Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lives of the New Left I

Summer ’13 saw a memorable reunion of the New Left (NL) activists of Indiana University (IU) from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those were the days when they took on the war in Vietnam and other pressing issues of social justice.

They arrived back on the campus for the reunion from all parts of the country. Quite a number had not broken bread or lifted a glass together in at least a quarter of a century, while many had neither met nor even spoken for over 50 years. Most were now people of age, in their late 60s or early 70s.

The organizers of the gathering came up with a good way to break the ice and get everyone re-acquainted – a ‘Town Hall’ meeting held in a small auditorium the first morning. Reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ long narrative poem, Spoon River Anthology (1915), the result of the IU session was a fascinating compilation of mini-biographies of the activists’ lives at the university and beyond.

The crucial difference was that while Masters’ characters were all “sleeping on the hill,” that is, in the graveyard of the fictional town of Spoon River, the New Left people were alive and well in Bloomington, their old college town. For openers, each one was asked to rise and give a name and a brief ID. Then a couple of dozen of the 60 or so people there were randomly invited one by one to go to the front of the room and bear witness to their long lives on the left – the  affiliation of their youth to which they had maintained fidelity over the years.

Taken together their ‘testimonies’ comprise a remarkably diverse chronicle of life on the left in America since the ‘60s. This post is the first of a series of the self-portraits sketched that morning that we’ll be posting on the blog in the coming months. The first three profiles are of a woman co-founder of the IU New Left; then a man who followed in her footsteps as a campus leader; and finally, a slightly younger speaker whose father, an IU professor, had been a local activist at an earlier critical time in Bloomington.

In their subsequent adult lives, the three became respectively a professional song-writer/musician, a locomotive engineer, and a criminal defense investigator, but all had kept faith with their past. With brief headnotes as background only where needed, the first three stories as recorded and transcribed follow.

Leading off that morning was Nell Levin, the former Bernella Satterfield, a ‘red diaper baby’* originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was somewhat modest about her interesting background. Nell and David Satterfield first met in North Beach in California, then again in Greenwich Village where they hung out with Bob Dylan before his rise to fame. At IU, Nell and David not only played Country and Bluegrass together – Nell on the fiddle, David on the guitar – but during spring ’65 when the US escalated the war in Vietnam, they also became co-founders of the campus SDS chapter or the Students for a Democratic Society.

Nell described the ’64 group that became the vanguard of SDS as “’outsider’ types – we were beatniks, grad students, often older than the typical undergrad, and some of us were from other parts of the country or the world … we were the weirdoes, the bohemian fringe, the vanguard.”** Brother Jeff Sharlet, back from the war in Vietnam, joined SDS not long after. He was the only ex-Vietnam GI in the group.

The Satterfields lived with their child Cordelia not far from campus, and their living room became the venue for political discussions and early SDS meetings. In her own voice, Nell picks up the story from there:

I got involved with SDS in the early days, probably about 1964 and I was active til the Weathermen*** takeover, and I said, “I didn’t sign up for this.” I started writing songs in Los Angeles (LA) and someone said you have to go to Nashville. I had already been to Nashville in ’78 playing with a band there, the ‘Buffalo Gals’, and I knew a lot of people there. I had left Bloomington in 1982-83 and went to LA for six years, that’s when I started writing songs. That’s when I ended up going back to Nashville.

When I got to Tennessee, I said, ‘Wow’ there’s a lot of problems in Tennessee. You know – it’s the South, education was very low. The main thing was, I went to the grocery store and they had a sales tax on food – I came from California where there’s no such thing – the most regressive possible tax. I ended up working for a group called ‘Tennessians for Fair Taxation’ for four years. I ran that organization, and then I was talking to different people and they were saying “We need a statewide progressive coalition.”

So in 2001 me and a group of people founded an organization called ‘Tennessee Alliance for Progress’ – TAP. I’ve been running that organization for the last 12 years and it’s been an interesting road trying to get the progressive  agenda passed in that red state. Unfortunately, it’s gone from bad to worse now that Republicans control all three branches of government, including the Tennessee legislature.

Nell Levin, 2011

For the first time since Reconstruction, they control everything in Tennessee. In the 2003 election they got a lot of Tea Party people elected so we can’t get anything passed presently. (Question from the floor: Do you still have the food tax?) We still do, yes. We had a huge demonstration in 2002-03 when we came within three votes of getting an income tax passed. We had riots in the streets, it was incredible what we went through over that in Nashville, the state capital. By three votes we failed.

