Jane Fonda rescued me when I was 18 years old. I was adrift when she fished me out of turbulent waters and landed me on solid ground. We parted without my thanking her, which I would like to do now, 47 years late.
October 5, 1972. Pittsburgh winters often arrive early, but on that Thursday afternoon, spring held on. I twisted out of my Litchfield Towers dorm after lunch, jacket-free but not worry-free, and trudged down Fifth Avenue toward Schenley Drive. I wasn’t sure where I’d wind up, or if I’d be happy when I got there.
I had two depressing options: walk across the street to the Cathedral of Learning or head to the library. “Cathy,” a Gothic Revival campanile of a building, was magnificent but foreboding. Deep in that 47-story tower was my academic adviser. We had been discussing the results of an interest test I’d taken. An algorithm had ranked my likes and dislikes and determined I was destined for a career in education or architecture, or farming, but not my declared major: engineering.
I was upset by the results, but not surprised. I hated my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. I slept in large auditoria through lectures by professors jabbering in unintelligible accents. Engineering students would gather in groups afterward to see if anyone understood anything said. This would be followed by small classes with disengaged teacher assistants.
The result was boredom and frustration, and D’s in the same physics, organic chemistry, and integral calculus courses I’d aced in high school. I entered Pitt as an honor student with a near 4.0 GPA. A year later, it hovered around 2. Worse, my teenage flights of fancy—model planes, scale rockets, doodles of flying cars—were shot down by the termination of America’s supersonic transport program and the cancelation of Apollos 18–20. I crash-landed at Pitt in an ocean of doubt. I’d always known I’d grow up to be an aeronautical engineer. Suddenly, I knew nothing.
In meetings high above Schenley Drive, in a chamber of rusticated limestone and leaded glass, my adviser and I explored options. Teaching was unexciting, I told him, and agriculture sounded like work. I admitted architecture was interesting, a field where I could build models and draw. Unfortunately, Pitt didn’t offer architecture, he said, so I’d have to transfer to another university. My family was here, I told him. And my girlfriend. I didn’t want to leave. “Not to worry,” he said. “You’d enjoy driving a combine.”
I figured there was nothing more to say, departed, and hung a right on Schenley towards Forbes Avenue. On the corner was Hillman Library, and on its first floor, racks of university brochures. In days past, I’d gone through a few college catalogs. Carnegie Mellon’s architecture school was only a few blocks from Pitt. But CMU was an expensive private school. With four boys to put through college, my parents couldn’t afford it. Same with the University of Pennsylvania in Philly. The University of Michigan’s out-of-state fees would also be prohibitive, although Ann Arbor had given me early acceptance to engineering before I’d chosen Pitt. I wondered if they would accept me now as an architecture student and offer financial aid. Penn State was the best option, though. Like Pitt, I would pay in-state tuition. I decided to track down their admissions office address.
At the corner of Forbes and Schenley, sandwiched between Cathy, the library, and Pitt’s student union, a crowd gathered. Hundreds of students clogged the streets and blocked my way. I expected a protest against the Vietnam War, or perhaps a George McGovern rally, either of which could be iffy. With the election only a month off, the campus was on edge. Most of us knew McGovern was a weak presidential candidate—too nice a guy. He’d lose big time to Richard Nixon, not a nice guy. The prospect of four more years of Tricky Dicky was unimaginable, inevitable, and depressing as hell. The mood on campus was correspondingly sullen, sulky, surly. As more people gathered, a Beach Boys’ warning floated into my head: Stay away when there’s a riot going on. I backed up.
The fear of being sent into a war zone was ever-present then. Nixon got elected in 1968 saying he’d pull American troops out of Vietnam. Instead, he doubled down and pushed the war into Cambodia. He also ended student draft deferments, screwing with the future of every college male my age. In the ’60s and early ’70s, if your family was wealthy, you could buy your way out of the draft with a doctor’s diagnosis of flat feet or bone spurs or something. My family was middle class. I registered with Selective Service on December 2, 1971 (weighing in at 125 pounds) and was classified 1-H (registrant not currently subject to processing). Fortunately, I’d drawn a high number in that year’s draft lottery, giving me a reprieve. There’d be more call-ups, though, and I wondered how long before my luck ran out. Fifty thousand kids my age had died in Vietnam in an endless war of support for an American-installed puppet government. I had no desire to kill innocent civilians or get myself killed in the process. Sentiment across American universities was the same. Hell, no, we won’t go was a constant refrain during protests, as was asking passersby for directions to Canada.
Student angst and anger had other triggers. There were demonstrations, sit-ins, and shutdowns against environmental destruction, racism, and sexism. Institutional reaction to the antipollution, antiwar, and civil rights movements could involve the police or tin soldiers. There’d been tear gassings and beatings, and sometimes rifles with fixed bayonets. Two students were killed and a dozen wounded on May 14, 1970, after a crowd gathered in front of a women’s dormitory at Jackson State in Mississippi. Ten days earlier, near Cleveland, four students died, and nine were wounded during a protest outside Taylor Hall, Kent State University’s architecture school.
