacher, Eugene Vale – and writing them down. (There is a truism about the arrogance of youth …) As luck would have it, I was in town only a few days when one of the counterculture’s most violent plot points found me.
Now where radical politics was concerned, I was no virgin – but while Chapel Hill had had its SSOC and SNCC “heavies” with their Army-surplus uniforms and passion for organizing – its braless Women’s Libbers with braided armpits and propensity at any displeasure deemed “chauvinist” for elongating their middle digits (you didn’t dare hold the door for them) – its so-called “tame spades” or “Uncle Toms” of the NAACP and Dr. King’s SCLC with their passion for racial justice tempered by a Southern Negro’s “sense of place” – none of it quite prepared me for what was to happen in a few days time. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck – it was upended.
It was a heady time for me. Except for my senior trip, I had never been out of the South, and I was proud to have driven my ’64 VW Transporter – that I had named Van Morrison, “Brown-Eyed Girl” being a favorite song of mine – out of the imprisoning mountains of Western North Carolina as I had always dreamed of doing … up through the Dole and Delmonte truck farms of Indiana and Illinois with their miles-long rows of corn and sunflower and beans … toward the sunrise of the foundry fires of the Gary, Indiana, steel mills when America was still king of steel and union town Gary was the seat of the American Communist Party … like a star-voyager across the expressway galaxy of Chicago and out the dark gateway of Desplaines Oasis on the other side … and finally up the lightless Northwest Tollroad (I-90) where America fell off my roadmap into a dark, undifferentiated Canada beyond. I’d seen these place-names on the child’s puzzle map my grandmother had given me. Now I was in them. It didn’t seem possible – but there on that reflectorized, white-on-green, Interstate sign it said, Wrigley Field.
I remember I arrived on the isthmus at midday. I had missed my exit and followed Washington Street – a lot of Madison streets are named after Presidents – into town from the east side. From the shadow of the State Capitol, I cruised west in State Street’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, hitting on a palmed joint of Fork Creek homegrown I had brought from home. (And since this home movie needs a soundtrack, let’s put Left Banke’s “Just Walk Away, Renee” on Van Morrison’s tiny, tinny radio speaker. I sure heard it enough that year.) As I crept along – the van shuddering between first and second gear – I was goggle-eyed as a back-slider in Sin City – with a new credit card and his snake-handling chaperone back at the hotel, indisposed by turpitude. I suppose the best way to describe State Street at that time is as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in ’67’s “Summer of Love” – but with radical politics and a major university and state government on the periphery. (The Capitol was a carbon-copy of the one in Washington and towered over everything. Christmas of that year, I would drop the big half of a purple microdot – Annie took the smaller half – and have to be convinced that the floodlit rotunda was not a spaceship full of malevolent aliens. An irony: after Army Math, we would discover that it was full of malevolent aliens – legislators who tripled out-of-state tuitions (to keep out “New York, Commie-Jew agitators”) and put Madison police on campus for the first time.)
I passed a group of longhairs in colorful tie-dye openly smoking cannabis on the sidewalk. (The song now is the Guess Who’s “American Woman” – though later that year, it would be banned in coed company.) One had an asymmetrical beard and wore a teeshirt featuring a blue ZigZag Turk. He had a monkey on his shoulder who was hitting up from the joint. The monkey was “bogarting” the j. – but when his owner tried to take it back, it leapt, shrieking, onto the awning and defecated. As I watched – the traffic was moving at a crawl – it flung golf-ball stools at the hippies below (everyone’s a critic), then scrambled up the red-brick façade and disappeared on the roof.
Another head nearby – ponytailed, shirtless, in gallused, denim overalls and sandals – was creating giant iridescent soap bubbles the size of basketballs with a tennis-racquet-sized bubble-ring. They rose vertically until they burst in rainbows and misted down. The sidewalk around him was as wet as after a rain.
Along the curb, every third car, it seemed, was a VW van painted with bulbous psychedelic letters and figures in imitation of Peter Max. (Van Morrison was definitely due a make-over.) Beatles in dashikis and Che’s in berets. Peace symbols and two-fingered peace signs. Yellow submarines and blue meanies. It was the year after Easy Rider, and the curb was lined with bikes – hogs and choppers with sissy-bars; big Suzukis and Hondas and BSA Thunderbolts. (In honor of Easy Rider, let’s put Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” on Van Morrison’s radio.)
I passed a headshop with windows filled with waterpipes, bongs, carburetor pipes and incense burners. Mannequins sported elaborately embroidered dashikis and Nehrus. Now a musical instrument store where sitars and tambors sat alongside acoustic Martins and Fender electrics. A Moog synthesizer supported a dual-neck Gibson like the guy in ELO played. One neck, I knew from Guitar Player magazine, was tuned in open E for bottleneck . (The song now is Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”)
Next, I passed a free medical clinic and a health food store and a place to get your tarot read. Hawkers sold various underground papers like The Free Press, the Berkeley Barb and the Madison Kaleidoscope.
Street musicians came into earshot as on a radio dial, the volume such that they drowned out the van’s little speaker. Folkies with harmonicas on neck racks sang Phil Ochs with Dylan nasality. One was a husband and wife duo that sounded like The Weavers. I passed a two-piece blues band with a black man on bottleneck guitar and a white guy blowing blues harp. There was even some Dixieland by a group of older men who had the look of music-department professors.
