Archives for January 2015

John Steinbeck, Charlie Hebdo, and the Prophet Muhammad in a Cab: Poem By Roy Bentley

Image of Brooklyn welcome sign traveling from New Jersey

Brooklyn Cab Ride

Did the Turk wearing Levis and a Knicks hoodie
think he needed to proclaim he was a secular Muslim
after the religiously motivated murders of the cartoonists
at Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Did he imagine his applause
for freedom of speech was anything but its own gratuity?
The driver could have been John Steinbeck’s doppelganger.
Hair and face and age were that close. John Steinbeck who
died in New York in ’68 with a fat FBI file for speaking out,
for believing that what we write and say matters. That day,
January in the streets like any lucky stiff from New Jersey,
the Turk in an NBA hoodie said the Prophet Muhammad
was a camel driver who married once when the world
has a polygamous heart. Was that blasphemy or was
the driver’s impertinence the sort of thing that a man
of a certain age will say to feel good about himself?
He wasn’t saying there isn’t a God. He was saying
that being alive and American isn’t easy. Idling
on Smith and Pacific, maybe The One God
was in the rippling reverberations before we
said what we said over the blare of car horns.

Three Lyric Poems by Jane Ann Devol Fuller

Image of three chickadees


One of them is dead beneath the window.
The others, blind to him, flit to seed,
their cumulative weight making the feeder swing
as the light shifts to contain it.

The bird has been there for days
as if paralyzed mid-state,
too cold for odor or parasites.

I think it’s a chickadee. That black mask muffled
by the other black mask. The eyes half-slits,
the head turned the other way.
We try to identify it from inside the house.

On its back, it’s body gray and downy,
the beak stays ajar like the blade of a scissor
I might take from my drawer. A smudge of red
makes us curious whether blood made it so, the dog
scratching to go out.

I will wait until she sleeps on the rug.
I will probably not look long
at the small body, beautiful still.

The tail-feathers will make an easy
handle for hitching into the woods.

At the Feeder, Early November

At first it seems a mostly social situation,
the nuthatch clowning around upside down
on the post, a tufted titmouse
pretending to be somebody else,
looking, through the glass, like a mute cardinal
in that gray get up.

Hulls they litter to the breeze interminably,
I sweep. So I feed them

bacon, raw, on a cracked “bird
of paradise” plate, its blue
positioned so the wings are circling
something else.
Breakfast after twelve. They are about as interested
as their painted mates and prove it
in perfect proportion to their plan:
if they feed us, we will come. We watch them as if
they were a religion we’ve invented.

Tomorrow’s another day:

nothing to wake to but morning’s dull-gray light;
hickories hold their own in thirty-mile-per-hour gusts.

The birds have disappeared.
For the hell of it I keep watch, remembering.
Some days we did not need to eat,
some days it was all we could do to be nowhere

among the soldiering trees.

How To Understand Desire for An Elsewhere

On the road between my house and yours
a woman walks her lot: children,
two on scooters, one on foot,
and their dog, a big male Airedale.

Who knows where her husband is, probably inside
watching other men beat around a ball,
driving one toward a hoop, or hitting one the size of a testicle
into a small, perfect hole.

I’m no better, watching from the window,
imagining you not watching anything,
nor walking, just floating around like an idea
of somewhere else.

I’m pretty certain elsewhere is measured by the sanity of men
we would not recognize,
alone in their madrigal summers.

Nightfall works this cobalt blue to a Parrish painting I inhabit
and I watch me watch myself cry.

And you, you might

in your willingness to surrender your life
appreciate me grieving now that I have listened.

Now that I know it’s not love you were after.
But order. Something manageable.
Something of another world.

Time for Change! Russell Brand and Naomi Klein Channel John Steinbeck

Image of Russell Brand and Naomi Klein

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media contemporary counter-cultural critics like Russell Brand and Naomi Klein employ to communicate the human cost of mounting income inequality, predatory capitalism, and pending climate crisis—YouTube, podcasts, personal websites—John Steinbeck would likely agree with their call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species. I encourage you to read Russell’s Brand’s Revolution and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, both published in 2014, if like me, The Grapes of Wrath captivated your imagination and outraged your sense of justice.

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media employed, John Steinbeck would likely agree with the call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species.

Not long after meeting Joseph Campbell—quoted by Brand and Klein in their writing about human belief and behavior—Steinbeck encountered first hand the evidence of destructive income inequality and environmental degradation in the Midwestern Dust Bowl and California labor camps of the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time. Russell Brand and Naomi Klein project Steinbeck’s local vision on a global screen, exposing the noxious roots of global income inequality, climate change, and predatory capitalism—problems that are worse today than when John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time.

Image of the late Joseph Campbell on PBSAs I read Russell Brand and Naomi Klein, it occurred to me that they were really channeling John Steinbeck, even when quoting Joseph Campbell or James Lovelock, the British biologist whose 1960s Gaia theory (Earth as a single organism comprised of interconnected systems) reflects advanced thinking about ecology expressed by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in Sea of Cortez. For that matter, Tortilla Flat presages the small-group collectivism espoused by Russell Brand in Revolution, and Travels with Charley suggests the same connections between consumerism, conflict, and unhappiness drawn by Brand and Naomi Klein in their books. Events have caught up with John Steinbeck’s prophecy; as I write, his beloved city of Paris remains on security alert following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Agence France-Presse reports that the richest one percent of the world’s population will own half of the world’s wealth by next year. Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Image of John Steinbeck at work

Russell Brand’s Revolution—Change You Can’t Believe In?

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40—the age the hyperkinetic actor, radio host, and comedian will reach in June—and you’ll likely learn about Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, youth-market movies in which Brand played offbeat characters. I’ll show my own age and admit I didn’t know who Russell Brand was until he was called out by Bill Maher (on Real Time with Bill Maher, soon after the 2014 election) for asserting in Revolution that voting is pointless because all political parties have the same agenda: getting and keeping power and protecting moneyed interests. But watching Maher, I recognized Brand’s face from St. Trinian’s, an offbeat British comedy about an anarchic private girl’s school that I enjoyed. In the movie, Brand plays a hyperbolic drug dealer, Colin Firth is a clueless Tory Minister of Education, and Rupert Everett portrays a playboy dad and—in dreadful drag—the school’s pot-smoking headmistress, who is Firth’s love interest as well. Naturally, I bought Brand’s book.

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40 and you’ll likely learn about ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ and ‘Get Him to the Greek,’ youth-market movies in which Brand plays offbeat characters.

When I learned more about Russell Brand, his role in St. Trinian’s made sense. Turns out he’s an up-from-poverty populist with an ability to talk fast, a history of alcohol and drug abuse, and a slight criminal record—sort of an updated character from Tortilla Flat, but with an East London accent. As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in Revolution. As a speaker and writer he manages, like John Steinbeck, to mix high-level messaging with low-level language, similar to the chatty social outcasts who populate Cannery Row. Also like Steinbeck, Brand attributes greed and consumerism to spiritual causes embedded in the human condition. This is where John Steinbeck’s friend Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist of myth-making, comes in handy for Brand, a recovering alcoholic whose 12-step program for curing income inequality (Chapter One: “Heroes’ Journey”) rests on spiritual insights found in the world’s great religions and literature. William Blake, whose visionary poetry particularly appealed to John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, is mentioned frequently in the same vein.

As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in ‘Revolution.’

I marked my copy of Revolution as I read along because so much that Russell Brand says is, like his movie roles, so entertaining. And while he’s perfectly aware of the paradox that he’s trashing capitalism in a product published by an affiliate of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, it wouldn’t be fair to discourage other buyers by over-quoting from the book. (Also, as Brand might observe, there’s them corporate lawyers, so look out.) Brand’s serio-comic perceptions are memorable because they mix things up, Tortilla Flat-like. Here are a few examples, chosen because they connected with John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, Blake, or my funny bone:

“We are living in a zoo, or more accurately a farm, our collective consciousness, our individual consciousness, has been hijacked by a power structure that needs us to remain atomized and disconnected.”

“Campbell said, ‘All religions are true in that the metaphor is true.’ I think this means that religions are meant to be literary maps, not literal doctrines, a signpost to the unknowable, a hymn to the inconceivable.”

“At some point in the past, the mind has taken on the duty of trying to solve every single problem you are having, have had, or might have in the future, which makes it a frenetic and restless device.”

“The alarm bells of fear and desire are everywhere; these powerful primal tools, designed to aid survival in a world unrecognizable to modern civilized humans, are relentlessly jangled.”

“At some Anglican sermon in Surrey, the ‘file-down-the-aisle, handshake-and-smile’ ending is the energetic climax of proceedings. After a polite rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ (in which Blake was apparently being sarcastic) or ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ (which Stewart Lee breaks down beautifully), there isn’t a moment of postcoital awkwardness where everyone thinks, ‘F*** me, we really let ourselves go here.’”

And that’s only from the first five chapters. There are 33 in all, and there are no asterisks in any of them, suggesting a P-13 rating if the book were a motion picture. In a hostile review, The Guardian newspaper dismissed Revolution as “The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.”  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past “Winner of the Pulitzer prize,” information that Russell Brand would probably identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive. Newspapers were economic enterprises with political agendas in Steinbeck’s view, one based on bitter personal experience, and certain media moguls particularly bothered him. The Grapes of Wrath could be characterized as “the barmy complaining of a Los Gatos liberal” and was called worse in print; Steinbeck went out of his way to disparage (without identifying) the ruthlessly acquisitive California publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of Steinbeck’s day. Brand, like Naomi Klein, calls out Murdoch by name for creating the global media machine that protects the interests of predatory capitalism and right-wing politics everywhere: a Citizen Kane on steroids.

