The Ghosts of ’69 Part One

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We had much to be grateful for in the Spring of 1969. Thirty-one years before my father had finished eighth grade and gone to work in the Harlan County mines. Despite this humble beginning he left to help fight the great war, married a smart lady he met at Fort Eustis, and together they sallied forth to find the American Dream. Now my oldest brother Mike was graduating from Harvard. As part of the fine news that Spring, my father’s colleague and boss Walter Reuther received an honorary degree from Harvard at the very same ceremony. Not a bad optic for my father to be sure. Anyone had to see the plain truth. It’s one Hell of a country where this could happen.

As with anything in this mortal sphere, there was darkness too. During the previous Thanksgiving break my brothers had gone to shoot quail with their good friend. Now he flashed his buoyant smile in the Life Magazine special article on one week’s dead in Vietnam. We cried.

There we were in Harvard Yard, where my brother would graduate Magna Cum Laude. The National Guard surrounded the outer edge of the commencement ceremony, holding back students involved in the anti-war protests of earlier weeks who objected to Harvard’s role in the Eastern Establishment brain trust and in actions that lead to and supported such a war.

I knew my father’s rapid upward mobility was tied to his enlistment, distinction as a soldier award of a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. Even so, by this time my family had all grown weary with the unusual facts of the Vietnam War’s origins and the horrible loss of American life. Nonetheless, the extremes of civil disobedience of the protestors yelling at some of the most liberal people in the United States seemed to serve no one’s interests. The whole situation was very sad.

Combined with the death of my brothers’ friend was my trouble. At the time we moved to Hilliard in 1963, my father and his union were the whipping boys of Right-wing Ohio groups. One particular high school teacher had made public comments about my father and family members since then. The fall before, this teacher’s daughter led a group of students who yelled so loud that I, as the advocate for Candidate Hubert Humphrey, was unable to deliver audible comments on behalf of the candidate. Now the teacher/ lead heckler’s father oversaw a study hall of students which I was in. I tried to avoid him and thought I had succeeded. Nonetheless, one day I was talking with a friend behind me before the bell rang to signal the period had begun. I was shocked to find him standing over me with his fist drawn back ready to strike and could not discern what I had done to earn his rage.

My father was out of town on union business but upon returning he learned of the episode. It seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Always up to ears in work, my feather sent the teacher a telegram a copy of which I found years later, which stated in part:

“I have been most patient over the approximate 6 yr period as the facilities of the public high school have been used as a forum for your own political views accompanied by a sustained campaign directed toward me as an individual and my family as an entity. [Y]our actions . . . are in my considered opinion not only a violation of the ethics of the teaching profession but . . . are coercive in [n]ature and a violation of civil law.”

Telegram of Joe Hyde to Hilliard High School Teacher

The high school authorities were fully aware of this situation. The teacher was never punished in any way. I was brought into a session with the principal and vice-principal of Hilliard High School where the two men talked to each other about what a troublemaker I was becoming.       

The school year ended and days later we were there in Harvard Yard. Notwithstanding everything, the commencement was joyous, all the more so because my brother wed his college sweetheart a week or so later in New York City. After the celebrations, I and much of my family returned to Ohio. I was a happy but confused, a 15-year-old wondering at my family’s rising tide of achievements and the Vietnam tragedy. The glowing smile of my brothers’ friend in the Life Magazine article played through my head. Why did they call it Hamburger Hill?

Early that summer, I tried to practice yoga, read a few Indian philosophy texts the Beatles had glamorized. I read Steppenwolf and other novels of Herman Hess and discovered the spiritual psychology of Carl Jung. Like one of the pubescent doodlers in James Joyce’s novel, Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, I was young and easily frightened or “Jung and easily Freudened” as Joyce put it. It was time to try and step back, find some peace, try to plan next moves. Soon, I discovered a passion for chess and spent what seemed like days at my friend Owen’s house playing on an elegant custom-made chess board in his father’s den. We played for hours on end and I loved it.

