Monday, May 23, 2022
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Once he’d made several animated feature films, Walt Disney wanted to try live action features. World War II intervened, but at the same time, unexpectedly gave him the impetus and means to make his first live action films immediately after the war.
The financial success of Disney animated films depended on the addition of international audiences, particularly in Europe. Once the war started, his movies couldn’t be shown in the battlefield that was western Europe, except in England, where they became a cherished relief from the war. But the British government impounded the profits until war’s end, and even then, Disney could spend that money only in the UK.
|Richard Todd, Glynis John in Rob Roy|
These theatrical films all were presented on Disneyland, as Disney’s anthology TV show was called in 1954. They were all divided into two hour-long shows (with Walt Disney providing historical and other background) on consecutive weeks.
Treasure Island appeared in two parts in January 1955, during the show’s first season. Robin Hood was shown in the second season, during November 1955. The following January (1956), The Sword and the Rose appeared under the original title of its source book, “When Knighthood Was In Flower.” Rob Roy got the two successive episodes treatment that October, early in the third season.
Knighthood and Rob Roy kind of blended into Robin Hood, since they also starred Richard Todd. I remember his romantic interest in Knighthood, Glynis Johns –I’m now surprised to see she wasn’t Maid Marian. She was however, the female lead in Rob Roy. With her distinctive voice and gaze, she had a long career in British and Hollywood films.
With these modest successes accomplished, Disney began his first big budget Hollywood live action film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the novel by Jules Verne. He assembled a Hollywood cast, though lesser stars who were also good actors: James Mason, Peter Lorre and the up-and-coming young Kirk Douglas. Except for Douglas, the cast and production had a European flair, perhaps a transition from the English films.
Financially stretched, the Disney Studios went all in to make this film a success with a massive ad campaign. Not by coincidence, scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were the focal point for the seventh episode of the Disneyland TV show in December 1954, just weeks before the movie’s release.
Like most Disneyland episodes, this one was repeated many times over the years. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the full movie (in color) was shown on TV, after Disneyland moved to NBC and after a few name changes to The Wonderful World of Disney.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea did become a major international hit. It was innovative and influential, yet it is curiously forgotten. Part of the reason may be that it was immediately obscured by a phenomenon unparalleled in television history—and in Hollywood history-- which began the very next week after this seventh Disneyland episode, when the eighth was broadcast on December 15, 1954: the first Frontierland show called “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter.”
So when Walt Disney heard that a new movie was opening that featured giant ants with articulated limbs and mouth, he went to see it. (He may also have been taking a look at one of the film’s leads, James Arness—not yet the star of TV’s Gunsmoke.)
The giant ants in the sci-fi horror film Them!—one of the first atomic monster movies—didn’t impress him, and apparently neither did James Arness. But another actor with one scene did. The studio was preparing their first live action film specifically for Disneyland, the TV show. It was based on the life and legends of an early 19th century American folk hero, Davy Crockett. But so far they didn’t have anyone to play Crockett.
The Davy Crockett saga appeared in three hour-long Disneyland shows, about a month apart, starting in December 1954. By the time the last episode aired in February 1955, it was the biggest television phenomenon in history. Initial audience was estimated at 50 million. Disney repeated these episodes in April and May. Eventually some 90 million viewers had watched it.
Just two months after the third episode was first re-run, a movie edited from the TV episodes opened in theatres—in color (paying off Disney’s gamble earlier than even he could expect.) It, too, was a hit—perhaps some solace to the perplexed in Hollywood: TV could subtract from their week-to-week audiences, but in certain cases it could also multiply.
The Crockett craze is also measured—and remembered-- in merchandise. Disney, who pioneered the merchandizing of characters with Mickey Mouse in the 1930s, was up to the challenge, but since Davy Crockett was an historical character who couldn’t be trademarked, a lot of others got in on the goldrush. It’s estimated that in just the first six months after the first episode, $100 million in merchandise was sold (and this was in an era in which the average annual wage in the US was under $5,000.)
The rollicking theme tune added to that sense of fun. As Davy, Fess Parker was a soft-spoken showman, who would soon prove to be an unusual hero: after fighting a band of Creek Indians, he makes peace with them in agreeing to guarantee they could live on their land. In the second episode he defends other Indians from European-American predators, and storms out of Congress in protest against a bill that broke the treaty he helped forge and took away Indian land.
We’d seen buckskins and fringe jackets in westerns before, but not coonskin caps, and they became the rage. We all had to have one, and I recall it was one of my first lessons in socio-economics: I understood that it was the rich kids who wore the caps completely made of fur. The rest of us got leather-topped (or more likely, leathery plastic) caps with some fur on the sides, and something like a tail, probably the $1.95 version from a five-and-ten.
