Winston Churchill most famously decreed, “If you’re not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.” The journey we’ve made in the last forty years follows that well worn path. Much is written about current gridlock and which political leader is most divisive, but even a cursory look at the United States demonstrates deep divisions for our whole history. The early Republican party led by Abraham Lincoln carefully negotiated extremely tricky political waters to the Emancipation Proclamation, followed later, after his death, to amendments to our Constitution to first free, then enfranchise (at least the men) 3 ½ million Americans of African descent.
During the time both before and during a Civil War, emotions ran rampant; a pro slavery South Carolina Democrat Congressman, Preston Brooks, severely beat and nearly killed Massachusetts Republican Senator Charles Sumner with a metal headed cane on the floor of the Senate after Sumner delivered an impassioned Abolitionist speech likening slave owners to pimps. Sumner took three years to recover sufficiently to return to the Senate. Brooks was fined $300 and was overwhelmingly reelected to Congress by his constituents. We haven’t yet seen physical violence in Congress yet, although a few like former Senator John Edwards almost certainly would benefit from a sound thrashing.
The leaders on the liberal side of the current schism were produced through the Vietnam War and post Vietnam War periods, during which few compromises were countenanced. In 1969, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered martyrs to the anti war and civil rights movements. The eventually disgraced Richard Nixon was the President of the United States, and from the perspective of early twenties dilettante radicals like Rita and me, prospects seemed bleak. We read rags like “Ramparts” Magazine, books by Eldridge Cleaver and tracts about the Chicago Seven. There was Cambridge, Berkeley and Haight-Ashbury, Ann Arbor and Boulder. Because we wanted to see the Rockies, we put our few pieces of furniture in storage over Rita’s father’s garage and headed to Boulder, Colorado. “Power to the people.”
In retrospect, we were remarkably uninformed, entitled by the sacrifice of our parents, naïvely idealistic and determined to make a difference – whatever that meant. A couple of years before, after graduating from college, my military career turned out to be a one day adventure for a physical that I failed when the Army doctors discovered I take an anti-convulsion medication due to a severe head injury from a high school car accident. I have never had a day time incident, so it didn’t seem crucial, but it was one and out for me. Things went Left after that. An arm chair psychoanalyst may discern that my early job choices for dangerous work were possibly compensatory for a young man. I was a skilled tree worker; Rita was a Boston hospitals trained RN. Neither one of us had a moment’s doubt that we would find work out West, which turned out to be a problem solved the third day after we arrived.
Our revolutionary efforts were pedestrian and embarrassingly feckless. One demonstration at the University of Denver; a Joan Baez concert at Red Rocks the same month she performed at a farm in Woodstock, NY (she spoke amusingly of the then Governor of California, Ronald Ray-Gun); a few joints around campfires under the black night of a billion stars on back packing trips into the mountains; a visit or two to the American Friends Service Committee (an offshoot of the non violent Quaker center for conscientious objection), and small gatherings in friend’s apartments to cavil about “the cause” and tell stories about Cam Bishop, whom I once met, a living off the land FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitive, who blew up the power station that fed Fort Carson.
With David and Kris Levin, our upstairs neighbors, we decided to take a week’s vacation and drive to San Francisco over Loveland Pass. David was my chess partner at the University of Colorado Chess Club, until they threw us out when they asked us both to join their chess team, and we confessed to not being students. He worked for the American Friend’s along with a Catholic priest, whose name escapes me. David had been a wilderness guide in Talkeetna, Alaska, and they had lived for a while in Mexico City. Their wanderings were not uncommon.
Driving through eastern Utah, we stopped in Vernal around midnight for fuel at an all night, coin operated gas station – two long haired couples in a worn out station wagon with a mattress in the back, so we could drive straight through to Frisco. While there, a Camaro SS with a hood scoop pulled in with five twenty something well trimmed guys looking for something to do on a Saturday night. We qualified as the entertainment, especially after a few beers. As we pulled out of the station, they followed us.
What followed included huddling in the back seat with a tire iron in my hand while we held the mattress up to the window to protect ourselves from flying glass as they threw full beer bottles at the car and almost running them over when they raced ahead to block the road. On either side of the road, there was a hundred miles of desolate nothing.
Finally they joined up with another car of their friends, and we knew it was a matter of time before they trapped our old beater. It took three hours to drive the thirty miles to the next town; David pulled into the yard of a house with the lights still on. David and I stayed at the car as our tormentors pulled up near us. Kris and Rita pounded on the door of the home; the owner answered the door for our terrified wives with a lever action 30-30 Winchester at port arms.
The young couple in the house was up with an ill child, so Rita’s pediatric nurse experience was welcomed. Once he sorted us out, the father recognized the cars parked out front with one belonging to the county sheriff’s son, who had been implicated the summer before in the disappearance of a hitchhiking couple. We called the state police, who were at first reluctant to come, but after my non violent friend, David, threatened to shoot a few of them, they sent the cavalry. When the police car approached with lights blaring from a long distance, both cars left back towards Vernal. After we assured the trooper that it wasn’t just (in his words) “drunk Indians”, he agreed to look for them. We rode in his car back to Vernal and identified the Camaro in the parking lot of an all night diner. The trooper dropped us at the courthouse, then went and arrested five of them.
Couples and five harassers then sat in a waiting room at the courthouse for another hour and a half waiting for a judge to show up. The ensuing conversation confirmed the implacable nature of our differences. The smooth one was conciliatory after Rita’s pregnancy became obvious. Another was headed to Vietnam in the Army the following Monday, which had prompted their partying. They despised us; the hatred was palpable at first, but by the end of the hour and a half, most began to see one another as human beings. Discussion softened, except for the departing soldier, who kept trying to start a fight, but who could blame him?
We found out a bit about life for young men in rural Utah with fast cars being the extent of available distraction; we all learned to reify the other side’s point of view through discussion held in neutral territory. No permanent bridges, and conciliation was nearly impossible given the polarity, however all of us became more than caricatures to the other.
When the judge finally came, we filled out complaint forms. The judge assured us we would be called back to testify when the trial came up in a month or so. Even though it meant several hundred miles of driving through the mountains, we agreed to come back. Exhausted, we never made it past Salt Lake City, where we rested and turned around, carefully avoiding Vernal on the way back.
Of course, from the courts of Vernal, we never heard a word.
For myself, I am an optimist – it doesn’t seem of much use to be anything else. Winston Churchill.