A Police Car Is Held Hostage and Becomes a Speaker’s Podium… Berkeley in the 60s

Mimeographed sheet on Free Speech Movement from the files of Curtis Mekemson.
Hastily run off mimeograph sheets such as this one kept students up-to-date on what was happening with the Free Speech Movement. It seems terribly quaint in the age of the Internet and cellphones. (From my FSM files.)

Within hours of the time that Dean Katherine Towle sent out her ultimatum about the closure of the Free Speech area and the ban on organizing off-campus activities or raising funds for such activities, the brother and sister team of Art and Jackie Goldberg had pulled together activist organizations ranging in orientation from the radical to conservative, and a nascent FSM was born. Shortly thereafter, the mimeographs were humming and students were buried in an avalanche of leaflets as they walked on to campus. I read mine is disbelief. The clash I had warned the Administration of a year earlier had arrived. There was no joy in being right.

As soon as it became apparent that the Administration had no intention of backing off from its new rules, the FSM leadership determined to challenge the University. Organizations were encouraged to set up card tables in the Sather Gate area to solicit support for off campus causes. I had stopped by a table to pick up some literature when a pair of deans approached and started writing down names of the folks manning the tables. Our immediate reaction was to form a line so we could have our names taken as well. The deans refused to accommodate us. The Administration’s objective was to pick off and separate the leadership of the FSM from the general student body.

A few days later, I came out of class to find a police car parked in Sproul Plaza surrounded by students. The police, with encouragement from the Administration, had arrested Jack Weinberg, an organizer for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, who had been soliciting support for his organization. Someone had found a bullhorn and people were making speeches from the top of the police car while Jack sat inside. I situated myself on the edge of the fountain next to the Student Union and idly scratched the head of a German Short Haired Pointer named Ludwig while I listened. Ludwig visited campus daily and played in the water. He’d become a Berkeley regular.

Jack Weinberg, who would coin the 60s rallying cry of “Never trust anyone over 30,” being held in the police car on the Berkeley campus. (From my FSM files.)

Eventually I stood up and joined those on the edge of the crowd thereby becoming a part of the blockade. It was my first ever participation in civil disobedience. It was a small step. There would be plenty of time for more critical thinking if the police showed up in force. Being only semi-radical, I did duty between classes and took breaks for eating and sleeping. Eventually, after a couple of days, the FSM negotiated a deal with the Administration. Jack was booked on campus and turned loose, as was the police car. A collection was taken up to pay for minor damages the police car had sustained in the line of duty while serving as a podium. I threw in a dollar. Weinberg, by the way, was the one who coined the rallying cry of youth in the 60s: “Never trust anyone over 30.”

The situation did not improve. Each time a solution seemed imminent, the Administration would renege or the FSM would increase its demands. In addition to the right to organize on campus, the disciplining of FSM leaders became a central issue. Demonstrations took place almost daily and were blasted in the press, which wasn’t surprising considering the local press was the Oakland Tribune. I learned a great deal about media sensationalism and biased reporting. One day I would sit in on a very democratic and spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a specific action and the next day I would read in the Tribune or San Francisco Examiner that I had participated in a major insurrection of left leaning radicals who were challenging the very basis of law and order and civilized society. 

Older adults, looking suspiciously like plain-clothes policemen or FBI agents, became a common occurrence on Campus. It was easy to become paranoid. If we signed a petition, demonstrated, made a speech or just stood by listening, would our pictures and names end up in some mysterious Washington file that proclaimed our disloyalty to the nation? These weren’t idle thoughts. A few years earlier people’s careers had been ended and lives ruined because someone had implied they were soft on communism. J. Edgar Hoover was known for tracking Civil Rights’ leaders and maintaining extensive files on every aspect of their lives. While we weren’t up against the KGB, caution was advisable. We looked warily at those who didn’t look like us. One day a small dog was making his way around the edge of the daily demonstration, sniffing people.

“See that Chihuahua?” Jo whispered in my ear. I nodded yes. “It’s a police dog in disguise. Any moment it is going to unzip its front and a German Shepherd will pop out.” 

