The VW engine made an unholy racket, and the red warning light went on. We were in the left lane, westbound from New York City on I-76 in southwestern Pennsylvania, deep in the green folds of the Allegheny Mountains. There were four of us. I was at the wheel; Dory, my wife, was riding shotgun; and two anarchists, who had begged a ride in Allentown, were asleep in the back seat amid duffels and book bags.
I down-shifted and skittered across the highway to the shoulder, narrowly avoiding a collision with a tanker truck. I put the car in neutral and coasted to a stop, the engine having quit before the car came to rest. I looked over at Dory, who had covered her eyes. “It’s okay,” I said. “You’re still alive.”
Turning the ignition produced a single metallic clack followed by the banshee whine of the starter motor straining to raise the engine block from the dead. One of the anarchists woke up and asked, “Are we there?”
“There” was Yellow Springs, Ohio, September, 1975, the home of Antioch College and Movement guru Colin Singletree, two hundred twisting miles down the road from our inert vehicle. It was the location of the first conference of the National Organizing Committee or NOC, a dozen or so left-wing intellectuals planning how to organize the American working class and build Socialism.
I was hoping this conference would be the prelude to the return of Dory and me to our hometown, Ferndale, Michigan. For five years we had run the Movement Defense Office in New York, recruiting and training lawyers to represent people busted at demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins and picket lines. As the anti-Vietnam War movement diminished in the ‘70s funding ran out, and in the summer of 1975 the office closed. Living in New York City without what little income the MDO provided was not feasible, and I proposed going back to Michigan.
Frankly, I was tired, tired of sleeping on floors, sleeping in buses, sleeping at sit-ins and, for the most part, not sleeping. I also had enough of rescuing ultra-left idiots who were busted after poorly planned and politically stupid actions. I wanted to go back to Michigan, get a job and get a life.
Dory, having grown accustomed to New York’s intellectual furor, was not enchanted by the prospect of returning to Ferndale, and we were close to splitting over the issue. However, her weathervane swung west when she heard about the Yellow Springs conference. We had met Singletree in New York, and she was much impressed by him. Dory said this was an important meeting, a historic event, involving real people, even some workers, and Colin Singletree. She said we should seek his advice on where to relocate. I responded coarsely to that suggestion, and we didn’t talk to each other for a week. Finally we agreed we would go to the conference and take up the issue of relocation afterward.
But we had to get there. At the moment, we were sitting in an immobile VW Beetle on a major Interstate in the Pennsylvania mountains, buffeted every few seconds by the wash of huge trucks passing inches from my side view mirror.
“No,” I replied to Anarchist No.1. “We are not there. We are nowhere. We are going nowhere. The car is dead. Dead, dead, dead,” I said, providing emphasis by banging my forehead on the steering wheel.
“Well, Douglas, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get there,” Dory said.
“Yes. It would not be a good idea to stay here until we expire. The question is, as always, ‘What is to be done?’ I have not seen an exit for a town in many miles, and the map doesn’t show one coming up until Somerset, ten miles away. I guess I could hitchhike and get some help. Let’s take a look at the engine, first.”
I got out of the car and went back to the engine cover, lifted it and looked at the engine. Anarchist No. 1 joined me. Dory stayed in the car, reading pre-conference position papers. Anarchist No.1 and I stood there, silent, heads bowed, hands clasped in front us, looking at the engine.
“It looks very peaceful,” said Anarchist No.1.
I nodded. After a few minutes he turned away, and I closed the engine cover.
Just then, a Somerset Police Department patrol car drove west past us. It slowed as it went by. I couldn’t see inside because of the tinted windows. I started to wave but Anarchist No.1 pulled my arm down.
“Now you’re going to tell me we can’t ask for help from the gendarmes of capital,” I said.
“No, I’m going to tell you there’s a warrant out for me in Pennsylvania for malicious destruction of property.”
“What property did you maliciously destroy?”
