Over the last three and half years, it has been hard to find much inspiration and motivation in public life. The intense political polarization filters what news there is from here or the outside world. We only see a particular set of frames from the horror show reel that is unspooling.
This long feared yet poorly anticipated global pandemic has placed us into a contaminated and chaotic Coronaverse, where international discourse and exchanges are largely suspended.
Peace Corps has been completely uprooted globally for the first time in its nearly 60-year history. Volunteers have been evacuated globally and discharged early. Will they ever return? There are few venues and fewer means to consider the needs of the poor and developing nations of the world. Churches and preachers when they are heard from seem to be focused more on how they can rush to re-open physical spaces without regard for the public health.
The idea of Obligatory National Service was floated during the primary season by the Buttigieg campaign. Few have since mentioned it since. Hopefully, it will be included in the 2020 platform of the Democratic Party and the nominated candidates of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
I am offering this book to recall simpler times. I want to remind us when service in Peace Corps and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) abroad offered a chance to help. When service abroad offered greater meaning and purpose. This book is for the younger generations who have seen their opportunities and futures seized from them by the viral pandemic and virus of racism. It is also for those with children or grandchildren derailed by the disruption and the deformed public discourse.
Words have power. I have some stories to share. My life took a direction I had never anticipated from the start. I served in Peace Corps a full two years thinking that I would return home afterwards. That proved not to be the case.
I saw the most abject poverty and struggled to find ways to grasp how to fight it and how to understand it. I saw plenty of action in decades of service overseas. I was shot at, arrested, threatened with expulsion. I also encountered the most unexpected surprises along the way.
I lived and worked almost four decades in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Although I have also seen crushing disappointments, I remain relentlessly and stubbornly optimistic. The rich and enlightening experiences I faced at the first steps of my career helped me shape all that came after.
I want to share these with you, dear reader, in a spirit of fellowship and sincerity. There are lessons and experiences that are informative and instructive. This book represents one important slice of my life story and that of many wonderful people.
Are you considering life options overseas once we get through to the other side of this Coronaverse? Are you interested in finding opportunities for greater meaning and purpose? Are you interested in a story of failure, redemption, challenges, faith and perseverance?
The Andean Adventures here are the first which really determined my life. Though I would go on to others, these were formative and decisive.
The Andean countries of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru are not that far from the United States. But they also were and remain a different and unfamiliar world to most. Far less known than our immediate southern neighbors that have been targeted by those more interested in a Wall than a Bridge.
Feel free to let me know what you think. And since the story of Andean Adventures is one that begs a context it seems best to start from the beginning. How I ended up going to the Andes is an important part of the story.
Early Idealism Offers
grew up before age 10 in the Vandeveer Project, a mix of Jewish and other ethnic groups living in three-story apartment buildings in central Brooklyn. We lived not far from the famous “Junction,” the intersection of Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues. My sister and I and our parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment. We didn’t think of ourselves as poor those days, but our family was working class Jewish.
Neither my father nor mother had much of an education beyond high school, a year of college if that. My father had been in the Coast Guard during World War II and then the Merchant Marine. He shunned the business of his father. Ultimately he was a bartender, working at the Friars Club in midtown Manhattan for most of my childhood, and then the Blue Note Club. He served show business clients mostly. From them he caught flashes of something better for himself and his family. Those flashes remained as weak embers, never to catch fire.
My sister and I knew little of our mother. She had supposedly been an orphan, but the story was patchy. My mother had worked in a department store cosmetics counter and then been a telephone operator for a time before marrying. She left work then, only to go back to the work force as a clerk for a department store when we were older. When you look at the few photos from the late 1950s or early 1960s she seems to have been glamorous, dark and exotic. She was relatively tall and slender, and looked a bit like Elizabeth Taylor in those days.
