Sunday, June 05, 2022

History of My Reading: Graduation 1968 (Part II) RFK

When my class of 1968 marched into graduation, I was not among them, for reasons described in the previous post (Graduation Part 1.) Instead I was on the other side of a wall from the ceremony, in the student union parlor, watching a different kind of ceremony on the television set.

That was Sunday, June 9, 1968. But this story begins on the previous Tuesday, June 4.

We had some big parties at our house on West First Street in the 1967-68 academic year, the place that housemate Bill Thompson dubbed the Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.

In the fall I remember a mid-party appearance by our new Homecoming Queen, the radiant Shirley Kishiyama. Several of the Stoney Mountain Boys—Rick Lindner, Tom Stern and Mark Brooks on tub bass—set up and performed, and I got to play some guitar runs with them on an improvised jam.

Some of our parties were semi-official, like one we had for a blues artist after his concert. I'm pretty sure it was Bukka White. He brought his classic shiny silver National guitar with him, but when people asked him to play he would just look around the room, pick somebody and hand over the guitar. He always found a guitar player, and laughed, claiming he could just tell. It was the only time I ever got to play one of those steel-bodied guitars.

In the spring, we hosted a party for poet Denise Levertov that drew faculty as well as students. We had the cast party for What's Happening, Baby Jesus there.Then our last party of the year—and the last ever for us—was scheduled for Tuesday June 4: primary election day. It was a Victory Party—we just weren’t sure for who. But Thompson had been working since before the New Hampshire primary for Senator Eugene McCarthy. (He’d even made a halfhearted attempt to get “Clean for Gene,” which basically meant kind of a haircut.) I was supporting Senator Robert Kennedy, and hoped I would be working to elect him President that summer and fall. Both were against the war.

For although the world’s imperfections may call forth the acts of war, righteousness cannot obscure the agony and pain these acts bring to a single child.”
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in the March 1967 Senate speech in which he broke with the Johnson administration on Vietnam.

Robert Kennedy had been the keeper of the flame after JFK’s assassination in 1963, and President Lyndon B. Johnson knew it and resented it. By 1967 RFK was making speeches on the Senate floor questioning American involvement in Vietnam (which—several historians confirm—his brother President John Kennedy had intended to end in his second term.) But the media usually saw everything RFK did as reflecting his animosity towards LBJ or his political ambitions, or both.

It has since been reported that RFK wanted to challenge LBJ for the 1968 nomination, but felt frustrated that it would be seen only as expressing that animosity, and not as a principled opposition on both the war and on his signature domestic issue, racism and the plight of black Americans, especially in the inner cities.

Until early 1968 it looked as if there would be no anti-war alternative in the November election. Then a relatively obscure U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, entered the New Hampshire primary as a candidate opposing LBJ, and the Vietnam War.

Some at Knox responded quickly. Wendy Saul chaired an exploratory meeting in February. I attended either that meeting or a subsequent one, held in the basement of a women's dorm. I remember being depressed by the discussion, and taking a break from it to sit alone nearby, where I could hear the sound of someone taking a shower. I remember the image because I put it in a poem.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about McCarthy or his campaign. I didn’t believe he could win. But of course if he had remained the only alternative, I would have supported him.

McCarthy did shockingly well in New Hampshire, coming in a very close second to LBJ. RFK felt that he could no longer be accused of dividing the Democratic Party: it clearly was already. But reportedly two other factors pushed him. First, that the generals were asking for 200,000 more American troops, and LBJ agreed. Second, that LBJ wasn’t going to even consider the recently announced recommendations of the Kerner Commission to address the causes of racial strife in the cities.

Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for President on a Saturday morning in March. It was spring break and Joni and I were visiting Mary Azer and her family in West Chicago. Joni and Mary were Post Hall roommates. I think I met them at the same time the previous spring. I remember Mary, red hair, blue eyes, quietly mischievous smile, showing up at West First Street one night that winter in her Navy blue peacoat to go play in the snow.

So I met Mary’s parents and her younger sister, Barbara, then in high school—dark-haired, energetic, direct, pretty, funny. I remember watching RFK’s announcement, probably in their basement rec room. I knew that now I had my candidate. RFK had political and rhetorical strengths McCarthy didn’t. And as became apparent in the remaining primaries, particularly in California, RFK had enthusiastic support in the black and Latino communities.

I was encouraged, wary and dared to be a bit hopeful. I’d followed RFK’s career from the Justice Department to the Senate in 1965. He was running for the Senate in New York as we started our first year at Knox, and I remember lending a paperback book of his speeches and statements (The Pursuit of Justice) to classmate Nina Palmer with whom I shared a class (probably Spanish), because she was from New York. I noted his first Senate speeches, on nuclear proliferation and gun control. My second year I participated in Prof. Dean Torrence’s mock Senate—for that exercise I was Senator Robert Kennedy.

Reading speeches, by the way, had been part of my reading since high school, partly because I was a debater, and partly because John F. Kennedy was President, and his speeches were eloquent and substantive (thanks in part to his main speechwriter, Ted Sorenson.  I say in part because Sorenson never achieved on his own or for anyone else this level of writing.)  I had two books of JFK speeches before I left for college, and the aforementioned one by RFK.  I would add another before 1968.

Not long after RFK’s announcement and his pledge not to attack McCarthy directly, we all heard that LBJ was going to address the nation that night, on April Fool's Day Eve. Joni and I got to the nearest television, which was a few doors down West First at the home of Robin and Lynn Metz. The moment that LBJ announced that he would not run for reelection was surreal and delirious. Now the chances that the war could end had greatly increased. There was dancing in the streets at campuses across America that night. I didn’t see any at Knox, but our hearts were dancing on West First Street.

Then in April, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK was campaigning in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis, and he broke the news to the crowd. He spoke softly, from the heart, mentioning the assassination of his brother. He quoted a line from Aeschylus, his favorite poet, from memory.  Then he expressed what was to become an unusual campaign theme:

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” He urged everyone to "dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”

The next day he spoke in Cleveland, on the “mindless menace of violence.” He started with the violence of shootings and riots and the war. “Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created?”

But he also spoke of less obvious violence, hidden, persistent and insidious: “For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”  Today this would be called a reference to structural racism, as well as structural sexism and poverty.

But he did not stop there.  McCarthy got credit for being intellectual, but RFK had the depth derived from classical literature, and so he spoke in ways no other politician could.  "The question is not what program we should seek to enact.  The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence."  

And then, a statement that must strike terror in the hearts of Social Darwinists, consciously or otherwise:  "We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the advancement of all.  We must admit to ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortune of others."

RFK won primaries in two states, Indiana and Nebraska, that had few elements of his natural constituencies. He lost Oregon to McCarthy however, and so the next big step in the campaign was California, the last and largest primary. A victory there could mean RFK would be the coalition antiwar candidate at the August convention in Chicago. He would be opposed by the establishment candidate, LBJ’s vice president Hubert Humphrey, who supported LBJ and the war.

Our festivities started before the polls closed in the West Coast time zone. It was crowded and loud, with the latest Hendrix, the new Cream on the stereo. But we didn’t have a working television in the house, so every once in awhile Thompson would get on the phone with a friend watching a dorm TV to get the latest speculation and then the vote counts.

I was restless, moving back and forth from the heat and laughter of the party and the cool solitary dark quiet outside. When the call came confirming Kennedy’s victory, I mostly felt relief.

Joni and I rushed down to the Metz house to watch RFK’s victory statement, even though they were McCarthy supporters. Kennedy appeared in the incredibly crowded ballroom of the campaign’s hotel and spoke briefly. He congratulated McCarthy and spoke about their common effort. He thanked his staff and supporters. He saw his victory but also McCarthy’s campaign as a validation: “The country wants to move in a different direction, we want to deal with our own problems within our country and we want peace in Vietnam.”

“On to Chicago,” he concluded, “and let’s win there.”