“One of the gendarme’s patrol cars in Philadelphia.”
The police car passed by going in the other direction and, as before, slowed down as it passed. I turned to say something to Anarchist No.1, but he wasn’t there.
At length I saw movement in the low shrubbery under the highway easement fence and a glimpse of his t-shirt disappearing into the woods beyond.
Five minutes later the patrol car pulled up behind us and a large cop got out.
“You folks need a tow?”
“Yes, sir, we sure do.”
He got back in his car, and a few minutes later drove up next to us, rolled down his passenger window and said, “Somebody will be coming.” Then he waved and drove off. When he was out of sight I called out for Anarchist No.1. He came out of the woods, climbed the fence and walked over to the car, casting nervous looks down the highway. He was covered with burrs and his t-shirt was torn.
“Can’t be too careful,” he said.
One hour later, a tow truck showed up with the logo of “Shorty’s Towing and Repair.” The driver got out, came over, shook hands and asked what happened. I told him, and he nodded. Then we went over to the car, and I opened the engine cover again. He tried the key and got the same clack-and-whine response. He shook his head and said, “Better hook her up. You can sit in it while I tow it. But you better get everybody out of it during the hookup.”
I told Dory to put down her papers and get out of the car. I woke up Anarchist No 2 who asked, “Are we there?”
* * *
Shorty’s was an auto repair complex in Somerset, Pa. It wasn’t exactly in town, but in the rolling fields at the edge of town, with grounds sprawling over several acres. Shorty’s had about a dozen repair wells and lifts and was flanked on one side by a barn full of wheel covers mounted on racks and on the other by a fenced lot containing dozens of car chassis in various stages of dismemberment. My VW disappeared into one of the wells. We were directed into a waiting room furnished with old truck and auto bench seats and a cable spool table littered with copies of Car and Driver, Field and Stream, and Guns and Ammo. Every fifteen minutes or so, one of the mechanics would walk through on the way to the rest room, and I would ask “What’s the verdict?” or “How’s the patient?” and they would chuckle but not answer.
Finally, Shorty walked in, wiping his hands on a greasy towel, and motioned to follow him, like a surgeon coming out of the operating theatre having to give the family bad news. He walked outside, and I followed.
It was late afternoon in September, the air just starting to cool off, the hardwood trees flaunting greenery, heedless of their coming defoliation, the wheat, hay and oats tall and bending, ready for harvest. We trudged up a little hill that overlooked Shorty’s compound. Shorty stopped and sat down in the foot-high wild grass. He pulled up a stalk of grass and stuck it in his mouth. I sat down and did the same. He looked up at the sky for a while. So did I. It was cerulean blue with a few puffy clouds of no consequence.
“Think I’ll go fishing,” he said, talking to the sky. Then he lay back, his arms behind his head, twirling the grass stalk in his teeth.
“Sounds like a good idea,” I said, lying back and twirling my stalk.
“You a student?” he asked.
“I was. Looking for a job now.”
“Got a lot of money?”
“Didn’t think so. Engine’s gone. You know that.”
“New one run a thousand, installed. You got that much?”
“Didn’t think so. Way to go is put in a used one. Run about two hundred.”
“Got one in stock?”
“Nope. But one’ll turn up. Two, three days.”
“Uh huh. You know. Like you did. But in a wreck. You know, totaled, except for…”
“ …the engine.”
“So, you wait until somebody in a VW Beetle gets totaled on the freeway, buy it for scrap, yank out the engine and sell it to me.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“And if it’s totaled but the engine’s okay that probably means it’s been in some sort of collision….”
“…with people killed or seriously injured.”
“How often does that happen?”
“Oh, all the time. There’s a million Beetles out there. Odds are you’ll get your car back in two, three days.”
“And I’m supposed to go on driving a car that’s put together from the wreckage of other people’s lives?”
“Of course not. How could anyone?”
“Nope. I’d sell it or trade it in, ASAP. You never know how good the engine is, and we don’t give a guarantee.”
