Christmas – 1970
It all seems so ludicrous. People running about saying “Merry Christmas” – chocolates being consumed at a fantastic pace. Christmas lights, trees and tinsel decorations as far as the eye can see. But to what avail? For what purpose? Where does it lead?
Last night entered the church of the Lord, and was ashamed. It was incredible – just incredible. Imagine the scene, midnight mass. Outside the chapel it looks like Macy’s – inside the chapel, a tree, a manger, lights – people and the American flag. “One nation under God – indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and justice for all – that is all who refuse to question but will accept “greenback” with “In God we trust” as our redeeming savior. He who worships at the alter of the Americas will be saved by the patron saints of Wall Street – St. John D. Rockefeller, brother of all, Andrew Carnegie. Resentment, bitterness, anger, vengeance – “Vengeance will be mine sayeth the Lord. The money changers will be force from the temple.”
I don’t know anymore, it all seems so degenerate. Gold, silk, linen, red, white, blue, stripes, stars, lights, trees, silver, gold. . . gold. . . gold. . . go_d, red, white, blue, stars, and stripes, silver birds in green with stripes of black called Father.
If Christ walked in – he would have ended up in solitary. What does Christ mean if we don’t imitate him and follow in his footsteps? Is that not what Brother Malcolm, Brother Fred Hampton, Brother Che Guevara, and Brother Martin Luther King did? I should not be writing from my cell, I should be contemplating from the “hole”.
“Unless you take up my cross you will not be born. I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Instead . . . instead I will fast and in the private solitude of my cell, looking out at brick and bars, I will recapture the spirit of Christmas. Three-hundred and sixty-four days greed – and one of . . . I can’t stand the insanity of sanity. God be with you. Blessed are the peacemakers . . .
I wrote this after spending Christmas mass in Leavenworth. The priest had threatened us with solitary if we didn’t quit talking during the mass.
I Did At Least One Thing Right. . .
It was like a prison scene in a Jimmy Cagney movie. Looking up, all you could see were rows and rows of cells reaching to the sky. At the bottom, as if in a surreal Dali painting, there I was, bare-naked. We were in a ‘fish bowl’ for the rest of the prisoners to gawk at and possibly, choose who would be their ‘whores’. I was scared, more scared than I had ever been in my life.When the cell door locks shut on your 5 x 7 cell, there is a feeling of exhilaration and fear. You are locked in a cage, stacked upon other cages, with cages all around you. You wear the sloppy, ill fitting, ripped and torn brown fatigues given to you. After the humiliation of being bare ass, stark naked in front of hundreds of men, you must now wear rags in this desperate place. You feel you have no self respect left. You look out and all you see is the desolation of other men in cells waiting for time to end. You have a metal toilet and sink, along with a bunk and blanket.
Still you realize you have taken the ‘fight’ a long way, longer than anyone thought you were capable. When you were asked to carry weapons against men and women your own age you refused. When you went through that top secret drill at Pier 91 in Seattle at the National Guard base and realized your government planned to assassinate, if necessary, leaders of the anti-war and civil rights movement you realized you had to act. There was no choice for you. After years of aimless wandering and going from job to job and city to city there now seemed to be purpose in life, perhaps this was destiny, a reason for living. Something had to be done to stop the madness.
After the 72 hour drill that involved the Seattle Police Department’s fledgling Tac Unit, (the predecessor to the riot squad), the National Guard High Command from Camp Murray near Fort Lewis, the leadership of the Sixth Army from the Presidio in San Francisco and representatives from Mayor Wes Uhlman’s office and members of the Seattle Fire Department working with Military Intelligence along with FBI types . . . man I was nauseated and scared.
A full three years before Kent State, this group plotted the assassination of leaders like Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and local radicals. Granted this was a ‘mock’ exercise. Still, wouldn’t you be and aren’t you now concerned when I tell you that as the operations clerk and a radio-telephone operator I witnessed conversations between military and civilian leaders that planned to use guard ‘snipers’ and police ‘crack’ shooters to kill known ‘radicals’.
The drill was set to plan anti-riot tactics during a demonstration in Seattle. The setting was a local park in a multi-racial community. The strategy was this: isolate the ‘mob’ from it’s leaders. To do this, the fire department would use fire hoses to create chaos. At the same time helicopters would spray a lethal CS gas to immobilize the demonstrators.
Standing by would be a phalanx of guardsmen and riot control equipped Seattle policemen ready to wade into the crowd with long riot batons waving in a crisp drill and ceremonies style frighteningly reminiscent of Nazi storm troopers of another era. Of course none of this would happen if the crowd dispersed when they were ordered. Experience showed this almost never happened.
With the crowd in panic, and chaos ensuing, heads would be cracked, blood flowing and heavy reprisals taken for the embarrassments suffered by the police locally and at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. With people running everywhere, snipers and sharpshooters planned to pick off anyone who stood and tried to organize the crowd. In drill after drill we were told these are the most dangerous types of leaders. Now perhaps you can see why I was frightened. I knew I must act. I had to try and convince reporters. It wasn’t easy. I was thrown out of every news organization in Seattle and most muttered under their breath that I was a crack pot. Remember this was almost three years before the country would be horrified by deaths at Jackson State College in Mississippi and Kent State in Ohio.
