Essay: History’s Riddles
By John W. Ballantine, Jr.
I The end of the world is nigh
I crouched under my desk in 1962—all six feet of me—wondering why Castro turned. Three years earlier after throwing out Batista, Fidel Castro spoke at Princeton University, “The United States and the Revolutionary Spirit.”
“It is difficult for me to speak here in the middle of a forest of prejudices… I can speak here about real revolution that is taking place in your country… our revolution is a revolution for social justice, for the poor people, and for the middle class.”
Do not worry about communism in Cuba, or revolution, some university professors claimed. Castro was the champion for the common man. He said he would lead the country to economic and cultural progress without sacrificing individual freedoms.
Castro embraced democracy as “the most beautiful political and social idea.” Easy words for the believers.
At 10 p.m. that April evening, I stood on the corner of Washington Street with my labor-mediating father, wondering why the excitement—was Castro a hero and Batista the bad dictator—and why late-night revelry from the governor’s mansion just down the street. My father told me that lifting up the workers and peasants was key to a progress—a fair society.
Waving at the limousines and army-fatigued soldiers, I knew something was happening, but my fifth-grade school class was building dioramas of New Jersey before we were a state with the Leni Lenape Indians fishing in birch bark canoes. Cultivating peacefully before our ancestors took the land and the Colonials broke from King George as General George Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the British sleeping near Princeton after Christmas feasts. I believed in the American Revolution.
Castro felt the upheavals of history as he feasted late into the night at Morven, the yellow-clad governor’s mansion down the street. The night was chaotic—horns honked, traffic jams clogged our quiet university town, and men in army dress walked the streets warily. Princeton was full of dignitaries and worried men dressed in gray CIA suits.
I could not sleep—Princeton students set off cherry bombs, for and against Castro. President Gohen, living in the university mansion behind us—next to Woodrow Wilson’s family house—invited Fidel Castro to speak at the Woodrow Wilson School, at the urging of a rich professor. “The Promise of Revolution.”
I knew none of this except for the noisy celebrations for Castro, and the midnight talks at Governor Meyner’s mansion. Dean Acheson, one of President Kennedy’s advisors. was not impressed by what he heard. Castro the hero overthrowing a terrible dictator and expelling the land-hoarding oligarchs—the revolution some embraced in university halls. By 1962, he was pointing Soviet missiles at me and my seventh-grade class cowering under desks during those seven October days. Bomb shelters in neighbors’ basements. The wheel turned, why?
II President John F. Kennedy is dead
Friday November 22, 1963. JFK assassinated, shot dead by Oswald in Dallas on Friday afternoon near the grassy knoll as I stood in the chemistry lab, around 2 p.m. Bells rang across the nation and then silence at 4 p.m. as we gathered in churches across the country in the twilight of Camelot’s dream. Men, boys, girls, parents, adults stopped. All prayed as we walked in shock, kicking the leaves back to school. In between the church prayers, each boarder was assigned to a day student family for the weekend.
Steve MacAusland hosted Ballantine, Lee, Perkins, Drummond, Bogart, and others with three MacAusland siblings. Mrs. MacAusland rustled up a hearty stew. Steve was our quarterback and I the fullback. Who killed President Kennedy? The TV flickered all weekend—we watched—in between meals, touch football, homework, and talk—as the world spiraled out of control. Sunday, a little after 1 p.m., November 24th, we stared at Jack Ruby in dark suit shooting Lee Harvey Oswald leaving the Dallas jail. The police stood in shock—one maybe two shots. Dead in front of everyone. My first live assassination.
Jackie’s bloodstained pink Chanel suit stood stoically—black and white on TV—late that Friday night as LBJ was sworn in on Air Force One flying back late at night to WDC. Three days later John and Carolyn, holding Jackie’s hands, walked behind the horse-drawn hearse up Pennsylvania Avenue. JJ saluted his father.
Our president was dead. Some say Castro did it, or the Russians. Many movies and books later, no one knows.
April 1966, I stand six feet, one inch tall in front of twenty-eight English boys in a granite grammar school, defending the Second Amendment. Yes, I, who have fired three shotgun rounds at clay pigeons, proclaim in a Bristol, England, classroom at sixteen that American colonials have a right to bear arms. This is what I was taught—I had not read the Constitution—I was the student ambassador from Princeton, New Jersey, celebrating the American Revolution. George Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the British occupiers, and we Boston-educated students listened to poets tell of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and some rude bridge where shots were fired.
No taxation without representation… Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.
The right to arm so we colonialists could push back your British ancestors. Why guns today, the sixteen-year-old English boys ask—what about the lynching, the assassinations, the violence in the cities, cops with guns, and the riots simmering across the USA? I still cannot answer my pasty-faced English companions; stumped, I invoke the Second Amendment. It is part of the Constitution. The right to kill presidents, leaders, and everyday citizens. Yes, that is what they teach us in America.