The Vandeveer had historically been ethnically mixed with a large number of Jews heading up Nostrand Avenue. In photos of my elementary school 3rd and 4th grade classes there was one Black boy, Philip, who I happened to be friends with. My parents liked Philip but worried that there were more Blacks coming after him. It was about to become, as they called it then, a ‘changing’ neighborhood. This meant in the language of my parents and neighbors that the ‘schvartzes’ were moving into the neighborhood more and more. That was the Yiddish term they used as a non-intentional slur. But it was also a goad for instigating ‘white flight’.
My best friend in elementary school was Charles Small. I remember him particularly because his father had a bakery on Nostrand Avenue where from time to time we would go to get free black and white cookies. Those cookies are such a New York thing. I think Seinfeld had a whole episode about them. What was it that made them so addictive? Nothing good I am sure in hindsight, but the memory remains from so long ago.
I have a strong memory from when at age 7 or 8 I got my first bicycle upgrade to banana seat and wheelie bike with the high-rise handlebars. I think some called them ape hanger handlebars. The bike was cool because you could do wheelies with it and it looked, if you squinted enough, like a chopper bike. I remember one time doing something I probably shouldn’t have been doing and careening down a flight of cement stairs to the basement of a neighboring apartment building. I think I was knocked out and all scratched up, to the point of being pretty covered in blood as I made my way back to our building and apartment on the third floor. My mother screamed when she saw me at the door, “Oh my God, you look like you came back from the Vietnam War!” Luckily despite the blood, nothing was broken.
Another memory which has never faded is when a classmate at school, a tough Italian kid called Joey who fought with everybody, got killed. He had climbed on top of one of those old Good Humor Ice Cream trucks on Foster Avenue. Somehow he fell and I think cracked his head or was run over. I don’t remember all the details, but it is one of those child traumas that never quite fade away. It was mentioned as a lesson and warning to other kids for a long time, “Remember Joey!”
Our upstairs neighbors, the Finkelsteins, were post war refugees from the Holocaust Nazi concentration camps of Europe. They had saved and scrimped their cash, including reparations money from post-war Germany. They had enough to do better. They ended up buying a house in another growing and prosperous newly developed area of Brooklyn called Georgetown. This new neighborhood was diverse enough for them with a mix of only Jewish and Italian.
The Finkelsteins had two sons who were one year older and three years older than me. They reached out to my parents to invite us to join them and rent the top-floor apartment of their new corner house. While my father had big dreams and aspired to better, with this we would still be renters. But we would be living in a larger three-bedroom apartment of a private family house rather than an old prewar apartment building. The house would have a shared washing machine and a dryer, which my parents and the Finkelsteins went partners on. They were in the basement beyond their garage.
We moved out of the Vandeveer to Georgetown in May 1969. Almost everyone in the area was new to it. One of the most established had been an immigrant Italian family a few houses down. The entrepreneurial Frank Griseta, who I think had been a chef, bought two semidetached houses that shared a yard space in between, which he filled with luscious tomato vines, grapes and other vegetables. We were friends with their two kids, Joey and Antoinette.
Moving there was how I got to enroll at age 10 in the 5th grade of PS 312, in the Bergen Beach area of Brooklyn. I still remember our 5th grade teacher Mrs. Alexander. The school catchment area was next to Paedegat Bay, an inlet of Jamaica Bay, which separated us from Canarsie. It actually fronted as well across the street from our new house. These were abandoned wetlands and dumping grounds for the new construction in this area of Brooklyn. With the tumult of the 1969-1970 school year, the class had an innovative ecology minded curriculum.
One of the first projects that came up in the autumn of that year was a cleanup campaign for part of Paedegat Bay. I ended up being one of the main student ringleaders promoting the cleanup of the marshlands and wetlands. With the help of our teacher we contacted the Con Edison utility and contractors and complained about the dumping that had gone on. We organized over 25 kids and their parents for the cleanup effort for several days. We got Con Ed or the Sanitation Dept to send over huge dump trucks to lug away the heavy items, dumped furniture, tires and the garbage we pulled out.