The only other merchandise I remember having was a set of socks with Davy Crockett on them. The best part was that they came in a package with a cardboard backing, upon which was printed all the lyrics to the Ballad of Davy Crockett—I believe it was twelve verses. (Eventually I got a record of the song—which I still have. Not the cap, though.)
I also was bold enough to stride out of the bright sunshine into the dim tiny showroom at the nearby Behner’s Garage on the West Newton Road, and timidly request the photograph I’d read that American Motors dealers (sponsors of Disneyland) were giving away. Much to my surprise, they gave me one. It was Fess Parker in full costume, with printed autograph: “When you’re out to win, try the Crockett grin…your friend, Davy Crockett/Fess Parker.”
Otherwise, that spring and summer we had the woods across the road in green Pennsylvania to play Davy Crockett, and we could improvise an Alamo out of a suitably shaped garage roof down on Maryland Avenue. We wore our caps and whatever else we had that looked leathery. We cradled our long sticks meant to be rifles across our chests like Davy did. I did what I felt was a fair imitation of Fess Parker, starting every thoughtful sentence with, “Wellp…”
At some point in our play we would likely sing the song:
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three-
-Davy Davy Crockett
King of the Wild Frontier
And so we inducted ourselves into a ritual of fantasy, history and grace. We’d seen Davy at the helpless cause of the Alamo, in the final act of going down fighting. Then the next year there were two more episodes, billed as “legends” about Davy Crockett, and the spectre of idealistic death was overcome by living on in story, in myth that could encompass our own invented adventures.
Live-action adventures on Disneyland—particularly under the Frontierland banner that ranged over 18th and 19th century American history—gradually increased in number until they dominated the hours in the late 1950s. This nicely paralleled my growing out of the prime age for animated fantasy and into live action interests.
Disney adapted Esther Forbes’ novel Johnny Tremain, about a young apprentice silversmith in colonial Boston, beginning just before protest against Britain’s “taxation without representation” that quickly led to the Revolutionary War. Tremain interacted with real historical figures, including Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and James Otis, and the real events of the Boston Tea Party, and the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Disney made a movie for theatres from the book, and previewed it on a Disneyland episode in May 1957 called “The Liberty Story.” Disney made insightful use of footage of his film version of Robin Hood, because the King John opposed by the mythical Robin Hood was the same King John who was forced to sign the Magna Carta, renowned as the first acknowledgement of rights that led centuries later to the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.
But the centerpiece of the episode was Johnny becoming acquainted with the Sons of Liberty, and participating in the Boston Tea Party. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, and I didn’t have to wait long—I saw it in a theatre (in color) that summer. Then I saw it again in November 1958, when it was presented in two parts on Disneyland.
It’s a tall old tree and a strong old tree—
And we are the sons, yes we are the sons
The Sons of Liberty…
Though Guy Williams (Zorro) and Robert Loggia (Elfago Baca) both had Italian parents, Loggia (in his first major role) effectively played Baca as a hero who emerged from the Mexican American community.
Because he survived an onslaught of gunfire while besieged in a crumbling sod house, Baca got the reputation as indestructible. The inevitable Disney theme song emphasized the “nine lives” aspect as it played with the Spanish names Elfago El Gato (the cat.)
But he was a model also in other ways. In the Disney version, as a lawyer he champions the rule of law over violence, and the principle of equal justice under the law. This extends not only to his Mexican American community but to, for example, the Anglo settlers who arrive to farm in what was until then cattle country.
They are called Mustangers, apparently poor whites from the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are the subject of violence by cattle ranchers and prejudice in town, where they are derided and prevented from buying goods they need. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the mid-1950s parallels to the Freedom Riders, sit-ins and children attacked for going to schools because of their race.
Veteran TV writer Maurice Tombragel, who wrote for most of the westerns I watched in the early to mid 1950s, provided some startling dialogue towards the end of the story. Fearing the fate of their lawyer, Elfago Baca, and the sheriff in confrontation with the ranchers who burned their farms, the Mustangers and their wagons are occupying the main street of the town, and preventing anyone from trading at the general store.
The storekeeper (played by DeForrest Kelly) appeals to the Mustanger elder. “It’s not right to make innocent people suffer,” he says, meaning his usual customers.
“Those who think themselves better than others are not innocent,” the elder says.
“But you don’t understand,” the storekeeper pleads. “I was forced to do what I did.”
“Cowards are even less innocent than hypocrites.”
Good thing only children were watching. A political statement like that could get you blacklisted.
The third figure was another character from the Revolutionary War, but this time a real person: Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox.
Though no battles in that war were fought near where I lived (as were several in the preceding, so-called French and Indian War), that period was important in the history of my hometown. The city of Greensburg was named after Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene. Though he’d never been there, several notable town fathers had been officers serving in his command. So this added a certain texture to my interest.
General Francis Marion was also under Greene’s command later in the war, but his fame was established in the swamps of South Carolina as Colonel Marion, leading a band of irregulars on guerilla missions.
