Talking About the Weather(men)

March 22, 2009

The voice on the other end of the line dripped with conspiracy, and dragged me back in time.

He was unhappy over a piece I’d written about a former 60s radical-left activist who was to come speak at a local university.

Long before the students he was to address were born, William Ayers, now 64, was a founder of the radical Weather Underground, a group whose name was inspired by a line from a Bob Dylan song, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Weathermen were responsible for riots and the bombing of several public buildings in the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of the Weather Underground’s activities were in protest of the Vietnam War, which the group believed to be illegal. Ayers’ appearance on the state university campus was funded by private money, and his presence had nothing at all to do with his colorful and violent past. His lecture was about finding better ways to provide education in urban areas where there is little money or parental involvement.

My caller was eager to uncover a liberal conspiracy because I hadn’t written the story the way he thought I should. Oh. Well.

He did open a door for me though, back to the 60s, the decade when I grew from a boy to a man, the decade during which the whole country went absolutely crazy.

From his voice, I am sure my caller was not old enough to remember anything from 40 years ago.

I was there. I wasn’t in the middle of much violence, but that doesn’t matter, because I wasn’t living under a flat rock.

Try to imagine this: I grew up in the 1950s, in a safe world of gray flannel, of Eisenhower’s America, of booming factories and a stable world. Everything, at least to a kid in the ‘burbs, was pretty safe and reasonable. I mean there were personal drama, schoolyard bullies and the myriad insults of growing up, period. But there was structure to everything. It made sense, even if it wasn’t all friendly.

And then along came the 60s.

Here are some snapshots, things that were everywhere, in the newpapers and TVs, and laced themselves into our days and nights:

Click:   In the summer of ‘63, four little girls were killed by a KKK bomb blast in Birmingham.

Click:    Two months later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and two days after that, the whole country watched on national TV as his accused assassin was shot to death by a man with the dime-store-gangster name of Jack Ruby.

Click:    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was approved by the Senate 73-27. Two days later, three civil rights workers disappeared in Philadelphia Miss. (their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam six weeks later.).

Click:    President Johnson signed a sweeping civil rights bill into law, and two days later, Lt.Col. Lemuel Penn, a black U.S. Army Reserve officer was gunned down by the KKK near my home.

Click:    The next summer, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the voters’ rights law. A few days later, rioting that claimed 34 lives broke out in the predominantly black Watts section of Los Angeles.

Click:    The following summer, July of 1966, eight student nurses died in Chicago at the hands of Richard Speck, and only a few weeks later Charles Joseph Whitman set himself up in a tower at the University of Texas and killed 15 people.

Click:    The next summer, a month after I and most of my close friends graduated from high school, race rioting broke out in Newark, NJ. 27 people died, and 10 days later, rioting claimed more than 40 lives in Detroit.

Click:    That October, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters marched in Washington D.C. The Census Clock at the Commerce Department ticked past 200 million.

Click:    In the new year of 1968, three college students were killed in a confrontation with highway patrolmen in Orangeburg SC during a civil rights protest against a whites-only bowling alley.

Click:    Though we didn’t find out about it until about a year later, that March, the My Lai Massacre occured in Vietnam, with the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed men, women and children.

Click:    Three weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and three months after that, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was murdered after claiming victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary.

Click:    Of symbolic significance, 12 days after My Lai, Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the very symbol of the America we all felt we were losing, died.

Click:    In August, a riot broke out between Chicago police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention.

Click:    Four months later, Ted Kennedy’s car plunged off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne, and a few weeks later Charles Manson’s bizarre cult murdered actress Sharon Tate and eight other people in her L.A. home.

Click: Five days later my friend Herman T. Fields, a couple of days into his second tour in Vietnam, stepped on a landmine and pinwheeled into eternity.

Click:    That November, 250,000 protested against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. and, in the final month of the decade, four people died at a Rolling Stones concert in California, including one who was stabbed by a member of the Hell’s Angels.

Click:    On May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine wounded at Kent State University in Ohio by members of the Ohio National Guard. Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia, but other students who were shot had merely been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance. Reaction in the nation was immediate, and was, along with the reaction to My Lai, directly responsible for the end of popular support for the war, and the country became even more divided.

Today, William Ayers the “domestic terrorist” is a professor, an urban education specialist with 15 books on the subject to his credit. He was somebody entirely different 40 years ago. I wonder how many people are very much like they were 40 years ago.

My caller wanted to know why on Earth somebody whose ideas were so dangerous THEN would be allowed to speak to students NOW.

I probably don’t even have to mention the whole First Amendment thing. And I have to guess that my caller’s idea of education is NOT to expose students to all sorts of ideas and viewpoints. But part of functioning in the real world is to be able to tell the difference between butter and bullshit, you should excuse my French. If you believe anybody’s party line without question, your toast is going to taste funny.

By the way, the group Ayers was associated with never killed anybody. A nail bomb they were building blew up in a Greenwich Village building, killing three Weathermen, including Ayers’ girlfriend.

That bomb was, in fact, being built with the intention of killing some military personnel, but the truth is that it never happened, though my caller seemed to believe that thinking about killing somebody is the same as actually killing them.

If that’s true, I think most of us would be locked up by now. I know I would.

That said I’m not sure how much credence I can give to somebody who speaks with so much passion about an era he did not live through. I can remember feeling throughout the 60s and 70s and beyond that the entire world I had known had flashed like tissue in fire and become something else, someplace else. Nothing, nobody, no sensibility, came out of it unscathed. We burned, smashed, and tore at our social fabric. Even now, four decades hence, it is not entirely mended.

Was Bill Ayers a terrorist back then? Maybe. More to the point, I think he was simply part of a larger terror. As were we all.


© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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One Response to “Talking About the Weather(men)”

  1. I guess everyone thinks they are the sage of the past…

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