One reporter from the Seattle Times, Don Hanula listened with tepid interest. Later he would report on how participation in this top-secret drill led to my being jailed in the stockade at Lewis. Maybe the press didn’t take me seriously but Military Intelligence did and used the FBI to try and arrest me to ‘shut’ me up.
Months before I was arrested at a demonstration in Seattle, at the United States courthouse, I became more active in Seattle’s peace movement. Characters like Susan Roberts and Stephanie Coontz are just a couple that come to mind. Stephanie is a published author and teaches at Evergreen College, south of Olympia. There were others from the ‘Friends’ and other pacifist organizations that helped me and housed me. My fragile marriage was destroyed as I ‘ducked’ the law by moving about the city, staying at different houses.
There were several close calls. One, when Federal agents ran a car off the road near Bellevue thinking a friend and I were in it. Another when agents stormed a house where it was suspected I stayed. I eluded capture both times. As this was going on I became involved in a new ‘radical’ organization started by a Professor Michael Lerner and a band from Cornell University that called themselves the ‘Sundance’ collective after the movie, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. My group was, ‘Long time comin’ named after the Buffalo Springfield tune. We concentrated in disrupting operations at draft boards and high schools. Several times we were almost arrested. Where ever I could I would speak to groups warning of the future that I was a witness to in the past. This only angered the military and they were determined to arrest me.
I fled to Oregon where I stayed with relatives, although my reception was very ‘icy’. Funny, my cousin’s husband who came from a military family was able to avoid the draft. This might have contributed to his politics that are commonly referred to as those of a chicken hawk’s. In any case I returned to the Seattle area. The Military was really overreacting. Remember, I was not a ‘desperado’, but you would never know that my how much importance was placed in my capture.
In any case, we were very active in the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) up to an including the climax of our efforts, the demonstration after the verdict came down during the conspiracy trial of leaders in the federal courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman after the Chicago convention in 1968.
I can name all eight. Of course there was Bobby Seale, and then Rennie Davis, the courageous Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and here are the two nobody gets, John Froines and Lee Weiner. It was during this demonstration that I was finally arrested in ‘commando’ type gear in the middle of the street in front of the U. S courthouse in downtown Seattle by a ring of Seattle Policemen with guns drawn. It was February of 1970.
After a Federal magistrate washed his hands of the matter, I was caged and later transported to the stockade at Fort Lewis in a motorcade of Military Police and State Patrol with choppers overhead. What did they think my rag tag group and I were going to do, shoot it out like at the O. K. corral near Tombstone. It would be mid 1970 before I was finally transported to my new home in Kansas.
Before I would get there I would escape from Fort Lewis, flee to Canada in the trunk of a car and help organize with others, including a person who would become a life long friend, the American Deserter’s Committee and the tongue in cheek, Amerikong. This frivolous, but dangerous game would haunt me for years. While in Canada, Ozzie and I incurred the wrath of the ‘legitimate’ Vancouver left. We called them armchair revolutionaries. They threatened to publish our pictures in their ‘rags’ as members of the militant ‘Weatherman’ faction of the S. D. S.
This came after a destructive riot in an exclusive section of Vancouver where tens of thousands of dollars damage was done by a band of marauding ‘deserters’ and others that Ozzie and I were connected to. The’deserters’ being forced from the beach triggered this riot. Later the city would concede they were wrong and provide food and shelter for what Mayor Tom Campbell, called dirty, longhaired cowards from the United States.
Months earlier Ozzie had led a demonstration that marched to the peace gate at the Canadian border. He chained the gates closed. This was the first time this had ever happened, and needless to say the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the United States F. B. I. were furious and they really wanted our hides. After several months of hanging out in B. C. including a stint living with members of a communist organization that supported Palestinian revolutionaries led by a dentist, Dr. George Habish, I left. Ozzie and I were only there less than a year, but we accomplished a lot or as the authorities put it, caused a lot of trouble.
Finally in the late fall of 1970 I returned back to the States where I ended up back in the stockade at Fort Lewis. This time they took me very serious, and put me in a literal aluminum box type cell in the middle of a field. This was their new maximum security cell. Later I would be transported in the early hours of the morning to Sea-Tac Airport in a motorcade of military policemen and driven onto the runway and marched on to the waiting plane in shackles and cuffs at gunpoint. The cuffs stayed on for the entire flight. this caused a little bit of concern with the passengers, wondering who was this desperate criminal that had to be handcuffed in the air while sitting by two armed Military Policemen.
This is why I was scared as I stood naked in front of tiers of prisoners being checked out by guards that stood 6-4 with broad shoulders that easily could be mistaken for offensive linemen. If there is one place the ‘grape vine’ works, it is behind the walls. Guards chosen for duty at Leavenworth came from the elite of the military police. Guards assigned to myself and other leaders of the military resistance were specially picked and trained. Somethin I knew a little bit about. In all honesty I can say then and now, I never thought I would walk out of the prison. I felt they would find a way to kill me or have me killed. The price would be cheap.