Disney dramatized him as the Robin Hood of the American Revolution, and the catchy theme song emphasizes that, even stealing a line from the ITV Robin Hood series:
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail in his hat
Nobody knows where they Swamp Fox at.
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen,
He runs away to fight again.
By the late 1950s, Disney’s live action TV shows were not only giving new talent the spotlight, they were employing some of the best character actors in Hollywood, as well as experienced film directors, writers and cinematographers. Television provided these Hollywood veterans with something movies couldn’t anymore: regular work, and growing audiences.
So long-time Hollywood western director Harry Keller directed the Swamp Fox shows, which were written by Lewis R. Foster, a veteran writer who began with Laurel and Hardy silents and later contributed to the famous Jimmy Stewart feature Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
There were many movie veterans in the cast, and some relative newcomers, like star Leslie Neilsen (fresh from playing the intrepid captain of the first cinema starship in Forbidden Planet), and actors Patrick Macnee (star of the 1960s British spy spoof series The Avengers) and Slim Pickens (Doctor Strangelove.)
|Beverly Garland, Brian Keith in Elfago Baca|
By the time Leslie Neilsen was riding across the screen, I was in eighth and ninth grades, and too old to be playing Swamp Fox with neighborhood friends. (We mostly played baseball and football, until we drifted apart, caught in the pressure-cookers of separate high schools.) It was also near the end of my regularly watching the Disney show. I don’t recognize many episodes after 1960, though I recall the teasers for the Fred MacMurray movie comedy, The Absent-Minded Professor.
Disney used many of the same story techniques in his live action films as he had in his animations, particularly the use of established characters, music and catchy songs, and the mood of fantasy. His stories about storybook characters easily edged into his treatment of actual historical figures. Some if not most historians will suggest that the real Davy Crockett or Elfago Baca or Francis Marion were not so unambiguously admirable as the Disney versions, but the emphasis in Disney was on the story as a model.
But if the live action stories of Frontierland used fact to augment fantasy, Disney Studios made use of the tools of fantasy to illuminate fact (or at least educated conjecture) in episodes under the banner of Adventureland and Tomorrowland. These will be the subject of my third and final Disney installment.
That installment will also include thoughts on Disney, television and reading. This might be especially appropriate as we try to deal with another alleged barrier to the pace and concentration of reading, represented by social media and the Internet.
Monday, May 16, 2022
|holding up a photo of Mt St. Helens before the eruption, looking at it as it is now|
Last week’s poem by Gary Snyder was occasioned by his return to Mt. St. Helens, some 20 years after the volcanic eruption in 1980 that blew off the snowy top of the mountain and devastated miles of forest around it. As noted, he first climbed to the now vaporized summit in 1945. He wrote about these and other visits in his 2004 book Danger on Peaks.
|Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake 1923, similar to photo taken by Gary Snyder in 1945|
This week I add a paragraph from a prose section, and another poem about Mt. St. Helens. The paragraph describes the peak as it was in 1945:
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
[May 1970 falls next in the ongoing sequence of this series. Since I’d written about it on the 50th anniversary of Kent State, I thought I’d skip over it, but now realize that these events—and these books--are important to what comes after, as well as before. So this is a revision of that post, placed in the series where it belongs sequentially, and coincidentally, during another early May.]
The U.S. was withdrawing troops and negotiating, Nixon said, but the North Vietnamese were increasing their attacks. Action was necessary to protect American troops, and to avoid American "humiliation" and "defeat." "If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."
Reading this speech more than fifty years later, it might seem eminently reasonable--except that by that time, few believed anything that the administration said about Vietnam, and with ample justification. Most of the assertions in the speech have proven to be lies. That phrase--pitiful, helpless giant--would become an epitaph of the era.
At Kent State in Ohio, that violence on campus brought the war home when on May 4 National Guard troops fired on unarmed students and killed four. This instantly led to even greater and more widespread campus consternation. Within days, the normal functioning of higher education had pretty much stopped.
Eventually this disruption hit the isolated campus of Knox College in Illinois, with a certain surprise--when Time Magazine covered it, the article concluded that if it could happen in Galesburg, it could happen anywhere. And much to my own surprise, I found myself at the center of it.
I had been visiting Knox alum Steven Meyers, a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo, as described in the post before this one in this series. Steve drove us to Galesburg in his MG. We were escaping the endless Buffalo winter as much as anything else, but I was unprepared for the fullness of the Galesburg spring. The campus was intensely green after a rain, and the air was soft and warm. The month of May was the brief glory of the Galesburg year as I remember it—an enchanted moment between the frigid winters and torrid summers. Only the different stimulus of October came close.
But in this early May, such delicate and peaceful beauty was distorted by anger and bewilderment. The war in Vietnam had been expanding for five long years of our young lives, and protests growing along with it. The war at home had become especially bitter since 1968. It included a kind of generational war as well as a counterculture. Almost from the moment I arrived, I was surrounded by Knox students debating and demanding action.