We went back to the house but I was still restless. Something about that ballroom scene, something about how RFK looked made me anxious. So I went back out almost immediately. I began to walk in the cool humid night, the sidewalks moist from recent rain. I headed away from the streetlights, to dark weedy fields. RFK’s victory in California would signal his appeal to anxious party leaders like Mayor Daley, who was inclined to support him. He’d also won that night in South Dakota, within Humphrey’s midwestern sphere of influence. That also would be noted by party leaders. Could it be that the war was going to end? That there would be a President I could believe in again?

The walk calmed me, and by the time I got to West First I was ready for sleep. Then I saw Joni running up the sidewalk towards me, alarmed, frightened. I stopped in front of the Metz house. She stood still in front of me and said as evenly as she could: “Bob Kennedy’s been shot.”

The Metz house was dark but I banged on the door until the porch light came on. When Robin opened the door, I repeated Joni’s words exactly. We both wondered about it later, that we had called him Bob. He was always Robert, or RFK, he was Bobby.

Later Joni told me how she’d heard. Thompson answered the phone, and through the noise of the party’s remnants she heard him saying: “Who?” and then cry “No! No!” At that moment Joni thought something had happened to me.

We turned on the television coverage. The bedlam at the hotel. The first medical reports—Kennedy was alive, but in critical condition. It went on all night. First Lynn then Robin went upstairs to bed. Joni dozed on the sofa, woke up and walked back down the street to sleep. I stayed there, watching, the rest of the night. Frank Mankiewicz, RFK’s campaign press secretary, announced that the Senator’s vitals were good but doctors were about to begin surgery. He had been shot in the head.

The first two plus hours were filled with anxious talk, facts reported and then rescinded and corrected, about the shooting itself, the number of victims and their condition, and the person or people who had done it. There were interviews with witnesses, a lot of talk about a woman in a polka dot dress who had disappeared. For awhile everyone was obsessed with the woman in the polka dot dress.

I remember the NBC reporter Sander Vanocur trying to look in the camera calmly in the atmosphere of shock and hysteria. At one point he reported that police had a suspect in custody whose last name was Sirhan. They didn’t have a first name. So it became the mystery of the hour, what was Sirhan’s first name. Finally he was able to confirm that they knew the first name now: it was Sirhan. His name was Sirhan Sirhan. Maybe it was the reporter, or maybe it was me, but at least one of us almost lost it at that moment.

At dawn I turned off the set, and probably after stopping at the house, walked over to campus. I had early breakfast in one of the dining halls (the one on the corner that isn't the Oak Room.)There was something eerie about that breakfast, both bleak and comforting--I still dream about it.  In the dream the room is filled with bright gray light, and it seems a miracle, or a mistake, that I am allowed to eat there.

But for a few moments on that morning it seemed possible that none of what I'd seen all night had actually happened, that nothing had happened to me either for the past several months and I was back at the beginning.  But soon I was camped out in the union parlor in front of the television, and it was quickly clear that it all had happened, and was happening now.

Judging from the times recorded in later reporting, it must have been around five a.m. in Galesburg when surgery started. It went on for more than three hours. So I was probably watching the union TV when the coverage was focusing on the medical aspects.

Doctors were interviewed, pointing at charts of the brain. They were not optimistic. Then someone brought new information on the location of the wound. One doctor who saw it got excited. He said if that were true, RFK could be out of the hospital in a few weeks, perfectly okay.

But a few minutes later, that doctor was interviewed again. Pale and shaken, he said that the new information was actually about another victim, Paul Shrade, a California official for the United Auto Workers and a major Kennedy supporter. He’d also been shot in the head, and he did leave the hospital in a few weeks. His was the only apparently serious wound. All five of the other victims survived.

Then the surgery was over, and just past 9 a.m. Mankiewicz said it had gone well, but the next 12 to 36 hours would be critical.

The coverage continued and I kept vigil until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. But after a few hours sleep, I was back again. It was Wednesday evening when Mankiewicz returned to the microphones and said that the doctors were concerned that Kennedy hadn’t show improvement. “Kennedy’s condition is still described as extremely critical as to life.”

So it was now just a matter of time. Time to contemplate, time to look around with different eyes, time to almost forget. Time to relive the nightmarish day that JFK was shot and the weekend that followed. I’d watched it all on television then, too. On that Sunday my family went to church but I stayed home to watch. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald being moved from jail—I was startled by what looked like a gun. But it turned out to be a microphone. And a moment later I heard the shots. I saw Oswald shot on live television.

At four in the morning on Thursday, Mankiewicz stood on the lawn of twisted cables in front of Good Samaritan hospital one last time to make announcement everyone knew was coming: Robert Kennedy was dead.

I must have watched stretches of coverage in the following days—the casket arriving in pools of bright light amidst the darkness of the New York airport, the motorcade of black cars to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There his mother waited, and his friends took turns attending the casket, and in different parts of the cavernous cathedral, red-faced Mayor Daley and ashen Tom Haden wept.

On Friday the crowds gathered, formed into block-long lines to pass by the casket, to touch the curved cold steel covered in flowers, each with a word of farewell. A reporter noted what words he heard most often: “Forgive us, Bobby.”

Saturday morning was the funeral Mass, with all the dignitaries in attendance. Senator Edward Kennedy gave a brief eulogy: “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

And all day Saturday the funeral train made its slow way to Washington, passing thousands of the unimportant. Many of those gathered, in small groups, families and even alone, or in large groups near the cities, were poor, and many more were black.

Failing to account for the people on the tracks to see the funeral train, the railroad allowed its regular traffic. Several people were killed, including improbably a woman named Antoinette Severini, who died saving her granddaughter. That’s my aunt’s maiden name, though it wasn’t her. Still, given the woman’s name and her location, it’s possible if not likely she was a relative.

Jacqueline Kennedy, her children and her sister
Then in darkness, Robert F. Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

I’m not sure how much of this I saw as it was happening, but probably quite a lot. Yet I felt compelled to go back to the television on Sunday, to see programs that compiled images of the events.

Having no particular business there I probably should have left campus before graduation weekend, but inertia in packing up to leave was compounded by these paralyzing events. So I was around as families of my classmates arrived. I believe I met Wendy Saul’s father out on the Gizmo patio. I may have seen Barbie Cottral’s parents and her sister Lindsey, who I’d met on a brief visit to Clinton, Iowa the previous summer.

But I believe it was that weekend that I had a singularly memorable experience, so different from the rest of that week. Mary Azer’s parents and sister Barbara were there, and Joni and I probably went out to dinner with them. Joni flew back to Denver on or before graduation day, so this might have been Saturday night.

What I remember is returning with them to their motel in what had to be a prearrangement, because I found myself swimming at night in the motel pool out on the highway somewhere with three lovely young women: Joni, Mary and Barbara. It was heaven, and a little torturous as well. But most of all it was peaceful. The effect was not even completely destroyed when I noticed the black night sky was dominated, not by a silver white moon, but by a large red or orange round neon sign high on a stanchion, probably a Gulf sign.  It reflected red in the pool.

But on Sunday, as the graduates gathered, I was back before the student union television. On that day as on the previous ones there were faces and voices on the dotted screen talking about Bobby. Charles Evers, slain Medgar’s brother, with angry tears insisting Bobby did more for blacks than anyone. A longhaired young man claiming that as news came of Kennedy’s impending California victory, Abbie Hoffman was ready to disband the Yippies and call off the demonstration at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

A young aide said Kennedy behind the scenes was advocating American withdrawal from Vietnam when antiwar leaders were only calling for negotiations. The playwright who said that the day he died, Kennedy praised the Watts Writers Workshop and wanted the federal government to fund others. An American Indian writer spoke of Kennedy’s visits to reservations, said Indians considered him a warrior on their behalf.

A steelworker who said he was the only politician who might end the war and still get the hardhat vote. An historian who said RFK had been the best Attorney General in American history. Another who noted that Kennedy reveled in poetry, and once completed a couplet that Richard Burton forgot when the two were reciting for each other by heart.

People really loved him, they said. And people really, really hated him, they said. He knew he was going to be killed, a few whispered.

And pictures of Bobby, smiling and touching, frenzied hands reaching for him, talking softly to children, joking with campaign crowds, pounding his right fist into his left hand. This is unacceptable, he said. This is not satisfactory, he said. We can do better.

