October, 1962. Russia threatens to send missiles to Cuba, to fend off a pending US overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. The situation worsens; global nuclear war is imminent. As an American teenager, this Cuban Missile Crisis gives free rein to my adolescent angst. Should I continue my literary fascination with Russian authors–Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky–or should I turn against them? Should I suppress my budding socialist and anti-war sentiments and align myself with the anti-communist hardliners? As the lurid tv images of mushroom clouds loomed, I thought: nothing I do, or don’t do, matters now. I can live for the moment, since any one of them could be my last.
Fortunately for all of us, the Missile Crisis passed into history, and the Cold War shifted from military confrontation to intense commercial competition. Nikita Khruschov’s infamous threat “we will bury you” still resonated, but that threat was no longer military, it was economic. Russian and American leaders were both hell-bent on proving to the world their system was best. In 1964, just out of high school, I had a first-hand glimpse of that global competition, in the city of Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia.
A brief, multi-ethnic country, Yugoslavia came into being in 1946, uniting seven different ethnic enclaves: Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. Zagreb, the ancient and current capital of Croatia, is a crossroads city, strategically located on a major tributary of the Danube. It is a gateway between the ports on the Adriatic, and the countries of eastern Europe. As early as the Middle Ages the city had become a favored location for trade, with merchants bringing goods from near and far. In the 1850’s Zagreb’s mercantile tradition formalized into an annual, month-long Trade Fair, on a site next to the River Sava. Over time, various foreign governments built pavilions on the fairgrounds, to help promote their domestic businesses that engaged in international trade. The newer pavilions all bore the stamp of futuristic 1950’s architecture, in garish contrast to Zagreb’s elegant and traditional European building designs.
As an eighteen-year old American, before I became a Canadian, I joined my father in Zagreb. An engineer, Dad was part of a US Government contingent helping American manufacturers demonstrate their wares at the Fair. I got to help him with various tasks, and occasionally I put on my suit coat to attend official events at the US pavilion. Nobody seemed to care that I had zero qualifications and no command of the Serbo-Croatian language.
This was a significant summer, in our profoundly difficult father-son relationship. As a fully-formed albeit confused adult, I was no longer subject to his military-style childhood discipline. Our painful rupture over the Vietnam War, draft resistance and my move to Canada were still in the future. I was able to complete the tasks he assigned to me at the Fair, and I got to see him in action as an engineer and project manager. For an unprecedented few months we actually enjoyed each other’s company.
A major theme of Zagreb’s 1964 Fair was heavy equipment, since Yugoslavia’s President, Josip Brosz Tito, had started a major upgrade of his country’s road network. Accordingly Caterpillar, America’s premier heavy equipment manufacturer, sent over one of their massive D-9 crawler bulldozers, weighing in at 50 tonnes, to the Fair. The freighter carrying the dozer arrived at Rijeka, Yugoslavia’s port on the northern Adriatic, and Dad and I went to help with the unloading. The D-9 was nestled in the bottom of the freighter’s hold, surrounded by thousands of cases of that capitalist icon, Coca Cola. Dad pointed out that the dock’s crane was obviously too small to lift the dozer, but the dockworkers decided to give it a try anyhow. Appropriate cables were attached and after much shouting, the signal went up to the crane operator to start the lift. Slowly the D-9 inched upward, as cases of Coca Cola tumbled and slid into the newly vacated space underneath. At about a meter off the bottom of the ship’s hold, the crane’s main cable snapped and the D-9 crashed back down. A collective moment of stunned silence ensued. The cushioning effect of thousands of crushed Coca Cola bottles had prevented the bulldozer from coming to rest at the bottom of Rijeka’s harbor.
