Category Archives: Stories – From Life & Elsewhere

Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story

Place: A Friends School

Time: Now

Note: This story is fiction. It is also true.

The door to Matthew’s office was open a few inches, but Teacher Ellen still knocked tentatively. The door was big, the oak was heavy and dark, but not ornate. The sign that read “Matthew Evans, Head of School,” was small and visually unimposing. But no matter how modest, to her it still meant “The Boss.” 

Matthew was an open-minded and friendly boss, to be sure. And encouraging to junior teachers with lots of ideas. 

But still, the boss. His office where Ellen’s future as a Quaker private school teacher would probably be decided. It was also where the buck stopped, where the school’s most unpleasant tasks got done.

Like this one, Ellen thought, when she heard him say, “Come in.” She glanced back at the two students behind her. The girl, thin, her dark hair still tousled, was trying for an air of defiance. The boy, an entitled preppy if there ever was one, didn’t need to work for an insolent expression; it came with the pedigree. 

Yes, Ellen, she thought, waving them in ahead of her, admit it: you’re prejudiced against seniors who drive their own Beamers. She admitted it.

They took their places in front of the broad, dark desk, The students in front, Ellen behind and to their left. She noted again that, no matter how affable Matthew could be in faculty meetings or bantering with students over lunch, he was also master of a dead-serious poker-face. 

She had only seen it once before, when a student drug dealer was expelled. But that once made clear it was one of the tools of his trade as school head. The stern poker face was as necessary as his ability to charm donations out of wealthy parents for new programs and raises in teacher pay. 

Matthew was examining a sheet of paper in an open folder. His jacket was off, but his tie was a solid navy blue and his demeanor entirely businesslike. He let them stand there in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. 

Then he dropped the paper, glanced up and said, “Teacher Ellen?”

“It’s just as you see there,” Ellen said. “I went into the drama building last night, to get a book I’d left in a classroom, and on the way out I heard noises from the auditorium. I went in quietly, and, um, found Kevin and Connie on the mattress behind the stage. They were, um, unclothed, and apparently having sex.”

Matthew shifted a stony gaze to the students. “You knew this was completely against the behavior code?” He said.

Connie stared at the floor and nodded. Kevin’s response was something between a nod and a shrug.

“And you also understand,” Matthew went on, “this infraction is eligible for immediate expulsion?”

More nods, but from the corner of her eye, Ellen caught the hint of a curl to Kevin’s lip, which she took to mean, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Connie,” Matthew intoned, “I’m sending you home for a month. Report to the Counseling Office, and they’ll escort you to your room to pick up your things. You may go.”

Connie started to sniffle, then put a hand to her face and shuffled out.

Matthew waited another long moment. It seemed to Ellen he didn’t even blink.

“Kevin,” he said, “This is your second incident. You were lucky there was a different head of school that time. I’m sending you home til after Christmas.”

“But I’ll miss finals,” Kevin protested.

“Not if you want to graduate,” Matthew said coldly. “You’ll make arrangements with the teachers by email, and your return is subject to their certifying that all the work is up to date.” 

Matthew picked up the folder. “Report to the Counseling office, and you are not to speak to Connie there, or anywhere else on campus.

When Kevin’s footsteps had faded down the long old hallway, Ellen realized she felt as if she had been holding her breath through the whole ordeal.

Matthew shook his head and the poker face dissolved into a tight smile. “That’s definitely not the fun part of my job,” he said, “but sometimes –” he opened his palms, left the rest of the sentence hanging.

Then he stood up from the desk, stepped to a hanging file drawer, and slipped the folder in a slot. “Enough of that!” He said, as if he’d opened a window to banish an unpleasant odor.

“Now,” he was settling back into his chair, “I’ve got lots to do, but tell me a bit about your sophomore field trip.”

Ellen was relieved; the encouraging boss was back. “It was great,” she said. “The Old Roadside Friends Cemetery is a goldmine. It’s got gobs of Quaker and antislavery history, and the kids seemed to love cleaning it up. There’s lots more work to do, though.”

“What about the neighborhood?” 

“It’s pretty rough,” she said, “but we had no trouble. We visited the Baptist church across from it, and the pastor was welcoming. Said he was glad to see Quakers taking some responsibility for what’s still their property. He invited us to visit a service, and I set that up for this Friday.”

“Excellent.” Matthew was beaming now. 

A bell clanged, echoing up and down the hallway outside.

“Time for my class,” Ellen said, and turned to go.

“Keep it up,” Matthew said. “Your history & heritage program is great. I wish I’d had a history teacher like you when I was here.”