A student at a medical school asking him where the money was going to come from to pay for his programs for the poor. “From you,” he said.

Bobby talking about the war, about “the vacant moment of amazed fear as a mother and child watch death by fire fall from an improbable machine sent by a country they barely comprehend.”

And endless repetitions of his last public words, on the podium in California, with people pressed against him, his victory statement. “...the division, the violence, the disenchantment...whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam...we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country. I intend to make that my basis for running...”

At the funeral, young Kennedy children carrying Communion articles to the altar, while Mahler played, and people wept. The cameras had trouble with the contrasting light, so there were dimly visible pools surrounded by recesses of darkness. An announcer noted that the priest wore violet vestments, not black. But on TV they were gray.

Always present, RFK's wife Ethel Kennedy, pregnant. (There's a label on another of my blogs called "land of guns," for the numbingly frequent stories on gun violence. It comes from a line in a poem I wrote at the time about this week, that ends with the image of Ethel Kennedy "swollen/in the land of guns.")

I do remember that it was Sunday that I saw more of the long surreal funeral train, and the night burial. Of all the images, the funeral train seemed to say the most, rolling slowly, reluctantly past the once again abandoned, for when it stopped, it marked the end of possibilities.

Without Bobby, the war would go on. The mad havoc, the mechanical killing would go on and on in Vietnam, and young men here of my age, boys I’d gone to Catholic schools with or played with in the vacant lots of my home town, sons of salesmen, milk truck drivers, factory workers, cooks for the last rich family in town, as well as young men in my college class, now out there with beaming parents watching, would have to face those awful choices.

I would never have my graduation. But this was my commencement.

Monday, May 09, 2022

History of My Reading: Graduation 1968 (Part 1)

“No need to survive.”
Nano Sakaki to Gary Snyder

These next two posts are perhaps less about what I was reading in the spring of 1968 than some of the consequences of what I had read within my life and my own writing.  In that sense, they are about graduation.  But they also center on a literal graduation ceremony--the one that was supposed to be mine.

a later Knox commencement
Gray metal chairs were lined up on the freshly mowed, bright green lawn at the back of Old Main. Men in suits, women in dresses were starting to assemble, parents and relatives of the graduates, with younger brothers and sisters dancing and jangling around.

Meanwhile, members of the graduating class of 1968 were buttoning their black robes, at least some of them rented for the occasion, shiny with the wear of generations. Or so I imagined.

Not far away, with just a wall between them, was the Seymour Hall student union parlor. It was dark, curtains on the tall windows drawn against the June sun. The big squat television set was on. Laughter and chattering voices drifted in from the foyer, but tended to diminish if someone came cautiously into the carpeted room for a moment to peek at the TV, though there were those who had cynical comments to make.

At first a few people sat watching the television. But as the ceremonies began there was usually only one person there, lost in the sofa’s worn out cushions, hidden from sight behind the ancient couch’s stiff high back. That was me.

Why I was on the other side of the wall from what would have been my graduation ceremony after four years at Knox was the result of two very different sets of circumstances.

One set was set in motion at the end of winter term, as related in a prior post, when I flunked evolution.

Bill Thompson and Joni, enacting an American
Gothic scene in the broken fields behind our
house on West First Street.  My photo.
In the golden green month of May, many things were moving towards conclusion, if not culmination. I was living in a big prairie Gothic house on West First Street, shared with my last remaining housemate, Bill Thompson, and my frequent guest, Joni Diner. I was back in the attic, as I had been at the start in Anderson House. This time however I had the whole floor—basically two rooms, a snug bedroom and down a short narrow passage, a large study.

I wrote a lot in that room, though it never felt like enough. I had already begun to mythologize my time at Knox, and those manuscript pages—worked over, cut up and reassembled many times over the next decade or so—currently reside in boxes in the garage, along with the detritus of those years that happened to survive. I never did get the manuscript quite right.

That spring of 1968 I was writing fiction for another workshop course. Earlier in the year I’d written a short story that everyone who read it seemed to like, called “Diamond in the Sky.” Robin Metz was in his first year teaching fiction writing—he and his family lived just a few doors down on West First—and he urged me to send it out to possibly get published.

So I sent it to my favorite magazine, the New Yorker, which also was pretty much the gold standard, the premiere place for fiction for professional writers. I’d read John Updike and J.D. Salinger in those pages.

They kept it for an unusually long time. Then the letter from the New Yorker finally arrived. It was from the inimitable Roger Angell, then the fiction editor. Its first sentence has been seared into my brain for fifty years: “We could hardly bear not publishing your story.”

And yet, they did bear it pretty well. In the letter, Angell wondered whether it wouldn’t have been better to just send me a straight rejection, but they thought so highly of the writing...and so on. Highly encouraging in a way, but in another way... I don’t want to exaggerate the effect, but I think it did qualify as being a bit traumatic. It haunted me for years. I never got that close again.

In April I finished off and collected my fiction, as well poems and plays for the college annual writing awards. Earlier in that attic room I wrote the play I directed in April, What’s Happening, Baby Jesus. I recently found the production script which included some lines I added late:

SONNY: We gave you everything we had. Where did we go wrong?

DRIFTER: Where? Dresden, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Birmingham, Watts, Hue, Saigon, Berkeley... 

SONNY: Well, nobody’s perfect.

That’s God speaking, get it?

Me with Thompson's hat, enacting my version. BT's
camera facing the other way, towards campus, the
field already being prepared for major construction.
All the houses on W. First are gone now.
Also that spring I wrote a twenty page paper, with footnotes, for my Science and Society class. It’s strange what papers survived storage and transport over the years. I’m missing the ones I best remember: my long independent studies paper on three Scott Fitzgerald novels, my paper on a Wallace Stevens’ poem that at the time Doug Wilson thought was good enough to submit for academic publication.

 Instead, I have a junior year paper on Emerson that Wilson thought wasn’t very good, and gave me a B-. I remember it with frustration: I was annoyed that a love affair had interrupted writing the paper, and annoyed that writing the paper had interrupted the love affair.

And I also have the Science and Society paper, which I recently found. Indeed its subject is how scientific theories are influenced by outside factors and ideas: in particular, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s theories on relativity. The citations are from history and philosophy of science, and include Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was later to become quite famous. So I got to research that subject after all, though a term too late for other "evolutionary" purposes. I got an A on the paper and for the course.

My other course work was in connection with the English comprehensive exams. I remember the frantic reading and studying that shredded that beautiful spring, all the near-panic among the students I knew as the exam date drew near.

There was a question and answer component, and an essay. The essay seemed to cause the most concern, as we tried to figure out in at least what period or area we should expect the topic to be. The whole of English literature was a daunting expanse to consider. I remember that one of our professors—on his way down to the bookstore or the mail boxes in Alumni Hall—laughed at our anxiety and told us to relax, we would enjoy it.

Oddly enough he was right. The essay question was to analyze the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, a surprising choice in that none of my teachers had seemed that impressed with the Romantics.  But in fact I did enjoy every minute of discovering elements of the poem that led directly to the famous conclusion: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I’d love to have that particular blue book now. Later I was told that my essay “could not be graded high enough,” and that as a result, I had the highest combined score on the comprehensives for my department. Given my grade however, I have my doubts about that.

At some point in May, the spring edition of the college literary magazine was published. It was still called, for probably the last time, the Siwasher. I was co-editor that year with Wendy Saul. I believe we divided the basic editorial chores in half—she took the winter issue, I took the spring. There was more of a shared process on selection of the material for both issues, involving other students as well.

For my years at Knox, the magazine looked basically the same: a standard size print magazine with poems, short stories and an occasional play script, with a discrete section of reproductions of student art work, some in black and white and some in color.

I wanted to try something different. My dream was to someday create a complete art work in a box: a novel with a related musical record album, visual collage, photo or art work, and a film. For this issue I wanted to try a variation of that, and especially to include components or presentations that hadn’t been included before.