The wolf in sheep’s clothing was amongst us. It was a light moment to counter a serious time. And we were very serious. I sometimes wondered when the celebrated fun of being a college student would kick in. 

NEXT WEDNESDAY’S POST: I join an occupation of the Administration Building, give a speech from the Dean’s desk, and sit down with a small group of people to sing Civil Right’s protest songs with Joan Baez.

UC Reaches the Boiling Point… Berkeley in the 60s

Mario Savio, who had risked his life registering black voters in the South during the Freedom Summer of 1964, became a key leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement that fall. (Photo from UC Berkeley Library.)

In my last Blog-a Book post on my experiences at UC Berkeley, I reported on how I returned to the campus in the fall of 1964 to discover that the Administration had moved decisively to end student participation in Civil Rights battles taking place in the Bay Area.

The Administration’s actions were a testament to the students’ success. It wasn’t that the activists wanted change; the problem was that they were achieving it. Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tool. Base your fight on moral issues; use the sit-in and the picket line to make your point. When the police come, don’t fight back; go limp. If they beat you over the head, you win. Sing songs of peace and justice; put a flower in the barrel of the weapon facing you. It is incredibly hard to fight against these tactics. 

As the demonstrations in the surrounding community became more successful, the businesses being targeted struck back. Calls were made to the Regents, the President of the University system, and the Chancellor at Berkeley. ‘Control your students or else’ was the ominous message. One of the people making the threats was William Knowland, owner of the Oakland Tribune and a former Republican Senator from California who had served as Senate Majority Leader. The Tribune was one of the targets of the anti-discrimination campaign.

The Regents, President and Chancellor bowed to the pressure. Some members of the Administration undoubtedly saw the student movement as a Communist inspired left-wing plot that California’s right-wing was promoting. Others may have believed that the students’ effectiveness would bring the powers that be down on the university. Academic freedom could be lost. Some likely felt that the activities were disruptive to the education process and out of place on a college campus. The latter two arguments had an element of merit. 

One thing was immediately clear; the Administration woefully underestimated the reaction of the leaders of the various organizations and large segments of the campus population to its dictum. Maybe the administrators actually believed the message they had received from their student leadership the previous fall at the meeting I had attended, or maybe they just felt that the outside pressure was so great it didn’t matter how students reacted. 

But react they did. These were not young adults whose biggest challenge had been to organize a pre-football game rally. Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South and stared racism in the face, risking their lives to do so. That summer while I was driving a laundry truck over the Sierras, three of their colleagues had been shot dead and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. I would later visit the spot. Many had cut their political eyeteeth four years earlier opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee meetings in San Francisco and had participated in the numerous protests against racial discrimination since. They understood the value of demonstrations, media coverage and confrontation, and had become masters at community organization. They were committed to their beliefs and were willing to face police and be arrested if necessary. 

The Administration wasn’t nearly as focused. Mostly liberal in nature and genuinely caring for its students, it utilized a 50’s mentality to address a 60’s reality. Its bungling attempts to control off-campus political activity combined with its inability to recognize the legitimacy and depth of student feelings would unite factions as diverse as Young Republicans for Goldwater with the Young People’s Socialist League and eventually lead to the massive protests that would paint Berkeley as the nation’s center of student activism and the New Left. Over the next three months I would spend a great deal of time listening, observing and participating in what would become known world-wide as the Free Speech Movement. As a student of politics, I was to learn much more in the streets than I did in the classroom.

What evolved was a classic no win, up-against-the-wall confrontation. The Administration would move from “all of your freedoms are removed,” to “you can have some freedom,” to “let’s see how you like cops bashing in your heads.” The Free Speech leaders would be radicalized to the point where no compromise except total victory was acceptable. Student government and faculty solutions urging moderation and cooperation would be lost in the shuffle. Ultimately, Governor Pat Brown would send in the police and Berkeley would take on the atmosphere of a police state. 

The process of alienation that had started for me with the student leader conference continued to grow, but I never made the leap from issue to ideology. It was no more in my nature to be left wing than it had been to be right wing. However, I would journey across the dividing line into civil disobedience, which will be my next Wednesday’s tale.