The Guardian newspaper dismissed ‘Revolution’ as ‘The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.’  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past ‘Winner of the Pulitzer prize,’ information that Russell Brand would identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’  and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Third Hit in a Row

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness. He’s hot, hyperactive, and can seem hostile, even with a bath towel draped around his naked neck on his daily YouTube news show, The Trews. Naomi Klein is cool, calm, collected—the daughter of American professionals who left for Canada during the Vietnam War. Brand grew up on the mean streets of East London with a struggling but doting mum and a step-dad. Naomi Klein’s mother is a documentary filmmaker and her father is a physician; both are social activists committed to global causes. In May, Klein will be 45, one month before Russell Brand turns 40. His previous books were wacky children’s stories; hers—No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)—are already considered classics of contemporary cultural criticism. She writes well and she writes often, for The Nation, Harper’s, and—yes—The Guardian; Russell Brand’s mode is oratory, on stage, on radio, and on YouTube. He’s poetry, she’s prose. Other than not bothering to finish college, neither one remotely resembles John Steinbeck in background or personality. But both share Steinbeck’s anger about income inequality, environmental degradation, and social injustice, writing from rage without being inhibited by academic or institutional affiliations.

‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’  got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness.

After viewing Russell Brand’s daily Trews segment this morning—a denunciation of military-industrial profiteering and health-service cost-cutting in Great Britain—I dialed back to his October 15, 2014 podcast with Naomi Klein about her then-new book. Her clear, controlled answers to his exuberant questions were just like her writing: comprehensive, linear, and built on solid research, including copious sources, vigorous narrative, and clusters of checkable statistics. The New York Times praised This Changes Everything as “a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.” The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books. No Logo (“No Space, No Choice, No Jobs”) explores corporate branding from various vantage points—economic, psychological, sociological, political—and turns up a goldmine. The Shock Doctrine connects the dots between Cold War American interventionism, both covert and undeclared (as in Chile under Pinochet), George Bush’s Halliburton-helping invasion of Iraq, and post-Katrina profiteering by firms like Blackwater. Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. shock-doctrine foreign policy, and Milton Friedman, the father of free-market economic ideology, receive the close attention the human damage they caused deserves.

The New York Times praised ‘This Changes Everything’ as ‘a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.’ The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books.

John Steinbeck’s public support for American intervention in Vietnam—pre-Friedman and pre-Kissinger—continues to trouble the author’s admirers. Based on private correspondence, however, there’s little doubt that Steinbeck had his doubts about the war’s wisdom or justification, or that he might eventually have come around to Naomi Klein’s parents’ point of view. He was no friend of torture, assassination, or reactionaries, either; we can be confident that Klein’s compelling critique of Margaret Thatcher’s England, George W. Bush’s America, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia would resonate with him if he were alive. As Russell Brand would say, laissez-faire only sounds like a laid-back street party; it’s actually quite dangerous. As political and economic doctrine, it encourages corporate cronyism, induced-disaster opportunism, and national-security statism on an Orwellian scale. Brand and Klein remind us that the unfortunate evidence can be found on the ledgers of both political parties in the U.S., on both sides of the aisle at Westminster, and in both major post-Communist nations, Russia and China.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine

Perhaps Russell Brand is right, then: why bother to vote if the outcome will always be the same? As Klein notes, even conservatives make concessions to personal freedom (gay marriage, for example) to keep the public’s nose out of Wall Street’s business, which is avoiding regulation, breaking rules, and increasing income inequality. I know, this part’s a bit confusing, because laissez-faire economics is called neo-liberalism in Europe, rendering the term useless in discussing the economic implications of American politics. (Milton Friedman, the right wing’s Karl Marx, was a neo-liberal. Go figure.) John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life—Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy—and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today. I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would argue with Russell Brand about not voting, but I’m equally certain he would agree with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine, where he wrote some of his most interesting travel commentary before the Six-Day War that changed the political landscape of the Middle East, it would appear permanently.

John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life, and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today.

Image of James Lovelock on earthIn a sense, This Changes Everything is a continuation of the cultural narrative begun in The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, Naomi Klein’s books can be read (and I recommend this) as a single meta-story, not unlike the alternating narrative and intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. The social and environmental consequences of laissez-faire economics—perpetual armed conflict, growing income inequality, cataclysmic climate change—all flow from a singe source in both interpretations of current events: the enshrinement of personal greed as a political philosophy, employing all of the tools that government, media, and private wealth possess to reshape collective consciousness and reify the status quo. James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory that I first heard about in college biology, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Sea of Cortez, and later Cannery Row, war and drought and despair seemed liked passing phases, misfortunes to be confronted and endured and survived. Now, three-quarters of a century later, are we still that sanguine about the future? As Naomi Klein demonstrates in This Changes Everything, the global climate clock is ticking, and the accumulated power of the international petroleum industry prevents the reformation of human belief and behavior required to slow it down. I’m glad she picked Bill Gates and Virgin’s Richard Branson for special scorn in her book. As she shows, each is a wolf in liberal’s clothing when it comes to meaningful action in the current crisis: the billionaires won’t save us when the oceans rise, she proves that for sure. If not reform—as John Steinbeck warned us in The Grapes of Wrath, then what? Revolution?

Street Symbolism in Salinas, California: Episcopal Church Headquarters Move into John Steinbeck’s Neighborhood

Image of the B.V. Sargent House in Salinas, California

John Steinbeck’s childhood church’s headquarters and his boyhood home in Salinas, California are now neighbors. Earlier this month the Diocese of El Camino Real, the administrative division of the Episcopal Church that includes Salinas and Monterey, moved its headquarters from a modern office building near Monterey to the B.V. Sargent House, built in 1896 and located at 154 Central Avenue, only three blocks from the 1897 home where John Steinbeck was baptized in 1905. Since 1974 the John Steinbeck House at 132 Central Avenue has been operated as a restaurant and history-minded visitor destination by the Valley Guild, a non-profit group. Before its purchase by the regional Episcopal Church, the more opulent Sargent House was the address of a local law firm, although its distinctive stained-glass windows and John-Steinbeck-played-here past are among its memorable characteristics. John Steinbeck’s corner home was constructed in the Queen Anne Victorian style popular in architectural pattern books of the time. The imaginative architect William Weeks chose the less traditional Modified Colonial style when he designed the Sargent House, originally occupying an entire block, for its prominent owner. John Steinbeck’s father Ernst was the treasurer of Monterey County. Bradley Sargent Sr. was a county supervisor and state senator. His son Bradley Sargent Jr. became Monterey County’s district attorney and a superior court judge.

John Steinbeck’s father Ernst was the treasurer of Monterey County. Bradley Sargent Sr. was a county supervisor and state senator.

Image of the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, Episcopal Church bishopThe Diocese of El Camino Real serves Episcopal churches throughout Steinbeck Country, from Silicon Valley to the San Luis Obispo area. Commenting on the symbolism of the move to Salinas, the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, the vibrant bishop who speaks fluent Spanish, explained: “We needed a site that was centrally located within our diocese, but we also wanted to make a statement in the City of Salinas by our presence. Buildings do speak in a community. We are in the midst of not only government and commercial buildings, but we as a church will be in the midst of the struggles of real life. Sargent House is one of the grand old homes of Salinas and it stands beautifully in the diocese, a witness to our commitment and ministry.” Whether divinely ordained or simple coincidence, however, the sudden proximity of the not-for-profit entities now housed in the pair of historic properties in the heart of  Steinbeck’s hometown has special meaning for Steinbeck lovers everywhere.

‘Sargent House is one of the grand old homes of Salinas and it stands beautifully in the diocese, a witness to our commitment and ministry.’

Image of the John Steinbeck House in Salinas, CaliforniaWhen John Steinbeck was confirmed by a visiting bishop from Nevada at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church one hundred years ago, Salinas, California was a small town of 2,500, mostly white citizens, and the Episcopal church was a social center for prominent families like the Steinbecks. Today the city’s population of 150,000-plus is largely Hispanic, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church celebrates services in both English and in Spanish. The old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church building that John Steinbeck knew as a boy is gone, and the ultra-modern National Steinbeck Center—located within walking distance of the Steinbeck and Sargent Houses—may become the property of California State University Monterey Bay in a deal negotiated with Salinas, California taxing authorities. Like the Episcopal Church in the United States, the City of Salinas, California struggles with questions of economics, identity, and inclusiveness posed by John Steinbeck in his writing. During his lifetime he said he didn’t want anything fancy named for him by his hometown. But it’s likely he’d be pleased with hopeful signs of progress in Salinas—and that he’d welcome Central California’s Episcopal Church headquarters to the neighborhood where he played while growing up there.

Short Story by Roy Bentley: “The War of Northern Aggression”

Image of Civil War-era fence in Eastern Kentucky

It had rained. The hillside was a black enormity both sides of the road as if the world had lost its color or dissolving objects had become apparitions and blurred into one another.

We had never been close, my brother and me, standing apart even in family photographs, but he rescued me from prison at the last possible moment by having me committed. What had I done? The misdemeanor offense of aiming and firing at a man. All right, I ran a man who shall remain nameless up a telephone pole with a .45 that I carried in my pocketbook—there were black bears in that part of the state and randy bootleggers loose in the night. I might have felt kindly toward TW, but I was thinking of Daddy and his locking me in a closet for three days.

It was one of those damp days in fall, everything a shade of gray. I was on leave from Eastern State Hospital, known as Kentucky Asylum for the Insane before 1913. My brother TW thought I should be at the funeral of our father, Quentin Wolff, who had burned to death in a field fire. TW had signed me out on furlough and was driving me to Neon from Lexington in a 1930 Model A Ford I recognized as one Daddy gave me to use for my eggs and butter route.

Shock treatments my brother signed off on at Eastern left me seething. And “seething” is putting it mildly. If I had tried to kill someone who got me in the family way and then wouldn’t leave his wife and children—if I had emptied an entire clip of store-bought ammunition at Nameless as he scurried up a phone pole, what might TW and the rest of eastern Kentucky imagine I would want to do next? TW seemed wary. He kept looking over in my direction. He acted like he had something he wanted to say. He looked changed from the last time I’d seen him: a fletching of gray at the temples, lace-like lines around the eyes. He always wore a kind of uniform: white shirt, suspenders, wingtip shoes, a suit jacket. His feelings for Daddy were what I’d call a grieving love. 1940 could have been a tough year for him already for all I knew.