The question was the budget. Though I had (and have) remarkably few practical skills, I had been bringing things to publication since junior high school. I did the grunt work for several issues of the Knox magazine called Dialogue in previous years. Budgets weren’t my forte either but I did figure out how to do this for the same price as earlier issues: a magazine that came in a brown manila envelope. It contained a booklet of print, plus two vinyl records of music and six 8x10 sheets of photographs, and a poster by Steve Miller.

Unfortunately that didn’t leave enough money for the usual four color separation for art works. But I figured skipping one issue was worth the additions. We did include a black and white photo of a sculpture by Peter Overton and Recep Goknil, an art student from Turkey.

The photographs were by Jack Brown (whose photo from the Pentagon demonstration in October was the cover of our fall issue), alumnus David Axelrod, Leonard Borden and Bill Thompson (including a portrait of Lisa Metz, then four or five, looking rapturously ahead at what Robin ruefully admitted was the TV.)

The envelope itself included a short unattributed poem by Howard Partner. (I was a big fan of his poems. We published two of them in our winter issue.) The booklet inside included fiction by Jeremy Gladstone and Barbara Ann Cottral, a play by Sherwood Kiraly and poems by Nicholas Brockunier, Anne Maxfield, Bob Epstein, Harvey Sadow, Linda Pohle, Wendy Saul, Phil Ralston and me.

One side of the pink record was comprised of “Allegro Con Brio for Two Pianos” written by Karen Janecek, and performed by Karen and James Pinkerton; “Single Girl” by Four in the Morning and “Baby, Now That I Found You” by the Bushes, a Rascals-style group composed of Knox students and Galesburg residents.

The other side was the Joni Mitchell tune “The Urge for Going” performed (vocal and guitar) by our star at both, Rick Clinebell.

The yellow record had three songs by the Stoney Hollow Boys (“Maggie Blues,” “I Saw the Light,” “Mountain Dew.”) The other side was me, singing a long song I wrote, “Nightdove.” However, I used a 60s whimsy secret identity of Captain Toothpaste. I did own up to co-writing the song, but my co-writer was another fictitious alter ego.

Most of the cuts were from live performances. Rick Clinebell reviewed the submitted tapes for quality, and rejected mine. He was rightly impatient with me and my slipshod musicianship in general. In this case he pushed me into a rehearsal room in the CFA, handed me his guitar (much better than mine), plopped down a tape recorder and told me to re-record the song. I seem to remember there was urgency in getting it done before we were off to Iowa, and I believe I had exactly one take.

Wendy, Barbie Cottral and I took the tapes to the nearest studio capable of turning them into records, which was in Iowa—Davenport, I think. It was run by an older gentleman and his wife. She thought “Captain Toothpaste” was a scream. Every once in awhile she would repeat it and laugh again. (When I went back to pick up the actual records weeks later, she was still in stitches over it.  She said when she brushed her teeth at night she would think of Captain Toothpaste and laugh.)

While we were there the first time, he played the tapes and fiddled with his dials, to see if they would work. As he played mine he added a little echo and asked if I wanted him to use it. I said sure. That was the extent of the studio production.

So by May, I was treated to a special experience—walking under an open window at Post Hall and hearing my voice and my song floating out:

And you turn yourself to magic
and fall into the snow
you go the way the wind is slow
foggy and warm, away from harm...

In mid-May the college writing awards were announced. I got a first in fiction, second in plays, third in poetry. I also won the award for the best student library, for the second year in a row. That streak actually went back to winning a library competition for sophomores only. I won the prize of $50 in books from the Knox Bookstore, which helped me build up the bookcase for the following years.

I’m not sure when I was accepted into the University of Iowa Writers Workshop graduate program (one of a handful to be admitted into both the fiction and poetry workshops) and given a fellowship. That process must have at least begun in the spring, assuming my B.A.

All of these apparent achievements bunched together in late spring were distanced by the experiences and feelings of a surreal finality—that this all-embracing and defining madness of our college life would soon be abruptly over, that the next time you saw someone you’d seen many times over four years might actually be the last time.  They were also hollowed by the ongoing effects of those few hours towards the end of winter term.

For though the domino theory was famously not applying to Southeast Asia, it turned out to be working very well in regard to me: I flunked the Evolution final, and so failed the course, failing thereby to complete my distribution requirements, and therefore failed to be eligible to join my class for graduation.

That fate, and ongoing efforts to somehow avoid it, formed the undercurrent to everything else that spring, especially in May. I no longer remember the exact sequence of events, but the first effort was to find some sort of accommodation that would allow me to graduate. I knew that students in prior years had been granted such accommodations (though I failed to consider that, unlike the one student I knew, my father was not a trustee.)

The decision was up to a faculty and administrative committee—though I don't think it was the ultimate irony of being the Student Affairs Committee. I petitioned the appropriate committee. I was refused.

Some years ago I attempted to write about all of this in a short story, and I included an account of a conversation I no longer remember. Still, it has the ring of truth, both in terms of the teller and of my response.   If it didn’t actually happen that way (as my Aunt Toni used to say), it could have.

In this conversation, a faculty member told me that the main reason my petition was denied was because the professor who taught the Evolution course--who was on the committee making the decision-- vigorously opposed it. “When he wouldn’t budge, the others fell in line. You got his back up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You as much as told him his class was a fraud. It made him mad. So instead of punching you in the nose, he just dug in his heels.”

“But...” I stammered. “He’s a—he’s a teacher.”

(There's some documentary evidence supporting this possibility: the 1968 Knox Directory (I actually have two surviving copies) shows that the professor who flunked me was also on the committee that decided my fate. As far as I know he didn't recuse himself from the case, which might have been appropriate.)

A few years later I collected a bunch of poems I’d written in college and shortly after, and labeled the folder Epitaphs of Innocence. As naive as I had been about value-free science, I discovered that I harbored this weird innocence in which teachers put aside ego and anger, and eventually act in the best interests of their students. This situation stuck the epitaph on that particular illusion--though of course there were and are those who do. I suspect others had figured it out earlier. And since I had been attacked viciously and personally by a faculty member in the Knox Student just a few months before, I should have figured it out earlier as well.

Of course I had also been a well-known loudmouth (though mostly in print) and troublemaker on a range of issues, who particularly (and stupidly but somewhat innocently) insulted the college administration and faculty. I guessed that didn’t work in my favor.

Denise Levertov
I had some faculty support, and two writers who visited that spring added theirs. Novelist Daniel Curley, who judged the writing awards, wrote a letter on my behalf. He told the committee what he told me in person: though he had awarded me a first in fiction, he could have just as easily awarded me a first in any of the categories. But the moment I wish I had witnessed was when poet Denise Levertov told off one of the deans, asserting that they were being “irresponsible.”

There was also some effort to get someone else to give me an independent studies course that would fulfill the requirement, but the only professor available, in math, was reluctant because he had to finish his dissertation, and his continued employment probably depended on it. Robin Metz, who was active on my behalf, was willing to talk to him again, but I called a halt.

Just earlier this year, when I finally went through some papers left to me after my father died and the family house was sold, I found a letter from Robin to my mother. Evidently she’d written to him about what could be done, and he mentioned this last effort and my deciding against asking this professor (the same one who’d taught my first year math classes) to do what he felt he couldn’t manage. Robin’s very kind letter made me sound like a hero of self-sacrifice, but I remember just being tired of it all.

I had seen what was coming, at least by early spring when I wrote a poem later published in the Siwasher called “Evolution.” There was a famous and favorite example of natural selection that teachers loved because it perfectly illustrated the principle, and it had happened in modern times. It was the peppered moth that lived in England.

It was a mostly white moth that suddenly found itself visible to predators when it perched on tree trunks that had been blackened by coal dust and soot generated in the 19th century industrial revolution. Thereafter the moths tended to be black, so they were less visible. The white moths largely died out but the black moths survived and procreated—a neat example and illustration of natural selection.

The particulars of this example were already being questioned in 1968 by further research that suggested, for one thing, that these moths might not actually cling to tree trunks very much. For awhile the peppered moth as an illustration of natural selection itself died out, but it seems to be back in favor.

Anyway, it was the prime example in our course, so I could end my poem with the lines: “And I am a white moth/pressed against/ a blackened tree.”