The father of one of my Italian classmates and friends, Anthony Vaccaro, was a City Councilman of some influence. Mr. Vaccaro had taken a liking to me, since he saw me as a good Jewish influence on his son. He got reporters of the press interested in the effort, and I ended up interviewed by a New York Post reporter. The paper did a write up about what we were doing and my motivations as representative of the kids. I became infamous in school with the article. The reporter quoted only me by name and used some quote from me about how I found my inspiration. I was identified as a principal ringleader among the kids in school.
We got caught up by Earth Day preparations in the spring of 1970. A bunch of us raised money through sponsorships for the planned first Earth Day walk in April. We raised nearly a thousand dollars or so. Part of that was used to pay for overtime for a school bus to take a dozen of us to Union Square in Manhattan for the Earth Day marches and rally. I still remember some speakers that day. In particular the Democratic Senator from Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson. I wrote to him back and forth after the rally about the importance of pushing President Nixon on more environmental legislation.
So began my political awakening and inspiration at ten years old. I was already somewhat precocious and standing out from the kids in my neighborhood. Meanwhile I had a growing passion for reading and particularly reading science fiction. I helped out in a new neighborhood bookstore a few hours a week. My 'pay' for this illegal child labor consisted of science fiction paperbacks.
My tendency to stand out increased in the next couple years while at Roy Mann Junior High School. I was identified early as an IGC kid (‘intellectually gifted’) and fast tracked into the SP (special progress) program. This meant I skipped 7th grade and went directly into 8th grade following 6th. In 8th grade I took the standardized tests for the academically specialized New York City public high schools. I ended up with the choices of Stuyvesant High School and Dewey beyond my neighborhood high school of South Shore HS (where my sister would attend).
Stuyvesant was one of the city’s top science and math schools together with Bronx Science. It was consistently a top-ranked school across the country. It had been a boys-only school until 1969. Luckily, Stuyvesant became ‘co-ed’ three years before I entered its ninth-grade freshman class.
Going to Stuyvesant immediately cut me off from the mainstream of our neighborhood and many friends I had among the neighbors. My sister, who went to the neighborhood high school, remained very much a part of the neighborhood environment.
For me, going to high school usually meant a trip of over an hour each way. I would walk at least fifteen minutes for a city bus. This would take me to the end of the line of either the IRT Lexington trains or the LL which ended at Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie. I had a train ride of nearly 45 minutes if there were no delays. This was common for anyone attending Stuyvesant from one of the outer boroughs. If I was staying later for after-school activities, it wasn’t unusual that I had close to a twelve-hour day away from home. It could be longer if I went to a friend’s house somewhere in the city.
At the storied and famous Stuyvesant High School, at the old building on 15th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan, my politics became at first a bit contrarian. I was the only kid in my freshman class homeroom in the fall of 1972 to state support for Nixon’s re-election over George McGovern. Why I took that stance when my instincts were liberal is a puzzle to me to this day; I suppose I was playing with being a contrarian since I reveled in the horror this evoked in my classmates.
“Genius” had been my nickname throughout junior high, a sobriquet sneered by bullies and repeated by friends alike. But at Stuyvesant most of the school fell into the nerdy category of students, even more academically accomplished in many cases than I was.
During ninth grade at Stuyvesant I had a class in comparative civilizations. I remember we were each assigned a country to “follow” and specialize in. I ended up with Kenya. I collected what I could in the library and read up on Kenya, but then I also reached out to the Kenyan Mission of the United Nations up First Avenue.
I ended up being a bit adopted by them, and given a wealth of material about Kenya, its leaders, its culture, etc. I became quite enamored with decolonialism, Kenya and Africa. This reinforced an ambition and dream of going to Peace Corps to serve and help after college.
I took Spanish for three years at Stuyvesant for the foreign language requirement. I took conversational Hebrew for one year for the rumored automatic “A”. I had no idea at the time that the Spanish would end up doing me in good stead. I did well enough in the sciences, including earth science, biology, chemistry and physics. I enjoyed history and social studies. Math, particularly calculus, not so much.
I did well in English, particularly composition. I thus had the great fortune of being selected for Frank McCourt’s class in creative writing for two years. I got Frank's class, thanks to my sophomore English teacher, Connie Miller and the English Department Chairman, William Ince. They were impressed with the science fiction stories I had begun to write.
