May 9, 2008

April 29, 2008: Indiana Calls Me, Back to the Future, Those Were The Days My Friend

As I watched Robert Kennedy give his speech at Campau Square that bright April afternoon I remember him asking if we would join his campaign and go to Indiana. I thought, at the time, that it was a rhetorical question and didn’t think any more of it. We simply nodded yes. A few days later I got a call from the campaign to do just that. The Kennedy campaign had chartered a North Star bus out of Big Rapids and gave us instructions to gather in front of the Michigan Consolidated Gas building in downtown Grand Rapids and head south to join the campaign.

It was not, given the times, a difficult decision to make. The war was raging, the nation was tearing apart at the seams, and Bobby appeared to not only have a grasp of the situation, but was the one candidate who appeared most likely to prevail in the struggle against the “establishment”—that is, the established order. My problems in joining the campaign, however, were manifold.

Grand Valley State was, in those days, a small teachers college with a growing campus located due west of Grand Rapids on the plains overlooking the Grand River at Allendale. It was founded in 1963, and graduated its first class just prior to my arrival in 1967. One of the peculiarities of the institution was that for some reason, never made clear, registration for classes occurred on a single day in which the entire student body, then numbering about 1200, would converge just off the cafeteria and sign up for classes. Over the course of time it transpired that a great number of upper classmen had not been able to register for their foundation courses by this method and, therefore, were facing a situation where they could not graduate until they had satisfied the basic course requirements. This produced a melee in which upper classmen, juniors and seniors, converged on the proceedings with slips in hand from department heads and deans, reserving positions in the 100 and 200 level classes normally taken by freshmen like myself. By the time we got to the counter there were only junior and senior level courses left to be taken. So it was that I found myself with a course load that included one basic course in economics, but an upper level class in 19th century American History, and a course in International Law.

We were on quarters then, classes lasted for a mere 10 weeks, and some History classes would have as many as 5 textbooks and require a major paper, sometimes two. At the time the institution had not yet received certification, and the demands of the classes were daunting. Needless to say this was a formidable challenge made all the more compelling by the fact that my History professor was none other that John Tevebaugh. To understand what that meant one needs to watch a few episodes of “Paper Chase”, in which John Houseman plays a law professor who is a demanding old curmudgeon. I think this role must have been inspired by John Tevebaugh. Tevebaugh was the chairman of the History department and such a task-master that seniors were known to schedule writing their thesis around John’s sabbaticals. In any case I was quickly up to my eyebrows in books as I found myself, along with Steve Peckich and Dick Merrick charged with researching and writing two 50 page papers covering the political history of 19th century America. The experience proved to be, in spite of the ordeal, one of the most rewarding classes I would take, for I was introduced to the colorful and ribald political world of New York’s Tammany Hall, the machine politics of Philadelphia and other cities, the study of such splinter groups as the ‘Barnburners’ and the ‘Mugwumps’; and began my understanding of Jacksonian Democracy as well as the later Greenback and Progressive movements.

Additionally I was up to my eyebrows in the study of International Law, researching a major paper for Dr. Junn which included the readings of jurist Hugo Grotius among many others. This was a great period, one of those seminal times in one’s life in which one is confronted with great challenge, in which one works hard not to let the grade point average suffer too greatly, but nevertheless produces quantum leaps in ability and confidence. After this experience I knew that I could handle whatever the college could throw at me, and I was off to the races.

In addition I was working two jobs, on weekends and some evenings at the old W.T. Grant department store in Grand Haven unloading trucks and stocking shelves, and on weekends at the old Starlight Drive-In Theatre between Holland and Saugatuck, as a projectionist. It was a full load to be sure. Then I got a call from the Kennedy campaign asking if I would make the journey south to Indiana and join the cause. Of course I would. I made arrangements to take some time from work, skipped some classes, and made my way to the ‘big city’ to meet the bus.