Krishnas in white and saffron robes were dancing and chanting to the chink-chinking of their finger cymbals and bongo beat of their tambors. Half a block away, a psychotic born-again was ranting and railing about original sin and the end of days (it was upon us). (On the radio now The Youngbloode’s “Get Together” is playing. It would become an anthem of Sixties solidarity.)
Dogs were everywhere. Some were leashed; others ran free. Most sported red bandanas in lieu of collars. There was a three-legged one named – I would learn later that year – Tripod. Tripod was famous; his owner politically left-of-center; and so man and dog became a fixture at political rallies around town. No “running dog” he, there you could hear Tripod, lost in the crowd, barking enthusiastically for “unilateral troop withdrawals from a genocidal, neocolonial war.”
I passed the Record Co-op with a poster of James Taylor in the window and a stack of his hit album, Sweet Baby James, beneath it. (On the soundtrack now is “Sea of Joy” by Blind Faith.) James’s father was dean of the medical school at UNC, so everyone in Chapel Hill, it seemed, had some connection to him, however tenuous. (I, for example, had dated a girl who had dated his brother, Livingston, and Lance, my co-worker at the graduate library, had actually been taught some finger-picking stylings by James himself.) We were all very proud of his big success – forget cover of the Rolling Stone; he was recently on the cover of Time – and wanted a bit of reflected starlight. It was great to see he was so big in a place as heavy as Madison. Clearly, commercial success hadn’t eroded his radical chic.
A low wall bore the red graffiti, Socialismo O Muerte! flanked by stencilled silhouettes of Fidel and Che. (Madison was full of Trotskyites, and in August, Fidel’s sugar-cane harvest would be in full swing. Plus, in exactly two weeks, Chile’s Salvador Allende would become the first democratically elected Marxist leader in the Americas, an event greeted on The Isthmus with febrile hosanas and chiliastic merry-making. The CIA, it would turn out, had other plans for old Sal.) The O’s had been turned into peace symbols with the same colors of chalk that had drawn the mandalas and Beatles on the sidewalk beneath them.
Just down the same wall another graffitist asked, What Are You Doing To Free Angela? He meant, of course, UCLA’s imprisoned, Communist, philosophy professor Angela Davis – who had shot up an LA courtroom trying to spring Black Panther H. Rap Brown – but a wag with a sense of humor – but no sense of place – had added to the end, “Lansberry?”
I was now eight blocks from Capitol Square. En route, I had counted no fewer than six NVA flags – blue and red horizontal panels with a yellow star at the jointure – and a single Stars ‘n’ Stripes, flown upside-down in the international symbol of surrender. I had entered the Peoples’ Republic of Madison, the Third Coast, a “liberated zone” – a kind of Midwestern version of UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza – and I would never be the same. (The music now is Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” That was me beneath my Carolina tan.)
As I approached the University, the crowd thickened, the hair shortened. (Because UW was the world’s best engineering school, it was a “united nations” of favored sons, not all of them hip. (It would be 15 years before Huey Lewis wrote the song “Hip to Be Square” – a notion very much heretical at the time.)) And though it was summer, the crows eas textbook-burthened. (The song on the radio now might be Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Janis Joplin’s great cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Both had another month to live.)
At the Library Mall, girls in wet mini-length teeshirts and panties were in the fountain, passing a joint. (I could read one teeshirt: Women Say Yes To Men Who Say No. Another read, Free The Indianapolis 500.) They were watching a mime troupe in white-face acting out the My Lai Massacre. Police were watching, too – the mime troupe, not the girls. It was my first good peep at blonde, blue-eye Wisconsin womanhood, and my unhinged jaw slackened another inch.
So. In town only ten blocks, and already I could see Madison was going to be more fun than group sex with lapsed Catholics. On the radio now, Tim Buckley was singing, “If I Were A Carpenter (And You Were A Lady).” Would you marry me anyway/Would you have my baby? Oh, yeh, sister. I can dig it. My crashpad or yours?
I spent my first two nights in Van Morrison in a fetal position, one in a parking lot on Lake Street down from Burgerville and a second at the curb on Charter near the university heating plant. At the latter, I slept spoonstyle with a KLH sound system and a cracked Harmony guitar. Through my grimy windows, the view amenity was of mountainous coal and yellow-brick smokestacks. I listened to the radio all night, a guy named Strider on Radio Free Madison – like most DJs, a man in love with his own voice. But he was also in love with Chicago blues and that made him all right with me. Howlin’ Wolf. Muddy Waters. B.B. King, of course. And in with the Chicago electric, some Delta acoustic. Leadbelly. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Jellyroll Morton. Brownie McGhee. There was also a local group of Chicago white boys named Siegal-Schwall who were great. They had a local hit – “If Lovin’ You Ever Becomes A Crime, Babe” – and I learned to play ninth chords just so I could play that song. Mosquitoes had gotten in the van, and they bit me all night long. In the morning, in the rearview mirror, I observed with satisfaction my forehead covered with brushstrokes of my own blood and mosquitoes compressed to traceries of themselves. Take that, you Godless pinko swine!