Matthew had only a couple minutes of quiet before Victor Washington, the Development Director, was in the doorway, a thick folder under one arm. “You wanted the latest on the fundraising campaign,” he said. He tapped the folder. “Got it right here.”

Of course, Matthew knew most of what was in Victor’s spreadsheets and charts. As head of school, he had to deal with more than student misbehavior; teaching, and teachers; campus sports, boards and committees. Besides all that, every day, maybe every hour, he thought about raising money. 

From the outside, the school might look timeless and solid after almost two centuries in its wooded campus. But from inside, every single year, so much had to be paid for: buildings built, painted, trimmed, fixed, rebuilt, replaced. Teachers were underpaid, but their paychecks still added up. Tuition and fees kept going higher, but never quite caught up with expenses. 

So Matthew, like every head of school, thought about fundraising every day. A head who didn’t was soon out of a job.

Matthew nodded reflexively as Victor said the money for a new swimming pool was on track; and the historic meetinghouse restoration was almost funded.  These were places the alumni remembered, and things they had had fun doing: easy to raise money for. 

“But where it’s still heavy lifting,” Victor was saying, “is the NIT.”

Matthew sighed. The NIT–or New Initiatives in Teaching. His favorite, and it was tougher. Computers were obsolete as soon as you turned them on. Software  needed updates almost every week. And if something was focused on the past–like Teacher Ellen’s history & heritage plans– or you wanted more scholarships for poor or non-rich Quaker students–the first question behind closed doors was, “How will it help my kid (or grand-kid) get into Harvard?”

Like pulling teeth, and it never stopped. 

These scholarships were also close to Matthew’s heart. Victor’s too: a scholarship student who finished top of his class. Now he looked over the newest report, frowning. “We need some new ideas for this,” he said, “some way to put it across better.”

Matthew shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah,” he said,”you’re right.”

He turned toward the window behind his desk. An old clock was on a mantel next to it. Across the grass, he could see the corner of the meetinghouse. Beyond it cars were parked along the road to the campus entrance. 

As he watched, two white campus vans drove down the road. Matthew shook his head at them. From this distance, they looked shiny and new. 

“You see those vans, Victor?” He pointed. “We had to put a new transmission in one last month. And the U-joint in the other one could go any day. Several thousand bucks in all.”

He turned back to Victor. “But without them we have no field trips, for Teacher Ellen’s program. The kids like those trips. And getting their hands into American and Quaker history is–“

A discreet tap at the door. Doris, his secretary. “Excuse me, Matthew,” she said. “You’d want to see this.” She handed him an oversize yellow post-it note.

Doris understood how things worked, so Matthew frowned down at the note as Doris retreated. At a signal from him, She shut the door quietly behind her.

“Victor,” he said quietly. “It’s Mrs. Mickleson.”

Victor’s eyes widened. But he looked confused. This should be good news. Yet he could hear alarm in the way Matthew spoke the name of the school’s biggest donor.

“What–?” Victor asked.

Matthew read from the note. “She’s here, outside.” He glanced up. “No,” he added, “we were not expecting her. She told Doris she was in the city for a board meeting of the Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and asked her driver to stop here before they went back to Washington. She said she has something urgent to show me.”

He considered the note again. “Doris has very good radar about this sort of thing,” he said. “It sounds like a problem.”

Victor hurried the reports back into their folder. “You want me to go?” He asked.

Matthew hesitated. It might be wiser to see her by himself. But in Victor and his work,  Matthew thought he glimpsed a future head of school, either here or another Quaker school. So maybe he should see this too, whatever it was. 

Matthew shook his head. “You’ve been working with her,” He said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Met with her twice at the Foundation office,” Victor said. He checked his phone calendar. “Have an appointment in Washington next week.” He paused. “Did have, anyway.”

“Better stay,” Matthew said. “We’ll see what it’s about. If I need one-on-one with her, I’ll say so.”

A moment later, the three of them had finished a round of hearty greetings, and Doris had asked if anyone needed coffee or juice, which was declined with forced cheer.

Mrs. Mickleson was near sixty, dressed in a subdued but well-tailored pantsuit, a single string of pearls, and a black leather portfolio.  Matthew knew she was not typically condescending or imperious. But he could sense she was all business today. Curiously, though, she also had gloves on.

She launched right in. “Matthew, I won’t take much of your time. There’s another board meeting in Bethesda at four o’clock, that I mustn’t miss.”

“How can we help?” Matthew asked.