One June afternoon while playing chess, one of my cohorts brought to our attention a device called a “Ouija Board” which he had recently procured. We were a curious pubescent bunch and decided to try the thing out. The fellow brought his new acquisition to our committee for examination. Next thing I knew, we were engaged in a bizarre exercise, one kid holding his hand on a pointer that purportedly hooked us up to a spirit world. Little snippets and statements were spelled, and the Ouija Board became part of our much-repeated routine. During the session I experience bizarre electrical rushes in the spine–something that also happened to my cohorts too. What fun!

Of course, we had no idea what we were doing. That much hasn’t changed as I still don’t know what we were doing. But after a few weeks, a real or pubescent-inspired persona emerged on the Ouija, identified itself as “Augustine Brown.” He claimed to be the spirit of the man who built the circa 1832 house outside Hilliard, Ohio where I had grown up.

After several days, the real or imagined persona communicating through the Ouija Board directed us to reconvene at my house for a session. We did so. My parents were less than enthused by these sessions. I overhead my mother telling a friends’ father that she would rather have us contained in a home environment. The front page of our local newspaper broadcast word of “amphibian stimulants” confiscated at a recent high school party. To be sure, my mother would ensure that no such contraband stimulated the amphibians in her home. And in any event, our interests were more highbrow than “high” seeking. We were not causing trouble, reading lots of books, and playing lots of chess. So, my parents tolerated our antics and, unbeknownst to us all, we edged towards a climax.

Over the course of weeks, my friends trouped up to the large bedroom I shared with my brother on the second floor of the old house. We set up the board on an old table in the corner of our room. Soon a half-dozen or more of use were engaged in communications with Augustine Brown again. During the course of the sessions, Augustine focused on a dirt floor room in the basement 1832 house. Thumps on the hard dirt floor produced a range of sounds and my colleagues and I wondered if there wasn’t something buried there. We consulted Augustine on this matter. Somebody found a book on seances and invocations. Further plans hatched.

On the evening of July 20, 1969, my friends, brother Joe and I were on the second floor of our old farmhouse. Downstairs my father, mother and sister camped before the television. It was a remarkable night because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were attempting a moon landing. John Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon within the decade was coming true.

Upstairs around the table, we thought more of going down to the dirt floor room for a séance than of going up to the moon. We commenced with our Ouija session, lights out with a candle burning, five of us around the board. This time Augustine wrote furiously, directing us to go down and dig, and to do this with in candlelight with a chant. I was now ready, foresaw the inevitable, and expedited its occurrence. The others headed down to the basement. While I commandeered a small spade, my parents and sister rejoiced at the marvel of the moon landing.

As I disappeared onto the basement stairs to join my brother and friends, my sister spotted me with shovel and asked what I was doing. I quickly explained and decamped before objections arose. As the television broadcast the moon landing, we began candlelight proceedings, chanting something to do with a four-part invocation to the spirit world. I took the spade and chopped at the dirt floor. It was so packed and hard that not even a dent occurred in the ground. But as we chanted and I tried to dig, we heard a loud bang above us.

“Dad says you guys gotta stop.” My sister called down to us. “The television just blew up–just as the man put the flag into the moon.”

I looked up at her, relieved that my futile efforts were shut down. But the truth is, our family’s color television had indeed blown up. There was no underground electric cable or anything else in our basement that could have caused the explosion.

I was admonished to avoid further explorations with Augustine Brown, the Ouija Board, or the chants. At the time, nobody said why, and we had grown bored with the exercise in any event and went back to chess. Much later, my mother later confided that back in Harlan County where my father had grown up people routinely “spoke in tongues” at religious services, and that my father had a strong belief in God and “the other world”, and so did she.   

As the summer ended my brother was off to college, I was the youngest male child in my family back at the Hilliard High School. While we were playing chess and trying out the Ouija Board, the devil was sharpening his claws.

School had barely begun when the high school principal came onto the school intercom to lecture and warn students that “outside agitators” were active in schools all over the area. He gave us a stern warning that subversive activities would not be tolerated and that all public authorities were on alert.

As the Fall of 1969 progressed, an odd thing happened. I noticed that I had a police escort upon entering Hilliard City limits. I didn’t need a Ouija Board to know the identity of Hilliard’s Public Enemy Number One. Thus, I entered the twelve-month span that has defined my life.