Sunday, November 04, 2007


On October 21, 1967, I was at the Pentagon when Allen Ginsberg attempted to levitate it. There were many other people present -- anti-war demonstrators like myself, Federal Marshals, Military Police, National Guardsmen, representatives of the media, ....

{A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. By S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson, Arlington, Virginia, October 21, 1967. National Archives and Records Administration}

I was going to do a blog post about this back in October, the 10th anniversary of that March on Washington, but couldn't make sense of my memories.

I recalled traveling to DC for the March on Washington with my friend Haasch on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The bike was a Sportster hybrid with a CH engine on a K frame. It looked something like this, but had the long seat to accommodate a passenger. We rode from Madison WI to DC, stopping off for an overnight stay with parents of my college roommate in Shaker Heights OH, alternating as driver/passenger. Typically unforesightful, we suffered from wet and cold, only a little helped by thin plastic rain coats our overnight hosts gave us.

That memorable trip couldn't have taken place in 1967, however, because I lived in Wisconsin from '64 to '65 and was living in New York City in '67. So the bike trip must have been to the 1965 March, not the '67 one. Wikipedia says it took place November 27 (which accounts, I guess, for our being cold on the ride).

I sorted out my memories by finding diaries I kept in those years. In the fall of '65 I was a second year grad student, trying to cope with the demands of my classes and thesis work, to work out a plan for PhD work in the UK,to divine what chances I had of maintaining a draft deferment, to keep active in the local anti-war movement, and to enjoy student life, as best I could. I found a diary that I kept in 1966 which shows these activities, plans, and concerns, but none for '65.

I did find one for 1967 and have scanned the pages surrounding the Saturday on which the effort to levitate the Pentagon took place. You can see the scans below. They have a sort of aesthetic antiquarian appeal: worn and water-stained; full of names, phone numbers, shopping lists; marking birthdays, friends' weddings, and reminders of things that needed to be done. For two years from July 1966 I was a VISTA volunteer, serving a year or so at a Neighborhood Opportunity Center in East St. Louis, and another at Mobilization for Youth on Houston St. in New York City.

The scans begin with a Friday the 13th. From the notes they contain you can infer some of my duties as assistant to the director of an MFY program for early childhood education. The agency had won an innovative grant for setting up a Head Start program to be run out of neighborhood centers through the city. The program trained women on welfare to care for the children of other women on welfare, thus freeing the latter to work full-time jobs and, more importantly, giving the children a high-quality pre-school education. I helped set up and run training sessions for the women and coordinate with the neighborhood centers. I also kept contact, via home visits, with the women as they carried out their work. I did my work at MFY headquarters on the Lower East Side, in Central- and East-Harlem in Manhattan, in Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and other locations. One of my favorite sites was Riverside Church on the Upper West Side which somtetimes provided us with training space.

The scans also show that I liked to go to classical concerts, that I spent small reimbursible sums during my work (20 cents here, 40 cents there), and that I had an occasional dinner engagement. Not on these sheets, but close by, I find that I had to continually remind myself to do small tasks -- I think "buy typewriter ribbon" shows up in 4 places over a couple of weeks, that I sought out many of the free cultural things that an improvident young man could do in Manhattan back then, that I discovered lots of cheap food in the ethnic neighborhoods I came to know, and that I spent time in the New York libraries, particularly the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

As you can see, all they say on the fateful day itself, October 21, 1967, is "Washington, DC."

Addendum: Some highlights of the diaries for 1966-67 via topic list:
Spring 1966: Applications for Ph.D study in the UK*
Spring 1966: Scholarship applications
June 10, 1966: "Vista acceptance"
June 16, 1966: "draft physical" (pre-induction physical exam; I almost got drafted)
June 24, 1966: flight to Wisconsin to begin VISTA training**
June 24, 1966: fingerprinting and photo for intake into VISTA
August 8, 1966: First day in East St. Louis, IL, in south-side NOC
August 30, 1967: Signed lease for studio apartment in NYC for $65 a month
Sept. 1, 1967: Started at MFY

The '67 diary also says that VISTA paid me $90.75 every two weeks, little enough so that I qualified for Medicaid support to get a new pair of glasses.

Another addendum: I didn't have much gut sympathy with flower power and Yippee acting-out, like the levitation street theater, and felt more in tune with the cool, beat generation which immediately preceded my own, one which -- paradoxically I think -- had Alan Ginsberg as prominent member:

{Bob Donlin, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Robert La Vigne and Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside the City Lights bookstore in 1956. A site called Beat Scene is a good place to start for information about these guys. Photograph: Allen Ginsberg/Corbis, Guardian}

Here are the diary scans. Click to view full size.


* My applications were accepted by Trinity College, Dublin; the University of Edinburgh; and a couple of other UK schools. I couldn't attend because my draft board wouldn't give a student deferment for study abroad. When I said I would be stuck in the US for two years until I turned 26, only the London School of Economics wrote back to say that I would be welcome to come whenever I was able. (And that's where I did go in the fall of '68.)

**About half way from my parents' house to the airport, my father asked whether I had my plane ticket. I did not, but we'd left the house early enough so that I still made the flight on time despite the extra time spent returning home to retrieve it. I was absent minded back then, but this forgetting shows more than that; something of the crazy turbulence of those tense and uncertain years for Americans in general and draft-age men particularly.

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