I had been active at Knox on both campus issues and such national issues as Civil Rights and Vietnam, and I'd been a student recently enough that I knew current students, and was generally known on campus.
In college my activism involved a lot of reading, talk and listening, and the phenomenon of student activism in the late 60s--particularly the worldwide actions of 1968--led to books of reportage and analysis.
The historical moment of May 1970 was the product of many currents, pulled into the same whirlpool by the issues and situation of the Vietnam war. These currents can be represented by the phenomenon and the individuals involved in what was first called the Chicago 8.
Charged with conspiracy associated with the demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, their trial—a media circus surrounding a courtroom carnival—lasted from the fall of 1969 until February 1970. It was covered on every evening news broadcast, and helped sell a lot of the defendants’ books. It would generate numerous other books, at least two plays and eventually a 2020 film by Aaron Sorkin (which I haven’t seen, since the actors don’t look or sound like the originals I vividly remember, a problem possibly only for ancients like me.)
Tom Hayden was the most prominent of the Chicago 8 who started in the student movement. While in college he was a cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society and the principal author of the Port Huron Statement in 1962, that applied the ideals of "participatory democracy" to all aspects of American society.
More broadly, the student movement symbolized political activism applied to internal college and university issues as well as issues that went beyond the campus. Hayden began in the Civil Rights movement in the early 60s, and became an antiwar activist during Vietnam. He always brought American-born ideals to these issues, as when he adopted the words of Sitting Bull for the title of his 1972 book on Vietnam, The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them.
|The Chicago 7, after Bobby Seale was separated.|
Many had never met before their conspiracy trial.
So there was conflict and commonality, but it was the commonality that was most apparent to the older generations of conventional America, the Silent Majority (as Nixon called them). The Generation Gap was its strongest in these years, and it became clear (as in the Anthony Lukas reporting) that jurors were judging these defendants as much on their appearance and demeanor as their alleged actions. The common culture (or counterculture) was real enough, but the differences, especially in tactics, were also real, though that wasn't apparent to the most threatened outside this culture.
That hostility had resulted in casual and official violence against activists. Apart from the violence that African American men in particular could expect simply in daily life, black activists were particular targets, and the Black Panthers most of all.
This was brought home to Knox College students when Fred Hampton, Illinois chairman of the Black Panthers, was ruthlessly gunned down in his bed and killed by Chicago police and FBI in December 1969. Hampton was engaged in organizing the multicultural Rainbow Coalition that brought together street gangs to work for social change instead of killing each other. Hampton had evidently visited Knox that year. When I read of his murder in a Chicago underground newspaper, his photo showed him wearing a Knox sweatshirt.Chicago author Richard Stern visited Hampton's apartment after his murder (and that of another man in the apartment), and noted the books that were there. In a brief essay that later became the title piece of his 1973 collection, he wrote:"...it meant that the blood which lumped the mattress and stained the floorboards was in part the blood of the books as well as their readers. If it didn't make that fierce nest a shrine, it lifted its meanness and anonymity."
Previously immune white youth were also victims of violence, and not all because of politics. In a Ramparts collection on the cultural revolution, several articles chronicled routine violence against "hippies" and members of communes--assaults, arson, rapes-- unrestricted by age or gender.
Violence against student activists was encouraged by the White House, in v.p. Agnew's rhetoric and Nixon's praise of the "hardhats" who attacked protesters. Even in his Cambodia speech, Nixon asserted: "We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed." There would be more of this after the speech, when the protests started.
The Chicago convention itself was a prime example of official violence, though the trial of demonstrators attempted to distract from this. The government's own Walker Commission concluded that it was the Chicago police that had rioted.
The resulting trial in Chicago was mostly theatre of the absurd, thanks not only to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin but the transparently biased Judge Julius Hoffman. But the darkness at the heart of it became clear immediately when the judge refused Bobby Seale's request for his own lawyer, or to represent himself. When he continued to protest, the judge had him bound and gagged in chair in the courtroom. That image--seen only in the sketches permitted during court proceedings--became indelible. Bobby Seale was soon separated from this trial, and so the defendants became known through the history since as the Chicago 7.
The verdicts came down in February 1970. The trial was so manifestly unjust that the anger and alienation it engendered were still in the air in May. (Though some defendants were found guilty on riot charges and on contempt of court, eventually all the charges were thrown out because of the judge’s obvious and active bias.)
That winter in Buffalo also saw a lot of ferment, including barricades in the street, though most of the issues were with the university. After spring break in mid March, the intensity was dying down, only to flare up suddenly in response to Nixon announcing the Cambodian invasion. Fighting in the streets between crowds and police resumed at a higher pitch over that weekend.