You’re lonely, you are at least a thousand miles away from home in your first night in Leavenworth, the Midwest Monster. As you try to fall asleep that first night you wonder, almost aloud, if all the stories about prison are true. You actually fear you might not wake up. Once sleep takes you away from reality, time seems to virtually stand still.
However in reality prison time becomes like every other time, you realize you will get out of it what you put into it. In time you realize you have never felt more creative. You look around and see tremendous art shown to you. Mike Negroni paints strange pictures showing himself as a victim of ‘time’. In time you learn to forget ‘time’. Each day that passes, and you are still alive makes you a little more confident and relaxed You come to learn, that the cell with the steel bars doesn’t keep you in, instead, it keeps the rest of the world out. You learn to study with more intensity.
You live, and this you can’t believe, with more passion than you thought possible. Words appear on paper and you can’t believe you contributed to the process. You see words on paper with more clarity and focus than you ever thought possible. You dream with such passion and you long for the day you will be ‘free’ and the ‘time’ will be over, yet strangely you feel freer than ever in prison.
Yes, rebels are imprisoned. . . and ‘society’ jails them to protect itself from it’s conscience. More vengeance is directed against what Thoreau would call the just, than murderers or thieves. Waiting for time to end you know you have to explore, find out what made you decide your belief was worth going to prison. Honestly some days you find . . . maybe it wasn’t worth it.
This is too hard, it’s too much of a price to pay. Please give me another chance. I’ll march in lock step. I’ll obey. Just point the way, I will kill for you. Anything, just get me out of here. There are many days when that’s exactly how I felt. But there are some days that the high is indescribable. Some days there is a feeling that you aren’t even there. The bars are gone. You can’t even hear yourself walk. You are floating above, looking down at all of these ants dressed in brown.
Meeting a man, a black man, who was sentenced to this prison for life was one of those days. We’ll call the man ‘Brother’ Andrew. His tale was explosive. As he explained it. He fled his unit. I don’t know if he was under ‘fire’ or not. But he left and wandered the jungle, no weapon, no food, nothing. He said he was found by ‘Vietnamese’.
They took him to a village and cared for him until he was stronger. He met and fell in love with a Vietnamese woman and moved in with her in this very special village. You see, it turns out this village was protected by the ‘Viet Cong'(VC). There were many other Americans in the village as Brother Andrew later learned. They were all deserters and for one reason or another, he did not know why, the VC protected them. Brother Andrew said the Americans were aware of this village and they had a special unit of volunteers ‘running’ the jungle looking for men like Brother Andrew. They were called the ‘skull and crossbones’ unit. They would take back proof of their conquests by cuttingoff the ears of their victims to prove they had taken care of the ‘deserter’.
This story is incredible, to me at the time, and now in the telling of it again.. Brother Andrew did not think he would ever leave Leavenworth, except in a wood box. He was afraid he was in the prison because of what he knew. Anyway, eventually brother Andrew was captured and charged with the murder of South Vietnamese soldiers. He told me of an attempt by the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) to over run the village. Brother Andrew said they were repelled with the assistance of the VC. He described the VC men and women fighting side by side with the Americans and how they beat the ARVN back. Is this true? I heard the story enough times to believe it, including the part about the Special Forces ‘skull and cross bones’ unit. Frightening isn’t it?
Brother Andrew was captured while outside of the perimeter by a patrol of GI’s. He was taken to LBJ (Long Binh Jail) and court-martialed. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. Brother Andrew had been in Leavenworth for a couple of years by the time I ran into him. He was intelligent and entertaining. Meeting people like him made the decision to go to prison seem worthwhile.
When Carl Dix, Paul Forrest and Jim Allen arrived at Leavenworth from Ft. Lewis we met and decided to continue the work we started earlier. While in the stockade at Ft. Lewis we had published a ‘manifesto’. In those days a group of leftists, radicals, communists, or other activists would always publish manifestos. They might not accomplish anything else, but radicals would always put out a list of demands. Ironically the act of putting out the demands was more radical than the demands. The list was smuggled out and run off on mimeograph machine at the chapel by the chapel’s assistant who was a ‘trustee’. After the Major of the Stockade figured out who was responsible, the chapel’s assistant was assigned to clean out shit in the horse stables.
Anyone caught with the list lost the amount of time they collected for good behavior. For some it meant a lot more time behind bars. Also any special privileges accumulated were lost. Prisoners taking part in this ‘rebellion’ showed a lot of guts. So the piece of paper the demands were written on was not nearly as important as just having the piece of paper in your cell or bay.
Paul, Carl, and Jim were called the Fort Lewis ‘Three”. They were court martialled when they refused orders to Vietnam. They were sentenced to two to five years at hard labor. Also in prison at the same time were Wade Carson from Arizona, Richard Chase from Ft. Hood in Texas and Willie Williams, also from Ft. Lewis. We decided we would meet in the library every night. To begin with there was less than a dozen, but as the word spread more prisoners joined us. We also became involved with a Sunday Unitarian discussion group. Before we were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the prison, there were nearly 30 prisoners that met in the library, not as many on Sunday.