We still have tax on food although it’s been lowered a little bit. We still have no income tax, but we have the food tax. We always get voted one of the most regressive tax states in the US.

We got discouraged by the 2010 election so we said, “Ok, we’re going local.” So now we’re working in East Nashville, my neighborhood and a majority Black neighborhood. We started doing work on environmentalism, tying that to jobs. That’s been our focus for the last three years inspired by the work of Van Jones [an attorney and nationally known environmentalist]. He’s endorsed our work on his web site. We’re very proud to be endorsed by Van Jones.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years running TAP. It’s been a roller coaster, hard to get money in the South for progressive causes. We don’t have a lot of the foundations you have in other parts of the country. Anyway that’s basically what I’m doing.

Along with her activism, Nell continues her long music career. Backup on a Grammy-nominated CD in 2000, she and her husband Michael recently formed the ‘Shelby Bottom String Band’. Their first CD is East Nashville Rag.

Ike Nahem, now an Amtrak locomotive engineer operating out of New York, arrived at Indiana University in the late ‘60s; he was in the second wave, so to speak, of New Left activists. His reunion ‘testimony’ below at the Town Hall was fairly complete and requires little further introduction. Ike covered his activism from the IU years through his current continuing involvement on the left:

I was in Bloomington 1969-73, the best years of my life until I met my wife of course. So great to see people here who were my friends and comrades from those years.  We were so active – I mean it was the height of the Vietnam War – it was an amazing time.

Ike Nahem and his wife

When you think about it, a school that was 2% Black … elected a member of the Black Panther Party as student body president in an election where thousands and thousands of students voted. Where we gathered in Dunn Meadow this morning, we filled that place after the Kent State and Jackson State killings [spring 1970]. Protestors were way out into the streets.

It was an incredible time, and we had a really serious mass movement on this campus, one of the best in the country, and it was also one of the best organized and led. In Bloomington, we had very little of what we called ‘ultra-leftism’ and violence and stuff like that.

We were appealing to people and mobilizing them. I remember a lot of us hard core activists in those primitive ‘old tech’ days would be on a mimeo machine stenciling out things on a leaflet, and spending hours putting something together that we could do in 10 seconds today. We were churning out leaflets and getting ink all over ourselves and going out to demonstrations.

Fifty people would come, 100 people would come, and then one day Nixon invaded Cambodia [April 30,‘70], and the same fraternities, some of them who would scream and yell at us, poured out that day. We ended up having like 10,000 people marching down into Dunn Meadow, so those were the times and they were great times.

Anti-Vietnam War rally, Dunn Meadow, Indiana University, 1969

They marked me for the rest of my life, and today I’m still involved in the struggle. I’m an Amtrak locomotive engineer, I drive high-speed trains from New  York to Washington, and I’m involved in the union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters. I don’t have the energy I had back then, but I’m still very active politically.

The main issue I’m involved with is solidarity with Cuba. We’re trying to stop the US economic and political war against Cuba, and free the ‘Cuban 5’ [in prison in the US]. I’ve also been involved in the Anti-Apartheid struggle. I helped publish some books of Nelson Mandela who I had the honor of meeting as well as Fidel Castro.

It’s great to see everybody after all these years. Those Bloomington years were amazing and it’s great to see so many people who are fighting the good fight!

Ike Nahem is currently the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York and a founder of the July 26 Coalition in support of the Cuban Revolution.

The last of the three activists presented here, Nora Liell was younger than most of the veterans of the New Left’s Town Hall, having been a student at Bloomington High School when most of them were at the university. But even in high school, Nora and her classmates were involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement, in particular opposing the draft.

Like Nell Levin, Nora was a ‘red diaper baby’, but she was also a so-called ‘faculty brat’ as well – her father was John Liell, a distinguished sociologist at IU who had instilled in his children a sense of social conscience.

A specialist on race and poverty, Professor Liell, a well-published scholar, chose not to confine himself just to academic pursuits. He founded the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and served as first president of the Bloomington chapter of the ACLU. In the late ‘60s, President Johnson appointed him to an executive position in the ‘War on Poverty’.

Nora assumed that many of the IU alums at the Town Hall probably knew her father from student days since both he and his wife were prominent local activists. Proud of her father, she drew special attention to one particular action she knew everyone in the room could relate to.

