AROUND MIDNIGHT, in that hushed and naive moment just before the bomb exploded, I wasn’t thinking about the revolution at all. I was thinking about broasted chicken and Mexican beer. I’d just called the Double Front Café for two orders to go, and was debating whether to pick them up on foot, or take the Bronco. In the next room Kitty was slaving away at her typesetter, composing a catalog for a nursery marketing cold-climate trees to Peking. As she produced a galley I pasted it up for the printer on a piece of art board taped to my light table. After suffering through a decade of self-conscious proletarian deprivation, we were finally making some decent money. And I'd even begun to venture out of my mind from time to time to live in the real world again.
That very afternoon, for example, I had enjoyed good progress in my struggle to show Slick, our mutt, that his nightly raids on the trash cans in the alleys around ourBonner Park rent house was a simple case of Left Adventurism. At dinner, before we went back to work, Kitty and I had even talked about having a child. We’d been married four years, and the families were wondering. The fruit of our union would be mostly Welsh, of course, but would this little foal have my brown eyes and big Roman nose or Kitty’s blonde curls and fair skin?
It was a muggy, overcast Sunday in June of 1983, one of those rare Montana evenings so rich with Andy-of-Mayberry languor it didn’t seem possible that anyone could summon enough energy to do something evil. The heavy air was scented with pine and the fresh-rain smell of sprinklers on tired lawns and the faint astringency of diesel exhaust wafting from the track yards of the old Northern Pacific on one side of town, and the depot of the Milwaukee Road on the other. Missoula’s sad little downtown, which had steadily withered since the big mall opened on the strip in 1978, was silent and abandoned. The brown Ford Maverick had stopped down on Higgins near our second-floor windows. That the driver had pulled up yards short of the intersection of Higgins with Broadway was an anomaly whose weirdness wouldn’t strike me until it was too late to do anything about it. I had wondered vaguely, just before the car’s peculiar location registered, if the unsyncopated clatter I heard was bad lifters or bad timing.
I’d spent my twenties in this dusty warren of offices, obsessed with class struggle, hallucinogenic drugs, and the eminent collapse of monopoly capital. But our lonely campaign of agitprop and radical publishing had been rudely ignored in the crush of our greedy, reactionary countrymen as they boogied down the Disco Highway toward that golden city where the bourgeoisie claimed there would be plenty of cash for everyone. The only evidence that I’d accomplished anything in the 1970s was a shelf of tabloids in the office library. Here was every page of every issue of the Borrowed Times, the last underground paper in America, once my passion, once the perfect manifestation of the injured, self-righteous anger that had always fueled my political passions, now just a stack of yellowed newsprint.
Suddenly, a searing pulse of light cut through the night and a concussion slapped the air, its force like the back of a hand to my face. I screamed at Kitty to get down. I flattened myself to the floor and crawled from my office into hers. There was a silence. Then pieces of the Maverick began raining down on the asphalt from the considerable height to which they’d been propelled. Glass, steel, a tire that landed with a thump and rebounded with another thump and rolled down the empty street.
Kitty was whispering something. A woman was screaming.
In my confusion I thought: What the hell took them so long?
Ah, Barry Goldwater, now there was a guy who appreciated pinpoint bombing. When I saw people’s horror during the 1964 presidential campaign at his pronouncement that the U.S. ought to invade Cuba, abolish the Social Security system, and use nuclear weapons to bring the war in Vietnam to a halt by broiling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I knew that politics would be my main source of entertainment for a very long time. Although I was only a sophomore at Central High in Grand Forks, and five years too young to vote, I marched to Republican headquarters one vibrant autumn day and promptly volunteered. The guy behind the desk, who looked like Elmer Fudd’s kid brother, noticed me ogling the coeds unpacking bumper stickers that said AuH20.
“Aren’t you too young to smoke,” he said.
“There’s no such thing,” I said, taking a deep drag on my Camel. “What do you want me to do?”
“Not so fast, my friend. What is it you like about the Senator?”
What I liked was the disgust on my old man’s face at the simple mention of Goldwater’s name. I stalled by faking deep thought. “His book,” I said at last, tapping the stack of skinny paperbacks on Fudd the Younger’s desk.
“You read The Conscience of a Conservative? What did you like about it?”
