By Rychard Denner

from Berkeley Daze


(Prefatory note—I have always told the following story as it is here presented, but recently Michael Rossman, author of The Wedding in the War, pointed out some historical inaccuracies. He wrote—"Don Bratman says that the suicide did NOT happen while he was working there, but before that. As for your reference to Fred Moore, who was sitting-in alone on Sproul steps in '61 to protest compulsory ROTC, I can correct that from my own memory. Gosh, it's hard looking back that far without documentary sources, isn't it? Also, I believe you are referring to William J. Lederer, who co-authored The Ugly American with Eugene Burdick. Professor Lederer may well have been subpoenaed to appear before HUAC in their planned 1959 visit in San Francisco, as many people were, but that visit was cancelled; and it was not until May 1960 that HUAC actually did visit, to interrogate other dozens of subpoenas, and to face the protest you speak of, in which we were hosed down the steps.")

Political Science lectures at U.C. Berkeley, 1959. Professor Learner is showing us both sides to an ideological conflict, revealing positive and negative forces in two systems of economics and government, Marxism/Communism vs. Democracy/Capitalism. For this he is accused of corrupting youth and is subpoenaed by the House of un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Black Friday. I go to the county courthouse in San Francisco with my friend Dennis Wier. I've known him since grade school. We're on assignment for KPFA, the non-profit, listener-sponsored radio, and we are trying to record for posterity hundreds of agitators giving the seig heil salute to Congressman Willis, the chairman of HUAC. Later in the day, the demonstrators gain admittance to the courtroom, which has been packed with American Legionnaires and Daughters of the American Revolution. The city police, fearing they are losing control of the crowd, turn on the building's fire hoses and wash the protestors down the steps of the courthouse to the sidewalk.

The first edition of the "San Francisco Chronicle" reports: POLICE ATTACK STUDENTS, but the next edition quickly reverses this headline to read STUDENTS ATTACK POLICE. This is the first use of force by municipal authorities on the public since the San Francisco General Strike during the Great Depression. In the morning, my father sits down at the kitchen table and opens his Oakland Tribune and begins to choke.

He's sputtering. "What. . . what is this?" The newspaper is being wildly waved in my face, but it is clear to me — my picture is on the front page. I had climbed up on the cement portico with a hand-held microphone, and someone from the "Oakland Tribune" took a profile shot of me with my hand held up against a backdrop of placards and protesters giving the seig heil salute. A protest movement is arising, and I can still feel the exhilaration. It is the formation of a hive, what is later to be called the Birth of the New Left. The buzzing of mindful bees.

My parents send me to a local psychoanalyst, who hypnotizes me and gets me to repeat after him, "I am not a Communist. I am not a Communist. I am not a Communist." I think of myself as the patient of the phrenologist in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness having my cranium measured, a 19th century scientific method of determining psychological change in people sent into the jungle. I'm headed up the river. I have read some psychology and know a little about hypnosis. I fake my trances and give myself auto-hypnotic suggestions to counteract any effects of Dr. Gompertz's attempts at brainwashing. I gaze at the reproduction of a Gauguin painting of Tahitian maidens in the doctor's office. I lift my finger in response to the doctor's inquiries. "Yes, I hear you. No, I am not a Communist."

I'm moving upstream. Up to this bend in the river. I write a diatribe. I'm on my way to the Dean's office with this scabrous piece of scatology in my fist when I'm waylaid on the steps of Sproul Hall by Don Bratman. Don is a poet, older and wiser, and he knows I am headed for trouble and steers me in a different direction.

Don has been working as a watchman in the bell tower of the Campanile, and a man jumped—perhaps while Don is sorting out the pattern of alliterative "s" sounds in Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." (The guy climbed up on the guardrail, tossed his briefcase over, yelled "Look out below," and followed it down.) Glass partitions are finally installed. There is talk that the Campanile is a phallic symbol which is across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge, which is designated a maternal symbol because the spans form the shape of breasts. There sure are a lot of interesting theories floating around. Somehow the combination of male and female symbolism creates a vortex of energy that works on the unstable psyches of people prone to suicide. Interesting. Nothing about both structures being tall and accessible, and that falling from them is lethal.

Don tells me he thinks it would be better to revise the poem and correct some of the misspellings. We walk back across the plaza towards our dorm. We stop to look at a young man sitting just inside the campus boundary with a sign on his chest, indicating he is on a hunger strike until the U.S. withdraws its advisors from someplace called Vietnam. America sleeps. A war machine is slowly slouching its way towards Saigon to be born. I watch the son of an Air Force officer sit in his hunger strike for several days. Finally at the prompting of the university administrators, his father flies out from Washington D.C. and talks his son into having himself committed to a mental institution. This is the beginning of the Litany of the Dead.


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