After replacing the cable and bringing in three more portable cranes to help, the D-9 was finally lifted, dripping with Coca-Cola, and loaded on to a flatbed rail car for the 150 kilometer trip to Zagreb. Like a fat man in an airplane seat, the massive dozer hung over both sides of the narrow-gauge rail car. By then it was getting dark, and right away another problem emerged: the overwidth dozer would knock down every road crossing sign between Rijeka and Zagreb. Dad and I then became part of a small, impromptu train crew: we jumped out ahead of every road intersection, unbolted the crossing signs, signaled the train through, and then replaced the signs. In spite of darkness and a language barrier, our little crew developed an immediate esprit-de-corps, and we became highly efficient at sign removal and replacement.
That nighttime trip was not only the first time I drank with my father, it was also my first exposure to Slivovitz, Yugoslavia’s national drink. I had no idea that the mild-mannered plum could produce such an explosive liquor. Explosive not only to the palate, but also in the dictionary sense, as I was to find out. Hunting was one of the few passions my Dad and I shared, and later that summer we went on a guided hunt in the Croatian Alps. Standing around the evening campfire, our guide tossed a shot of Slivovitz into the flames, just to show its inflammatory potency. A shot of gasoline would have had a lesser effect.
As soon as the American bulldozer was unloaded at the Fair site, an informal competition was set up with the equivalent Russian machine. Hundreds of spectators converged on an empty lot next to the Fairgrounds to watch the two machines lumber and snort about. The dozers raised and lowered their buckets, passed dangerously close to each other, and viciously tore up Zagreb soil. The event was terrifying and childish at the same time—a monster version of little boys playing with toy trucks in a sandbox. Or perhaps a diesel-infused parody of the larger conflict between the US and Russia. After an hour of ear-splitting action, the Caterpillar dozer emerged as the clear winner over the Russian entry in every category–size, speed, noise and particularly, in the volume of belching black exhaust.
Midway through month-long Fair, President Tito made an official visit. A bundle of contradictions, this diminutive man had literally created Yugoslavia by sheer force of personal will. Neither the Russians nor the Americans trusted him, but he was a master at playing those two superpowers against each other, to his new country’s benefit. A communist revolutionary and anti-Nazi guerrilla fighter, his political instincts ranged from democratic to paternalistic to authoritarian.
During his visit to the Fair Tito and his stunning fourth wife Jovanka came to the American pavilion. We stood in a line in front of the pavilion, and Tito shook hands with all of us. That is as close as I have ever come to greatness, or perhaps to force of personality. Tito then moved on, but was curious about a long, narrow glass-domed display building just outside the pavilion. His interpreter explained that it was a single bowling lane, fitted out with a brand new AMF automatic pinsetter, the latest in mid-Sixties American technology. Tito told the interpreter he wanted to try it out. The President was promptly ushered into the glassed-in dome, and handed a standard American bowling ball. Meanwhile a large entourage, including myself, gathered around the dome to watch.
Looking back on this event many decades later, I am convinced that I know what went through Tito’s mind at that precise moment. He would have said to himself “I am Josip Brosz Tito, the creator of Yugoslavia. Those are my people outside, watching me. I must master this Yankee technology, and I must not fail.”
Straightening up to his full height of five feet, six inches, Tito cradled the big American ball in his hand, ignored the finger holes, and in a single sweeping gesture, bowled a strike. Then he turned and bowed to the watching entourage. They erupted in cheers. It was at that moment that I fully understood the nature of political charisma.
Tito held the new country of Yugoslavia together through the sheer force of his own will. Soon after his death it began to break apart, and the brief dream that was Yugoslavia dissolved in 1990, followed by horrendous interethnic violence.
I do hold tight to the memory of my token brush with a world leader, while at the same time acknowledging Tito’s KGB-style crimes. The man was truly Shakespearean; a tragically flawed hero. But memories of the vanished and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, and of that cloudless summer with my father, are forever.
