Students Changing the World?
By Michael Calvert
October 7, 2014
“What’s the Music Room?” asked Tim, an acquaintance from the old neighborhood. He had recently enrolled at Ohio State to avoid the draft, but he was genuinely impressed with intellectuals and the insights he attributed to them. As a sophomore and the only person he knew on campus, I became his guide to student life.
“The Music Room is just another place to study like the other rooms here at the Student Union,” I replied. “Classical music plays all the time.”
“ You mean longhair?”
“ Yeah. Bach, Beethoven, and those guys.”
The Student Union was our home base on campus. We spent time between classes there drinking coffee and eating sandwiches in the Tavern, the cafeteria on the first floor that did not serve alcohol, and sitting in the lounges. I had usually studied upstairs in the large, airy lounges with high ceilings, big windows and modern turquoise, red and gold chairs. Massive stone fireplaces burned steadily in the cold weather. Muzak was the almost imperceptible sound track. Stealthily watching coeds come and go was a major attraction.
The Music Room was a small, musty, windowless lounge with a low ceiling and dark, wood-paneled walls, a burnt-orange rug, and low, modern furniture. Aside from the classical music, it had the hush of a library. A counter at the single entrance suggested that admittance was exclusive and restricted, but the student who worked behind the counter merely accepted requests for a particular symphony or concerto. Anyone could enter and listen to music, read, write or doze.
“Let’s try it. Duke Ellington and Bobby Darin wrote some longhair stuff, and I like their riffs,” said Tim. I shrugged and we decamped to the Music Room. It became our place to meet and study.
Within a week, my gregarious friend had met most of the characters who hung out in the Music Room and introduced me to them. One was Paul Tucker, a tall, thin guy who padded around in his socks with a furrowed brow and a sense of urgency. Tim learned that he had been pursuing an undergraduate degree for more than ten years. Some quarters he dropped all his classes and some quarters he didn’t enroll at all. A perpetual student.
The somewhat older guy with a bulging satchel was Howard Helwig, an army veteran determined to get into medical school. He read all his textbooks before the first class, reread and highlighted them during the course, and reviewed every page before final exams. A drudge.
Karon, a serious girl with oversized round glasses, often mentioned her parents’ membership in the Communist Party in their college days although she always added that it was before Stalin’s gulags were known in the West. A lot of students carried paperbacks with the names of Karl Marx or Franz Kafka splashed across red and black covers.
Tim pointed out a swarthy bearded guy with a beret. “He’s the head of the Marxist Society on campus. There’s only a dozen members, and two are FBI informers. They’re the only ones who pay dues so the group can afford beer and pizza at meetings,” said Tim with a chuckle.
“For Christ’s sake, that means the government is underwriting the commies. Unbelievable!” I said.
Dennis Kneply had a bright smile and a mop of blonde hair like his comic strip namesake. He was a leader in the Students for Liberal Action, like the SDS, the SLA was better known for its initials. In the early sixties, agitation was bubbling beneath the surface on campuses across the country, perhaps more so at Berkeley and Columbia, but also at Ohio State. Before the Vietnam War had become the focus of protest, the SLA challenged dorm regulations about visitation rights, mandatory ROTC, and freedom of speech on campus.
When Dennis asked Tim to help make signs for an anti-ROTC rally, he was delighted. Tim began to come up with clever phrases for hand-held placards, and he recruited volunteers to march in front of the William Thomas Oxley Library. I was the first person he tried to recruit. Tim knew I was opposed to ROTC, but I said I had to study for a mid-term. Tim shrugged and successfully signed up Karl Braun and Bob Heorger who were seated next to me.
Tim and the woman who later became his wife, Margaret Hostettler, were soon part of the SLA inner circle. They huddled in the Music Room to devise protest strategies. Later they gathered for coffee and cokes in the Tavern. During the afternoons and evenings, Larry’s on High Street was the bar of choice. The near darkness was scented with sweet smoke. Folk songs played on the juke box. I generally agreed with the SLA’s causes, and I often followed the scruffy conspirators to Larry’s.
The near catastrophe over Cuban missiles in 1962 had united the traditional pacifists opposed to all wars and the “No Nukes” Coalition. SLA joined with them and and proposed stretching a “No Nukes” banner across the university’s formal entrance of the university at High at 15th. I thought putting this message out there was a great idea since world leaders had almost destroyed the human race the year before.
Tim, Margaret and others bought four sheets at the second-hand store and brushes, clotheslines, and red and black paint at a hardware store. An art student had sketched a design with menacing missiles arcing across the globe to and from America and the USSR. An unused two-car garage near campus was occupied without permission for the production of the banner. Detailed plans were devised for a stealthy pre-dawn unfurling in the Music Room.
Dennis drafted that a manifesto he proposed to submit to the Ohio State Lantern, the student newspaper, to make a well-reasoned case for nuclear disarmament. In addition to endorsement by the sponsoring organizations, Dennis challenged individuals to “step up and add their John Hancock like the Massachusetts patriot did on the Declaration of Independence.”
“By God, I’ll sign it,” Tim said. Others quickly shouted that they would, too. I held back. Tim took me aside and quietly asked what my problem was.
“I don’t know,Tim. I just don’t want to go public this way.”
“Man, it’s time to stand up and be counted. If we’re ever going to change the world, we’ve got to take a stand. “
“I know. I’ll think about it “
I had already thought about it. I thought about my Uncle Edward, a Flying Tiger who shot down four Japanese Zeros over China before his plane went down over enemy territory. He was a decorated war hero. Yet the U. S. government branded him a security risk because his father had joined a leftist group in the 1930s, years after abandoning his 12-year old son and the rest of the family and moving to California. After the war, my uncle’s promising career with the Atomic Energy Commissioned was sidelined. I also knew that Senator Joseph McCarthy and his allies had ruined the careers and the lives of thousands of other decent people in the prior decade.
I had worked too hard to pay my tuition and get good grades at a prep school and work nearly full time in college to limit my future for SLA’s manifesto, a gesture that would soon be forgotten by everyone except the FBI.
The banner of sheets demanding “No Nukes” was ripped down by police a couple of hours after SLA members had shinnied up light poles at the university gate to tie off their “No Nukes” banner. Photographers snapped pictures first because they had been tipped off to be there at first light. The pictures ran on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch. The Lantern printed the manifesto and the names of students who each had boldly added their John Hancock with a flourish.
Dennis, Tim, and other SLA members were elated with the blow they had struck for nuclear disarmament and world peace. They congratulated each other in the Music Room and adjourned to Larry’s early in the afternoon. Amidst the celebration, the absence of my name among the signatures on the manifesto was overlooked. I continued to enjoy the Music Room, tag along to demonstrations, drink beer at Larry’s, but I maintained a low profile. I did not want to become a casualty of empty gestures of youthful romanticism.
I had decided to pursue a master’s degree in in city planning at Ohio State. I hoped to address the challenges faced by cities in the United States and beyond. I wanted to someday to truly change the world.