Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rendezvous with a Story-Teller in the East Village

I first met the late Bill O’Brien several years ago at a funky East Village brunch place in Lower Manhattan. Bill was coming to New York for the weekend and suggested we meet. He urged me to bring along my son Jeff, namesake of Bill’s very good friend of the ‘60s, Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), my younger brother.

I was then just beginning a memoir project on brother Jeff, an ex-Vietnam GI who had founded the underground antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), and become a leading figure of the early, inchoate GI movement against the Vietnam War. Another old friend of Jeff’s had tipped me off that Bill was the go-to guy if I wanted to learn about the Chicago period of my brother’s brief life. Bill and I got into email contact.

Why, you might ask, would I need a guide for my brother’s last years? I may have been his sibling, but I was much older and our young lives had taken very different trajectories. I was just then getting my academic career underway, learning how to teach, and struggling to get my research published. 

Back in the day, Jeff had been on track to get a PhD, but changed course and became a denizen of the semi-underground world of the Vietnam antiwar movement. On behalf of his paper VGI he traveled extensively stateside and abroad.  Hence, he was able to keep in touch only periodically – usually by pay phone from various cities. Out of curiosity I’d ask where he was calling from, and he’d invariably reply better not to say on the wire. Thus, I can’t tell you I knew Jeff of those years as well as his close friends and fellow activists.

When Bill proposed we meet, I jumped at the chance of getting a line on my brother. My son Jeff, the namesake, then an upcoming young writer, lived in the City, short for Manhattan for those not from the Northeast. I was teaching upstate so I hopped a train to New York. It was a sunny spring weekend when my son and I arrived at the Time Café East and took a corner table from where we could see the door.

An unusual place – Formica tables, tile floor, ceiling fans whirring, and on an entire interior wall, a Southwestern desert scene with mountains in the background.  At the other end near the entrance, there was a small semi-circular bar covered with faux-rawhide.

 Time Cafe East in the East Village, Lower Manhattan

At the agreed time, a very unusual looking person came through the door and looked around. I walked over and said tentatively, ‘Bill?’ He gripped my hand in an exceptionally firm handshake. Even in the hip East Village and in that laid-back cafe, Bill stood out. A large shaved head, strong rugged features; he was a barrel-chested man of medium height with a powerful, muscular build. 

In the midst of a roomful of casually dressed New Yorkers out for Sunday brunch, Bill’s attire set him apart – thick sandals one grade up from the Ho Chi Minh footwear made from old tires once worn by the Viet Cong; short shorts and a T filled out by well-honed legs, arms, and chest. I got over my momentary surprise, and we sat down. My son and I ordered Eggs Benedict – for Bill, a vegetarian, a Black Bean Quesadilla – and we got acquainted. Bill was especially pleased to meet young Jeff, named for his good friend of so many years past.

Bill O’Brien (1942-2011)

I was still a rookie at interviewing my brother’s friends at that point in the memoir project, so I had planned to just listen and try to remember what Bill had to say.  He, however, had come to talk, and he was obviously used to being paid attention to. With natural charisma, a strong voice, and a gift for story-telling, Bill ‘presided’ over the brunch to our utter fascination.

He regaled us with stories of Jeff’s life and times in late ‘60s Chicago, parts of my brother’s story I was hearing for the first time. They were rich, textured memories. I soon realized I wouldn’t later be able to fully recapture them, and began scribbling notes on napkins. It so happened that the actor Sam Waterston, who had played Nick Carraway to Redford’s Gatsby (1974), was also enjoying brunch at the café that morning.

He was sitting in the opposite corner with a gorgeous, leggy young woman, many years his junior. At one point as Bill was wrapping up a particularly interesting tale, my gaze drifted over to the leggy lady, no doubt a fashion model. Noting the distraction and barely missing a beat, Bill imperiously snapped, ‘Pay attention’.

I still have those napkin notes along with a few pages young Jeff tore out of his notebook for me. Bill’s liveliest story of brother Jeff concerned his sister Anne O’Brien’s wedding to Dick Stevens, summer ‘68. The affair was held at the Stevens’ family compound on the shore of Lake Michigan and included the groom’s uncle, John Paul Stevens, a prominent Chicago lawyer soon to be appointed to the federal bench and later elevated to the Supreme Court by Gerald Ford.

Jeff and others of the VGI editorial collective – all friends of Bill’s and the bride – were invited to what was an unusual event. Anne and Dick were married by what appeared to be a mail order minister, outlandishly dressed in a King Neptune outfit who seemed more familiar with astrology than the Bible. The party then got underway and soon got wild with some of the guests who hadn’t brought bathing suits skinny dipping in the lake. At one point a neighbor came to the edge of the great lawn to complain about the noise. Dick’s uncle explained to the man that it was a wedding and managed to pacify him.

Later, when a group of partygoers decided to burn a small American flag in the middle of the lawn, all hell broke loose. Five Notre Dame football players visiting nearby came running to save the colors, but lawyer Stevens intercepted them, and, as Bill told it, Jeff talked the guys down, inviting them to join the festivities at the beach, which they gladly did.

A year earlier Jeff had done something similar down at Indiana University when a drunken football player menaced a peaceful protest he was leading. Bill and I agreed that while Jeff was hardly a big guy, he projected a certain gravitas and quiet authority that came in handy.

Lt. John Stevens, Pearl Harbor, 1943 

Meanwhile, John Paul Stevens, a former WWII naval officer and decorated veteran of the war in the Pacific, indignantly intervened and put a stop to the flag burning. Even in the Age of Aquarius, there were limits.

Part I of a two-part series on Bill O’Brien of Chicago and his friend Jeff Sharlet of Vietnam GI.


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