Jul 10, 2008

PERSONAL STORIES - WEIRD SCENES OF FEAR & LOATHING

A Personal Diary on potential regret

This is a true diary. It’s a personal story and to set it to music I offer the following background music for those who can play a tune or two while you read I recommend Jackson Browne's Casino Nation and "Lives in the Balance" Jackson Browne has always been a voice I could say sang the songs I would write and sing if I had his insight and talent. My political education started for real in the summer of 61 when Al Gore Sr made me a Senate Page. I spent the summer on the steps of the stage in the Senate Chamber watching Humphrey, Dirksen, Keefauver, Gore, Goldwater, Javits, and the rest like the pages we see today on C-Span. VP LBJ actually knew my name and those of other pages who he greeted when he came. How did you arrive here at this point in time with your state of mind and your political point of view? Here's a glimpse at my path.

At 62 I’ve had some time to reflect on the vicissitudes and vagaries that shaped my life and political viewpoint. I am willing to share this with anyone who might be interested. If you have a little time and the inclination to read a personal history it won’t take as long to read as it took to write. It’s a story about conversion, direction, and regret that I didn’t do more when I could have in 1968 to see that Nixon was never elected. It's my cautionary tale.
Hubert Horatio Humphrey lost California, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri by fairly narrow margins where support from thousands of progressive/liberal/anti-war voters was denied him because we dropped out and stayed home. Hubert was a great liberal all of his life and would have been a far better President for all of us than Nixon.

Here’s my story – I hope it won’t be yours.

A JULY FOURTH STORY
"DID YOU EVER FEEL LIKE YOU JUST WANT TO DIE?"

(Names changed to protect identities in some cases)