* * *
Twelve hours later I was awakened by a bus driver calling out “Yellow Springs, Ohio. Fifteen-minute rest stop.” I found myself on a plastic seat in an inter-city mini-bus, leaning against a window, with Dory leaning against me, still reading the conference papers. It was 8:00 am, and we had been on the road all night. It was hot in the bus, and the sun was in my eyes. My memory of how we got there was a painful haze of ticket lines, hard benches, heavy luggage, bad food and the meager lights of the Ohio night scrolling endlessly past the window. The anarchists had disembarked as soon as we crossed the Ohio state line. They had just wanted to get out of Pennsylvania and weren’t interested in any group that had the word “organizing” in the title.
We staggered out of the bus into the dusty glare and picked up our stuff, thrown unceremoniously onto the gravel by the driver who mumbled something about “damned hippies.” Squinting at the borders of the bus’s turnaround lot we saw a skinny kid who waved once. I had called ahead to ask for a lift from the bus station to Colin’s place, which was on the edge of town. We unloaded our stuff into the back seat of an old Chevy Corvair. Dory sat on my lap in the passenger seat, and the kid fishtailed out of the lot onto the blacktop two-lane road going 60 mph in a 40 mph zone. Dory asked him to slow down. He grinned and said, “What’s the difference? This is a Corvair. It’s ‘Unsafe at Any Speed.’” I’m sure he kept the car just so he could tell that joke.
A thrilling half-hour ride through the cornfields later, we arrived at the Singletree compound, a rambling old stone-and-wood lodge with a separate forty-by-forty-foot covered pavilion for meetings, known as the Shed, all set on a timbered one-acre lot. The last to arrive because of our car trouble, we did not have the pick of accommodations. Becky Singletree, Colin’s wife, led us down some basement stairs, saying, “This is all we have left. You’ll have to sleep in Hershey’s room.”
Ducking our heads, we wound through dark passageways and storerooms till we came to what appeared to be a former coal cellar, an eight-by-eight-foot cubicle with one bare light bulb and a jagged hole on one side where bricks had been pried out.
“Hershey,” she said. “Hershey, come out.”
Some rustling and growling emanated from the hole, and there emerged a formerly longhaired but now nearly bald, elderly terrier. Looking into the hole we saw a mattress on the floor and nothing else.
“This is Hershey’s room?” I asked
“That’s it,” she said. “Somebody’s already in the room with the light bulb.”
I threw our stuff into the hole, crawled in and lay on the mattress. Dory followed. I tried not to think about Hershey and fell asleep. I awoke at 11:00 am. Dory was gone. I made my way out of the lodge and over to the Shed. The plenary session was on break. About twenty people were scattered around the Shed and the grounds. Dory and Colin were talking animatedly by the lectern. He said something and she laughed. I walked over to them. She stopped laughing.
Looking up he said, “ Oh hi, uh…”
“Doug,” I said. “Doug Fenski. We met in New York.”
“Oh yeah. Doug. Glad you could make it.”
“Sorry I’m late. Tough night.”
“Well, you missed it, Doug,” Dory said. “Colin did this great piece on surplus value and some Progressive Labor guy challenged him. The issues were so sharp. Colin ate his lunch.”
“I’ll bet,” I said. “Speaking of lunch, anything around to eat? A pickle, a string bean, a Chiclet?”
“There’s some stuff in the main house kitchen,” Colin said. “Becky fixed some sandwiches.”
“I had something already. I’ll be here.” They resumed their discussion and my presence became superfluous.
I went into the kitchen where Becky was slicing bread. “I’m fixing lunch for the whole crew,” she said. “You want to help out?”
“Sure,” I said. I spent the next hour in the kitchen, peeling and chopping vegetables and talking to Becky. No one else volunteered to help. They were back in plenary session debating whether industrial or service workers should be the organizing priority. When they broke for lunch, Colin and Dory sat at a table with some editors from a London based left-wing political journal. I ate with Becky in the kitchen. Every now and then one of her kids, Che, 6, or Rosa, 5, would run in, get a hug or a cookie and run out. Becky said they had been in Yellow Springs for a year of Colin’s two-year appointment as a lecturer.
