The Skull and Bones of the Radical Underground

It was the year I lived over a Spring Street bar that was

once the white-hot locus of hipness in the Soho of the

70′s, then, late in the decade, slowly cooling off. I’d lucked into the

second-floor place after a breakup, moved in hastily and soon discovered that

some previous subtenants had not completely moved out.

I gathered that the place had served as a kind of love-nest

crash pad for one of the more socially active maître d’s of the bar below,

who’d subsequently sublet it to a series of his waitress-artist girlfriends for

a while before they moved on to “work on a film in Paris” or paint seashell art

on the beach at Phuket. Other previous inhabitants included a number of shady

characters who seemed to be in “art importation,” if you believed their stories.

I learned this because every couple of months a stranger

would ring my bell and tell me they wanted to retrieve something they’d left

stored in the place. It was a mini loft with a lot of cabinets, benches and built-in drawers and compartments I

hadn’t known were there until the girl with the Phuket tan and the (then-rare)

nose ring, or the guy with the South American jewelry, would arrive with a

friend to load their boxes of reclaimed possessions

into a double-parked BMW. “Just some personal stuff,” they’d say, and then

disappear without returning again.

But there was one former inhabitant who never came back at

all. A woman I’d once known briefly but lost touch with, a woman I’ll call

Melanie. I know she was an inhabitant or habitué of this place because I

recognized her face from the nude photos she’d left behind.

One day I’d been going through a set of drawers beneath a

loft bed, to see if I could find some room for my own stuff, when I found them.

Not crude or pornographic nudes, but arty, grainy, black-and-white photos. She

was someone I’d known sketchily once, someone I’d recognized from various

radical scenes, collectives and communes I’d reported on in the past. Maybe it

was that strange house in Miami Beach

that had been headquarters during the 1972 Presidential convention for some

signature countercultural characters, including Abbie Hoffman and Ed Sanders.

The house on a secluded canal that was said to have once belonged to a

heavyweight smuggler of some sort who, legend had it, died from “heart-attack

dope”-a single puff of some weed so strong it stopped his heart.

But since whenever it

was I’d last seen her, she’d gone on to become semi-famous. She’d been a target

of a grand jury investigating the bombing of the Pentagon by the Weather Underground

Organization, the fugitive antiwar radical group that had split off from S.D.S.

(Students for a Democratic Society) in 1969 when that once-relevant

organization had been taken over by a Maoist cult that called itself the

Progressive Labor Party. Anyone out there remember the P.L.P.? It was a sad

symptom of the takeover of indigenous American radicalism by smug Marxist

theorists whose belief-both arrogant and pathetic-in a “science” of history and

politics crippled the antiwar movement. The P.L.P. was the ruling Marxist

faction at Yale when I was there, and I recall that my initial predisposition

toward the Weather Underground was formed when the P.L.P. denounced them as

“adventurist.” Anyone denounced as adventurist by these grim mimics of Mao (who

have now “evolved” into self-proclaimed Stalinists) must have an adventure

worth investigating.

And not long afterward, when I became a reporter, I often

found myself investigating the cryptic traces, fragments and aftermaths of the

Weather Underground’s fugitive existence. I came to believe that their ability

to evade capture by the greatest manhunt in F.B.I. history-and the kind of

existence they lived on the run in the fugitive underground-was one of the

great untold stories of the era. A story that might never come to light, locked

away-like lurid photos in a hidden storage drawer-in the silence of those who

lived it.

The iconic figures of the Weather Underground were, you

might say, a counterpart to another of my investigative preoccupations: In

their secrecy, their exclusivity, their elite, clandestine, conspiratorial

mystique, they were the Skull and Bones of the radical underground.

You could, with perfect hindsight, look at it as a foolish adventure: The W.U.O.’s

“symbolic bombings” didn’t end the war, and, although the only casualties

caused by their bombs were three of their own “tribe” (in the famous 11th

Street townhouse “bomb-factory” explosion of 1970), by “going under” the rest

of them relegated their genuine leadership skills to irrelevance when they

might have made a difference “aboveground.”

Or you could regard it as a tragic adventure: the tragedy of radical moral purists who took as

their model the abolitionist terrorist John Brown. Driven to

become bomb makers by the terrible logic of their convictions-that it was

immoral not to take the most extreme

action possible against a war machine that was killing hundreds of thousands of

innocent civilians in Vietnam with its bombs.