My oldest brother drew a lottery number of 29 on his 18th birthday in March of 1968. I was 13, 5’1” and playing sports all the time. As a family we didn’t really have a religion but my father had been raised a Quaker and was a CO during WW2. He served, but as a psychologist in New Jersey, not on the front lines. He was against Vietnam from the beginning, thought Lyndon Johnson was an idiot for escalating the war. My mother was liberal politically, independent, ahead of her time, a working mom with 4 kids. My parents were united, not wanting any of their sons to go to a war they didn’t believe in. At 13 I was aware of Viet Nam and civil rights-they were talked (ranted!) about at the dinner table, but I was still pretty naïve. I can remember canvassing for Eugene McCarthy with a friend of my sister’s, not out any dedication to the cause but because I really liked her. During that time, the thing affecting me most was the assassination of Martin Luther King. Solving the disparity between blacks, minorities and whites took a huge hit and I lived it everyday while going to school. Our Santa Barbara neighborhood was white and wealthy, Milpas St. was black, Delavina St. hispanic, not so well off.
Between March and August of 1968 my mother had decided to go to Canada. Her reasoning was to provide a safe haven if my brother had to leave the US. We two younger sons were going with her. I saw it as a big adventure, we had been to Yellowstone, Banff and Oregon, camping, so I assumed Canada would be more rustic. We would be mountain men, not surfers. Some time at the beginning of August we packed up a 1958 Chevy station wagon with everything the family would need and started north. We visited my grandmother in Oregon, then hit the border at Osoyoos, Wednesday, August 28th. Within 2 hours we were landed immigrants. My mother had researched job possibilities. Starting at Osoyoos we went north, with the idea of going through the Okanagan, then on to Banff, but she applied for work everywhere along the way. Friday afternoon we landed in Salmon Arm and she was told she could start work Monday morning. We found a motel that rented by the month and were home. I was going into grade 9, could walk to school and in retrospect I must have been a bit of a novelty. By October I did not want to return to California, but I missed my friends. But Canada was a wild, wonderful place. So when the Democratic national convention was on, Kent State happened, Nixon was elected, the Vietnam protests escalated, I was in Salmon Arm, and not really connected to all that. I was accepted easily because of sports. It was fun: I developed a ‘harem’ of girls who all had to be kissed “good morning” at the beginning of every school day. My older brother had a much tougher time fitting in, he was more introverted and a genius. People were intimidated. His motivation for staying in Canada was much more real, he did not want to go to Vietnam. My mother had a similar experience. She didn’t connect with anyone at work, missed her friends, and thought Canada, while beautiful, was backward. The three of us regularly camped at Yard Creek on weekends-a wonderful family time.
In the fall of 1969, my father was diagnosed with cancer. My brother stayed and finished Grade 12 in Salmon Arm, and we moved back to California over Christmas. At this point I was simply not very connected to the US–I was a visitor. My oldest brother was using student deferments to avoid service, so things were okay. My mother decided she was going to tour Europe in the fall of 1970 (my father was better) and we kids could come if we wanted to. Another adventure! We toured Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and England in 1970/71. From Europe, we flew back to Montreal to avoid the US, and drove across Canada. My brother enrolled at SFU, and I was left with room and board in Salmon Arm. A story: I crashed my bike and tore up my knee, which became infected. I went to the doctor but knew nothing about gov’t provided medical. I walked out of the office with a cleaned up knee, and a lunch bag full of medical supplies. Free. Once again, humbled by the generosity of locals. I finished high school in 1973. I have really fond memories of hitch hiking the Trans-Canada and Highway 97 North, having adventures during those days. One time, I bullshitted a drunk welder coming out of Cache Creek, telling him I had a licence and could drive (he luckily passed out quickly) and made it all the way to Quesnel before leaving the truck on the side of the road. My goal was to see how far I could get on $5. My father died in the summer of 1973. I went on to UBC, and my brother was still at SFU. When I turned 18, I quit crossing the border, we had not registered with Draft Board 100, so we were not registered for the draft and technically illegal. My mother came north for good in 1976, the same year I became a citizen. I went for the citizenship hearing with my girlfriend as a character reference, the judge looked at her, then me, asked “is this your girlfriend?” “Yes” I answered. “Then you must be alright,” he said, and the hearing ended (she was better looking than I was).