It turns out the Unitarian minister was working with Military Intelligence (MI). He either went to them and offered his services or what is more likely, they came to him and asked him to gather evidence to build a conspiracy case. I think they chose the Unitarian minister because MI believed we would trust the Unitarian more than other ministers of other denominations.
We read books and talked to each other about what we had read and what it meant to us. A flood of memories was opened when I recently read Malcolm X and his journey into the world of books. I read Malcolm X when I was in prison along with African revolutionary leaders. One of the most cogent was Patrice Lumumba. Revolutionary movements in Africa seemed more relevant to the worldwide movement than many of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ movements in the Anglo-Saxon world. Malcolm X understood the need to use your time in prison:
Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I wasn’t reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have got me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Mohammed’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors, . . . and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X)
Willie Williams, by the way, was sent to prison for taking his ID card and tacking it on the barracks bulletin board with the notation under it, ‘Freedom . . . or death to President Nixon’. Willie faced at least 10 years in prison. Support for him by the Seattle Liberation Front and others in the anti-war movement forced the military court to find him innocent and he only faced a year in prison with credit for time served. When he got out he became involved with an organization that seized land in Mississippi to start a new country. There were rumors that he was killed by the police. This has not been confirmed. The organization was called the Republic of New Africa. Prison changed a lot of people . . . forever. Maybe that is why the words of Pat Buchanan ring so true. It will only be when the last veteran of the Vietnam era is dead that the controversy surrounding that decade will be forgotten. For many, the memories are still too painful and the insanity inflicted on so many in the name of obligation, too great.
Chase was from Ft. Hood and was a member of the infamous Ft. Hood seven who were found guilty of ‘disrupting’ the military and refusing orders. We also had Wade Carson from Ft. Huachuca north of Phoenix. Wade was sentenced to five years for refusing orders and being unmilitary. Believe it or not, the United States in it’s infinite wisdom had taken all of the trouble makers from around the United States, Germany and Vietnam and sent them to one miserable place in Kansas where we were all ‘united’ in prison.
During that period there were about 2000 prisoners in Ft. Leavenworth and 75% were there for military crimes. In the real world they would not be in prison. There were very, very few men in that place that were there for violence. How ironic, here they were in the Army and the entire reason for existing was to kill. Yet they were in prison for not being violent enough in some cases, weird, huh? \tab You want to learn for a reason, true some of that passion may diminish when you are released; but it still is a driving force in your life. Look at what Malcolm went on to do. Bottom line, I have never felt that way in any college. Maybe I haven’t given it a chance.
I’ve tried to tell a story, and I am not sure that I have any real point except to explain the relativity of the concept of freedom. It is more than a word. In prison that concept is understood, maybe, just because of the drive for self preservation, both physically and mentally. Many of us felt we were fighting oppression. We felt we were prisoners of war. They treated us like we were. It was amazing the words we wrote could be contraband, just as articles clipped from magazines and newspapers were also considered contraband. Wonder what the folks at Time magazine would think of that piece of news.
It was Justice Felix Frankfurter that said if freedom is to last it has to be exercised. I only tell you the story of Leavenworth because I want you to understand what Frankfurter says about freedom. Learning that concept of freedom is not easy. You have to be willing to pay a price in order to receive it. More importantly that feeling of freedom is fleeting. It isn’t there all of the time.
Some day’s paranoia dominated. I really believed someone could be out to murder me. I’m sure I heard guards plotting. I thought prisoners were out to do me in. And looking back I don’t think these fears were unfounded. There were reports of prisoners who were found hung in their cells with legs broken and arms literally pulled out of their sockets. It was not uncommon to hear that a ‘dime dropper’, a snitch, would be gang raped on an upper tier. To some this might seem violent, but behind the walls it works to keep prisoners from ‘ratting’ out other prisoners. The greatest crime in prison is being a snitch.
The prison hierarchy can manipulate the population like a puppeteer. For the sixties radical this could be life threatening. Guards had their way of getting people ‘done’. Sometimes it was as simple as extra television privileges, other times the price was more lucrative to the inmate. Perhaps he could score ‘dope’. Surprisingly, dope, you name it . . . got inside. Drugs were easier to get behind the walls then outside, it’s probably still that way. “Dime dropper”, by the way is a term that means informing on another prisoner. In days gone by it might be done for the price of a ‘coke’, which was ten cents. . . hence the term, dime dropper.
Guards in ‘dragnet’ style fashion rounded up 13 of us simultaneously. Interrogators questioned us during all hours of the day and night to try and get a confession from us that we were planning to overthrow the prison, whatever the hell that meant. For God’s sake we were behind bars. The military does have a fantastic imagination, don’t they? The prison commandant responded with a total lock down of the prisoners for 72 hours. Prisoners were taken to their cells and not allowed out. All meals were served in the cells. It is a very major response, used only in emergency cases.
What caused this over reaction by the prison? We, meaning several of us, organized protest over the jailing of Black activist, Angela Davis. On the day selected, prisoners filed into the mess hall in silence, picked up a tray, and picked up their food. Instead of eating, they left the full tray in the proper place and filed out, without eating a bite. This very symbolic protest caused the prison hierarchy to react. They ‘arrested’ us. Think how ludicrous it sounds. They arrested us, yet we were already in prison. That’s how crazy the ‘lunacy’ really is. And all over not eating. The prison looks at any joint effort with the ‘races’ as threatening.