Instead of answering directly, Mrs. Mickleson said, “My granddaughter Amy Singleton spent the weekend with us, and she talked nonstop about the school. She loves it here.”

“Glad to hear that,” Matthew said, though he had a definite sense there was a “But” coming.

“And she had some of her chums over for a swim, and that night I heard them out on the patio talking and carrying on about a field trip her class took into the city.”

Matthew wanted to smile and nod; something kept him from it.

“They thought I’d gone to bed,” she said. “But I peeked out when they went off to the kitchen for snacks, and there on a table was this–“

She flipped open a silver-tipped latch on the black portfolio, dipped two gloved fingers into it, and lifted out a thick plastic zip-lock bag. She held it up for them to see. 

Matthew was struck by how out of place the bag looked. The plastic was thick but translucent, with white patches at the top as labels.

It looked like something from a police evidence locker, or a hospital morgue, somehow mislaid in the gloved hand of a model from Tiffany’s. The juxtaposition was so visually absurd it was almost funny.

Mrs. Mickelson was not the least bit amused. “These are some of the souvenirs Amy and her class secretly brought back from that field trip, which I gather was to an abandoned cemetery in the inner city.”

She pointed at it with her other hand, highlighting a thin cylinder. “That tube, Matthew, is a drug addict’s syringe, complete with a used and bloodstained needle.”

The pointer finger moved down past a round beige lump. “And this,” she grimaced, “this is a used condom, evidently left behind by one of the prostitutes who ply their trade there.”

She turned a withering gaze on Victor. “Mr. Washington, was this, er, excursion part of the new program you told me about? What’s it called–??”

Victor cleared his throat. “Uh, history and heritage, Mrs. Mickelson,” he said softly.

Matthew couldn’t let him take the rap here. “We think very highly of the program,” he said. “It often serves to bring together critical issues of the past and present in vivid, concrete ways.” 

As soon as the word “vivid” was out of his mouth, Matthew regretted it.

“‘Vivid,'” Mrs. Mickleson repeated for emphasis. “I’ll say.” She waved the bag for emphasis, then dropped it back into the portfolio. Clicking the clasp, she looked from Victor to Matthew. Her lips were tight.

“Matthew,” she said flatly, “One of Amy’s classmates claimed she found bullet shell casings from some sort of pistol, but a teacher took them.”

She stifled a shudder. “I believe you know, Matthew, that I am no reactionary. The long  record of progressive Quaker values is a big part of this school’s appeal. And both the Foundation and I have long supported research and advocacy for forward-looking and humane drug and social policies.” An eyebrow arched. “The Foundation director testified before the Senate just last year. 

“But this–” she gestured toward the portfolio — “Amy and her chums treated them like carnival prizes. But do you realize how dangerous those — those objects are? Bloody needles? Germ and virus-infested debris from commercial sex? Bullets?”

She leaned forward. “Do I have to spell it out?” 

Her eyes were wide, as the memory of Amy and her chums in close proximity to any of those objects closed in.

“No,” Matthew shook his head, a hollow feeling settling in his gut. “No, you don’t.”

Mrs. Mickelson sat back stiffly in her chair. “Amy’s sister Bethany is In Eighth grade in Bethesda. We’ve looked at Westtown and Sidwell, but she wants to follow her big sister here. And they have cousins in Baltimore who say the same thing.”

She tightened her grip on the portfolio, and stood up abruptly. “But Matthew, I couldn’t possibly support anything like this.” She raised a hand for emphasis. “If they need field trips, Washington is within reach, and so is New York. I’m sure they would be received by the most progressive and responsible policy groups in these fields, and there are model programs they can also visit. Safely. I–“

The hallway class bell clanged and cut her off. Mrs. Mickelson took it as a signal. Giving each of the men a single pump handshake, she turned to the door. 

“Matthew,” she said, lifting the portfolio, “I truly respect the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure you bring to your work here. But I must remind you that those adventures involve some of the most precious parts of my life–and that of others like me.” She pulled the door open. “Amy and your other students are here to prepare for life, not to risk it.”

“I’ll see to it right away,” Matthew said. But she was gone. 

Victor closed the door, leaned against it, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Whoa,” he murmured. “That was, um, vivid.”

“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled, and realized he was sweating too. “Victor,” he said, “we need some time to decompress and absorb this, but we’ll talk again after classes are done this afternoon.”

“Decompress,” Victor repeated, and gave a low whistle. “Totally.” He opened the door.

“Oh, and on your way,” Matthew said, “can you stop by the History room, and ask Teacher Ellen to come down?”

