Friday, April 15, 2011

If my thought dreams could be seen: May Day 1971 (THE END)


The next morning we hitchhiked back to Indiana. There were other actions planned for that day, in fact one was scheduled for Dupont Circle where we were staying, but we had no appetite for further fruitless heroics. These "new obstructions," as the headlines in that morning's Washington Post called them, were to begin later than the previous day's actions, so it gave Jerry and me a chance to leave early and to avoid another senseless arrest. The day before they were arresting anyone who wasn't wearing a suit or a dress and we did not want to get caught in that dragnet. 

We wisely stashed the Mao buttons, folded up our army coats and jammed them into our packs, then tossed our punctured gas masks in the trash as we left the Institute for Policy Studies. If we could have dressed like dorks, as John Travolta and Samuel Jackson were forced to do near the end of Pulp Fiction, we probably would have just to avoid arrest. 

We somehow caught a ride to one of the interstates ringing D.C., and after 30 minutes of numerous vehicles thundering by just a foot or two away, a candy apple red semi-truck with a long, polished chrome trailer passed, geared down, then came to a halt a couple hundred feet beyond us. We had both hitchhiked a lot by then, and you sometimes heard about rides from truckers second-hand, but neither of us had ever gotten one.  Truckers usually drove long distance, had food and water to spare, and one ride could get you all the way home. It was the gold standard of hitchhiking. When an arm shot out the window from the truck ahead and motioned for us to get in, we raced towards it along the shoulder of the road, our packs and sleeping bags banging on our backs, knowing we were greatly blessed. 

The driver opened the passenger door and beckoned us to enter his world. He was a medium-built man in his 50s with grey hair and a big smile. He wore a blue work shirt, a red cap, and jeans. "Crawl in quick before Smokey sees us," he laughed. "When they're in a pissy mood they'll ticket a guy for picking up kids like you." The cab was roomy and impeccably clean. Rosary beads hung from a push-pin stuck into the cab's padded ceiling, and next to it hung a pine scented air freshener shaped like a Christmas tree. They swung back and forth in sync with the motion of the truck as we rumbled down the road.  

"You look like all my daughter's friends so you don't scare me...anymore, that is," he said laughing, again. He seemed like the kind of man who laughed a lot. "People are just people," he said, and then fell silent for a moment. "So where are you headed?" he asked. "Oh, by the way, I'm Tom," and he leaned across the wide, cushioned seat to shake our hands.

We introduced ourselves and told him we were headed for West Lafayette, Indiana. "You're in luck," he said. "I'm headed to Indianapolis so I'll make sure I drop you off north of the city and you can take I-65 straight home." This was too good to be true, just like when that ACLU lawyer with the bag full of hamburgers arrived to tell us we were being released. One ride all the way to Indiana was as good as anyone could hope for.

Tom was not the prying sort and didn't ask us much more or feel obliged to make idle conversation when none was needed. He once let it slip that his daughter had passed away, and I wondered if he may have felt connected to her when he helped out people like us. I felt sad and grateful and tired, all at once. There was no way we could ever replace his daughter. After that, we spoke little and he turned on the radio but kept it low, and Jerry and I dozed in the cab, the big truck vibrating and jolting at each bump and imperfection the highway offered up. Tom would not laugh again for the rest of that drive which took over a dozen hours to complete.

I began wondering about the May Day action as I sat there, what I had accomplished, and why the war, the institutions, and the people supporting it were so imposing and impossible to change. We had gotten our asses handed to us again by the "system," just as the Vietnamese had with all their immolated grandmothers who were nearing the end of their lives and their grandsons in "black pajamas," cut down in their prime. 

I recalled the moment when I walked down the hallway and into the courtroom the previous evening. The hallway was narrow with high ceilings that made me feel small, perhaps even by design; and it was filled with men who viewed me with spite. But every now and then one or two of them would smile. I wasn't sure if they were on my side or if they could not help but be kind on occasion. And the courtroom was surprisingly rough-looking, with worn, wooden floors of great vintage, meager plaster walls, and a old judge's bench that towered above me in an almost ludicrous fashion. 