NEXT POST:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I continue our exploration of Pt. Reyes National Seashore, driving out to the Pierce Point Ranch and hiking out toward Tomales Point where we encounter a herd of elk and sushi eating coyotes.

On Facing Nuclear War… The Cuban Missile Crisis

The world teetered on the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Massive destruction would have been the result. It changed my perspective on war, but it was only one of four events that took place while I was a student at Sierra College that impacted my view of the future. In my last post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I discussed how a Chinese man shook up my view of race. Today, in addition to my reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I explore how my views on religion and the environment were changed.

The Campus Center at Sierra College was the main gathering point for students and faculty. It’s where we all came together in October of 1962 and listened for news on the radio during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The photo above was from a less stressed time when socializing, studying, and discussing/debating other issues were what occupied our minds. I’m in the center with my mouth open. The photographer had asked us to look up.

I took my religion seriously as a young person at the Episcopal Church in Placerville. I started by carrying the California flag in the procession that kicked off the service. I then moved up to the American Flag, after which, I graduated to carrying the cross. I sang in the choir and did solos. I became an acolyte and a junior lay reader. I was even the church janitor. There was talk of my becoming a priest. The church helped get me through my teenage years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

One day when I was perusing the small book store at Sierra, I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were based on older mythologies. I learned about Buddhism, Hinduism and the world’s other religions.

At the same time, I was taking a class on world history. I read about the inquisitions and holy wars brought about by religious fanaticism and exclusivity— about the tens of thousands of people who were killed in the name of God. I began to have doubts. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself on an active fault zone. So, I stopped going to church. But there was more. I came to believe that an all encompassing God would not limit ways people could reach Him/Her. It followed that people should be free to worship as they chose and that there should be a clear separation of church and state.

Another concept I was introduced to at Sierra was environmental activism. For this, I owe thanks to Danny Langford. Dan liked to talk and could fit more words into a minute than I could in five. One Monday morning he proudly informed me that he had spent his weekend pulling up surveyor stakes in El Dorado Hills, a new development east of Sacramento.

“You did what?” I asked in a shocked and disapproving voice. 

“I pulled up stakes to discourage a developer from building houses,” he responded in greater detail assuming it would make sense to me. It didn’t. Why would someone want to discourage a developer? It seemed positively Anti-American. My Republican roots were offended to the core. 

“Why would you pull a destructive stunt like that?” I demanded to know as I thought of a whole day or possibly several days of surveyor work going down the drain.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Dan responded, “covered with oak trees and grass. They are going to cut down the trees, plant houses, and pave over the grass.”

Suddenly what Dan was talking about made sense. I wasn’t about to join him on one of his destructive forays, but his comments made me think about how fast we were paving over California. Although I was only 20, many of the places I had wandered so happily as a kid had already met their unhappy demise at the business end of a bulldozer. Progress was how this destruction was defined and progress was a sacred American tradition. For the first time in my life, a question had been inserted into my mind about its value. 

The fourth event was one of the scariest our generation would face. All of our lives we had been raised under the threat of a nuclear cloud. We were constantly treated to photographs and television coverage of massive, doomsday explosions and their telltale clouds. In elementary school, I had been taught to hide under my desk and cover my face so the exploding glass windows wouldn’t blind me.

Atom bombs, which could destroy whole cities and kill millions of people, weren’t massive enough. We needed bigger bombs and we needed more. It was important that we could kill everyone in the world several times over and blast ourselves and the rest of life into times that would make the so-called Dark Ages seem like a Sunday picnic in the park. 

None of this was our fault, of course. We had the evil, Godless, Russian Communists and their desire to rule the world to blame. Losing a soul to communism was worse than losing a soul to the devil. And maybe it was the same thing. Better Dead than Red was the rallying cry of people whose fingers were very close to the nuclear button.

The closest we have come to the nuclear holocaust took place during two terrifying weeks in late October 1962.  I was student body president at the time and I, along with most of my classmates and faculty at Sierra College, sat tethered to the radio in the Campus Center as our nation teetered on the edge of nuclear abyss. It had all come about because a cigar chomping left-wing dictator we didn’t like had replaced a cigar chomping right-wing dictator we did. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and has its own headlines in the history books as being a highlight of the Cold War. 