III More assassinations and Chicago
Malcolm X was shot dead in 1965—a dangerous Muslim, some say, but not his autobiography—and three years later in April 1968, Martin Luther King is struck down after his dream speech inspires so many in WDC, and then, two months later Robert F. Kennedy falls in LA late on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination. The Black Panther Party defends its people from police and others, so say Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Martin Luther King is dead, so he cannot push back. Random killings fill TVs.
1968, the dead in Vietnam mount, monks burn, and I say I am a conscientious objector even if I do not believe in the Supreme Being. Is killing the American way? I watch TV as the Russian tanks roll into Prague in August, just before the chaos at the Democratic convention in Chicago and Mayor Daley’s police—papa Joe Kennedy’s pal and vote counter—take out my fellow student protestors.
Riots rise everywhere, as I jump turnstiles and climb over piles of New York City garbage; cities burn. This is the America I grew up in. Humphrey cannot explain Vietnam and loses in November 1968, as LBJ watches Nixon and the Republicans slowly dismantle his War on Poverty. I see the dead, the tanks, the burning cities on TV. Cockroaches crawl over me late at night in my six-floor walkup apartment. What is happening? Music does not explain.
Castro is trapped in Cuba, and Khrushchev will no longer bury us.
Aretha tries to calm the waters
I say a little prayer for you
Forever, and ever.
Nixon passes the lottery in 1969, as he and Kissinger extend the Vietnam War four more years. I stay in college with Number 30, my 2-S deferment, and stare outside into the night. My Conscientious Objector essay is not compelling. The draft board in Trenton, New Jersey, shake their heads and say no. I am alive, confused, and lucky. I want out of here.
Stumbling into existentialism—Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and wordplays that could not be understood, Nabokov—I fell into the labyrinth of French movies. Renoir, Truffaut, Bresson, and Goddard, each spinning tales with magical answers. Beauty and love—or burning Citroens and antiheroes like Jean-Paul Belmondo. The romance on the screen lets me sleep; alienation does not. I choose a world rebuilt from the terrors of wars with the dance of mime touching all hearts, “Les Enfants du Paradise.”
Back home, Henrietta, the Black woman who held, fed, shared our home, and loved me like no other, prayed. She still believed in the healing words of MLK and the Bible as George Wallace and Bull Connor pushed her extended family and Black folks down with fire hoses and worse. My kaleidoscope spun faster and faster; the center did not hold.
History hit me on the head, pried open my eyes, and left no explanation.
IV Kent State April 1970
Fifty plus years now, the vermillion spring leaves pushing back the winter doldrums take me to Kent State—the national guard shooting down four antiwar protestors. A young woman screaming as she kneels over the crumpled body. The picture capturing our pain, the country’s tragedy. Like the burning monk in Saigon.
How could you? Why shoot and kill kids. Police fathers order to shoot on their own—not the enemy. What is wrong with demonstrating, saying no more wars, no more Vietnams. A war with too many dead on all sides. A war that Nixon and Kissinger wanted to exit with some image of orderly retreat, victory no, a respectable stalemate. Maybe.
Spring 1970 punctuated the tumultuous years of college campuses with burning draft cards, Selma, freedom riders, and calls for civil rights. Malcolm X, MLK, RFK, and all the assassinations and the countless bodies that did not stop the killing. The fire of protest, the smoldering cities and stop, please stop this killing.
April and May 1970 campuses in revolt with the dead boy and anguish of our screams. Songs and tears did not assuage, nor the cold rains wash our pains. How could we be here? The sun’s promise of rebirth, soft songs, and morning light did not lighten our days. I fled Cambridge, as some prepared Molotov cocktails, others whined, “Give peace a chance.” Classes stopped, learning lived on the streets, not lecture halls, students debating, not the professors. Police stared in disbelief at their brothers who shot to kill. Civil war was not a distant nightmare but here.
No one heard the birdsongs in Cambridge or campuses across the USA. The brilliant red tulips dropped their petals, and no one said a thing. Tears everywhere, cries in the hallway. I escaped late at night with yellow lights blinking. The call for revolution, for violence on violence. Guns to fight is not why I went to college, what the marches, the songs of protest were all about. We shall overcome…give peace a chance. Saying no to the draft man did not mean bring out the bayonets.
This was NO spring in May 1970. Birds were silent.
Stark, cold trunks of trees, branches reaching out with no leaves. I cannot fathom those days—the maelstrom spun faster and faster—words in books were meaningless and lecture halls could not explain. May Day rallies promised more, but the dead bodies of my compatriots, the youths of America cried what now? Hope died, even as we struck, shouting no, no, no.
