This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
The sun still felt good as I walked back to my dorm from the Sergeant Hall cafeteria after dinner. I rested in my bed for a little while, then got up, changed clothes, and started walking towards the next driveway south—Tech Auditorium, where the big event was about to take place.
I was recovering a little, having felt myself fading to almost nothing as I’d trudged to classes through up to a foot of snow during the seemingly interminable Chicago winter. It was my first year away from home, and so far I’d been unable to make a healthy transition from my parents’ hands-on doting. I’d joined a fraternity, but feeling out of place, had quit after two quarters. Now I spoke to almost no one and walked around perpetually confused: had those guys just not been my type, or was there was something wrong with me?
I was grateful spring had finally come, even though little else had changed. The physical act of getting to classes was now easier, and the bright green of all the new leaves, along with the hundreds of crocuses that painted the campus with the school colours, purple and white, was cheering. An artist who called himself “Warmth” had begun drawing big yellow smiley-faces on the sidewalk along Sheridan Road to inspire pedestrians. Every one of them seemed like a personal challenge.
The big event I was heading to was a policy speech by Senator Edward Kennedy—right on our campus. Rumour had it that at least part of his speech would be about the Vietnam War. The article in the Daily Northwestern had conjectured about whether members of SDS might start shouting, “Talk about the War, Senator!” one after another from various parts of the auditorium, as they had recently in Madison, Wisconsin.
I didn’t know or care much about that. I simply intended to go because I wanted to be well-informed. I felt fortunate to be on a campus where national and even world leaders regularly came to give addresses. During the winter I’d seen King Hussein of Jordan and Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the guerilla movement in Mozambique.
Passing a stand of bushes and turning left into the Tech driveway, I caught my first glimpse of the scene outside the massive metal doors that led in to the auditorium. I could see right away that I should have arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled beginning of the talk, instead of half an hour. The lobby was already thronged with people milling around or talking. Entering through the propped-open doors, I found the admission line, three-quarters of the way back to where I was. I planted myself behind the last person in line and immediately, someone new came and stood behind me. By the time I’d made my way up near the security man, I glanced back and saw the line winding all the way outside.
I bided my time as the two people still ahead of me went through the checkpoint. Finally, I stood face to face with a uniformed security man behind a wooden podium. The way in to the auditorium was cordoned off by velvet chains, and only a narrow pathway was open.
“Let’s see your student ID,” the chunky guard said. I reached into my back pocket and panicked. The pocket was empty.
“I left my wallet in my other pants, back in my dorm,” I said, forcing my voice to sound calm. “I do go to school here, though. Can’t you just let me in?”
“Go back and get it, and then come and show me,” he said matter-of-factly.
“But the auditorium will be full by then!” I protested.
The lobby was overflowing now, and there was scarcely room enough for everyone to stand. The din of the crowd was constant. I felt the swelling line pressing into me from behind. Then, suddenly—I have no idea how it happened—I found myself grappling with the man, who’d come out from behind his podium and was holding onto me. I was fighting to get away from him! Suddenly, I seemed to be in the wrong life! I, who had always been a peaceful person, who’d scarcely been in any fights even as a child, was being treated like a criminal!
“Hey Rod, I’ve got one for you!” the man shouted out, very loud. Who was Rod? Got one what? Couldn’t someone slow all this down?
From somewhere inside the foyer, a little phalanx of burly, black-suited men came marching out. There were six of them. Was I hallucinating? Secret Police? Here in America? As I continued to struggle mentally and physically, the men grabbed me and sort of lifted me away from the checkpoint guard and began dragging me into the foyer. Half pushed, half carried, I saw again the throngs of coloured-shirted, jabbering students filling the lobby. Only the very closest, the ones the men had to push their way through, even looked up.
Too disoriented to shout, I tried to use my feet as a brake. But there were too many of them. They bore me all the way inside the foyer, where fewer people could see us. Were they going to beat me—hurt me—now that we were out of sight? The little procession kept moving, bearing me to a deserted place at the side of the foyer. One of them pushed open a side door, and all together they roughly dumped me onto the floor outside the auditorium area. Someone pulled the door shut.
Suddenly, there was total quiet. Looking around, I saw that I sat on a green-tiled floor, alone in a deserted corridor of the building lined with lockers and classroom doors. I reached up and pulled on the brass handle of the door through which I’d been ejected. It didn’t budge. Oddly, from here I couldn’t even hear the throng in the lobby or the pre-speech buzz inside the rapidly-filling hall. I felt roughed up, shocked, but—I quickly took bodily inventory—not physically injured. It was so peaceful out here that except for the fact that I would never on my own sit like this on the floor of a public building, it seemed preposterous that what had taken place a moment ago had happened.
