My Favorite Anti-War Protest

The Illini Union was my home away from home during the 1960s. The original building had recently been renovated and greatly expanded, although my favorite hangout remained The Tavern, located in the basement of the original building. The Tavern had a bohemian coffeeshop feel and became a magnet for counterculture types like me. I spent most of my time in those days navigating between Turk’s Head, House of Chin, Union Tavern and Red Herring, all of which were within a block or two of each other.

Carl Ellis.

I loved hanging out at the Union bookstore because they let students sit in chairs and read any book without buying it! I’d spend hours reading paperback novels. One of my favorite moments came when I walked out and just happened to bump into Carl Ellis and Timothy Leary, who had just crossed paths for the first time and instantly recognized themselves as long-lost comrades-in-arms. I think it began with Carl making some Oriental display of respect and offering his hand, but it ended with both of them embraced in a bear-hug. Leary was in town to give a speech later that day in one of the Union ballrooms.

After the Vietnam draft heated up, several anti-war organizations sprouted on campus and draft card burnings became a regular event on the south deck of the Union. Eventually, this deck became officially known as the “free speech area,” and impromptu rallies began manifesting that alternated between folk songs and speeches against the war. At this time, however, most people in the community still supported the war and a local fraternity responded to these anti-war efforts by holding a blood drive for soldiers overseas.

My favorite anti-war event happened when a big muckity-muck of the draft came to one of the ballrooms to deliver a speech on how the new lottery system was going to work. But after he’d been speaking for only a few seconds, a cue was given and a couple dozen people, including me, put on black hoods with skull faces and stood up on our chairs. Meanwhile, the double doors flung open and a casket paraded into the room. As the casket wound around the room, the black skulls lined up behind it in a silent death march. We ended up marching out of the ballroom pretty quick and planned to exit the building in an orderly fashion and go to the Turk’s Head. But as we left the ballroom, we saw campus police rushing towards us, so we quickly veered into a nearby elevator and pushed the “up” button.

Knowing the cops could see which floor we were headed for, we exited the elevator asap and ran down a long hallway to a different set of elevators, got inside and pushed the “down” button, returning to our original floor. Meanwhile, cops were running all over the building, trying to locate the casket while we stayed one floor and one step ahead of them, laughing all the way. It was a scene right out of the Keystone Kops.

Finally, the cops did corner the casket, and a kid from Uni High who was a year younger than me jumped on top and began delivering a passionate anti-war speech. He was standing under a portrait of Red Grange, the galloping ghost himself, and I remember thinking, “I wonder what Red might think of us now?”

I never see any references to this protest online, although it was my favorite action of all the ones I participated in. Later, there’d be a brief riot in the Union after the school tried to do something about the fact that out of 30,000 students at the U of I in 1967, less than 300 of them were black. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., statistics like that were especially revealing of the institutionalized racism that afflicted the state. So the U of I hastily set up a program designed to bring 500 black students into the school for the fall semester in 1968. Unfortunately, many of them quickly decided they were being treated like second-class students and demanded to see Chancellor Jack Peltason immediately, not in his office, but in the Union Art Gallery, where hundreds of them had assembled for a sit-in. Peltason was told the situation was too unruly for such a meeting so he decided to close the building instead. That’s when a few of the students began slashing paintings. I wonder today who those slashers were and what the point of attacking that artwork might have been? Today, that sort of activity seems more like the work of an FBI dirty tricks informant.

We knew the FBI was sending dirty tricks specialists to infiltrate our anti-war scene, as they could often be quickly identified as the guy demanding some crazy violent action, like trampling the Morrow Plots, the country’s oldest continuous agricultural research center, as if the Morrow Plots had something to do with the War in Vietnam. Despite knowing the FBI was orchestrating the violence, we were helpless to stem the tide, as radical actions got increasingly violent, finally erupting in full-scale riots in 1970.

It was strange for me to see these people getting hostile with Jack Peltason. To me, Jack was just a nice guy, a good friend of my family and the father of my brother’s best friend. Many of us had grown up together in Stadium Terrace, a low-cost housing development built as barracks during the war on the west side of the football stadium and later transformed into cheap housing for married graduate students. In the early 1950s, polio swept through the community, and Bugsy’s dad was one of the unfortunates who contracted that terrible disease. Many of the families that went through Stadium Terrace remained close long after the barracks were torn down.

After I graduated with a degree in playwriting, I sent an application to Yale Drama Graduate school, including a copy of my play that had been performed at the National College Theater Festival. Jack Peltason wrote a letter of recommendation for me. I remember going to his office for the first time to ask him for the letter. He was really shocked to hear I was applying to Yale. “Isn’t that the very heart of the establishment?” he asked me with a wink, well aware of my radical activities. As could have been predicted, however, Yale didn’t want me, so I took a year off to travel in Europe and then applied to get a Masters in Science in Journalism from the U of I.

My First Trip on LSD

It wasn’t long after Hayes brought Carp into the Knight Riders that he began plotting how to get rid of him. Meanwhile, Tim Anderson, the original bass player for the Finchley Boy’s, convinced his dad to let him re-join a band. You might remember Tim was the first member of the Finchleys to unleash himself at a rehearsal and help guide the Finchleys into the realms of real rock’n’roll—what Dave Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband describes as: “An overloaded lumber truck coming down the mountain, riding two wheels on all the curves” (see “True Origins of the Finchley Boys”). Hayes (left) held a secret tryout with Tim and we were all very impressed with his passion. “Wow, we finally got a showman in the band,” said Hayes afterwards. Tim left thinking he’d just joined a band.