Castro and his revolution had provided a toehold for Communism in the Western Hemisphere. Jack Kennedy had waged a crusade to get rid of him that had started with alleged assassination attempts using Mafia hit men and ended in the fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs. Castro had then called on Uncle Khrushchev to loan him something to make the USA behave. Russia had responded by offering nuclear missiles. 

The thought of having nuclear missiles pointed down the throat of our Eastern seaboard made the folks in Washington rightfully nervous, so Kennedy set up a blockade of Cuba. Fortunately, aided by promises that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba and that we would remove our missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev blinked.  From that point on in my life, I became convinced that there had to be solutions to solving international differences beyond blowing each other off the map. Nation states rattling sabers was one thing; rattling nuclear bombs was something else.

So here I was in mid-1963, a budding peacenik with international leanings, something of an agnostic, environmentally concerned, and committed to Civil Rights. I had made a left turn from the right lane and definitely become more liberal in my perspective. I figured I was ready for Berkeley. Not. But I was approaching the point where deciding to join the Peace Corps would be natural. First up, however, I learned what it meant to be on the wrong end of a rifle, which will be the subject of my post next Wednesday. I decided later that it was good training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I are at Harris Beach State Park on the Oregon Coast where we end up exploring tide pools and finding starfish. Lots of them.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I continue my sleep over at Rudy and Roberts. I teach my friends how to ride pine trees. In return they teach me how to eat a habanero pepper. I end my adventure by taking my first solo hike ever, at 5 AM!

A Left Turn from the Right Lane… And Getting Hit with a Baseball Bat

My Great Grandfather George Marshall would probably have objected to my traveling off to Africa in the Peace Corps.

I didn’t start off as a likely candidate for the Peace Corps. My family had conservative values that suggested other priorities. Our Republican roots dated back to the foundation of the Party. My Great Grandfather, George Jr., claimed in his 1920 biography that every Marshall born since the Civil War had been Republican. His big issue in the 20s was immigration. Sound familiar? Too many Italians were crossing our borders and staying. A bit ironic, perhaps.

The Marshalls were still Republican when I came on the scene in 1943. My father’s credentials were tainted. He belonged to a union. But he still voted Republican. Abe Lincoln had been a family lawyer to distant cousins and Pop believed that the worst thing that had ever happened to America was Franklin Roosevelt. 

How dedicated was I to the cause? Let me put it this way: My first political debate on behalf of the Grand Old Party put me in the hospital. 

I was in the 4th grade at the time. My mom sent me off to school proudly wearing an “I Like Ike” button. It was the 1952 Presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson. Another boy’s parents were equally dedicated to Stevenson. He was wearing an Adlai button. The two of us ended up in the boy’s restroom in a heated debate. I learned an important political lesson: Never argue politics with someone carrying a baseball bat. Lacking political sophistication, our discussion had quickly deteriorated into name-calling, the heart and soul of most political campaigns. I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning when the Stevenson devotee wound up and hit me across the thigh with his baseball bat. I ended up in the hospital with a knot on my leg the size of a softball. Like most martyrs, my devotion to the cause was only strengthened.

I graduated from high school Republican to the core and envisioned a future of wealth and power. It was not the type of future that would accommodate a detour to Africa and the Peace Corps. Had I been old enough to vote in 1960, I would have voted for Richard Nixon. He was running against Jack Kennedy, the founder of the Peace Corps.

I was about to make a left turn from the right lane, however. Old values would clash with new. College was looming. I spent my first two years at Sierra, a community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flashpoint of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra would liberalize my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it. 

The process of liberalization started during the first hour on my first day at Sierra. The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s Howdy Day welcome. Dr. No Yong Park, a Chinese man with a Harvard education, stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t. 

“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin.  His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question. 

“Well, I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.” 

It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factors seemed like the right thing to do. But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be. The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if I, or my children, ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting civil and human rights.