There were significant protests the next day--on
Friday May 1--at Princeton, University of Maryland and other campuses and in
cities like Seattle, as well as smaller protests at places like Kent State in
Also on Friday, President Nixon spoke to Pentagon employees in a statement that made the front pages by Saturday, saying "You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses...I mean, storming around about this issue, I mean you name it get rid of the war, there'll be another one."
On Sunday, a meeting of representatives of 11 universities met at Columbia U. and issued a call for a nationwide student strike the next week, declaring that “classroom education becomes a hollow, meaningless exercise,” in the face of this escalation of war.
Over the weekend, a protest march through Kent resulted in some broken windows, while on campus a small group set fire to the old wood frame house devoted to ROTC. It burned to the ground. The Governor of Ohio, whose own rhetoric had become even more heated than Nixon's, sent the National Guard to occupy the Kent State campus. National Guard were also called to the campuses of Ohio State, the University of Maryland and probably elsewhere.
The National Guard presence at Kent State stirred the campus. On Sunday, a 19 year old student named Allison Krause placed a flower in the gun barrel of a National Guard soldier, who may well have been 19 as well.
There was no strike at Kent State on Monday, so at noon, some students were going to classes, others to lunch. A crowd had gathered at the Commons--some to protest the Guard's presence, some for a previously scheduled protest that had been called off. The Guard ordered them to disperse but many did not. According to witnesses, the two sides were so far apart that the rocks students threw landed in the same open area as the tear gas the Guard lobbed.
On Tuesday, an Extra edition of the Spectrum headlined the call for a national strike, with an early report on the Kent State killings. By Wednesday it was a front page story, with that iconic photo, under the banner headline: "They shoot students, don't they?"
Maybe it was some homing instinct at a time of crisis, but at that point Steve and I got into his MG and headed for Galesburg.
We had an uneasy moment being stared at during a stop on the Ohio turnpike. A newspaper I picked up along the way carried a story quoting Nixon as saying that he hoped the fatal shootings at Kent State would convince universities to stand against "the resort to violence." Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said that they proved he was right to attack violent demonstrators.
Newspapers also reported that on Friday May 8, 200 construction workers attacked protesters in lower Manhattan, in what became known as the Hard Hat Riot. It lasted two hours, spilled into City Hall and left 70 injured.
Around this time, 58% of respondents in a Gallup poll blamed the Kent State students for their own deaths. Another survey (according to historian Katherine Scott) found that 76% did not support the Constitutional right to assemble and dissent from government policies. Whatever their accuracy, these polls reflect the atmosphere I remember.
The Students Are Revolting: An Inside Story
We must have arrived at Knox College before the huge protest demonstration in Washington on Saturday, May 9. I'm pretty sure I’d already been party to impassioned discussions students were having.
I know we were there when the news began to circulate that a Knox student demonstrator had been arrested in Washington--John Podesta. Though this was two years after my senior year spring, I knew some students who'd been first and second years then, and John was one. We took up a collection for his bail, with a "Free Podesta" banner, but by then he was already on his way back to campus.
John Podesta went on to other things, such as White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton, White House advisor to President Obama and campaign chair for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That--and his continued alumni support for Knox--probably contribute to his place in the College's official history of the Knox events of May 1970, as the heroic leader of the protest and takeover of the dean’s office.
At the time, the takeover of a dean's office was hardly something that earned a lot of praise from the college administration. In fact, it was scheduled to earn me jail time. But in retrospect apparently it has become his heroic deed, presaging a prominent future. He and I actually joked about this over dinner at his house in Washington, when he was between Presidents. John certainly was intimately involved in the events I am about to recall. But I'll leave descriptions of his role to his own memoirs.
Instead I will patch together my recollections with a few artifacts that have survived from that time, along with fragmentary notes I made at various times in the following few years. This is a personal account, informed by surviving documents, but everyone involved (or observing) probably has their own story.
Some 400 campuses went on strike that week, the
first national student strike in US history. Knox College was not one of
them. Some of its students were upset by this. I found there the
same emotions as on other campuses--anger and sadness, frustration and
disbelief, feelings of being betrayed and misunderstood, scapegoated and even
Some months later I summarized what I observed. The activist students "were small in number, somewhat paranoid about their alienation from the majority of [Knox] students, factionalized and not all overly fond of each other, yet energized by the solidarity they saw [elsewhere] and the frustration they felt that their own campus was so unresponsive."
I described the situation as "volatile," and I recall some specifics of that. At one end of the spectrum were those students who wanted to work within established channels and the usual means of petitions, letters and demonstrations. At the other there was a small number of students angry enough to advocate violence, specifically setting fires and exploding bombs. And many, probably most, somewhere between them.