I cannot recall his name for sure ‘Buzz’ or ‘Bunky’ or something I thought was dumb like that. He brought me closer to death than anyone in my life up to that time.
His car was a fairly new silver colored Ford Falcon two door with a fancy black trim, chrome wheels, and a Hurst stick shift in the floor. He was a pudgy rude little jerk with few social skills and a bad attitude about life. I met him in a whitewashed POW barracks building behind a tall fence in back of the cannery owned by Del Monte in Dekalb, Illinois in the summer of 1966. Back in the 40’s German prisoner’s of war were used to harvest and can the peas and corn grown in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and these long narrow barracks, about 16 of them were built around a central bathhouse to house them in America’s Midwest. Each of the barracks had a central walkway with single bunk beds much like you see in any army barracks. The only difference was the 20-foot high chain length fence topped with barbed wire that surrounded them.
I arrived at these bleak surroundings in June of 66 having traveled from Estes Park, Colorado. The Estes Park trip had been arranged by Sing Out 66. As a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, I had been President of my Freshman Class and a Senator in the Student Senate and was President elect of Phi Sigma Kappa. Just the kind of ‘student leader’ being sought by the Sing Out people to populate the casts of their super patriotic Sing Out America shows set to tour Europe and America that Summer. I could carry a tune and had the right credentials so I signed up that Spring thinking that earning some money to attend school the following year by traveling in Europe with a mixed cast would be a fun thing to do. I found out something quite different in the Rocky Mountains during my 6-day stay.
The "Up With People" Sing Out leaders were a bunch of right wing pseudo-Christians worse than anything Disney ever imagined. Rigorous adherence to a program of "Moral Rearmament" indoctrination unlike anything I had ever seen in my 20 years as a three time a week church going Southern Baptist. First Baptist Church regular attendance and being an Eagle in the Boy Scouts of America never prepared me for their "moral rearmament" programming. I had a mildly Beatles style hair cut that proved to be too much for them and given the choice of a hair cut or hitting the road I took the latter.
I cannot recall if I took the bus across Nebraska and Iowa to the DeKalb area or if I caught a ride, but I do remember being the first to arrive at the Del Monte plant that summer and being shown the barracks by one of the crew who was a full time employee. It was the practice of Del Monte and Green Giant to hire college students during the Summer to work as reaper or combine drivers on a field crew or to man the pressure hoses that cleaned the machinery in the cannery late at night. I was assigned to clean up, issued a bright yellow rain suit and told that we would be starting in about a week. I had a book, no TV, and no transportation. I considered myself lucky when Buzz or Bunky showed up 36 hours later. I wasn’t that lucky.
DeKalb was a nice little college town in the summer of 66. Northern Illinois University was a minor state school in one of the richest counties in America. The main street in town, Lincoln Highway, was dotted with bars. The place was quiet in the summer with school out and it was well policed. Both Buzz/Bunky and I had the required fake ID at 20 to fool the bartenders so we experimented trying to find some alcoholic drink we might actually enjoy. It seemed harmless enough since we didn’t seem to find anything pleasant enough the first two nights out to cause us to get drunk or disorderly.
On the third night we met a couple of local kids our same age and were invited out to their apartment to share some beer and play hearts. I was a pretty good hearts player at the time having made much of my spending money playing quarter a point to 100 with double the winnings for ending the game in the negative with minus points. I loved to shoot the moon as it is called when you gain all the points in a hand. The Queen of Spades is 13 points and each heart is one point so if you capture all of these in a hand you are awarded –26 points for the round. A game going out at double – say –20 to 100 points for the biggest loser will net .50 cents times 120 or $60.00. I managed to score that amount in one 100-point game from Buzz/Bunky that night. Maybe I should have let him win.
That summer in DeKalb working for Del Monte turned out to be one of the most memorable in my life. I met a young man from the University of Arkansas who was to be the ranking student officer in their ROTC in the coming year named Donald, and there were Ginny and Patricia, two local girls who were home from college at Harvard and Michigan State. Ginny was a beautiful small blond woman studying Russian at Harvard and Pat was a brilliant taller Midwesterner with a great sense of humor in pre-law at MSU. Donald and Ginny fell for each other hard that summer and eventually married and moved to Calgary Alberta when Don decided to become Canadian rather than go to Vietnam. I visited with them some 8 years later while on tour with Jesse Winchester in Canada just prior to their departure to the Yukon where they intended to remove themselves further from the rest of the world. Pat became a lawyer and has a practice in New York doing a lot of pro-bono work for the indigent I was told.
The summer of 66 was the beginning for me of a radical change from who I was to who I became. Don, Ginny, Pat and I spent our free time listening to the Beatles Rubber Soul and in August the new Revolver while hanging out in the corn fields with a six pack or two of Hamm’s Beer and perhaps a joint or two of the local weed of pathetic quality. We talked of things personal and political –Don talked about politics and the prospect of his going to war in Vietnam. He made up his mind that summer to move to Canada instead. I owe a lot to Don and his decision.
Late in the summer the four of us decided to spend a week together at a small fishing cabin on a Lake north of Rhinelander, Wisconsin as a farewell party. We piled into Don’s Volvo and drove north when the plant closed down. Pat and I shared the large bed on the screened in porch while Don and Ginny took the bedroom. We fished during the day and cooked our catch with beer batter in the evening and played cards or read and talked. We sometimes drove to one of the roadside bars that seemed to outnumber the visible houses and drank Stormy Mondays – vodka with ginger beer (a spicy ginger ale) still my favorite drink today. It was my wonderful introduction to an extended trip with a member of the opposite sex. Pat and I were great friends that summer put together more by Don and Ginny than any enduring attraction between the two of us. Pat and I were comfortable together but not in love.
I often wonder how someone can be raised in the bosom of the Baptist Church and as an Eagle Scout and Senate Page for Albert Gore Sr. in 1961 with his appointment to the US Air Force Academy (I was first alternate in 1964 and would have gone if anyone dropped out), and turn out with a life like I have led. Twenty years of life spent on one straight and narrow patriotic Christian path followed by twenty years as an outlaw and ex-patriot and outcast radical.
