Friday, April 24, 2015

Crucible: Political Genesis

Breaking Crosses, breaking skulls, breaking ribs, offset by prayers, desperately intoned hymns, cat calls, and insults.  I can visualize the May 21,1968 ROTC President’s review at Bowling Green State University as though I am watching a black and white news documentary on PBS.  I can relive, in my gut,  my horror as I realized that what I believed about my country’s values, my society’s response to dissent, my belief that the government of my high school social studies text’s orthodoxy, were all sham.  Like when I learned Santa Claus was a mythical conspiracy of not only my parents, but the world, I was afraid.  I was nauseated.  I was shaking.  I was radicalized and my life long social activist path was set.

I was just turned 19.  I was a clean cut, bright, rebellious late teen, much impressed with my new “adulthood.”  I had escaped my parent’s home to the relative freedom of a midwestern backwater college in Ohio’s publicly supported university system.  I’d dreamt of college-- a place where I would think great thoughts, study classics, and grow.  I found myself with 250 Freshman in  giant lecture halls, and subsequent smaller closed circuit television “discussion sections”  lead by graduate students who, after they had performed their one critical act of pedagogy, that of turning on the classroom TV monitor, put their heads down on their desks and napped.  

I had already come to blows with my resident advisor that past fall for sounding a long, orange stadium horn out my dorm window during quiet hours.  I liked having a fairly neat dorm room but was amazed that our rooms were inspected once a week to assure our beds were made--that in loco parentis still existed on a 1968 college campus, while on the west coast student rights activists were publishing “Student As Nigger” treatises.  I pledged a fraternity that fall.  I was honored to be invited to join, without going through the competitive screening of social worthiness called “rush.”  I had been graced with a much sought after open bid.  I was a Pi Kappa Alpha for 10 days.  I made it through a fabulous drunken orgy or two (much more drunken that orgasmic), and my first pledge “line up.”  We were all lined up lying on the floor pretending to be insects.  At the direction of our pledge leaders we screamed on command that we were dog shit, so that we might come to understand our worthless untouchableness as new pledges.  I left “the house” that night only to return briefly the next day to inform the pledge leader I was not Pike material, and to see if I could get them to refund my $.95 that I had been required to pay for my official pledge notebook in which I had dutifully written the Greek alphabet, and had begun collecting signatures of actives and their officially “pinned” girl friends.  He erupted into disgust that I was “shitting on the house!”  I was the embodiment of affrontery and the epitome of an ungrateful heretic.  I escaped the house that afternoon in tact, but just barely.

As I watched events unfold at the ROTC review that beautiful spring day, I was with my new girl friend.  We were as totally wrapped in co-dependence as two post adolescents trying to emerge from dysfunctional families could be.  I was not afraid of her...well not terribly.  Any other female turned my soul and my ego to mush. She did not.  I knew that meant we were in love.  It took 31 years of pathetic marriage to learn that the absence of terror was not love.  I’d yet to learn as well that all love involves a measure of absolute terror commensurate with its joyousness.

So this was the day ROTC cadets in full dress uniform regalia marched on the picturesque inner campus before the university President, dignitaires, cadet parents and the appreciative and grateful student body.  Students chests would beat with patriotic pride as their peers, about to march into careers as second lieutenants upon graduation, marched triumphantly before them.  It happened every year just this way.

This year though, it was different.  Opposition to the U S war in Viet Nam had filtered even to the sleepy backwater cornfields of Northwest Ohio.  There was a very tiny chapter of the SDS, Students For a Democratic Society, that was meeting on the campus--the classic sixties peacenik bunch.  They  were so few they had recruited “extras” from that hotbed of campus communism to the south, Yellow Springs.  Student demonstrators from Antioch University bused in for the ROTC review.   I had attended an SDS meeting that fall, after I’d depledged my fraternity.  I was impressed with their sincerity, if I was uncertain about their political views.  

I had grown up on a steady diet of World War II movies and my father’s recounting his service in Italy during that giant horror.  I knew that it was the responsibility of all good young Christian men to serve their stint in the military.  I was sure that would come to be my honor as well. I knew too that service was to defend our rights: redress of grievance, free thought and expression, dissent and all the great purposes for which our country stood as the champion of freedom throughout the world.  I could appreciate the SDS-ers exercising their American rights.  I knew they should be able to do so.

Days before the ROTC review that year, the University President, William T Jerome III, heard of the impending incursion into his fife-dom by the commie peacenik crowd of ne’er do well homegrown student radicals and imported degenerates from Antioch.  He sent out the word to the bastions of true American manhood, the fraternity men of his campus, to drive these evil interlopers from our pristine campus’ midst.  One fraternity, the very much revered “jock house” the Phi Delts, our football team, were tapped for this sacred  defense.

The young cadets and graduates paraded gloriously on the inner campus arbors and lawn.
The band playing marches as they passed before the dais of reviewing dignitaries.  Across that hallowed field were seated about four dozen young people and one faculty member, each seated quietly praying and singing hymns …….We Shall Overcome…..Kum ba yah.  Each held a white cross.  They were surrounded by a phalanx of fraternity men proudly sporting their Phi Delt jackets.  They spat on the demonstrators and called out to them, “faggot, commie, traitor, mickey mouse, what’re you doing Friday night Tiny Tim,” and the old favorite: “Sigma Chi once, Sigma Chi twice holy jumping Jesus Christ, fuck, shit, pussy.” The color guard passed in review, and the National Anthem played.  Everyone stood with their hands on their hearts--but the demonstrators.  They sat silently and stared.  That  provocation could never be withstood!  The fraternity men waded into the demonstrators and beat them.  Those unholy crosses, so bastardized as degenerate, perverted anti-war symbols, were smashed to redeem them to American holiness.  I remember shaking in horror as two giant football players kicked in the ribs of an about 98 pound girl while she hemhorhaged from her mouth.  I remember campus police looking on and jeering, doing nothing to interfere with this exercise of true American patriotism.  

All that I believed about my country was a sham--as meaningless as the words intoned in my Sunday church services had been to the lives of my parents and their friends.  I was redefined in that anguish, and ashamed that I was not one of those with a cross.  I have been since.

It took me years after that to learn there were more effective ways to change society than throwing rocks at cops in street battles, but I did learn. That moment set my path.

That afternoon a young campus news reporter who was photographing this debacle’s unfolding approached the University President pleading for him to tell the police to intervene.  He responded that the demonstrators, were getting off better than they deserved.

Two years later we ran President Jerome off our campus the spring of the Kent State murders.

Two Years after that 10,000 of us sat on the field when they tried to hold the ROTC review and they had to cancel it.  There was nowhere left for them to march.

No comments:

Post a Comment