Bombing buildings was certainly happening on and around some campuses, and there were individuals and organizations that advocated violence. These particular students at Knox did not strike me as radical ideologues. Mostly they were angry young males. Some of them actually did make a bomb which they attempted to detonate. It may have simply been a stink bomb, I'm not sure, because it didn't work. But it was enough to be alarming. I was frankly less worried that they would blow something up than I was that they would blow themselves up. They seemed more impulsively angry than doctrinaire, or competent at bomb-making.
I recall several meetings held in a large, mostly empty room at the off-campus apartment shared by Carol Hartman and Mary Maddox, where I was staying. Eventually these meetings coalesced around finding a plan of action that everyone could support. I saw that it had to be peaceful but forceful, or at least dramatic.
Taking over administrative offices had become a tactic since the Columbia University demonstrations a year before. I don't remember who proposed this, but I do recall my contribution at this point, which was to suggest a Yippie-like action. While I was at Knox that spring I was reading Jerry Rubin's book, Do It! I'd previously read Abbie Hoffman's books, Revolution for the Hell of It and Woodstock Nation.
I'd been at the big Pentagon
demonstration in 1968 that had been in part a Yippie action, described in
Rubin's book. I didn't subscribe to all their ideas but I did feel a
certain vibe in common. Writer Jack Newfield called Hoffman "a pure
Marxist-Lennonist: Harpo Marx and John Lennon." That worked for me.
Hoffman and Rubin used humor in part the way Madison Avenue did, to attract attention and to make their point through imagery and irony. They used other kinds of theatrics for the same reason, a kind of forerunner of live "memes." But they also used humor as a weapon, as psychological leverage. With humor they could expose hypocrisy, pretension and the truth behind these facades. It opened the opponent to ridicule they brought on themselves. There was also something disarming and winning about humor, especially irony. It made violence against those who employed it perhaps less likely, and certainly less justifiable.
By this time, Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five had made him a ubiquitous name on campuses in particular. That novel joined Heller's Catch-22 as cultural--countercultural-- touchstones. Both novels employed what was sometimes described as black humor, but which novelist Vance Bourjaily insisted was more accurately called gallows humor. In this context it conveyed Mark Twain's view (Twain being one of Vonnegut's models in particular), that "the source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” It was a way to work with the pain to get at some sort of meaning.
The Yippie approach also had the advantage of appealing to almost everyone in that room as a common action, though I'm sure many had their different reservations. However, many were Yippies at heart anyway. So we proceeded along that line. Was it the best approach to take? Maybe not. With a more straightforward approach, there may have been more support among students, faculty and even administrators than anyone in that room believed there would be. But I don't regret the choice. Because in the end there were no bombs. There was no violence.
This being Knox, everyone at the preliminary meetings knew each other. Black students had organized several years before and a representative attended at least one of the meetings, but the black students decided not to officially participate in a common action, and keep control of their own message.
At the final meeting the target and the time were decided, and the small group of students who would enter first. I believe there was even lighthearted discussion of style--what kind of outrageous costumes we would wear. But apart from a couple of opening statements, nothing much was planned. Most of these actions elsewhere were largely improvised. But this one was continually improvised by design. It was part of the point.
Just about all I knew of what to expect came from reports from other campuses, and books such as The Strawberry Statement by James Simon Kunen, about the Columbia takeovers. Again, I saw that Kunen took a light, personal approach. The cover of his book featured an effusive endorsement from Kurt Vonnegut. So that book as well as the Yippie books were in the back of my mind.
At around 4 on Friday afternoon, May 15, a handful of students entered Dean Sanville's office and handed him the Eviction Notice, which began: "In the name of Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Seale, Bobby Dylan and the scholars of Woodstock Nation at Knox College, the current administration is hereby evicted from Old Main."
It ended by declaring solidarity with the national and international fight to "free Asia from imperialist oppression, to free the nation from racism and repression, to free the planet from self-destruction, to free ourselves." It was signed: The Students Are Revolting.
That's the name I came up with: a
Yippie pun. In subsequent documents, it was shortened to the acronym SAR,
but it took Time Magazine to point out that the true acronym was TSAR, which
was even better because it was funnier and in the same spirit of mirroring
expectations and throwing them back. Happy accidents will happen.
My notes remind me however that the phrase had a Knox precedent. I remembered it from a Mortarboard satirical skit--the last one before they were temporarily banned for being salacious. "The students are revolting" was a line said, with appropriate emphasis, by the Dean of Students.
The students in that first group reported that the Dean and his secretary seemed unsurprised by the takeover and left without argument. (They got maybe an extra hour start on their weekend.) After the first group took possession, reinforcements of around 30 arrived. We locked the doors and opened the first floor window, so that people could enter and exit as Lincoln did when he "went through Knox College" and into Old Main. (Though not, scholars suggest, by that same window.)
In the office we found the previous night's campus
"activity report" which stated: "God provided us
rain" Everything quiet on the campus. We also found college
president Sharvey Umbeck's memo on how to deal with crisis situations.
