As I’ve written before on this very blog I come from a long line of political activists. Early on in the Vietnam war my parents helped put together the initial organization which would eventually become the Peace and Freedom Party, though they lost interest once it was taken over by sectarians and megalomaniacs. But I do have impressions of attending peace demonstrations at Golden Gate Park and even one memory at 2 or 3 years old of a political meeting in some sort of hall with a big coffee maker which made swishing noises that made me nervous. Somebody noticed that I was bored and gave me a box of animal crackers, which was red with pictures of the actual cookies rather than the circus cage packaging with which I was more familiar.   I don’t know why the memory is so vivid.

I remember at an early age thinking the the word “bourgeois” meant “stupid,” as everybody seemed to use it to describe someone’s arguments in disagreement (as a practical matter, I was probably right).  I remember lots of political arguments, some of them under heavy influence of alcohol.

I remember Holly Near concerts at Glide Memorial Church.  I remember my father playing CCR’s Willie and the Poor Boys over and over again mostly to hear Fortunate Son.  I remember hearing that we were losing a war to a place called “Vietnam” and dreamt about it.  In my dream, the Vietnamese people were white.  Nobody had explained the particulars.

I have a lot of visceral memories.  I was exposed to much.  Given left wing comic books about U.S. history.  I remember talking to my father about a lesson at school in which the teacher referenced the Viet Cong, and reacting with annoyance when my father explained his view that it was a derogatory term.  It seemed that he had to “correct” everything I was learning about history, and really, all I wanted to learn at the moment was whatever would get me the A on the test.

I honestly don’t think I thought much about politics until I was a teenager. Most of my younger years were spent in a relatively conservative working class community, and it wasn’t good for my social life to spread the family philosophy around at school – just one more thing to remind everyone that I was different.  My brother learned a tough lesson when he spoke at school about the “capitalist” who was tearing down Playland to replace with apartments (ironically, the “capitalist” wasn’t a very good one as the guy went bankrupt and what had been Playland was left a large vacant lot for years). Although my parents didn’t use language like that, he had overheard a conversation with more devoutly Marxist family friends and the loss of his favorite place made an impression on his young mind – a “radicalizing experience” if you will.

It’s hard to know the degree to which my views were shaped by my family’s political/cultural milieu. I’m sure it was a huge influence, but it certainly wasn’t exclusive. My parents both worked and unlike many around here who were raised without television, the thing used to baby-sit me.  However, in the Bay Area we had channel 2. For years before it was taken over by Fox it put out some very innovative local programming, and played loads of movies you wouldn’t find anywhere else on television, and probably won’t find anywhere on television today. Several such films had huge impact on me. There was a dubbed version of Costa Gavras‘ State of Siege, a powerful polemic of a film about the Tupamaros Rebellion of Uruguay which at about 10 or 11 years old was my first exposure to the concept of the “death squad” and the School of the Americas, and most importantly the idea that our government could align itself with torturers.

Needless to say, my childhood nightmares were rarely about monsters or supernatural events. They were usually people hurting someone, sometimes me. The worst were such dreams about people I knew and loved. And I had a moderate amount of them. State of Siege and some other movies may have been an influence. The films of Creature Features never bothered me, not even the late film.

The worst movie in this regard was On the Beach. For those of you unfamiliar with the title, the film takes place after World War III, with the survivors all making their way to Australia to await the prevailing winds which would carry the nuclear fallout radiation and end all life on the planet. I watched it on Dialing for Dollars, alone at home with the flu. I was in the 5th grade. I was never quite the same. As bad as they were, movies like The Day After and the English counterpart Threads didn’t affect me nearly as profoundly. Perhaps because they lacked the finality of On the Beach. Maybe because I was older and more immunized to their impact.

I didn’t really think that nuclear war was something I could do anything about, but I started asking questions anyway and reading up. I didn’t obsess over it, but as I became a teenager I started to have dreams. I don’t know how frequent they were, but each time World War III started in my dreams I was never quite certain whether it was a dream or the real thing. I always had the power to wake up in my dreams but each time before I did I would be delivered with the thought, “one of these times I won’t be able to escape this way.” Sooner or later I expected to be in that situation – a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up.

In some dreams, I had some warning. Events would be in the news as reported in my dream, or I’d be privy to some information. Other times the dream would be about something entirely different and it would strike like the Biblical “thief in the night.”

The nightmares would occur at varying frequencies until the late 1980s when either I lost the fear due to the events of the time or my subconscious decided to give me a break. But I have memory of a particular dream during my time at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. In the dream I was sitting on a hill on campus looking out over the Monterey Bay – something I did on a regular basis from certain spots where I’d clear my mind (plenty of those on that campus!). I’m just sitting there and everything’s quiet when a mushroom cloud goes up across the water. I immediately woke up to my usual relief. But this one made me think about it for a little longer than usual, and while I was and remain skeptical of the whole Freudian concept of the subconscious, this dream leaves me an agnostic.

While I was dreaming, I wasn’t expecting the mushroom cloud. I didn’t think consciously about where I might expect to see one. It was about 15 minutes after I woke up, I think I was in the dorm bathroom, when I realized that the location of the mushroom cloud of my dream was right about where the Moss Landings power plant is – not an unlikely target for one of the Soviet Union’s thousands of ICBMs. In the alpha state of my mind in the early morning hours, I wondered if it was somehow precognitive. In the daylight of the following day when my rational conscious mind had reasserted itself, I set the prospect aside. But I felt a deep sense of relief as the time passed.

Of course, who knows? It could still come true.

For those of you “not really into politics” who wonder why some of us are, well, I hope this answers one or two of your questions.  It was the Three Mile Island accident which brought me to my first rally of my own accord.  I wrote to Jimmy Carter.  I joined a group.  I don’t know that anything I did ever had any impact on the cold war or the danger we all faced.  But it felt good to try.  I was impressed with Gandhi’s famous quote on the subject of the sin of omission of doing nothing because you can only do a little.  So I did a little.  Although I took some sectarian turns before settling into a more responsible path, it was a rite of passage for me.  I was doing what my parents did and my grandparents.   Somewhere back at the beginning of civilization in response to the fears of the night – real and imagined – we learned as a species to build fires, bang sticks, and howl.  We invented music.  We invented solidarity.  We want to be part of something bigger, something transcendent.  There’s safety in the transcendent.  Maybe the transcendent is real.  Something that connects us all, and something that saved the species from itself during the cold war.  Now grown, sort of, I would much rather dream about the transcendent.  Or at least the hope of the transcendent.

The photo comes from this site, which is there to remind us that hundreds of thousands of people who look very much like my adopted children experienced the nightmare from which they could not wake up.