The celebrated late author of “Angela’s Ashes”, “T’is” and “Teacher Man” was at the time a free spirit English teacher and storyteller in the Stuyvesant HS English department. Frank shared many of the very same stories that would go into his books. He encouraged me and the entire class to tell our stories, and to be authentic.
I’m not sure how authentic my stories were. But I even managed to sell some short stories to publishers outside, notably to the Perry Rhodan science fiction series, published by Ace Books. One of my stories was even re-published 25 years later in an anthology of Forrest J. Ackerman, subtitled “50 of the Best Short Science Fiction Stories by Unknown Authors.” An amusing classification!
Science fiction was an undeniable passion. It led me to organize with a bunch of friends a science fiction magazine at Stuyvesant that we called 'ANTARES', after the red star. Bob Kleiman and I were co-editors in chief. I found myself with the self-applied nickname ‘Galactic Emperor’, shortened by others to just ‘Galactic’. This of course was pre-Star Wars.
Our faculty advisor at ANTARES, as an official student publication/club, was our own Frank McCourt. I’ve no idea how we managed to get him to agree to do it, as science fiction was hardly one of his favorites. He would make fun of us at times, in a good-natured way. We were in his English class, and it was like we couldn’t get enough of him. His humor and humanity still managed to infuse our magazine. And his avatar was there through the comic artwork of the brilliant James W. Fry.
I cherish our first issues of ANTARES particularly from the artwork of James Fry and others. James did a splendid satire of the life of Frank McCourt that makes me laugh to this day. He also did a number of cartoons about our key ANTARES crew of writers and artists calling it SPACE ROT, a satirical take on Star Trek.
I was drawn into the creative mysteries and idealism of science fiction, reading and going to science fiction bookstores and conventions in Manhattan. Despite my nerdiness, I found myself in the clutches of a buxom blonde science fiction groupie called Phoebe. She had been next to me on the line at a “Star Trek Lives!” Convention in midtown Manhattan in February 1974, a visitor from Montauk Long Island in the city.
I guess I was a charmer who had ‘game’ without realizing it; almost before I knew what was happening, Phoebe had her hands on me. She also used the moniker of “Andromeda” for better stage effect. She was ten years older than me and must have assumed I was at least older than statutory rape age, thanks to a trace of facial stubble. While Phoebe initially panicked when she found out my real age, we still had a memorable fling for the next months. I think she actually joined the army sometime later, and I lost touch.
My class at Stuyvesant included some formidable over achievers. Among them, Tim Robbins, the actor and producer, was in my grade; Paul Reiser the actor was in the grade ahead of us. Gail Strickler, who came from my junior high school and would become a textile industry maven and an Obama Administration trade official, was also in my grade. Jonathan Greenberg, who would become a noted writer, journalist, publisher and social activist, was in my class with Frank McCourt. He was a fellow witness and audience member of Frank’s humor and storytelling. Naomi Oreskes, a highly respected Harvard professor and science historian, was a year ahead. Many celebrities and brilliant and famous leaders in their field were graduates in fact.
Science fiction wasn’t my only passion of course. I was also distracted by girls, flirting and fumbling with several in the first years of high school before going almost ‘steady’ with one, Karen. Karen was for me quite the standout temptation compared to other girls I’d flirted with in junior high school and the first two years at Stuyvesant. She was a smart, witty, blond, Teutonic looking ‘shiksa’ compared to the Jewish brunettes I had previously pursued. I enjoyed her self-deprecating sense of humor. She was also a great artist, leaning to the fantasy elves and unicorn side of things. I suppose she also reminded me of the forbidden love with Andromeda!
I am sure I looked swarthy and exotic to her mother, with my Jewfro. I always got the sense that her mother viewed me very skeptically. I was sure that in her eyes she imagined some sort of super Jew ravishing her pure Teutonic daughter. But she was always very nice and very flexible with Karen and me hanging out. More than flexible – she did nothing to discourage us. I would join them on summer and other holiday trips at time to Delhi in upstate New York and once to Provincetown on Cape Cod, and Karen and I were essentially left to our own devices.