God, what was wrong with this dork? Here I was, free labor, and he’s grilling me like I was a purveyor of kiddie porn. If these campaign girls weren’t having so much fun I would have walked right out. Casting around for an answer I recalled the Disney version of electoral politics I’d been suffering through in civics. About how the Democrats believe that government should be a net to catch people when they fall, and how the Republicans thought that less government was better government.
“You know, that part about how people can take care of themselves,” I guessed.
Fudd inspected me for fakery.
“So,” he said at last. “We need help with yard signs. Where do you live?”
“Presidents Trailer Park.”
“Jesus, that’s no good,” he whined. “You can’t put campaign stuff on Federal property.”
“Maybe there’s something around here I could do.”
I spent every day that fall hanging with the young Republicans, loitering at headquarters, going to the rallies. What attracted me was the sexual energy, and the sense of attachment to something exciting, something that tasted dangerous. Plus, I had a lot of time on my hands. Central High had swollen to twice its capacity after a horde of military and government workers like my old man descended on Grand Forks Air Force Base to plant the prairies with Minuteman missiles. We went to school in shifts. Study halls and the cafeteria were eliminated. When you weren’t stuffed into some overcrowded classroom you were supposed to hit the streets.
Consequently, the downtown was choked with gangs of slouching, smoking teens milling around the burger joints, dancing in the day clubs to the Beatles and the Beach Boys (“Help me, Ronda, help, help me, Ronda”), and cruising around aimlessly in their cars.
I also started killing time at the city library across the street from school, reading all the apocalyptic and dystopic fiction I could find. After Fahrenheit 451, I read Brave New World and 1984 and A Canticle for Leibowitz and Animal Farm and On the Beach, then Lord of the Flies and William Golding’s forgotten novel, The Inheritors. What I absorbed from this body of conjecture, besides all its indelible imagery, was that at the core of man’s institutions glowered a force that resembled pure evil. In the atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia following the Cuban Missile Crisis and America’s discovery that it had lagged behind the Soviets in the arms race, this was a fair assumption, especially when I considered how close I lived to all that thermonuclear mayhem.
When I finally ran out of this sort of fiction I reluctantly opened The Conscience of Conservative, which I’d been carrying around for show. And there, too, was government portrayed as a sort of vicious mastiff necessary for limited unpleasant tasks, but so dangerous it must be kept in a cage when not employed. Based on all this reading, and misreading, I decided that I must have been a far-right zealot all along.
Back at Presidents Trailer Park I covered the walls of my tiny bedroom with buttons and posters, creating artful arrangements of the heads of Barry and his running mate, William E. Miller, the obscure Congressman from New York, festooning them with campaign shibboleths such as “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “Moderation in the support of liberty is no virtue.” My father warned me that if any of this wacko trash found its way outside my room he’d burn it.
“In your heart you know he’s right, Dad.”
“In your guts you know he’s nuts, son.”
That was the beginning of the only political dialogue about Barry I would ever be able to draw my old man into. He saw immediately that this had nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with my love of offending people off just for the fun of it. Still, on one level I found my father’s political views contradictory. After all, Goldwater was simply suggesting that the taxpayers get some value from all those expensive rockets my father spent his stressful working days installing under the corn. To me, it seemed an incredible waste of money not to fire up a few of these babies to teach Khrushchev a lesson he would not soon forget.
But Ben Vaughn had been raised on an unpromising East Texas cotton farm during the Depression only 300 miles from LBJ’s boyhood home. He talked like LBJ, and my grandfather, William Pleasant Vaughn, actually looked like LBJ, especially in the area of his enormous chimp-like ears. To the Vaughns, who knew the same families the Johnsons did, LBJ’s occupation of the White House was living proof that The Almighty had big plans for Texas. Not only that, my old man revealed, Goldwater was a Jew.
“His grandfather was Jewish,” I said.
“Someday you’ll understand what I’m talking about, sonny. These are junk people. They won’t ever be real Americans.” (. . . won’ ever be ray-ul Mare-kins.)
“He’s got Navaho tattoos.”
“And I’ve got Jap shrapnel in my butt.”
“What about that electric thingy that raises the stars and bars at his ranch every morning?”