“Check,” Victor said. The door clicked behind him.

Matthew turned again to the window, his fingers moving reflexively to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar.

One of the campus vans was now parked next to the meetinghouse, while the driver carried in some cardboard boxes.

Another field trip. Friday, which was tomorrow. He sighed. Not a chance for that now.

Matthew dropped his hands. No. The tie and collar had to stay tight.

He crossed the office to a coat closet. A mirror hung on the back side of its door. He looked into it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and arranged his features into the disciplinary poker face. Yes, he practiced. 

It wasn’t quite right for this next encounter. But he couldn’t think of how to add a note of compassion without undermining the hard necessity of what had to be done.

The tap came on the office door.

He took the chair behind  his desk. “Come in.” 

Ellen entered, smiling.

Matthew opened a folder on the desk, and looked down without seeing what was in it.

Compared to what he had to do now, he thought, dealing with Connie and Kevin for writhing around on an old mattress — was it really only a couple of hours ago? — that was a piece of cake.

 

 

More about some actual events that helped inspire this story here, here & here.

The Road to Columbine – A True Story

I

It was 1959 and I was a junior in high school when I discovered that my stomach muscles were unusually strong. Here’s how I found this out:

Justin, whose locker was a couple down from mine, came into the locker room, grabbed me by the shirt, slammed me up against my locker, and punched me in the stomach.

I don’t think Justin was angry at me when he did that, at least not especially so. He just felt like punching somebody, and there I was.

I had been punched in the gut once or twice before, and a couple other times hit there accidentally. The effect was always the same: it doubled me over in agony, unable to breathe for a moment or two. We called it, “having the wind knocked out of you.”

It was very scary the first time, until I realized I wasn’t going to suffocate, and every time it was painful.

But what happened that day was completely new, and it wasn’t clear who was more shocked by it,  Justin or me. Continue reading The Road to Columbine – A True Story

Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

The new double issue of Quaker Theology is titled “Quakers & Resistance.” It considers highlights (and some lowlights) of Quaker resistance to oppression, both inside and outside the Society of Friends.

For example, it recalls  what happened to Lucretia Mott when she showed up in Richmond, Indiana in 1847, at the time when Indiana Yearly Meeting was gathering. She had traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia, a bone-rattling journey which took many days. She had barely stepped down from the coach when she was confronted by a committee of elders, who told her to “Go home!”

What did Lucretia do then? You can find out more here.

Not that Philadelphia had been free of troubles. Continue reading Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

A Vietnam Era Underground Railroad Conductor “Takes It To Jesus”

From “Quakers & Resistance” — by Ken Maher

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from a newly-published, double issue of Quaker Theology, #30 & #31,  on “Quakers & Resistance.”

Ken Maher now lives in Rochester, New York. He may be unique among living American Quakers as the father of seven and grandfather of seventeen (and still counting), not to mention his longtime support of Friends for a Pro-Life Peace Testimony. His blessings also include a Roman Catholic wife and Quaker meetings that have tolerated his quirky Friendship for 50 years, including serving Rochester Meeting as Clerk.

Ken Maher, in disguise as a respectable, indeed natty paterfamilias.

Ken is a product of Friends World College and spent ten years teaching English as a Second Language in Kisii, Kenya; Cuernavaca, Mexico; Humacao, Puerto Rico; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; El Paso, Texas; and Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.

In this episode, though, he was making waves closer to home, during the unpopular Vietnam War, when thousands of young American men were fleeing the military draft, even wanting to leave the country. . . . Continue reading A Vietnam Era Underground Railroad Conductor “Takes It To Jesus”

How I Got so Lucky – A True Christmas Story

 

I

Brooklyn, December 1967

I knew it was going to be another tough day at the Welfare Department when I saw the woman having an epileptic seizure in the Intake room. She was on her back, eyes rolling, jerking and thrashing, head thumping on the cement floor.

A security guard ran over and straddled her, trying to hold her down. Her arm whipped up and knocked off his black billed hat. Reaching back, he pulled out his billy club.

God, I thought, I hope he’s not going to hit her!

He wasn’t, but it was almost as bad. He tried to push the club between her teeth, to keep her from biting off her tongue, which could kill her. The jerking and thumping of her head made this almost impossible, though, and the club whacked repeatedly against her chin and face. Finally he got the club between her lips, and her movements seemed to slow down.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I turned back to the doorway and headed upstairs to the unit, where my desk sat in the second row from the back, the fourth desk over.

It was a freezing cold December in 1967, and there was no doubt about what I wanted for Christmas: Two things: a revolution; and then, a telephone for Mrs. Lee.

