Friday, March 30, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (vi)

As the Council meeting broke up, I asked around for a ride to Bloomington, Indiana. Two SDS guys and an SDS woman from Madison, Wisconsin had extra space in their car for me. They were planning to pass by Bloomington on their way back to Madison, Wisconsin. But first they wanted to visit Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, before heading back north. Since I had never been to Mammoth Cave National Park, I did not mind not driving to Bloomington immediately. In the late afternoon, we left the University of Kentucky campus and started to drive towards Mammoth Cave.

The Wisconsin SDS activist who drove the car had longish black hair and a beard. The other guy from Wisconsin SDS had short hair, was beardless, seemed more sectarian and dogmatic when he spoke about politics, and was somewhat supportive of PL’s anti-bohemian line. The Wisconsin SDS woman activist who was in the car with us had worked with John in building a Madison draft resistance union. Before the sun set, we stopped off at a roadside restaurant in rural Kentucky and were able to eat a tasty, home-cooked, four-course dinner for an amazingly low price. We then got back in the car, continued to drive, and talked politics and debated whether or not the National SDS “heavies” were “too hippy” and “too elitist”, until we reached the inn that was located near the Mammoth caves. It was dark when we arrived at the inn.

Before we were going to turn the lights in our two adjoining rooms out, we watched and listened to Lyndon Johnson speaking on TV to the nation. We all were flabbergasted when LBJ suddenly announced that he was not going to seek re-election in 1968 and was going to stop bombing much of North Viet Nam. Nobody within SDS had predicted such a development. We spent the next few hours excitedly discussing the implications of the LBJ withdrawal from the election campaign and his limited bombing pause: Was it just an election year gimmick to try to regain his popularity? Did this mean Kennedy or McCarthy would be president? Was the war actually going to end? Were we going to be able to actually escape the war draft? Who gave LBJ the order to resign? How would SDS’s Movement organizing be affected by all this? If the war in Viet Nam did end, would there still be a mass base for the white New Left? Then we finally all went to sleep.

The next day we spent walking around the insides of the scenic Mammoth Cave with other tourists. After going through all the sections of the cave, we hit the road again and talked ourselves out until I was dropped off in downtown Bloomington, Indiana.

My sister was living off-campus in a room in a house, in which she shared cooking facilities and a bathroom with other women in the house. She was now as politically radical, comparatively, as she had been in high school. But since there was no active SDS chapter at Indiana University yet, most of her knowledge of what was going on within SDS came from telephoning me.

During the week I visited her, she was busy catching up on her academic work and term papers, and working at her part-time clerk-typist job. So she didn’t have much time to hang out with me during the day. But one evening, we visited the local Woody Guthrie-type folksinger and his woman friend, at another off-campus house. Another evening, we dropped by a meeting of local anti-war students who were planning their student government election anti-war campaign. And a third evening was spent with a grad student she was dating named Cramer, whose father was a paperback book publisher in New York City. Cramer had attended Columbia as an undergraduate and we recognized each other from having played basketball together in Riverside Park one spring Sunday afternoon, when I had been a freshman. He took my sister and me out for dinner at a local drive-in restaurant along Indiana State Highway 37. He still seemed more interested in his academic career than in radical New Left politics.

Most of the other time in Bloomington, I spent walking around campus, hanging out in the student union building or browsing through books in the library. Alone, I also attended an evening meeting about the draft on campus, where I got into a big argument about the war with a U.S. military official who was addressing the sparsely-attended meeting, after I had asked a question about the war’s morality which he had difficulty answering.

It’s hard to recall anything else of what I did in apolitical, non-bohemian Bloomington, Indiana that week. Because on the evening of April 4, 1968 I was sitting in an off-campus student hangout, eating a cheap dinner, when I noticed something strange was being broadcast on the TV screen behind the counter. I stood up from the table where I had been eating and approached the counter to try to get closer to the TV, in order to hear the sound better and to find out what unusual event had evidently happened. In about 20 seconds, I realized what they were saying, and my heart sank.

Martin Luther King had just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. That was why the TV was broadcasting pictures of him speaking, while they waited for news that he was officially dead.