Maybe the events of the summer of 1966 had something to do with it.
Buzz/Bunky and I left the apartment in Dekalb where we had played hearts in the wee hours of the morning and got into his car. I asked him if I could drive because he appeared to be slightly inebriated but he flatly refused. I was miles from the Del Monte plant with no way of getting there so I reluctantly got into the car. He was pissed about losing $100 to me and said he wasn’t going to pay. I said "OK no problem, just take it easy."
I immediately knew I was in trouble as he pealed out to the apartment parking lot and burned rubber in every gear headed up the street toward town. I begged him to slow down. He laughed. I screamed at him to stop the car and let me out. He turned to me and said, "Do you ever feel like you just want to die?"
The road inclined toward a rather sharp left hand turn at the top of a hill and dropped off to the left at an intersection with a gravel road coming in from the right. There was loose gravel in the turn and we were traveling in excess of 90 miles an hour. Buzz/Bunky didn’t even attempt to break or slow down as the car slid to the right on the gravel, hit a curb or bump and flipped onto it’s roof. The passenger door next to me swung open and I could see a concrete post headed straight toward me. It tore the passenger door from its hinges as we spun and careened toward a telephone pole. The glancing blow with the pole sent us sliding down the shoulder of the road toward the bottom of the hill on the roof as glass and gravel chewed at my arm. Then miraculously we came to rest with the wheels spinning and the dust swirling around us.
I managed to climb out of the space where the door had been and to drag Buzz/Bunky from the mangled Ford. Miraculously neither of us was hurt so badly that we could not stand. Other than several deep cuts and a broken wrist I was still in one piece but badly shaken and scared sober. Buzz/Bunky screamed, "tell them you were driving" as he ran into the nearby cornfield and disappeared. The Ford then burst into flames. Had we still been trapped inside we would have been toast.
The driver of a car coming from the opposite direction stopped and scolded me for my recklessness. Eventually the police arrived and took me to the local jail where I was charged with accepting alcohol as a minor and fined some minor amount. I don’t recall seeing Buzz/Bunky again.
Everything seemed to change for me after that summer in Illinois. The following summer I was selected as a National Field Secretary for my fraternity and spent the fall at Berkeley and Stanford and other Universities in the west where my views on the war, religion and politics were greatly expanded and changed. At Berkeley the Phi Sig chapter had gone from over 150 members to 9 for the rush of 67 in the wake of the Free Speech movement. The entire fraternity system at Berkeley was on the verge of collapse. At Stanford the house was divided between the heads and the juicers and they fought each other along political lines and held separate meetings. By 69/70 that was happening across the country but it was new to me that fall in the west. In 64/65 at Tennessee I couldn’t tell Republican from Democrat at our house in Tennessee but by 68/69 everyone was clearly divided.
I went from arranging a "SUPPORT THE TROOPS" rally on the steps of the Student Center at Tennessee as Freshman Class President in 1965 to running for President of the Student Body in 1969 as the far left Student Coalition for a Radical Union (SCRU) candidate. I spent so much time driving from Knoxville to Washington DC for anti-war rallies I knew the road by heart. Keith Stroup from NORML incorporated my first company. I tasted the sting of tear gas at the base of the Washington Monument and I even made it to Woodstock from Tennessee.
Garry Wills wrote an article for Esquire Magazine in September of 1971 titled "How Nixon Used Billy Graham to Rap to the Students at Tennessee U." subtitled "Jesus Wept" about the arrest of some 400 students I led to rally against the appearance of Nixon at Neyland Stadium on the last day of finals in the Spring of 1970 shortly after the Kent State Shootings. Dr. Charles Trentham of the First Baptist Church of Knoxville, my church, played golf with Graham that morning before Nixon and the entire Republican contingent of Tennessee Congressional candidates took the stage with Graham in front of busloads of East Tennesseans from area churches. We were arrested for "disrupting a religious service" – the Republican Religious service as campaign rally for Nixonland. Dr. Charles Reynolds the head of the Theology Department was arrested with us as an organizer. Interestingly he is the father of Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit who obviously went another way. I did become one of The Knoxville 22
Given the fact that my father was the thrice elected County Judge of Knox County one could argue that I threw away a promising political future by opposing the war and helping to organize that anti-Nixon rally at a Graham Crusade. I arranged the printing of 500 "THOU SHALT NOT KILL" signs that we were to hold up in silent protest of Nixon’s appearance on campus. When Nixon was reelected in Nov of 72 I packed my car and drove to Montreal. I had scored a very high draft number in the lottery of December 1, 1969 – March 24th was 258 well out of the range of possible draftees, but I could not live in a country that would elect Nixon president twice.
In Canada I lived with 30 other ex-patriots in a commune-like arrangement north of Montreal in Morin Heights. We rented a small 20room hotel "le Chatelet " with a huge kitchen and dining room overlooking a lake and we opened "The Belladonna Ballroom" in the hotel bar introducing the locals to Harvey Wallbangers and country-rock music. Jesse Winchester, a Memphis TN native joined our house band on the weekends and we had an amazing time for a couple of years.
I did not return to the US until Carter was in office after helping to arrange a modification of his decision to pardon draft resistors to include those who had become Canadian citizens like Jesse Winchester. I moved with my daughter and wife to Vermont north of Burlington and continued to manage bands, book concerts, and own a large touring sound company.
I had worked hard for RFK and failed to support Humphrey in 68 – and young Democrats who failed to help Humphrey after Bobby’s death should be ashamed. I worked even harder for George McGovern in 72 driving all the way to California to volunteer. By 76 I was part owner in the sound company that provided toursound for Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band and we helped raise half a million for Jimmy Carter.
Being an antiwar Democrat in Tennessee doomed Al Gore Sr in 72 and his son Al Gore Jr. in 2000 (He lost Tennessee you will recall) and it ended any hope I had for a political future in my home state. I owe all of that to the events of June and July of 1966 when I went from Sing Out 66 to pick peas in Illinois and almost died in a fiery crash as a result. Events that shape our lives seem so random and haphazard. Without the catalyst of Vietnam I could have been someone quite different. But I am not someone different. I am a progressive liberal Democrat and I knew it by June of 66 in Estes Park when I could have become a right wing pseudo-Christian super-patriot but I chose a different path that summer and I’ve been on that path ever since.

