May 15, 2020:

My Marine friend had a neighbor who was a navy combat pilot on active duty bombing North Vietnam. I was thrilled to talk with him. Here's a dude doing the thing I wanted to do, were it not for corrective lenses. He told me his favorite thing was bombing bridges in Hanoi. He said, "I love seeing bodies thrown skyward riding the tops of the fireballs." But — wait. Bridges inside the city? "But those are civilians, aren't they?" He grinned a grin of pure malevolent evil and answered, "Yeah!"

That was deeply shocking to me. At this time I'm a true believer in American Goodness. We're the good guys: we don't torture prisoners, we don't kill civilians. I was shaken for a long time. This was one of the key triggering experiences prompting my study of Vietnam, which in turn triggered my radicalization leftward.

The other, believe it or not, was The African Queen. My mother loved that movie. We watched it many times in black and white on our little 11" Sears portable — whenever it was on a network "movie of the week" or other broadcast. I remember as a small child how stunned I was by the opening scene of German colonial troops setting fire to the thatched huts of the "natives" — that term which didn't yet seem patronizing to me. "They're burning the peoples' houses!", I said. My mother explained, "They're the bad guys. That's what bad guys do." I remembered that moment with vivid clarity one night in 1973 watching historical news footage — ironic that a war still in progress had lasted long enough to generate historical footage — of American troops setting fire to the thatched huts of Vietnamese "natives" in 1967 or so. Wait — that's what the bad guys do! Where two plus two equals four.

Those two experiences came fairly close together. They shook me enough that for the first time I chose to study the historical and political background of the Vietnam war. I rode my bike down to Hunter's Books in Mission Valley and bought Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald. I bought it for its striking yellow cover with its exotic Asian pictogram, and for the jacket blurb boasting of its Pulitzer Prize. In hindsight there could not have been a better choice, firstly for its strikingly beautiful prose, but more immediately and more lastingly for its unmistakable documentation that the Vietnamese people wanted us the fuck out of their country. As we would, I remember thinking, and still think, were we invaded by foreign armies. Years later it still puzzles me that people were surprised by the Iraqi resistance to our presence there, or the Afghan resistance. How would you react if Martians invaded Idaho? I'd fight 'em. So would you. No matter how noble they insist their intentions are.

My commitment to capital-D Democracy is hugely offended. Hugely. The people want us out. It's their country. They're The People. Democracy means The People decide. As sure as four plus four equals eight we're wrong to be there against their will. There's no quantity of complex geopolitical casuistry able to gainsay that basic, principled fact. They want us out: we should go. I'm now antiwar, from the deeply American principled commitment to our core national values. It's undemocratic for us to occupy a country against the will of its people. That's truth, justice, and the American Way. The end.

It sounds like hyperbole but for me this was literally an overnight conversion. Or however long it took to finish the book. A couple of days. By the final page I was militant, opposed, with the same fervor I'd previously been militant, in favor, and for the same reasons. Democracy is at stake.

The thing is, though, the ground had been prepared. In a creeping way, like the drip of rainwater through an increasingly leaky roof, until at last the Big Storm hits and the whole thing collapses. I just mixed a pile of metaphors but let's keep our eyes on the prize. There had been many small experiences preparing the final big one. My rejection of Christmas on Christian grounds; the conflict that engendered; my hurt over my mother's disloyalty, and the increasing feeling of isolation which that accelerated. The Navy pilot who loved murdering civilians. The TV news images which paralleled The African Queen. Things were not right. There are too many lies. Frances Fitzgerald ripped off the roof. I'm forever grateful.

Now increasingly suspicious of all authority I began testing its limits. I hate school so much: what happens if I simply choose to not turn up? No excuses offered. What happens if I go to the beach instead? Turns out: nothing. No-one in authority paid me any mind. They didn't care at all. That realization blew my head off.

How far can I push this? I'd go to school unmistakably drunk. Or tripping. Or trembling, literally, from the combination of alcohol and amphetamine, always my cocktail of choice. Nobody cared. Instead of class I'd wander the halls, or sit on the big steps watching girls' PE. Nothing happened.

Another milestone: I met some girls at Windansea when I should have been in English. We talked antiwar. They were students at UCSD — older women. Three of them. They took me under wing. We're friends to this day — thanks social media! They introduced me to Feminism, and to the contours of the student movements of that era. They taught me to navigate the competing currents of campus-based anticapitalist radicalism, and how to find the clitoris. Which was more important? Depends on context I guess.

It's important to understand that milieu because my education there profoundly shaped my future political, intellectual, and emotional evolution. UCSD was unique because its student movement had institutionalized the gains of the '60s mobilizations in a series of student-owned and student-managed co-operative and collective enterprises forming a comprehensive infrastructure parallel to the official one offered by the Regents. The Regents had a bookstore — called The Regents' Bookstore as I recall. The students had Groundwork Books, a collective with a storefront specializing in history and politics, and increasingly textbooks, as more and more faculty ordered their course materials through them. There were several official cafeteria provided by the University; the students created The Che Cafe, a brilliant all-veggie student-owned and managed restaurant-slash-performance venue, where you could eat brown rice and watch bands play all at the same time. There was a film collective; an alternative newspaper called The New Indicator; a recycling co-op; a bicycle store. All in ferment as the '60s mass mobilization faded and the direction forward was unclear.

You'd expect the dominant ideology in this context would have been Marxism. Far from it. The milieu was militantly Anarchist, and it won me immediately to its combination of ultra-democratic self-organization with principled anti-statism. Thinking about it now I realize it captured me immediately because it was an exact reflection, in a more systematic way, of, well, me. Of my principled commitment to democracy combined with now all-out rejection of dishonest and incompetent authority. This thinking originates with Bakunin, you say? Great, I'll read Bakunin. And Proudhon, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Goldman, Malatesta. I'll buy the IWW songbook and consider myself an honorary Wobbly. I'm seventeen and I'm coming for your property. Go Reds, Smash State!

I stopped going to high school altogether. There was one exception: I loved chemistry class. I mean, loved loved loved it. In a way I hadn't felt about school since before my IQ test. I loved its conceptual precision, and its highly straightforward material outcomes. Yet my grade was F. Huh?!? The incompetent young teacher graded on three criteria. One-third was tests. I aced all those. One-third was labs. I didn't write them up because he'd had me demonstrate the labs to the class. So that was a zero. One-third was homework, but the answers were in the back of the book. The kids just flipped the book over and copied them down. I didn't see the point of that unless we're grading penmanship. So that was a zero. My final score was 33/100 equals F.

That was the end for me. The injustice of that, the ineptitude. The sheer stupidity of grading by those criteria under those circumstances. I stopped going to high school and spent my days in the Anarchist student movements at university. I'd only turn up at Clairemont High if there were an antiwar demo, of which there were few.

This is why I have no high school diploma. Just three or four weeks before graduation the authorities informed me that my services as a student were no longer required. My mother cried. I shrugged but was inwardly angry they hadn't made that decision three years earlier.