I applied to about ten universities in my senior year, including of course CUNY and SUNY. My SAT scores were good generally although not particularly stellar for the scene at Stuyvesant. Perhaps I had been overly distractible between girls and science fiction. I think I scored initially a 1330, maybe a bit around 1440 the second time, on the scale of 1600.
I applied to ten top-drawer schools but really the only private school that offered me entry and a scholarship was the University of Chicago. I picked Chicago because I found it appealing to be in a city, yet distinct and a distance away from New York. Having a partial scholarship was important because it was clear that my father was going to be able to put forward little for college. I would have to be mostly self-sufficient.
Thanks to my friend Gerry Seidman, I got a great off-book summer job at ‘Amy’s’, then a fast-casual Mediterranean food place. They had three locales, but I worked the restaurant near Lincoln Center. I was the only American working there. The place was filled with undocumented Greek immigrant workers, so-called illegals. I came to really appreciate how hard they worked. I was taught to make falafel and babaganoush grilling the eggplants just-so in the kitchen, clean the tables, filled the special Amy’s sauce shakers and helped at the register. When I got ready to leave at the end of the summer for Chicago with some hefty savings, the Greeks insisted I have a sendoff party with them in Astoria, where there was fantastic Greek food, lots of ouzo and dancing on the tables.
My high school girl friend Karen went to Michigan State University relatively nearby to Chicago, or so I thought; MSU was in East Lansing, still a five-hour bus ride away. Though we would each make the trip once or twice at the beginning of the freshman year, our relationship did not survive the distance and other distractions.
Politics Strikes a Spark or Two
didn’t have the easiest of times as a freshman at the University of Chicago, at least at first. I was assigned my freshman year to Thompson House in Pierce Tower, an all-male house that had not been my choice at all. I wanted one of the co-ed dorms. Pierce was kind of funky as it was an eight-story apartment tower. Four of the floors were all male dorms and four were co-ed. My first roommate was this really fussy jock type called Howard, and we did not get along at all. When Karen came to visit one weekend before we broke up, he even tried coming on to her.
Eventually he moved out to a single room and I got as a new roommate a huge Cuban guy from Miami, Nelson Sanchez. Nelson had a great stereo hookup for the room. He also had an unexpected and unusual love for not only the Miami Sound Machine but Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and a host of other romantic crooners. He was quite the character; I still remember to this day a prank exploit he pulled on me where I came home to the room from some late-night party. I found the dark room on Nelson’s side quite normal and undisturbed, with Nelson “asleep” in his bed, and my side of the room VANISHED. Every piece of furniture and belongings of mine removed, dismantled and disappeared, including the bed, desk and chair. Yet for all that Nelson was a great guy, tolerant and tolerable, easy going, quick to forgive and forget.
Pranks were all too common as a freshman. I remember getting drunk with a bunch of friends one evening. We had been somehow talking about and making fun of Idi Amin Dada and other tinpot dictators in Africa. At some point after midnight, someone got the bright idea of calling the police with a bogus threat. I picked up the phone to general hysterical merriment in a phony East African accent. I said, “This is Idi Amin, I have an atomic bomb and I am not afraid to use it at the UN. I am from Uganda… and Ugandaaaaa is in East Africaaaaaaa.” Ending with a long stretch of the last vowels. Surprise surprise, about an hour or two later when I was in my bed and the others scattered, I found myself woken up by a banging on the dorm door.
The Chicago Police had come for me, unsmiling and unsympathetic to my half-drunk half-terrified protestations. I was dragged out and taken to the Cook County lockup.
It was not an easy night there, and the next morning a court appointed attorney told me that an “I” bond would be filed to allow me to leave on bail. If I kept my nose clean and mouth shut then this would eventually go away. Charges were dismissed, despite a no tolerance policy on prank calls and the like. I don’t remember the full run-in with the university authorities. They had played some role in helping me out after I learned my lesson downtown in the lock up. Luckily, there were somehow no long-term consequences. I certainly learned to abandon pranks!