We were taken to four base. It’s in a level below the basement. This separated from those locked in the isolation cells and the rest of the prison. Guards took us to the electric chair each morning for what could only be called mental torture. The Army prison is directly under the command of the Pentagon and answers to no one else. These sadistic guards would take prairie ‘dogs’, so common to Kansas, and ‘fry’ them in the electric chair while threatening the same end for us. They got their message through. Most of us were scarred. I remember overhearing guards plotting to slash my throat while I slept. I still have the habit of sleeping with one foot on the floor.
Before they transferred us to death row, we were exposed to the Carl Menninger inspired ‘seven’ step program. Each prisoner is stripped to his shorts and has to work his way back to all of his privileges. Eating and being clothed were considered privileges. Most interestingly, Carl Menninger’s progressive prison reform institute was located in Kansas City. Many programs at Ft. Leavenworth came from his teachings. The ‘step’ program was one of them. It’s purpose was to control ‘unruly’ prisoners and prepare them to be more socially acceptable, not only for life on the outside, but in the short term, for life on the inside.
As with all idealistic programs, there are shortcomings. The step program was no exception. In the hands of sadistic guards it could take on a form of harassment. The guards were so primitive in the way they carried these programs out. It was more fun to watch them try to harass in such an inept way. It made time to go. What the hell, fucking with the guard’s head was not much of a challenge. They used to tell us we flunked inspection because a pebble on the floor was out of place or a dead bug was not uniform to the cell. For these transgressions we had to spend more time without our clothes, or we were forced to sleep another night with out a blanket on the cement slab.
In the end there were only three of us in solitary, myself, Carl Dix and Paul Forrest. We were all from Fort Lewis. The attention this gave the Commanding General of Ft. Lewis from from the Pentagon was probably not all that welcome by him, just another bonus for us. Initially we were allowed to have the Bible and the rulebook in our cell. In time we were able to manipulate various religious personnel to intervene, allowing us many more books. Carl, being black, used this leverage to get books that allowed him to study among other things, revolt in Africa in the 20th Century. While I used Roman Catholicism to get books that showed world history.
The prison under the tutelage of Colonel Francis Payne, did not let up. A Catholic priest threatened me with a frontal lobotomy at the military hospital in Springfield, Missouri if I didn’t renounce my political beliefs. To his way of thinking it was tantamount to renouncing the devil. This along with being threatened with solitary during Christmas Mass screwed me up for years. In fact it is only within the last 5 years that I have again become a practicing Catholic.
Each of the three of us faced five more years in prison for the so-called conspiracy. None of us did any more time. But during our kangaroo type trial, we were threatened with not only the loss of time off for good behavior . . . but the additional term. As I mentioned earlier our mail was censored. I received magazines and newspapers weeks late with words blacked out or in some cases cut out. The magazines and paper, the Kansas City Star and Time magazine. Anyone familiar with these publications is aware of their ‘revolutionary’ content.
Keep in mind, my only crime was challenging the use of the National Guard asa political police force to enforce repression against those who dissent. At least that’s what I wrote on my antiquated conscientious objector form. It offered this choice, to oppose all violence. During the interview, I remember being asked if I would resort to violence if my grandmother were being raped in front of me. Knowing that I could lie, I chose instead to be honest. I knew I had as much chance of getting C. O. status as I did of having the fictitious millionaire knock on my door with a check. Months later the formality of denying my application was completed. I attended my last drill, protesting the Guard’s involvement in riot control. Ironically, later my reservations were echoed by a number of police chiefs around the United States.
Today the National Guard’s primary role is to back up active forces and to assist in time of national disaster, a role to which they are aptly suited. During that drill, at inspection, dressed, for some reason, as a frontiersman, I told the Commanding Officer, I would only allow my services to be used in ‘positive’ ways. I don’t remember what in the hell was going through my mind at the time but I came there looking like an Indian scout in knee high moccasins with fringe and a buckskin jacket with an army shirt. Oh well, and believe me it is an oh well, there was much uneven development in my politics.
The lieutenant clearly felt President Johnson’s orders for the Guard to be used as the main force for riot control was positive. We disagreed, I saluted and did an about face. Fortunately I had given this decision a lot of time . . . agonized over it for months. I suppose the biggest break I received was the mistake the National Guard and the Selective Service made in reprocessing my status. Instead of classifying me as 1-A, I was classified 3-A. Later, after a year in prison, six months in solitary and another month on active duty, all charges against me were dropped. I was given an honorable discharge from the armed forces and given the obligatory letter of appreciation from the President and General Westmoreland. Apparently they were impressed with my conscientious service while in prison.
Each day in prison was branded by guard’s attempts to get under our skin. We had been transferred to ‘death’ row. A section of the prison that had not been used since World War II when German and Japanese prisoners of war had been housed there. For us the use seemed appropriate, because we considered ourselves prisoners of war. A fact that bothered the guards to no end. Daily they threatened us with execution. Telling us that they would get other prisoners to poison our food or slash our throats. They messed with us, we messed with them. It helped pass the time.
