Many of the radicals who helped to form and shape my old union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were merchant seamen before they worked “along shore”. They had traveled to exotic places around the world and been confronted with different realities and turbulence and revolution. The union owes much of its glorious past to these pioneers whose worldview was expanded by world travel.
Consciousness is often elevated by a radical change in one’s environment.
My life was radically changed by my experience of a year abroad in Florence – Firenze, Italia. Many Americans end up in the Tuscan cradle of the Renaissance because of a professed urge to study art history. I got to Florence because of language and then love.
I had studied Latin since the 7th grade. During my five years of classical study, I had read the Odyssey and the Iliad in Latin and performed in Latin theater. Deciding I wanted to be able to watch Italian movies without subtitles I took a course in Italian as a senior elective in the fall of 1968.
That was the first year Italian was offered at Andover. Taught by Mr. Markey, a French instructor who had never studied Italian, he stayed one lesson ahead of the students. The class was three of my Italian American teammates from football and a 6 foot 2 Brit who later became a Labor Member of Parliament. On the last night of class the Professor invited us all to ride into the North End, the traditional Italian neighborhood of Boston for an Italian meal. He dined us and maybe wined us at a white tablecloth Italian restaurant on Parmenter Street off Hanover, the main street of the district. Quite a sight; the diminutive Mr. Markey escorted by 4 hulking footballers and a big Brit.
That summer, 1969, I returned volunteering at the North End Neighborhood Center where I was hired to tutor young Italian kids in English. Soon the kids discovered that I was trying to learn Italian and spent the rest of the summer tormenting me with their rapid fire Neapolitan dialect. One day in June we chaperoned the children to Scusset beach just north of Cape Cod on the South Shore of Massachusetts. On the beach I met another tutor in the program, Marinella, an Italian from Firenze. We talked all the way home on the bus. She tolerated and teased me about my Italian. She had a warm smile and a seductive laugh. I was smitten, and I insisted on walking her home to the family she was living with on Beacon Hill. With that began my almost two year courtship of La Biava, la Fiorentina.
Marinella had witnessed the devastating flood in Florence in 1966 and the whole situation had so depressed her that her mother and her older brother decided it would be best if she got out of Italy and went to the USA as a nanny. She started out in Evanston, Illinois caring for young children of a family there, and then moved to Boston to live with a wealthy old Brahmin family on Beacon Hill. We were a couple by the time I began my freshman year that fall at Harvard University. It was my relationship with her that would lead me to live in Italy in 1971-72.
“Many of my teammates were ethnic Italian and Irish working class kids from the greater Boston area…”
But first a little of my experience at Harvard. I was assigned to live in Strauss Hall right on the edge of the Harvard Yard in Harvard Square. I took Italian and a lot of courses in Political science, which I thought, might become my major and kind of befitted the turbulent times. I remember taking a course with Carl Friedrich, a Professor and German national who had written the post war constitution of West Germany. I would sit in the front row of a giant hall to listen to his lectures; inevitably falling asleep only to awake in an embarrassed start, feeling like the whole lecture hall was looking at me. The fatigue was not just the product of his boring lectures, which consisted of him reading chapters from his book. I was tired because I was playing football and worn out from practice and the endless meetings and film study sessions.
Football was an intense experience even at a non-powerhouse like Harvard. It was also the place along with the hockey team where Harvard sought to infuse the ruling class with some new blood, some toughness from the other side of the tracks. Many of my teammates were ethnic Italian and Irish working class kids from the greater Boston area who were there to play football or hockey. Many of them had brothers and friends who were in Vietnam. Some of them were not real enthused by my anti-war attitudes and politics. Long bus rides to games were often punctuated with intense and emotional discussion over the war and the protest against it sweeping across college campuses. I managed to hold my own in those discussions because I had held my own on the gridiron. I remember being charged by multiple teammates in the “bull in the ring” drill during practice. I fended off the charges of my line mates and emerged standing bleeding profusely because the bridge of my nose had been broken. One of my teammates slapped me on the helmet and said, “Not bad Prep”. The “bull in the ring” drill has since been banned from all levels of football.
The war even bled onto the field. I’ll never forget the head football coach telling us in my sophomore year that if anti-war protestors invaded the field during a game, we were to dutifully retreat to our dressing room under the stadium.
