Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Indiana Surprise

The other old friend of Jeff’s who helped shape the memoir about my brother was Karen Grote, his girlfriend at Indiana University (IU). Like Ed Smith, the ex-GI, Karen had first contacted my son Jeff; unlike Ed, she knew from the outset he wasn’t the Jeff Sharlet she was seeking – too young, perhaps a namesake. Karen had searched further on the Internet and came upon the awful truth: Jeff was long gone, dead too young.

At first I thought Karen was an earlier IU girlfriend I’d met in the ‘60s, Karin Ford, whose whereabouts were unknown to me. Karen Grote told me how late that summer of ’03 she was holed up indoors during hot, rainy days – muggy weather like back in Indiana. The ironic lyrics of a ‘60s country tune crept into her head: “God didn’t make little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime ….” Jeff had lived and worked in Indy, short for the state capital, during the summer of his junior year, 1966, and Karen had visited him there. She wondered where he’d landed in life, what he was doing now.

After my son forwarded Karen’s inquiry, what did I learn about Brother Jeff? How they met, how he introduced her to Chinese food and taught her to use chopsticks (which, like many Vietnam GI’s, he had carried since they weren’t washed, just wiped after each use), and other anecdotes of everyday student life in Bloomington IN. Karen also told me about IU’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter (SDS) and its local anti-poverty project on which she and Jeff worked before Vietnam came to dominate the national organization’s focus.


Campus Entrance, Indiana University

The work involved a pocket of poverty south of town in rural Monroe County, a place of no running water, rat-infested shacks, and no services. Jeff and others, in helping those people improve their lives and obtain social services, were not above lending a hand with the dirty hard labor of cleaning the communal well, repairing roofs, sealing rat holes.

Karen also gave me invaluable insight into Jeff’s temperament as a young ex-Vietnam GI. After all, I’d known him best as child years younger than me. She said he was usually quite reserved, both in public and in private. He’d been affectionate, never effusive, and she could recall only one time he showed any anger toward her. But there were dark moods as well when he’d become uncommunicative.

One episode she remembered occurred across the border in Kentucky where Jeff and other activists were trying to advise a young man on his draft situation. The advice was divided between recommending the man resist and do prison time, or accept the draft call and agitate against the war from inside. In face of disagreement, Jeff simply went silent. Another time Karen recalled him sitting on the stoop, head in his hands. When asked what was wrong, he answered in a tone of quiet despair, “We gotta get out of this place,” which happened to be a line from a ’65 hit song that became the anthem of Vietnam GI’s. She was puzzled, Jeff said nothing further.

I’d always assumed Jeff had worked for the railroad right there in Bloomington during summer ’66. Having taken my PhD at IU, I knew the town well, remembering the tracks a block or so beyond Courthouse Square, but no, Karen set the record straight. Jeff had gotten a job in Indy that summer, 50 miles to the north, working in the freight yards as a locomotive fireman and boarding with a carpenter named Karlis Zobs in his big old ramshackle house. As the summer drew to a close, Karen remembered Jeff on the verge of telling her certain things, but he never seemed to get past the openings. He’d begin, then become uncharacteristically anxious, and stop abruptly. On the last occasion he started to tell her what he did in Vietnam, not just about Vietnam, but broke off, saying he couldn’t, that she wouldn’t understand and hate him if he told her. Karen never knew what it was.

From Source to Searcher

After Karen and I had talked at length, I realized she was something of a wannabe sleuth, obsessed with facts, and unusually computer literate; she quickly volunteered to help me locate people from the various times in Jeff’s short but fruitful life, not an easy task in the days before social networking made its appearance. I’d been researching a quasi-memoir of the Cold War, especially its domestic impact on American life, and had blocked out two central chapters on my brother – as a Vietnam GI, and later as an antiwar leader.


Karen Grote Ferb, several years later

In short order, with the flood of new information on Jeff facilitated by Karen, those chapters evolved into an outline for an entire book as I learned much more about my younger brother; his times; the underground paper he created, Vietnam GI (VGI); and its role in fostering the GI resistance movement which contributed to the war’s end.

I had taught the Vietnam War for years and became intrigued by the cohort Karen and Jeff – had he lived – represented, a cohort that came of age in the middle of the Cold War, in the fever zone of Vietnam, the turbulent ‘60s, and beyond. I was constantly on the lookout for references to Jeff in the historical literature, had read Dissent in the Heartland*, an excellent study of the ‘60s at IU, and here I was face-to-face with a participant, a member of SDS who had known the activists the author had written about: Bernella and David Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Peter and Lucia Montague, Joe Fuhrmann, Professor James Dinsmoor, and others who were all old friends with whom she’d lost touch, but now found.

The Owl Coffeehouse just off campus; IU’s alternative paper, The Spectator, edited by Jeff’s friend Jim Retherford; Guy Loftman of SDS wins IU student presidency; the rallies in Dunn Meadow. And there were the campus antiwar protests against the likes of General Maxwell Taylor and General Lewis Hershey, the head of the draft. Karen and Jeff were at those demos together.


Hershey demo at IU, May, 1966

Karen had special memory of the arrests of IU protesters in Indy, July ’66, on occasion of President Johnson’s speech at the war monument in the city’s center; she’d been one of those arrested, but that’s a story for elsewhere. Although Karen didn’t know them personally, she was aware of the campus pro-war conservatives, most notably Tom Huston, a law student; Robert Turner; and Bob Tyrrell, all of whom later rose to prominence in the nation’s capital.

In effect, Karen became my witness to the history of Jeff’s SDS years, to the rich IU chapter of his story. And I should add she's been scarcely less productive in tracking down his military buddies from the Army Language School (ALS) and ASA, or the Army Security Agency, as well as the Chicago group around VGI and the GI coffeehouse people who manned those antiwar outposts around the country outside the major Army bases. Names I had known only from old letters, photos, and articles in Jeff’s files turned into individuals I was able to interview and got to know, thanks to Karen, the tireless searcher.

*By Mary Ann Wynkoop.

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