Make your own free website on Tripod.com

TRYING TO KEEP A COOL HEAD
ON THE WAY TO THE DRYER

More excerpts from a novel of the 60s, by Brad Lang.

1969

The blue-clad android hordes were on the march. Howie Riley spied them coming down the dark street, skirmish lines drawn, riot clubs at port arms, big boots sloshing through the snow, plexiglass face masks ominously opaque. He stood his ground. Timing was everything. But they would break into a run moments before they were ordered to do so; he would be caught if he didn't move soon.

The neon sign in the window of the Steak Pit Bar beckoned. Would it serve as sanctuary? Or had they recognized him? No, they were freshly recruited mercenaries from the outlying provinces, wouldn't recognize a notorious radical unless they had been very carefully briefed. He grinned his fear away, looked around. He was not alone; there were others facing the oncoming porcine platoons. But they were beginning to scatter, not yet ready for the spilling of blood, the ritual purification of hopeless combat, the club in the kidneys. Not cowards; realists, unable to shed the civilizing influence of twenty years of constipational education.

Howie shrugged, began shuffling away, watching the cops out of the corner of his eye. He fingered the lead pipe in his coat pocket. Pulsing with brute power, it longed to kiss plate glass, but now was not the time. Howie reached the Steak Pit as the troops began to pick up speed. By the time he was inside and had turned to the window, they were streaming by at a half-trot, grunting under heavy fatigues, riot helmets, Sam Browne belts, insulated underwear.

Temporarily safe--though he knew he would probably venture forth once again into the holocaust--he looked around. The bar was packed, most of its patrons straining for a look out the window, their beer glass held protectively in front of their well-fed bellies, eyes wide, mouths open.

"Jesus Christ, didja see those guys?"

"Every cop in the state's out there!"

"They won't come in here, will they?"

They'll go anywhere they feel like, Howie thought; look at Viet Nam. He turned away from the window, spied Leon Gaffney sitting alone at a table in the rear, fought his way through the crowd to join him.

Leon glanced up, grunted, looked back at his beer. "We screwed up, you know that, don't you?" he growled.

"Yeah," Howie acknowledged.

"We shoulda been ready. We shoulda known this was going to happen. They had to overreact sooner or later."

"Uh-huh." Howie grabbed a shell-shocked waitress, ordered a draft.

"Instead, we're sitting here in this fucking bar without any plans, our people scattered all over the goddamn city . . ."

"Nobody's perfect."

"We're supposed to be leadership."

Leon had always considered himself leadership. Captain of his Little League team, high school student council vice-president, Boy Scout patrol leader. He didn't care about power; he only wanted things to run smoothly--baseball games, meetings, riots, it didn't matter. To Leon, everything had an internal dynamic which required planning and direction to be realized. After the riot he would count the broken windows, the arrests, the injuries, figure out the averages, the stats.

"Well," Howie said thoughtfully, "it's still going on. We could grab a few crazies, whip something together."

"It's too late," Leon grumbled.

"C'mon, get off your ass." Howie jumped to his feet, started toward the door. A moment's hesitation and Leon followed, still grumbling.

"But what the hell are we gonna do?"

"How the hell should I know? Break a window, chant something snappy. You ever hear of spontaneity?"

Leon didn't like spontaneity, but he came along. They peered out the front window, saw the cops were nowhere in sight, exited cautiously, sniffing the air for tear gas. They heard the sounds of not-too-distant battle and headed in that direction. Rounding the corner, they were confronted by a curious tableau.

The police were drawn up in a column of twos, marching down the middle of the main drag. Traffic had been blocked off and re-routed at either end of the business district. The street having been cleared of cars and crowds, the police were now seeking to cordon off the campus section, drive the mob back to its lair. The mob was dimly visible across the street, percolating with disparate chants and cries.

"We seem to be caught behind enemy lines," Howie whispered. They huddled in a darkened doorway, surveying the situation.

"Looks like it's all over," Leon observed sadly.

"Let's wait and see."

They waited, while the solid line of blue was drawn inexorably along the boulevard. The crowd began chanting: "Pigs off campus! Pigs off campus!"

"What would happen," Howie suddenly wondered, "if a bunch of people showed up on this side of the street and started trashing windows? Would they all come back over here? Leave the border undefended? Battle of the Bulge time?"

