We built a bonfire on the Diag at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1968) and hundreds of us –anarchists and street people, radicals and rockers –stayed up singing and talking. Ron St. Ron appeared in a cloud of smoke and passed around joints the size of Havana cigars. Ron St. Ron wasn’t his real name, of course, but like a lot of young people, including his roommate, Roger Vanilla, he was in transition, and for him the process of reinvention included a rechristening. He’d gone from Ron Sinclair to Ron St. Claire, and now this.
First, he said, I feel like saying my name twice, Ron, Ron, and second, I like the sound of it –Ron St. Ron. It reminds me of Bond, James Bond./ He paused, took a deep toke, and spoke the rest rapidly in a thin voice at the top of his breath: Plus I want to be a saint someday but I don’t want to wait till I’m dead because there might not be any fucking allowed after you’re dead – who knows? – and not only do I like fucking but I think many, many girls might like the idea of fucking a saint. He exhaled loudly, took another hit and smiled sweetly, his expansive face the color of a delicious apple.
Ron was our local dealer and he did have many saintly qualities. He was exclusively a marijuana man, herb of the gods he believed. Whenever he came by to deliver the goods – a dime bag, perhaps, fished from his fragrant backpack – he insisted on giving a free sample to whoever happened to be at home at the time. With great ceremony he would clean and sift, measure and roll, and finally light the swollen thing up and smile benevolently, encouraging evaluative comments and positive vibes as it orbited the room. Ron was a generous soul, it’s true – he didn’t mind sharing, and the quality of his dope was always prime. He lasted less than a year as an independent in the business; when the sharks moved in, Ron was pushed roughly aside.
I tell you, man, he’d say in those innocent early days, his watery eyes simmering with evangelical fire, if enough people were smoking dope, everybody’d be in a better mood. The big wars would come to an end automatically then, man, but so would all our little squabbles. He believed it.
Marijuana was available everywhere – every party, every gathering, every meeting. We simply called it dope, because it was the only drug in our world, and while we didn’t think of it as hard or addictive or dangerous, we knew it was illegal and on the edge and that in some other worlds we were considered demonic dope fiends.
Like coffee or a beer, dope was offered as an icebreaker, neighborly gesture, or simply a sign of good manners and proper upbringing. Even the frat parties had dope, but the frat boys were all frivolous and idiotic in our minds now, a bunch of conformist fools going through the motions of hip. Our parties by comparison were completely cool, absolutely righteous. I remember when Studs Terkel’s play Amazing Grace opened in Ann Arbor we hosted a cast party where, along with the beer and the wine and the hips, dope was passing hand to hand. I offered a fat blazing joint to Studs who said he’d never tried it, but what the hell. A cigar smoker, Studs held the thing between his thumb and first finger, took a puff and then blew it out in a big cloud without inhaling. Hey, he said, holding the fat thing aloft and admiring it like a connoisseur. That’s pretty good stuff. Sure –he smiled broadly – I felt something.
Ron St. Ron was a first-order philanthropist in his own mind, an entrepreneurial dharma bum on a spiritual mission of peace and harmony. Just keep passing the weed, man, he’d encourager. Things are definitely looking up. Although the content and contexts variety wildly, Ron had a firm and unshakeable theory towards a better world a’coming, just like Marx and Mom and my English teacher Mr. Friend before him.
The sweet smoke drifted up and mingled with the smell of the bonfire and the embrace of a cool gentle fog, everyone feeling nice and talking low. . .
The State Department sent two young fellows to the teach-in who spoke timidly about the spread of communism and U.S. responsibility to defend the free world against totalitarianism.
If Vietnam falls, said one, all of Indochina will follow in short order.
Yes, the other chimed in, and then Indonesia, the Philippines, and who knows? We’ll be fighting in Hawaii!
They were earnest and perhaps even sincere, but I dismissed them as twerps. I couldn’t wait to hear one of us demolish them.
It’s a point, Stan countered, that runs entirely the other way. The U.S. conquers whatever it likes – Puerto Rico, Haiti, half of Mexico and, yes, Hawaii, too – and that’s the root of the problem.
I felt suddenly transported as I saw this vague and formless thing start to shape up and materialize, and putting one and two together realized with a jolt that I was at that moment standing in the middle of the elusive movement I’d been seeking. I leapt into the discussion, inflamed, hoping to give the moment its due.
What kind of a system is it that allows the U.S. to seize the destinies of the Vietnamese people?
What kind of system is it that disenfranchises Black people in the South, leaves millions upon millions impoverished and excluded all over the country, creates faceless and terrible dehumanizing bureaucracies and puts material values before human values – and still calls itself free and still finds itself fit to police the world?
I don’t remember much of what I said, but the feeling persists. . . and became embodied just a few months later in the Weatherman manifesto.
To all but those who became fully initiated into the sectarian battles of those days, the Weatherman paper is incomprehensible in large parts – a close reading of the lengthy, overwritten, single-spaced piece, it was said, could drive you blind or leave you gasping for air. But the thesis was simple: the world was on fire; masses of people throughout Africa and Asia and Latin America were standing up everywhere to demand independence and democracy and national liberation, leading a struggle that could transform the world into a more just, a more peaceful place; the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle had a counterpart inside the borders of the U.S. – the Black liberation movement; and the responsibility of mother country radicals here in the heartland of imperialism was to aid and abet the world struggle. That was our line.
I woke up one day – hatched out of the hard, white protective shell of my privileged prep school upbringing – to a world in flames. Mass demonstrations in the South, revolution in Latin America, upheaval across Asia, liberation in Africa, roiling tension in our cities, nuclear annihilation, and mass murder hanging precariously over our heads. A world of trouble, a world in motion, a going world hurling towards some distant destination I could not make out. Damaged and self-destructive, but alive with human possibility, filled with energy and contradiction, fantastic an fatal choices to make – my world. I threw my lot in with the rebels and the resistors, the anti-mob, the agnostics and the skeptics. The real damage in the world was not being done by them, but by the docile and obedient, the indifferent or the credulous
The revolution was at hand, the question of power in the air, and, along with the question of power, the question of armed struggle. We wondered how to develop an armed unit, a brigade or a legion of a division, how to build as force of clandestine militants with an advanced fighting capacity. . We wanted to break from the habitual and the mediocre, to step into history as subjects and not objects. We would combat the culture of compromise, rise up and act decisively on what the known demanded – we could think of no basis on which to defend inaction, and so our watchword was simple: Action! Action! Action!.