My brother said, You look nice in that dress. Gray suits you.
I don’t want to talk, I said. I’m not mad. I just don’t want to talk.
TW looked over at me then back down the road. His expression hadn’t changed.
That’s all right, he said. Save me having to talk about the weather.

When I was growing up, my folks would talk about the hostilities that tore Kentucky apart in the Civil War. My granny taught me the phrase The War of Northern Aggression. I’ve heard the North wasn’t the aggressor and that the South was defending its right to own and trade slaves. This was like that, a white lie. TW saying I looked nice. What you hear in place of something it was understood you had spared the hearer. I’d been cooped up for three years in an institution whose saving grace was that it wasn’t Kentucky State Women’s Prison.

I wanted to believe the shock treatments were necessary. If I closed my eyes I could see attendants standing over me before the air turned gold then blue-black and I went unconscious and woke to see the matron in charge—Hazel Lynch—with her black hair pulled back tight. I’d see her giving orders with the carriage of one used to taking charge of others. I’d see an orderly wiping up something. Riding in a car that had been mine, I had to tamp down my rage. Nothing about what had happened was fair, but where in the black and white world was there a house where what happened was fair? I was helpless in the face of the consequences of my one very-visible act of aggression against the world of men. I was never demure, never girly, but I was learning what it takes not to call attention to oneself. I held my hands folded in my lap.

If you were to look at old photographs of my brother Thomas William Wolff at medical school in Lexington: Errol Flynn. All movie stars look crazy, but especially Flynn. Others whispered TW had the world by the tail, but I saw the fear. His pencil-thin moustache was part of a mask. I knew he was terrified he might crack up or become a man who buries money in a Maxwell House coffee can in the backyard then forgets where he buried it—like Daddy.

Before my commitment I prided myself on dressing in store-bought clothing and a few fine accessories that won me notice if not compliments. I had been the captain of my own ship—a canary-in-the-coal-mine Model A—and I had seen what dressing well could lead to. I had money and a smile on my face. I was someone others said hello to. I wasn’t someone about to crack up and need to be put away. That is, until ol’ Nameless Married Someone noticed me.

I delivered eggs and milk and butter then. His neighbor Joe Samuelson was on my route. The first time our eyes met—on the stoop at the Samuelson place—Nameless looked at me like he couldn’t face a day without me in it. I was important to someone. Which was what I’d heard I was on the earth for. I’d been married. I knew. That didn’t mean he didn’t take advantage of me. He did. Three times he caught me alone and tried to force me, three times I said no. The fourth time he cornered me. It was night. We were outside. Stars wheeled overhead, the spaces between stars a sullen web. What was happening—it was like the color was being drained from the world.

A few months after, Daddy locked me in a closet. He had gone into Neon and someone had asked him if I had taken up with a married man and “gotten in trouble.” It was the first Daddy had heard of me and Nameless. Maybe the first time he had thought of me as having sex and being someone men might want to have sex with. I’d been married, had two children, but this was something else. I was under his roof. He was responsible for me.

The closet might have been all right, bearable, but after I went to the toilet in the slop jar he had allowed me, I started vomiting. That made it, that confined space, take on a woozy stench.

I didn’t eat for three lost days. When he finally threw open the door, Daddy didn’t say anything. Didn’t apologize. I went and drew water. Boiled it. I bathed. Dressed in other clothes. I had found flour to make biscuits and was in the middle of rolling the biscuits when Daddy came in. I had looked down at dough I was rolling and so didn’t see him raise his hand.

He hit me with his fist. I know I lost consciousness because, when I woke, I was lying on a bed of feed sacks on the porch where I’d been dragged and left.

I made up my mind that someone was going to pay. If not Daddy, someone.

When I fired the pistol at Nameless, I was smelling that foul closet and seeing the last pieces of the light become an inverted delta and disappear in that space as the door closed.

TW didn’t smoke or chew, didn’t swear unless it was something he did out of everyone’s hearing, so he would have been designated a moderate man. A man who other men knew could be trusted with their secrets or their money. But I knew TW had a couple of women up in the hollows. You wouldn’t have known it to look at him, but he was something of a ladies man.

As he drove, and the black-tree-miles passed by on either side of the Model A, I thought of one mountain woman named Beth Stallard. Beth was a quilter renowned in the mountains for her skill. The rose pattern in the quilt on floor of the front seat was likely hers. The fact that it rested where it did wasn’t an indication of anything, but I thought it signaled some fondness. The quilt—like Beth—referenced the mysteries of a man who stood apart from others in and around this part of Letcher County. There was a flame juggler prancing on the roof of a house. A Stars & Bars and a crucified Jesus. I reached to the floor for the quilt.

You cold? TW asked.

He looked back at the road as I unfolded the keepsake quilt. It presented as a rising sun on a field of patchwork clouds. It had a star-strewn, black square in the foreground that reminded me of Hazel Lynch’s hair and of the trees at the side of the road. Black was, I thought, an odd color to plant front and center like that. Morbid, to some eyes. Tacked to the sky in another square was a rainbow above a Christ-on-the-cross. Ravens crossed the respective squares, streaming into the assumed air like black water. I smoothed the quilt across my lap then sat and rubbed the place between my thumb and forefinger on my left hand and rocked.

Sometimes I think too much, I said.
I don’t think enough, he said. I know.
I’m glad you’re here.

He started to say something else. Thought better of it. Sighed.We drove on. I counted the embroidered ravens on the quilt as I rubbed my hand.

It was the third year of my hospitalization. I had been married and divorced. My three children had been taken from me. I was a stranger to them now. If I wasn’t a conversational companion, I thought I’d earned some understanding. I knew my anger was a cloud between us.

And the way TW strained to see landmarks ahead, it had nothing to do with landmarks.

He opened the ashtray. Took out a pack of Camels. Tapped one into his mouth and lit it. In a moment he cranked his window down.

I can stop at a diner I know up ahead, he said. If you want.

I knew he wouldn’t offer me a cigarette since he likely recalled I didn’t smoke. Smoking was not among my vices, not yet, but I liked the smell. I liked that it reminded me that the air around some men is poisonous. There were few other cars traveling the road my brother and I had been on now for a little while. It might be nice to have a slice of pie. Apple. Maybe a dollop of vanilla ice cream. I told him to stop. Which seemed to please him. He flipped the lit cigarette out the window, blew the smoke out the opening, then cranked the window back up. I had the quilt across my lap, but I said what I said not caring whether I might be thought odd or crazy.

TW had my future in his hands. A furlough was what he called this leave from treatment.

He would decide how long I had on the outside of Eastern’s red colonial walls.

Leave the window down, I said. I might like some air.

After the diner, we drove. The air brightened. The trees changed colors. Black became forest green. Shadows flew. Maybe I did need a slice of Bluegrass State apple pie a la mode.

I didn’t remember the trip to Lexington taking this long, but I’d been in handcuffs and in a different car, a sedan, and a state of mind that doesn’t allow for close observation of distances and time. Ravens like those on the quilt had been in the impossibly blue sky as I stared out the window of a sheriff’s car. I remembered wings. Blue-black wings. Snow either side of the road. The smell of men in the front seat smoking cigarettes. That day, I remembered looking down at myself at some point during the ride and noticing that my skirt had ridden up and no one had smoothed it down. This was a different day. The birds in the air weren’t circling or sending messages to one another in some language known only to birds. This was the day that the crazy woman in the yellow Model A had lost her father. Today I could watch and listen to the birds without worry that they were betraying secrets. I could smooth down my own skirt. I could ask for, and be handed, a wedge of warm pie with a mini-mountain of vanilla ice cream on top.

*       *       *
I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep. TW was smoking a cigarette. Driving. He looked in my direction then back out the windshield and down the road.

You been asleep about an hour, he said.
How much farther?
Not far.

I fell back asleep and dreamed of Eastern State. Its orchards and ornamental trees. The trees became attendants grabbing hold of me to drag me to a room for another session with the electric-shock machine. This time, in the dream, someone was saying According to E.A. Bennett 90% of cases of severe depression which are resistant to all treatments will disappear after three or four weeks of ECT. The words of the sentence remained now after the therapy had wiped away my memories, though they came rushing back first as dreams then as nightmares.

When I awoke again, the car was stopped and TW absent from the driver’s seat.

Judging by a winged-horse swinging sign on a post outside, we were at a gas station. I heard a laugh then TW was by the driver’s-side door and then the door opened.

I had to stop, he said. I was running on fumes.

The quilt had slid onto the floor. I picked it up and spread across me once more.

TW said, You like that, don’t you.

There were other cars on the road. One driver honked. Waved at a car driven by someone with flame-red hair. A woman, judging by the lipstick-red smile. The woman waved back.

TW pulled out onto the road again.

We should be there in an hour or so, if I don’t get behind another coal truck.
On Sunday?
TW looked at me. This is Thursday, he said.

I felt myself looking at my brother. I saw him now as something other than the boy-man who came back from medical school with a lightness to his step and a smile and a good word for everyone. His face seemed sadder. The lines had deepened. At the temples his wire-rimmed spectacles had worn a thin line of green in the gray, close-cropped hair. A patina. He had taken off his glasses in the diner and I had noticed it then, but now I could plainly see green against the gray. Like one of the doctors at Eastern named Gragg who coughed between endless cigarettes.

TW began speaking. He said, We can drive straight to the funeral home. Or we can just go the house—the new brick house. You haven’t seen my house, have you? Let’s do that.

I didn’t know how to answer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be made to see Daddy. Especially since he’d died by fire. I imagined his body—seeing it—might cause me to get upset. It didn’t occur to me to consider that the casket might be closed.

I said, I would like to see my boy.
Is that what you want? I’m happy to do that. Molly is waiting to feed us—she may have it ready and on the table. You like ham, right?