The old man turned away to draw a beer from the mini-keg of Hamm’s he kept in the fridge. “Ansty Pants,” he said, ending the discussion by ridiculing the boxer shorts decorated with big red ants Goldwater had designed and marketed while running his family’s department store in Phoenix.
I dismissed the widespread predictions of a Johnson landslide. Voters lie, in order to look like conformists, I reasoned, but when they actually step inside the booth they’ll do the right thing. And I didn’t pay much attention to the frosty reception I got on people’s doorsteps. Especially after a Central High junior named Maggie Benson joined the campaign.
As we stood shivering on some citizen’s porch the night before Halloween she plucked the cigarette from my lips, and, with a deft and subtle gesture, flicked it into the yard. Then she put her tongue in my mouth.
“Vote for Barry?” I said when a housewife came to the door.
“Go neck somewhere else,” the housewife said.
Later that night, in her dad’s den, Maggie Benson would dispel the rumors I’d heard around school that her bra was stuffed with gym socks.
On Election Day I was behind the wheel of the driver’s ed car, cruising south on Belmont Road beside the Red River, when I heard the first returns on the radio. All seven voters in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, had voted for Goldwater. I pounded the dashboard in triumph. This was going to be a wipeout! The instructor beside me, and my two classmates in the back seat, stared in bewilderment.
By the end of the day, of course, LBJ had captured 16 million more votes than Goldwater, better than 61 percent of the turnout, an even higher margin of victory than FDR’s supposedly untoppable triumph in 1936.
After a while a curious sort of pride replaced my shock. I began to see myself as a dark, romantic figure, a lonely crusader striding across the Plains bearing my steely message, a purist who took the extreme position and defended it because that’s what real men do. How was the cause of free speech served by babbling the same vacuous sheepspeak that everyone else did? Who cares if the weather sucks? Who pays attention to the fan who stands up in Wrigley and declares his love for the Cubs? What good is an egg without Tabasco?
LBJ went back on his word, of course, escalating the war in Vietnam and abandoning his Great Society promises to the poor. But by late 1966 I was too preoccupied to say I told you so. Now on the verge of graduating from Charley Russell High in Great Falls, Montana, I was busy skipping class to hunt pheasants and drive around the back roads with my pals drinking beer and exploring caves, making sure everyone saw the working class chip on my shoulder. I was trying to take my mind off the question of the age—army or college? I didn’t want to spend any more time in a classroom, but who wanted to sacrifice his butt in a war nobody liked? If only Barry were in the White House, I thought, I wouldn’t have to choose between these muddy forks. A simple push of a button, and bingo! No more commies.
Five years later I was a commie. One day in May of 1972, I rolled out of bed at noon, brewed a pot of chicory coffee and brushed the tangle from my shoulder-length hair. I dressed in the tattered khakis of the first lieutenant’s uniform I’d found at the Salvation Army and completed my natty look by pinning a small red star from the People’s Republic of China to one collar. Then I hurried into downtown Missoula for a demonstration scheduled at the Federal Building. For years this spot had been the terminus of the peace marches that forgathered on the University of Montana campus a mile away. The crest of these insurrections had followed the shootings at Kent State in 1970, when the mob grew so large the police panicked and blocked downtown streets with their patrol cars, for no discernible reason.
But on this day, even though Nixon had just ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor and the commencement of massive bombing raids over North Vietnam, only three people showed up—me, my best friend, and my best girl. The reason for this poor turnout was another Nixon announcement: Because the U.S. was turning the ground war over to the South Vietnamese, American college boys would be exempt henceforth from the draft. The antiwar movement had evaporated almost overnight, leaving only the purists and the lunatic fringe to wring their hands.
“Hee Hee,” we chanted. “Ho Ho. Tricky Dick has got to go.” When we stopped to catch our breath we realized that we were not alone.
There were five of them, four guys and a girl, slouching on the corner across the street, smoking like cons in an exercise yard, sizing us up like bludgeon killers shopping for bitches. They wore fatigues and greasy hair and had the bad skin of people who follow game shows and eat canned meat. The toughest-looking one made his way through the traffic. I got ready to fight. But when he came closer and I saw that his jaw was the size of a gorilla’s I got ready to run.
“What the fuck is this?” he said.
“Who the fuck are you?” I said.
