How It All Began
The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself.It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that got me started. The reading had been recorded in The Cellar, a smoke-filled wine-soaked hangout of the Beats in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti's voice was flat, nasal, matter-of-fact, and absolutely charming.
I heard it one night on KPFA, the Pacifica station for the Bay Area. I was a volunteer at KPFA, and Ferlinghetti was saying things that the rest of us were only thinking of saying: about nuclear bombs, about Eisenhower, about Rep. Clyde Doyle of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
We were scared. In 1957, free speech could get you a visit from the FBI. All the staff of KPFA, the home of William Mandel and pacifists and assorted leftists, had a touch of paranoia. They were right. Years after, Freedom of Information searches found that they were more or less under constant FBI scrutiny. It was a fearful time.
And here was this bearded guy, in a fedora, writing and speaking such things, about impeaching the president, about a dog, who had
his own free world to live in
his own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
This was manna for those of us who felt muzzled, feared atomic missiles, knew too that too much protest would get you investigated. We knew that KPFA was the only game in town, measurably more effective than peace marches, letters to the president, picketing in front of military recruiters' offices.
The other media were a scandal of indolence: the San Francisco Chronicle was coming to resemble, more and more, the National Enquirer. The Oakland Tribune was owned by the Knowlands, whose politics were slightly to the right of Vlad the Impaler. In turn, the San Francisco Examiner was owned by Attila the Hun, the Hearst Corporation.
In those days, lest we forget, they still hanged black men from the magnolia trees in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina. James Eastland and Strom Thurmond ran the U. S. Senate. Eisenhower was asleep at the wheel, and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was notorious for rattling nuclear warheads.
J. Edgar Hoover was everywhere. If you thought or spoke subversively, you'd get a subpoena from the HUAC, or a rap on the door from the agents with black pointy shoes. If you had a sensitive job with a university, your goose would be cooked. Senator McCarthy might have been dying, but his curse was everywhere abroad in the land.
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows.
I ended up at the University of California at Berkeley studying Marvell and Mill and Milton and Molière. My wife, who loved me dearly but couldn't figure me out, bought baby clothes and cooked (badly) and worried about our marriage. I drank a lot and hid in my study. We didn't like Johnny Carson or Lawrence Welk or Queen for a Day, so we listened to the radio.
That's where I found KPFA. It became my home away from home. While my wife did Lamaze and learned to smoke dope, I spent my nights at KPFA, volunteering. BBC drama, Alan Watts, talks by David Riesman, folk music with Joan Baez, interviews with Paul Robeson, and the good and gentle Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
I wanted to be a good husband, but I found that being a good husband gave me stomach-aches and headaches. "What am I doing here?" I would wonder. I was the one with morning sickness and the aching back.
And he goes past Coit's Tower
and past Congressman Doyle
He's afraid of Coit's Tower
but he's not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another fire hydrant
We were used to such talk in Berkeley. We could call our representatives fire hydrants and no one would care. But what about Washington? I thought. How would this play in Washington? That, and Ferlinghetti's "Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower?"
Play that in Washington, D. C., over the radio. Sure you could get away with such talk in California. But what would happen if someone (me) were to leave a marriage and university studies and go off to Washington, D. C. and start a radio station, get one going just so the people on the east coast so far away from the realities of the real world (we thought) could get a taste of what was going on in other places, the rare rumblings from the not-so-content disaffected youth?
Let's take those words to the very source of power, Washington DC, let people hear things they might not have known existed. That would be the nuts, no?
Ferlinghetti on the air in Washington, in the very city where this Eisenhower and his Dulles and Congressman Doyle and J. Edgar Hoover and James Eastland and Pat McCarran were holding forth, to go there and put a radio station on the air in their own backyard so they could hear what the rest of the country was thinking about their wars, their investigations, about how they were scaring the hell out of the rest of us.
Go on the air ... and the very first thing I would play would be this bearded guy in his ratty fedora talking about Congressman Doyle as a fire hydrant, and a long poem about "The Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower."
That would be the nuts, wouldn't it?