It seemed quaint and improbable that the entire machinery of government and all our sprawling "systems" could be reduced to these people in these rooms and hallways. They  were such weak and unimpressive vessels for our soulless system to express its power through. The word "soulless" jarred my memory as it passed through my awareness and reminded me of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, which I had read on a lark one afternoon at a friend's house, and how it described the careening, disebodied machinery of death that a system really was:

Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!  Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!  Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!

And then I remembered those uncoerced smiles from the people in the hallways, like the sun burning through the clouds, just as it had done at the park in Dupont Circle a couple days before. Those smiles and that if their luminescence could break a spell that had held you captive all your life... Then a moment of bright, shining clarity arose like an effortless act of nature. Those smiles and that sun were real, I knew, without even thinking, and the system I imagined to be running amok was not. 

It was obvious. It was simple, but not simplistic. I had been spinning clothes in my mind upon the body of the emperor when he actually stood before me nude. We all did this. I had seen the man behind the curtain and he was vulnerable to defeat. It was entirely reasonable to be afraid of people, and especially people united by some consensus, either accepted or coerced. But it was not reasonable to be afraid of things that did not exist.

This is not an academic distinction to make. When you imagine yourself to be reined in by something that does not exist, or to be serving something imaginary, you give up the only power you have over your destiny. You give up the power to choose and you merely respond to the dictates of something that is not real. It's insane. You become an instrument, just one more body in the army of the walking dead.

There were only people in that courthouse that night, and only hallways and offices that those people occupied. That's all that was there and that's all that has ever been there, or anywhere. There has never been anything else.  People have done it all! There is no system making us do anything! We are not just expressions of a machine-like logic. We do it all, and we are responsible for what we do. No one just follows orders, especially from things that do not exist. We all have choices. It only seems that we have no choice because we are running on auto-pilot or because most of our choices suck.

Has anyone ever seen a system before, or even a government for that matter? No! First things first, please. Don't complicate what is easy with hearsay and mental sophistry. Don't mistake a practical metaphor for something that is real. "Systems" and many other fearsome things are just a way of talking about the agreements we have imbibed without examination concerning the way things are said to work. They do not exist apart from our beliefs and actions. They are not real, tangible objects even though we act as if they were. They are not "out there," they are "in here."

Walk into any government building and look for the government. All you find is people. Walk into a bank and look for power. All you find is people. There is no there, there. It's just people thinking things and doing things and occupying rooms in buildings, and people can think and do different things. Nothing would ever change if systems were real, tangible things, and not merely phantasms of the mind. If systems were real we would always be their robots. 

That judge, that ACLU lawyer, those angry-looking men in the hallway as well as those who smiled; they were all people, singular individuals just like me. There were no ghostly systems or clouds of ideas with lives of their own entering their bodies and animating their limbs and minds. When I looked at the Capitol or the White House, I knew there was no government or system inhabiting them. They were buildings with people in them and nothing more. Everything seemed so much less imposing from this view. All I had done was to see through the dream and discover what was really there.

It was so simple, too simple, and I fought the impulse to accept this insight as valid. And it was, indeed, an insight and not merely an idea. It had come to me all at once, fully-formed, and not logically in sentences over time, with one idea building upon another. I have had to put it into words to talk about it after the fact with knowledge I have today, but that is not how it made its appearance. It was something that was too obvious for words. After all, does an actual flower need the word "flower" to justify itself? 

In the end, I dismissed this insight as something pathetic and flawed, a product of my immaturity and inability to get with the program, the rules of which everyone else had agreed upon and were more than willing to serve. Everyone else had figured out the social cues and had learned how to think and how to behave and that is what I had to do as well. 