That afternoon the group broke into workshops. I sat in on one with some guys from the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). It was a pretty intense session. These guys had all been beaten up or arrested or both, but kept on working and organizing. Most were from Detroit. I took a lot of names and numbers. Dory and Colin stayed with the Brits.
At the end of the workshops people dispersed, some going to town for a beer, some crashing in their rooms, some sitting around talking. The DRUM and TDU people caucused and decided to go home. I went to say goodbye and asked why they were leaving. “Too much theory,” one said. “No hard feelings. We were just hoping for more information on actual experience. Maybe see you in Detroit.”
I went back to the kitchen. There was Becky, alone, getting pasta ready for the group, her honey-colored hair wet with steam from the huge pot of boiling water. I asked if I could help and she gave me the biggest smile I had seen in a long time. She and I ate in the kitchen and talked about our lives.
She was now in her thirties, Colin in his forties. They had met in Ann Arbor where she was doing grad studies in Political Science and working as a teaching assistant. He was unemployed. He had lost his job as a copywriter for a defense-related company because of his political views on the U.S. intervention in Viet Nam. He had written a book on U.S. imperialism and couldn’t get it published. He was in a bad way, drinking and using hard drugs.
She said, “I realized this guy had things figured out more precisely, more convincingly, and expressed them more cogently than any of my professors. And he was charming. He played the guitar, composed songs, wrote poetry, corresponded with interesting people. I said ‘That’s for me.’
“He moved in with me and we lived on my teaching-assistant pittance and the odd review, essay, or article he was able to sell to some journal. Then he made it. An extended essay commissioned by the Unitarian Church called ‘Vietnam Cauldron’ snuck past the political watchdogs at McMillan as a religious tract and became an underground hit, required reading on the Left.”
“I remember,” I said.
“His life became an endless round of lectures, panel discussions, and teach-ins. The kids hardly ever saw him. I dropped out of the grad program.”
Just then, Dory came in and said, “Doug, can I see you a moment.”
“Sure,” I said. “Can you spare it?”
We walked outside.
“Colin and I and some others are concerned about the DRUM and TDU contingent leaving,” she said. “You were in their workshop. Why did they leave?”
“They said ‘too much theory.’”
“Did you try to get them to stay? They were our only workers.”
“No. I agreed with them.”
She paused, staring at me as if I had just admitted to bestiality. “Very well,” she said. “Their leaving opened up some rooms. There’s a bed for you in the attic room. I volunteered to plan changes in the program for tomorrow. I’ll be on the ground floor working late. Don’t wait up.”
I didn’t. But during the night I could hear someone playing a guitar and singing softly.
The next day I couldn’t stand being around the Shed where Colin and Dory presented their programmatic changes, which included a trip to Lordstown to meet with a group of workers organized by Staughton Lynd, an old SDS friend of Colin’s. I volunteered to baby-sit for Rosa and Che so Becky could get out of the house and join the group, or just get away. She said she was going into town to shop, see a movie, go to a coffee house and just kick back.
Che and Rosa were good kids but starved for attention. So I played ball and read stories and went on nature walks and made lemonade and enjoyed that more than I would have discussing technological determinism. When Becky came home they told her all about it. But when I let slip I was leaving the next day, Rosa began crying and Che went to his room and slammed the door.
When the conference group returned, Colin and Dory were not with them. They had said they were staying an extra day with Lynd to meet some more workers. The group was to work out an organizing strategy for the Lordstown plant and meet again tomorrow. Dory had said for me to go on to Ferndale and not wait for her.
“Son of a bitch,” Becky said under her breath. Then she went into the kitchen. I followed. Her eyes and mouth were shut tight, but the tears came through anyway.