Most of my time was spent at the Student Union – in the Ratskeller and on the Terrace out back overlooking Lake Mendota. It was there that I had my first Sheboygan bratwurst – for a Southerner kind of a hotdog on Aryan Growth Hormone (AGH) – with my first brown mustard, washed down with brown beer in a stein I needed both hands to lift. (While tame by Wisconsin standards, the 3.2 beer still had the kind of kick that made Bible-belt brew seem water by comparison.) I made hourly surveils of the bulletin boards in the hall and on the stairs and out front on Langdon Street – with their 3×5 cards advertising student housing and rides to Milwaukee and an “only played once” Gibson Barney Kessell guitar. The Midnight Movie, I remember, was Night of the Living Dead.
Though I was a true child of the Sixties and hadn’t been to church in years, I had been raised an Episcopalian, confirmed in 1959. Alone and lonely in the big city, out of my native South for the first time, it was no surprise that – on my first nocturnal walk down University Avenue to the Union – I would see the sign and turn in at the St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center. By my third visit, my thirtieth cup of sludgy coffee, I had found a home, Van Morrison a stable in the parking lot out back. In exchange for vacuuming the red-carpeted lobby and putting out coffee and doughnuts for parishioners on Sundays, I would receive a room – share it actually with two other students. After the first snow fell – yes, it snowed there, like in Jack London – I would help keep the walks clear front and back. And for $5 a week, I could join the food co-op in the basement.
I was thrilled, of course. This was a real windfall for an impecunious grad student. Food and lodging in the heart of campus. Free parking for Van Morrison out back. A complete office with an IBM Selectric typewriter, mimeograph machine, and sometime secretary for my seminar papers. All the coffee and doughnuts I could eat and drink. And in payment, what seemed nothing to a Cracker farmboy. (Later that year, it would become nothing after we decided in a co-op meeting one night that the vacuum cleaner represented a form of “alienated labor” consistent with “class oppression” and must be abandoned. Which it was. Literally. On the stairs.) More than once, I thought back to all the eight a.m. Communions I’d “served” as an white-cassocked acolyte – what Catholics call an altar boy – and thought, how sweet is serendipitous payback.
I soon came to realize, however, that the real value of my serendipity was far greater than the practical aspects of body and soul and Academia. You see, I was now a card-carrying member of the Community of St. Francis. It’s been 38 years, and I don’t think I’ve been as lucky since.
Episcopalians then and there were a liberal lot. (Today, they are as polarized as the rest of the country, with Pentecostal snake-handlers and Book of Common Prayer mossbacks sharing the same ecclesiastic real estate as pinko “politicals” like Father Mickey Pfleger, themselves the heirs of the Radical 60s.) It was the national Episcopal Church, for instance, that was first to divest its stock portfolio of companies doing business with South Africa, thereby introducing the initial hairline crack into the soon-to-crumble edifice of apartheid. Against this backdrop, you can imagine the political makeup of the People’s Diocese of the Third Coast. Religion wasn’t the opium of the masses there – but only because radical politics was the religion.
And in an ironic turn on the way “imperialistic” Christianity has often subsumed New World, chthonic dieties – hence, all across Latin America, the “day of the dead” celebrations and libations poured at roadside shrines – Jesus was often depicted – and on the walls of the St. Francis House, too – as wearing a Che-beret with a red star. (Part of this was due to the Christlike appearance of Che’s corpse after he was euthanized by Bolivian federales.) And to make yet another connection between that time and today, this is the origin of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Black Liberation Theology – Christianity as the Marxist cargo cult of campesino insurrection.
All this is by way of saying that in 1970, St. Franny’s was a hothouse of every Sixties’ fantasy. In my year en famille, I met the Chicago 7 and their lawyer William Kunstler, along with a whole holding cell of stars of The Revolution. I smoked hash and dropped acid – though UNC was more into the drug culture. (Politics was also Madison’s drug-of-choice.) I got stoned in Capitol Theatre and watched Reefer Madness, a film about marijuana addiction, and giggled along with the rest of the audience. I met Dennis Hopper at the premier for his follow-up film to Easy Rider, a bizarro mundo flick set in Peru called The Last Movie. (Film and sound were three seconds out of synch – I remember that – and the women in the audience booed and hissed at every sex scene. After the movie, during the Q&A, they flogged him for “objectifying” women. Hopper seemed bewildered – but us local guys just grinned; we knew the Summer of Love was long over – unless you were a masochist.) I went to rock festivals and went home with friends who lived in lumberjack villages on glacier lakes of fjord-blue. (After the muddy bass impoundments of my homeland, they were a calendar-art revelation.) I worked my day-a-month in the Miffland Food Co-op – which sometimes meant driving the truck to Chicago to pick up veggies – dead mammals need not apply – at the Common Market buying co-operative. I discovered Ernest Hemingway and Richard Brautigan – both understood the mysticism of trout-fishing in America – and Chicago blues, bluegrass guitar and blue-eyed blondes. (Wisconsin is more Aryan than the imagery in a Nazi nocturnal emission.) I mastered finger-picking (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) and bar chords (“Proud Mary”). I learned to ski and skate. I went snowmobiling and ice-fishing for the first times. I attended sit-in’s, be-in’s, love-in’s, paint-in’s and smoke-in’s. At a student demonstration-cum-riot caused by Nixon’s resumption of Operation Linebacker – the bombing of North Vietnam – I hit a cop in the head with a can of Campbell’s Soup (tomato) that I found in a shattered storefront. I remember he was wearing a white, cue-ball-looking riot helmet with the visor down, and I can still see the can caroming off into the night. When he started for me with his white, three-foot-long riot baton, I beat bare hippie feet into the crowd.