More shocks were coming at Sierra. My “rock that was Peter” ended up on an active fault zone; I met an environmentalist before the word was created; and the Cuban missile crisis with its threat of nuclear annihilation forced me to rethink my views on international relations. But these are all subjects for next Wednesday.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s back to the beautiful Oregon Coast to visit another state park: Harris Beach near Brookings. I’ve been going through the photos since we got home a week ago. There’s enough material for five posts! I’ll start with an introduction to the park.

Monday’s Blog-a-Book… Another tale from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : Held at gunpoint at Lake Tahoe, I go into training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps!

Born to Wander: Part 2… Great Uncle William Gets His Head Chopped Off

Edison Marshall, my great uncle, grew up in the town of Medford, living for a while with his extended family that included my mother as a child. His writing brought him fame and fortune, including this mansion near Augusta, Georgia.

I was born to wander; I’m convinced of this. Whatever lies over the next horizon calls to me and pulls me onward. Eventually this need to roam would be a factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps. It may be genetic. I come from a long line of pioneers and adventurers. Before Mother went trolling and landed Pop, he had lived in Nebraska, Washington, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oregon. I’ve no doubt that lacking an anchor of three kids and a wife, he would have kept on going and going, just like the Energizer Bunny. Happily so. And so it has been with most of my ancestors.

Restless urges sent members of both my mother and father’s families on their way to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries, and kept them moving west in the 19th and 20th. Puritan Marshalls packed their bags and sailed off for the New World from England in the 1630s. The Scotch-Irish Mekemsons arrived in Pennsylvania from Ireland in the 1750s, spent the Revolutionary War years in upper Maryland, and had moved on to Kentucky by the 1790s. My dad’s family tree shows that my Great, Great, Great uncle was a companion to Daniel Boone.

The cry of gold sent both Marshalls and Mekemsons scurrying to California in the 1840s and 50s. 

George Marshall left his wife Margaret pregnant with my Great Grandfather on his trip to the goldfields. It was a good thing; no pregnant wife would have meant no me. George struck it rich, but his new found wealth didn’t make it back to Illinois. He was killed, stripped of his gold, and thrown into the Pacific Ocean on his way home, or so the legend goes. It was tough and often deadly on the frontier. Not that this cured any of my family from their wandering ways. The drive to roam far outweighed whatever the risks might be. One of my favorite family stories illustrates just how deadly frontier life could be. 

William Brown Mekemson, my great, great uncle, ended up on the wrong end of a tomahawk (or several) during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832. A 1903 book by Frank Stevens describes the event. The Indians had attacked the night before, stealing a horse. Captain Snyder decided to pursue the Indians the next morning and caught up with them “firmly entrenched in a deep gulch, where, in a sharp hand to hand encounter, all four were killed with the loss of only one man, Private William B. Mekemson, who received two balls in the abdomen, inflicting a mortal wound.” 

Except it wasn’t immediately mortal. Mekemson was placed on a litter and transported back toward camp. Along the way he pleaded for a drink. A squad was assigned to climb down to the creek and fetch water. At that point the Indians struck again. Some 50 or so “hideously yelling, rushed poor Mekemson and chopped off his head with tomahawks…” and then rolled it down the hill. That was mortal.

The greatest wanderer among my modern-day relatives was my Grandfather’s brother, Edison Marshall, or Uncle Eddie as my mother called him. He was an accomplished writer quite popular in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. His short stories even made it into the high school literature books of the day and nine of his books were converted into movies. The first to obtain silver screen status was “Strength of the Pines” in 1922 and the last was “The Vikings” starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh in 1958. He had a long and profitable career.

I never met the man; his Augusta, Georgia mansion was a long way from our converted World War II army barracks house in Diamond Springs. But we did have a collection of his autographed books. They were swashbuckling historical novels that had his heroes such as Marco Polo wandering the world. Edison wandered along with them, doing research for the books and pursuing his passion for big game hunting.

We had a hand-me-down 1920’s Encyclopedia Britannica atlas of his where he had outlined his personal journeys in the map section. I spent hours staring at ink-drawn lines snaking off into East Africa and other exotic locales trying to imagine his adventures. (Years later I would learn that a brand new Encyclopedia Brittanica that I got as a Christmas present when I was 10, had anonymously been given to me by Edison and his wife.)