He flicked away his cigarette and went to his pocket. I flinched. What he produced wasn’t knuckles or a knife, however, but a leaflet I’d printed on an ancient flatbed press in the basement of Freddy’s Feed and Read, a leftist book store that also sold and groceries to stay in business. You’re cordially invited to World War III, the banner said.
“You guys the demonstration?”
I unclenched my fist. “Yeah. So far.”
He called across the street. “This is it!”
We hovered around each other like team captains before a football game, exchanging names and shaking hands. The tough guy was Mike. They were living communally in a salvaged barracks hauled up the spooky reaches of Donovan Creek twenty miles from town. They called themselves The Krik. Mike and his pal Steve were Vietnam vets whose experiences of shooting at people and getting shot at had deeply pissed them off. There was about them the overcast weather of those who were waiting for an apology.
This could be amusing, I thought, overestimating my ability to organize anything besides my sock drawer.
“One, two, three, four,” they began chanting with a snappy little stutter beat. “You can shove your fucking war!”
Then we all were chanting. One, two, three, four . . . .
Truck drivers idled in traffic stared as the echo of the last war faded into the spring breeze streaming through Hellgate canyon.
“Now what?” Mike said.
Here was indeed the next question of the age. Since I was no longer vulnerable to the draft I had decided that my school days were over. I turned my face skyward to take the resurrecting sun and there I saw a perfect contrail, a heavenly stroke drawn from west to east in whose precision I divined a demarcation between the conclusion of one era, and the beginning of another.
Everything in Montana happens five years after it does in the cities. Cocaine, Rotisserie baseball, curbside espresso, Ecstasy, and day trading were already old news in L.A. and D.C. by the time Montanans thought they’d discovered the cutting edge. The moment we decided to publish an underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb was in its sixth season, the East Village Other in its fifth. And the Great Speckled Bird from Atlanta, our model and our inspiration, had attracted so much attention since 1968 that someone felt compelled to incinerate its offices in 1972 with a firebomb. By that year underground newspapers were at the zenith of their popularity; as many as 18 million Americans were reading some 500 of these little tabloids on a regular basis. And what
better place than Missoula, we reasoned, to bring forth a new one? This old railroad town had a long history of civil disobedience— in 1919, for example, during the infamous “Red Scare” following the rise of Bolshevism in
Europe, hundreds of anarchists and other malcontents rode the rails into town to pack the jails in protest of an unconstitutional municipal ordinance against public gatherings.
We rented nine rooms above a sewing machine store on North Higgins. The suite’s previous renters, the Girl Scouts, had moved out twenty years before. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed and the floorboards were littered with plaster. The good news was the rent—$25 a month; the bad news—there was no heat. With a jolly Andy Hardy exuberance all the kids pitched in to clean the place, while the Stones blared from the stereo. Then we got down to business.
To our great joy the very first issue of Borrowed Times made enemies. We ran an article exposing the shabby materials and practices employed by a developer building 500 shitboxes on Missoula’s South Hills. The scumbag’s first response was to fire a longhaired carpenter he suspected of leaking information to us (not true).
Another article laid the groundwork for a successful lawsuit against the Burlington Northern Railroad brought by Kitty’s older sister, who’d been denied a job because she wasn’t a man. (In a place as intimate as Montana, which hayseed wits like to describe as a town with streets 500 miles long, there’s often no more than a single degree of separation between any two citizens picked at random. Although it would be six years before I would even meet Kitty, a woman I fell in love with along the way to Kitty would get a terrific job as an engineer because of this lawsuit; her locomotive would later ram the sedan of a drunk who had passed out while stalled in the track yards during a blizzard, thus saving him from freezing to death.)
When we found out that the Missoulian, the town’s daily rag, was breaking a federal law by publishing help-wanted ads classified by sex we called the publisher, who claimed that because the law was being challenged in court he could do what he liked. So we filed a complaint against the paper with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and fired a shot at the paper’s editorial writer, who’d had made a career of demanding that local industries meet federal anti-pollution standards, even though those laws were also being challenged in court. We weren’t advocates of air pollution, of course, but hypocrisy was hypocrisy. When I ran into this editor on the street his condescension made my skin crawl.
“Only a few typos,” he sniffed.