The child in question was my bastard by Nameless. I had named him Charlie: Charles Leroy Wolff. TW had been “seeing after him”—his phrase those times he’d visited me in the years I’d been away. I wanted to try and add up the number of visits, but I couldn’t. Often when he had come, I’d been in restraints for an outburst or rule infraction and was so mad I forgot who was and wasn’t in the room. If I had to guess, I’d say he came to Eastern State Hospital twice a year: Christmas and Easter. Always with something for me to sign. And always after the holiday.

On one such visit TW asked me to sign over—deed—to him my portion and share of the bottomland-homestead forefathers had claimed when they came into the Big Sandy River Valley area with Daniel Boone before 1800. My arms had to be released from a strait jacket then massaged for me to be able to write. My brother waved to the attendants to make that happen.

He said he would bank my share. I would have what I needed out of the interest.

He’d manage the principal. Invest it.

I wasn’t sure TW had heard me. I was used to what I said being ignored or dismissed as the ravings of a mad woman. I said it again.

You can do that. And you will. But you have to behave.

We were turning onto the two-lane that I recognized as leading into Neon. There was the Ford dealership, a drugstore-soda fountain, the Bank of Neon, and The Neon, the town’s one theater. The marquee at The Neon advertised The Wizard of Oz. I had heard attendants talking about it. Someone said it was in color—of all things! They said it was a children’s movie.

I said, I’d like to take Charlie to The Neon. See that new movie.

His eyes turned from the road. We’ll see, he said.

The car was warm. I kicked off the quilt then thought better of that and scooped it up and folded it. I tucked the quilt into the place where I’d found it. The flame juggler stared out from the fold. The act of caring for the quilt seemed to meet with some approval on my brother’s part. He pulled the car up a brick drive to a level spot. Parked. I’ll get your suitcase, he said.

Should I bring the quilt inside, I asked, knowing who had made it.
No was all he said.

The house smelled of bread and something else. Maybe—pecan pie.

TW’s wife Molly greeted me with a hug and kind words. After my time in Eastern, I recognized kindness. If it had a color, I thought of kindness as blue. It was a Kentucky sky. Not the pewter skies above the snaking two-lanes. Not the salt-colored smoke TW blew out the window of a yellow Ford. Not the sentinel gray-then-black-then-gray confederacy of trees on the grounds of Eastern lining both sides of a winding path referred to as the Main Building.

I was glad for her presence. TW kissed her and glided past and up a set of stairs.

Molly ushered me into the parlor. A picture of my parents stared down from a wall like the eyes of Janus. My mother’s dour face and pulled-back-into-a-bun black hair answered the mystery of why I had seen Hazel Lynch as a familiar evil. Mother’s pearls rested against a dress the front of which was a blaze of roses retouched in by some photographer-artist. Daddy’s look was one of brokenheartedness that no amount of retouching could lessen or translate or soften.

Not a hint of blue anywhere in the photograph. Background golds raged the way flames will, the way deciduous trees do in fall. The coloration of the faces served up a belligerence I felt hovered over me, awake or sleeping. A wild in the blood that sooner or later consumes us.

I slept in an upstairs bedroom and so had to be called down to breakfast by a loud rapping at the door of the room. It was TW. He was dressed and telling me what sort of Friday I could expect before my feet touched the floor. His day involved arrangements at the funeral home for the burial on Sunday. He said that today I’d be free to visit with Molly.

Calling hours are tonight and tomorrow night, he said and I nodded from the bed.
Molly has your breakfast downstairs, TW concluded and closed the door.

There was a pitcher and bowl on a washstand by the bed, but I knew it wouldn’t be necessary. TW’s house had indoor plumbing. The bathroom was just down the hall. I had discovered this the night before. It was furnished with a claw-foot tub and running water and a flush toilet. I ran a bath with hot water and slipped into it. In a little while, I pulled the plug and watched water spiral down the drain. Then I got out and dried off and wrapped a robe around me.

I went back to the bedroom and dressed in something from my gray suitcase.

My clothes were wrinkled but felt comforting. Familiar.

I made the bed and went downstairs.

Molly was busy in the kitchen. When she saw me, she stopped what she was doing and motioned for me to sit. The kitchenette was a four-person affair with brushed chrome and padded yellow chairs. It looked modern in a way that seemed appropriate for a house belonging to TW Wolff. In a short while we were together at the table, eating eggs and ham and biscuits.

Light from one of four long windows in the room fell on Molly’s hands. Those bright hands made me connect her movements to the idea that she might help me to see the boy.

I began by asking a question about what had happened to Daddy.

Molly said there had been nothing anyone could do. She began the story of the day they had heard the news: a telephone call from the Junction alerted them to the accident. They were calling the fire that, an accident, and it sounded right since the wind isn’t to be dictated to.

Some people have faces that stay with you, hall portrait or no hall portrait, and Molly’s face was one of those. Soft-featured, mature but not old, intelligent green eyes—like the doctor at Eastern who had leaned over me to describe the shock treatments and what I could expect.

The light wasn’t on Molly’s hands or face now. Not in the same way.

I asked my question: Do you think I could go to Merkie’s and see my boy?

I know what it’s like not to be listened to. This wasn’t that. She was listening.

When she spoke, I knew it wasn’t something she had thought would be asked of her.

Molly rose from the table. She began taking plates and glasses, forks and knives and spoons, to the sink by the long windows. I had no choice but to wait. Waiting was something I had learned to do at Eastern. I rubbed my hand and sat.

Why don’t you dry, Abby—I’ll wash. And we’ll talk about it.

I stopped rubbing my hand and got up from the table and began doing as she asked.

I had to guess where each item belonged in the cupboards, but Molly smiled and nodded, or pointed with a soapsuds-white hand, and we got through the task. Afterwards she made a phone call and talked to someone who seemed to make her repeat every other sentence.

I was standing in the hallway by the portrait of Mommy and Daddy and rubbing my hand, though I was standing. I felt my heart sink as she hung up the phone.

It was clear that she had been talking with TW.

I’m to drive you to see your boy Charlie. Your brother will call Merkie and arrange it. He said you’re not to upset him, Abby—your boy Charlie. He said you’d know what that means.

I thanked her. Not upsetting my son meant I’d continue to be Aunt Abigail.

Charlie had gotten so much bigger I almost didn’t recognize him. Merkie—America, my sister—brought him out onto the porch after she had laid down a warning I didn’t need to hear.

He favored our side of the family, the Wolffs, and was tall for four years old.

Merkie had dressed him in his Sunday clothes. He smelled freshly bathed. His brown hair was damp and I smelled soap as he settled himself into the glider between Molly and me.

Auntie, Mommy says I can’t feed the chickens. Can I feed the chicks, Aunt Abby?

Maybe the world is two things at once: a House of Pain and a House of Pleasure, but I figured it would be the odd woman who could hear a son call another woman Mommy and not feel like she’d been ushered into the House of Pain. I let that injured feeling slip from me.

I asked Charlie a question, ignoring the commandment against his feeding the chickens.

You’re dressed up—would you like to go see The Wizard of Oz with your Aunt Abby?

He perked up. Clearly, even at 4, he knew more about the movie than I did.

I had guessed right: Molly’s presence caused older-sister to check herself before she spoke. America looked to Molly. What do you say about that? she asked.

Molly looked at me. Then at Charlie on the glider. She smiled.

I’ll chaperone, she said.

I shouldn’t have been happy, but I was. Daddy was dead and soon to be buried in the Wolff cemetery overlooking the Pure Oil station and the A & P. I was headed back to that hellhole of a sanitarium in a matter of a few too-short days. But to stand in line with Charlie at the Neon and buy tickets—actually, Molly paid: I hadn’t been trusted with money—and then to go inside and buy popcorn and Dixie cups of Co-cola and sit with my son was answered prayer. A blessing. If I had believed in God, which I didn’t, how could I after Eastern, that God would have been a she and would have looked like Molly and spoken in a voice like my sister-in-law’s.

The movie started. Charlie’s eyes were frozen on the screen. I thought my son was awfully well behaved: not once did he ask for other treats or to go to the bathroom. He seemed terrified by the green-faced witch. He looked down and away then back up for reassurance.

Charlie moved his eyes, following the singing silver can that banged on its chest and intimated that all we need to survive is a heart and friends. A smidgen of kindness. Maybe the luck of the innocent. Certainly a lot more luck than Daddy had the day his ran out.

By the time Dorothy Gale got to see the Wizard the second time, with the charred broomstick of the Witch of the West as proof she had accomplished her mission, Charlie Wolff was hooked. A few more shock treatments and I might forget my whole life, but my hope was that he’d keep this somewhere. It might have been a lot to ask, but I didn’t think so just then.

Copyright © 2015 Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.

Hear “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Short Story Narrated: “The War Of Northern Aggression”


Image of Eastern Kentucky State Mental Hospital

Image of Gloria Regalbuto BentleyGloria Regalbuto Bentley narrates “The War of Northern Aggression,” a searing short story set in the Steinbeck-era South, where a female patient on funeral furlough from an Eastern Kentucky mental hospital encounters a brother with secrets, a town without pity, and an illegitimate son torn from her by a world of men-who-hurt-women. John Steinbeck found his female voice in the heroic women of The Grapes of Wrath, characters whose collective strength survives famine, flood, and separation. Roy Bentley’s unforgettable protagonist barely hangs on, exiled and powerless, in a house of pain without company, hope, or exit. Like Steinbeck’s novel, Bentley’s story starts with an act of self-defensive violence provoked by savage male aggressiveness. Unlike Tom Joad, who served his time and was welcomed home by family, this transgressor’s sentence becomes a permanent condition through a brother’s complicity—a tragic example of punishing the victim for which Steinbeck would have felt anguished empathy. So will Steinbeck readers like you. Click below to hear Gloria Regalbuto Bentley narrate a stunning new short story, “The War of Northern Aggression.”Ed.

Copyright © 2015 Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.

Read “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Come on Clint, Make My Day: A True Life Story from Monterey, California

It was one of those things easily passed off. It’s something that happened, you found it absurd, then you forgot about it. Years and years later, something occurs and you think of it again, but this time your recollection of the incident verges on the ludicrous.