"Yeah," Leon muttered, with even less than his usual level of enthusiasm. "And we'd get killed. Anyway, everybody's over there."

"Not everybody," Howie observed. "We're here."

Leon was disgusted. "Butch Asshole and the Sundance Yid. Even you aren't that crazy."

"There must be more of us. Let's look around."

Howie and Leon left their doorway and went skulking off in a search for reinforcements. There were bound to be some stragglers from the last action of the night.

It had begun as a peaceful march, a mass show of solidarity with the Chicago Seven and Bobby Seale. Six hundred shivering malcontents stood in front of city hall while speeches were given, chants chanted, a Viet Cong flag run up the flagpole, the usual. The atmosphere of struggle had begun to dissipate in the February chill, the curious were turning away, even the committed were beginning to weigh frostbite against the needs of the Movement, when an unidentified maniac in Army fatigues calmly walked up to the plate glass window next to the front door and reduced it to shards with a heavy-duty tire chain. Almost instantly the overhead door of the attached fire station began to rise, revealing several platoons of riot police in full battle gear. One look was all it took; the crowd was off on a rampage, having seen the ugly face of the enemy, their spirits lifted by a reaffirmation of the idea that they, too, by God, were oppressed!

Howie and Leon found three members of the Young Socialist League trying to open a fire hydrant at the corner of First and Connecticut. Two more kindred spirits were discovered passing a joint in the lobby of a student apartment building a block away. Within ten minutes they had amassed an army of twelve who seemed willing to follow the leadership of the moment.

Howie explained his plan. "This is going to be a hit and run thing, like the VC. We've gotta get them to spread their forces so thin they can't contain the crowd over on campus."

"How do we do that?" asked one of the Young Socialists, alway

s concerned with form and political content. "Float like a butterfly," said Leon, getting into the spirit of things, unwilling to appear more conservative than a Trot, for God's sake.

"Sting like a bee," said Howie, brandishing his lead pipe.

"We break a few windows," added Leon, sensing a lack of communication.

The troops now nodded grimly, and the army marched off down the street, alert for movement in the shadows. When the reached the main street, they found the cops and the students still facing each other. A new chant was heard: "Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, the N-L-F is gonna win!"

"Far out," said Leon.

"Let's hit the bank," Howie suggested, pointing toward the hallowed First National, three doors away. There was some immediate dissent, the ensuing discussion resulting in twenty-five percent casualties, leaving only nine to descend upon the bank building. They began pounding on the windows. But the glass --hardened by some arcane process developed in the laboratories of corporate capitalism--refused to break, even under furious assault from Howie's lead pipe. Finally the two dopers picked up a steel trash basket and--using it as a battering ram--crashed through the window, accompanied by cheers and the raucous clanging of the alarm bell.

Across the street a section of the encircling forces took note of this sacrilege. But lacking direction from a command officer, they hesitated, glancing back uncertainly at the campus mob, which began cheering deliriously.

A sergeant ran up and began screaming at his men. "Go, go go!" he shouted, picking three troopers and physically propelling them halfway across the street toward the bank. The crowd, seeing a small break in the cordon, reacted faster than the sergeant, surging forward and pouring into the street.

"Yeah!" shouted Howie. He began running past the row of stores, followed by those members of his commando group who hadn't already beat a hasty retreat. Hot on their heels came the three cops, followed closely by a hundred or so protesters who had leaked through the police lines.

This parade continued up the street, Howie in the lead. Suddenly there materialized out of the shadows one Norman Stafford, Chairman of the Organization of Student-Worker Solidarity.

"Drop that pipe, Riley!" he shouted.

"Fuck off, man, there's a riot going on!"

Stafford grabbed Howie's arm and tried to spin him around. "Put it down, I'm warning you!" Insane with internecine hatred, almost foaming at the mouth.

Howie couldn't believe what was happening to him. The OSWS, convinced that the next American Revolution would come by stimulation of strikes at the fabled "point of production," did its best to ensure that, at the very least, the Revolution could never come any other way. They hated Howie's group almost as much as they hated the Establishment. But this was ridiculous, even for Stafford.