Bloomington, nestled in southern Indiana, had been a town of ‘soft’ segregation well into the ‘50s. Nora’s father had “helped organize the sit-in for African Americans to be able to drink at Nick’s,” the most popular student bar then and now – still there just off campus.

Nick’s, Bloomington, Indiana

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Nora became a community activist and a volunteer in local Bloomington politics. She later became a criminal defense investigator in the Office of the Indiana State Public Defender in Indianapolis, the state capital.

These have been but three of the many personal testimonies heard that morning at Indiana University during summer ’13. In their accounts of their student activism and subsequent lives, Nell, Ike, and Nora presented not only their personal journeys from New Left days, but a view of activism in for progressive causes in America in the course of the decades since those heady times. As Ike Nahem put it, the struggle goes on.

* The phrase ‘red diaper baby’ usually signifies a child born of at least one parent associated with the American Communist Party, although more loosely as one born of radical parents of the Old Left. It’s difficult to know whether a self-described person means the term narrowly or broadly.

***At the final SDS convention held in June ’69, the organization split into two factions. The Weathermen faction subsequently went underground and engaged in violence.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In the Blink of an Eye -- College Boy to Cold War GI

Many years ago I had a younger brother – now long gone. Jeff Sharlet was his name – he died during the Vietnam War. Seven years between brothers was a big gap in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When I went off to college, Jeff was a 10-year old. As often between younger and older siblings, he tended to look up to me as big brother.

But communication being what it was in those days – expensive long distance phone calls, ‘Your three minutes are up’; or slow snail mail – it wasn’t easy for a college boy and a 7th grader to keep in touch. Complicating the problem, I had a falling-out with my father and chose not to go home very often. Jeff would send me occasional letters during the ‘50s, describing his schoolwork and athletic progress. 

He usually wrote at greater length about his ‘social life’.  At one point he and another boy had a crush on a popular girl, but feeling he was falling behind in her affections, Jeff decided to outflank his competition: “She lives right near us so I plan to go over to her house to get to know her better.” I never did hear how that turned out.

Meanwhile back at college, I and everyone I knew was reading F Scott Fitzgerald, whose writings about the Jazz Age of the ‘20s were enjoying a posthumous revival, including his  re-issued This Side of Paradise (1920) set at Princeton and, of course, The Great Gatsby (1925). We were also avidly reading J D Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’ stories in the New Yorker.

College life in the elite schools of the East back then was far removed from everyday concerns. Sure, there were wars, but early in the decade President Eisenhower had brought the Korean War to a stalemated end and had generally kept us out of France’s losing struggle to hold on to its Indochina colony.

The more nebulous ‘Cold War’ between us and ‘them’ – them being the Soviets – was hardly a compelling concern at New England’s old, all-male colleges. Aside from classes – most students were headed to law or medical school – the chief weekend preoccupation was trying to get up to Northampton in central Massachusetts or down to New London on the Connecticut coast – that’s where the girls were. Longer term planning in that halcyon environment involved the big parties, fraternity house parties when everyone scrambled to bring in dates from the ‘Seven Sisters’, the all-women’s colleges scattered across the Northeast.

Wesleyan University campus, Middletown CT, mid-‘50s

Somehow I got the notion I would become a novelist. I wasn’t the only one – not a few young men in those years harbored literary ambitions. However, I seemed more in a rush than my peers. Philip Roth had begun publishing his short stories and early novels, and he wasn’t that much older. To further my ambition, I took the sole ‘Creative Writing’ course on offer at the college. It was taught by a young literary critic, an Egyptian, educated in Cairo and America, with an undefinable accent – perhaps British colonial. Anyway, he was very good. We were expected to turn in a story a week, and sometimes he would read a good one aloud – once one of mine.

While busy trying to craft my weekly story, the idea came to me to write a full-scale novel – credit the unbridled romance of youthful dreams. I would tell the story of a beautiful Scandinavian girl I had known at another school, a girl older than I and certainly much worldlier. I felt we were close – she had long, wheat-colored hair that caught my eye – but in actuality she artfully eluded my reach.

In my imagination, the girl became akin to ‘Rima’ of W H Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), a lyrical novel set in the Amazon. A South American man has to flee the capital and encounters the enchanting but mysterious Rima of the rainforest. Was she real or a fantasy, now I can’t remember, but initially when he’d reach out, she would tantalizingly slip away in the mist.

To work on ‘my novel’, I had to cut classes. Several friends also swept up in the web of wannabe writers cheered me on. The manuscript progressed, first a handful of pages, then dozens. More classes were sacrificed to my muse, but not the Creative Writing class. As I became increasingly intoxicated with my dream, I thought to myself that I really needed more uninterrupted time for the ‘book’.