I got actively interested in music. With some friends and classmates, we’d sometimes hit the near-northside of Chicago to hear the Kingston Trio. With others I would sometimes go to the Checkboard Lounge on Cottage Grove Avenue, one of only two white guys in a wholly Black frequented club. I felt at home anywhere. Southern rock was big with different friends. We’d play incessantly groups like the Charlie Daniels Band, Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I enjoyed Skynyrd especially with one of my best friends, Kris. He was a Yankee transplant to Birmingham Alabama’s upmarket suburbs in Vestavia Hills. Though Kris wasn’t really a Southerner he seemed pretty close to one to me. There was endless drinking and music at parties. We had plenty of half drunken escapades, including one up to Stevens Point Wisconsin with Kris and his roommate Andrew. Andrew was from the Florida Panhandle. I think we originally joined a school trip to visit an observatory but ended up in some drunken dispute about Neil Young and his song “Southern Man.”
Kris was an intellectual, only partially veiled as a redneck pretender. He periodically quoted from Socratic dialogues about Alcibiades. He liked to hide his erstwhile brilliance in class. He was (and remains) politically devoted to challenging the elites and status quo, and for speaking up for the ‘little guy.’
Another great friend in school, Gerard, was a libertarian British expat. His family were transplanted to Lake Jackson Texas. He liked to emulate Texans from time to time but his accent always gave him away. He was more academically inclined than me but also easy to get caught up in weed and alcohol. Gerry was a fan of his libertarian congressman Ron Paul, who was an obstetrician just starting in Congress at that point. Paul was still far from his quixotic presidential runs. Gerry also introduced me to Ayn Rand. Between Gerry and Kris, I found myself diving into politics at the University of Chicago.
At that point, the U of C Student Government seemed hopelessly dominated by a bunch of raging Marxists, Leninists and Maoists. They always obsessed over the latest resolution on South Africa divestiture, the Palestinians, the IRA or other causes. Together with some like-minded students from the graduate and professional schools. I helped start and promote a new political party, BLISS standing for 'Better Leadership for Improved Student Services'. The BLISS message was a pragmatic and nonpartisan one. It was all well and good to pass countless resolutions about the atrocity of the month in the outside world. But what about improving student life at our school?
I got my first taste organizing politically for BLISS. I remember being lambasted by the Chicago Maroon as one of the BLISS ringleaders. They lampooned BLISS as standing for 'Better Lackeys for Improved Student Subservience' – a bit brutal. Yet in the elections that were held in the last quarter of our freshman year, BLISS dealt a crushing defeat at the polls to all the leftists. BLISS won over 85% of the vote, and a huge majority. BLISS continued to dominate in Student Government during my remaining time at school.
For my sophomore year I was determined to leave the dorms. Together with two others I managed to find a fantastic apartment in the lakeside development known as Regents Park. Located at Lake Michigan at the end of South 51st Street, there were two twin 30-floor modern towers. I managed to get a three-bedroom apartment at the southeast corner of the 29th floor, at what proved to be a very reasonable rent when shared.
The Regents Park apartment was incredible. I got the larger master bedroom with separate bathroom for having found the place. The living\dining room walls were glass, floor to ceiling and seemed enormous. It had a panoramic view that allowed you to see the southern curve of Lake Michigan heading to Indiana and Michigan. In the west it seemed you could see almost as far as Iowa. I still remember being able to see from the apartment the smoke from some huge fire in 1978 in Romeoville Iowa near the state line with Illinois.
Gerry and I and some other friends were interested in new and better parties. Not just political parties but actual parties. And at better locations than what were possible at the dorms, and the usual haunts around Hyde Park. Regents Park was one such place.
With my Regents Park apartment as a base, Gerry and I ended up forming the group 'Student Union' which went on to co-sponsor a bunch of parties for students. We had one memorable party at the top floor penthouse recreation\party room of Regents Park. I can still remember a Chicago Maroon headline referring to our creation of the Student Union as “Wind’s Latest Political Abortion.” Ouch!