We gathered very early on Friday morning at about this time of the month and made the long bus trip down to Kokomo, Indiana where we were split up into two groups. I went along with the group that was sent on to Marion and arrived at the campaign headquarters located across from the courthouse on the town square in a scene that looked very much like the town in the film “Back to the Future”. We found our way down to the campaign headquarters; an old store-front rented for the occasion, and were introduced to the campaign organizers. We were given a list of registered voters and addresses, some brief instruction, and sent out to canvass the neighborhoods door-to-door. Indiana, in those days, presented a bit of culture shock to those of us who were still, figuratively speaking, babes-in-arms. I remember Mark Henges, a friend of mine who had likewise joined the campaign, relating the story of a lynching that had occurred a few decades earlier in the square across the street from the campaign’s headquarters. Nothing like that had ever occurred from where we came from and such tales seemed exotic and somewhat frightening. Years later I would tune in to PBS and see an account of it and recognize immediately the incident being retold. Further we were up against the political forces of the Governor, Roger Brannigan, who was originally a stand-in for Lyndon Johnson but now a stalking-horse for Hubert Humphrey. The governor had the full power of patronage on his side with state workers taking time to openly campaign for him in the primary, leaving the streets to be patrolled by packs of dogs that freely roamed the city. The campaign was worried that Brannigan, a popular Democratic governor, would win the votes of the party regulars leaving Kennedy and McCarthy to split the ‘peace’ vote. Victory was not seen then as anything like a foregone conclusion.

We went out into the neighborhoods and worked until dark, long hours going door-to-door, engaging the bewildered Hoosiers who were surprised to find people coming from so far away to elicit their support. We asked questions, we engaged in conversations, we wrote down their responses. At the end of a long day, as the sun was setting, we headed back to headquarters where we met with campaign organizers and relayed the information we had gathered. My friend Henges and his friend Larry Baker —who would transfer from Grand Rapids Junior College to Grand Valley later in the year— and Baker’s friend Keith Wakefield, suggested we get a motel room and do some serious drinking. I asked if we had any booze, and Baker, with a grin, simply gave a silent nod. We asked one of the campaign organizers, a local union official, if he knew of a good motel. Sensing that we were up to no good, and that he was looking in the face of a possible major campaign scandal—since we were all underage—if we were left unattended, he seized upon the idea and told us that he knew just the place. He then promptly drove us to a local motel on the outskirts of town. When we got there we were surprised to learn that we would be staying with the family that owned the establishment and would remain with them in their living quarters. With the much desired beer warming in Brother Baker’s suitcase, the outlook appeared grim indeed.

The four of us sat about a small table playing a game of penny-ante poker as their young teenage son sat on a small couch engaging us in conversation. With the evening winding down and the beer getting warmer, Baker suddenly turned to the lad and asked, “Would your parents mind if we all had some beer”? “I don’t think they’d mind if you had a beer”, replied the lad, adding “why, you don’t have any do you?” At that Brother Baker got up and walked over to his suitcase, opened it up and proceeded to produce several cans. He had several such containers packed full. The boys eyes lit up and he went down the hall and, explaining to his parents that we would be undressing and getting ready to retire, arranged to have the area of the house closed off.

The party began in earnest at that point. To keep our cover we continued the poker game as each of us would temporarily leave the table, guzzle down a can, and then return. Over the next few hours hands were played, and coins changed hands with an ever diminishing understanding of whose hand one was playing and whose coins one was risking. What I remember mostly was the difficulty of getting the soap from my body as I showered before finally retiring in a drunken stupor. I slept like a rock, and woke up fully refreshed and ready to go.

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance, forever and a day
We’d live a life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days
Ah, yes those were the days” ----Mary Hopkin “Those were the Days” (1)

Those were the days, my friend, drink like a fish and no hang-over. We awoke, our gracious hosts none the wiser served us a splendid breakfast. We were then off to campaign headquarters for a repeat of the previous day’s labor and, at the end of another long day, we boarded the bus and headed back home. Sometime early Sunday morning we returned to Grand Rapids, found our cars and made the long drive back arriving safely home as the sun was rising.

As I reflect on that time now so long ago a few more memories play upon my mind. One is the image of my friend Mark standing in the middle of an intersection surrounded by a pack of dogs, the other is the remarks of a local Marion union leader who told us that we would always remember these days; that this was a time that we would always carry with us; a time that would forever define who we are. So it was.



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