There he was, his hair dishevelled and silver, his posture less straight, his voice a little weak and somewhat shaky: that tall, tough guy, that icon of yesteryear, holding forth before an audience to whom the American Way and Family Values means everything, speaking to an empty chair. It was at the Convention of the Haves, and Clint Eastwood was enjoying his evening dance with the zillionaires.

That’s not how I remember Clint. My memory of him goes back to a time when he was a television cowboy, an actor with dusty boots and clipped speech. It was a summer night at a pub called the Palace on Monterey’s Cannery Row, and he and a couple of his friends were out on the prowl. Muscles showing, smug in their suntanned hides, if there was anything they disliked it was the sight of a bearded, long-haired hippie, and as the Palace invariably had its fair share of them on any given night, Clint and his pals were drawn there as bees to a flower, cats to catnip, or dogs to a hydrant. It was almost a ritual: when Clint Eastwood wasn’t shooting a film in Los Angeles he’d hightail it home to Monterey to gather together his friends and go to Palace to beat up a few hippies.

I was there on one of those nights, sitting in a far corner drinking my Coors and talking to a couple of friends. Looking beyond our table I saw the door open and in they came, Clint and his two sidekicks. They went to the bar, stood there for several minutes, and then, unprovoked, knocked someone with long hair to the floor. No one had said anything, and no one fought back: after all, this was during the Age of Aquarius, and those experiencing the attack by the Eastwood Gang were mellow yellow flower children.

Tables were being overturned, chairs began to fly. No one was resisting. How could they? A frightened young woman sitting opposite me began shaking violently. “Don’t move and we should be all right,” I said, hoping to calm her, and just as I said that I was being lifted bodily from my chair by that same man I saw on television tonight–ironically, as it turns out—speaking to an empty chair.

“What did you say?” he yelled in my face, clutching me by my shirt with one hand and showing me a large fist with the other.

I repeated my words and he loosened the grip on my shirt, dropping me into my chair. He  turned away to find someone else to terrorize.

We now jump ahead two or three years, and Clint Eastwood is back in town.  But there is no more Palace on Cannery Row. Instead, there is my pub, the Bull’s Eye Tavern in downtown Monterey. All the Palace regulars and more have swarmed to my doors for I offer a great atmosphere and live music and dancing most nights of the week, hard rock sounds and hard rock bands from the area, from San Francisco, and from beyond. Still showing his suntanned beach boy muscles, Clint appears at my door with two or three of his chums. I’m the doorman, standing at the entrance checking IDs and collecting an admission fee for the band. I take one look at Clint and shake my head no. He gives me one of those Dirty Harry looks, and I again shake my head no. Clint  moves near.

“John,” he says in a low voice, putting his face down close so I can hear him above the music of the band, “you’re a writer. I respect that. I would never bust up your place.” I let the gang in and he didn’t, but I spent the rest of the evening keeping a wary eye on him. And all the while thinking about the pub this guy went out of his way to help put out of business.

Listening today to Eastwood’s stumbling right-wing blather, it’s pretty obvious that little has changed. Once a bully always a bully, and if it’s not the Palace, it’s the President of the United States he wants to put out of business.

Unless, of course, he decides to show a little respect for Barack Obama as a writer.

Corporations are People (My Friend): Political Satire about Life in Rush Limbaugh Land

Once upon a time Mr. Exxon-Mobil got a summons from the federal government charging him with wilfully polluting the atmosphere and brazenly poisoning American rivers. It seemed to be an open and shut case as Mr. E-M’s refineries were throwing huge deposits of dirty stuff into the air, and all his chemical waste was flowing from open drains into the nation’s drinking water.

Soon after being charged, Mr. Exxon-Mobil got in touch with his good friend, Mr. Mutual of Omaha, to ask if he’d represent him in court.  “If you help me beat this rap,” he said, “I’ll be at your side when you set out to rid this nation of Obamacare and all the rest.”

Seeing it was in his financial interest to do so, Mr. Mutual of Omaha agreed. Hardly an hour passed, however, before a man named Big Casino called Mr. Exxon-Mobil from Macau, China. “If you can somehow manage to bring Israel into the equation, I’ll be more than happy to contribute twenty or so millions to your defense fund,” he said.  “Much more, if necessary.”

“Would that be Hong Kong Dollars, Chinese Renminbi, or U.S. Dollars?” asked Mr. E-M.

“I can do it in Swiss Francs if you like,” answered Mr. Big Casino. “To get around the matter of taxes, I keep a bunch of my money where my friend Mr. Mittens keeps his.”

A few weeks passed, during which time a multitude of groups formed to funnel money into negative advertising. “The best that money can buy,” Mr. Exxon-Mobil said in private to one of his  very dear friends, Mr. Good-For-What-Ails-You, the man in charge of Faux News. “Spread the word: the government is run by a group of foreign devils conspiring to deprive our citizens of their Constitutional rights.  Spread the word far, and spread it wide.”

It wasn’t long before Mr. National Repeating Rifle decided to get into the fray. “If you help me grease everyone’s palm with a gun, I’ll come aboard and help you fight to keep the government from taking away every child’s binky,” he said.

Mr. Exxon-Mobil had no idea that binkys were under attack, but he cheerfully accepted the offer from Mr. Rifle.  After all, what harm could come from everyone owning a gun?

Others heard about Mr. Exxon-Mobil’s situation through something called the Limburger Grapevine, the 24-hour-a-day messenger service that was famous for putting the words Truth and Reason into the wastepaper basket and the words Lie and Innuendo into everyday use.

As a result, a great many otherwise nameless individuals immediately saw pie in the sky in the great by and by, so they became Limburger disciples. Dressed as teapots, they went forth to see how many people they could scare into parting with their hard-earned sugar. Military generals joined hands with gentlemen of business to pat each other on the back, and soon folks in all parts of the nation were convinced that rather than being a bad man performing dirty deeds, Mr. Exon-Mobil was a good man, a charitable man, the prime example of what a trickle-down person should be.

Quite naturally, Mr. Mittens, a rather woolly-thinking man who thought most highly of himself, concluded that if he played his spotless self right he could become the leader of the entire western world. He could achieve that, he reckoned, by joining up with Mr. Exxon-Mobil, Mr. Big Casino, Mr. Mutual of Omaha, and all the rest. To get Mr. Huge Pharmaceuticals and Mr. Small Business on board, he made vague promises here, there, and everywhere.

“Down With Medicare! Down With Social Security! Down with Medicaid! Down With Women’s Rights! No Abortions, No Food Stamps, No Welfare!” he barked.

He was soon joined by a growing force of nincompoops who misunderstood him. He meant to destroy every social program that had ever been put in place by the Democrats to help American citizens. But they thought Mr. Mittens was saying he’d make life easier for them by giving them high-paying jobs that would make each and every one of them as prosperous as he and his friends were. “And we’d have bank accounts in Bern and Bermuda too,” one was heard to say.

“Oh, goodness gracious, no,” his good friend Mr. Hairy Rawhide chuckled.  “Obviously they are using only 47%  of their intelligence! But it shows our lies are working, so you go for it, Mr. Mittens. Go for it and make their day.”

J. Edgar Hoover and Me: Undercover for the Federal Bureau of Investigation During the Vietnam War

Composite image of Jody Gorran and J. Edgar Hoover

As an ambitious George Washington University student during the Vietnam War, Jody Gorran came to share John Steinbeck’s dim view of J. Edgar Hoover. Becoming an undercover operative for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and posing as a member of Students for a Democratic Society led to a personal crisis of conscience, changing his mind about politics and altering his plans for a government career. An avid Steinbeck reader, he relates his education in the turbulent politics of the Vietnam War era, explaining how he became involved with the FBI and why he risked reprisal by extricating himself from the agency following an accidental George Washington University building takeover that caused injury and led to punishment. His account, published here in his own words with photos he supplied, provides fresh insights into a divisive period in the life of America, John Steinbeck, and a college freshman on the front line of domestic dissent. The parallels with Steinbeck’s life and times are striking, and the lessons Jody learned still apply.—Ed.

Readers familiar with John Steinbeck’s life already know that the federal government snooped on American citizens at home long before 9/11. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a file on Steinbeck as early as 1942, annoying the controversial author and motivating his letter to a highly placed contact in the Roosevelt administration complaining about J. Edgar Hoover. As dramatized in Steinbeck’s published fiction and noted in his private correspondence, city police departments around the country were also poking into people’s lives, even in his hometown of Salinas. Military intelligence agencies had long noses, too—one reason Steinbeck didn’t get the commission he hoped for when the U.S. entered World War II. America’s security-state apparatus expanded exponentially in the cold war that followed , a period of aggressive domestic surveillance justified in the name of anti-Communism. When John Steinbeck died, I was a college freshman. Four months after his death, I got caught in the same net that snagged him three decades earlier. This is the story of my education.

George Washington University: The Place To Be in 1968

As an 18-year-old student at George Washington University, I wound up playing an unplanned part in the national security excesses of the Vietnam War protest era. American campuses became covert battlefields where J. Edgar Hoover’s agency waged undercover war on dissidents, often in complicity with local police. Like Steinbeck, my parents had been young adults during the Great Depression and trusted government, encouraging me to focus on academics so I could get well-paying federal job with a pension. As I considered various colleges, I thought majoring in political science made sense for someone, like me, contemplating a foreign service career with the State Department. At the time, Washington, D.C., seemed like the best place to be for my particular goal. What happened after I enrolled at George Washington University changed my politics and my career plans.

What happened after I enrolled at George Washington University changed my politics and my career plans.

