Former '60s Radical Recalls Days of Rage

Cathy Wilkerson i i

hide captionCathy Wilkerson, a former member of the Students for a Democratic Society's Weatherman faction, is the author of a new memoir, Flying Close to the Sun.

Ann W. Olson
Cathy Wilkerson

Cathy Wilkerson, a former member of the Students for a Democratic Society's Weatherman faction, is the author of a new memoir, Flying Close to the Sun.

Ann W. Olson

In the 1960s, Cathy Wilkerson was a young radical — a middle-class college kid who was drawn to the causes of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam war.

In 1969, Wilkerson was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, and joined the faction called Weatherman — a reference to a Bob Dylan lyric from "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

The group's tactics already had evolved from persuasion and organization to pugnacious forms of protest, designed to polarize and radicalize.

Weatherman accelerated that evolution: from confrontation to a clandestine armed struggle. They set out to blow up things.

But their biggest explosion was accidental; and the victims were three of their own.

In March 1970, Wilkerson and four others were using her father's townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village as a bomb factory. Her father and his wife were away.

Wilkerson was cleaning up when a box of dynamite sticks downstairs accidentally went off.

One of two survivors of the explosion, Wilkerson went underground for 10 years. Eventually she served a prison sentence, got out and now trains math teachers.

She is the author of a newly published memoir, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman.

In her book, Wilkerson is apologetic for Weatherman's tactics, but not for her radical politics: She is still a radical, but one who prizes the right to vote, which she regained several years ago.

As for her Weatherman years, Wilkerson describes a time when optimism turned to fear and anger — and when she surrendered curiosity to the need to know and independent thinking to orders from the top.

She discusses her participation in the week of vandalism and violence in Chicago in 1969 known as the "Days of Rage," Weatherman tactics and their denial about the human consequences of their acts.

Excerpt: 'Flying Close to the Sun'

Cover of 'Flying Close to the Sun'

THE EXPLOSION

Teddy Gold came up from the unfinished subbasement, which held only the furnace, other house vitals, and a primitive workbench. Terry had decided that that was the safest place to work on the devices. Teddy said he needed to go to the drugstore to buy some cotton balls and he'd be right back. I nodded and kept ironing.

A few minutes later, I was bearing down on the wrinkles on the white sheet covering the ironing board when a shock wave shot through the house. A loud rumble followed, growing in intensity. Under the thin burnt orange carpeting, my bare feet felt the old, wood floor vibrating with escalating intensity. The ironing board, too, started to tremble and then tilt as the integrity of the house was compromised somewhere deep below. I began to sink down, my feet still planted on the thin carpet as it stretched and slid across widening, disjointed gaps. I was still standing, still holding the hot iron in my right hand, my arm still obeying the signal my mind had sent fractions of a second before to press down on the crisp, white cotton. A blast reverberated through the house and in place of the ironing board, a mountain of splintered wood and brick rose up all around me. Plaster dust and little bits of debris blew out from everywhere, instantly filling the air. Even as I tried desperately to process what was happening, I noted with resignation that this was one mess I was not going to be able to clean up.

A sharper, louder explosion then shot out from the subbasement, and as I dropped two or three feet more, I wondered if I would continue to fall down into the subbasement. I needed to put the iron down to free up my hand, but there were no surfaces anymore, just a noisy, moving, three-dimensional swirl of disintegrating house giving way to the shuddering blast waves of force that had passed through it. For a fraction of a second I worried that, with all the splinters of woods and debris flying around, the hot iron might start a fire. As the muffled noise from the second explosion persisted, I knew it didn't matter. Besides, I couldn't see anything; the light was gone, unable to penetrate the thick cloud of dust that now filled every space and crevice and which crowded into my eyes, forcing them shut. From then on I could only open my eyes by blinking off and on, so that the tears could momentarily clear off the dust that grated like sandpaper beneath my lids and allow me to glimpse strobelike images of the changing terrain. I flung the iron away toward where the fireplace used to be.

In the same moment, the idea that Terry and Diana were both in the subbasement overwhelmed everything else. As I forced my attention there and to them, my lungs expanded instantaneously to draw in air and dust so I could call out. As I blinked in their direction to see if maybe — I saw the glow, like an engorged sun rising up from a huge gaping hole between me and the front of the house. That lungful of dust emerged as an

anguished cry, as if that was the only way to connect in that last second with the spirits as they drifted upward into some limbo that hangs around after the body is gone but before absolute death. I cried out "Adam," Terry's nom de guerre, and scrambled to the edge of the crater, only to be blinded now by the brightness. Then, I heard the flames take up the silence left by the blast.

