Mitch Sisskind

First, I want to thank Hilton for the hard work he has done on putting the 68/08 event together. After not seeing Hilton for about 35 years it was great to meet up with him again at the Columbia Review reunion a couple of years ago. I have so much respect for Hilton as a writer, teacher, and parent. Again, I really appreciate his work on this project, even though I will not be able to attend. In this piece I won’t and can’t fully explain why I will not be able to attend, but maybe I can evoke some of the feelings behind that choice and then the rest will be clear.

With few exceptions, I haven’t used anyone’s name here. (I once read that the 60’s novelty song “The Name Game” — “bonana-fana” — was actually a satire of Soviet revisionism. If anyone knows for sure, it will probably be someone at the event.)

I came to Columbia with the class of 67 in the fall of 1963. I had grown up in Chicago but went to hs in the suburbs. My main interests were football and writing.

Before school opened I began practice with the freshman football team, but I quickly realized that I was too small and also that the football program was very poorly run. Writing went much better, as I was in Kenneth Koch’s first-ever writing class. Koch was a genius teacher. Although he was a naturally sarcastic person he never put down or embarrassed a student no matter what kind of garbage the kid had written. If Koch had a critical comment to make he always found a hilarious but good-natured way to do it. As far as I can tell Koch was not just the best writing teacher, but was the only one who ever really knew how to do it. Kenneth: much ass grassy ass!

One of my early friends at Columbia was a second year student who had transferred from Harvard and who was involved with the Progressive Labor Party. He was the first radical I had ever met. One thing that impressed me was, when Kennedy was assassinated, he immediately came up with a radical Marxist explanation of the whole thing without missing a beat. He was totally able to access Marxism’s power to explain anything and everything, from orgasms to assassinations. No problem! He was only at Columbia for one year and then went back to Harvard. I googled him recently and he is still in radical politics, although not in the States.

In my second year at Columbia I played on the lightweight football team, an option they used to have for the wee folk. We lost every game and I got depressed, although it probably wasn’t just about football. I stopped going to class and got kicked out of school for a year, from January of ’65 till January of ’66. For the first three months I went to Mexico and traveled around by hitchhiking, bicycle, and bus. This was before drugs came to Mexico and I was amazed by the kindness and generosity of the people and also their ability to have a good time with nothing. Staying with some shark fisherman in the state of Campeche, dinner was a shared can of sardines followed by a night at the pool hall. Elsewhere, when a group of young guys told me they were kidnappers (“sequestradors”), pointed a pistol at me and said they were gong to hold me for ransom because all Americans were rich, they smiled when they said it — and they didn’t try to stop me when I said I was getting the hell out of there. And in the town of Chihuahua, how appropriate that a beautiful whore wanted to give me her dog.

Returning to Chicago in summer of ’65 I was drafted when Vietnam got really rolling. I joined a Navy reserve unit that had a program of boot camp for a few months, then a year off, and then two years of active duty. I figured that somehow I would manage to avoid the two years active duty once I got back to school after the boot camp. The boot camp itself was totally wild – exactly like the beginning of the Kubric film “Full Metal Jacket.” The other recruits were great guys, soft-core draft dodgers like myself. We learned to polish shoes etc. Masturbation (“whipping your mule”) was strictly forbidden, though I was by no means in the mood. But one kid was unjustly convicted of whipping his mule and was punished by extra elephant gun penicillin shots.

Back at Columbia at the beginning of ’66 I started doing some drugs and then confessed to the Navy at my reserve meeting that I had a problem. After prolonged paperwork they kicked me out with a general discharge, so I avoided a couple of years in the bilges of a ship.

Meanwhile in ’66 and ’67 radical politics were starting to heat up at Columbia and I made the acquaintance of fellow student John Jacobs. At that time he was a very dynamic character who talked a lot about revolution and Stalin but who also liked to laugh. He was fun to be around in moderation. I once ran into him at a showing of “Bonnie and Clyde” and he said, “That’s how it’s going to be, Mitch. It’s gonna be just like that.” He was not too far wrong. Once he phoned at eight a.m. on a Sunday morning to invite me to “a little self-defense meeting” that was getting together at the Orange Julius at 110th Street. I guess it was better than going to church. And that was the same Orange Julius where I once saw Lew Alcindor.

In the fall of ’67 some real excitement started with JJ. For one thing he joined with me on the lightweight football team with the intention of trying to radicalize the players. JJ had never played football and he was not really physically tough, but at least he was willing to get batted around a little. JJ felt that SDS was full of twinks. Was he right? Nah.

On the bus driving down to Penn for the first game in September of ’67, JJ saw his chance. He began a speech to the team about what was really going on in the world: “There might be a little article buried on page fifty of the New York Times about a bomb that went off in a police station in Mozambique, or a jeep that got blown up someplace?.” It was totally great. Then all of a sudden the guy who was the assistant coach – a former Columbia varsity player – came over and announced to JJ that he would not be able to play that day. In fact, he would not even be allowed to get into his uniform. JJ was shocked, as was everybody else. Whatever may have led him to join the team, he had gone to all the practices and he wanted to play. But the assistant coach told him he couldn’t play because he was on probation. They waited to tell him this until he was on the bus going to the game – JJ was really pissed. That was typical of Columbia in those days. They found a way to alienate almost everybody, and if somebody was alienated already they alienated him more.