Yet it had. I felt like I was sitting at the bottom of a deep well. This was worse than a winter of slow humiliation. It was worse than walking to class in deep snow. It was even worse than having had the last girl I’d been out with, way back in September during Orientation Week, desert me in the middle of a song we were dancing to, after I’d leaned over to tell her something I’d thought would make her laugh, shouting “You’re crazy!” and walking away.
My self-pity alternated with rage, as I replayed my expulsion in my head. It was as if I’d been carried away not by human beings but by a raw Force, the men working in tandem to create something superhuman like one of the twisters that occasionally sped with unbelievable power through my home town, upturning everything in their path. My will, my intentions, meant nothing.
Suddenly, though, an impulse surged through my body and I stood up. No, I would not let them do this to me. I would recover my dignity. I pulled again on the door handle, this time as hard as I could. Then I made a fist, and began to knock hard upon the heavy wooden surface.
After a little while, the knocking hurt. You had to do it hard. If the auditorium was so soundproof that I couldn’t hear anything inside, then no one inside could hear me, either, unless I pounded. The door became literally the doorway between me and everything I not only wanted, but needed. I kept up my pounding without stopping, soon learning that an extended palm can make as much noise as a fist, and two of them, even more!
By now, the senator’s speech had no doubt begun. Well, if necessary, I would stay here at my post and keep doing this until it was over. After around ten minutes, however, the door opened. The shrewd, narrow face of an older gentleman peered at me from behind dark-rimmed glasses from a few inches away as he leaned his body forward. He must have worked for the university. Possibly he was another undercover man, but he wore a brown, pin-striped suit, not one of those black uniforms. I had the sense he knew what had happened.
“Come in,” he said in a kind, low voice, motioning with his head and briefly smiling. He walked away towards the back as soon I entered the auditorium. I found a vacant seat near a side aisle, only a few rows back from the stage. It was at least as good a seat as if I’d come in at the beginning. Still, I couldn’t tell you much of what Senator Kennedy said. My mind just kept replaying that unbelievable scene over and over, seeing the big, black, 12-footed dragon that had overpowered me.
As I left the auditorium, I began to realize that getting back in to see the speech was not enough. I needed an apology. The world, and especially the Northwestern student body, needed to know what kinds of things happened on this campus—what kind of thing could happen to them!
I went home and typed up a narrative of the incident. Having been an editor of my high school paper, and being in fact a journalism student here at Northwestern, I knew how to write a news story. Immediately walking my article across campus to the Daily Northwestern office, I gave it to the person on night duty. I felt better then. I fell asleep shortly after returning home, satisfied that my expose’ would alert the whole student body to the dangers of this dark side of our prestigious university.
Searching the paper the next morning, however, I felt puzzled. My piece was not the lead article. I couldn’t find it anywhere above the fold of the front page. Finally, though, near the bottom of the page, in small type, I found a headline: DIFFERING ACCOUNTS OF TECH AUDITORIUM INCIDENT. “Campus Security Chief Rod Wilson and an NU freshman gave differing accounts of an incident that occurred at Tech Auditorium last night,” the article began. It went on to quote the Chief saying, “If he’d been polite, we would have let him in.” My “expose’” had ended up rewritten as a dispute between an important official and an “NU freshman” who did not even matter enough to be named in the lead.
I felt crushed and enraged! Instead of being vindicated, I had become the victim of a further humiliation. My very honesty and possibly my sanity were being called into question. No one was more polite and obsequious than I. Mother had drilled those qualities into me all through childhood. But the person I’d been, whose “politeness” had been a veneer even over acceptance of abuse—I was not going to be that person any longer.
This budding springtime week of 1967 was also the second week of the campaign for Student Body President at Northwestern. Such an event might ordinarily have passed without arousing the slightest interest from an isolated campus atom like me. This year, however, the presidential race was attracting enormous campus-wide notice. Front-page banner headlines about it appeared in every edition of the Daily.
A student named Aldo Frank, a theatre major a year ahead of me who was a member of Theta Chi fraternity, had begun a campaign that he called Student Power, which did not stop with the usual Vote-For flyers and glad-handing. Instead, Frank’s campaign featured daily marches through the streets of Evanston. Adherents carried signs supporting a proposed Fair Housing law in the university-dependent town, and others condemning the Vietnam War. After each march through town, the group snaked across the campus green to a landmark known as The Rock.
Ordinarily, The Rock was simply something for fraternities to splash paint on and deface with graffiti before their party weekends. Frank, however, made it the site of campaign events he called “Bitch-Ins.” First he and then other students, one at a time, would ascend the painted boulder. Standing up there with electric bullhorn in hand, the speaker would air grievances against the university. Every day a crowd of one to two hundred listeners, many of whom had also been marchers, assembled. Students angrily denounced dorm curfews, campus ROTC, university research that helped the war machine, Northwestern’s complicity with racist housing and with South African apartheid. Such public outcries had previously been unheard of at our sleepy, conservative school, where in those days even the football team did not arouse much excitement.
