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Flying Close to the Sun

My Life and Times As a Weatherman

by Cathy Wilkerson

Hardcover, 422 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $18.95 |


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My Life and Times As a Weatherman
Cathy Wilkerson

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Book Summary

A member of the Weathermen Underground and one of two survivors of an explosion at group's bomb factory offers an overview of 1960s radical history and the story of her transformation from a upperclass teenager to radical militant.

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Excerpt: Flying Close To The Sun



Seven Stories Press

Copyright © 2007 Cathy Wilkerson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58322-771-8


Introduction..........................................................11Chapter One New England Soil..........................................15Chapter Two North American Roots......................................37Chapter Three Discovering the World...................................53Chapter Four The Limits of Electoral Politics.........................101Chapter Five New Left Notes...........................................109Chapter Six Washington SDS............................................145Chapter Seven 1968....................................................181Chapter Eight The Question of Power...................................251Chapter Nine Weatherman...............................................275Chapter Ten The Explosion.............................................355Chapter Eleven The Underground Years..................................359Chapter Twelve Reentry................................................389Afterword.............................................................399Appendix A Chronology of Weatherman Bombings..........................405Appendix B Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins.....................406Bibliography..........................................................415Notes.................................................................427Acknowledgments.......................................................429Index.................................................................437

Chapter One


* * *

My ancestors settled on North American soil so long ago that any family memories of an earlier time and life on European shores had faded by the time of my parents' birth. Some branches of the family have been traced back to the Revolution and even to the Mayflower. The only stories of a culture of origin concerned a great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, Theophilus Olena, a descendant of French settlers in Canada named Oligny. Theophilus followed the markets of his family's small imported wine and liquor business down the Hudson, and settled in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1800s, the family name now anglicized to Olena. Theophilus Olena eventually became a Brooklyn alderman, and was present at the ribbon cutting of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Many of the men in the family worked in the business, supervising the loading of barges at the docks and finding new outlets as the business grew and spread westward along the Erie Canal to Buffalo. Some of the women helped with the business as well, but mostly they tended the home and the children, many of whom succumbed to diphtheria, flu, or some form of accident.

They were proper folks, salesmen, inventors, and shopkeepers. After thriving in Brooklyn, they felt entitled to prosperity and assumed that the future would continue to offer opportunities for each new generation. When Prohibition ended the family business, the remaining inventory was sold, and a small piece of the proceeds went to my grandfather. He invested it in a lumber mill in the South and promptly lost it all, incurring a large debt in the process.

My grandfather was a lawyer working in Manhattan, and he was able to keep his job throughout the Depression. He married my grandmother (after waiting eight years while she cared for her ailing father) and had two children with her, my mother and her younger brother.

When my mother Audrey Olena reached school age, the family moved from Brooklyn to Garden City, Long Island, a new suburb that excluded both Jews and people of color. There, my grandmother carried on the traditions of earlier times, which strictly limited the horizons for women of her class. Having been raised in a family that offered little warmth, she had little to share with her two children, but she attended to their physical and intellectual needs with religious thoroughness. She argued constantly with her husband about his generous impulses, as the family continued to struggle with debt. These loud and bitter altercations terrified my mother, engendering in her a lifelong belief that the expression of anger was cruel and destructive and could never serve any purpose. Strong emotions were to be distrusted, contained, and hidden if at all possible.

My mother attended public school and, like my father, had the security and freedom of an adventurous childhood filled with neighborhood games such as bicycle polo, cards, dolls, and the exploration of undeveloped lots. At home, however, she and her younger brother lived by a rigid set of rules generated by their mother's sense of propriety. At the end of eighth grade, she was sent to a nearby Quaker boarding school to complete her education.

Here, my mother was exposed to a completely different set of values and challenges. The Quakers used silence as a way to explore and resolve conflict and believed in the power of community to help people divine God's will. The quiet orderliness and intellectual rigor of the Friends Academy became a haven of new possibilities after the tensions at home. The Quakers valued the thinking and potential of women as well as men, kindling a deep intellectual ambition in my mother's imagination. Her love of reading developed into a passion for literature, and her love of and commitment to music deepened, as she studied both voice and piano.

The Quaker ideas my mother brought home about pacifism and tolerance, however, remained a complete mystery to her parents, who had come of age during the Spanish-American War at the end of the nineteenth century. The United States had been busy pursuing international economic interests, backed by the military, while within its own country, the US government continued to usurp land from native peoples, in violation of earlier treaties, and Jim Crow maintained the rule of white economic interests in the South, enforced by the established norm of lynching.