The hardest part of all this was writing the letter home to tell my parents not to plan on coming to graduation after all. They’d driven me the 800 miles to Galesburg for my first year, but they would not be returning. Neither of them had gone to college. I would have been the first to graduate.

A year or so later, Douglas Wilson suggested various changes to the Knox curriculum, in an article published in the new campus magazine, Catch (which combined the old Siwasher and Dialogue.)  His strongest words were in favor of dumping distribution requirements, as "a major source of frustration and resentment," and an expression of hypocrisy by faculty (and one might add, administrators) whose education did not include these courses.  I believe at least for awhile, Knox did drop them.  Need I mention, not soon enough for me.

But as hard and as saddening and depressing and guilt-inducing as my situation was at that time, it had serious competition in the immediate scheme of things. Whether I graduated or not, I faced the near certainty that I would be drafted within weeks or months. That—and my possible responses--were causing conflict and confusion in the family already. I won’t even get into the uncertainty it added to personal relationships.

And it was late spring, and there were the gold-green days, the night wind high in the trees around the cemetery, the Toddle House waffles and the Q’s blueberry pancakes, the smell of the first donuts of the morning downtown, the lovely, long-haired girls in the warm light. There were still the pattymelts and endless paper cups of coffee in the Gizmo, the poetry reading against the war on the soft lawn as evening edged across the brick sidewalks. There was music from the open windows:

Though the dark trees can’t see the sun
you walk through the cold
before you’re old
the day must begin
fly above them...

Then it was June and this account of my little drama has told why I wasn’t out there on the Old Main lawn with a funny black hat on my head. But as that day grew closer a larger drama of a larger fate began, which accounts for why that day I was on the other side of the student union wall.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 30, 2022

History of My Reading: What's Happened, Baby Jesus? Spring 1968

program cover by Tarillis J. Seamans
 At some point after I moved here to California in 1996, a then-current Knox College student called me, and said she was researching a paper that involved Knox productions in 1968.  She told me that What's Happening, Baby Jesus?, the play I wrote and directed that April of my senior year, was often mentioned by people she interviewed, and had been talked about a lot at Knox for several years after the production.  It was discussed, she said, even with an incoming theatre department professor.

It was a multi-media production, involving film and music.  It was in other respects as well, very much of its time--including what I'd been reading as well as seeing onstage and elsewhere.

Hue April 1968
 April 1968 was not just another April, just as 1968 was not just another year.  More American troops were engaged in the Vietnam War, more young American men were drafted, and there was more bombing in both North and South Vietnam than ever before.  Early in the calendar year, the Tet offensive by the Viet Cong caused massive casualties on both sides, and while American and South Vietnamese forces ultimately took back territory--with the city of Hue substantially destroyed-- the offensive exposed the quagmire quality of the war.

New York City April 27, 1968
Antiwar protests continued to grow--the march on the Pentagon, first national mobilization, and a huge protest in New York on April 27, the day our show opened.

Earlier that year, Senator Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire presidential primary as an anti-war candidate, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York began campaigning for the nomination in following primaries, also against the war. On March 31, LBJ announced he would not be a candidate for re-election.

Chicago April 1968
But that wasn't all.  Racial conflicts continued, with a civil rights protest in February resulting in the deaths of three students.  The Black Power movement gathered strength. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, and the ensuing riots and destruction in an estimated 85 American cities that night and the next day left 30 people dead (11 in Chicago alone), more than 2,000 injured and neighborhoods burned out and in rubble, with martial law and National Guard on the streets of American cities.

Three days before we opened, students at Columbia University in New York began occupying administrative buildings, protesting the university's secret ties to a military think tank and the building of a white-only gym encroaching on the black neighborhoods of Harlem.  There were other student protests in Europe and in the U.S. all year.

And if we needed any reminder of the possibility of instant annihilation we'd lived with all our lives, on the day before we opened the U.S. exploded the largest hydrogen bomb ever detonated in the actual United States, at an underground test site 100 miles from Las Vegas.  It was the 34th nuclear bomb explosion at that site since the start of our school year (the test on February 21 was code named Knox).  There would be six more before my class graduated in June.

(And when I say "all our lives," it was literally true for me--the first big post- World War II US atomic bomb test was exploded the day I was born.)

Sequestered as we were in Galesburg, all of this was part of our lives--and our campus. April 26 was national Vietnam Day but at Knox, April 1968 in fact was Vietnam Month.  Although there was lots of tension between students and administration on various political issues,  Vietnam Month was a consensus project.

Howard Zinn 1968
It began with History professor John Stipp lecturing on the history of Vietnam (and not for the first time.  He and other Knox professors held the first teach-in on campus in 1965.)

 Also that week, English professors Moon, Metz and Douglas Wilson talked about war and literature in the Common Room, while recent Knox alum Stephen Goldberg gave two talks about his experiences with the International Voluntary Services in Vietnam, and the director of the AFL-CIO African American Center lectured.

poet Denise Levertov 1968
The following weeks included at least 9 outside speakers, including the Vietnamese counselor for the Vietnamese Embassy, a Brigadier General, a former Green Beret and current antiwar activist (Donald Duncan), a fairly young Howard Zinn, activist and government professor from Boston; and the poet and activist Denise Levertov.

There were additional faculty discussions, and a faculty and a student debate, and a poetry reading against the war.  Though it wouldn't happen until May, the comic and activist Dick Gregory delivered a memorable speech and answered questions in Harbach Theatre.

In the midst of this came the news that Glenn L. Moller, Jr., a 21 year old former Knox student had been killed in combat in Vietnam.  He'd left Knox the previous year, and otherwise would have graduated with our class in June.  He was the third Knox student killed to that point (after Merriman Smith, Jr., son of the distinguished United Press White House correspondent, and Thomas Dean, brother of one of our classmates, Willard Dean.)  He wouldn't be the last.

Meanwhile, the world flowed through by means of newspapers, television, magazines.  The Knox Student weekly newspaper, as edited by Peter Stetson and Jeremy Gladstone, funneled current Liberation Press Service releases and other material like the notorious "Channeling" document of the Selective Service, outlining how the draft and deferments are used to channel men into careers in "the national interest." Draft resistance was a hot topic in 1968.  Knox student Jim Miller ('68) wrote a series of articles on Canada as a haven, for instance.

  Needless to say, complaints appeared in the letters columns.  But the newspaper did not neglect ordinary campus news--in fact, it did a better job of it than many students newspapers that I've seen do now.

So in the bright and wet warmth of April, our campus was sad, conflicted, bewildered, frustrated, angry and helpless all at once, together with the other emotions and experiences of the campus spring.  Games were played, movies were screened, concerts and recitals were given, art work was exhibited, and plays were performed.

A preliminary and editorial word about the Studio Theatre.  There were a few big productions on the revolving stage in Harbach each year, directed by theatre faculty.  But in the Studio Theatre downstairs, there seemed to be student productions every weekend and sometimes during the week.  The plays were usually directed by theatre students.  Many--though not all-- of the plays were by contemporary playwrights, and many--but not all--were in some sense experimental.

Donald Davis, the original American Krapp
in 1960.  There was likely another actor in
the role when I saw this production in 1965.
Theatre students got experience in directing, acting, scene and costume design and all the technical areas.  Campus playwrights could also get productions.  But all of us got the experience of seeing these plays, that we simply otherwise would not have seen.  It's where I saw my first Albees, Becketts, Pinters, Ionesco and Genet (I remember Joelle Nelson in a Genet play I didn't understand and still don't) and many more, as well as my first Kiralys and Petersons.  I saw seldom-produced plays by Yeats and Eliot.

 There are some plays I saw only in the Studio Theatre at Knox, and some that remain in my memory despite seeing them in more professional settings elsewhere.  For example, I saw the original New York production of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape together with Albee's first play The Zoo Story (the summer between my first and second years at Knox) and just a few years ago, another production of the Beckett.  But the performance I remember most vividly was George Otto's Krapp's Last Tape in 1968 in the Studio Theatre--the Expressionist lighting on his hollow cheeks as his long arms reached for the tapes are indelible images.