Howie kept running, dragging the manic Marxist along behind him. "Let go of me, you raving tunafish!" he cried. "You're gonna get us both arrested!"

"You oughta be arrested, Riley! You and your drug-crazed rock and rollers have ruined everything! This is the worst thing that could happen!"

This was no Marxist, thought Howie, but an escapee from a lunatic asylum. "It's the best thing that could happen," Howie gasped, trying to free his arm from Stafford's grip. "Action, man! Movement! People getting up off their dead asses and fighting back." Howie could hardly talk anymore, his lungs bursting, his legs aching from the exertion of pulling Stafford down the street. The cops were still after him, he saw, looking only slightly less crazed than his companion.

"Don't break any more windows!" Stafford wailed.

"Get away from me, you idiot!"

"You'll alienate the workers!"

That did it, Howie thought. No more screwing around. He turned and saw that the cops were momentarily halted, regrouping, no doubt almost as exhausted as Howie, and realizing that they were in danger of being surrounded.

Howie took the opportunity to confront Stafford, waving his pipe in the air, summoning up unsuspected reserves of energy and rage. "Listen to me, Stafford. If you don't let go of me and get the hell outa here, I swear I'll smash your goddamn teeth in!"

Stafford's face turned pale, he wavered a moment, let go of Howie's arm. "You bastard!" he whined.

"That's better." Howie started walking quickly away as the cops began to move in his direction once again. He ducked into an alley to his left, then peered out just in time to see Norman Stafford still standing on the sidewalk, shaking his head. Then Stafford looked up saw the cops six yards away, bearing down on him with murder in their eyes, one lefty as good as another to them. Stafford began to run, shouting back at them, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I'm on your side!"

That was for sure, thought Howie, as he sprinted down the alley. Momentarily alone, he peeked out the other end and saw nothing dangerous. He turned to the right, hoping to link up with the main body of students. He had gone two blocks without incident when his eyes began to water.

"Tear gas," he said aloud. "Shit's hit the fan somewhere!"

He resisted the natural gas-inspired impulse to run the other way, instead headed toward the main street, buttoning his coat up over his nose. In the distance he could see a cloud of gas, and a gang of students milling around in panic, trying to find an escape route. Here and there a blue helmet bobbed above the crowd, and riot sticks were rising and falling like rogue pistons in some Kafkaesque machine. In the exact center of it all, desperately trying to free himself from an arm lock administered by a very large State Trooper, was Leon Gaffney.

Howie blinked once, shook his head and galloped off to the rescue.

1970

It was the Spring of 1970, and there was a Revolution going on. But Howie Riley had just returned from a solitary three-day motorcycle camping expedition. and his brain was flushed and fumigated, the ongoing social upheaval temporarily consigned to a far corner of his mind. He was uncharacteristically at peace. His nostrils were permeated with the scent of smoldering firewood; he could hear the sparrows whistling in the trees above his campsite.

It was in this tranquil frame of mind that he arrived at his apartment to find a single letter waiting patiently in his mailbox. The Chicago postmark was a clear warning that his sublime state of political noninvolvement was to be challenged. The letter thus remained unopened while he unpacked his knapsack and consumed one large joint and a half glass of warm Coke.

Finally assured that nothing could spoil his contentment and good cheer, he tore open the letter and read:

Howie:

The sense of urgency becomes more difficult to ignore.

Remembering our long conversation this summer about What To Do Next, I'm writing to tell you that I've made a decision. Am I being too cryptic? I hope not, but you never can tell who's reading your mail these days. Call me on the People's Telephone. I miss everybody there, but I'm excited about the growing militancy. Hope you've been heading in the same direction. Power to the People.
Love and struggle,
Annie

Too cryptic? No, not really, Howie thought. Perhaps too graphic, it was quite clear what she was talking about, beautiful Annie the Anarchist. She was talking about bombs.

"Armed struggle," they called it, among the ranks of Weatherman. Howie thought about Annie, who had once placed a flower in an MP's gun barrel at The Pentagon, and who always argued for a strict code of nonviolence. Even she had taken that one last step. Around the corner? Over the edge?

Howie shook his head, drummed on the seat of his chair, exhaled slowly, then folded the letter and put it in his hip pocket. "Later," he said aloud, then jumped up and banged out the door and down the stairs to his motorcycle. The machine waited silently, its single headlight staring dubiously sideways at five feet, eleven inches of hairy freak about to choogle off to who knows what highway hallucination.