“This isn’t the first time, is it?” I asked.
“No. Not by a long shot. I told him if he did it again, I’d take the kids and leave him.”
“What did he say?”
“He smiled and said, ‘Becky, I love you, and I always come back to you, but I am what I am, like Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s completely beyond my control.’”
“Doug, I’m so sorry about you and Dory. Somebody should have warned you about Colin.”
“Well, I’m sad, but not surprised. It was pretty much all over between us but the shouting. At least we don’t have kids. But you do. That’s a big consideration.”
“He didn’t really want any. He says parenting is not his strong suit. ‘There just isn’t room,’ he says. So I’m his enabler, his cook, his editor, his housekeeper, his mother and his default lover.”
She wiped her eyes with a dishtowel. When she put it down I reached over and held her hand. “You know,” I said, “one thing I’ve learned in my years in left politics is that there is no necessary correlation between a person’s contribution to the Movement and his or her qualities as a human being.”
“It’s a contradiction, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but there it is.”
* * *
That night I re-read some of Colin’s essays and transcripts of his debates and lectures. They were brilliant. His points were made without resort to hyperbole. He used examples to clarify his positions. He was didactic without being patronizing. He showed compassion for ordinary people, here and in the Third World. His command of the facts bespoke extensive research. Maybe there wasn’t room for more.
I finally turned out the light and lay there, thinking What is to be done? Around 2 am I heard the door open and someone walk into the room. It was Becky, wearing a long sleep shirt. She sat on the edge of the bed.
“There’s no reason we should both be alone,” she said.
She put her hand on my cheek, and I held it, then kissed it and said, “No reason at all,” as she pulled off her shirt.
The next morning, at dawn, we awoke in a tangle of sheets.
“I have to get the car,” I said.
“And then I go to Michigan and try to make a life without Dory.”
“She’ll come back to you.”
“No; the marriage is totaled. I’m not Mr. Excitement for her anymore, and I guess he is. I just wanted to go home, get an ordinary job, raise an ordinary family and, if possible, do organizing among ordinary people. She can’t face that and she sees Colin as a way out. And if he dumps her, she’ll go back to New York. And you?” I asked. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think I can laugh it off any more. The wheels have come off this relationship too. But I don’t know if I can bring myself to end it. It’s not just about the kids. It’s about facing life alone again. He knows this. He’ll sweet-talk me and things will be good for a while, and life will go on until his divining rod starts vibrating again, and he’ll be off. I could do it with someone. If I had help, a partner, I could maybe get back in a grad program and get a teaching assistantship.” She was looking at me from two inches away.
“Becky, I’m going to have a hell of a time myself getting a job, finding a place to stay, adjusting to the desolation row of southeast Michigan. And we’ve known each other, what, forty-eight hours? Listen, I’ll call when I get settled. Maybe….”
“Doug, forget it. You’ve got your family, friends, your own life. I just had a thought…. Ah, fuck it. I’ll handle this myself. So go. And good luck.” She kissed me and got out of bed. I watched her stand in the morning light, pinning up her hair. Then she pulled on her shirt, blew a kiss and went out the door.
I packed my duffel and left the compound before anyone else was awake. I wouldn’t be missed. I walked to the highway and hitched a ride in the back of a pickup along with some feedlot workers. They had been in Viet Nam but they didn’t want to talk about it. I told them I opposed the War. They said they should have too. They dropped me at the bus turnaround lot and gave me the V sign as they drove off.
Eight hours later, I staggered off the inter-city bus in front of Shorty’s. “Damned hippy,” said the bus driver. “Take a bath. You smell like a feedlot.”
Shorty was in his office, a large plywood cubicle decorated with state certificates, phone listings, employee schedules, old invoices, parts catalogs, bounced checks, girlie calendars supplied by mechanic tool companies and about one hundred sets of keys. “Have a seat,” he said, thumbing through invoices. “Your Beetle’s all ready. Took the engine out of a wreck yesterday. It’ll get you home but who knows after that?”