“What about Carp?” I wondered. There’s an age-old technique for getting rid of band members without any uncomfortable confrontations, and Hayes was naturally going to employ this technique by disbanding the Knight Riders and then re-forming a new band a few days later with Tim as the lead singer. Of course, this new band would require a new name and Hayes asked me to start thinking up possible new names immediately. I decided to split rather than stick around to see what was going to happen when Carp showed up for a band meeting and heard the bad news about his band disbanding.

I hitch-hiked over to the Union Tavern, in the basement of the Illini Union, one of my three favorite hangouts at the time, the other two being Turk’s Head and House of Chin. (This was before the Red Herring Coffeeshop opened in the basement of the Unitarian Church.) Bugsy was sitting at a table wearing a huge Cheshire grin. An older beatnik dude was with him. I started talking to Bugsy, but the older dude interrupted right away. “Bugsy’s tripping right now,” he said. Holy Cow! This was the first I’d heard of any LSD in my hometown!! That’s when I noticed Bugsy’s eyes were big as saucers. A buddy of Bugsy’s had just flown to San Francisco for the weekend (the round-trip ticket was under $300), purchased several hundred blue capsules of LSD (still legal at the time—150 mics each we were told). The caps cost $1 on the street in the Haight, but could be sold for almost anything in Urbana, so desperate were people for a taste of this new infamous drug. On an initial investment of less than $1,000 this dude was planning to make at least $10,000 in profit. I could see the calculator going off in his head. I was fronted four capsules for the special price of $10 each.

I headed over to Doug Blair’s new crib. After the baseball-bat incident with Frank Sowers (see “King of the Greasers”) Doug had left high school and gone straight into the University of Illinois. He was a straight-A student running his own radio station at the time, so it hadn’t been too difficult. Instead of moving into a dorm like most incoming freshmen, Doug had located approved-student-housing on Third Street. It was a giant old house and had two or three beds in most of the rooms, but somehow Doug (left) had scored a small private room on the very top floor all by himself. The first time I’d gone up there, Doug had been getting high by sniffing lab-grade toluene. I tried it and almost instantly had a frightening panic attack and couldn’t remember my name for about 30 seconds. It freaked me so bad, I never wanted to sniff glue again. The only earlier experience I’d had with glue was when a bunch of us decided to hold our own version of the Finchley Boy’s famous glue party (see “True Origins: Stairway to Heaven”). We were at Jim K’s house and after we got high, I ran out to his backyard, which fronted a local golf course, took off all my clothes and started running around naked. Of course, this greatly concerned my friends, who desperately tried the herd me back inside while trying get me re-dressed. They finally got me back into the house with my underwear on, when Jim K started chasing me around the house brandishing a huge kitchen knife. He wanted to stab me because he’d only hosted this party on condition that I behaved myself, which I obviously hadn’t.

Fresh Cream by Cream had just come out and Doug was listening to the song “I Feel Free” when I arrived. I showed him the blue capsules and we decided to take half right away. Twenty minutes later we both took the other half. Twenty minutes after that we decided to go to the Union Tavern. Bugsy was no where in sight. We started coming on just as we sat down at a booth and when the waiter came, we realized we had to split as we were getting claustrophobic. In a daze, we walked out on the terrace on the Union’s south side, where Doug bumped into a girl he knew named Spacey. She started flirting with Doug. I couldn’t communicate, so I pulled Doug aside and said I needed to return to his crib where I felt safe. I just wanted to curl up in a blanket and listen to records. Doug guided me back to his place but wanted to go back outside. “Don’t leave me!” I pleaded. Doug came up with the idea of me calling someone to babysit me via the telephone. I thought that was a great idea, and, of course, I called Carole. “Well, you can’t have kids now,” she said when I told her I was tripping. They were spreading a lie at this time that LSD caused birth defects. Funny how it took so long to reveal this connection with alcohol, but they prematurely jumped all over it when it came to LSD. Carole secretly tape-recorded my rantings while I described all my hallucinations and wild revelations. (She’d discover the tape many years later and tell me it all sounded so innocent.) Eventually, Doug returned, by which time we both had huge psychedelic auras around our heads. We stayed up all night listening to music. Doug always had the best record collection and stereo of anyone I ever knew.

Around 8 am, I left for school and arrived at the pavilion at Carle Park across from Urbana High (the same place where a snowball fight changed my life, see “From Violent Streetgangs to Merry Pranksters’). The pavilion  is where all the longhairs smoked cigarettes before going to class. I unexpectedly bumped into the Knight Riders. Carp had thrown them down the basement stairs and threatened to beat the shit out of them if they tried to disband. So the Knight Riders still existed. I wasn’t surprised. Then I pulled a piece of tin foil out of my pocket, opened it and revealed two capsules of LSD. The Knight Riders seemed really dismayed and started acting like I was a heroin junkie or something. No way were they interested in anything as powerful as LSD! A few hours later, Hayes informed me I’d been kicked out of the band for being a drug addict.