I'm messed up, he thought. Oughta all a taxi. He started the bike, sat and listened to the warmhearted growl. Four hundred fifty cc's stretched voluptuously underneath him; he could feel the muscles through the seat.

Messed up.

To be sure. But then the road was rolling away beneath him. Into fourth at fifty, nice night for a bike ride. Howie grinned into the distance, feeling truly crazed: Mysterious letters from female mad bombers, armed war with the State. When had this begun to make sense? He tried the feeling on for size, decided he liked it. He remembered the Hardy Boys, The Mystery of The Dying Headwaiter's Hangnail, trapped on a derelict ore freighter with a group of lycanthropic smugglers, hanging by a pair of knotted shoelaces from the crumbling bell tower of an abandoned church, while the demented former mayor of Fergus Falls, Minnesota plotted evil deeds in the rectory. He had read every book in the series, spent unnumbered hours curled up on the top bunk with a Three Musketeers in one hand and a book in the other.

But this was not a mystery novel; this was reality. People whose opinions he listened to were telling him that it was literally time to pick up the gun, go underground, begin fighting on the side of the Viet Cong.

Howie shivered, opened the throttle wider, hitting fifth gear, letting his mind flow into the speed and the noise and the wind. Finally he throttled down, turned a corner in third, and bumped up onto the lawn of 103 Albert Street.

He shut the engine off, his dope-fogged brain shocked by the sudden silence. Too silent, he thought. Something was wrong. He left his helmet on, proceeding with caution, not knowing what skull-crackers lurked in the bushes, nightsticks raised to strike.

There! What was that?

But it was only Leon. "Get the hell in here, man! The pigs have been by looking for Carolyn!" He was eyeing both ends of the street at the same time, obviously distraught. Was that a shotgun barrel in the window?

"They didn't find her?" asked Howie, heading for the porch.

"No, but they keep driving by, looking at the house. . . . Here they come again!" he shouted.

They dove through the doorway, scrambling for cover. Howie peeked through the front window, saw a late model Ford cruising by, two men in the front seat, dark suits, white shirts. Gestapo!

"Those the guys?" came a voice from the darkness. The shades were drawn, the lights were off, everybody was on the floor. Jane Winston had the Remington twelve-gauge in her arms, safety off.

"Yeah," said Leon. "Maybe they're lost."

"What do they want with Carolyn?" Howie asked.

"Inciting to riot," came the choral response, and Leon filled in the details.

"While you were out communing with nature or whatever the hell you were doing," he told Howie, "we had a little action."

"We burned down the goddamn ROT-CEE building!" Ape-Man announced gleefully.

"You can read about it in the papers," said Leon. "Anyway, Carolyn gave a really right-on speech, so naturally . . ."

"They figured she started it," Howie finished. "So where is she?"

"Underground," said Jane.

The company fell silent at the mention of this almost religious concept. Carolyn the Commie was underground, a fugitive of the empire. Recently bailed out on an assault charge, and under investigation for other real or imagined deeds, she had no choice but to bail out.

Howie found himself wondering where they all went when they disappeared. He pictured a long, dark tunnel, originating in Cleveland, perhaps, the other end bringing the lucky fugitive up and out into Munchkinland, or better. Perhaps a manhole in front of the Havana Libre hotel. Would Carolyn soon be cutting cane, learning Spanish and mingling with the revolutionary people of Cuba? Would she ever be able to come back?

Unfortunately, there was no time for idle musing; the house was apparently under siege. Howie surveyed the room. There were only three others besides himself--perhaps a few more in the other rooms--and one lone shotgun and a few heavy metal and wood objects with which to waged armed struggle. He was Davy Crockett, making it to the Alamo just in time to be gunned down in a futile gesture of resistance.

He was also, he remembered, very stoned. Did the Viet Cong really fight in that condition? Did he want to fight at all? To the death, like Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale? Or would token resistance and quiet surrender be politically correct under the circumstances? Of course, he knew that it was not a decision that he along would make, and he was both relieved and appalled by that.

