Thursday, August 11, 2016

Chicago Summer of ’68 Memoir—What Happened to That Young Dude?

Much of the Murfin clan this June at daughter Maureen's wedding--The old man, Kathy Brady-Murfin, Heather Larsen (trying to hide), Maureen Rotter, Randy Larson, Ken Pearson, Carolynne Larsen-Fox, Caiti Pearson

Note:  A decades long postscript to Convention week.
The short answer to the question posed by the title of today’s entry is that he got old.  And fat.  And apparently lives vicariously through a computer keyboard with the distant ghost of a kid with the same name.
First, the most obvious.  I am nearly twice the fighting weight of 1968 and gravity has taken a toll on my once 6’2” inch stature.  I still have most of my hair, mostly non-descript still brown flecked with gray.  And it is almost the same length, tumbling over my collar not due so much to trying to stay 19 but to a busy life that gets me to a barber shop about three times a year.  The once brilliantly orange goatee is grizzled.  Like an old dog I am going gray around the muzzle first.  The old accountant’s horn rim glasses have been replaced with a sleek and modern semi-rimless pair.
As to attire, my old Wellington boots have given way to sensible brown leather walking shoes with thick rubber souls; jeans by khaki slacks.  I have a wide selection of collared shirts, short sleeve and long, both colored and plaid many frayed with years of wear. The shirt pocket is still stuffed with a pen, a little notebook, and now the ubiquitous cell phone which I barely know how to operate.  In season I often wear a tie and sport coat or blazer.  The general look has been described as that of a small college English professor gone badly to seed.  That battered white Open Road Stetson, has been succeeded by generations of cowboy hats in straw or felt depending on the season, veteran every day ones and reasonably respectable ones for dress up.
I am passed that age about which the Beatles once wondered the sustainability of affection.  After all these years I am still something of a strange duck.
And the young Revolutionary?  The wannabe Great American Writer?  Well, surprise, surprise, things turned out differently than I imagined back then.  The Revolution never broke out, yet in retrospect we can see that we were part of real change, for better or for worse.  On the balance mostly for the better.
At an IWW party in the mid-70's with Dean Nolan artist/poet/editor Carlos Cortez, New York anarchist and historian Sam Dolgoff, and Kay Brundage, ex-wife of Slim Brundage of the College of Complexes.
For ten or twelve years after the Convention, my life revolved around the Movement, mostly through the Industrial Workers of the World, whose old-timers I had encountered that week.  I took my red card the following summer.  I would go on to be an organizer, soap boxer, branch secretary, contributor to and eventually Editor of the Industrial Worker, and collaborator with Fred W. Thompson, who I first met at that Wobbly Hall visit during Convention Week on the history of the union’s first seventy years.  I sat at Big Bill Haywood’s desk with Joe Hill’s portrait staring down at me, measuring me against all the better men who had sat there.
I went on to be a part of the Seed collective in the early ‘70’s when the Convention era staff was all long gone and wrote under the moniker Wobbly Murf.
Of course there was still a war to oppose.  I was finally called in the Draft, refused induction, and went to prison in 1973 as the war was winding down and the Watergate hearings were on TV.  I wrote about all of that in another series of memoir stories.
I did study creative writing for a while at Columbia College and got some encouragement for my short stories.  I hung out where writers hung out, drank with them, pretended to be one of them.  But there would never be the Great American Novel, not even in manuscript thrown in a drawer and forgotten.  I never had the discipline for long form writing.  Worse, I never had a good idea. 
The closest I ever came was scribbling on a yellow legal pad the beginning of an insipid fantasy novella involving the discovery of Merlin on a bar stool of one of the dives I inhabited.  I was at that point so far gone that I didn’t even have a typewriter any more.  The manuscript, such as it was, was lost in a fire at the dismal rooming house I was bunking at on Diversey west Ashland.
Those the years when I was searching for the bottom.  After a tawdry little scandal in the late ‘70’s which is still too humiliating and embarrassing for me to discuss, I was an outcast and pariah.  I responded by valiantly hitting the bottle, exploring every dive saloon of fly speckled hopelessness I could find, alternating homelessness, crashing on the couches of my few remaining loyal friends, or putting up in a parade of bathroom-down-the-hall roach palace rooming houses and that level of single room occupancy hotels just above the wire cages of West Madison Street flops.
And then slowly, without ever actually reforming, an intervention, AA meetings, counseling, or treatment, I began to climb out of the hole.  That is not a boast, or sneer at any of those things, any one of which might have made the climb easier.  It is just a fact.

With my new family at the North Lincoln Ave. Street Fair I helped organize in 1982--Carolynne, Heather, and Kathy.