I've since also observed that these opportunities for students to make theatre as well as to experience it are not found everywhere.  It was free-range theatre of a kind that I doubt exists much at all anymore.

me in senior year,the fall of 1967 in the Gizmo.
Photo by Bill Thompson.
A play of mine had appeared in the Studio Theatre the previous spring, directed by Richard Newman.  By the Sea By the Sea By the Sea By the Sea was a pastiche comedy, heavily influenced by TV sketch comedy, the Beyond the Fringe LP, British movies (namely Morgan! and the Richard Lester Beatles films), the Liverpool Poets and other aspects of Swinging England, as well as by James Joyce and Marshall McLuhan.  Its theatrical highlight was a scene done in pantomime while the entire Beatles song "The Word" played at full volume, climaxed by Willard Dean driving his motorcycle into the theatre and onto the stage, playing a police officer arresting an elderly protester.

In my senior spring, I directed as well as wrote What's Happening, Baby Jesus? I'd never directed anything, so I made not-even-rookie mistakes like casting it without callbacks to actors who auditioned. But I had a Vision, of a multimedia collision of myth and the moment.  So everything about 1968 at Knox I described here, and a lot I didn't, was involved.

For the multimedia, we used a film collage of mostly World War II newsreel footage that Todd Crandall made.  We had about a fifteen minute pre-show as people were coming in, comprised of a music mix, film projection and a kind of light show.  I created the music tape, interjecting periodic taped announcements of "the next show begins in x minutes" as they used to do at drive-in movie theatres. 1968 was a great year for music: Beatles, Stones, Creem, Hendrix, Doors, Airplane, Dead, Janis with Big Brother, Buffalo Springfield, Country Joe and the Fish, Dylan, Donovan, early BeeGees and so on.

Todd's film ran throughout the show, projected on the wall.  I believe we had more than one film running on more than one wall.  Something like that.  My housemate and friend Bill Thompson ran the light show and did the light cues during the show.  I did the sound cues, so we were together in the booth each evening.  

We also had music cues during the show, including pieces of "The Baby Jesus Song" which I wrote, sang and played, with additional vocal and instrumental accompaniment by Joni Diner, Marilyn Bell and Ric Newman.  We recorded it on one take by sneaking into the band room and taking covers off a few keyboard instruments, plus whatever percussion we could find.

Bill Thompson was in charge of lighting but he knew as much about theatrical lighting as I did about directing, so without a word, the student previously known as Guy Morose got up in the rigging, fixed our lights and gave us our lightboard cues.  He was a hero by any name, though years later I was so happy to hear (from the wonderful Valjean) that he'd changed it (back) to Guyatano Amorosi.

Our set and costumes were designed by dear sweet Charlie Rice, whose murder in Chicago just months later was a terrible shock.  The absolutely perfect program cover design was by Tarillis J. Seamans, Jane.

Marilyn Bell and Jean Rabinow did the costumes, including a yellow flowered shirt (think Magical Mystery Tour, or Donovan) for me to wear in the booth.  I still have it.  Sandy Berger did props, Steve Clark makeup. (Peter Overton, a star of the show, showed up at rehearsal with a shirt with those shiny ivory buttons he found at the western store in Galesburg.  He wore it in the show, and I liked it so much I went down and bought an identical one for myself.)

Ric Newman was technical director and Joni Diner was the stage manager.  Lucy Mitchell chaired the house committee of ushers: Sherwood Kiraly (whatever happened to him?), Larry Baldacci, Jan Byhre, Bruce Hammond, Henry Keighley, Judy Major, Julie Machnicki, Janie Langer, and two other first years who would be part of my later life, Carol Hartman and Mike Shain.

What's Happening, Baby Jesus? was set in a timeless Old West town, simultaneously a familiar tv western set and the paradigmatic locale of the American myth.

The town was run by Marshall Power, played to perfection by Peter Overton.  At that point, the Vietnam War was owned by LBJ, who had a way of pronouncing it "Amurican." He was an overpowering personality in those days, and his cruder aspects became identified with his war policy.  Many people--especially of my generation, and including me, who worked to elect him in 1964--felt betrayed by his escalation of the war.  He'd expressly said he wouldn't do what he did--send American boys to fight in Vietnam.

So he was the western Marshall, who was also a God the Father Figure.  My Catholic education came home to roost with this play, for sure.  Some of the speeches I copied right out of scripture.  His prodigal son (Sonny), played by Ric Newman, was a go-getter salesman of everything commercial.  The real power however was the sexually aggressive Virgin (Celeste Manking), accompanied by her hapless and frustrated husband Joe (Steve Clark.)

When the Marshall and Sonny have their showdown, their violence creates a third figure: Breath, or The Drifter.  He was sort of the Holy Ghost in Catholic mythology of the Trinity, and sort of the human caught in these rivalries, and becomes the object of their projections (though I would have been unable to describe it that way at the time.)  My biggest failure as a director was not being able to give Sandy Simon much help in developing his character as the Drifter.

There were also a lot of bits.  The play began with a brief Beckett parody of two bums (Bill Daniels and Dan Murray) talking, which went nowhere except for the payoff:  "We're waiting."  "Waiting for who?"  "Waiting for Godard."

Because the next scene was a gunfight between the two masters of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut (played by Todd Crandall and Steve Phillips.)  Thanks to David Axlerod and Todd Crandall's Cinema Club, we'd seen a number of their films over my years.  Truffaut and Godard had a bit of a feud after Godard got more political.

I don't know how funny the audience thought this was, but a little more than a decade later I interviewed Truffaut in Hollywood, and I actually told him about this scene.  He laughed.

A scene that did get a big laugh was set up by a couple of blackouts--Mike Shain in a business suit would appear and start to say something but the lights went out immediately.  The third time he did get to say his piece.  It was a pitch by a certain chewing gum company (American Chickle) to recruit Knox students, which I found in my student mailbox.  I literally stapled it into my first draft and added the line: "So come on out and keep America chewing."  Biggest laugh of the night.

One of the other interpolated scenes was a sweet but awkward conversation between a male and female student.  Steve Phillips was the Guy, and Shirley Covington was the Girl.  She was the daughter of an African American minister in Galesburg.  He was head of the church that sponsored at least one Civil Rights march or demonstration there that I participated in.  She just showed up at the tryouts, and I cast her.

When I entered in 1964 Knox had, as far as I know, only one black student.  In 1968 I believe there were about 20.  I may be wrong, but she may have been the first African American to be cast in a Knox production.  At least I don't remember another such instance in my time there.  Not to mention the first portrayal of an interracial relationship.   Her father came to the show, which worried me, given my less than orthodox approach to religious doctrines.  I was also embarrassed by how small the part was.  But they both seemed pleased.

Other actors in the show were Cathy Thompson, Howard Partner, John Hofsas and Bonnie Lucas.  Jeremy Gladstone and Charlie Rice captained the construction crews.

Joni.  Photo by Bill Thompson
Eventually the Marshall and Sonny put the the Drifter and his young disciples on trial (for "self-possession") and they are imprisoned. It's pretty clearly a stand-in for the draft: having them dance to the Country Joe and the Fish song, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag" was a big clue.

In their cells (pools of light) they made quiet statements and restatements ("Try Paradise Apples.  Paradise Apples Get You Off") including a haiku or two, and part of "Rules and Games," a speech written by Fred Newman, a philosophy professor who left Knox after my first year.  (I dedicated the play to Fred, and to Joni, my--what word do I use?  I prefer "sweetheart."  And Muse. )

(Later, after we'd parted ways, Joni left behind the role of supporting the creativity of others and went on the stage herself, acting in Providence, RI.)

The play ended with the Drifter finding apples and sharing them with the other prisoners, a blackout, while last lines of Dylan's song "The Drifter's Escape" played:  "Just then a bolt of lightning struck the courthouse out of shape/and while everybody knelt to pray, the drifter did escape."  Then lights up to an empty stage.

In those years, the Knox Student reviewer came to a run-through and wrote a review that appeared the Friday before the production.  Our show was generously reviewed by Rod Barker ('68), especially considering we were ridiculous rivals in our testosterone-riven writers workshops.  He was right that the production and the script were experimental, and a lot didn't work; that some lines were good and some were dumb. He was right that it was an unfinished work.  But he said it was a fun experience for an audience.  "The play and characters are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and can be appreciated on many levels.  Everyone, I'm sure, could find at least one."