When I reflect on it now, I think I was similar to the girl in the photo at Kent State. I was not paying attention to the US much, as I felt Canadian and was cruising through the teen years, having a great time. My life directed by my parents, my living experiences happening mostly by chance. I have had conversations with friends of my older siblings who went to Vietnam. They describe the horror, some still suffering the effects of PTSD or agent orange, their lives were never the same. Others did amazing things to avoid service, dieting to be underweight, pretending to be crazy to get a dishonorable discharges.
I am Canadian, incredibly grateful my mother made the effort to move, and that Canada allowed us to come.
This is the first part of a discussion triggered by The Girl in the Kent State Photo.
From Corky Evans, Winlaw, BC
I was raised in a white, middle class town. It was an enclave of Oakland, California called Piedmont. It was made into a legal entity (I figure) by rich white people who did not want to pay taxes to Oakland. Working people were their servants and gardeners or their employees in business “downtown.” Some people there were so rich that when my part of town played baseball against them the newspaper reported the game as “The Serfs Against the Squires.”
I went to church, a progressive church also full of white people. I said those words every day that you are taught to say about America in school. I hid under my desk for air-raid drills in case Russia started a war and bombed our town. I wanted to grow up to be Don Larsen and pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
When I was sixteen my mother married a guy from Tucson, Arizona and we moved. I went to a much poorer school with so many students they had to run two shifts. The first shift started at 6:30 and the second shift ended at 6:30. I had good friends. I dated girls, worked pumping gas and selling plants and washing dishes in a cowboy bar. My girlfriend’s father was a General in the Airforce at a base outside of town. I went to church Sunday mornings.
I think I was privileged, for sure. We had money as a family and I had my own money from working various jobs. But I also think it was a completely normal American upbringing. I was not a student. I made a deal with the Dean of Boys at my high school. The deal was that if I agreed to withdraw my name from the election for Student Body President he would assure that I could graduate.
When I was about 17 I went back to Oakland for the summer to stay with my dad and work. My dad had a friend staying with him that I had known all my life. His name was John. John was a war hero from WWII. He was also a College professor and a person with serious depression and other troubles that my family felt had come from his time at war. John was staying with us while he attended a Veterans Hospital for treatment of mental illness. I liked the guy. We slept in the same room, as did my step-brother Andy.
One night when nobody else was at home John wanted to strike up a conversation. He said “So, Corky, what do you think you would like to do when you grow up?” I said “I think I would like to be a jet pilot like my girlfriend’s father in the Air Force.” John’s face turned dark like I had never seen and he said “That’s a good idea. Then you could kill people from 10.000 feet and never have to watch them bleed.”
I went home to Arizona and got a call from Andy saying that John had shot himself in the garage. I think I had heard of Viet Nam by then but I had never thought about it and had no idea where it was or what was going on. But John had got me started thinking about war. The closest connection I had to the military was when a friend of mine got a girl pregnant who was underage. A judge told him he could go to jail or enlist in the Army.
Then stuff began to unravel. Thanks to my deal with the Dean I graduated. I was allowed to go to a small college in Oregon only if I agreed to attend summer school and passed some courses. I was elected Class President. I smoked some grass. I began to learn about Viet Nam. It occurred to me that maybe the stuff I had grown up to believe was maybe not the whole story. I dropped out by Christmas.
Over the course of the next few years much of my family fell apart. My older brother was arrested at demonstrations from San Francisco to New York. He was given electro-shock and never worked again. My step-brother Andy and I went to a demonstration at the Oakland Induction Center with thousands of other people. He was arrested and wound up in solitary confinement for singing in jail. My step-sister Cesca married a black man and moved into a white neighborhood. They both had good jobs at the time. Her for the phone company and him as a foreman in a factory. They were arrested for armed robbery and held in jail just long enough to lose their jobs and their house.