The U of C had a demanding academic program. But it also had a heady brew of politics, sex, drugs, rock and roll. I assumed I would be on a pre-med track, majoring initially in biology when I enrolled. Mrs. Wind wanted her son to be a doctor and that had seemed the most natural thing to me. Unfortunately, I stumbled and tripped over organic chemistry during the Common Core program, which taught me the folly of my ways. My advisor, who seemed to view me as a hopeless case for medicine, pushed me to switch majors. I switched to political science\social policy with more of a minor in biology.
I dabbled in politics in different directions throughout my school career. One girlfriend, Kat, a sensible politically active Quaker, spoke urgently about social injustice and the corporate state. She nudged my social conscience and connected me to the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. She also turned me on to acid, and everyone drank and did pot. I remember a skinny-dipping adventure into Lake Michigan’s brisk waters once with her and other friends.
I raised funds and organized for DSOC and lots of other causes. I bought a 1968 brown Chevy Impala while at school. It made plenty of trips back and forth to New York and elsewhere. One stormy weekend I drove Kat, Kris and other friends to a No Nukes rally in Washington. Unfortunately, the car did not make it. We got hit with one of those near fatal sudden black ice freezes coming off Lake Erie in Ohio. My car and others spun out of control and smashed into a highway median in the rear. We were lucky not to be killed or injured. I remember the gas tank had been damaged and burst. There was a fifty-car pile-up.
With the lax safety rules at the time, I took it to a cheap mechanic shop. In the end they did little about the huge dents in the trunk (filled with no nukes political pamphlets) and bumper. They strapped on a replacement gas tank of sorts. The car was a continuing death trap no doubt. I managed to hold on to it and keep driving it for the rest of my time in Chicago, nicknaming the Impala “the Brown Bomber”. I am amazed I didn’t kill myself or others in that car, but it was sturdy and reliable.
I got involved with different local good government causes as part of my extracurricular education. Particularly Common Cause Illinois, where I volunteered for over a year in a range of areas. These included fundraising, membership and political lobbying. I lobbied for approval by the Illinois State Senate of “sunset” legislation, to set a time limit on the plethora of do-nothing commissions and bodies. They wasted needless tax dollars long after their political purpose had ceased to exist. Sunset rules were a good government reform then.
At Common Cause I got to know Rahm Emanuel, another volunteer, and a fascinating observer into Chicago Machine dynamics. Rahm and I went to lobby in the state capital, Springfield, meeting even briefly with Governor “Big Jim” Thompson thanks to Rahm’s connections. Rahm would later go on to a meteoric rise in Illinois and national Democratic party politics. Rahm's family was connected with the Democratic Machine. His father was pediatrician for the kids of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and later on for his son Richard M. Daley who would eventually succeed him as Mayor. Rahm himself just finished this year two terms as Mayor in conflict-ridden Chicago.
Volunteering for Common Cause exposed me for my first time to some of the then unusual intricacies of Illinois politics. At the time, the Illinois State House had about 150 members, who were elected from 50 multi member constituencies. I learned how these multi member constituencies had the uncommon and strange characteristic of essentially forcing the election from each district of two majority party members and one minority party member.
While multi-member districting was clearly a connivance developed in part for the care and feeding of the Democratic party machine as well as the Republican leadership, it meant that in Chicagoland the voter threshold to elect one Republican state assemblyman was much lower than the two Democratic safe seats. Similarly, in downstate Illinois it was the exact opposite. This multi member structure preserved a status quo between the two parties. It also meant as an unintended result that from among the minority members elected on both sides, you had some pretty unusual members. A few were total nutcases. But many were strong reformers and good government types electable thanks to the lower voter thresholds.
This got me thinking of options at the start of my senior year. I examined the 21st ward where my apartment was located. The Republican minority member in the ward or district was an old Jewish guy by the name of Bernie Epton. He was a graduate of the U of C but seemed out of touch and non-responsive to a lot of people. I fantasized, could I go after Bernie in 1980 and challenge him on the minority seat side? He didn’t seem to have much energy left; could I mobilize students and others in Hyde Park who might be excited by fresh blood?