One of those levels was the one--or ones--appreciated by seeing the show stoned.  Smoking or ingesting the substance now known as cannabis had arrived on the Knox campus secretly a year or two earlier, but it was more open and much more widespread in 1967-68.  And it was a factor in the show's effects (including strobe lights) and multimedia.

Jane Langer and Carol Hartman, among the
first year ushers for the play
But it was also a factor that productions had to face.  At the time, those students who indulged tended to know each other, even if they didn't look the part.  There were "freaks" and "straights."  So I pretty much knew which members of the cast indulged.  I got them together at the first rehearsal and asked them to refrain from coming to rehearsals stoned, and if they did that, we would have a "stoned rehearsal" late in the process, so we would all be on the same "level."

Which we did--one of our last rehearsals before we moved into the Studio Theatre.  We held a run-through in the lobby space.  It was a bit confusing for those cast members not in the know, though at least one responded to the vibe by loosening up his performance.  I asked him later to keep those moments in the show, but it was never quite as good.  The rest of us had a great time, and we all saw new dimensions in what we were doing.  (One cast member--Howard Partner-- confessed he didn't understand the show until running it again in his head at the cast party closing night.)  This rehearsal ended with an unscheduled blackout--the lights just all went out at precisely the right second.  We all praised our stage manager for an inspired effect, but she claimed that she had simply collided with the light switches by accident.  So in other words, it was perfect.

Also on campus on that Sunday, our second and closing night, was poet, translator and columnist John Ciardi.  He'd finished his talk early enough to get to our show, and came down to the green room afterwards to say how much he liked it.  He'd especially enjoyed the line "Why are all my friends allegorical figures?"  Since he'd translated Dante--I read at least some of his Inferno my first year, along with his Saturday Review column-- I could understand that.  He surprised me--he was known at that point to be unsympathetic to the growing counterculture--and I regret not being more welcoming.  But in general I was a jerk way too often anyway.

What's Happening, Baby Jesus? was of its time in maybe another way.  At about the same time as we did our show, a little musical was opening called Hair.  In 1969 I attended a performance of the now big hit Hair in San Francisco, because Ric Newman was in the cast.  I was standing in the lobby afterwards when suddenly he was embracing me, and babbling about how we should revive Baby Jesus somehow, it was the perfect time.  I was skeptical.  Even though Jesus Christ Superstar would open in 1970, I didn't see much resemblance to these pretty conventional musicals, however daring their subjects or themes.  But it's nice to think we might have done a better version of it.

Richard Newman (right) in the 2005 film Supernatural
I saw Ric a time or two more in San Francisco that fall but lost track of him.  Then late one night in the mid 1980s, on the other side of the continent, I was half asleep with the television on a cable movie channel.  My eyes were closed and I wasn't following the movie at all when suddenly I heard this voice: I knew immediately it was Ric.

 But by the time I opened my eyes, the scene was over. I made myself stay awake till the credits when I could confirm it.  It was Finders Keepers, an obscure movie my old favorite Richard Lester made between his Superman and Three Musketeers films.  And there was Richard Newman in the credits. Now thanks to the magic of the Internet Movie Data Base, I found all 181 (and counting) of his credits as primarily a voice actor but also onscreen actor.

It's pleasant to be nostalgic about a common enterprise 50 years ago, with fond memories of people and good moments.  But memories of that time and this play in particular aren't real without the complicated context, and I've barely scratched the surface here.

Looking back on the experience, I enjoyed the collaboration within the process of finding my production.  I recall very early in the process, when I was going over casting possibilities, probably with Ric and Joni, someone suggested that two characters could be combined.  I instantly saw that possibility, not only to solve a casting problem but to strengthen the play.  Later, it was watching what the actors did, and guiding and selecting.

 As the pre-show suggested, the play was highly influenced by the music we were listening to, and the films I'd seen at Knox, as well as the spirit of the Beatles movies, Stan Freberg's historical satires and Beyond the Fringe.  I literally copied passages out of a paperback Bible as literature, but the business of the Trinity was straight out of the Catholic Catechism of my schooldays. Literary spirits included Vonnegut, Heller and Farina, with McLuhan presiding as circus master. 

Looking back on the script, I see that it was an awkward search for a way out, past despair, joking all the way.  It blundered towards integrity, freedom and human warmth, not often reconcilable.  But in 1968, that was my life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

History of My Reading: Everybody Must Get Stoned (1967-8 etc.)

cover of Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass

Throughout the school year of 1967-68 (plus a little before and for several years after),  I read books and articles about or partially inspired by psychedelic experiences and related topics.  This is a selection in context.

I got stoned for the first time in The Temple.  That's what it was called--an otherwise unused room in the attic, where the roof slanted down so the ceiling was very low. There were no windows.  It was dark and snug and safe, illuminated by candles and small lights.  It's sole purpose was to host the ceremonies of the weed.

This was in the house on West First Street in Galesburg where I lived my senior year of college.  I'd unsuccessfully tried cannabis the previous spring, and this setting definitely helped me achieve the desired state.  Once the ritual smoking was over--we sat in a loose circle passing the joint around and talking--I was urged to concentrate on the music playing on the stereo.  I was told to recline, and the two speakers were placed on opposite sides of my head, near my ears.  I knew I was stoned when I seemed to be hearing the music through both ears--basically a physical impossibility in my case (i.e. maybe the bass and drums to some extent.)

The Temple was gradually abandoned that year, as smoking dope became more open in off-campus apartments.  Everyone who smoked dope knew everyone else who did, and they could be trusted not to betray.  To the other operative student divisions was added the suddenly overriding one of Heads and Straights.  There were exceptions (those that hung out with Heads but didn't indulge, those that played it Straight but took a toke in secret) but mostly they were known, too.

Around us the culture was bending.  Songs were full of high points and stoned puns, stoned humor broke out of hiding to start appearing in public (even on television), while Dylan sang "I would not be so alone/ Everybody must get stoned."

We rediscovered our senses, as hearing, vision, smell, touch and taste all seemed enhanced, at least in terms of clarity and presence. At best, time slows and the sensory richness before you fills the moment.  The delicate movement of smoke through light becomes both more fully and beautifully what it is, and a joyful metaphor made real, an insight into the nature of existence.

 We might have experienced some synesthesia as well, in which the senses crossed in some way.  Concepts became experiences: that everything is alive, that it is all one. Before they all became cliches they were vivid perceptions, accompanied by awe and joy: the pure perception of beauty, that beauty is truth and truth beauty, all you need is love.  There would be entire stoned evenings when almost the only words spoken were "Oh wow!"

Mental operations could get a rush, as connections proliferated.  Short term memory couldn't keep up (though it didn't disappear: once when a group of us had a stoned discussion and everybody lost the thread, we successfully reconstructed the entire conversation, back to front), and I especially noticed that I had new access to long-term memories.  It seems strange to me now, but at 20, I was amazed to suddenly remember my childhood.  I recalled radio and television shows, boyhood friends and so on.  Once I not only recited the batting order of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, but demonstrated the batting stances.  I mean, it was only 1968! But it seemed an amazing recovery of what seemed gone forever.  (Although I can pretty much still do this.)

Those I associated with were, like me, uninterested in hard drugs, but curious about psychedelics.  But we were marooned in a small town in the Midwest, and these were hard to come by.  I didn't do any that year--at least not deliberately.  And that was a problem I ran into elsewhere later, one major factor in why I stopped: unless you were wealthy and/or well-connected, you never really knew what you were getting.

That winter of 1967-68 we hosted a big time cannabis dealer from California who called himself Reverend Jim.  He didn't spend much time in the house, as he spread the word all over campus, but as his hosts we got plenty of free product. We smoked it, and made brownies. It was either considerably stronger than we were used to, or it was laced with something else, because once I became a lot more stoned than I intended. I wound up paralyzed in my bed, watching movies in my head. It wasn't unpleasant, but it didn't need repeating.