Of course, we were centrally located there on University Avenue at the foot of Bascom Hill – too centrally it would turn out – within easy walk of campus, lakes and the isthmus-shaped city. The city itself was set between Lakes Mendota and Monona, north and south, and Bascom Hill and the State Capitol to the east and west. These were connected by State Street – pedestrian-friendly then, today a pedestrian mall – strewn with all the wonders I had seen on my arrival. As a rule, student demonstrations would make up in Memorial Library Mall at the foot of Bascom Hill, march west up State to the Capitol – though the Madison police and/or National Guard usually cordoned us off long before – and debrief afterward in the Student Union or on Union Terrace out back overlooking the lake.
We had a liberal priest from Boston as our pastor and a radical priest from South Africa as our racial conscience. (He could speak Xhosa with all those weird tongue-clicks, and we’d get him to do it when we were stoned. It was far out.) We had a history Ph. D. candidate for our resident dialectician and political officer. (He had posters of Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt on the walls of his second-floor apartment – and the famous front page of the New York Daily News with its photo of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon under the headline, So What?!) We had the demented son of an upstate bishop who lurked at the bank of vending machines in the hall off the lobby, accosting any women who came there. His pitch was simplicity itself: “Gotta nickel, gotta dime, gotta boyfriend, wanna fuck?” Word was he was slapped and laid in about equal measure. (We sane guys were very interested to learn this – though none of us had the ‘nads to try it.)
My roommates were two black Africans, one from Liberia, the other from Nigeria. (Only years later did it occur to me that the pairing might have had something to do with my Southern origins. There would have been nothing malicious about it: it would simply have been seen as a way to “raise my consciousness.”) The Nigerian was actually an Ibo, a Biafran, there during the Nigerian Civil War to become a doctor. Throughout my year at St. Francis, he would regularly receive letters from home announcing the death by starvation of yet another family member. One letter brought news of his grandmother’s death. I can still see him there on his bed in a lotus position, rocking, rocking, beneath his poster of bearded Paul McCartney from the Let It Be album. “Oh, that old woman!” he moaned, rocking in his agitation. “I loved her so much!” The Liberian and I would vacate the room so he could weep undisturbed. (The previous year, I was told, he had taken a vermifuge for intestinal worms and – tripping away on the bannisteria-based anthelminthic – had defecated on his bed.)
But all this was in the mind-altering year ahead. Now we were just Academia’s skeleton shift of summer school. The church’s two staffers went home at night, so we had the run of the place. We smoked pot in the sanctuary and played Emerson, Lake & Palmer (“Lucky Man”) on the pipe organ. We picked the lock on the sacristy door and nipped on Communion wine. We replaced it with water so that after a time, you could read through it. Come Sundays, though, no one seemed to notice.
It’s been 38 years since Army Math, so I don’t remember in much detail the day of the blast. (They say that if you remember the Sixties you weren’t there. Not true – but the minutiae has definitely slipped through the mnemonic sieve.) I do remember that evening going across Conklin Place behind St. Franny’s to the YMCA, where I choked down some Macrobiotic outrage at the Sunflower Kitchen. It seems lentil sprouts, brown rice, couscous and bean curd were involved – but over the decade that meal became such a staple of “commune cuisine” that all the dinners have run together. When Adele “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit!” Davis died at only age 70, many considered it the righteous revenge of the cheeseburger.
I do recall that later, my dining companions and I stood in the parking lot and smoked a postprandial joint – no doubt as we assailed America’s neocolonial ambitions in Indo-China. (That was what passed for diverting dinner-table conversation back then.) The weed was dynamite, red-dirt marijuana from a Milwaukee window box – I do remember that – and later I would learn that the farmer was also an amazing guitarist who could play all the songs on Neil Young’s album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, as well as Old Shaky himself.
August 23 was a Sunday, so back at St. Franny’s, those whom we derided as “the Christians” would be late in leaving. (Though it was America’s “state religion” – and thus suspect to the anti-establishment fashion of the time – Christianity still managed to hold its own among New Age religions; thus, there were still a few “opium addicts” on The Isthmus.) Broom Street Theatre was probably rehearsing in the sanctuary – I don’t remember. (They were an experimental theatre troupe who later that year, would make a five-act play out of the 1932 Sears Farm Implement Catalog. We also did Peer Gynt as a compulsive masturbator dressed only in a pair of urine-stained Jockey shorts. These performances were not anomalous: the previous year, another troupe had done a production of Peter Pan in which Tinkerbell was gay and coeds danced nude to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” They had been arrested; we were merely shunned; I mentioned the “opium addicts?”) Some radical group – Vets Against the War? The Madison Tenants’ Union? – was maybe meeting in the basement. It was midnight by the time we had cleaned up in the co-op kitchen downstairs, locked the sliding door – yes, The Movement did know “economic crime” and the spontaneous “Redistribution of the People’s Wealth” – and climbed the twisty stairs to narrow beds beneath the gable windows. (Three days in town, I thought, and already I was a writer with a garret.)