My dad was in the Air Force in WWII and again in the Korean War. Then he went to Law School on a program called the GI Bill and became a Public Defender. He believed in the justice system. He believed in his job. When Andy went to prison my dad tried to visit him in prison. The Guards refused him entry even though he had worked there interviewing clients for years. He flipped out. It broke his heart and his faith in his life’s work. He began to look for ways to leave the country.
I told my dad I was going to mail my draft card back to the government. And accept prosecution. He said “then you will go to prison and get raped, you won’t like that so you will take heroin to feel better. Then when the war is over they will let you out and nobody will recognize you as the person you once were.” He gave me and Andy his truck and he told us to go to Canada. We got as far as Oregon and while we were there Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for office again. Andy and I were young. We imagined that Johnson was the bad guy and now the war would end. We turned around and went back to Oakland.
I was called up for physical by the Draft. I went to the induction center and passed all the tests. They sent us, with a Sargent to mind us, to lunch at a diner across the street. I climbed out of a window from the Men’s Room and ran.
During a demonstration at the Induction Center I was witness to an assault on a Police Officer. Hundreds of Police were there and when dawn broke they charged the people. Andy and I had spent the night in a church with a group of people who thought they were pacifists. (Maybe I did, too.) Then we went and sat with a group of people who wanted to block the building and remain non-violent. When the police charged they broke heads with clubs as they moved through that group sitting in front of the building. I moved. And then helped people turn over cars to make a barricade. And the demonstration turned into a riot.
Maybe an hour later I was in an intersection with a crowd of people when the Highway Patrol cops charged the demonstrators. I did not have time to escape the area so I stepped behind a pillar outside a store. As the cops went past me a black woman in a hospital worker’s uniform walked beside the pillar and out onto the street. She looked to me like she was on her way home after a graveyard shift at the hospital. Her arms were full of grocery bags and she couldn’t see over them to realize what she was walking into. Maybe 40 cops were charging across the intersection. All the demonstrators had run so there was nobody for the police to confront as they moved through the crossing. Until they got to the pillar I was hiding behind. At exactly that moment the woman with the grocery bags stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the cops. They clubbed her against the plate glass window she was passing. Her bags ripped open and she fell forward, oranges and milk bottles spilling out onto the sidewalk. When she hit the ground they picked her up so they could club her again. This time she fell over a city garbage can that toppled and spilled its waste. A heavy steel conical lid came off the garbage can and bounced on the pavement as the cops went past, still clubbing the woman.
I was that white kid raised in safety and ignorance. I was drawn forward in the wake of this outrage but had no response. As I watched in horror a young black man, my age, ran past me, grabbed the garbage can lid, spun like a discuss thrower, and threw it at the cop who was now beating the woman in front of him. The guy who threw the lid just kept spinning as he let go, and kept on running back around the corner he had come from. The lid hit the cop at the base of his helmet. I know it hit the helmet from the sound of the clash, a sound I can still hear. The cop went down. The 39 other cops turned around and saw: me.
The intersection where this happened was on the edge of the black community in West Oakland. I spun around and ran. I was young and fast and not weighted down with flack jackets and clubs and helmets. I outran the cops and kept going until I crossed into the white and wealthier part of town. When I slowed down I understood what privilege was, I think for the first time in my life. My step-brother Andy got out of prison on bail. At dinner he told us what had happened to him. When his mom and my dad expressed sympathy he said “Oh, my charges are nothing. My cellmate is in real trouble.” My dad asked what his cellmate was charged with and Andy said “Assault with intent to kill. A police officer. With a garbage can lid.” I asked Andy what the guy looked like. He said, “White, young, thin.” Then I told my story. My dad asked Andy who the guy’s lawyer was and Andy said “Bob Truehaft.” And my dad got up from the table and called that lawyer to tell him what we had discussed. Then he came back and said to me, “You go and see him tomorrow.”