“What about the wreck? What happened?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“So tell me, how do you even find out about the wrecks? The cops call you, don’t they? You pay them to, don’t you? Like blood money.”
Shorty didn’t say anything for a minute. He just looked at me like one looks at a jukebox that ate a quarter and didn’t play anything. “Where have you been the past few years?” he asked. “On the moon? In the Antarctic?”
“In New York.”
“That’s even worse. No wonder you don’t know shit about what’s happening out here in the boonies. What does your old man do?”
“Did. Auto worker. Took early retirement from Ford Rouge in Detroit. Died two years ago.”
“He’d have known. You see, Mr. New York, there are no jobs here anymore. I worked at Republic Steel. All gone. Harold, black guy who towed your car, worked in Akron at the Goodyear Plant. All gone. All these guys here had nice honest jobs, with medical, dental, optical, pensions. Now they got nothing except what I can round up for them any way I can. ’Cause they have to keep eating, and they have to make payments, and they have to feed kids, and they have to have a beer now and then, just like your car has to keep running even though you can’t afford a new engine. You do what you can, and you move on. For most people, that’s what’s real. That’s my take on it. That will be $200 cash. Otherwise, $250 for a check or a card.”
He went back to his invoices.
“You know, it doesn’t have to be this way,” I said. “People can take control of their lives through collective action.” I winced at my own rhetoric.
Shorty shook his head. “Collective action? That’s why we had a union. But the leadership only came back with a year’s severance. I was a steward. They met with us. They told us you can’t stop a runaway plant. I told them we could take it over, run it ourselves.”
My eyebrows shot up
“I did,” he said. “I told them that. They looked at me like I was crazy. Afraid they’ll get busted or, worse, lose the severance money. And so the plant goes down. So I had this idea. A bunch of us chipped in half our severance and we bought this place, the equipment and the trucks. Interstate is very twisty, rainy, foggy this stretch. Lots of accidents. All our drivers, mechanics are layoffs from mills and factories around here. We all have equal shares. Doesn’t pay like our old jobs but it’s something. It’s like that Rolling Stones song, You can’t always get what you want …”
I finished the line, “… but if you try sometimes, you find, you get what you need.”
“Here’s your two hundred,” I said, counting off ten twenties.
“Here’s your keys. But if you don’t mind my saying….”
“I know. I smell like a feedlot.”
He grinned. “Good luck, Buddy. Stay downwind.”
“Good luck to you.”
It was late and I was tired, so I checked into a Motel Six on the fast-food strip just off the highway exit. The clerk, shielded by inch-thick Plexiglas, required payment up front.
“Say, what kinda car you got?” he asked.
“An old VW.”
“Need a rebuilt engine? Bodywork? I know a good shop.”
“I’ll bet you do. But no thanks.”
* * *
I didn’t sleep much that night. At dawn, I called the Singletree number. Becky picked it up. “I figured you’d answer. You still have that thought about us?”
“It’s in my head.”
“Then let’s go. Get ready. I’ll be there in three hours. Take the kids.”
“Wait a minute, Doug. Like you said, we hardly know each other. Are you sure about this?”
“Of course not. Who’s sure about anything? What have you got now? A husband who two-times you at will, who can’t relate to his own kids, who treats you like a camp-follower. The schools are good in Ferndale. You could substitute-teach, and I think I can get a job through those TDU or DRUM guys. But we would have to make our move now. The school year is just beginning.”
“And if it doesn’t work out?”
“Look, we'll give it nine months. I’m ready to do it, as partners, lovers, friends, whatever. If it doesn’t work out, you can have my car and all my money.”
“That’s pretty slim collateral. What made you change your mind?”
“I talked to a big thinker. Actually a short one.”
“How’s the car?”
“So far, so good. That’s all you can ask for. Don’t expect heaven.”
“I gave up on heaven a long time ago. I’ll settle for Ferndale.”
“I’m on my way.”