By then, I had the reading skills to handle his books but not the maturity, at least according to my parents. His books were restricted for sexual content and I was supposedly banned from reading them until I was thirteen, when I really didn’t need anything else to stir up my sexual fantasies.

Uncle Eddie was not noted for humility. “I went after fame and fortune, and I got them both,” he reported. That made his lifestyle all the more attractive to me. If he could gain fame and fortune through travel and writing, possibly I could as well. The combination of Edison’s books and his atlas gave me an early lust for travel, an appreciation of history, and a desire to someday write. So what if they didn’t come with fame and fortune.

In 1963 I had my first opportunity to wander away from home. I was accepted as a junior at the University of California in Berkeley, which, at the time, was about to become the center of a worldwide student revolution. My experience at the University, in turn, would lead to an even greater chance to travel, the Peace Corps.

So it’s off to Berkley I go next where I leave my conservative heritage behind, sit on the floor singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez, and stand on the Dean’s desk in my socks to give a speech on why students should have the right to participate in local Civil Rights demonstrations.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Since I am still taking photos of the ocean, I will share some photos on why I love the desert taken along Nevada’s Highway 95 between Reno and Las Vegas.

Monday’s Blog-a-Book from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I am kicked out of the First Grade for a year because of forgery and begin my wandering ways by heading across the alley to the jungle-like graveyard where I can let my imagination run wild.

The Sierra Trek Ends with Its Biggest Surprise Yet!

In my last post on the Sierra Trek, our trip had come to a sudden halt because the Army Corps of Engineers was dynamiting in the American River Canyon in preparation for building a new dam. Not being able to move on, we had done the next best thing— had a party. We were lucky that the Corps was knocking off for the weekend. Our adventure continued…

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program. For several years, it would become one of the top special event fundraisers for the national organization and provide an opportunity for thousands of people to experience the outdoors while backpacking and bicycling. I was leading a Trek into Yosemite when the above photo was taken.

Early the next morning I had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. No surprise; beyond getting wet, it was easier.

One woman was deathly afraid, however— and broke down in hysterics. It was the same person who had initially refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear. We even offered to carry her. All to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group. The Trekkers were in high spirits and sang the Ham Cheddarton song. In cadence. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers, several Board members and Jo Ann were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance. What took me by surprise, however, were the responses as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure. My experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

That night as I took my first shower in nine days. It was everything that I had dreamed it would be, but when I reached around behind me to wash my fanny, something was wrong. It wasn’t there. It had disappeared. I felt like I had lost a limb. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks! It was a fitting end to the experience.

EPILOGUE

We would go on to hold our Trek the next year and many, many years afterwards. In 1977, I added a 500-mile bike trek to complement the Sierra Trek, and later a three-day bike trek. By 1980, I had gone national with the program and Lung Associations were holding treks across the nation. Millions of dollars would be raised for our organizations and thousands of people would experience backpacking and bicycling adventures. Of equal importance, the Trek program recruited a whole new set of dedicated volunteers to the organization. And— from a purely personal perspective— it provided me with a 30-year excuse to play in the woods!

Now that I’ve told the story of the first Trek, it’s time to head back farther in time and relate how I first fell in love with wandering the woods. It all started when I was kicked out of the first grade for a year and started escaping to the jungle-like graveyard that was just across the alley from our house with only a grumpy dog for company. It was a long, long time ago in another world. Please join me next Monday as I kick off Section 2 of “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.”

NEXT POSTS:

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Ever stop to think about what role your DNA would play in determining who you would grow up to be? I came from a long line of wanderers. Heading off to Africa seemed like a natural thing to do. I’ll introduce some of my ‘wilder’ ancestors including Great Great Grandfather George who struck it rich in the California gold rush and was then thrown off a ship into the Pacific Ocean and Uncle William who had his head chopped off by tomahawks.

Friday’s travel blog: Peggy and I are over on the Oregon Coast, this time in Brookings. So… there may be more ocean photos. Or… I may break out some more desert photos.