Everyone acted as if they had no choice and were simply doing what these disembodied systems and ideas told them to do. When the "economy" demanded they jump they asked the economy how high. When "justice" reasoned that they kill, they asked justice how many. Don't argue with "them," just do what "they" say. It's your "duty." 

And the "economy" and "justice" and "duty" were these real things with boundaries, weight, and feelings, just like people. Maybe more important and real than actual people themselves. And you had to serve these great entities, respect them, and feel rightfully dwarfed by the awesome power they wielded over you.  Sometimes you had to sacrifice people for the sake of these gods we were duty bound to observe. 

It would be ridiculous to just assert that these gods were merely ideas bouncing off the inside of our minds and that we did not have to worship at their feet and do their bidding. How could a mere 19-year-old hope to stand in the way of gods with such magnificent powers? Why, if that were the case and none of these gods existed, we would be free to do almost anything we could imagine, and that couldn't be good, right? 

Many years later I read a book entitled Engaging the Powers by the theologian Walter Wink. I understood him to be saying that the principle source of cruelty in the world is the belief in things that do not exist, and that when we act on behalf of these things that do not exist, we necessarily act without reference to genuine human need. Acting without reference to genuine human need in the service of an idea is so mindless that it is the sin qua non of Satan himself. 

But Satan is not a thing, a force, or spirit. Satan is our thoughtless choice to serve as the instrument of a machine that does not really exist, and at the expense of people who do. Now I finally knew I had been right, as I rumbled down the road in that semi-truck so many years before. Someone else had had the same idea as me. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." In this case at least, I can attest to this truth.

During the Vietnam War, when some saw a communist enemy that needed to be destroyed instead of a grandmother in flames fleeing her grass hut, that was Satan marching through the world.  When others had a moment of clarity about that war and saw that same grandmother in flames instead of a communist enemy, that was God's saving grace. But neither God nor Satan did anything, in truth. We did it all and we continue to do every bit of it everyday, and no resort to any system or guiding idea that "made" us do it can get us off the hook.

Today, the great god to worship is the "market," the great transcendent deity that will solve all our problems and right all that is wrong with the world. When you see people on the streets that are homeless, or you find yourself without health insurance, or without a job, for market's sake don't try to do something that violates the "logic" of this god. Market will provide. But go looking for "the market" and wherever you go you only find people hiding behind words and refusing to take responsibility for what they have done by caring more about things that do not exist than about people who do. Just be selfish, the temple priests of the market tell us, and market will provide. By the way, how's that been working for you?

"Sorry, I can't do anything about it. The Market has spoken." Funny how you only find a person uttering those words. 

Tom the truck driver did as he promised and dropped us off north of Indianapolis. Jerry and I hitchhiked back to West Lafayette, Indiana without incident. Tom, I am sure is now dead, and Jerry and I are nearly 60. Forty years later I wish I could say that I live the truths I write about as faithfully as they were experienced when I dozed in out of consciousness in the cab of that truck back then, but I cannot. I seem to be a work in progress and never quite complete. 

Just remember this. Things that do not exist cannot change, but people who do exist can.  That is the only hope we have, and it's a good one because people are far more real than things that do not exist.


  1. Man today we could have shut that place down ("just like an Egyptian").With Iphones meeting up in affinity group areas would have been easy (flash mobs)plus now that i watch the Ultimate Fighter on tv each week look out Po Po!
    Of course in Arizona a attempt like this would be met by Ayn Rand believing (no way these dumb asses read that whole dumb-ass book) Chiropractors and insurance agents with Glocks and 30 round clips.On the brighter side they have now made it legal for students to carry guns on campus! Man that would have changed everything if we were armed all the time! We might be getting out of jail in a year or two

  2. But they can now See The Movie instead. We'll all end up in the FEMA concentration camps Glenn Beck blathers about anyway, and the chiropractors guarding us will be listening to Atlas Shrugged on their iPods.