The 1700-pound ANFO (ammonium nitrate fuel oil) bomb – same as Tim McVeigh used in Oklahoma City – went off at 3:42 a.m. Though the brick sanctuary was to the west of us and blocked much of the shock wave, up in my garret, I was blown out of bed. (Later, I would tell friends I woke in a carnal embrace with a stained-glass Virgin Mary, and would only be slightly exaggerating. It was actually the paper Paul McCartney.) Glass shattered and plaster came down, in chunks, then pieces, then dust. (In the coming days, we would find cracks everywhere in the masonry.) Likewise, debris slammed down on the roof – like the plaster, huge, big, smaller, finally bricks. Hailstones on steroids. At some point, “Paul McCartney” had taken flight. (That year, first the Beatles broke, then Army Math. And this was years before “Band on the Run.”) He was in the pile against the downstream wall, along with the rest of us. And most of the contents of the room – stereo, guitar, books, bong, LPs, waterpipe, the Liberian’s Loredo cigarette roller, plus a veritable Goodwill Store of hippie haberdashery. (If hippies played rugby, their scrum would look like this.) Everything had collected there. It was like a stateroom on a listing ship. Without the water. Over-pressure – something – had blown in the glass in that wall’s window, too. Standing, we crunched across the room.
I was told by those awake at the time that Army Math arrived with a thunderclap roar and an earthquake tremor. It was said that all across the city, radicals sat up in bed, grinning, and said to each other, “Army Math.” That law enforcement and university administrators sat up in bed, frowning, and said to each other, “Army Math.” For me, I remember only waking on the floor to the sound of breaking glass and raining smithereens. In seconds, it seemed, there was the shriek of sirens out front on University. The power had stayed on, the lights worked, and I heard a burglar alarm ringing from somewhere outside. As I got to my knees, gingerly to my feet in the glass, high-stepping into my jeans – I had landed on them – there was already movement in the dark hall outside the door.
Out front, we stood at the end of the walk, shirttails hanging, shoes untied, and looked up the flank of Bascom Hill. A mushroom cloud lit from within by red fire swirled high above the hillside. At the sight, two in the group applauded and raised power fists. They were SDSers, bearded heavies from the YMCA, who dominated dinner conversations and characterized the New Year Gang’s bombing campaign that year as “right-on political action.” I remember UW’s communist history professor Harvey Goldberg figured prominently in their remarks.
I was, in the idiom of the day, freaked out. This wasn’t a sit-in in the admin building. This wasn’t a DOW DAY demonstration on Bascom Hill. This wasn’t throwing a rock at a cop. This wasn’t even a Molotov cocktail flung at a rotsie (ROTC) classroom. This was, in another idiom of the time, hea-vee. Even the Kent State shootings in May paled in comparison.
There was a kiosque at the end of our walk, and I idly scanned it. I remember a handbill that advertised a counter-demonstration by Campus Crusade – a conservative Christian group we called “Kill a Commie for Christ.” There was Night Of The Living Dead again as the “Midnight Movie.” It seems “Mr. Brown,” the blues band, was set for the Nitty Gritty the coming week. (In the shot of the band, the bass guitarist wore a tophat.) A 3×5 card sought a rider with “gas money” for a trip to Wisconsin Dells. The driver – doubtless a woman – had used pinking shears to create a fringe of phone numbers for convenient tear off. It was funny – in the extremity of the moment – the details a traumatized mind fastened itself to. It was as though I required the detritus of the quotidian to level the kiltered blacktop of this insane new reality.
Because of the height of Sterling Hall up on Bascom Hill – and the height of the buildings along University Avenue – there was a kind of a wind-tunnel effect down the six-lane street. It brought the acrid smell of chemical smoke – of things polyester burning. Flaming paper and sheets of ash rained down on us. Larger debris burned spottily in the street like campfires on a plain. Burglar alarms still rang all along our end of The Isthmus. Across Brooks Street at Rennebohm’s Drugstore – which ironically, students had dubbed “Rent-A-Bomb’s” the year before – the glass was blown out and the alarm ear-splitting. Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances roared up University, sirens shrieking. We could hear their tires crunching on the broken glass, banging over the larger debris, trailing a slipstream of smoke and ash. By now, minutes had passed, yet the fire still burned above Bascom Hill, the tornado of black smoke still swirled.
The blast had been a wake-up call, literally, for radicals all along The Isthmus, and now they came by ever-thickening, Army-surplus-clad phalanx – by bicycle, on foot, in cars, by two’s and three’s and in SDS “affinity groups,” laughing and joking, guided by the towering column of smoke and fire. The way was up University, past St. Franny’s, and in time, we crossed the street and joined them. Up University to Charter. Up Charter – where both curbs were bumper to bumper with emergency vehicles – to Lathrop and the yellow-and-black police line.
Beyond the line – lit by the red and blue magic lanterns of first responders – was a scene of industrial-strength devastation. Firemen had hoses on the yellow-brick building, and floodlights turned the water into geysers. An uprooted tree blocked Linden Street, still steaming, smoking. We stood at the line and checked out the crater – a smoldering firepit 10-feet-across and three-feet-deep. (In time, we would learn that the van’s crankshaft was buried another two feet deeper, and that pieces of the van would be found on top of an eight-story building three blocks away.)
At the line, the mood remained celebratory – I remember someone passing a joint; someone from the Cardinal was taking pictures; there might even have been a transistor radio and some music – until around 4:30 a.m. when police brought out a stretcher bearing a sheet-covered body. Abruptly, the line fell silent.