What seemed to lead me out of the abyss was my mystifying acquisition of a family.  It was a package deal.  Kathy, a young widow I had known ten years earlier when she was a Seed seller and roommate to staffers, inexplicably overlooked the roach and rat infested rooming house I was living in and the dim prospects of my two jobs as a trade school janitor and saloon mucker, and married me anyway.  Carolynne age 9 and Heather age 7 came along with the deal.
Suddenly I was living as a householder in a Logan Square two flat and trying to be a father.  I was not very good at it.  But I was not terrible either.  And I got better.  The girls got used to me.  I got a marginally better job reconditioning football shoulder pads and equipment.  And I got involved in things again—helping organize neighborhood block watches and becoming a very small cog in Harold Washington’s election campaigns.  Maureen was born rounding out the family and I learned to change diapers and let her go to sleep on my chest.
Against my will, we relocated to from Chicago to Crystal Lake in 1985.  I didn’t know a soul except for some of Kathy’s relatives and was lost in suburbia.  Eventually I got a job as an elementary school custodian in nearby Cary, decent job with insurance, benefits, and even a pension, if not a glamorous one.  Second shift for some years before ascending to the exalted rank of Head Custodian.  I also almost always had a second—sometimes a third—job.  Maintenance at the local shopping mall weekends, cleaning a medical office building, then clerking at a gas station.  My daughters saw me sporadically until I finally went on the day shift at school.
I had become what Fred Thompson, my mentor in the IWW and the best man at my wedding, called the home guard.  In union lore it was the foot loose Wobs who could hop a fast freight and respond to a call for bodies on a picket line, organizers at some distant and remote job site, volunteers for jail in a Free Speech Fight in Fresno or Spokane.  Married men with children couldn’t do that.  They could organize on their own jobs and maybe even win shop control.  They could send a spare buck or two to a strike fund or General Defense, maybe pass out Industrial Workers, or march in a May Day Parade.  Not as glamorous as the bindle stiff rebels perhaps, but in Fred’s mind the forgotten glue of lasting organization.
But there was no local IWW for me to hold together, and no prospect of one.  Yet I was still my nature an activist.  I wanted to do something.  To make a difference.  To make waves and raise a tiny spark of hell.

Riding the Democratic Party float in the Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade after twisting my ankle.
Sometime in the mid ‘80’s I responded to a tiny want ad in the Northwest Herald and signed on to become a precinct committee person for the Democratic Party of McHenry County.  My old Wobbly and anarchist friends would have been appalled, but in deeply Republican McHenry County, the Democrats were by comparison nearly Bolsheviks.  Besides, I had already waded in electoral politics working on a lefty Uptown aldermanic campaign as well as for Harold Washington.  Over the next nearly thirty years I would serve as the party’s unofficial flack, and at various times be Vice Chair, acting Chair, and Secretary.  I even ran for office myself three times, for Crystal Lake City Council, County Board, and Township Trustee.  Of course my ass was whooped each time.
About 1990 I joined the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock where everyone and anyone doing something progressive in the County went to church.  And in short order I found an outlet for the activist hole in my life.  Working closely with the Reverend Dan Larsen and groups like the McHenry County Peace Group, Latino Coalition, Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Justice, McHenry County College Peace Action Network, LULAC, and others we vigiled for peace every week for three years, staged numerous educational programs and forums at church or at MCC, opposed housing discrimination, pushed the County and municipalities into forming human relations commissions, opposed the local Minute Man Movement, and supported immigrant rights.  We were the go to guys on any social justice issue and the local press’s usual suspects.  We drew cheers, jeers, and occasional threats.
One of our most enduring projects was started as an alternative event to a Ku Klux Klan Rally and became the annual Diversity Day Festival which ran for thirteen years on Woodstock Square and which almost all of those years I co-hosted with local activist, educator, and journalist Gloria Urch.

Hosting Diversity Day with Gloria Urch in Woodstock Square, 2009.
After Dan retired, the Congregation’s Social Justice Committee which I chaired for several years rallied in support of daily mass demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin against the attacks of Governor Scott Walker on working people and organized labor and in support of the Occupy Movement.
The Congregation moved to McHenry, changed its name to the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison was called to the ministry, but activism continued.  There was an anti-gun violence campaign which the retired Rev. Larsen kept a hand in.  For two years we waged a high profile campaign for Marriage Equality with our allies at PFLAG and McHenry County Pride that included vigils all over the county, mass lobbying visits to local legislators’s offices, marching in community parades, and joining a mass demonstration in Springfield.  We celebrated an all-to-rare victory on that issue, successfully pushing a reluctant local Democrat, Rep. Jack Franks, to become the vote that finally pushed Marriage Equality into law.
After that we lost some focus and energy.  I worked to get the congregation behind the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Black Lives Matter vigil in Woodstock this summer.
Next up is an invite from McHenry County Progressives to be a featured speaker at their upcoming Labor Day Rally on Woodstock Square.  It is my second opportunity to unleash the old inner soap boxer.
During all of those years, I slowly returned to writing, first as the volunteer press and public relations person for almost every progressive group and cause or candidate in the county.  I also regularly contributed to the Letters to the Editor column of the Northwest Herald, which drew harassing phone calls, and threatening letters.  On the creative side, I turned increasingly to poetry leading to my 2004 Skinner House collection We Build Temple in the Heart and regular readings of new material in venues like the Tree of Life’s quarterly Haystacks Coffee House Open Mic.
But most of my energy as a writer has gone into this blog, Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout, which I launched to little fanfare and tiny readership over at LiveJournal in January of 2006.  It has grown and mildly thrived since moving to Blogger and now enjoys a few hundred hits a day and a small but loyal following.  It is also something of an obsession that keeps me up in the middle of the night pounding the keyboard.

Reading poetry a Tree of Life Haystacks Coffee House Open Mic.
Meanwhile my family grew up.  There were tumultuous teen years, my wife’s almost fatal bout with cancer, lean times, and multiple challenges.  But all three girls grew up into fine women, each a distinct and irrepressible person of her own.  We helped to raise our oldest grandson Nick Baily who just turned 26 and is back, temporarily, in residence and working at the same Circle K/Shell convenience store and gas station where I have worked weekend overnight shifts for years.  We see Heather’s 18 year old daughter Caiti and Carol’s 16 year old son Randy regularly.  Second Grandson Joe Gibson is alienated from the family but always welcome.
All in all, it has been a good life, if not the one I would have envisioned dodging teargas by on the streets of Chicago all those years ago.  Jerry Garcia was right—What a long, strange trip it’s been.


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