Periodically junior ‘G’ men types fresh out of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps)would interrogate us. The military has their own equivalent of the FBI and the CIA. In this case it was CID (Criminal Investigation Detachment). The questions would always infer that we, meaning Carl, Paul and myself, were connected to some conspiracy, residue from the communist witch hunts of the 50’s, I suppose.
These CID people are really something. Earlier before I was sent to prison, I had another run in with them. I was still with my first wife living in an apartment complex by the University of Washington. My wife worked nearby and I was taking care of our daughter.
The military CID assigned to Fort Lewis was actively looking for me. Delora and I had made close friends with a number of the tenants at the apartment complex. While visiting at one of the apartments we noticed a couple of men sneaking around. One of the women called police to report prowlers. Several squad cars arrived with lights and no sirens. The “prowlers” saw the police approaching and took off on a dead run into the woods. Police caught up and “captured” them. I can only imagine the look on the agent’s faces and then the look on the cop’s faces when they realized whom each other was. Sometimes it was way too much fun. After that I ‘split’. Only calling my wife from pay or ‘safe’ phones.
After a couple of months in solitary, I got visitors from Fort Holobird in Maryland. Two agents from Military Intelligence (MI) interrogated me for several hours. It scared me shitless. They had a ‘dossier’ that went back to my early school years. They knew about trouble I got into in grade school. Hell, they knew about the time I was taken by the ear and dragged into the principal’s office for kissing Donna Fessel in the second grade. It might have been a sign of the times, since this was the early fifties, but the teacher called me a dirty little ‘commie’. If she only knew how prophetic her remarks were.
The amount of information they have on each of us is alarming. These agents insisted I confess to being a paid agent of the North Vietnamese government and that my assignment was to disrupt the army prison. See what I mean about the depth of their imagination. When I refused to acknowledge any thing other than name, rank and serial number they turned ugly, threatening me with all sorts of calamities. To make their point they showed me their side arms they supposedly checked. In any case they were sure I was a paid foreign agent. After several hours of getting no where they gave in and returned me to my cell in solitary. Chain and shackled I was marched with an escort of a half dozen guards. It was cool, while taking me back, other prisoners gave the clenched fist salute of solidarity.
It was after the visit of MI that things really got rough, threats increased. The pressure may have contributed to my taking up a Muslim diet of not eating flesh. I thought there was less chance of poisoning me. I slept with one eye open and one foot on the ground. Looking back, it might have been a strong case of paranoia. I think it was justified. I think it kept me living longer. Because when you ‘piss’ off MI and the Pentagon, you have mad the wrong people mad. At the time it seemed fun, made time go by faster, in hindsight, it was probably stupid. When you’re young you believe you are invincible. I know I did.
While in solitary, I followed George Jackson’s schedule. He was the black man serving ‘five to life’ in Soledad Prison in California. He had written the book Soledad brother. In the early 70’s, police killed him in an attempted escape. The circumstances around his death are, shall we say suspicious. Labeling it murder would be more accurate. His case was taken up by the avowed member of the Communist Party, USA, Angela Davis. Jackson was a courageous leader in the prison reform movement of the late 60’s and, to say the least, real trouble for the California penal system . . . in particular, indeterminate sentencing. His mind game was to do push ups instead of masturbation to stay mentally strong. That does sound like Judeo-Christian philosophy, doesn’t it? In any case it worked. Another trick I used was to take a lit cigarette and push it into my navel to see how much pain I could stand. It was my belief this would help me if they tried to torture me.
I would stare at the mortar wall and attempt to destroy it stone by stone using meditation. I never felt pain, which of course was the whole idea. In the end it was a great mental exercise. In my mind I was one of the great martyrs of our time. I had read about Pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer and his plight in Nazi jails. Even though the clergy of Leavenworth was against me, it didn’t matter. In my mind they were the Pharisees of Christ’s time and they needed to be chased out of the temple.
This self worth gave me the courage to continue and I know it helped me to survive the six months I spent in solitary confinement, most of it isolated with two others in the ‘death row’ of the prison. Writing this now, I know it sounds crazy. And truthfully, I might have been . . . crazy that is. Today I look back and realize that period was the most fulfilling of my life to that point. I think it may even have been the highlight of my life, the part of my life of which I am the proudest. I know the lessons learned, and even the knowledge gained had more of an impact than any of the colleges or universities I have attended since. Unfortunately it probably contributed to at least a decade of my life when I was really screwed up.
Ironically it was not the first ten years after I was released from prison, but instead the real anger didn’t really kick in until the late 70’s. I married for the second time in July of 1978 and for the length of that ill fated and doomed marriage I can’t really say I was happy. Worse, I am sure Rose wasn’t very happy either. Later I’ll have more to stay about that period of my life. And I assure you I won’t shove off the blame. I’ve had 20 years to sort that period out and I take full responsibility for my share of making that decade as bad for Rose and myself as any decade of our lives, before or after.