1968 –
Please recall the travesty of the Nixon administration wrought when anti-war liberals failed to support Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because he wasn’t "pure enough". Perhaps if HHH had won in 1968 my life would have been very different. I would have remained in Tennessee and in law school or would have had more control of the sound company I helped to start located here in Knoxville and I could have saved it from the destruction of embezzlement by one shareholder.

2000 – if you recall
And Nader voters should recall Al Gore Jr. in 2000 for similar reasons.

Barack Obama must be the next President of the United States and we Kossacks need to be behind him 100%. The stakes are too high even for purists like me who put a lifetime on the line for progressive/liberal causes.

The point is that we will not know the depth of the ramifications of our decisions to back off on supporting the candidate who is clearly closer to our positions until it is far too late. I beg you not to make the same mistakes so many of us made back in 68 that gave Nixon the White House and gave us NIXONLAND and Bush the ability to put us where we are today.

Obama energized the younger voters during the primaries and every thing we do to undermine that energy brings us closer to the awful possibility of McSame and more misery and disaster. Some things many of us want cannot be attained today. No astute observer saw any chance that FISA with immunity would fail in this US Senate despite anything that Barack Obama might have done. You and I may love great lost causes – but do we really want to see Barack defeated because he didn’t throw himself into this particular lost cause?

I implore those of you who righteously assail certain stands taken by OUR candidate for President to consider the impact of your words and actions on the future of our country. Don’t wake up on a day in November to see that John McCain is elected President by the most narrow of electoral margins and know that you might have done something to keep that from happening. It is something that can forever change your life and the lives of millions.

I can applaud your sense of duty to the Constitution and comprehend your principal and idealism, but it isn’t just you that your words and deeds impact. What you say and do may influence those who read and hear to drop their enthusiasm just enough to stay in bed on Election Day or get out of a long line. It could stop someone young from volunteering the time to canvass or call that might in return fail to reach a very few that might make the difference. It could be just enough to shift the balance in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or New Hampshire.

Will this election leave you in misery and pain as you see the inauguration of John McCain? Will you go to bed on Election Day night knowing you didn’t do enough to stop the McCain train?

Will you be writing this story in 40 years as a cautionary tale for a new crop of progressive liberals telling them how sorry you are that you didn’t do what you could have done to keep McCain’s hands off of the controls? Don’t do that to yourself – please.

Think about how you will feel on Election Day night when the results are in and how that may make you feel a few years down the road and act accordingly.

Sharing a personal story may not seem appropriate to you. For me it's a way of describing as much of who I am and where I am coming from as I can to give you some context for what I have to say or suggest. Now you know far more about me than I do about you. So you can make a decision about the validity of my contribution with a little evidence concerning this personal experience. I want us to be friends and fellow travelers in this progressive liberal political experience. I can only hope you understand the impulse and accept it as I intend - A window on one progressive liberal soul who knows what it is like to fail to support the right candidate and who regrets that decision for life.

Thanks for making it to the end of this personal diary. You have stamina that will serve you well.
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