(The same terrible moral absolutism which, it should be pointed out, leads

abortion-clinic bombers to light their fuses.)

But foolish or tragic-or both-it was a unique adventure, a uniquely American saga. But one whose nature,

whose texture those of us on the outside could only speculate

about. Because even though, over the past two decades, many of the Weather

Underground leadership have surfaced, done some time and resumed relatively

normal lives of social activism and teaching, none of them has talked. None of

them has opened up; anyway, none of them has written about what it was like on the Inside. Until

now-until Bill Ayers’ remarkable new memoir, Fugitive Days .

I’d love to know the story-behind-the-story behind the

decision to go public, and the question of just how much to go public with. But

there’s no question that Bill Ayers was at the heart of the heart of the

Weather Underground saga. The son of a Chicago

corporate executive, a high-school-jock type with a rebellious streak

radicalized by the war, he was inspired as well by the fierce moral purity of

his girlfriend, Diana Oughton. They “went under” together, and after she was

blown up in the awful townhouse “bomb-factory” explosion, there was no turning

back for him. Whatever larger political purpose his memoir is meant to serve,

one senses that it’s done for her sake, for Diana Oughton-to make sense of, to

memorialize her life and sacrifice.

Later on, while on the run, Mr. Ayers linked up with

Bernardine Dohrn-perhaps the most celebrated figure in the Weather Underground

because of her stunning black-leather-jacket, Ten Most

Wanted List poster image. The two of them are now married, raising the kids

they had underground. He teaches at the University

of Illinois and she’s an

influential activist lawyer. A fairly normal present life,

but an insanely strange, violent, heart-stoppingly suspenseful past.

What’s remarkable is just how little self-righteousness and

self-justification the memoir indulges in. How much willingness there is to

concede error, to express remorse, to reflect and question decisions they made.

There is, rather, a rueful awareness that they were trying

to make irrevocable life-and-death decisions “inside a hundred-mile gale.”

(“What It Feels Like to Be Inside an Explosion” was

the title of a poem written, I believe, by one of the Weather Underground members

who survived the townhouse explosion. Even living outside the explosion was, in those days, explosive enough; they

believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were combating a regime in the process

of committing genocide in Vietnam,

which made long-term thinking seem like a sellout.)

So there is self-awareness and self-criticism, but there’s

also an occasional touch of bravado. There is this opening paragraph of Chapter

29, in which Mr. Ayers tells us:

“Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the

Pentagon. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were

finally going to get what was coming to them.”

It was that sentence that brought back my memory of finding

the nude photos of the woman whom I’d always thought of as “the girl who bombed

the Pentagon.”

Mr. Ayers’ account of

that action-a five-pound pipe bomb planted in a Pentagon restroom was detonated

after warnings were given to clear the area-is more complex than “I bombed the

Pentagon” suggests. (I think it’s important to distinguish the Weather

Underground’s “armed-propaganda” actions in the 70′s, which were carefully

designed to damage property, not people,

from the 1981 Brink’s truck hold-up and murder. While Kathy Boudin, who was a

founding member of the W.U.O., was a participant in the Brink’s stickup, by

that time the W.U.O. had split up and dissolved, and Ms. Boudin had thrown in

her lot with a different group: the Black Liberation Army, which executed the

Brink’s job-and a black Brink’s guard as well.)

Anyway, it turns out that although Mr. Ayers says “I bombed

the Pentagon,” he quickly and cryptically adds: “I say ‘I’ even though I didn’t

actually bomb the Pentagon- we bombed

it in the sense that Weathermen organized and claimed it.”

The people who actually went into the Pentagon, Mr. Ayers

says, were two shadowy figures he calls “Anna” and “Aaron.”

I wondered who “Anna” was and whether I’d known her, and what became of her. I wondered if she was the

figure in the photos in that abandoned drawer, whether she’d left behind naked

images of herself as a symbolic preliminary to slipping into a new underground

identity, like a new set of clothes. Opening that drawer was like opening a

door to a world that had already by then-the late 70′s-become more mythic than

real. Somehow, those pictures of “Melanie” embodied in the flesh the romantic

myth of the underground. There she was, a fleshy angel

with a far-off contemplative look. An angel of the

underground.