The lessons I learned in prison and from two failed marriages stay with me to this day. In relation to the prison experience I force myself to reject paranoia and try to avoid total cynicism, although it is hard. Even to this day, I have little confidence in truth, justice or the ‘American way’, but that really doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that many of my generation have that much confidence in their government anymore. The Howdy Doody generation has had quite a ride, every year of our lives, we have had a dramatic impact on society. From birth to death, I am sure we will have quite a legacy.
How did a white middle class boy end up in Leavenworth? The journey began decades ago I suppose, who’s to say. Injustice has been around for a long time. I don’t know that leaders actually plotted to ‘kill’ other Americans.
This is what happened, this what witnessed. I was a clerk in Headquarters Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 161st Infantry. We had been re-orga nized under the presidential edict of Lyndon Johnson after the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that splashed blood across our screens andmade it a certainity that ‘Tricky Dick’ would be our 43rd President. To organize a Seattle response, a special ‘nosleep’ drill was called for a summer weekend in 1969. In attendance were members of Mayor Wes Uhlman’s office, Sixth Army high command from the Presidio, the Adjutant General of the Washington State National Guard’s office, the Seattle Fire Department, the Seattle Police Department, Tony Gustin, ironically he would later be convicted of corruption and racketeering, and there were members of Military Intellegence, Criminal Investigation Detachment and the FBI, there may have been others there, but these are the ones I remember. I was a radio-telephone-operator, the operations clerk, a 71b20 was the MOS (military occupational speciality).
The drill began on a Friday night. We were ‘called’ out because of crowds gathering at ‘Volunteer Park’. The park was named after the heroic efforts of Seattle veterans in theSpanish-American war. The scenario was this: H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden were expected in Seattle to speak to a large crowd about arrests made in the ‘central’ area. This was the closest Seattle could come to a ‘ghetto’. Our job in the SpecOp section, as I think it was called’ was to co-ordinate the ‘containment’ effort. Since the Democratic Convention fiasco, National Guard units across the United States were training in riot control full time.
As the days became months, the outside ‘world’ was becoming completely cut off.. Back in Seattle it worried my parents. So much so in fact they attempted to contact the American Red Cross, the organization touted as the serviceman’s friend, now, in the era of ‘political correctness’, we can add servicewoman. Believe this, the Red Cross tried to get through and they were refused. They gave up. This certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the organization. Mom was not to be denied. Please remember it is the Red Cross that was complaining North Vietnamese did not allow access to relatives of American prisoners of war. Here in the military prison the same ‘stonewalling’ was happening. The Red Cross was shocked and outraged at being refused access to the prison.
My parents, actually my mother, contacted several senators, including Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Warren G. Magnusson, both of Washington state. Despite being liberals they offered nothing in the way of help, just the obligatory letter acknowledging receiving the letter. Massachusetts liberals Brooke and Kennedy were also not of any help. Brooke is the same senator assailed by a young Hillary Rodham at her graduation. The event was noted in Time magazine. Both her college and her parents reported embarrassment at the time.
In the end, only one senator expressed interest. Edmond S. Muskie of Maine wrote my mother and later contacted her promising an investigation. When he found the prison less than cooperative he became curious. By this time Carl Dix had triggered visits to the prison from Congressman Ron Dellums of California and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. As could be expected, each time an official came to investigate, we were hidden.
In the beginning our group, or band of conspirators as the prison defined us, numbered After weeks of interrogation failed to break anyone, they released all but three from maximum security, Carl, Paul and myself. The Commandant simply gave up. No one talked, not that anyone really had anything to say. The conspiracy existed only in the minds and imagination of the Pentagon and the prison. They were totally convinced we were trying to overthrow the prison. There is no doubt in mind they were scared because so many people of so many different backgrounds overcame differences and came together, just as the song inspired. Efforts orchestrated by the Commandant and his staff to keep prisoners divided because of race and religion did not work. Even attacking us as communists didn’t wash. Prisoners could see if the prison was attacking us, whatever the prison stood for was not in their best interest.
Meanwhile investigations by Muskie’s office and Dellum’s office continued. The Stonewalling by the prison also continued. Efforts by the Red Cross to make contact with me were also stymied on orders from the Pentagon. Muskie did touch base with the Red Cross in Kansas City and learned of their thwarted efforts to see me. In letters to my Mother, he expressed outrage at the treatment and promised to get to, what he described as the, ‘bottom’ of the entire affair. Similar promises were made to Carl Dix by Congressman Dellums of California.. Enough pressure was brought to bear on various authorities, including the Pentagon because a year to the day guards summoned me to the Commandant’s office. It was just after sunrise at 6:00 in the morning.
When I arrived at Colonel Payne’s office, he told me to get ready to leave. He told me I was an undesirable and he would no longer allow me to ‘upset’ his prison. What gall, what arrogance was the only thing I could think. Never was word mentioned of any investigation or that the prison and the Pentagon were wrong in how we were treated. Fuck them. It was over. I was going home. It’s all that mattered. I did feel bad that I was leaving Carl and Paul behind. Months later they secured their release. The commandant didn’t allow me to leave the prison without one final threat. He promised the FBI in Seattle was being notified of my arrival later in the day. With finger shaking in my face he told me the rest of my life would be ‘hellish’. The FBI would follow my every move.