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” Revised… Introduction

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia (circa 1965) in West Africa where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. I lived near the large yellow building seen in the distance.

Scruffy soldiers with guns pointed helter-skelter were scattered around my yard when I returned from teaching. “What’s up?” I asked in a shaky voice that was supposed to come out calm. Liberian soldiers were scary. 

“Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” the sergeant growled. It was hardly what one would consider a major crime, but the Superintendent was the governor of Bong County. A power in Liberia. His compound was nearby and he was apparently quite fond of his fowl birds. But Boy the Bad Dog, the perpetrator of the crime, didn’t belong to me. And he regarded my cat Rasputin as dinner, a fact which neither Rasputin nor I approved. 

“Why don’t you arrest him,” I suggested helpfully. 

“Not him. You!” the sergeant roared. “You are coming with us.” The interview wasn’t going as planned. 

“I am not going anywhere with you. He is not my dog,” I responded as I disappeared quickly into my house. Yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his home for a dead, want-to-be chicken would have serious repercussions. Or at least I hoped that’s what the sergeant would think.  He eventually left. 

At 4:00 a.m., he was back, pounding on my door with the butt of his rifle. Jo and I woke up from a deep sleep with a start and sat up straight, frightened. I grabbed our baseball bat and headed for the back door. I yanked it open and there was the sergeant, his rifle poised for another strike.

“Your dog ate another one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” Sarge announced with glee at the thought of dragging me off into the dark night.  I was beginning to seriously question my decision to join the Peace Corps.

Nonetheless, joining was one of the best decisions in my life. The way I was raised and educated, even my DNA, had pointed me in the direction of striking off into the unknown. But there was more. I was very much a ‘child of the sixties.’ Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the student revolution dramatically affected how I viewed the world. Being a student at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement of 1964 provided me with a front-row, head-bashing opportunity for involvement in these issues. Looking back, I can see how the Berkeley experience, my wandering genes, and the influence of family, friends and teachers encouraged me to sign on the dotted line.

John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as one of his first acts as President of the United States. His reasons were both idealistic and pragmatic. Yes, he wanted to help third-world countries combat the terrible poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and conflict they faced, but he was also interested in winning hearts and minds for the West. Kennedy, like most other leaders of his generation, believed that we were in the midst of a worldwide conflict between capitalism and communism, democracy and totalitarianism, Christianity and Atheism. The Cold War was raging, and much of this war was being fought in third-world countries.

Today, after 60 years of existence, the agency reports that over a quarter of a million Americans have served in 142 countries worldwide with the mission “of developing partnerships with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” I would add developing cross-cultural understanding and friendship. Of equal importance to whatever they accomplished overseas, the volunteers have brought home to America the skills and commitment that they developed through their Peace Corps experience. 

My assignment was to serve as a teacher in Liberia, West Africa.  The country has a unique history dating back to the early 19th Century when freed slaves from America were shipped back to Africa. Within 30 years, the freed slaves, or Americo-Liberians as they came to be known, had established themselves as the rulers of Africa’s first black republic. When I arrived in 1965, their descendants still controlled the political, military, justice, education and economic systems of Liberia— almost everything. William Shadrach Tubman, president of the country since 1944, had invited Peace Corps into Liberia to help the tribal Liberians prepare for a larger role in the nation’s future. Not all Americo-Liberians agreed with this goal, as I would learn. 

The Bush Devil Ate Sam includes a number of stories about the adventures that I, along my first wife, Jo Ann, had in Africa, but it also contains background information on my decision to join the Peace Corps, and some thoughts on the tragic history of Liberia since the 60s. I will conclude with a look at the Peace Corps experience in Liberia today.

So please join me as I leave the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia. You will meet fascinating characters like Crazy Flumo, learn valuable new skills such as how to fight off an invasion of army ants, meet a judge who determines guilt with a red-hot machete, and discover why the government determined a second-grade reader I wrote and a student government I formed were threats to the power of Liberia’s one-party state. And that’s only the beginning…

But now, it is time to jump into the book and determine what role DNA played in leading me to leave a small, rural town in Northern California for the far-off jungles of West Africa.