I began to explore options and fundraising schemes. I thought I could manage it. Hubris perhaps but it seemed very doable given the amount of people voting for the minority (Republican) candidate in the 21st ward. Only about 5000 or less, compared to four or five times that on the Democratic side. I figured that a well-organized campaign in the University community and nearby could help get out the vote.
Bernie went on to run a quixotic mayoral campaign in Chicago in 1982. He was the Republican candidate against Black Congressman Harold Washington, an icon on the southside. His state assembly career ended then. The U.S. Supreme Court would decide in 1982 that Illinois’ quaint multi member districts were unconstitutional. From that point on I am sure it was the death knell for any Republican representatives in Chicago and probably many Democrats in much of Downstate.
But as it turned out I met one day in the winter of 1979-80 Rep. John Anderson and his wife Keke in a Chicago Loop station. Anderson was mounting at the time a quixotic campaign of his own for the Republican presidential nomination. He had not yet picked up that much steam and attention, but college kids were definitely attracted. I was mesmerized myself. I found him so rational and compassionate.
After meeting Anderson, I volunteered for his campaign and stayed on board for five months. I stayed until the disappointing results of the Illinois and Wisconsin primaries. Anderson was the Bernie Sanders of his time, and a Republican. He drew huge crowds from college students. But few actually came out to vote in a critical campaign against Reagan and Bush.
I was so caught up in the idealism and brilliance of the Anderson message, which offered such an attractive mélange of the best of both parties then. I was unimpressed by Carter then and uninspired by the later Teddy Kennedy challenge. John Anderson seemed to offer a desperately needed breeze of fresh air in American politics. But, when it was clear that every Republican primary would be taken by Reagan or Bush, he made the choice in April 1980 to run as an independent. This was fine; I supported him actively up to that point. But then he fatefully brought on Machine Democrat Pat Lucey from Wisconsin as his running mate. Much of his appeal on campuses melted away from the different message, and I drifted away also.
I gave up on the Anderson campaign in some frustration. I still was inattentive to my college studies in that fateful final quarter of the school year. It’s hard to know where my head was at that time. I really screwed up. I had dabbled a bit in pot but didn’t smoke that much because I was a bit afraid of smoking generally. I saw the effect of cigarette smoke on my parents, particularly my father. I flirted with acid with friends who were Deadheads but avoided becoming an acidhead myself. I drank heavily with friends at some of the local bars and watering holes in Hyde Park. I somehow avoided becoming an alcoholic or druggie.
I was however distractible, procrastinated and read only part of what I had to do for assignments. I was unproductive on papers and class schedules. So that whole quarter proved to be a wash. I think I had almost all incompletes from my classes.
This proved fatal since in late May I got word from my student advisor that I had too many incompletes to fully graduate. I had no idea I did not have enough credits to graduate, and so would be on the sidelines while the rest of my class graduated in June. I was embarrassed and depressed by this. My mother and sister flew out to Chicago for my graduation and I didn’t have the heart to stop them and tell them, until they arrived.
What a student advisor I had. Thank you very much Mr. Arlen Larsen. I still remember his name and his cavalier and inattentive attitude to me. Could he not have been a little more proactive and drilled home to me the impending danger? He was an idiot, but I was of course a bigger idiot for not doing the needful. I felt paralyzed and embarrassed.
I had choices – go forward full steam ahead or lick my wounds and try to fix things? I took on a bit of an attitude like Senator John Blutarsky in the movie 'Animal House' on being expelled from school. “Seven years of college down the drain, nothing left to do but join the fucking Peace Corps!” At least I rationalized it so.
I still had plans in place for post-graduation. I had an internship with the Illinois Bureau of the Budget researching issues on HMO alternatives for public aid recipients. This would be in the state capital. I then planned on joining my Peace Corps service training starting in late August 1980. I decided to go forward with it and ignore the screw-up with my degree, and deal with it later somehow.