I participated in most of the public protest on campus against the war and Harvard’s complicity in it. Shrill rhetoric about the leading roll of workers in revolutionary struggle was never much substantiated by actual blue-collar participation except for the occasional presence of a few Harvard custodians. There was no lack of debate about the issues however, and there were plenty of “bull in the ring” intellectual encounters in which my clever and intelligent classmates would spar over the issues of the day and spread their oral genius. I was never much for these discussions because they reminded me of prep school sparring that was predicated on wit and clever remarks, not grounding in real experience.
The most dramatic moment in my time at Harvard occurred in the spring of 1970. The US began to bomb the dykes in North Vietnam and protests escalated throughout the country culminating on May 4, 1970 when the National Guard gunned down four students at Kent State. Eleven days later at a Mississippi black college, Jackson State, two protesting students were killed without much of the national anguish over the four at Kent State.
But prior to Kent and Jackson a major protest was called for the Boston Common on April 15th. I went to the protest on the MTA Red Line from Cambridge to Park Street station. I stayed for the whole rally. Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Yippies (Youth International Party) gave a stirring speech in which he pointed at the John Hancock building, then the second tallest building in Boston and shouted, “See that hypodermic needle, John Hancock was a revolutionary not a fucking insurance salesman.”
After the rally I climbed up over Beacon Hill on my way to Marinella’s. Four or five hours later I decided to ride the MTA to my dorm in Harvard Square. As we approached the square the train stopped unexpectedly several times. Finally the train pulled into the station and the few of us still on, got off. I rode up the clackety old wooden escalator and emerged into a darkened eerie square with fires burning everywhere. The Cambridge Trust and the Harvard Bank’s windows were both smashed in and trashcans burned throughout the square. I looked north along Massachusetts Avenue and saw Cambridge riot police massing to charge down into the square to clear the area. A group of Weathermen had marched back from the Common along Massachusetts Avenue and smashed store windows, trashed banks and gutted two police cars with fire.
“…“impaled” on the Yard fence.”
Well the Weathermen were no longer in the square but I was, and I was all alone. My roommates and friends were inside the Yard and the giant metal gates had been shut and chained. They yelled for me to climb over the fence. The fence was over ten feet tall and the wrought iron bars were capped with metal spikes. I started to scale the fence and got one leg over the spike when my back foot slipped. I was wearing dress shoes with slippery soles. The knee of my right leg became caught on the tip of the fence. Fortunately my friends were able to raise me up and over the fence to safety just before the Cambridge cops swarmed into the area. They would have most certainly pulled me backwards and done severe damage to my knee.
My adrenaline was rushing so I felt very little pain in my leg, but then I examined the tear in my pants and discovered a gaping wound. My knee had been impaled on the Harvard Yard fence!
Friends escorted me thru police lines to the student infirmary where med students took turns looking at my wound, which was deep enough to offer them an opportunity to study human anatomy up close. Finally they stitched me up and sent me back to the Yard.
Among all the news radio reports of the Harvard Square riots one story emerged of the Harvard freshman that had been “impaled” on the Yard fence. Harvard’s attorney at the time was a law school professor named Archibald Cox, who had been Solicitor General for four years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He would later be one of the casualties of the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20, 1973 when he was dismissed by President Nixon from his post as Special Prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.
At a press conference later that evening Cox was asked by the media about the impaled freshman. All imagined a human body run through front to back by the sharpened spikes of the yard fence. Cox calmly faced his questioners and demonstrated his acute legal mind and attention to detail by saying,” Let’s find out where he was impaled.”
Needless to say I remember very little of academics from my two years in Cambridge. I was absorbed by my relationship with Marinella, who was my first serious girlfriend and love. I would visit Italy with her in the summer after my freshman year. She stayed in Italy at the end of the summer, and I returned to the USA alone. Our relationship continued in unsatisfactory fashion via snail mail letters and strained phone calls at odd hours because of the time difference. I decided that if we were going to make it I would need to move to Firenze. I applied and was accepted into a junior year abroad program with the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers. The program was attractive because rather than isolating American students in a Villa with each other, the Rutgers program inserted its students directly into the Universita di Firenze.
Soon after my acceptance however my relationship with Marinella fell apart, but I decided to push on to Firenze anyway. In the fall of 1971 I set out for Italy
In the next installment I describe my year in Italy; on strike at the University, giving an anti-war speech in the Piazza della Signoria, playing rugby and being attacked by a fascist gang in Rome.