Comfortably insulated from the dramas of politics and commerce beyond their immediate sphere, my grandparents never troubled themselves with the underlying economic dynamics responsible for their well-being, however precarious. Accepting the status quo, they embraced its values, which justified the reality that hard work by those of European stock paid better than the same work done by others. The violence of this system remained politely hidden from their everyday life. With industry and hard work, my grandparents expected their family's station in life to hold steady and gain increasing security.

A superior upbringing that guaranteed their children a place above the rabble would be the family's bequest to the next generation, and so a good deal of the family resources were devoted to it. As my mother approached the end of high school, her mother considered her education complete. Now, she needed to prepare herself for marriage, perhaps by attending a finishing school. My mother's piano teacher, however, who had become a mentor in her life, argued that my mother go on to college, and suggested Smith College in particular. Hungry now to pursue her intellectual interests, my mother pleaded to be allowed to go. Her father stepped in and said that if she wanted to go to college, she, as well as her brother, should have the opportunity. He was proud of her achievements in high school, and even though he expected her to be a wife and mother, he believed she would benefit from expanding her horizons, her circle of friends, and her interests. Despite growing debt, he agreed to send her.

On my father's side, his grandmother, Miriam Wampler, also traveled on the Erie Canal, moving as a small child with her parents, in the mid-1800s, from a village in Maine to a farm just outside Dayton, Ohio. She remembered watching the funeral train that bore President Lincoln's body back to Illinois.

To supplement the farm's income, much of the family moved into town to take up whatever jobs were available in the mercurial economy. Miriam's daughter married a young man named Oscar Wilkerson, a man with an irrepressible sense of humor and a good job as a fireman on the railroad. When his wife was bedridden upstairs after the very difficult birth of their only child, my grandfather, she was startled by a noisy commotion on the wooden staircase. Oscar appeared at the bedroom doorway with a newly purchased horse to present for her inspection.

Oscar died twelve years later in an accident on the job, and Oscar Jr. had to leave school to help support himself and his mother. His newspaper route, which he kept through an assortment of jobs, including a stint as a semipro baseball player, led to a job with the National Cash Register Company, where he studied to be a secretary. During the next ten years, he took on added responsibilities and changed companies. At twenty-seven he married his sweetheart-who was only fifteen or sixteen at the time-and began a family.

Soon after the birth of his second son, my father James, Oscar relocated for his job at an office furniture company when it moved to Rahway, New Jersey. The family, including Grandmother Wilkerson, followed, eventually settling in Colonia, New Jersey. Here my father grew up with his two brothers in a house full of merriment and adventure. A constant stream of games-word games, board games, math games, card games, and outdoor games like horseshoe and croquet-filled their days. Despite his parents' determination to give him the best education by sending him to private school (especially as neither of them had gone past grade school), my father was an indifferent student, and instead put his energy into his friends, pets, and pranks.

My father did not apply to college, preferring instead to go to work. However, it was still the heart of the Depression, and jobs were hard to come by. In the fall of 1933 he went to visit a high school friend who was entering Amherst College in Massachusetts. My father's friend encouraged him to come, and upon investigation, it turned out that if my father could pay the fees, there was still room in the freshman class. With a phone call home to his father, now a manager at the furniture company, my father was suddenly a college student, beginning what would become a lifelong love affair with Amherst College.

James, soon given the nickname Joe, was inspired by Amherst's professors to extend the range of his knowledge, and he worked hard to make up for his academic deficits. His real interests, however, remained outside of class. He managed the debate society, the football team, and the band, forming close friendships that stayed with him throughout his entire life. His upbringing had prepared him to be a creative problem solver, and the challenge of getting people to work together efficiently interested him. His managerial experiences taught him that what was needed was not another expert debater or football player or musician, but someone who could listen to all the experts, find out what was required, and devise a creative way to provide it. He also developed self-confidence, finding that anything he developed an interest in he was able to learn about. With his ability to savor experience, life was ahead of him, waiting to be enjoyed.

My father graduated in 1937, the first in the family to complete college. His father Oscar recommended that he learn sales because, as my father later reported, "it was his philosophy, and is now mine, that if a person has the ability to sell, he, or she, could always find a job...."

After a year of selling office equipment, my father joined a new company where he sold pots and pans. During this time, he had been courting my mother, still a senior at Smith College. When my mother graduated, she worked for a year in Manhattan as a student teacher under the supervision of Bank Street School for Education. There she was exposed to ideas about teaching and learning that transformed many of her beliefs about working with children. Soon after, she and my father married and moved to New Orleans, where my father had found a job driving a softdrink truck, selling his wares store to store. Two years and two jobs later, however, my father had been unable to find a position with possibilities for advancement, and they went back to New York where, at the recommendation of a college friend, my father applied for and got a job as a messenger at Young & Rubicam, an up-and-coming advertising agency.