I’d had other encounters with other underground angels,

including one who went by the name Angel: Abbie Hoffman’s resourceful and

beautiful paramour, Johanna Lawrenson, during his fugitive period. And when I

was briefly editing a contrarian journalism review named More , I’d even put the Weather Underground on the cover in a piece I

co-wrote about their fugitive publishing operation, the one that produced their

magnum opus, Prairie Fire . And I

believe I was once blindfolded and driven to a Weather Underground safe house

to meet with Abbie Hoffman and his Angel when they were on the run. (I mean I know I was blindfolded, and I was told the Weather Underground were involved in maintaining security for the meeting. In

return for which, Abbie plugged the murky and turgid Prairie Fire like a trouper.) And my first story for Harold Hayes at

Esquire was a long investigation of a

famous undercover agent known as “Tommy the Traveler,” who, it was said

(inaccurately, it turns out), had been the only infiltrator to pass the Weather

Underground’s “acid test”-a belief they apparently shared with the C.I.A. that

psychedelic drugs could act like truth serum on suspected moles.

But somehow those photos (in a place I suddenly suspected

was a onetime safe house of sorts)-those naked photos of an abandoned

identity-crystallized the forbidden romantic and dangerous appeal of the

Weather Underground myth.

It was a time when the myth was at its most potent. For

nearly a decade, this small group of hunted fugitives had outwitted a massive

F.B.I. manhunt. They’d been playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the

most powerful investigative agency in the Western world, and not only had they

escaped capture but, in some remarkable reversal, some voodoo jiu-jitsu, they’d

turned their pursuers into targets of the law.

They’d driven the F.B.I. up the wall for so long that the

squad of agents charged with tracking them had resorted to illegal,

unconstitutional acts of bugging, tapping, and breaking-and-entering that

resulted in the pursuers of the fugitives getting indicted, tried and convicted

for serious crimes (they were later pardoned by Ronald Reagan).

A few graduate students, really, led mainly by women had

outfoxed the entire security apparatus of the U.S.

government.

But, of course, there’s more to it than the Great Game of

cops and robbers, the ultimate hide-and-seek story. More to

it than the misguided romantic myth.

Reading Mr. Ayers’

memoir, I found myself excavating deeper layers to my own fascination with the

Weather Underground saga.

Beneath the lurid adventurist appeal, beneath a fascination

with underground angels, with the forbidden, secret-society,

Skull-and-Bones-of-the-underground aura of the group, was an appeal more

personal perhaps, deeper than politics. Something that drew

me to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground .

And to Murray Kempton’s brilliant portrait of Whittaker Chambers (first

published in The New York Review of Books ,

collected in Kempton’s book Rebellions,

Perversities, and Main Events ), the one called “The Narodnik from

Lindenhurst.” Narodniks were the 19th-century Russian nihilists driven (like

the W.U.O.) by a similar insane moral purism to self-destructive acts against a

cruel regime. In Murray Kempton’s portrait, Whittaker Chambers was not so much

a member of the Communist underground who then joined the anti-Communist

underground. He was a man of the underground

within -a Narodnik by temperament and soul even though he came from Lindenhurst,

Long Island. Maybe because

he came from Lindenhurst, Long  Island. As someone who grew up two

stops further east on the LIRR from Lindenhurst, I could

relate.*

Anyway, the scenes in Mr. Ayers’ memoir I most related

to-the aspects of the Weather Underground’s experience that were most magnetic

to me-were the ones that evoked iconic Narodnik emotions: the hypervigilant

sense of being hunted and cornered, on the verge of capture, forced to flee,

forced to assume a new identity in an instant, back on the run, alone again. The film-noir life in the shadows. The

thrilling paranoia and Dostoyevskian desperation of the underground life.

It struck a chord in me, something Russian and Jewish and Narodnik and yet as

American as the Underground Railroad. They were living out the fantasy I was

living within.

A fugitive sensibility, a primal sense that Authority is

illegitimate and immoral and will turn on you, and that one is at one’s most

authentic when denying authority and defying it-even if one ends up being

hunted and dying by it.

And though the Weather Underground’s strategies and tactics

look self-destructive in hindsight, you can’t deny the courage of their

convictions, the Narodnik soul of their collective saga. And I admire the way

so many of them have emerged from the underground without betraying their

principles-or each other. Some Narodniks never

leave their underground behind.

*Those interested in my Long Island

“Theory of Everything” can find my controversial Times Magazine piece on the subject reprinted in my new collection,

The Secret Parts of Fortune .