JJ flattered me and one of my close friends by inviting us to join a special study and action group of hard core radicals. About ten of us met on Sunday evenings to listen to papers members had written and to discuss whatever was coming up in the next week. At one of these meetings a member of the group was accused of Bernsteinism. You can imagine how that stung. There was a black guy named Bill who was really impressive. Like JJ, he was deeply radical but he could also laugh. He was not a student. He had been in the air force and was radicalized while stationed in the Philippines. Once someone read a really outstanding paper about a rent strike. At the end there was a stunned and reverent silence. Then Bill said, “But do you draw revolutionary conclusions, comrade?” What a great line! I’ve often used it over the years, even with my children.

If there was a demonstration coming up – like the one at the Pentagon or the one at the hotel where Secretary of State Dean Rusk would be speaking – we talked about how to incite maximum violence. For radicals, of course, the basic task was to legitimize violence and to polarize left from right. As it turned out, the Dean Rusk demonstration was indeed more violent than usual and the Columbia student I was with got arrested for throwing a bottle at the police – specifically, at an “Officer Pellegrino.” Maybe the heir to the fizzy water company? Anyway, my friend was completely innocent of this charge. I later testified at his trial. He got off because both he and the judge had gone to Stuyvesant High School.

In the spring of ’68 I had a real girlfriend for the first time in my life so I was not really a full fledged participant in the big ballgame. My girlfriend went to Vassar so I was going up there as often as possible to stay in the girls’ dorm. This was an amazing “outside the nine dots” experience, as were the Columbia events of course. I did manage to get thrown around by the cops a little during the bust but did not ascend to the status of those veterans who walked around with band-aids on their heads. Twinks? Nah.

After the first police bust, I had a couple of conversations with JJ about how to stir things up so the cops would come back and commit some more radicalizing atrocities. And that did happen. For some reason the second police action – on a night about a week after the first one – is not mentioned very much. It was shorter and smaller but there was more resistance from the students. I recall walking past Hamilton Hall as an upper window shattered and an office chair came flying out. I assume it was thrown by a cop. During the course of the festivities some of us realized that the cops’ busses were parked on a lower level at the north end of the campus. I was part of a group that went over there to attack the busses. Incredibly – and I still wonder how this happeened – there was a whole pile of neatly stacked bricks on a kind of balcony overlooking the busses. So we all started throwing bricks. Then a cop came out of one of the busses with his gun drawn. Whoa – a dream come true, right?! Everybody kept throwing bricks. The cop did not fire but ran for cover away from the busses.

My girlfriend, later my wife, was not into radical politics. Actually I had never been that much into it either. Having been a Columbia athlete I could sympathize with the jocks who saw their big Ivy League class jump to Wall Street and Westchester getting messed up. And I also saw the falsity of being outraged by Grayson Kirk calling in the police and by the cops’ behavior. That’s what was supposed to happen! Just what the doctor ordered! What’s not to like?

I went back to Chicago, got married, and became a teacher and football coach at an elite private high school. Many of my football players were the sons of Chicago police – in fact, they were just the kind of recruited athletes who became jocks at Columbia. But another of my students was a cousin of Diana Oughton, one of the dead in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. When the Days of Rage event happened in Chicago that fall some of my students’ parents were attacked – with JJ among the Weathermen. At the same time, the Weathermen were also attacked by cops who were the fathers of some of my other students. The historical dialectic works in mysterious ways, comrades.

Around this time I was the only non-cop in a cops touch football league that played every Sunday. At the last game there was a brawl which was the first time I had ever seen full bore rage by people who were not liberals at heart. I was terrified by it but also energized I guess. I really don’t like that part of myself and I’m sure that’s related to how I feel about the Columbia events of ’68 and the reunion. Anyway, the Chicago cops were capable of extreme violence. What happened at Columbia would have been an example of enormous restraint to them – a complete joke. In fact, I recall the cops at Columbia laughhing during the first bust. That seemed outrageous to many people at the time but later I saw that it was very understandable.

Oy. Oy. Oy. Enough. Looking back on all of this, I feel a lot of anger. It’s very destructive and I can’t really explain it. I know I’m (sniff) fucked up. I should have been a pair of ragged claws…

But I’m angry that Bernadine Dohrn and that dipshit Ayers have navigated their way into the safe harbor of academia. On the other hand, why do I bring them up? They weren’t even at Columbia, though I read that JJ and Dohrn were fucking for a while. Surely JJ must have gone bananas. But I hate the way he’s rarely mentioned in connection with ’68. He died in Vancouver at least ten years ago. The only info I’ve been able to find on him was an article in a Vancouver magazine and in the book “Family Circle,” about Kathy Boudin. Another irony: there’s a photo of JJ at the Days of Rage wearing a ridiculously oversized football helmet.

It’s really weird how the prospect of certain people now coming back to Columbia affects me. My heart starts pounding. I want to kick the shit out of them. So I won’t be there. I’m not proud of these feelings and I hope I’m the only one who has them. I hope everyone else has grown up.

- by Mitch Sisskind
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