Before registering for the fall 1968 term, I spent the summer working as a Fuller Brush Man in my hometown of Highland Park, New Jersey. Unlike Steinbeck, I enjoyed door-to-door sales, which earned me money and got my entrepreneurial juices flowing. While reading a direct marketing sales magazine one day, I noticed an ad offering distributorships for a new product called the Paralyzer, a pocket-sized tear gas canister designed for personal protection. D.C.—a high-crime city where riots occurred—seemed like a natural market. In my ambitious 18-year-old mind, who better than me to supply the demand for security anyone could carry in a pocket or purse?  I scrapped together the money I needed to secure start-up inventory and started my side business, unaware that I’d set off a chain reaction that would alter the course of my life at and after George Washington Unversity.

Image of the self-defense device that led Jody Gorran to the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Coming-of-Age Politics in the Anti-Vietnam War Era

Despite my ambition, I arrived at George Washington University in the fall of 1968 apathetic about partisan politics, pretty typical for kids with my background. Though a certain percentage chose to attend colleges in the District of Columbia because they were engaged by current events, this was long before the internet, social media, and cable TV brought daily news into every den and dorm room. Even with the Vietnam War raging and John Steinbeck’s unpopular friend Lyndon Johnson on his way out as president, having a student deferment served to insulate most college students from what their government was doing in Southeast Asia—let alone on campus.

Even with the Vietnam War raging and John Steinbeck’s unpopular friend Lyndon Johnson on his way out as president, having a student deferment served to insulate most college students.

But I became curious about what was taking place in the nation’s capital on Election Day that November. The George Washington University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, also known as SDS, had tried to stage a march from the Lincoln Memorial to Lafayette Park across from the White House to protest the election, a close contest between Hubert Humphrey and a man Steinbeck hated—Richard Nixon. Anti-Vietnam War protests had disrupted Humphrey’s nominating convention in Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s police overreacted in force and may have cost his party the election. Tension was high when Election Day protestors at George Washington University were denied a permit to demonstrate by D.C. authorities. They marched anyway until they were forced back onto campus by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Tension was high when Election Day protestors at George Washington University were denied a permit to demonstrate by D.C. authorities.

I was standing on George Washington University’s urban campus, made up of intersecting city streets, when I noticed a crowd of demonstrators headed my way and crossed the street to get a better look—just as the police moved in. Suddenly, a cop ran by swinging a club, hitting me on the back and forcing me to the ground. One of many bystanders who were attacked without warning, I was less than happy about the behavior of the police. When I heard about an SDS meeting being called to discuss what occurred, I was curious to find out what had happened to others and decided to go. I knew next to nothing about Students for a Democratic Society, but I learned soon enough.

I knew next to nothing about Students for a Democratic Society, but I learned soon enough.

Students for a Democratic Society started at the University of Michigan in 1960 with a political manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement, formally adopted at the organization’s first convention in 1962. Drafted by Tom Hayden, a University of California anti-Vietnam War activist, it faulted the political system of the United States for failing to achieve international peace and critiqued Cold War foreign policy, particularly America’s super-sized military arsenal and the very real threat of nuclear war. Vietnam War opposition aside, SDS was pretty close to John Steinbeck’s thinking on domestic issues, including racial discrimination, economic inequality, and the big corporations, big unions, and political parties that benefited most from the accelerating arms race.

Students for a Democratic Society started at the University of Michigan in 1960 with a political manifesto draft by Tom Hayden, a University of California anti-Vietnam War activist.

It has been suggested that Steinbeck sent his sons to fight in the Vietnam War out of loyalty to LBJ, whose First Lady was a childhood friend of Steinbeck’s wife. I don’t know enough to comment. But when Johnson escalated the conflict in February 1965 by bombing North Vietnam and sending American troops to fight the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, SDS chapters on American campuses staged small, localized demonstrations against the Vietnam War, coordinated through the group’s central office in New York, which led in organizing the national anti-Vietnam War march on Washington in April that year. By then there were 52 SDS chapters in the United States, and America’s mainstream media began to pay attention. The youthful New Left—misunderstood and distrusted by most adults of John Steinbeck’s generation—had arrived. The Vietnam War-era draft provided a particularly potent calling card for student recruitment, and college protests spread. Back in Washington the government’s most experienced Communist-hunter, J. Edgar Hoover, was watching. The Federal Bureau of Investigation may have lost interest in John Steinbeck by 1965, but a hot wind was rising on campuses from California to New York, and J. Edgar Hoover knew how to stop a storm.

The youthful New Left—misunderstood and distrusted by most adults of John Steinbeck’s generation—had arrived.

Protests became more and more militant throughout the winter and spring of 1967. Actions aimed at Army recruiters on college campuses accelerated, and demonstrations against Dow Chemical Company—the manufacturer of Napalm—added a combustible element to the anti-Vietnam War mix. New Left Notes, the newspaper of the movement, was creating a sense of coherence and solidarity among local SDS chapters; when Madison riot police injured and arrested students protesting the presence of Dow employee-recruiters at the University of Wisconsin in October, the growing national network was electrified. Four days later, 100,000 people marched on the Pentagon, with hundreds of protestors injured and arrested. Nighttime raids on local draft offices became more common, and a million students boycotted classes on April 26, 1968. The shutdown at Columbia University in New York—known, simply, as the Revolt—received major media attention, and SDS became a household word. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the stage was set for my personal political awakening.

Image of anti-Vietnam War protest at George Washington University

My First Date with the Federal Bureau of Investigation

The day after the November 1968 election, someone I happened to remember seeing at the George Washington University SDS meeting must have recognized me as a guy who had pocket-sized tear gas canisters for sale, because a few weeks later he approached me with an offer. Would I be willing to sell him a large quantity of Paralyzers from my supply?  As a budding businessman, I liked the idea because sales so far had been less than robust.  Because I was now paying attention to political news, I also understood clearly from our conversation that the proposed purchase was directly related to the presidential inauguration—an event I suspect contributed to the death of John Steinbeck, a passionate anti-Nixonite, six weeks after Richard Nixon’s election. In what lawyers like to call an abundance of caution, I declined the deal, a rational decision that failed to save me from J. Edgar Hoover’s unwanted attention. Someone was already watching me.

I also understood clearly from our conversation that the proposed purchase was directly related to the presidential inauguration—an event I suspect contributed to the death of John Steinbeck, a passionate anti-Nixonite.

On the evening of January 8, 1969, there was a knock at my George Washington University dorm room door. The two men standing in the hallway identified themselves as Secret Service agents and said they’d gotten word that I was going to sell my tear gas canisters to demonstrators for non-peaceful use during Nixon’s swearing-in. When I explained that I turned down the guy from the SDS meeting who had approached me, they suggested that they hold on to my inventory for safe keeping until after the inauguration.  Sensing that they didn’t trust me, I agreed—and I was worried. I came to George Washington University because I wanted a government career, and as they talked all I could think about was how I could prove my loyalty and keep the incident from ruining my future. John Steinbeck had goaded J. Edgar Hoover in a well-written letter. I was afraid of the man, so I just improvised. Was there any way I could prove my loyalty, I asked? Maybe, they said. The Secret Service didn’t need campus operatives . . . but the Federal Bureau of Investigation did.

Image of author Gore Vidal, an early critic of Vietnam War domestic surveillance

How J. Edgar Hoover Kept Up with the Joneses at the CIA

So why would the Federal Bureau of Investigation consider someone like me useful? Readers of Brian Kannard’s book Steinbeck: Citizen Spy are aware of the government’s secret surveillance program called COINTELPRO, a clunky acronym for an elusive enterprise created in 1956 to ferret out suspected Communists, including Steinbeck’s friends and (from J. Edgar Hoover’s point of view, no doubt) Steinbeck himself. Though the acronym stands for “Counterintelligence Program,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s targets were not enemy spies but American citizens considered radical and worth eliminating through exposure, harassment, and prosecution for real or imagined political crimes—an FBI version of the kind of covert action for which the CIA, its rival agency, was criticized by writers like Gore Vidal.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s targets were not enemy spies but American citizens considered radical and worth eliminating through exposure, harassment, and prosecution.

Under the new program, Hoover’s headquarters instructed its field offices to propose schemes to “misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” individuals and groups considered dangerous to the status quo. Close coordination with local police and prosecutors was encouraged, but ultimate authority rested with top FBI officials in Washington, who demanded assurance that “there is no possibility of embarrassment to the Bureau.” More than 2,000 individual actions were officially approved. The methods used, uncovered long after the fact, confirm John Steinbeck’s suspicions about J. Edgar Hoover’s dark side:

  1. Agents and undercover informers were to discredit and disrupt, not simply spy on subjects of interest.
  2. Agents and police collaborators were to wage psychological war on approved targets through bogus publications, forged correspondence, and anonymous letters and calls.
  3. Harassment, intimidation and violence, eviction, job-loss, black bag operations and break-ins, vandalism, grand jury subpoenas, false arrests, frame-ups, and physical violence were to be threatened, instigated, or executed to intimidate activists, mislead the public, and disrupt protest plans. When challenged, officials were to deny, conceal, or fabricate legal pretexts for their actions.

Image of redacted page from Jody Gorran's Federal Bureau of Investigation file

J. Edgar Hoover Needs You: You’re in the Agency Now!

Of course I knew none of this at the time. As I pondered my approach to the Federal Bureau of Investigation the day after my visit from the Secret Service, I saw a notice about that evening’s SDS meeting at George Washington University. I attended out of curiosity, my first regular SDS meeting. The guest speaker was a Mr. Al McSurly, who made statements advocating the overthrow of the government of the United States, though not violently. His comments didn’t sit well with me, and I thought that telling the FBI about the meeting and the speaker could serve as my ticket to J. Edgar Hoover’s forgiveness. The following day I walked down to the FBI’s Washington Field Office, known as the WFO—then located in the Old Post Office Building. There I was escorted to a small office where I spoke with an agent and signed on. From that point forward events moved quickly.

I thought that telling the FBI about the meeting and the speaker could serve as my ticket to J. Edgar Hoover’s forgiveness.