“Thanks so much,” I said. “You know, you don’t smell too awful for an asshole.”
We also featured an article from our reporter on the scene at the Democratic National Convention in Miami, a guy who would later become a producer at NBC’s Dateline. And our prescient agriculture editor wrote an analysis of why it would become increasingly harder for family cattle ranchers to make a living; now thirty years later the laws that allow the rich to shield their capital from taxes by tying it up in huge corporate ranches are still driving small operators off the land. Finally, lest our readers forgot that the U.S. was still at war, one of our pinko news services reported that American bombers were targeting the levees in North Vietnam’s Red River delta hoping to create flooding that would drown thousands of civilians (this never happened).
The rush of meeting our printing deadline, and then the sudden sweet exhaustion when this memorable first issue hit the streets, was delicious. Over the coming years these highs, abetted by mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, Camels and those little amphetamines called crossroads, would become addicting. In the beginning I adored rabble-rousing. There was a transcendental nobility about siding with victims and attacking predators that bound me, at least in my imagination, to the old journalistic fraternity of those who comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But whenever I ran out of gas and found myself wondering what the hell I was actually doing with my life I always glorified the fighting side of me as a simple case of class antagonism. For someone who followed the Marxist Way, I believed, an acidic temper wasn’t just an occupational hazard, it was a job requirement. Once you saw the unfairness of the world, how could you ever be sanguine again? But looking back now, I see that my aggression sprung from a hatred of authority and a craving for control much more than it did from any lofty sense of justice. Had I turned this antiseptic scorn on myself I might have learned that my pleasure in going after people in print might have been born of something primal, something Oedipal, something bound up with the inarticulate rage that proletarian fathers can’t avoid passing on to their sons, generation after generation, that venom that sometimes manifests itself in America as class warfare, but more often than not compels us instead to beat up on each other. I never considered that there was something wrong with me, that this deep well of indignation might have at its source some old injury, some kind of damage, that maybe I just never got enough mother’s milk or father’s pride. (Was Mao’s daddy a tyrant, and Lenin’s, and Fidel’s?)
Whatever, after working for days without sleep, in crowded offices so cold I could see my breath as I pounded the frigid keys of my ancient Remington, I tended to fall in love with my own image. I had read Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, a history of socialism woven around Lenin’s triumphant return to Moscow in 1917, and had come to picture myself as a revolutionary mole undermining the system from underneath as I prepared for the explosion that would bring me my moment in the sun.
Although the Borrowed Times sold only enough advertising to award modest paychecks to a couple of people at a time the paper never suffered a labor shortage. The original core of former journalism school students, people trained for corporate jobs who couldn’t bring themselves to embrace the corporate world, and people like The Krik, who had seen things in the real world no animal should ever see, were joined by a circus of malcontents—anarcho-feminists, crypto-Wobblies, wildcat unionists, Euro-trash homosexuals, Stalinist poets, Maoist fly fishermen, people who would become lawyers. After mysteriously disappearing one day, a girl who had made a fuss in the criticism-self criticism meetings about sexism among the staff, appeared on the back cover of the newest album by Gordon Lightfoot, with whom she had run off while the folksinger was in town for a concert.
By the mid-1970s Missoula had become one of those towns like Eugene, Madison and Chapel Hill where hordes of baby boomers finished college but refused to leave. And why should we? You simply couldn’t find the people and the things you’d come to love in places that didn’t have student ghettoes. You bought your bongs and incense and roach clips at the Joint Effort, your organic veggies and tofu at the Good Food Store, and your ramen and your beer and your pinko tracts at Freddy’s Feed and Read. For me, Missoula was not only a sanctuary from the U.S. Army, it was the first safe haven I came to after seventeen years of living under a cloud.