Actually, the telephone would probably have to come first, but that’s not how I felt–and I’m getting ahead of myself.

II

Every day in my job at the New York City Welfare Department, I saw dozens of good reasons for revolution: sad and desperate people trooping in and out of the Intake room, looking for help, begging for help, screaming for help. And every day, I watched the system fail them, giving them no help, or the wrong kind of help, or help that just wasn’t enough. Continue reading How I Got so Lucky – A True Christmas Story

My Campus Crusade for Free Speech, 1963

I

            Not long ago, over a friendly lunch near a progressive college, I told the story below to a rising young academic.

            As he listened, his eyes widened. Then he shook his head, and put down his fork.

            “You could never do that now,” he said quietly.

            Did I hear regret? Maybe even a touch of apprehension? (Was it: You couldn’t do that now, because “they” wouldn’t let you? Or, “they” (maybe a different “they”) would stop you from doing it, by  force if need be?)

            I wasn’t surprised at this reaction. Not today. But then, and there, we would have thought it outlandish, even absurd.

 II

            “Then” was the fall of 1963; “there” was Colorado State University, or CSU, which was spreading out along the front range of the Rockies, an hour or so north of Denver.

The Administration Building at CSU, Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1963.

And “we” were Dennis Lone, editor of the Collegian, the campus paper, and me, a budding writer who produced a widely-read, pot-stirring weekly column for his pages.

            On a Saturday morning in September, Dennis and I were hanging out in the Collegian office. It was otherwise deserted: the paper didn’t print on weekends.

The CSU seal, in the 1960s

            We were bored. Our social lives were nothing to brag about. The CSU football team was on a record-setting 28-game losing streak. Culturally, CSU was then a backwater, deep in what would one day become “flyover country.”

From a far away Outside World, faint echoes could be heard of civil rights protests and political struggles, but most were shrugged off in what a few of us decried as our “hotbed of apathy.”

            I slouched; he smoked. When Dennis, who had been paging through a thick weekend issue of the Rocky Mountain News, said, “Hey, listen to this,” I only half-perked up.

            “What?”

            “It looks like James Meredith is coming to Denver.”

            I sat up straight. “What?” I said again.

Chuck Fager, CSU 1963

            He read a brief notice, announcing that Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi in September of 1962, was to speak to the Denver chapter of the NAACP.

            “Wow, that sounds exciting,” I said.

            Meredith’s arrival on the Mississippi campus had set off riots that killed two, and required federal troops to quell.  Until he graduated in August 1963, he had federal marshals as constant bodyguards when attending classes.

            As Dennis read, I grew wistful. “I wish he was coming to speak here, too,” I said. “But you know this place. . . .”

            Dennis looked up. “We could ask him,” he said, with an offhand practicality.

Dennis Lone, at the Editor’s desk in the CSU Collegian office, 1963.

            “Could we really?” I said. “How?”

            Dennis was a reporter, and he was thinking like one: a former Collegian editor now worked at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Dennis called him, got an NAACP contact, who gave him an address in Mississippi. But no phone number.

            “Oh no,” I fretted, “There’s not enough time to write him a letter.”

            Dennis was undaunted. “We could send him a telegram.”

            A telegram! I’d never sent one. Didn’t they cost a fortune?

James Meredith, center, is escorted to the University of Mississippi campus by U.S. marshals on Oct. 1, 1962.

            Not really, it turned out, if one kept them brief. And ours was: would he come speak at CSU while he was in Colorado?

            I was excited, but still skeptical: A living specimen of that distant Outside World — here, at Apathy State U, up in Backwater County? It seemed very unlikely. But what the hey? The worst he could say was “No.” Worth a shot.

            And two days later, Dennis was waving a pale yellow telegram reply in my face: “Meredith says yes!”

 III

            That is, James Meredith said “Yes,” he’d be happy to speak at CSU–for $500. (About $4000 in 2017 cash.)

            It was a reasonable price. But there was a hitch: we didn’t have it.

            But we got past this hurdle: after some pleading, the student legislature reluctantly agreed to underwrite the fee, and we agreed to collect admission of fifty cents each ($4 in 2017 money) to help recover it.

            Then Dennis and I shamelessly exercised our media influence to hype the talk: I wrote a column, he published articles, the buzz spread, our hopes were high.

            Sure enough: something like 1300 students and faculty filled most of the Student Center’s big ballroom, likely a record. The turnout meant we not only covered Meredith’s fee: the student legislature — to their amazement– actually made a profit.