I remember sitting around one afternoon with one of Reverend Jim's traveling companions who was quoting the wisdom of someone he considered to be "heavy," or enlightened.  "He said, life is a shit sandwich--at best."  Not something that we naive love and peaceniks wanted to hear, even if it came from California.

While seniors like me were just getting our stoned feet wet, some of the incoming first years were already veterans.  I remember being impressed by one who said he didn't smoke tobacco, clearly implying he smoked only something else.  Their culture was already different, and grass was simply part of it.

Our campus culture seemed to change remarkably quickly as well.  I remember once participating in a couples evening that was as conventional as suburban young marrieds except that alcoholic drinks weren't served, only grass.  The main event was an ice cream feast, designed for the blind munchies.

In the next few years, I tried "LSD" a few times, and "mescaline" once.  I place these in quotation marks because I was skeptical even at the time that they were exactly and purely that.  My experiences were mixed.  But taken all together, they did make a difference, and I did gain some lasting insights and memorable experiences.  I dove deep into Abbey Road on "acid" in Berkeley.  In the Colorado mountain countryside on "mescaline" I saw the swirl in wood as liquid and moving, the embodiment of its process over time.  I peered down into microscopic depths, watching microbes and molecules in motion.  Pretty simple visual hallucinations but I nevertheless "saw" profound truths about the substantial but not quite visible support of things.  So when the science started catching up, I was ready for it.

I eventually became discouraged by the unreliability of the product, and by the unreliability of people.  On almost every psychedelic occasion, and quite a few cannabis ones, I had to bring myself down to cope with something or someone gone awry.  Those stoned conversations also began to lose their charm.  Once I listened to two people conversing who were evidently more stoned than I was, because it was very clear to me that they were each talking about something entirely different from what the other person was talking about.  And neither of them noticed.  It was fascinating in its way, but also disconcerting.

Eventually "the scene" also got darker, with darker drugs, violent politics and enabled psychotics.  But before that, in my senior year, we took cannabis and psychedelics seriously as the keys to a new counterculture--more honest, sharing, hip, fun, loving and open to different sensual and internal experiences, for which there seemed to be some precedent in Eastern religions, western exoteria and indigenous cultures.  So in addition to experiencing what we could, we read about it all.

1964 edition
First there was the classic The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.  Originally published in 1956, it was an augmented account of his mescaline experience a few years before.  It introduced me to the idea that the brain functions as a limiting filter to shape the otherwise overwhelming sense data into usable conclusions (though in some ways this resembles Quine's analysis of language.)  Huxley likened it to a "reducing valve."  Today's neuroscientists use the concept of models--that the mind has models of the expected reality that perceptions should match or at least be measured against.  Psychedelics bypass the reducing valve and the models.

Huxley took mescaline several more times, and said he had greater and more profound experiences on LSD, which he took for the first time in 1955.  His support for psychedelics was striking, in light of the role played by the fictional drug soma in his most famous novel, Brave New World.  But he didn't waver, and in the final stage of cancer, fulfilled his intention of dying while on an LSD trip.

Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner were Harvard professors exploring the therapeutic uses of psychedelics in the 50s and early 60s, concentrating finally on LSD.  After being fired from Harvard, Leary became its best known advocate, partly through the enthusiasm of poet Allen Ginsberg.  LSD was technically still legal when I first read this trio's 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience in my senior year.

 Its most influential sections are about preparing for an LSD trip.  There was already propaganda around about "bad trips" and the potential dangers of LSD, and I knew it was a powerful drug, so I paid attention.  The book recommended having a Guide and perhaps "programming" the trip, and it especially emphasized the importance of set (your mental preparation and attitude) and setting (the place and physical conditions.)  Though we basically only did cannabis together at our place, the Temple was all about set and setting.  Ironically then, when I first did "LSD" about a year later, I tripped with slightly younger people who had no concept of set and setting, but I deferred to their greater experience.  Early on, I found myself in a crowd of people watching a violent movie, while trying to appear normal.  Fortunately, whatever I took wasn't all that strong and I was able to bring myself down to a steadier state.

LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic by P.G. Stafford and B. H. Golightly was a paperback published in 1967.  It is a fascinating compendium of research findings suggesting therapeutic uses for mental disorders and the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions, as well as heightened creativity and life-changing insights among otherwise normal people.  But this was the last year that LSD was legal, even for research.  Medical and other research was basically forbidden and didn't happen for the next fifty years.

Nevertheless I continued to informally monitor related research.  I still have my 1972 copy of Altered States of Consciousness, a collection of research articles edited by Charles T. Tart, and another anthology from that year, Consciousness and Reality (edited by Charles Muses and Arthur M. Young) that has an aura of intellectual excitement and discovery.

 Before he became the gray-bearded guru of natural healing, Andrew Weil was a Harvard student involved (and in some ways implicated) in the Leary experiments and scandal, who published his own take on psychedelics in his book The Natural Mind, also published in 1972.

And then the rest was silence, except for occasional chapters in such arcane texts as the catch-all Alterations of Consciousness by Imants Baruss, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003, and the occasional account of a post-60s trip, as Sting's detailed description of taking ayahuasca in Brazil that opens his autobiographical Broken Music.

  That was the situation until the completely unexpected How to Change Your Mind in 2018 by Michael Pollan, best-selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.  As research began to cautiously revive around the world, Pollan produced this combination of reportage, interview and personal account that the New York Times named as one of the ten best nonfiction books of that year.

Pollan covers much of the history, including the scare stories about people on LSD going blind from staring at the sun, which 60 years later is exposed as fake news.  He confirms the continuing promise of psychedelics in addressing a range of illnesses and conditions, confirms LSD's power to spur creative re-thinking (many of those Silicon Valley innovators tripped out) and generally updates that 1967 paperback LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic.  I found him most interesting on the plant-derived psychedelics, particularly mushroom-based.  These substances really do have life-changing and even "miraculous" effects.

Every study I've seen since Leary et al has confirmed the determinative importance of set and setting.  Pollan's own trips were conducted very much to that 60s script: he had a  guide, the setting was quiet and had objects to contemplate (though mostly his eyes were masked), music was played and so on.  These have become standard in the new, well-organized tripping, governed by a kind of New Age professionalism.

But the importance of set and setting were established long before Leary. Most plant-based psychedelics were used for many thousands of years by indigenous peoples in serious explorations of the larger reality. These traditional cultures used their psychedelics within ritual settings and with elders as guides--i.e. attention to set and setting.

What Pollan experienced on his trips made it impossible for him to ignore the so-called spiritual dimension, the beyond-ego experiences.  He confirms that the effects of these substances substantiate the descriptions of the mind's workings that have been refined over thousands of years by Buddhist meditators and other Eastern (and a few Western) practitioners.  These also are being confirmed by neuroscientists, and explored over the several decades in the Mind and Life conferences sponsored by the Dali Lama (I reviewed the books resulting from the first seven conferences in 2004, also for the San Francisco Chronicle.)  

This connection has a long history. Practitioners of Eastern religions attain their insights mostly without even plant-based substances, but with fasting and various forms of meditation.  Yet the insights are similar.  In the decades before he took his mescaline trip, Aldous Huxley studied Hindu and other Eastern texts and consulted with well-known gurus.  The Leary/Alpert/ Metzner The Psychedelic Experience was subtitled "A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead."

Richard Alpert soon became Baba Ram Dass, and his first book Be Here Now (1971) became a revered text in certain quarters.  But that takes us into the counter-culture, subject of our next installment in this series.

To wind up the more specific elements of the substances themselves and their effects, there is now more of a distinction between cannabis and the psychedelics (LSD, and of increasing interest, psilocybin.)  Cannabis has been legalized in many states in the US through popular vote, but there is not the same acceptance for psychedelics.  In my past experience, at least some of the effects to some extent that are claimed for psychedelics were available with cannabis (assuming that's all I was ingesting.)   There may well be a qualitative difference, and in that sense I'm sorry I missed a true psychedelic experience.  Even in the lap of the cannabis industry, the likelihood that I'll run into a dependable opportunity isn't great.