Bob Truehaft was the first real Communist I had ever met. His office was above the Army/Navy store downtown. The only reading material in the waiting room was the Workers World. When I got into his office he said, essentially, “What do you want?” I said I didn’t want anything. I had just come to tell him what I had seen. He asked me where I had been and I told him the street and the time. He got up and took a big stack of photographs off of his filing cabinet and shuffled through them until he found the one he needed. He showed me the picture, taken I guess by the cops from above the parking garage across the street. He said “Is that you?” I said “Yes.” And then he repeated, in a sort of angry voice “So what do you want? You are here telling me this person in this picture, who is obviously breaking the law, is you. You didn’t come here to say that unless you want something from me.”
So I got kind of pissed off and said I came there to tell what I knew. I had been taught that the truth was important. He said “This is America. Nothing is free so what is your price?” I got up to leave and then he calmed down and talked to me and I told him what I knew.
A few weeks later I sat in the hall at the Courthouse with 6 Highway Patrolmen, all of us waiting to be called in to testify. The cops were openly building a common story to give a testimony. They testified and then I was called. I was asked if the guy in the dock was the guy I saw throw the garbage can lid. I said no. I was asked how I knew for sure and I said “because he isn’t black.”
The District Attorney got up and said “You say your name is Evans. Who is your father.” I told them my father was Phil Evans. The District Attorney then said to the Judge “I move that this witness’s testimony be stricken on the grounds that we all know his father and his father would have taught his sons to lie.”
The accused was found not guilty and as we walked out of the building I realized that his crime was he looked a lot like me. The cops had just run far enough to find somebody that they could imagine was the person they saw after the can lid hit their compatriot.
Bob Truehaft stopped me on the street. He said “Thank you.” And then he said “come and see me tomorrow.”
When I went to see him he said “Why aren’t you drafted yet?” And I told him about escaping from the Induction Center and I said I did not know what would happen next. He said “So now I will tell you what we will do for you. My law partner, Malcolm Bernstein is the best draft lawyer in America. He is in Viet Nam right now with Tom Hayden. As soon as he comes back we will become your lawyers and try and keep you out of the war.” So, as it turned out, he was right, everything in America does have a price.
The first thing we tried was an application to be a Conscientious Objector, based on my 18 years or so as a Christian. I built a portfolio of people who would say that I was a Christian and believed that “thou shall not kill.” I was advised that in order to have your Draft Board believe you it was best to bring a Minister to the hearing to speak on your behalf. My Draft Board was back in Tucson so I made an appointment and traveled, for the last time in my life, back to Arizona. I went to see Reverend Barr, the Minister of the church I had belonged to when I lived there. I actually thought he would help me. When I made my request he said “No I won’t help you. If you won’t go kill gooks for Christ you are forbidden to ever enter this church again.”
The Draft Board members said they were sure I was a Communist and I was raised by Communists and rejected my appeal and pronounced me 1A, the designation for those at the top of the Draft list.
A few months before that trip to Arizona I had met a woman. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and the people at the church I had been raised in as a boy decided to have a Retreat to talk about the issue of race in America. I got hired to wash dishes by the cook at the camp they were meeting at. They had a guest speaker. She was a woman in her twenties who was studying Black History at Oakland City College. After I finished the dishes I went up to the meeting house to hear the presentation and discussion. It was going very badly. The church folks were wealthy white people whose only contact with black people was as workers in their homes or businesses. The woman trying to communicate the history of racism in America was trying to use facts as information. People like those in the room don’t believe in facts if they contradict their cultural beliefs. I found myself intervening to try and help the woman explain her position. I had been raised among such people. I knew who they were and what they might be willing to consider.
The next day the woman offered to drive me back to the city and I met her kids. We saw each other a few times. It looked like there was a chance for some romance happening. Essentially, she said “Your ignorance is in our way. Take these 5 or 10 books home and read them and then come back.” When I got off the airplane coming back from Tucson I had no idea where to go or how to live. I was pretty sure I was going to war. I phoned the woman with the books from the airport. I told her I had read the books. She came and got me.