Day was breaking as we crunched home on streets bejewelled with glass. Burglar alarms and sirens still shrieked near and far. From the crest of the hill at the Charter-University intersection, I looked up and down University Avenue. Cars were topsy-turvy on the sidewalks. One blocked the bus lane near the Green Lantern eating co-op. There were glassless windows as far as I could see in both directions. Later, someone would calculate that it took 38,000 square feet of plywood to cover them all, and such was the temper of the time that few owners would hazard new glass. So the windows stayed boarded up for a year or more, and UW – then as now, one of America’s foremost universities – became known as “Old Plywood U.”
A depraved new world greeted us on the morrow. Don MacLean was wrong: in many ways, Army Math was the day the music died. Later that day, we learned that the body we had seen on the stretcher was that of Robert Fassnacht, a brilliant physics post-doc, already at 33 one of America’s leading authorities on superconductivity. Now he was dead and all his research destroyed. And that very night – the reason he was in the building so late – he was beginning an experiment that he thought would lead to a breakthrough. Who knows? Were it not for Army Math, we might all be riding around today on a cushion of reverse polarity – and OPEC just another odious acronym in the history books. To add insult to injury, we learned he was sympathetic to the antiwar movement, was a harpsichordist of some note – and worst of all, left behind a wife and three babies, including one-year-old twin daughters.
With that, the moral high ground of that May’s Cambodian Invasion and the Kent State killings was lost. In the light of the bomb blast, the New Left knew sin, Todd Gitlin observed. (I figured he missed the Rolling Stones at Altamont and some of the love-in’s and “acid tests” I’d attended.) So ultimately, Army Math resolved itself into the evil twin of yet another counterculture dualism – much like the previous summer’s Woodstock nirvana closely attended by the Manson walpurgisnacht.
Of course, the straight world was quick to press its “I told you so” advantage. The Daily Cardinal – which supported the bombing in two editorials – lost 75 per cent of its advertising and much of its financial support from the university. The Madison Kaleidoscope – a radical underground paper that enjoyed a special relationship with the bombers and had given them their name, the New Year’s Gang – was singled out for special attention. Hawkers of the paper’s “Bomb Extra” were beaten up and chased off Capitol Square. Its founder and publisher Mark Knops – in jail for refusing to reveal his sources in another case – had his contempt incarceration upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Mainstream liberal Democrats were heckled in that fall’s elections. Even President Nixon weighed in on Army Math in a speech that put it in the context of the “cancerous disease” of terrorism – of the “acceptance of violence” and the “condoning of terror.”
As for law enforcement, it was issued carte blanche – which it was quick to cash. For the first time, the Madison Police Department was allowed to patrol the campus – and special funding by the legislature made overtime no object. Informants in abundance soon peopled The Movement’s long-haired ranks and a new paranoia was born. And the FBI – which had opened its WISBOM investigation (modelled on MIBURN (“Mississippi Burning”) down South) – was on the counterculture like a Walmart suit. No one was exempt from its tender ministrations. Even Senator George McGovern’s son-in-law Jim Rowan – the reporter who had authored the Cardinal articles on Army Math’s skullduggery – was located in a trailer park in Taos, New Mexico, and grilled about his knowledge – not just of the bombers – but of the entire now-underground Weather faction.
Within days, from the editorial fastnesses of New York, the mainstream press chimed in; portentous phrase-making the order of the day. George Will pronounced Army Math the “Hiroshima of the New Left.” (I figured he had read about the mushroom cloud.) Vice President Spiro Agnew called us “radic-libs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (It was a time when Word Power Made Easy stayed atop The New York Times bestseller list for months.) J. Edgar Hoover called us “commonist agitators” and turned up the heat on COINTELPRO. (This was the Bureau’s black-bag operation against the counterculture, and after Watergate exposed its evidentiary “poisonous fruit,” it would spring the likes of Bill Ayers, Bernie Dohrn and a whole host of the most violent radicals of the era.) From somewhere in hiding, Bill and Bernie called Army Math a “right-on political action.” From the St. Francis House, we called Badger Glass.
Even lefty history professor Harvey Goldberg – who enjoyed a cult following among Madison radicals (“The truth is radical!”) and was blamed by many as fomenting Army Math – was said to have been stunned by the enormity of the destruction. Back from his sabbatical year in Paris – where he lived near an apartment once occupied by Karl Marx and enjoyed dinners with the North Vietnamese peace delegation – he was slow to comment to his standing-room-only crowds in Ag Hall. When finally he did, he put Army Math in “historical context” – which saw Fassnacht’s death, four others seriously injured, years of research lost and 26 damaged university buildings against the backdrop of millions dead and wounded in Vietnam. Seven years of peaceful protest had not stopped America’s neocolonial militarist misadventure, he opined. Army Math was regrettable, but inevitable – even necessary. He was virtually alone in that assessment.
So though the Vets for Peace continued to meet in St. Franny’s basement – and though Transcendental Meditation continued to oohmm it’s way to higher consciousness every Thursday night – The Movement had changed. Of course, newly arrived, I had no basis for comparison; rather, numerous friends remarked on the new mood. The fall semester that began two weeks later was the most tranquil in years. Before long, the famous sign that some wag had hung on the ruins of Army Math – Chicken Little Was Right! – would be replaced by a banner put up by department physicists condemning the use of violence in the name of peace. Amen to that, seemed to be the consensus echoed all along The Isthmus.