            Further, Meredith’s speech hit the mark. No stemwinder, he didn’t try to compete with Dr. King or other eloquent movement orators. Instead, he calmly told of growing up respectably poor, joining the Air Force, and wanting to use his veteran’s benefits to become the first in his family to attend college, at a state-supported university.

James Meredith at CSU, September, 1963.

            The room was pin-drop quiet as this basically undramatic story unreeled. That’s because, apart from the riots which it evoked, it was very familiar to many of those present: CSU was not an elite school, with generations of legacy admissions. Many listening were likewise among the first in our families to go beyond high school. Veterans’ benefits after World War Two and Korea –and low public college tuitions –played a big part in opening those doors; the same was true for many of the CSU faculty.

            So even though Meredith was speaking to a virtually all-white crowd, across unimaginable cultural gaps of slavery and segregation, the basic arc of his aspirations was something many in this CSU audience could relate to at a deep level. The fact that Meredith’s path became a death-defying quest gave it depth without the need for soaring rhetorical flourishes. And among the many who were moved by his words was me.

             I was also moved before the speech by an unexpected behind-the-scenes shock: to save on expenses, I had invited Meredith to stay at my fraternity, called FarmHouse.  Members were permitted to do this, occasionally, and I hadn’t done it before.

            What I had done, though, before I joined FarmHouse, was check its Bylaws, to see if they included discriminatory membership clauses (still common in those days). They didn’t. Their motto, “We Build Men,” was okay too.

            Further, in those years FarmHouse regularly won the trophy for the highest grade average of any frat at CSU.

           All good. But personal attitudes, unspoken til now, were something else. When word spread around the house about what I had done, I was pulled into an impromptu chapter meeting, and was stunned to hear several members declare that they couldn’t accept having a black person stay in the house. Before I had absorbed these comments, a vote was taken and my invitation to Meredith was overruled.

           I staggered out, wondering if I had been teleported to Mississippi, and began writing a resignation letter in my head.

           But the next morning, word of this decision had somehow reached the CSU administration. Our chapter president was summoned, and reportedly read the riot act. I don’t know what was said, but expect it went something like this:

          “Do you know what will  happen when this hits the press? A man who had to have the army escort him into a public university was turned away by a group at CSU? Do you want that spotlight pointed at FarmHouse? And your alma mater? Do you expect us to put up with that?”

          The fraternities were private groups, but were chartered by the university; and what CSU gave, CSU could take away.

          After lunch that same day, another emergency chapter meeting was convened. The officers told us the house and its reputation were on the line; news of the refusal would be devastating.

         Two or three of the hardliners against inviting Meredith stood to agree. They said that “somebody” (sneering in my direction), had snitched to the authorities and betrayed our brotherhood. Now we all had to swallow hard, bite the bullet, and save its good name from the traitor.

         Another vote was taken; the invitation was sullenly, reluctantly revived.

         Meredith did stay at FarmHouse, without incident. While with him at dinner that evening, I noticed a few absences; no doubt a number of the hard core took shelter elsewhere.  But as we left the house for the student center, he never suspected a thing.

        No word of this incident leaked out (until now); the FarmHouse reputation was saved. But it ruined my relationships there; I did resign a few months later.

       And my conscience was clear. I hadn’t called the administration. My guess was a conscience-stricken officer had done it, or someone else was bragging too loud where somebody outside heard him. Instant karma, even then.         

IV

            The morning after his speech, Meredith returned to Mississippi; Dennis and I basked in the afterglow of our successful debut as accidental undergraduate impresarios.

            A couple of days later, we held an open discussion where students and faculty could talk about what Meredith had to say. Following the meeting, a student came up to us and said, “So you’ve presented one side of the issue. Are you going to present the other?”

            Light bulbs appeared above our heads: if we could do this once, why not do it again?

            Soon Dennis was back on the phone.

            He called the office of Arizona’s Republican Senator, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was running for president and was an opponent of the civil rights bill then in Congress ; but no dice. I think they figured conservative Colorado was in the bag (if so, they were very mistaken: Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 23 points in his 1964 landslide. But that’s another story.)

            However, two pro-segregation insurgents were eager to visit CSU: one was Ross Barnett, at that time the governor of Mississippi who had vowed to keep Meredith out of “Ole Miss”; the other was George Wallace, the sitting governor of Alabama. Both came in January 1964.

Ross Barnett at CSU.