By then I was in the middle of the house, and Kathy Boudin, who had been taking a shower, heard my voice and cried out for help. She had to be nearby, I thought, because the bathroom where she was showering was also in the middle of the house. I called to her. "Are you okay?" I knew that in ten or fifteen seconds we would no longer be able to get out. "I can't see," she said, and I knew it was because of the dust. I moved left along the edge of the crater through the gritty haze toward her voice until I could grab her hand. For a fraction of a second I thought to turn toward the front door, until I realized the absurdity of looking for a door when there was no longer any distinction between floor and ceiling or space in between. Instead, we headed toward an opening where, dimly, it looked like daylight was trying to fight its way into the dust. I groped blindly, with each bare foot seeking something solid enough to hold my weight for at least a second or two.

The sound of the fire sucking air in from all directions grew louder behind us, reaching out to us. As we stumbled out of the opening in the front, it was only feet behind us. I was barely able to notice another explosion as I concentrated on climbing, still holding on to Kathy and both of us barefoot, out through the hole and over more debris onto the sidewalk. Helping hands reached out to us. Kathy was in shock. Someone wrapped a coat around her, even as she protested, as she was still wet and naked from the shower. Someone else directed us down the street. "Is there anyone else in there that we should go in for?" "No" I said, "there is no one now." Teddy had left the house, I thought, and I knew that Terry and Diana were gone. I was overwhelmed with grief, not surprise, nor questions about how this could have happened, only grief. But I knew that I was not prepared to answer anyone's questions about what had happened, not then. "Was it a gas explosion?" someone asked. "Yes," I said, "It must have been." I could not think about anything but getting away to let the grief take over.

Susan Wagner, a longtime resident of the block, offered us her home, and we followed her to another set of brownstone stairs leading up to her front door. We were covered with dust and must have tracked the dirt in with us onto the light-colored carpet as we climbed another set of stairs to a second floor bedroom with an attached bath. She showed us the shower and hurriedly pulled out some of her own clothes, which she left on the bed for us. She left us in the care of a middle-aged black woman working as her maid, while she returned to the burning house to watch in fascinated horror.

I knew that in only a few minutes, when the police arrived and ascertained that we were down the block, they would come to question us. They would know fairly quickly that this was not a freak gas explosion. We showered as quickly as possible to get the worst of the grime off, before diving, still only half-dry, into our hostess's clothes. My only thought was to get away, to grieve, to avoid the lengthy questioning and incarceration that were sure to follow if I stayed, and which would prevent me from abandoning myself to the sorrow.

I couldn't pretend that I didn't know what had been going on or weave any more stories in the face of what had happened. I knew I couldn't think straight at the moment. I needed to get away. There was nothing that could be done for either Terry or Diana, I was sure of that. It never occurred to me that Teddy had still been in the house. He must have lingered for a few minutes to look over the headlines in the paper, or maybe the sports scores. Maybe some artifact on a wall had captured his incessant inquisitiveness. When they found his body, it became apparent he had been crushed under the stone stairs that led up to the main front door as he was opening the ground-floor door underneath.

Although I was fully clothed, except for shoes, when I got outside, I had no money in my pockets. My first thought was to get money for a subway token so we could get out of the neighborhood as fast as possible. Quickly, I searched through an assortment of clothes that were in the closet of the guest bedroom. Finding nothing, I entered the master bedroom next door and tried again with the clothes hanging in the closet there. This netted one token immediately. I knew we didn't have another moment to spare.

At the front door, we ran into the maid who challenged the wisdom of our leaving so soon. We were only going to the drugstore to get some medicine for our scrapes, I said, and hurried out without waiting for an answer. We walked as fast as we could without attracting attention, despite the pink patent-leather boots now on my feet, but by then, all eyes looked past us as people rushed toward the fire streaming out of the front of the building behind us. The fire trucks, already arriving, were beginning to pour water into the flames. A block away, we scrambled down the stairs into the subway, and, hoping that our gender and the color of our skin would deflect the notice of the subway clerk, the two of us went through the turnstile together on our one token. A minute later the train came and we were truly underground.

Copyright (c) 2007 Cathy Wilkerson. Excerpted from Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman published by Seven Stories Press. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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Flying Close to the Sun
Flying Close to the Sun

My Life and Times As a Weatherman

by Cathy Wilkerson

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