Tuesday, August 24, 2010

40 Years Ago and Still No Lessons Learned

Okay pigs, now listen and listen good. There's a bomb in the Army Math Research Center—the university—set to go off in five minutes. Clear the building. Warn the hospital. This is no bullshit,man.

I was staring up at the ceiling, lackadaisically listening to my parents loud whisperings about what an ongoing bloody wastrel I had become, when the bomb went off. The explosion was so intense it rattled all the windows in the house, knocked books off my shelves, and moved my bed several inches. I read later that it knocked around milking machines some 30 miles away. There would be no contented Guernseys that morning in Southern Wisconsin.

My parents made believe the deafening blast was just me stumbling home drunk after a night with one of my slutty, no account, floozy girlfriends though I had been at home for the last six hours. Actually, if any slutty, no account, floozy babes had existed in my dull as dirt life, I would have been living with them rather than within a Dickensian workhouse that forced me to do chores as if I were a high schooler. I would soon discover I was less than a mile away from what would eventually be labeled The Sterling Hall Bombing.

(As an aside, both parents knew immediately it was a bomb. My mother had survived the London Blitz and my father had fought all over Europe during WWII.)

My curiosity got the better of me. I grabbed my pants, stole a Twinkie from my sister's dresser, and told my folks I was lighting out for the territories. They wished me luck, telling me to write if my expensive college education had taught me how. Following the sound of sirens and dozens of running onlookers, I was at the site of the explosion within 30 minutes. It did not occur to me to take my camera. I lost the Twinkie around Mills and Johnson.

Forty years ago today at 3:42 AM Madison time, four angry young men exploded a stolen Ford Econoline, packed to the gills with 2000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The blast blew away parts of the Physics Building known on the campus of the University of Wisconsin as Sterling Hall. The initial blast killed Robert Fassnacht, a brilliant post doctoral researcher and anti-war sympathizer working alone in the building's basement and injured several other late nighters within the building.

Blown out windows, shattered concrete, gaping street holes, black billowing smoke, tossed around cars, downed electrical lines, the putrid smell of gasoline in the air. So that's what a bombing looked and smelled like. A person or persons unknown had finally decided to bring the war home and make good the years' long war chant to shut down Army Math.

It would be discovered within a few hours that the intended target of the bombers' revolutionary zeal, the highly polarizing Army Math Research Center, housed within several floors of Sterling Hall, had suffered minor damage in relation to the rest of Sterling Hall and surrounding buildings. The bombers understood the rudimentary chemistry of bomb making, but apparently like most males, never got around to ask directions about exactly where Army Math was located within the Physics Building.

I was soon mulling around with a festive crowd of dope smokers when some long-haired, scrawny looking white boy wearing an outfit better suited for a Grateful Dead concert walked over to us and said in a forced friendly tone that tornadoes certainly act funny in this area of the Midwest.

WTF!!! This fool thought a tornado had caused this damage? Right away the air smelled of something other than fuel oil. Could this be a stoner gone rogue? A homeless lunatic? Someone who watched too much television? I told him that twisters don’t normally need to read bomb-making manuals to slap around the landscape nor do they zero in on specific buildings for retaliation.

A bunch of people began chanting "Power to the People." The Grateful Dead guy asked me why I thought it was a bomb and not a tornado. Before I could ask him to produce his badge, a guy the size of three Black Panthers strolled up to him and, pointing one of the meatiest fingers I'd ever seen on a man, demanded to know what government agency he worked for. The guy jumped backwards so fast as to make it an Olympic sport and disappeared amongst other bystanders.

I always wondered whether that character was actually a government stooge working the crowd for any loose lips information or just someone visiting from Ohio State. An sudden influx of black suits walking around the crowds convinced me it was time to get my ass out of there. I walked down Regent Street to get a couple of fresh donuts.

No one needed degrees in advanced rocket science to know this was all about Army Math on campus. Army Math, its very presence protested daily by some of the most radical anti-war demonstrators in the country, was a Pentagon-funded think tank that had set up shop on a six floor addition to Sterling Hall 14 years earlier, Whatever the several dozen mathematicians were calculating on those floors, many at Wisconsin believed their work was detrimental to all living things, especially those suffering through napalm attacks and B52 carpet bombings in Southeast Asia. Apparently, someone had taken their disagreement with the think tank to a whole new level.

Over the next several weeks, as the police presence at Sterling gave way to pissed off Silent Majority construction workers clearing the rubble while cursing out the commie-bastard-out-of state-students, I snapped dozens of pictures with my boxy Kodak camera. Years later a basement flood destroyed all but the three posted here.

For those interested in the history of The Sterling Hall Bombing, just Google the words STERLING HALL BOMBING and thousands of sites come up. The act remains silly, stupid, and mindless, an action conceived by individuals who might have read history books, maybe even believed they were real revolutionaries of a sort, but who had no comprehension of the ripple effects such an event would have on the innocent lives of others. Yes, one of them did call the police to warn them of the impending blast, but still...