Emotions over those massacres were still raw on the day I met Jane. For me, one was personal. Among the four dead in Ohio was Allison Krause. Her family lived in Pittsburgh’s Churchill borough, not far from where my family lived (I’d graduated from Churchill Area High School). I was only a year younger than Allison. When I saw pictures of her on the ground, I wondered if I’d known her—if not by name, then by face. Maybe I’d seen her around town. Perhaps we had the same friends. Her death made me numb and ashamed. Allison died to keep people like me from being shipped overseas, while I played it safe, kept my head down, ran from protests.
The crowd swelled, so I decided a retreat was in order. Schenley Hall was a comfy old hotel before it was converted into Pitt’s student union. Only a few people were near the entrance, but my path was blocked again, this time by a physical barrier. A high stage had been erected on Schenley Hall’s front lawn. Speakers were mounted at the sides, so I assumed a band was setting up. I got as close as I could to check out who’d be playing, but after failing to get anyone’s attention, reversed course and was blocked yet again. The mob had congealed around me, pushing me against the stage. I was trapped.
“Oh my,” someone said above me. I looked up and saw a woman’s head dart over the platform. Striped t-top, cropped hair, perfect teeth. Pretty, for an older woman, I thought, straining to keep myself upright. Crystal blue eyes. She disappeared from view, and then returned with two burly guys who motioned me to raise my arms. I was immediately hoisted on-stage and planted face-to-face with Jane Fonda. She smiled and said, “You looked like you could use some help,” then pointed to chairs near the back of the stage. “Have a seat over there. No one will mind.”
So I did. I sat next to Jane, Tom Hayden, and George Smith, an ex–Green Beret, as they went over their notes. By then, the audience had grown to thousands. People stood on others’ shoulders, pushed, and jumped for views. Some climbed trees to see the company I kept.
Jane moved to the microphone and spoke about McCarthyism, a repressive era when people were frightened to speak their minds, afraid to act. Her own family had been grey-listed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The late 1940s and early ’50s had been America’s darkest days. Fonda said McCarthyism had now returned. In a land known as freedom, Nixon headed a repressive government that worked against the people, not for the people. Corporation heads and Washington power brokers perpetuated wars and exploited class divisions for financial and personal gain. Technological progress in space and in the air had been perverted to cause unimaginable suffering on the ground.
What love I had remaining for air and space travel flew away.
She went on, saying the constitution had been short-circuited by a greedy, arrogant regime. Only peaceful revolution could change that. The same fervor that founded our country could save it. We could make America great again. Large-scale, nonviolent action could restore democracy.
Tom spoke of the rise of activism in America. The public had taken its “place in history to try to stop criminal and illegal, racist and genocidal war.” We must “do now what our grandchildren will be happy that we did when they read the history books a hundred years from now.”
Antiwar chants and fist-raised cheers of “right on!” echoed off Cathy’s walls. I closed my eyes and saw Allison dead in a parking lot.
A few months after I met Jane, she made a pilgrimage to Vietnam to assess the impact American bombers had on dikes. There had been reports of deliberate strikes to flood river deltas and put millions of innocents at risk (the White House denied the accusation). Fonda was welcomed by the North Vietnamese and returned to the U.S. branded as a traitor, “Hanoi Jane.” In hindsight, though, her embrace of those Washington called “the enemy” was visionary. History books only 50 years later would show a Vietnam on friendly terms with the U.S., almost an ally, despite the death of a million soldiers and tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians at the hands of Americans.
Discontent was nationwide: Jackson State, Berkeley, New York City, Washington. The Kent State protest-turned-massacre, however, was the iconic event and a turning point. Many historians consider the 13 seconds of gunfire and 67 bullets aimed at a peaceful demonstration outside Taylor Hall as signaling the end of Nixon’s reign. Five million students went on strike the next day and stayed out for two weeks. Eight hundred American colleges closed down. Kent State became an international symbol of resistance against unjust governance, an American Tiananmen Square.
The antiwar movement was both pervasive and persuasive. The draft ended in January 1973 under immense public pressure. The U.S. withdrew troops from Vietnam in August the same year, and 12 months later, Tricky Dick announced his resignation.
During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, 70% to 80% of Americans trusted Washington. That had shrunk to 36% by the time Nixon left office, a confidence drop of half. Government trust climbed to 50% of the population during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but fell again in George W. Bush’s term. In the Trump era, only 14% of Americans trust their government.
Today’s skepticism is good, but skepticism isn’t the same as action. Wendell Phillips, a 19th century liberal activist, said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” There are haunting connections between 1970 and what will soon be 2020. Then, we were a country politically divided; today, we are polarized again. Then, misplaced patriotism pitted young against old. (Many adults thought that instead of killing four kids at Kent State, “they should have shot them all.”) Then, a crook occupied the White House; today, a crime family lives there. Government lying was endemic in the ’60s and ’70s; our current president averages 22 lies a day.
It started to drizzle near the end of the rally. As the crowd thinned, I said goodbye to Jane and walked back to my dorm, convinced I needed to do more than pick a different major or transfer to a new school. People were on the streets with their lives on the line while I ducked for cover. It was time to join the barricades.
My afternoon with Jane Fonda was the day I heard the drumming. The next weekend, I wrote to the admissions office at Kent State’s School of Architecture and Environmental Design. A few months later, against family warnings about attending a “radical” school, I was in Ohio and paying my own way. I graduated Kent with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1977.
Thank you, Jane.
Featured image: Jane Fonda arriving at JFK Airport in New York, following her controversial trip to Hanoi.