The Howdy Doody Generation by Zels Bryan Johnson (1998)
The fifties seemed so innocent but probably not as innocent as Lucy, Desi, Fred and Ethel made them. I didn’t know many “Leave it to Beaver; households–and just what did Ozzie do for a living anyway?
Maybe a better representation of 1950’s America was Chester A. Riley, and what a revolting’ development that was. There was I Remember Mama, my Swedish grandmother’s favorite because she liked the references to the old country. Topper and Hopalong rode the range. There was Poncho and Ceessco and of course, Sky King and Penny, a teenager heart throb before Annette. We heard Andy Devine yell, Wild Bill wait for and they always asked, Who was that masked man?
Red Skelton made us laugh while Uncle Miltie confused us with his dresses for chuckles, and Ed Sullivan gave us reason to watch the Philco on Sunday night.
Growing up in the 50’s was exciting. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, Dizzy Dean was on the tube and Duke was roaming the outfield at Ebbets. Jackie was running the bases, and Peewee guarded the infield. Every young boy saved for his Spaulding or Wilson, and Louisville sluggers were a favorite at Christmas time–even better than a Red Ryder B-B gun for some. Our mothers knew we could shoot our eyes out and our fathers just shrugged.
Looking back, why did so many teachers disappear and why were they replaced by gray haired ‘nasties that pulled our ears the way Lyndon pulled his beagle’s ears and smashed our knuckles if we stepped out of line in readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. I remember when I kissed Donna and Mrs. Craig called me a dirty little commie. Ah, but there was Miss Zels, (my first name is Zels)–maybe we were a generation of destiny.
Outside of Everett, the Dulles brothers took over Washington before it was a beltway. Batista allowed organized crime &carte blanche in Havana. Mao and Stalin distrusted each other, but still the Chinese poured across the 38th parallel in Korea. Chang Kai Shek and the Dragon lady fled to Formosa to battle the ‘reds and the French were prepared to lose at Diem Bien Phu.
While we played, world leaders were setting the stage for the fateful battle that nearly destroyed two economies. Later in the decade, the cold war began for real. A basketball-sized sphere named Sputnik was hurled into space at the top of a rocket and the space race was on, the arms race as well.
The die was cast, our future lay before us. How did we lose those wonderful cities, or am I just middle-aged and only seeing the world through the rose-colored glasses Dole wore? The cities seemed so wonderful and magical in the Fifties and earlier. Even America seemed innocent–unless there was pigment to your skin or, you were a woman.
Did we damage our future by fleeing from the cities to the cul-de-sacs of suburbia. Instead of building concrete tributes to the car, should we have made our neighborhoods safer? And why don’t all of those houses in the fancy named developments that end in Estates have front porches–and does everyone have to have a barbeque? Did we lose our bearing when we didn’t recognize equality among ourselves and forced Rosa to ride at the back of the bus–and wouldn’t let everyone eat at Woolworths?
Did we get lost on the way to the 21st when we tried to fight communism by shooting everyone that disagreed with us in places like Vietnam? Did we lose it when we lost sight of our riches and wasted our technology on electric pencil sharpeners? Did we lose our way to San Jose when my generation fought for dignity in the Sixties, battling in the classrooms and streets only to lose it with bad music and worse–drugs? Did Elvis and the Beatles take away our future, or did we let America get away while we were stoned in the jungle?
What happened to the movies; what happened to decency? Why are so many sicko things happening? Or have things always been this way and we were just too busy trying to get ahead to notice them? Is Dan right, has Hollywood become the Babylon we accuse it of turning into? Or are he and the rest of the finger-pointers as mad as the hare in Alice and Wonderland?
I want back the America I remember, real or imagined, that was safe and pleasant. I want back the America that I remember–maybe never happened or even existed–I still want it.
Can my generation have another chance? Most of us are not stoned out of our minds anymore and we’re not in the jungle looking for Charlie–he’s here now and succeeding nicely in some places; even at your corner 7-Eleven that replaced mom and pop in the neighborhood.
In the meantime, it looks like we’ll prepare for the 21st behind self-imposed bars in homes that are wired to detect the slightest movement. While we cringe in fear, our politicians continue to let our cities deteriorate out of neglect. Soon our inner sanctum will be our prison and we’ll shoot at everything that moves with plastic guns that look like they were made by Mattel, but deadly as a poisonous viper.
The Howdy Doody generation–what happed on the way to the 21st Century? Did we get lost, or did we just never know the way…?
Is not the love that a man and a woman share with another
manifested through dedication, commitment and
and culminated in the beauty of the union
of sexual awareness
and thus human life is conceived.
My question – how can this manifestation of
such intense love
exhibit anything other than beauty?
Is this not the innocence of the child?
What then is the adult?
The manifestation of the reality of life?
Is life an aberration of love?
Then how can revolution be based in hate?
Is that not oppression?
And is that not what we seek to eliminate?
So brothers and sisters – is not revolution love?
And isn’t then the greatest love a person
being a revolutionary?
Yet – what is gained if we change the world
but neglect to change ourselves?
Is that not the heighth of arrogance?
– Zels Bryan Johnson
May 19, 1971