I had seen the photos in the Daily of the crowds at The Rock. One day, while walking to a class, I’d seen the line of chanting, sign-carrying students march onto the campus after their jaunt through town. I hadn’t known what to make of any of this. My father had been an active socialist during his own college days. I’d grown up in the era of Martin Luther King, when sign-carrying demonstrators had become American icons. But my life had been sheltered in suburbia. I had very little awareness even of King’s greatness. In high school, I had regarded him from a distance as simply “a great orator.” The phrase had seemed safe. I’d described Dr. King that way once at home, Dad had not corrected me. He hadn’t given me a lecture about the moral purpose of such “oratory,” and how it was only a means to an end, justice.
Suddenly, now, a vector had been drawn from these events in the world to my own newly deflowered life. It all became clear, the reason why people anywhere carried signs and took risks. They were voiceless people insisting that their voices be heard! Why hadn’t I understood that before? Apparently, it was something no one could really explain in a history or current events course. You had to hurt, to understand. Now, for the first time, I got it.
I’d occasionally had conversations with a couple of freshmen in my dorm who were political activists. One of them, Sam Linton, was so precocious that even as a freshman, he was president of SDS. He always had answers to my questions; I liked that. Sometimes, though, he made statements that sounded patently outrageous. “The Peace Corps is just low-temperature napalm,” he had told me once.
My other activist acquaintance, Ricky Moses, was more level-headed. A lanky, good-looking Texan with wavy hair and an easy-going manner, Ricky was a freshman member of the student senate. A few days ago I’d read an article describing a speech he’d given supporting the Student Power movement. That evening I walked upstairs and down the hall, and knocked on the door of the room I knew to be his.
“Did I see your name in the paper today?” he drawled in a friendly voice when he saw me, his big eyes not even looking surprised to find me there.
“If you read to the very bottom of the article you did,” I said with a sarcastic laugh. “I’m pissed! Rod Wilson lied and said I wasn’t polite! Six of them just came out of the shadows and carried me away like a violent offender, Rick—just for forgetting my student ID!”
“Might all this have something to do with this visit?” he asked smiling.
“Well, I was hoping I could tell my story at the rally tomorrow. I know you’re friends with Aldo Frank. I was wondering if you could talk to him for me.”
“You should talk to him yourself,” he said, and then thought for a minute. “Tell you what. I’m meeting Aldo at the Grill tomorrow morning at 9. Why don’t you join us?”
“I don’t have a class till ten,” I said. “I’ll see you there!”
The next morning, holding the cup of coffee I had just paid for, I scanned the busy Campus Grill. Finally I found Moses sitting in a booth against the far wall with a person I recognized as Frank. Aldo was tall, but slightly pale and not at all athletic-looking, and wore a sport coat. If I hadn’t known which one was the leader, I would have picked Moses.
“Rick!” I shouted as I got near. Moses nudged Aldo and pointed in my direction, and they both stood up as he introduced me. We shook hands. They slid into one side of the booth and I, pushing my coffee ahead of me, into the other.
Aldo smiled and looked at me in a friendly way. “Rick was just telling me what happened the other night. I’d seen the article, but apparently it didn’t tell the whole story.”
“That’s right,” I said. “I didn’t do anything to provoke them. It was kind of an accident, and all of a sudden they were treating me like an assassin.”
“Well, here’s the thing about the Bitch-Ins,” Aldo said. “I don’t stage-manage them. They really are spontaneous. People just go up there and say whatever they want. I hear your passion about this, and I can understand how you’d feel put down by the article. If you’re at the Rock, of course you’re welcome to tell your story. Student Power’s really about just that.”
I joined the march through town that afternoon. I enjoyed every step of it: seeing the scorn on the faces of a group of ladies about to enter the Orrington Hotel as we passed by; the rage of two businessmen who looked up from some contract they were going over outside an office building. They all acted like grown-ups with us as their uncontrollable teenagers. But a bus driver flashed a two-finger V sign at us. A cleaning lady waiting for the bus smiled at us. For once I felt I was looking at the world from the right side of things. And it felt good bonding with other marchers, as we sang: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around…”
As we approached the Rock, another fifty or so people waiting for us broke into a cheer. A TV camera pointed at us. A sense of thrill worked its way up from somewhere inside me.
The line of marchers broke up and began re-forming around the landmark, painted orange this week with the letters Sigma Chi all over it. Aldo began his climb. Someone handed him the bullhorn when he reached the top.
“Thank you, to those of you who joined today’s march,” he began graciously. He had a Texas twang like Ricky, I realized, though not as pronounced. “Tomorrow we’ll march again! We’ll keep marching. We’ll march until there is justice in America, until the War is over and our university’s resources are no longer being used to burn people alive and suppress popular movements abroad!”
