Michael James : Pledging Allegiance in 1961

Pledging allegiance, Westport, Connecticut, 1961. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Pledging allegiance in
Westport, Connecticut in 1961

Westport is where I learned to love America, where we played in fields, in woods, and on the shores of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | July 24, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

I’m back home in Connecticut, an original colony, the “Nutmeg State” turned “Constitution State.”

I grew up with constant reminders of the Revolutionary War. On Red Coat Road we played “fight the British” near where real Red Coats marched to burn hat factories in Danbury.

Westport is where I learned to love America, where we played in fields, in woods, and on the shores of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound. Its where in the late 1940s we hiked along the Wilton Road singing “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on; glory, glory hallelujah.” And my town really supported the new United Nations.

My teen-dream romance comes rapidly undone one night at the beginning of the summer. That is it; young love, over and done. I spend the summer in pain, a shredded heart — one mizzable bastard to use one of my Dad’s favorite expressions.

Life goes on. I have a job at the YMCA’s Camp Mahackeno. It’s where artist Eric Von Schmidt (in full Indian dress) taught us about the Sioux. The Camp’s Rotary Pavilion became the Downshifters Hot Rod Club garage during off-camp months, and we were there — and upset — when the Russians and their Sputnik machine beat us into space.

A young trumpeter, I was a Mahackeno bugle boy, blowing reveille in the morning before the Pledge of Allegiance. In the afternoon I blew taps while our beloved flag was lowered. At Camp Mahackeno I suffered major yellow-jacket abuse while trying to save the bees from a clean-up brigade with a forceful hose.

There I earned my Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish, Shark, and Porpoise badges, and grew up through the ranks: a Papoose, Hiawatha, Brave, Sachem, and CIT (counselor in training). Now I was a counselor and unit leader.

We marched our tribe through the woods to my family home on the Wilton Road. My mom Florence fixed lemonade and sandwiches. Mom (Dad didn’t allow me to call her Ma) also gave me an illustrated kid’s book with stories of Bre’r Rabbit, et. al. I read them to campers during rest periods.

I loved Uncle Remus, the storyteller. He took a lot of hits for being an “Uncle Tom” during the Black Power years. It’s hard today to find a copy the Disney film Song of the South. In my mind he was kind and wise, and a cool old dude. I am glad I saw that flick. Bre’r Rabbit was definitely cool!

I head to Rhode Island. Not to Charlestown and the drag races of my high school years, but the Newport Jazz Festival. I’m with high school chum Don Law, his dad a C&W producer with Columbia Records. We party late into the night with Nigerian drums-of-fire-guy Babatunde Olatunji and jazz great Horace Silver.

In 1963 the cultural activities committee will bring Olatunji, his drummers, and wild Haitian (and gay) dancers to campus during Africa Week. Silver’s Sunday school teacher in Norwalk turns out to be the mother of my adopted brother, body builder Jim Arden.

I look forward to heading west and back to school. I do it via a run south to Birmingham with fellow Downshifter John Willoughby. On a late summer night we hit Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, and I swear the Bristol Stomp was on the radio. The tune is about a dance in another Bristol —  Pennsylvania — and was being played nationwide.

Willoughby’s mom nourishes me for a day, and then I don my sport jacket and hitchhike, mostly up US 41, back to college. Near Pulaski, Kentucky, I get a short ride in a beat up car with a group of juiced up folks, both white and black. They’re having a fun time.

I am crammed into the back seat, surrounded by heat, wind, and people drinking — a scary-reckless-ride. I do accept a hit of whiskey from their pint. A feeling of relief engulfs me when the ride is over and I get to stick out my thumb again.

Back at college I embrace it all. I enjoy debating the issues of the day: birth control, abortion, the death penalty, and the Greek fraternity-sorority system. I pledge the Phipes, a local house, home to football linemen; I resign shortly thereafter over pledging rituals, beliefs, and attitudes.

The new “beatniks” and independents take over the school paper, The Stentor, as well as control of the student government. The administration had been supportive of the Greek decline until they realized they had greater control of students through the Greek system. Civil rights, race, and the teachings of Malcolm X are now real hot topics on campus.

It’s been 53 years since I headed to LFC and I only recently and happily learned that it was started by pro-abolitionist Presbyterians, and that the town was involved in the Underground Railroad.

There was a small black community in town, but very, very few blacks on campus. However, over the next few years the College seemed to make efforts to change that. Black students arrived from the East Coast, the Chicago area, and Africa. Marcia Gillespie, who went on to edit Ms. Magazine, was among them. Randy Holman, Charlie Williams, and others began to stir things up. The son of a left-leaning probation officer in Chicago, Randy was an early-on militant sparking discussion and organizing people to go hear Malcolm X in Chicago.

Joe Obuto from Kenya couldn’t get a haircut; the local barber claimed not to “know how to cut a Negro’s hair.” That led to student action and the intervention of the Illinois Commission on Human Relations. President William Cole would end up being appointed to that Commission, and active students initiated tutorial programs in both North Chicago and Chicago during 1963 and 1964.

Early in the football season I’m in the Lake Forest Hospital with a horrible sore throat. The doc isn’t going to let me out to play on Saturday, but teammate Paul Gilroy helps me climb out of the first floor window, through the pouring rain to his car, and on to the field house. Coach Hanke says I can’t play without the doctor’s permission; I say, “I’m playing today or not anymore.”

I play a strong game in the pouring rain. We lose the game and I have terrible tonsillitis for years until Dr. Quentin Young and the Medical Committee for Human Rights arrange to sneak me into Chicago’s Masonic Hospital to remove those tonsils.

After my stint at Arden Shore I have babysitting and cooking jobs that include a place to live, first for a family named Garfield (descendents of President Garfield), and then a Christian Science and banker family named Thomas where I live in the servant’s quarters.

And for a time I live with one of the Herbert brothers who is a counselor in a makeshift dorm on top of the Administration building. My dad is between his producing jobs for advertising agencies and producing the Broadway hit Man of La Mancha, so these jobs are necessary to supplement my government loans.

I hitchhike back and forth between Connecticut and Lake Forest. I have a lifelong friend whom I met at college, Patrick Sturgis from Massachusetts. Later we would call him Patrix or just Trix. During our senior year we live together in an off-campus crib.

We are together in the frigid weather at Brady’s Leap, the most eastern rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike, hitching home in December of 1961. Some college kids stop to pick us up on the entry ramp and are promptly busted by Ohio State Troopers for “stopping on the ramp.” Taken to a nearby town, a nighttime Justice of the Peace hits us with a fine.

A few years after our time at LFC Patrix and I would run together in Chicago during our active revolutionary years, in Students for A Democratic Society (SDS), JOIN Community Union, and Rising Up Angry. We were photographed together rocking a police paddy wagon that nearly ran people over during the 1968 Democratic Convention battle at Michigan and Balbo. Later we would both have natural food joints: mine the Heartland Café in Chicago, and Patrix’s, Beans and Barley in Milwaukee.

We took the same pledge of allegiance: to social justice and wholesome food.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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