The self-righteous esprit de corps that grew up among the denizens of these counterculture enclaves was symbolized for me by the events that occurred one evening at a diner called the Shack. After a day at the office, as we gorged on Tex-Mex enchiladas, a young couple came in with the girl’s father, and took a booth. The lovers were wearing their patchouli and tie-dye like red badges of courage. In terms of the attitude they were broadcasting, they were just like us, just like everyone else in the diner. The father, however, wasn’t like us at all. And he was not enjoying himself. As their dinner moved from sullen to annoyed to angry the father’s face turned red and he began trembling in his effort to control his temper. The kid was obviously shacking up with his daughter, and wasn’t going to allow her old man to tell him what to do. Suddenly the father threw a glass of milk in the boyfriend’s face. And the boyfriend responded by unleashing a furious volley of punches that caught the dad—and everyone else in the diner—completely off guard. It was over before anyone could stop it—not that anyone wanted to stop it The couple strode out the door in indignation. The father, who wasn’t bleeding and didn’t seem to be seriously hurt, was trying to find a phone so he could call the police.
“You all saw this!” he accused the room. “You’re witnesses!”
“We didn’t see anything,” someone said.
“What the hell kind of town is this?” the father roared.
I put down my fork. “I guess you just found out.”
The main theoretical thrust of what the Borrowed Times would try to accomplish—that is, a democratic worldwide socialist revolution starting in Montana—was supplied by Harmon Henkin, the son of an alcoholic Jewish cabdriver from Baltimore. In his column, “Karl’s Korner,” Henkin explored such concepts as private property.
Will I be able to keep my harmonica after the revolution?”he was asked by a “reader.” “What is meant by private property,” Henkin replied, “are the land, factories, and money used by one class to oppress another. And your harmonica playing can’t be that bad.” In Henkin’s Marx for Dummies analysis of events I found a satisfactory explanation of the cosmos, mostly because it glorified the salt of the earth and denigrated the rich. (Henkin would later do his best to become rich himself. Crisscross, his boffo 1976 action-adventure novel about a dope-smoking radical who gets entangled in a CIA conspiracy, helped him pry open the gates of showbiz, where his success as a screenwriter was at its peak when he was killed in 1980. The truck he was driving to pick up a brass bed for Frog Hollow—his 30-acre place on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation he bought with Hollywood money—hit a wet patch on the interstate and rolled over, breaking his neck. His L.A. friends bought a full page in Daily Variety, eulogizing him as the “most outrageous Montanan who ever did Hollywood.”)
As we edged further to the left and away from the investigative journalism that had brought us so much early pleasure, some of us began to have delusions about our role in the world, and thus certain paranoias. We began carrying weapons. I drove around with an ancient and nearly useless Enfield .303 rifle in the back seat, fully loaded at all times (as if anyone would care—this was Montana, after all, where every pickup is fitted with a rifle rack). When we suspected that the office phone was being tapped we arranged a bogus meeting one night in which large quantities of “explosive” would change hands. We showed up the 2 a.m. rendezvous, in a truck stop parking lot, and offloaded several boxes of newspapers from one vehicle to another, but to our disappointment no one appeared who looked like a government agent.
When the Montana New Socialist Party was organized, putting at the top of its agenda a state-wide referendum that would “nationalize” the Montana Power Company in order to lower rates and halt its strip-mining of coal in the eastern part of the state, we all joined, and began touring with the party’s message. On a morning radio show in Great Falls we expected a flood of calls, but got only one, from a guy at the John Birch Society, who wanted to come down to the station and debate us on the air. In the end we never collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It was another exhausting project that “raised consciousness” but accomplished nothing real.
During the Homecoming parades down Higgins we hung a banner from the office that said “Go Reds! Smash State!” but no one ever seemed to notice it. When we went to meatpacking plants and pulp mills all over the state to sell copies of the paper no one ever threatened to kill us. No one ever fired shots at the office. And it was never firebombed.
After years of covering this strike and publicizing that injustice, of selling papers in the snow to guys coming off the graveyard shift, of backing causes no one cared about anymore, even The Krik began to lose its zeal. Smoking dope constantly, tapping their ashes into the casing of an artillery shell, they took to scrutinizing with great longing the alley window of the pharmacy next door, to which we had access from our back roof. In the evenings, exhausted, I pushed my typewriter away and stared for hours through the windows at the dances held in the Oddfellows Lodge on the second floor of building across Higgins, at the old women wearing taffeta formals, the old men in tuxes, spinning and spinning, waltzing the night away. Or else I retreated to an abandoned movie house adjoining our offices, the old Bluebird Theater, where I huddled in the balcony, watching the stage, as if some answer to the question of what I should do with my life was preparing itself in the wings. Now completely irrational, I had begun to feel the burden of history on my shoulders. If was destined for a role in the vanguard of the revolution, wasn’t it about time I learned how to wage a people’s war? Was it too late to enlist in the army in order to pick up these skills? Was capitalism really on its knees?