“Now, some people ask whether student politics should have anything to do with war or racism. Let’s ask them whether college should have anything to do with life! This university is part of the war machine, part of the racism machine. And we are citizens on this campus! We have a responsibility to take our stand! That is what Student Power means!
A loud voice in the rear shouted “Right on!”
“We’re not alone. A couple of weeks ago, 400,000 people marched in New York City to end the war. A month ago, right here in Chicago, Martin Luther King led a march of five thousand for peace. He knows racism can’t end unless the war ends. All over the country, in rallies just like this one on other campuses, our voices are starting to be heard—and they must be heard!”
And now, it is time for your voices to be heard. This is about free speech, as much as it is about anything else. One of our great universities was ground to a halt a couple of years back, all for the right to free speech that we exercise here today!”
“Who has something to say?”
Standing near the front of the crowd, I raised my hand. Frank beckoned for me to come up. I strode forward to the foot of the Rock and waited until he had climbed down. Then I put my hand to one of the rough stone outcroppings, found a foothold in an indentation, and began to climb. I discovered another foothold a few feet up, and boosted myself toward the top. Holding on up there with one hand to the cold, smooth rock, I reached out with the other for the bullhorn that Aldo held up to me.
I steadied myself, taking a deep breath and looking out over the crowd of students, teaching assistants, even a few professors. My history teacher, Mr. Wiebe, stood near the back in his tie and white shirt. Ricky Moses stood next to Aldo. Off to one side I noticed Ken Byrnes, a wraith-like hippie who lived in our dorm. The camera from the local TV station was pointing its eye straight at me. The afternoon sky was like a blue explosion. The air felt warm on my skin, but not too warm. I could practically feel the spring sap rising everywhere, as I began: “The other night I went to Tech Auditorium to hear Senator Kennedy…”
I had not rehearsed my speech. Still powered by the rage engendered by my humiliation, I felt confident in this friendly crowd that my public speaking experience from as far back as a sixth grade recitation of the Gettysburg Address on Lincoln’s birthday, would sculpt my raw passion and carry me through.
“Rod, I’ve got one for you!” I quoted the Security man loudly. “Rod,” I said, “turned out to be a thug!” Visualizing the heavy, black-suited men and the rough way I’d been treated out of the blue, I used the word that came naturally. Before me, heads bobbed sympathetically.
By the time I got to the part of the story that took place after I’d been thrown out the door, I was actually enjoying myself, feeling relaxed enough to improvise a little bit, stylistically: “I wasn’t going to take it!” I said. “I began knocking on the door as hard as I could! I knocked in waltz time! I knocked in Calypso! I knocked in Soul!” I went on to narrate the whole story, including being made into an anonymous “NU Freshman” in the Daily.
“And I’m telling all this at a Student Power rally because my story makes it clear that we need Student Power in order for you to be safe here, on your own campus! So you can walk around without getting roughed up by people who are supposed to be here to protect you! So that your word will not be rendered impotent by your own campus newspaper! Vote for Aldo Frank!”
I stepped down to strong, prolonged applause and a few loud cheers. “Tell ‘em, Marty!” a voice near me shouted. I looked up to see Mike Chernov, a senior business major from my former fraternity whom I’d always respected, beaming at me from under his Harris tweed sport coat and designer hair. I smiled back as I passed him. I handed the bullhorn back to Aldo, who flashed his own huge smile of appreciation.
The crowd began to break up, and I began walking back to my dorm. As I was about to go inside, a loud, breathless voice called my name. I turned. A tall, rather strange fellow named Jack ver Steig was approaching me at almost a run. He lived on the third floor. Sometimes he sat in the lobby with a guitar, always singing the same song whose chorus went, “I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”
“Marty!” he said again, catching up. “Hey, if they didn’t require student ID’s, anybody could get in! Even a guy who wanted to shoot a Senator!
I looked back at Jack, his raincoat, his pimpled face. I’d been so glib, a few minutes ago. Now I couldn’t think of a logical answer.
“What happened to me was wrong, Jack. That’s all I know.”
He shrugged, and I walked past him into the dorm, and up to my room. I was thankful that my roommate was out. I needed to be alone.
I thought back through all that had happened. Could it only have been two days? That guy who had trudged so sullenly through the winter. He had been trudging towards all this, without knowing. Now I’d bonded in the streets with other students. I’d allied myself with a worldwide movement. The spring tide was heady. The very trees seemed to be whispering in the breeze, “Change, Change!” All over the world we, the new generation, were going to overturn the Old Order.
But more importantly, when pushed to the edge, I had seen myself fight back. Now I knew: there was somebody in me who wanted life.
image 1: Pedro fait de la Photo (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA—no changes); image 2: Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY—cropped); image 3: Lynae Zebest (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA—no changes); image 4: Evan (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND—no changes)