No. 10: A Night to Remember

“You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand,
You see somebody naked and you say, ‘Who is this man?’
You know something is happening but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?”

– Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”

Roger Wilcox, one of the leaders of Plymouth SDS, approached the microphone wearing a Trotsky-esque goatee with matching intense expression, and began to speak.

“Will the people in the corner please stop playing Frisbee!” the latter-day Bolshevik declared, pointing to a dimly lit area of the cavernous armory, where a group of Yippie deviationists had decided to break the monotony with a bit of fun and games.

“We’re trying to have a building occupation here. Attention must be payed!”

A wave of laughter surged through the semi-comatose crowd of two thousand splayed around the vast bleachers and floor of the giant drill hall-cum-gymnasium.

“I mean it! What kind of revolution is this if people are playing friggin’ Frisbee! I mean, where are your heads at?”

The deviationists in the corner stopped playing Frisbee.

“Man has a point,” Harold Rothman muttered to himself, his head propped up by his windbreaker, which he was using as a makeshift pillow as he lay on the parquet floor, well-worn by the booted feet of thousands of Plymouth ROTC cadets. “What kind of revolution is this if people are playing friggin’ frisbee?”

Nearby, another weary Rebel With a Cause let out a yawn.

No question, the mood in the building had lightened somewhat. Was this a building occupation or some kind of leftist slumber party? It was getting hard to tell.

Night had certainly been some kind of trip.

Fact, the whole weekend was. First, there was the novelty shock of the Plymouth Afro-American society’s takeover of the Bent. Then, after the black revolutionaries had reached the deal with the administration granting most of their demands, followed the ultimate shock of seeing — or, as in the case of Harold, who’d been driving back to campus in his friend Max Blur’s Model A after a lakeside picnic on that beautiful Pearl Harbor Sunday, hearing over the car radio — that the blacks had been armed.

As Richard Zithersweig, one of Harold’s former Architecture classmates who had watched the university’s freaked-out carabinieri escort their shotgun-and-spear-bearing charges across campus from the roof of Cleveland Hall back to Africa House said to Harold later, “Man, when I saw that parade, I knew the party was over!

Actually, it had just begun. First had come the mimeographed sheets slipped underneath all dormitory doors the following day, ordering students to turn in any firearms in their possession, as if there were hundreds of students with rifles and shotguns stashed under their beds (not that there weren’t students with plenty of benign contraband stashed there). If nothing else, President Rankin’s administration, still flummoxed by Plymouth’s dubious distinction of becoming the first American university where locked weapons were deployed in the course of a student protest, was determined to make the campus gun-free — albeit somewhat after the fact.

The weird ukase was given full throat by a makeshift sound truck parked at the base of Libe Tower the next morning. “All university students are ordered to turn in any firearms in their possession to the University Police by 9 a.m.!” bellowed the megaphone, echoing across the valley as the students in the few classes that hadn’t been canceled scuttled about, as if this was just another day.

All students…Firearms…

Dada rides again!

***

That evening, as the CRISIS AT PLYMOUTH (as newspaper headlines were calling it) continued, the students huddled in their rooms trying to figure out what was happening, fielding calls from distraught parents who had heard news of the takeover and who also wanted to to know just what was happening at that crazy place upstate, came word of the faculty’s seemingly perverse decision to rescind the deal the administration had made with the PASS — the same deal by which the still presumably shotgun and spear-laden PAAS had left the Bent.

The only thing everybody knew was that there was a bunch of ticked-off blacks somewhere out there in the night — and that they most likely hadn’t given up their guns.

Good guess. As PAAS chairman Jeff Williams confirmed later that Potemkin-esque evening while addressing a mass meeting originally convened by SDS in support of PAAS, the blacks indeed had used the interim to upgrade their arsenal.

We have rifles!” Williams told the hushed crowd of 10,000, most of whom had come not necessarily to support SDS or PAAS, but simply to see how long their agonized alma mater had to live. Jones, hectoring in his best Huey Newton fashion, didn’t give them much grounds for optimism. ”

We have grenades. We have mortars.” Harold, seated at the top of the bleachers so as to get the most cinematic view, could see people turning to each other and mouthing, “Grenades?

Then came the topper. Plymouth, Williams said, had exactly half an hour to live, at which point one could hear the proverbial pin drop. This was it: Plymouth was about to blow. And then Williams, escorted by a squadron of equally menacing-looking student Mau Maus, left the hall to its own devices.

Carl Bindracke, the charismatic SDS leader, took the microphone and argued that the students in attendance not leave until they had persuaded the faculty to reverse its vote; that what, in effect, hitherto had been a teach-in was now a bona fide occupation. Whereupon roughly 8,000 Plymouthians had exited the building.

Which still left 2,000 for the barricade — one of then being Harold Rothman. That had certainly been a moment…

But that was several hours ago. Now, at 3 a.m., SDS was having difficulty controlling the Mass Action. The Yippies were at it again.

“Will you people please stil playing Frisbee!” Bindracke’s humorless assistant Wilcox shouted again from the podium.

Oven the next few hours, a stream of announcements — some true, some false, some arguable — issued from the podium, as various people — some serious, some not, some palpably mad — advanced to the microphone.

“ABC News has just announced that hundreds of students at Plymouth University have taken over Pistol Hall and are fornicating in the aisles!!!” one excited would-be newswoman announced to groggy cheers. This happened to be false — or at least slightly exaggerated.

“Three hundred armed sheriffs’ deputies have assembled in the parking lot of Woolworth’s, ready to come up here and knock the living daylights out of us,” someone else asserted, to similarly half-believing laughter. True.

An hour or so later, a Holy Roller, or some kinf of fundamentalist — for that sort had also infiltrated the arena — cried out, “I have seen Him tonight, out there!” to assorted groans, titters, and not a few shouts. “He is with you. I have seen him walking with you tonight. He is with you. Jesus is with you…”

Certainly seemed possible, that endless jingle-jangle morning. And then, sure enough, as if on cue, somewhere in the vast hall a tamboree sounded out.

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