She said “I belong to a group called Whites Against Racism, WAR for short. We are good at organizing and we know what has to be done but we aren’t good at speaking. Here’s the deal, you join the group and talk for us in public. We will tell you what to say and you say it in such a way that people will listen. In exchange, I will marry you and you will become the step-father of two children and become Draft Exempt.”
I agreed to the deal and moved into her apartment in Berkeley. Her apartment was registered in somebody else’s name. She was sort of in hiding. She had been married to a black guy and her daughters were mixed race. After her marriage ended she and her daughters lived in a house in East Oakland. Some people painted swastikas on her house and said if her children lived in that house they would burn it down. And then they did. With Molotov Cocktails through the window while the family slept inside. They got out before the house collapsed.
When the police came they only showed her pictures of black people. When she said Black people don’t threaten to burn out black people, the cops said she must have friends who are Leftists. She ran. From the people who had burned down her house and from the police who now suspected her of being a troublemaker. And lived in apartment rented by a friend.
We started to fall in love. At which point we called off the marriage deal. It seemed foolish to get married to solve a political problem and then not know if we were really married or not. And my dad said “You can do anything you want with your own life. But not with kids’ lives. You marry her for real or you move out.” Which seemed like good advice.
The year I turned 21 and my dad turned 50 I got married and he and his wife left the country. I never saw him again.
Then the good Communist lawyer guy figured out that now I really was the step-father of two kids and filed for an exemption with the Draft Board. At that time you could make more money on welfare with two kids than you made as a private in the Army. America didn’t want soldiers’ families on welfare so two kids was enough to get a deferral.
Then People’s Park happened. When we got married a weird aunt gave us a tree for a wedding present. A tree is a strange thing to give people who live in a tenement. We stuck it out on the fire escape and looked for somewhere to plant it. Pretty soon we heard that some people were making a park out of a dirt parking lot near us in Berkeley. So we took the tree there and planted it. Then we got captured by the fun of making something beautiful out of something ugly. We went every weekend when we weren’t at work and planted grass and bushes and built stuff for kids to play on.
Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California at the time and he wanted to be President. He realized that if he came down hard enough on the people in Berkeley that were building this illegal park he could be famous all over the country. One night we were drinking wine with a friend who had been drafted and was about to go overseas. It came on the radio that 10 or 20 busloads of cops from towns all over Northern California had arrived to take back the park. I went.
Standing in the park with maybe 50 other people, after midnight, I picked up a rock. Then I looked out at the assembled police firepower around us and realized, “they WANT me to throw this rock. If I do, all of these people are at risk.” And I dropped the rock and picked up the rakes and shovels and hoes and took them to the seminary across the street to hide them. Many others did too, and when we were outside the perimeter and the cops and their contractors began to put up a fence around People’s Park.
The next day the city went crazy. One of the cops with a deer rifle killed a guy sitting on a rooftop watching the riot. Then the National Guard came and surrounded the block we lived on with barbed wire. They used tear gas from helicopters. One of our kids said “Mommy, the sky’s on fire.” We had a pistol under the mattress. It wasn’t ours and we had no ammunition. But for the first time in my life I realized that my Draft Board had been right about one thing: I was no pacifist.
So we left. We came to Canada in a pickup truck and lied at the Border and said we were on vacation. War resisters in Vancouver taught us how to apply to stay. We borrowed money and put it in a bank account in Oakland to make it look like we had $1000. I found an employer who would write me a letter and say I could have a job. We went back across the Border and got haircuts and came across and lied again, saying we were coming to take this job and wished to immigrate. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. He had told his Border Guards to be kind to young people at the Border. They knew we were lying. We had no real money of our own. We did not speak French. We had no College or University degrees. They let us in. They let us in and they let us stay. The kids are grown up now and I haven’t lived with their mother for a long time. But we are all still here.
This is supposed to be “about” the Kent State killings by the National Guard so many years ago. I do not think I was touched by the event like would have been expected. By the time that happened I had lost my sense that any of us could survive the violence unleased in America. It took Neil Young to make me pay attention.
Ohio, by Crosby Stills and Nash (1970) Written by Neil Young