Later that fall, the Chicago 7 – shorn now of Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was still serving his contempt sentence – would show up with their lawyer William Kunstler in tow – caps out for a defense-fund handout – and – like Angela Davis’s sister after them – leave pretty much empty-handed. (Kunstler would return in ’73 to defend bombing ringleader Karl Armstrong and get a warmer reception.) They were followed in turn by Angela Davis’s sister and Jane Fonda, then paramour and later wife of SDSer Tom Hayden. They found the Third Coast there on The Isthmus much less inviting. During one stay, Hayden and Fonda would hole up at lefty Mayor Paul Soglin’s house and refuse to be seen with SDSers. They were, Hayden told them, out of the mainstream of electoral politics. He especially had to protect Fonda, he said, because the “Hanoi Jane” label was proving hard to shake.
So though the war debate continued – at times more passionate than ever – and though a small cadre of Weatherman continued their bicoastal campaign of nail-bombs – for the wider Movement, violence was pretty much taken off the table as a viable tool for ending the hated war. The tsunami of moral rectitude conferred just that May by Cambodia and Kent State crested and broke on the yellow bricks of Sterling Hall. And it broke not just there on Madison’s Third Coast, but all across the landscape of the American counterculture.
(In 1972, Armstrong was finally captured in Canada – and after a lengthy extradition battle was brought home to Madison to stand trial. On the occasion in ’73, I started a poem –
The headlines touch us like the rain of smithereens
For now your capture brings it home again.
Like a soldier returned in the wake of Armistice
No brass bands but two colored baggagemen
Greet you at the station.
Now there are more Weathermen than points of the compass
But you have set your single course.
Are you amazed that our serial numbers have affected
The moral momentousness of bombers over Hanoi?
– that I never finished. After all, The Dickster had ended the war and my “serial number” (birthday) had come up number 263 in General Hershey’s draft lottery: it all seemed so irrelevant now.)
From Army Math, flashforward four years. It was 1974, and the Radical 60s were finally over – it being my contention that the Sixties actually run from ’64 to ’74. (Consider: ’64: JFK’s death (end of ’63), the Beatles arrive, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution begins the ‘Nam War, Civil Rights Act, UC-Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, Ken Kesey’s “acid tests,” etc. ’74: Watergate.) Those four years passed in a blur, and this is not an allusion to the drug culture that was everywhere around us. In time, they led me to four communes, antiwar demonstrations, rock festivals, the Samizdat, small-press movement, back to the land at the Mother Earth News – and later still – under the demon spell of Carlos Casteneda – to Mexico to eat psilocybin mushrooms and encounter God in the Sonoran Desert. (Whew! Little wonder that many of us Boomers consider life after the 60s/70s anticlimax.)
Over the whole of the decade, I crisscrossed the Sixties cultural map – sometimes literally. Five times I hitchhiked across the country, including two “heart my throat” trips across my native South. (These last two were in the early 70s, after the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Charles Manson in ’69 had convinced the Great Silent Majority that flower power was a “longhair commonist conspiracy.”) Though in no way a player, I was – like a radical Forrest Gump – an eyewitness to much of the history of the age. In hindsight, it was a little uncanny. For instance, at Mardi Gras in ’69, I found myself staying at the DownTowner Motel on Canal Street where the Clay Shaw jury – for DA Jim Garrison’s bogus conspiracy case in the assassination of JFK – was sequestered. Each morning, I watched as police trooped them through the lobby to waiting vans.
Three friends and I spent the month of July at the Meher Baba Center in Myrtle Beach, SC, the year Baba died. (FYI, the “Avatar of the Age” was an Indian guru much like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. We can blame the Beatles for the Maharishi – and Transcendental Meditation. I have a mantra and still meditate.) We had been brought to the Baba Center by a recovering speed freak who one night in a methadrine meltdown had encountered God in the stacks of UNC’s graduate library. En menage, we quickly turned Baba’s oceanfront Center for the Western World into Spring Break Central. We smoked pot and drank beer in Meditation Hall while we spitballed the plot line for a movie to be called Beach Baba. (Among other things, Superhero Baba – possessing a sound political consciousness and even sounder muscle tone – levitates the Pentagon and drops it in the Gulf of Tonkin – on top of the U.S.S. Carl Vincent.)
One night we left the kitchen trashed and stumbled into it hung over at midmorning to encounter the oxymoronic wonder of a mild-eyed, mellowed-out New Yorker washing our dishes. When we tried to thank her – and explain that we had every intention of policing our debris – she gave us that lotus-eater’s smile and pointed to a picture over the sink of a bearded old hippie in a bed sheet with a heroin addict’s beatific gaze.
“Baba did them,” she explained.
“Say what?” I gave the photo a closer look. “I’m likin’ this guy better all the time,” I told her.
“Spiritual transcendence and floors ‘n’ windows. That’s the centered life. Sign me up!”