            By the time Barnett got to CSU, he was out of office, so he traveled on a commercial flight sans retinue. Barnett was fascinating, in a repulsive way: he shouted more than spoke, and in his ranting we could imagine him stumping his mostly rural state, exploiting the fear and rage of a poorly-educated white electorate. But as he finished, I understood much better why it took federal troops to get Meredith enrolled at “Ole Miss,” and a continuous bodyguard detail to keep him alive there.

            But Barnett was old news compared to George Wallace who, as a sitting governor, traveled on an Alabama state aircraft with an assortment of aides and bodyguards. Where Barnett voiced the racism of yesteryear, Wallace was preaching an updated racist gospel for 1963–and, we now know, for decades to come. He too was running for president, but as an insurgent Democrat, and would soon be shaking up primaries in seemingly enlightened states like Wisconsin.

Gov. George Wallace at CSU.

            Wallace was slick and smart. He fenced deftly and often humorously with our questioning local liberals. His speeches were peppered with attacks on intellectuals and “pinkos,” loud calls to “Send Them a message” about “law and  order,” mixed with populist promises of raising Social Security payments. His themes and memes exposed deep veins of rhetorical ore which was to be refined into winning campaign messages by his rightwing populist successors for a half-century to come (and counting). And we got to watch him do it.

  V

            After that busy January, Dennis and I were on a roll. We had brought voices from the Outside World into our backwater, and they were stirring the pot, waking us up. Both Barnett and Wallace brought out protest picketers (peaceful), a new thing at CSU. But did putting racist reactionaries like Wallace and Barnett allow them to peddle their political wares, influence students, recruit followers?

            Good question. And for sure, the two influenced me. Not to become a supporter; just the opposite. But they, along with Meredith, showed me the reality of forces and ideas that were previously  only occasional headlines.

           Yet who knows, maybe some among the large crowds we gathered bought into parts or all of their platform. (After all, in 2016, 52 years later, 43 per cent of Colorado’s voters cast ballots for a racist populist, one of George Wallace’s direct heirs. No question: ideas have consequences.)

            But after three speeches that had happened almost accidentally, we decided to take a more thoughtful approach. Political and social extremes were becoming more apparent in the country, underscored by the national trauma of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963.

Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy, at John Kennedy’s funeral, November, 1963.

            So why not present a series of speeches on the theme of extremism? We had been on both sides of civil rights; what if we next went with a right-wing extremist, followed with a left-wing extremist, and wound up with Attorney General Robert Kennedy talking about the impact of extremism in the country.

 (RFK? “Hey,” as Dennis said, “if you’re gonna dream, dream big.”)

            We didn’t get Kennedy. And neither of us was particularly political. But like all red-blooded Americans in 1963 and 1964, we knew Communism was The Enemy. So what about a Communist?

            Now this, we dimly perceived, could in fact be controversial; while we were vague on the details (I knew nothing of the Hollywood Ten, and little of McCarthyism), we knew that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still warning us that they (or their dupes) were everywhere — even if, in fact, actual Communist speakers often had great difficulty getting a hearing.

            Yet we had listened to Wallace and Barnett, and the sky didn’t fall. So why stop now?

            But things weren’t quite so easy this time around. Dennis gave it his best shot. But in 1963, after years of hysteria, the American Communist Party barely existed. Its membership had been decimated by years of government persecution and FBI Infiltration. It had also lost credibility with many former members, disillusioned by the party’s unshakably loyalty to the repressive Soviet regime.

           The U.S. party leader, Gus Hall, was based in New York. He did give speeches on college campuses, but was an early denizen of “flyover country,” and we failed to tempt him to add a stop in Colorado.

            While we worked on finding another suitably notorious Communist, we also set out to get a right-wing spokesman. This one was easier.

            What was the most right-wing organization in the country? The Nazi Party, of course. And George Lincoln Rockwell, its flamboyant leader, was only too happy to talk to anyone who would listen. One telegram and he was set to go.

 VI

George Lincoln Rockwell, making his views plain.

          When Rockwell came, we moved to a smaller theater space in the student center, where it was still standing room only. Rockwell’s speech was a bombastic stream of bizarre sociological and anthropological “facts” that added up to, “they’re bad and we’re good.”  I remember him saying that there were “breeds of people, just like breeds of dogs.” Dennis and I did not sit on a platform with him, as we had the others; the front row was close enough.

Rockwell at CSU. Several people walked out during his presentation advocating racism, anti-semitism & national socialism.

         Rockwell caused lots of talk. A few days after his speech, some sociology professors held an open discussion they titled, “Is George Lincoln Rockwell a Closet Homosexual?”
           While many dismissed Rockwell as a kind of evil clown, and he was murdered by own of his own in 1967, he remains a cult figure for sectors of the rightwing which are still around.