But Howie's fears proved unnecessary, since the enemy did not reappear. After another half hour's vigil, they decided it was safe to get up off the floor and turn on the lights. David was recalled from his post at the back door, while Howie went to find Michelle.

She was in the back bedroom, dutifully staring out the window, alert for a flanking attack.

"All clear, sister," he said.

She jumped at the sound of his voice, then turned and stared at him, finally managing a weak smile. "That's a relief." She stood up and walked over to him. "Where the hell did you come from, anyway?"

"I got a little lonely out in the woods," he said. "That was a hell of a greeting."

He reached out to hug her, but she backed away. "It wasn't exactly done for your benefit."

"Hey, what's the matter?"

"Nothing," she said flatly. "I'm just nervous. The last few days have been pretty heavy. You should've been here."

"I'm sorry. You know I had to get away for a while."

"We'd all like to get away," she said, almost angrily. "But we can't. Things are happening. It's important to be totally committed."

"Yeah, sure," he mumbled. They looked at each other for a moment, they Howie said, "Let's go in the other room."

Out in the living room the post-incident analysis was already underway. "I don't think they've got enough evidence to move yet," David was saying. "They wouldn't have gone away if they did."

"Maybe they didn't go away," Howie said. "And since when have they needed evidence to bust anybody?"

"We thought we were gonna have to duke it out there for a minute," said Jane. "Besides the two that came to the door, there were three in a car across the street, and two more who drove by."

"They really wanted in," added Ape-Man. "Gave us a lotta shit. They thought maybe Carolyn was here, hiding in the attic with a couple hand grenades."

"My head is still back in the woods," said Howie. "I'm not sure I'm ready for this just yet."

"The world struggle for liberation goes on it spite of you," Jane pointed out, only half-joking.

"Are you wrecked or what?" Ape-Man wanted to know.

"Or what," said Howie.

"Got any more," Leon asked.

"Not on me. How about you guys?"

Heads were shaken, but a bottle of cold Boone's Farm Apple Wine was produced. Howie took a long drink, closing his eyes and feeling the bubbles in his tummy, wondering why this wasn't illegal, too.

"I think we should talk about this," David announced suddenly.

"About what?" Howie asked.

"About being stoned," David answered, his face expressionless. "I don't think the movement can afford it any more. Things are getting too heavy for any of us not to be totally in control."

There was a moment of silence. Howie looked around the room, but saw only poker faces. "Is this a criticism session?" he asked quietly.

"Why not?" David said. "I think everybody realizes that your attitude has been pretty non-struggle lately."

"Non-struggle!" Howie exclaimed. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's pretty obvious," David answered. "You disappear into the woods just when we're having a major action, then you come back stoned and tell us you're not ready to fight the pigs."

Howie shook his head. "We're not ready to fight," he said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. "Those were cops out there. They had guns, and they'd love to off every one of us. We're not exactly the Red Army, you know."

"We are the Red Army!" Michelle exploded. "We're fighting behind enemy lines! You'd better get that through your thick bourgeois skull!"

"Jesus, Michelle," Howie said softly, stunned by her outburst.

But there was no stopping her. "You've been telling me for a long time how I've got to learn to fight back and stop being so timid. Well, I'm ready to fight, and I've finally figured out that one of the people I've got to fight back against is you!"

Howie was flabbergasted. "What the fuck is going on here?" he said slowly. "Leon? Are you gonna tell me?"

Leon was embarrassed. "I don't think it's up to me," he said, not looking at Howie.

Howie turned to Michelle. She reached out and took David's hand. David said, "I, uh, hoped we could deal with this in some other way, Howie."

Suddenly it all became clear. "You're sleeping together!" Howie exclaimed. "Holy shit!"

"Now, don't get excited," David said.

"Excited!" Howie cried. "You lay some heavy criticism on me, and Michelle starts screaming about the Red Army, and now I find out it's really all about this! Gimme a break!"

"Monogamy is counter-revolutionary," Jane stated.

"Oh, thanks, Winston," Howie said, jumping to his feet. "You can all just go screw yourselves!"

He slammed out the door, jumped on his motorcycle and roared off. When he turned the corner, a late model Ford pulled away from the curb and followed him down the street.

(Copyright 1997 by Brad Lang)

Interested publishers or other parties, please contact Brad Lang.