The narrator's flat as Kansas intonation makes the viewer wish for a quick and painless death.

A number of articles lay claim to a theory that this act of wanton violence and the May, 1970 Kent State massacre facilitated the derailment of the anti-war movement. Looking back it is easy to say that Sterling Hall did absolutely nothing to halt the war machine. The American side of the war would last for another two years as tens of thousands more perished in that jungle meat grinder.

I maintain an act meant to equalize the induction of males into the Armed Services instead created the first schism between those who remained committed to ending the war and those who could now concentrate on something more important in their lives… like a future making money.

The event was the nationally televised Military Draft Lottery which took place in Washington D.C on the evening of December 1, 1969, nine and a half months before the Sterling Hall bombing. This little bingo dance, the first since 1942, would classify and coordinate in one night the eligibility of all males born between January 1st 1944 and December 31st 1950.

I hadn’t planned to watch the proceedings. What would be the point? Either I would end up marching off to war, shooting off one of my toes to get 4F status, or buy a bus ticket north to Canada. Since all of my friends were gathering at the Memorial Union to witness their future, so I too found myself crammed up against one of the walls of the Paul Bunyan Room awaiting my fate.

After a bunch of interminable speeches some old Republican congressman began the process of pulling the first of 366 plastic balls (how appropriate they were colored blue) out of a large transparent fishbowl. He was soon replaced by others, far younger and more smiley faced. The first 195 numbers drawn and the birth dates written on slips of paper inside the balls would be the first called for military induction, at least that's what the newspapers were reporting.

Every number drawn brought forth the reality of life and now the potential of death. Males screamed in anger, curse words like balled fists flew against walls and tables while girls burst forth with tears fit for a national day of mourning. The crowd thinned out as more and more numbers were called.

Yet, as the process continued into the 200s and beyond, I noticed a palpable set of relief come over the faces of many of the males who remained. One student standing next to me let out an audible “Thank you Jesus” when the number 295 was called. The higher the numbers, the more relaxed the crowd became. Tears still flowed, but they were ones of joy and thankfulness.

I remained until the last blue ball was picked from the fish bowl. I had become so hypnotized watching others go through various stages of grief and relief that I failed to hear my own number called. I asked a woman across the room who had kept a meticulous record of the evening what my number was.

It was an event to remember. Those of us males between the ages of 18-26 suddenly knew what America had in store us. It was that simple, that random, that insane. Some of us had a future ahead for ourselves while others would now need to worry whether any future existed at all.

There would still be demonstrations and draft card burnings, the rage over Kent State and, of course, draft dodgers fleeing in droves to Canada, but for a sizable community of males, the fix was now in. Certain aspects of life could now go forward.

As for me, well my lottery number was so stratospheric I spent the night avoiding telling anyone what it was. I was safe but somehow really embarrassed by my good luck. No dodging or fleeing or shooting off toes. I could plan post undergraduate life, perhaps even graduate studies at UCLA in film.

But the evening left me shaken. The whole process reminded me of those old WWII movies where the Germans lined up a bunch of males and an officer walked down the line just randomly picking out the unlucky ones to shoot.

On the way out of the Union, a pretty little co-ed tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I had a lighter. An anti-war rally was beginning and her boyfriend along with a bunch of others were about to burn their draft cards in protest. I pulled out my lighter, actually lit a cigarette, and gave the lighter to her. I told her to light up the sky with it.

She asked about my number. I told her I was on the cusp, you know, betwixt and between, so I was still in a personal no man's land regarding my future. She wished me good luck. I thanked her then turned around and went in search of some thick luxurious Wisconsin ice cream for the walk home. It was cold outside, but the perverse randomness of a blue lottery ball radiated all the necessary heat I would need for the moment.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Boy Who Bicycled Away

Once upon a time, as the young Greenbush Boy bicycled around his world, he received some advice from a crusty old soul who had seen much in his 80 years as the neighborhood rag picker.

Now the rag picker was well known in the neighborhood. Any old clothes no longer worthy of another wash or a patch up were boxed up and given to him. No one knew what he did with any of the threads or even where he lived, but his pick up truck was a shiny 54 Cadillac Fleetwood and his wife always rode shotgun on his pick ups.

"Boy," he said, "The most confounding word in the English language is the word commitment. Beware of its implications. Run from its obligations. Hide from its all-seeing eyes. Most importantly, never ever look back from the one who bellows forth its medicinal remedies because, should you ever glance back, you, like Lot's wife, will be doomed." His wife then punched him in the nose and told him he had chores back home to do.

The young Greenbush Boy became so unnerved by what the rag picker said that day, he remained on his bicycle for the next fifty years. Worse yet, he never asked any of the rag picker's three grand daughters out on a date even when he discovered years later that all three had ended up as strippers outside of Sun Prairie.