Though it included some surprising humility (" Don't focus on finding
a scapegoat...We start by searching our own souls before seeking fault in
others") the basic message was to emphasize the positive and "develop
a program which turns the crisis to the College's advantage."
We issued a press release: From an original strike force of 2,000 who nonviolently took over the administration, the ranks have grown to nearly a million...We are getting all our orders from Ho Chi Minh. Then everyone was encouraged to issue their own press releases, which they did, on the best available official stationery. Dean of Students Ivan Harlan stuck his head in, saw us using the phones, and left to have the phones cut off.
It was a surreal few hours, in a good way at first ( a rock band playing under a portrait of Lincoln.) But some students got uncomfortable as the atmosphere got more boozy, especially as some participants, notably faculty members, seemed to be treating it as just another Friday night party.
There was also a classic Yippie moment when a faculty member went ballistic when told the soft drinks were spiked with LSD. The actual Yippies had used the same rumor at the Chicago convention demonstration. It wasn't true then, and it certainly wasn't true at Knox, as inspection of the factory sealed bottles might suggest.
When things quieted down there were (my notes indicate) now about 80 committed to the occupation. This larger group had a serious and heartfelt discussion that went on most of the night, interrupted for a time by drunken comments and personal insults from the other room (aimed at me, for one) by a few members of the faculty and administration. A meeting of a faculty committee, probably the Student Affairs Committee, was scheduled for 10:30 in the morning.
The discussion ranged from the war in Vietnam and now at home, to earnest talk about community, ideals and possibilities. This week that forcibly took everyone out of regular time was an opportunity. A consensus quickly arose (again, I'm referring to more or less contemporaneous notes) that the students who were now present wanted a strike, with official mourning for the Kent State and now Jackson State students, and discussions of relevant issues instead of standard classes.
The difference of opinion was whether or not to bring such a proposal to the faculty committee. Some believed they would consider it, others doubted it. Almost everyone realized simply making the proposal was a concession, a return to the old power dynamic of asking for something.
Eventually everyone agreed to work out a
proposal, and that's what happened the rest of the night. Unfortunately I don't
have a copy of it. But I believe it proposed several days of a "free
university" devoted to relevant issues. A group of representatives
was elected, and they took it to the committee in the morning, while everybody
else tried to get some sleep on the floors.
I remember one moment from that strange night. I was walking through a group of students sitting and lying on the floor, when one young woman looked up at me and smiled. I hadn't known her before, but she looked at me with such faith and trust. I felt a particular responsibility placed on me by that look, beyond what I'd felt from the start of this, and I knew at that moment that I would do my best to see that no harm would come to her or anyone, as the priority. We all knew that the police might well become involved at some point, for not even Knox College was immune.
On Saturday morning the faculty committee refused to discuss anything with occupation representatives while we occupied the offices, because (they said) that meant the faculty was under duress. So the representatives roused the sleeping occupier and we all went to the committee room down the hall. The faculty did not discuss their proposals but rejected their legitimacy, and harshly criticized the occupiers.
Cooler heads might have expected this, and even seen it as a part of the process that would end up in some sort of compromise. But (my notes more than indicate) most of the students were shocked by its dismissive intensity, involving what would today be called shaming. The desires and possibilities they had articulated, sometimes tearfully, in the suspended space of the night, were ignored and disdained.
A theorist might suggest that the Yippie/Dada occupation had monkeyed with the structure and mystique of authority, denying its moral validity, and the faculty now reflexively attempted to restore and enforce that authority and mystique. Or it simply was an angry reaction with rational justification, which felt like violence to the exhausted and vulnerable.
|Knox student John Podesta|
In any case the faculty response also seemed like part of a bad cop/good cop strategy, because when we got back from the meeting, the Dean of Students entered, made "a few subtle threats" but offered to negotiate. "I'll be in my office," he said. "We'll be in ours!" one of the students shouted, to cheers. The occupying group seemed on the verge of splintering until that moment.
The deans stuck around and talked with whoever came into their offices. Perhaps some actual negotiation began at this point, but it mostly became chaos. The deans' huddle was interrupted by a student asking for a match, and then leaving. Just as one of the more traditionally liberal members of the occupying group was explaining to the deans that one of these days things might get so bad that somebody might throw a bomb, in slid a long sputtering fuse attached to a loaf of bread. Then 30 of the occupiers got down on the Old Man hallway floor and crawled towards one of the offices crying, "Crumbs! Crumbs from the table! Please!"
The occupation continued throughout the day on Saturday. There seemed to be only two alternatives: to acknowledge defeat, or await the police. We talked about it. We could ask those not willing to be busted to leave, but the group believed it had achieved something by staying together, and they wanted to remain together. But to some, and especially to me, the whole group staying required trusting that the police would not be violent, and in this week that did not seem a safe bet.