So I decided to drop out of school. Tried the plan on my parents by phone; they didn’t think much of the idea. Spoke to the dean who politely questioned the wisdom of such a move. But headstrong and caught up in the romance of the thing, I pushed on with my plan to withdraw. When I announced my intention to my writing instructor, I expected him to understand, to say something like of course you must follow your dream.

On the contrary, he was quite taken aback and suggested we have coffee at the college bookstore down the street. He said I had some talent, but should remain at the college and nurture it. I was tactfully adamant. Finally, in mild exasperation, the professor sputtered very uncharacteristically – he had a precise way of speaking – “Stay in school, finish this, this ‘chickenshit’,” by which he meant the ‘credential’, the BA degree, “then try your hand at writing.”

Looking back as an academic myself, I’m guessing he probably felt some responsibility that a student in his writing class had gotten so carried away that he was taking the radical step of leaving the college – in mid-term no less. Dropping out of school in the mid-‘50s was not very commonplace – it was generally assumed everyone would move forward in step with their entering class, from Freshman Orientation to Commencement four years later. Nonetheless, I packed up, received a small going-away party from my friends, and hit the road.
It was early November, and when I got home – where else would a penniless novelist go – my father was surprisingly understanding. He said I could use the finished basement as my workspace. Now free of all responsibilities and assured of three squares a day, I’d go down there every morning to write, but somehow things didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped.

 It was quiet – brother Jeff was off at country day school from early morning to late afternoon after sports practice. I had a table, a comfortable chair and a goose-neck, yet the typewriter was mostly silent. Oh, I managed to knock out another 15-20 pages, but they lacked verve and spontaneity without the zing of cutting classes back at school.

Weeks passed – I paused for Thanksgiving of course – and it was soon more than a month of undisturbed time with little to show for it. Did I have ‘writer’s block’? How could I when I wasn’t even a writer yet except in my romantic self-image. It was time to take stock. What did I have of the great American novel in waiting – maybe 70 largely descriptive pages absent any dialogue.

Neither I as a character nor my Rima had uttered a direct word on the page. Instead, as author, I spoke for both of us in the third person. I thought to myself in the quiet of the house – who could imagine a Fitzgerald novel or a Salinger story without dialogue, and vivid, lively dialogue at that.

I had to face the music. Upstairs at dinner, I told my father – my mother was there too – that it wasn’t working, that I’d have to give up writing the novel. He took the news well I thought, no ‘I told you so’s’. Instead, he calmly outlined my three options at that point in my young years – after all he was a pragmatic businessman.

I could go to work for him in the business, or back to college, or fulfill my military obligation – America had a draft back then, and if you weren’t in school or otherwise deferred, the draft board inevitably expected a two-year stint in the Army. After all, we were in a Cold War with the mighty USSR.

It was my choice, my father said. I sure as hell wasn’t inclined to go into business — in fact I’d been running away from the prospect since graduating from prep school, the same one Jeff was then attending. Back to college – oh god, not after I’d just left propelled by my friends’ high hopes that I’d make it, write the novel. That left just the military.

Shopping around the recruiting offices between Christmas and the New Year, I came up with a couple of options for avoiding the draft and the strong possibility of the infantry. One was a Navy cadet program designed to turn out pilots, the other a special, little-known outfit nominally under the Army, but actually autonomous. It was the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s secretive communications intelligence agency which relied heavily on linguists for translation work and interpreting. The catch was that both required more than the draft’s two-year max – the Navy wanted a 5-year commitment, the intelligence group three. That was an easy decision.

I gave the Army Security Agency (ASA) three years of my life, and they in turn gave me a year’s training in a Cold War language at a military school on a scenic stretch of the California coast. Then two years’ of intellectually stimulating and very pleasant duty followed in an attractive German city. In effect, I had a great Cold War, frequently writing home extolling the toney German social circle I’d lucked into, weekends in the famous spa town Baden-Baden, skiing in the Alps, trips to Paris, and other adventures.

The author (see arrow) at the race track, Baden-Baden, summer ‘57

Jeff, restless in college and impressed with all this, decided to follow in my footsteps – dropping out and enlisting in ASA with the promise of a European language. But instead of the good life in Europe, Jeff got a bad break, ending up in the war in Vietnam, a Vietnamese linguist. But that’s a story for another time.