Forty-years ago, in January 1971, on my first visit to California as a guest of the Weather Underground, Jeff Jones picked me up at the Hippo, the legendary San Francisco hamburger joint on Van Ness Avenue, drove me across the Golden Gate Bridge, and brought me to a cozy two-bedroom cottage in the hills above Sausalito. In those days, Jeff and Bernardine Dohrn were lovers. They took the bedroom upstairs, which left the downstairs bedroom, with one small bed, to Bill Ayres and me. In hindsight, I wish I could say that Bill and I made love, or at least fucked, though in those days, the undergrounders had mostly given up pan sexuality and were fast becoming monogamous, some of them more eagerly than others. Bill and I slept next to one another like two chaste boys.
I knew Bill, Jeff and Bernardine from the old days, which was back in ’69, when SDS still existed and I worked in the national office in Chicago, along with firebrand Terry Robbins, writing and producing propaganda for the revolution. Terry called our effort a “shot gun.”
It was a brochure and it offered photos and bios of Huey Newton, whom Eldridge Cleaver had called “the baddest mother fucker ever to step inside history,” along with Cleaver himself, who had been the Minister of Education of the Black Panther Party and was on his way to Algiers where he set up the Panther Embassy in exile, with help from the Algierian government.
There were other mother fuckers in the shotgun, perhaps not as bad as Huey. After all these years, I do not remember precisely who they were or what they might have done, though I think that Martin Sostre was among them. Sostre had been arrested at his Buffalo, New York bookstore, charged with a long list of crimes and sentenced to 41 years and thirty days in prison. New York State Governor Hugh Carey granted him clemency and he was released in February 1976. My friends at Pacific Street Films made a documentary about him. Sostre died in August 2015 at the age of 92, pretty old for a revolutionary. Governor Carey showed more compassion than the current governor who did not see fit to release Weatherman Dave Gilbert from prison, though with COVID-19, the place is a kind of deathtrap.
January 1971 marked my first trip to California, but it was not my first trip underground. In the winter and spring of 1970, soon after the notorious townhouse explosion in Manhattan, I rendezvoused with some of the Weather fugitives who were wanted by the FBI. At first, we met at Maxwell’s Plum on First Avenue where singles and swingers gathered for food and drink and presumably for sex at a later time. Later, when the fugitives saw that I knew how not to be followed and could rendezvous with them safely, I was invited to their pad in Brooklyn Heights, where certain devices were manufactured and dispatched to symbolic targets. My wife Eleanor was one of the inhabitants of the pad, along with four or five guys, some of whom I knew from Columbia in ’68 and some of whom knew how to put wires together with a timer.
They seemed to be fearless. Not me, though I enjoyed the excitement of the underground and planned to write a book about it. I was involved in the “above ground” anti-war movement and belonged to a splinter group called “The Mad Dogs.” We marched on the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington D.C. in 1969 and also invaded Fort Dix in New Jersey where soldiers with fixed bayonets repelled us with tear gas.
I suppose I had credentials, not the least which was the fact that I had been arrested and beaten one long night by New York City cops at the nineteenth precinct. My photo was on the front page of the Village Voice. Veteran journalist, Jack Newfield, wrote a story about me that was titled “Moratorium Man Beaten.” Bill and Jeff and Bernadine couldn’t claim to be badder than me. That’s what I thought at the time.
I had a grand visit with Bill in Marin County. He drove me around in the rain and introduced me to a cast of characters who lived in cabins which they heated with wood burning stoves. We went to Bolinas and joined an encampment on the ridge where young kids and their mothers romped. In those days it seemed so easy to elude capture by the FBI, though I had a couple of close calls. Before I boarded the flight from N.Y. to S.F. in 1971 someone, perhaps a cop, perhaps an employee of the airline, pulled me aside and asked to see my ID.
I had a driver’s license and a ticket in the name of Thomas Charles, though I called myself “Rocco,” and so did the undergrounders. I had borrowed the name from the Italian movie directed by Luchino Visconti, “Rocco and His Brothers.” I don’t know why I was pulled aside before boarding the flight, nor why I was allowed to fly. Alain Delon, my favorite actor, played Rocco Parondi. Like him I had and still have brothers.
On another occasion, near Southampton on Long Island, I was in a car with six other Weather Undergrounders all of them fugitives with wanted posters. The police stopped us, asked to see our ID, which we showed and let us go. After that, we tended to think we were invincible, though we weren’t. Some of the fugitives were popped and jailed.
I enjoyed my sojourns underground on both coasts. I liked the summer house in Margaretville in Delaware County in Upstate New York which had a lovely pond. One afternoon, I captured a dozen frogs and planned to make frog legs with garlic and butter, but Jeff Jones said I had to return them to the pond, which I did. Once we dropped acid and went on a long hike, came down on the wrong side of the mountain, ended up by mistake in a family’s backyard and had to beat a hasty retreat.
Jeff Jones baked bread. Bill Ayres made souffles. Bernardine recounted stories, including one about how the pill had changed her life. In Brooklyn one summer day, she and I took the subway to Coney Island, went on the rides and ate popcorn. By then Bernardine had given up eating meat. When she visited me and my parents in Sonoma County, my mother served venison, which she rejected politely. Bernardine had known my father from the National Lawyers Guild. When he died, she wrote a tender poem about him which I treasured for years. That visit to my parents’ place was in 1977, not long before she and Bill, and Jeff and my ex-wife Eleanor turned themselves into the authorities. By then I had become a northern California outlaw.
I write this now at the age of 79, in part as a conscious act of nostalgia and also because Bill Ayres has gotten a bad rap in some circles and has been demonized. Bill was no better nor no worse than anyone else in the Weather Underground, though more than anyone else he wanted to write books and become famous. I worked with him on one of his manuscripts while he was still underground. I remember once he showed up late at night at my parents’ house, went down into the crawl space under the living room and retrieved a box with documents he had stored there.
For most of the 1970s, Bill wanted to be thought of as a bad boy. I did too. Bad boys had certain advantages over good boys. You knew what you were getting. Good boys tended to be less trustworthy.
In 1990, when I was conducting research for my biography of Abbie Hoffman, I stayed in Chicago with Bill and Bernardine, their two sons, Zayd and Malik and Chesa Boudin, Kathy Boudin’s and Dave Gilbert’s boy. We mostly stayed home and talked about the Sixties, though I also remember that Bernardine made matzo ball soup for the boys, and took me to a Little League game where she screamed her head off for Chesa.
Bernardine could be tender and tough as the proverbial nail. Jeff could be goofy and inspired especially when it came to the environment, and Bill was a perfect bedmate. Legends die hard. The legends of the Weather Underground have spun out of control. Much of the history has been lost. All of us who were there then have memories, some of which coincide and some of which fly in opposite directions. Isn’t that the way it has always been with veterans of long ago causes?
This post was originally published on Radio Free.