And what would be gained? Injury or worse, radicalization of some, a lot of alienation and turmoil with lasting repercussions. This scenario had become predictable. Issues had been raised and a process begun, however disingenuously. It seemed time for a last act of Yippie jujitsu. I made the proposal, and the group made the final decision, with what seemed like relief.
In the darkness of very early Sunday morning we packed up and left, announcing that we were enacting the solution to the wearisome question of how do we get out of Vietnam? Our answer was: declare victory and go home.
That’s what we did. There was no vandalism, no damage to persons or property. I’m pretty sure we cleaned up before we left.
Later I learned, probably from Becky Harlan,
Dean Ivan Harlan's daughter, that a police raid had been in the works, working
with the college. Students who participated would simply be sent home,
but--as an ex-student Outside Agitator-- I would be arrested, as would the
other ex-student present.
The occupation and my participation in it got me some odd responses. Some people I knew who I thought would be more positive, weren't. But one faculty member I expected to be hostile--in fact the professor who'd flunked me and adamantly refused to let me graduate--complimented me on taking an interest in my old school, with a smile. To this day I don't know if he was sincere, or more skilled at blank sarcasm than I'd ever seen.
The head of college public relations--who I've decided not to name here-- may have felt personally betrayed because he'd employed me writing for the alumni magazine and tried to get me a summer reporting job while I was a student. In any case he was bitter, angry and very hostile.
While it was going on, I'd written a verse parody about the occupation called, naturally enough, "The Students Are Revolting." The main character was Free Podesta, which wasn't meant to be John specifically, but was a pun referring both to the "Free Podesta" signs and to Abbie Hoffman's adopted name of Free, to designate a kind of Every-Protester.
Later someone slipped me this p.r. man's own Shakespearian verse parody, quite skillfully written, with personal digs at a number of students but in which the chief villains are me ("King Owinski") and somebody called "Jan Siesta."
All of this reminds me of something Abbie Hoffman said years later:"We were reckless, we were headstrong, we were impatient, we were excessive. But goddammit we were right."
The other was Valjean McLenighan, in her Dress
for Success period. We had a brief conversation before I had to go back.
I only found her because Dean Deborah Wing saw me and said she was on
campus and looking for me. In all my years at Knox I had hardly a good
word to say for Dean Wing, and yet she was calmly civil with me.
During the occupation I snuck out a few times, once to go to the library to check out the story about the occupation in Time Magazine (with its immortal quote, "If it can happen at Knox College, it can happen anywhere.") Oddly, there were a couple of alums I knew who visited Knox that weekend, for reasons of their own. One was Neil Gaston, one of the first of my classmates I met my first year. I ran into him in front of Seymour Hall. He was in the Army. He wanted to talk about books.
That was the last time I saw or heard from Neil. And though Valjean and I spoke on the phone, wrote letters and emails over the years, that was also the last time I saw her. Both Neil and Valjean would go on to do great work (Neil wrote major environmental laws in Illinois; Valjean wrote childrens books, did political work, and more) and both were special people. And both died too young.
Two other relevant memories: I did participate in the open university, though my contribution was decidedly undistinguished. In retrospect it reminds me of the actor's nightmare, in which you find yourself on stage unprepared. I'd begun something which I'd planned as a multi-media presentation on "the classroom without walls," on old forms restricting new information, but I didn't have anything coherent in shape in time. And I was exhausted, so I mumbled and grumbled through the nightmare.
That seemed true in May 1970. It's certainly true in May 2022.
Before I left campus I successfully made my first and only movie--a super 8 one-reeler, about 3 and a half minutes long, edited in the camera. It was about an Allison Krause figure. She also captured the imagination of many poets and others, probably for the flower in the gun barrel moment. I had immediately gravitated towards her also because she was from Pittsburgh, and grew up not far from where I did.
I planned my scenes and shots but while I actually shot the film I had a tune in my head--Paul McCartney's first solo album was just out, and I kept hearing "Maybe I'm Amazed." The first and I think only time I ran the film, I put the record on, and the film and the song exactly matched, in length and rhythms. Spooky.
Two postscripts: Sometime in the 1980s I met
Jerry Rubin. He was a millionaire by then, and was beginning to host
networking parties. My literary agent at the time was helping him out. I
rode in the back seat of a car with him, and attended one of his parties at his
Upper East Side apartment. It was all carpeted in white. And I
noticed that he served only white wine. I also noticed that I never saw him
Also in the 1980s, when I was back in western Pennsylvania working on my mall book, I got an unusual phone call. Ivan Harlan and his new wife, the former Lynn Metz, were nearby and invited me to dinner. They were visiting St. Vincent College in Latrobe, evidently job-hunting. At one point Ivan told me that his daughter Becky had explained to him what my role was in organizing the occupation, that it had helped keep things from becoming violent. And he also told me that he missed those days. Students now were so boring.