            Meanwhile, after he left we didn’t have any luck booking more speakers.

          Which in some ways was a relief; I was a senior, preparing to move on from CSU, and Dennis still had a newspaper to put out. Then one day Dennis got a call at the Collegian office from CSU’s President, William E. Morgan. Morgan, who was genuinely respected by the students and faculty (and by us), told Dennis he had just talked to an alumnus, who referred to our speakers and wanted to know who was going to appear on campus next, Mao Zedong?

             Dennis couldn’t resist: “If I thought we could get him,” he said, “I’d send him a telegram today.”

William E. Morgan, longtime president of CSU. He quietly backed us up.

             President Morgan said he supported what we had done and still would if we wanted to continue, but wanted us to know that some people outside CSU were taking a dim view of our activities.

            He didn’t say anything about our speaker series in public; he didn’t have to. But would Morgan really have stuck with us if we had found a Communist? I believe so, although he would likely have taken some more heat. And as a political appointee, answerable to the state legislature for budgets, it could have gotten difficult for him.

             So, given our problems with lining up speakers, the apparent decline in interest among the students, and our own distractions, our series quietly petered out, after what still seems like a pretty good run. 

              Looking back from half a century-plus, Dennis and I have somewhat different feelings about our season of applying the First Amendment. For Dennis, never one to be burdened by gravitas, it was all a fun adventure, on a par with the time he sent Collegian reporters (including Chuck) to infiltrate the local American Legion stag show and report on which city officials attended. He would have been incredulous if anyone had suggested we couldn’t or shouldn’t bring the speakers.

              For me (Chuck) It was also a lot of fun, notwithstanding my frat house ordeal. Yet I also took much of it to heart. And it still seems like something close to what college is supposed to be about, even the difficult parts: hearing and grappling not only with unwelcome and even offensive ideas, but also the people who advocate them.

             One more time, I agree with those who say today that speech has consequences: I left CSU after the summer sessions of 1964, and within six months was in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama.

               But that’s another story.  

God(DESS) Explains IRMA’S Track

“First of all, I pulled some punches with Cuba. Would’ve passed them by completely — the folks there have fer sure suffered enough from the stupid US boycott — but there’s still the official corruption.

And then Florida — which can’t be separated from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee & Mississippi. First of all, this is the absolute heartland of lynchings; a couple thousand at least, and if you think all that blood doesn’t still cry out like tinnitus in my ears every day, you’re deef as a post. 

Next, because I already whacked the Carolinas last year, and NC got enough of the message to elect a Dem guvnor & kinda “repeal” that HB (Hell Bill) Two. It was a start; but that loudmouth Franklin Graham is getting on my last nerve. Continue reading God(DESS) Explains IRMA’S Track

Review: A Legacy of Spies” — John LeCarre’s Latest

Actually this is the report on a twofer/Marathon:

First, “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” and then “A Legacy of Spies,” both by John LeCarre.

“Cold” is 40-plus years old, JLC’s first big hit; “Legacy” is a brand-new sequel/followup/reconsideration. Continue reading Review: A Legacy of Spies” — John LeCarre’s Latest

The Big Eclipse?? Wake me When It’s Over

File this in the “Be Careful What You Wish For” folder.

Road signs that are flashing on highways all over North Carolina.

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1972, there was to be a total eclipse. It was, the media told us, going to be amazing, terrific & spooky. I was living in Boston then, and the path of totality was going to pass near me.

July 1972: The dark blue lines like a railroad track are the course of the total solar eclipse. The green arrows show where it was to cross Nova Scotia.

I got excited about this. And as the publicity buildup continued, I became steadily more excited. In fact, I was soon talking to my best friend David Eppers about a road trip: Continue reading The Big Eclipse?? Wake me When It’s Over

A Quaker Reflection on Memorial Day

I’d prefer to ignore Memorial Day; another militaristic effusion.

KIA = Killed In Action. MIA = Missing In Action. Memorial Day is every day on this road to Camp Lejeune, the Marine base on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina.

But it’s not so easy. My lifetime in the U.S. has been marked throughout by war, with intermittent periods of not-war between the big ones (mostly wth secret wars going on meantime). And even though I’ve been against war for most of it, that doesn’t really erase the memories, even if mine are from much physical distance from the battlefields. Or at least, the most visible ones.

Here are two collections of images from the perch at the edges of the killing fields. They embody memories fitting for the occasion. Continue reading A Quaker Reflection on Memorial Day