I was asked to join the George Washington University SDS chapter, as well as the national group, and to provide written reports on the activities of the organization and its members.  I would be paid $15 for each report, plus expenses. While I could generally choose the subjects of my reports based on discussions with my FBI handler, from time to time I would receive instructions about specific subjects or events that J. Edgar Hoover’s people wanted me to research or attend and report.  I was provided with a direct telephone number where I could leave messages for my handler, along with a code number for reporting. I was told that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would perform a field background check on me—just as they had on John Steinbeck, without warning, three decades earlier.

I was told that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would perform a field background check on me—just as they had on John Steinbeck, without warning, three decades earlier.

My first assignment was to attend a regional SDS conference being held across town at American University. There I learned that the national organization had decided in December to stay out of inauguration demonstration events in January. Instead, a group called Mobilization Against the War in Viet Nam would handle these activities. I also met the Washington Regional SDS coordinator, a 24-year old named Cathy Wilkerson who I later learned was a major focus of agency attention. To me Cathy seemed an unlikely agitator, the child of parents in Connecticut and a graduate of Swarthmore College. I was even younger than she was, but I was learning fast—though not, I soon discovered, fast enough to avoid the crisis of conscience that would derail my relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

To me Cathy seemed an unlikely agitator, the child of parents in Connecticut and a graduate of Swarthmore College.

The first 60 days of my undercover activities were cataloged by the FBI in documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Request I filed years later. Here is what my handler wrote about my work:

Gorran has voluntarily expended an estimated 69 hours in attending SDS meetings and the National Mobilization Committee counter inaugural activity. He has furnished 29 pertinent photographs, and his written reports have totaled approximately 44 pages.

Gorran has been volunteering information on members and activities of the GW SDS as well as the activities of members of the Washington Regional SDS. He has attended one SDS Regional Meeting in Wash DC and a two-day Eastern Regional meeting held at Princeton, NJ. Gorran has also furnished timely information and photos concerning the recent student agitation at American University.

On 2/15/69, Gorran, at risk to his personal safety, voluntarily furnished a vast amount of invaluable information, not otherwise obtainable, in connection with the Center for Emergency Support sponsored St Valentine’s Day Teach-In on the Police. This information included over 200 names of individuals of interest to the Bureau, with current addresses and organizational affiliations. Many of these names and organizational affiliations were not previously known to the WFO. Also included in this information was data concerning 28 financial disbursements made by the organization, the current financial status of the organization and miscellaneous notes, memos and material relating to this organization.

What my handler failed to mention was that this information was obtained through an illegal black bag operation—in this case, a literal black bag. Though compliance was voluntary on my part, I had been tasked to snatch a briefcase containing the information from its location at the rear of the crowded room in which the meeting was being held. It was simple. I got up, walked purposefully to the back of the room, carefully picked up the briefcase, exited the building, and headed for my George Washington University dorm two blocks away. My heart was in my throat the whole way, but  apparently no one saw me; the next day I took a cab downtown to the Greyhound Bus Station as instructed, placed the purloined briefcase in a locker, then delivered the key to my handler. I was given a $100 bonus for my boldness.

As my file shows, J. Edgar Hoover’s boys were pleased with me—for the moment:

Also according to the FBI, the information reported by Gorran has been current, detailed and accurate. His reports are considered very good to excellent. Of unusual value was Gorran’s detailed 12 page report and copies of proposals and materials concerning the SDS Eastern Regional Meeting at Princeton, NJ. The information furnished to date by Gorran has been corroborated by other sources and is considered to be 95 to 100 percent accurate.

In my interaction with my handler, I noticed that the more information I could provide regarding Cathy Wilkerson, the happier he seemed to be. But the bulk of my reporting concerned proposals that filtered down from the SDS national office through the Washington regional group. The implications of the protest plan called “Smash the Military in the Schools” would have appalled an egalitarian like Steinbeck. It exposed the problems encountered by campus military recruiters and the tracking systems supposedly used to ensure that African-American and Puerto-Rican students were shoved into the armed forces or toward menial civilian jobs when they finished high school.

Image of sample from an informant file kept by the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Visit Cuba, Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation

As part of my undercover job for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I helped develop and distribute flyers in an effort to stop recruiting by Sikorsky and other military-equipment suppliers for the Vietnam War, and I warned fellow students, as instructed, about CIA recruitment activity at George Washington University. But there was also a chance to travel.  At one point my handler asked if I would like to visit Cuba during summer vacation, something SDS members seemed to find particularly appealing. Though the agency would pay my way, it couldn’t offer protection if I got arrested. Despite prodding, I declined.

At one point my handler asked if I would like to visit Cuba during summer vacation, something SDS members seemed to find particularly appealing.

Later I was assigned by my handler to tape-record a George Washington University speech by Hans Dietrich Wolff, a member of West Germany’s version of SDS.  Wolff’s main point—one that probably flattered as much as it frightened the Feds—was that a revolution in any country had to be coupled with a revolt in the United States. For some reason, Wolff’s plan to solicit funds in the U.S. to support German SDS activities appeared to interest the agency more than his vision of world revolution. Though he didn’t pass the hat at George Washington University, he did sell posters showing Karl Marx with a caption that read (in German) “Everyone talks about the weather. We don’t.”

For some reason, Wolff’s plan to solicit funds in the U.S. to support German SDS activities appeared to interest the agency more than this vision of world revolution.

I still couldn’t shake my concern about the FBI’s interest in sending me to Cuba. Frankly, I thought the CIA was a safer bet if push came to shove on foreign soil. After making an extra copy of my recording of Wolff’s speech, I took a cab to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, where I was admitted and handed over my tape. During my debriefing interview, the possibility of my going to Cuba with CIA oversight was discussed. Due to my doubts about the FBI, there I sat, offering myself up as a CIA asset, though the agency never followed through. Incredibly, I was able to walk into CIA headquarters unimpeded, though I needed a pass to leave. Whether or not John Steinbeck was ever involved with the agency, as Brian Kannard believes, I think he would have appreciated the irony.

Image of Federal Bureau of Investigation redactions in Vietnam War-Era files

Policemen, Polygons, and Vietnam War Protest Pressure

In mid-March of 1969 my handler informed me that due to agency cutbacks I was being asked to transfer my efforts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department Intelligence Division—another irony worthy of a writer like Steinbeck.  Where the FBI gave me $15 per report on an a la carte basis, the MPD would pay me a flat fee of $60 a week.

As noted, the FBI had a close relationship with the MPD, and my former handler would still have access to the fruits of my labors. This time, however, instead of a number I was given the code name Polygon, a term meaning “many-sided figure”—Irony #3, since the head of the D.C. police intelligence division was a chip off J. Edgar Hoover’s shoulder who insisted that anyone opposed to the Vietnam War was subversive. This overreach resulted in surveillance of peaceful anti-Vietnam War organizations with a commitment to nonviolence, a bitter reminder that the civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. was targeted for character assassination by J. Edgar Hoover long before being killed by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Other big-city police departments were also active in surveillance against the New Left at the time, including New York, Los Angeles, and—of course—Richard Daley’s Chicago.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was targeted for character assassination by J. Edgar Hoover long before being killed by James Earl Ray Memphis.

Although the FBI always seemed to want to know everything, the Washington PD was only interested in clear and present danger. As a result my work became a matter of diminishing returns, despite the higher pay. While undercover I was never privy to the identities of other government operatives planted in local and regional SDS groups, though I sensed they were there. But legitimate SDS members tended to speculate amongst themselves about various individuals, especially non-students who hung around, showed up for meetings, and participated in campus demonstrations without having a known connection to George Washington University. I suspected that several of these characters were fellow agents: two in particular—a man named Smiley, who dressed poorly and claimed to be an army veteran, and a bearded guy I called Dave whom no one seemed to know much about. Smiley and Dave appeared to be friends.

Image of Adlai Stevenson, presidential candidate and critic of surveillance overreach

CONUS Once Shame on You; CONUS Twice Shame on Us

Because of Smiley’s supposed army service, I wondered if he might be working for military intelligence, which I later learned had expanded domestic surveillance activities significantly in the years following the failure of John Steinbeck’s friend Adlai Stevenson, a liberal, to win the presidency. These activities accelerated in the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as a result of  perceived threats posed by the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War feelings, and urban riots.  By 1965 a new intelligence command had been established at Fort Holabird, Maryland, to coordinate the work of counterintelligence agents at army commands throughout the United States., preparing daily civil disturbance situation reports on right-wing extremists, civil rights activists, and Vietnam War dissidents.

By 1965 a new intelligence command had been established at Fort Holabird, Maryland, to coordinate the work of counterintelligence agents at army commands throughout the United States.

By 1966 the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Command at Fort Holabird had broadened its civilian surveillance, including operations that clearly violated regulations and probably occurred without the approval of senior commanders. In 1968 it was renamed Continental United States Intelligence (CONUS Intel), producing daily computerized field reports on civilians assembled by more than 1,000 plainclothes agents who monitored civil rights and antiwar organizations, infiltrated radical groups such as SDS, and engaged in provocative and illegal acts to discredit protest efforts—just like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The extent of CONUS Intel domestic military surveillance activities became the center of controversy when a former intelligence officer exposed its operations in the January 1970 issue of Washington Monthly magazine. Thirty years earlier John Steinbeck’s chance for a wartime commission had been sandbagged by the same military mentality, another case of “John was there first” in the troubling history of domestic spying on U.S. citizens.

Image of SDS members and FBI plants occupying George Washington University building

Barbarians at the George Washington University Gate

Things were heating up for both SDS and me at George Washington University on the evening of April 23, 1969, when the Black Panther film Pig Power was shown along with the Columbia University takeover documentary, Revolt. The well-publicized event drew a crowd of about 200 SDS members and non-members. Cathy Wilkerson, the subject of Federal Bureau of Investigation interest from Connecticut, was in the crowd, and so was I. At approximately 10 p.m. the leader of the local SDS chapter stood up and announced, “Our brothers have taken a building.  Let’s join them!” And we were off to nearby Maury Hall, the George Washington University  building that housed the Sino-Soviet Institute, a think tank with presumed military ties.

At approximately 10 p.m. the leader of the local SDS chapter stood up and announced, ‘Our brothers have taken a building.  Let’s join them!’