I was never forced to actually answer these questions. That’s because Kitty appeared on the scene.
“So what’s that you’re smoking?” I asked lamely.
She regarded me in the manner of someone looking at mud. “Camels,” she said. “What else?”
A year later we were living together.
When it became clear to her that the Borrowed Times would never pay us a living wage, and would only continue to drain money and energy from the typesetting business she was trying to build, she pleaded with the few of us who were left to pull the plug. And so in the summer of 1980, three million words after its first issue, four years after the Great Speckled Bird went under, the Borrowed Times died, alone, unloved, as obscure in death as it had been in life. The last issue contained no paid advertising and no announcement of the paper’s demise. From a business standpoint, shutting down the presses was the right move. We finished with the same number of subscribers we started with—2500. Many of these readers were geriatric Depression-era radicals whose names we lifted from a subscription list of the “progressive” Montana weekly, the People’s Voice, which had folded in 1968. Unlike the Voice, the Borrowed Times had never achieved the notoriety I had wanted for it, never reached very many people, and certainly never brought any sort of revolution closer to bloom. Although I was surprised at the relief I felt, I began suffering a recurring dream—which still visits from time to time now twenty-five years later. In it, I’m trapped in those tiny rooms, cold, hungry, broke, putting out yet one more issue, one more story about this strike or that injustice, forever and ever.
For our curtain call we solicited our surveillance records under the Freedom of Information Act. When the envelope came we ripped it open eagerly, like actors scouring the trades for a review of their play. But to our dismay there wasn’t a single word inside about us (the only Borrowed Times the FBI had ever spied on was an organization in California that went by the same name, although whatever it was they did to attract the interest of the government was a mystery since ever word in the report had been blacked out except for a couple of prepositions). After all those years of shouting and threatening and insulting, could it be true that no one who mattered had been listening, that all along we had only been preaching to the converted?
All of this came back to me with a rush as the last of the Maverick crashed back into the street that muggy June night. Windows were blown out in other buildings on Higgins, but the old Borrowed Times office was unscathed. Kitty and I crept down the stairs. The sirens were growing louder. The college girl who’d been screaming was now sobbing in the arms of her boyfriend. The Maverick’s roof, found a block behind the car, had been torn off like the lid of a can. The windshield was found a block in front of the car. Shopkeepers would continue for days to come upon pieces of the driver’s body—an ear here, a tooth there. The only thing the FBI could ever determine was that he was 48 and he lived in Anaconda, a smelter town two hours away. They never found a motive, no reason why this man was wandering around with a bomb, and, nor even what kind of bomb it was. There wasn’t enough tissue found from his hands to check for traces of explosive. (In one of those maddening coincidences that seems commonplace in Montana, Unibomber Ted Kaczynski’s first victim would be the best friend of the man whose nursery’s catalog we were putting together that night.)
Beside the wreck lay a ruptured bag of gore and splintered bone in a pool of blood. I took Kitty’s hand and we walked down Higgins to the Bronco as cop cars and ambulances passed us at breakneck speed. I drove over the river carefully and parked behind our house carefully and sat down carefully on a
lawn chair in the back yard while Kitty went to get us a beer.
I was thinking about how eagerly the soul welcomes contradictions, both those borne by the mind and those that spring from the heart. For example, how can a person possess the temperament, say, to call himself a revolutionary, but simply never develop the stomach, or the courage, to spill another man’s blood in the name of a cause?
Kitty held forth a St. Pauli Girl, studying me the way you’d scrutinize someone who might have a concussion.
I took a good long pull on it. A warm night breeze was rustling the leaves of the big Norway maple I had named Eduard, which I had nurtured since the day it had sprouted from a wind-blown seed, fretting over its health, until it sunk a taproot into a sewer line under the yard and began growing like some mutant in a science fiction movie. As the breeze pushed around the clouds, and the constellations began to show themselves, I felt something cold and intractable leave my life, like smoke streaming through an open window.
Copyright © 2006 Bill Vaughn
To the Milwaukee Station