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the war quickly intruded into the lives of young people, with the prospect of an imminent draft. Like many educated young men, my father searched out a wartime job that required special training rather than waiting to be drafted into the infantry. He studied to be a navigator and joined the Naval Air Transport Service. He then spent the remainder of the war flying supply missions, largely from the east coast of the US to Africa.

My older sister Ann was born while my father was away in May 1943. Twenty months later, I came along during a January snowstorm. In 1945, a few months after I was born and the war in Europe had ended, my father was discharged from the navy and he rejoined the media department at Young & Rubicam. He had a wife, two children, and a steady job with a bright future. We were somewhat cramped in the small one-bedroom garden apartment in Hartsdale, New York, but housing was difficult to find, as many returning servicemen were starting new families. Finally, we moved in with friends of friends, a young couple as yet childless, in a rambling old house in Yorktown, New York.

My earliest memories of Yorktown are of sunlight. Less than three feet tall, I was looking across the small snow-covered field into the woods behind our house. Tall orange-brown stalks of grass, still capped with heavy seed heads, stood erect despite the thick blanket of snow. As I peered into the little hills and valleys made by the drifts in among the stalks, I imagined myself a tiny figure wandering through this forest of grasses. I was exhilarated by the beauty of the sunshine on the snow and the delicate designs in white, dramatically framed by the tall gray and dark browns of the trees rising up high in the actual woods beyond. A dazzling sense of excitement and possibility flooded the first years of my life.

My father pushed me on the swing, my hands barely large enough to grip the thick rope that came down from high up in an old sugar maple. In the mornings, he filled the sink, lathered his face with soap, put in a fresh razor blade, and went to work on his whiskers. My sister Ann and I sat on the edge of the tub and sang to keep him company, occasionally pushing the soap back into the water and laughing heartily as we did so.

The shared house pleased my mother because she could now have adult conversation during the day with Beth Vanderlyn, the home's owner, as well as another pair of eyes to help keep watch over me. I was nonstop energy and got into everything, completely different from my older sister, who was more thoughtful and reflective even as a small child.

By 1948, with help from the GI bill and my father's family, my parents were prepared to buy a small piece of land and build a house. At first they looked in New Canaan and Westport, towns in Connecticut that were popular with the ambitious men in my father's office. But, after several exploratory trips my parents discovered that both communities had a policy of excluding anyone but WASPs. My parents were especially dismayed to find that this policy held true for Jews, after the entire country had been involved in an effort to defeat Hitler. They agreed that they did not want to raise their children in such a community.

North Stamford was just across the border from New Canaan, and it had not yet been developed. The land there was considerably cheaper, and my parents bought a five-acre plot and began construction on a new house. In the spring of 1948, when my younger sister Robin was six months old, we moved in, even though it was not finished. My childhood explorations continued unabated. The grey-stained clapboard house was built in a clearing of hundred-year-old woods that had grown up on pastureland that had once been painstakingly cleared by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century farmers. The borders of their rocky fields were still marked with carefully constructed stone walls, which now ran among the trees, like old fish nets rotting in the sand.

In the winter, the bird feeder that hung from an old dogwood tree was always filled with chickadees, nuthatches, and cardinals. From my father I learned the names of the birds and their habits. My parents took us for a walk along the walls that bordered our five-acre lot. We were expected to stay inside that border, but my mother, somewhat overwhelmed, gave Ann and me tremendous freedom to explore, and we often ranged much deeper into the woods, which went on for miles in three directions.

My mother established an orderly routine in our lives, which she believed was essential for our good character and her sanity. We were pre-Dr. Spock children. As infants we were fed on a rigid schedule and left to cry when we were hungry or afraid of the dark. Our daily schedule developed a religious sanctity. I couldn't sleep during the day because I could not stop generating energy, but naps were required so I was put in my room for the requisite two hours every afternoon. Rest was not acceptable; only sleep would do. I learned at this young age to slip my picture books under the covers and feign sleep when I heard my mother's footsteps.

I was finally relieved of this nap ritual when my mother took me the following fall to enroll in kindergarten at the local elementary school. This was the first year of the baby boomers, however, and the kindergarten was full, so they placed me in the first grade, where there was still room.

The Martha Hoyt School in North Stamford was an old, three-story stone building. While I chaffed under the rules at home, I mostly understood and accepted them. At school, both the official rules given by teachers and the social rules among the children were completely foreign to me, and the punishment of choice in both cases seemed to be humiliation, far more terrifying than my mother's frustrated anger. I retreated into a painful shyness. Over time I learned the rules and began to make friends, but I remained wary.