In the spring of ’74, as the Sixties drew to a close, two friends and I tooled around the South in a VW van with a $100,000 – an enormous sum in those days – searching for a farm where we could start a commune for, among others, the city attorney of Gary, Indiana. We broke down in Harlan County, Kentucky, and rebuilt the engine on the roadside, using the Whole Earth Catalog and How To Keep Your VW Alive (the progenitor of today’s Complete Idiot and Dummies books). At night, rebel-yelling, redneck coal miners peppered the van with beer cans and epithets impugning longhair as emblematic of conflicted sexual identity. It was a terrifying three days – that ended with us living with our tormetors and bonding on the issues of labor rights and coal-country environmentalism.
At length, Watergate transpired – what novelist John Updike called “the super-vindication” of the counterculture’s “worst contention” – or something like that. (I mentioned the dope?) Richard “Big House” Nixon went before the bar – then in it. The tumbril rattled off to the guillotine – aka Club Fed – freighted with the best and brightest of a generation. It was the age of political prisoners as household names – first the Left (Hayden, Hoffman, Seale); then, as the Left emerged victorious – buoyed by the humongous demographics of Boomer Nation – the Right took its turn (Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman).
Madison has been called “76 square miles surrounded by reality,” and in August, reality reared its ugly head, the ultimate horror occurred: I found a job – sports editor for the Hilton Head News on Hilton Head Island, SC. Though it was already famed as a sports mecca, only one person in our Lake Wingra commune had ever heard of it – and perennial grad students that we were, his knowledge wasn’t sports-related at all. Rather, he had read Pat Conroy’s novel The Water Is Wide – basis for the Jon Voigt movie Conrack – set on nearby Daufuskie Island.
However, another communard – who is today a cataract doc and was then wont to slip off to Milwaukee on the odd weekend for a round of golf – had heard of the Heritage Golf Classic. He told me this in private lest we be found out, for golf was viewed by our resident dialectician as a reactionary, Republican pastime that bred revisionist, Trotskyite thinking. (If memory serves, his phrase was “biped scum dressed in the tattered rags of Religion and Philosophy!”) There was also the counter-revolutionary matter of the psychosis induced by errant ball flight. I myself had once witnessed – on the occasion of a wild duck-hook – my peacenik roommate attack an unoffending ballwasher with a two iron and thrash it within a centimeter of its life, all the while berating its back-sliding, bourgeois consciousness.
So I gassed up Van Morrison, laid in six quarts of reprocessed oil – one for my shoulder-length hair – and was off to the sunny Southland. I sang Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” all the way to the North Carolina line – then switched to Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” It was a time of moral relativism – and unconflicted rednecks who threw beer bottles from pickups with preternatural accuracy.
In Coosawhatchie, SC, I went into a KFC for my daily portion of grease – it being a sad reality that man cannot live by bread alone. If memory serves – and actually it was a bulbous waitress name of May Ellen – I was sending the wing portion of my three-piece dinner barging down the Alimentary Canal – “O solo mio!” – when The Dickster came on the PA – replacing Mantovani’s Ten Thousand Strings doing “Eleanor Rigby.” He whimpered – though Checkers was long dead – and the rest, as they say, is misery – every day, nine to five.
I arrived that night on Hilton Head and toured Harbourtown Yacht Basin – that was then new and looked like a Monaco exhibit at EPCOT (the font veille or “old port”) – in my paisley-patched, bellbottom jeans and “Off the War Machine!” teeshirt. (I had had the good grace to put my peace-symbol pendant inside it.) Unaccountably, I got some long looks. As I was barely a week removed from a Mifflin Street block party, a Marscape wouldn’t have been any stranger than this vision of the maldistribution of wealth in the service of conspicuous consumption. Under the Carolina moon, I saw mega-yachts berthed beneath the famous red-and-white lighthouse, the Liberty Oak and the roisterous Quarterdeck cocktail lounge. Across the harbor was the famous 18th hole of Harbourtown Links, and beyond the harbormouth, across the moonlit whitecaps of Calibogue Sound, I could just make out Pat Conroy’s Daufuskie Island. With a start – and a final twinge of conscience – I realized that I was now officially a running dog of the imperialist lackeys. (Where was Mike Vick when you needed him?)
A week later, my peace symbol was in the bottom of a desk drawer, and alligator-logoed and shorn of my locks, I found myself on the Gulf Stream aboard a Hatteras sportfisher named the “Mad Hatter.” (I was covering the Sea Pines Invitational Billfish Tournament.) I was surrounded by overweight men over thirty, and they seemed pretty darned nice, trustworthy even. Though I didn’t know it then, the Sixties were over for me, blown away by the revisionist tradewinds, already growing faint as the fragrance of jasmine incense and red-dirt marijuana. In the phrase of the day, I had sold out. In point of fact, I had grown up.
Articles, fiction and photos for publications like the SATURDAY EVENING POST, GRAY’S SPORTING JOURNAL, GOLF and TENNIS magazines, MOTOR BOATING & SAILING, DENVER POST, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and HOME & AWAY have taken writer-photographer Sam Mills to four continents and nearly 40 foreign countries.
Born in Brownsville, Texas, Mills grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina , locale for his recently completed novel, THE MONEY TREE. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison .
He is a former staff member of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS, the SAVANNAH NEWS-PRESS and ISLANDER magazine, and was Hilton Head Island, SC , sports stringer for both AP and UPI.
In 1988, he won the Ned Ramsaur Travel Writing Award, given annually by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to the State’s top travel writer.
He now lives in Pensacola, FL , and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.