A group of 20-30 attendees proceeded down G Street past a row of George Washington University fraternity houses, where a claque of jeering frat boys decided to follow us to Maury Hall. When I reached the building the front door was open and a few people were standing around in the lobby near a cleaning lady with keys to the locked interior offices loosely tied around her waist. I remember that someone said we couldn’t ask her to give us the keys because it might get her into trouble while somebody else gently unsnapped her key ring and led us on. Fights broke out between the frat-boy hangers-on and student protesters who had just walked in. As the violence escalated, the SDS chapter leader’s wife was hit repeatedly, sustaining a serious blow to the head.

As the violence escalated, the SDS chapter leader’s wife was hit repeatedly, sustaining a serious blow to the head.

Soon the dean of students arrived and announced that the front doors would be locked for 15 minutes with us inside, then reopened so we could leave safely—clearly a command, not a request. The SDS leader with the injured wife suggested that we had made our point by peacefully entering the building and should comply with the dean’s order: the bullies outside were thirsty for blood, and we’d be smart to exit the building while we still had the chance. Others present, egged on by the mysterious Smiley, were adamant about remaining. A vote was taken about whether or not to leave Maury Hall. The chapter leader lost and we stayed.

A vote was taken about whether or not to leave Maury Hall. The chapter leader lost and we stayed.

In the end, the SDS barricade of Maury Hall at George Washington University was as unplanned as my involvement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation—something, as Steinbeck would say, that happened. The Greek-letter warriors outside were already climbing the fire escape to get in, literal barbarians at the gate. So we built barricades, using desks, chairs, and bookcases that we moved from fortified floors to those with exposed windows. I knew how the Romans must have felt with Goths and Vandals at the gate: when I looked out from the second floor window the crowd below was chanting jump, jump, jump!—Steinbeck’s Mob Man incarnate. I was disgusted with the goons, but I was also disgusted with myself. Furniture had been damaged, people had been hurt, and the occupiers had done nothing to deserve this. I wanted out—out of Maury Hall, out of J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia, and (ultimately, I discovered) out of George Washington University.

The Greek-letter warriors outside were already climbing the fire escape to get in, literal barbarians at the gate.

At 3:00 a.m. the school’s vice president said we had to leave immediately or be subject to violating a federal court injunction that could expose us to penalties for contempt, including jail without trial. Within 30 minutes we had abandoned Maury Hall. Later that day several hundred George Washington University students and faculty members assembled in Lisner Auditorium to discuss the takeover. Some expressed support, others disapproval. I had already made up my mind when walked to the lectern to speak. “I know I’m going to get criticism from both sides,” I said. “But I have a confession to make. For the last four months I’ve been working as an undercover agent for the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department Intelligence Division. I’m sick and tired of the repression of SDS. And I don’t care what the cops do to me now!”

At 3:00 a.m. the school’s vice president said we had to leave immediately or be subject to violating a federal court injunction that could expose us to penalties for contempt, including jail without trial.

My confession made quite an impression, and it wasn’t friendly. As I was escorted from the building by a group of SDSers, I saw Dave with the beard making a fast exit through a side door. I realized then that he was what I had suspected—another undercover operative. Like a character in a Steinbeck strike story, I seriously wondered if I was going to be killed. Instead, I was debriefed by Cathy Wilkerson, who obviously knew that she was the subject of ongoing surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover & Company. I made it clear to her and those listening that I was done with both sides of this conflict and wanted out. But not everyone was done with me.

Image of newspaper report on campus spying by the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Leaving the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Get a Lawyer

A week later, 14 other George Washington University students and I were charged with unlawfully seizing Maury Hall. The Federal Bureau of Investigation couldn’t and wouldn’t help me. Fortunately I had a good lawyer—myself. Though I was always paid in cash and had no check stubs to prove that I was working as an agency operative, the tape-recordings I had made of numerous phone conversations with my FBI and MPD handlers spoke volumes. I played the tapes at my hearing and George Washington University dropped the charges.

A week later, 14 other George Washington University students and I were charged with unlawfully seizing Maury Hall. The Federal Bureau of Investigation couldn’t and wouldn’t help me. Fortunately I had a good lawyer—myself.

In July the U.S. House of Representatives Internal Security Committee investigating SDS activities on college campuses subpoenaed me. (This was the successor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the body that failed to call Steinbeck as a witness in its investigations of suspected writers and artists a decade earlier.) In my testimony I made it clear that anything I testified to had already been disclosed as part of my undercover work for the federal government. The Congressmen present appeared to know the answers to the questions they were asking, and it all struck me as little more than a public show. The only thing they seemed seriously concerned about was that I not go into too much detail about the FBI, something I couldn’t do and answer their questions honestly. (Did John Steinbeck also have information about government surveillance that Congress didn’t want to hear?)

Did John Steinbeck also have information about government surveillance that Congress didn’t want to hear?

Although I eventually transferred to Rutgers, I returned in the fall for another year at George Washington University. During an October afternoon walk off campus, I happened to find myself near the Washington Monument watching an anti-Vietnam War demonstration by a Mobilization Against the War group. Off to the right I noticed a uniformed army officer conferring with two men in J. Edgar Hoover attire—white shirts, dark suits, conservative ties, and trench coats. One was easy to recognize. It was Smiley, the SDS member who was so adamant about staying in Maury Hall despite the danger. I had never seen him dressed so well. Now I knew why: Smiley was an agent provocateur who encouraged people to do destructive things that they hadn’t planned on doing.

The second man was a harder to identify, but I managed. It was Dave with the beard, clean-shaven and spiffy.  I went up to him and said, “Hi Dave!—or whatever your name is. I always thought you and Smiley might be army intelligence and now I know for sure.” (I’m no Steinbeck and I don’t plan to write a story of betrayal featuring these characters, but someone probably should.)

Image of SDS member Cathy Wilkerson following her arrest for anti-Vietnam War activities

After the Fall: Cathy Wilkerson’s Unhappy Ending

On the morning of March 6, 1970, Cathy Wilkerson stumbled onto 11th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in tatters, bleeding, her clothes shredded. Her father’s townhouse at 18 West 11th Street had just been blown to pieces, killing three members of the Weathermen group who were building bombs in the basement. After the explosion Cathy went underground for a decade, surrendering in 1980 and serving less than a year in prison. The only other survivor, Kathy Boudin, was captured in 1981 during the robbery of a Brink’s truck in which three people were murdered.

After the explosion Cathy went underground for a decade, surrendering in 1980 and serving less than a year in prison.

Following the takeover of Maury Hall in 1969, Cathy had been arrested and prohibited from setting foot on the campus of George Washington University, or any other college in the District of Columbia. Precluded from continuing the campus organizing she so enjoyed, she joined the Weathermen, the explosive group that evolved out of SDS two months after Maury Hall and adopted much more violent tactics.

Image of John Steinbeck, early target of investigtion by J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover, John Steinbeck, and America’s Aftermath

During the 1960s and 70s, COINTELPRO, CONUS, and other government surveillance programs distorted the public’s view of radical groups in a way that helped, as intended, to isolate them and to de-legitimize lawful political expression in America. The efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in particular reinforced and exacerbated the weaknesses of these groups, making it difficult for sincere but inexperienced activists to learn from their mistakes and build solid, durable organizations opposed to the Vietnam War and domestic government overreach. Covert manipulation by undercover operatives, media manipulation, and agents provocateurs like Smiley eventually helped to push committed and seasoned activists such as Cathy Wilkerson to abandon grassroots organizing and join groups like the Weathermen, further isolating them and depriving peaceful protest movements of experienced leadership.

During the 1960s and 70s, COINTELPRO, CONUS, and other government surveillance programs distorted the public’s view of radical groups in a way that helped, as intended, to isolate them and to de-legitimize lawful political expression in America.

COINTELPRO succeeded in convincing some of its victims to blame themselves for problems the government created, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair that has worsened with time. By operating covertly and illegally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and police and army intelligence professionals were able to severely weaken domestic political opposition—a phenomenon unimaginable to John Steinbeck when he wrote his letter complaining about J. Edgar Hoover in 1942. It really happened, and for a brief period in the late 1960s I was a part.

COINTELPRO succeeded in convincing some of its victims to blame themselves for problems the government created, leaving a legacy of cynicism and despair that has worsened with time.

As for John Steinbeck’s alleged involvement with the CIA, I asked someone in a position to know more than most people about this controversial question. Commenting for background only, a former Deputy Director for Intelligence of the CIA explained the possibilities to me:

There were two ways a U.S. civilian might be used for intelligence gathering by the agency. He might be actively tasked by the operations directorate to obtain specific information or take a more passive role by simply being debriefed regarding any information he might have inadvertently obtained during his travels.” 

The former DDI added that, though he had absolutely no information about John Steinbeck, “the latter situation would have probably been the more likely scenario for Steinbeck if he had been providing any intelligence for the agency, but the former more active role could not be excluded.”

Christmas List: Christmas Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of poet Roy Bentley with parents and sisters in Eastern Kentucky

My mother bought everything. In the stores, heads
would swivel at her pleasure, a gift to the onlookers.
Christmas Eve, although an agnostic on her best day,
she abracadabraed a grandly private stash of believing
and trusting the better story of It’s a Wonderful Life.
An avalanche messaging George Lassos the Moon.

My father (her accomplice) assembled a red bicycle
or a machine-gun on a tripod, hearing in wind outside
Christmases in poverty and scarcity in eastern Kentucky.
For him, it was all about the approximate manner of things
somewhere between the baubles and beads of consumerism
and real joy. A factory job was a house with tile flooring.

For her, giving was a prayer to an angel named Clarence.
She checked off each item like the answer to that prayer.
Toys, in nineteen-fifties cellophane, new and unwrapped,
straight from the retail shelves to a car’s trunk to call out
to a lucky, sound-asleep child as if to an entire country—
Fort Apache. Gunsmoke. Rock-‘Em-Sock-‘Em-Robots.