Each April, some fifty-three years later, the dewdrops of May with forsythia and purple rhododendrons take me to those cold, confused days when birds were silent. I ran away late at night with girlfriend, Natalie, and best friend, Miguel, to a fog-shrouded dock wrapped in L.L. Bean blankets. Our ancestors escaped the steps of Odessa, the guns of Franco, and the swords of Cromwell. The stories we told early into that cold morning harked back to our families’ flight to freedom and safe havens.
I spun a tale to forget, to remember.
My world woke those May days as 15,000 students stood in the stadium shouting Strike, strike, strike. Across campuses the whisper of strike grew louder. Hands raised, not in the end in defiance, but hope. This is what we stand for. The tears of dead lying here, in Vietnam, or anywhere are not in vain. Starry-eyed, maybe, still the sounds of freedom rang out. So, each spring I hear the birds sing once again, the grass is a miraculous green, and hope rises above the dead.
Each spring the same refrain. The rain giving life to the rainbow of flowers. No more war, no more dead. My ideals bent but not broken, and my retreat to quiet docks of Maine to touch the sanity of night-time tales. Ancestors sharing what we too often forget.
And Bob Dylan could not be found
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
V The spinning gyre
When I graduated college, my eyes were full of the dead—slumping presidents, or almost presidents, burning monks, preachers of non-violence, and fists raised. When I was young, I stepped onto the playing fields. plowing through bodies, swiftly passing slower compatriots. I said no to war, as cities burned, as tear gas filled wood-paneled libraries where my head was deep into books trying to explain.
My table was well set, but my bed not comfortable, and my elders did not tell the truth. Was Castro the hero feted at Princeton, or the villain hosting Soviet missiles and maybe the assassin of President Kennedy? And who were we fighting in Vietnam? The Chinese, the Russians, with dominos falling, or the brown-skinned rice farmers clad in black. There were rising boats but no tide lifting all. Instead, forever wars we do not win, the scourge of racism as Black men and women are endlessly shot, and inequality widening with the rich taking as much as they can get, the poor scratching for food, and me with more than enough.
At sixteen, I could not explain why the Second Amendment, why we had a right to bear arms. Why the violence. At nineteen, I did not want to go to that war, serve my country. No God and country for me. At twenty-one, I would not work for the man. Questions reverberating. Where do I turn?
The Byrds counseled,
To everything There is a season And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to dieA time to plant, a time to reapA time to kill, a time to healA time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything There is a season (turn, turn, turn)And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break downA time to dance, a time to mournA time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
How many mornings have I lamented the state of the world? How many conversations, articles, lectures, and movies have told me of the treachery, hunger, inequality, racism, takings, and downright hate. History is littered with such facts—the Bible is scary and Homer’s tales tell us beware sweet-smelling scents. Some talk of goodness in our hearts—not the darkness covering our souls—try love and kindness.
Sitting in the early morning mist, I do not embrace the dystopian world.
The paper is cluttered with pictures—bodies bent over, fists high in the air, tear gas, bloodied faces—images I cannot shake. Tonight’s dinner talk is the same; we must hold the good and the bad and look to the light. I see the bluebirds dart as the red fox crosses the iced pond. Birds swoop to claim their nesting spot; the rabbit munches grass. The forest songs turn dark too quickly, storms uproot century-old trees, winds howl, as streams fill with the floods that drown. Part of our swirling dance.
Life seems fragile. The balance of light and shadows impossible to keep. The day comes back with long ago memories. What happened and how is it that some in my family die before others?
My garden, my family is where we start, not by choice or even fate. Just the serendipity of sperm searching out eggs. Then we venture forth with mother’s milk, if we are lucky. I made my way with dreams, not even knowing they were not true. Contradictions touched with irony and joy in my head before words became the sentence that teachers taught. Not true I said as I biked through leafy streets imagining motorcycles crashing through barriers and flying across canyons. The picture of my early world was populated with gods, dragons, friendly ghosts, and moments of darkness. I wove my way through the hues of each rainbow with the dawn light, happy to wake each day.
I know of prejudice, the meanness, and tragedy too. Yes, in my family.
Even in my family and extended circles, drink and drugs dragged many down. I with rosy cheeks and eyes to the sky still did not understand. The madness that breaks. I walked, turned away, from those strands of fate. Not for me the bad dreams, the nightmares. Others were not so lucky.
“Do you know why?”
No, not really. I spin elaborate puzzles, pretend explanations, and look at numeracy for patterns for the reason why my world—family, town, and country—is so out of whack. I take what love and laughter give and venture out into the howling wind ready for the dragons. Others did not.
The place I walk, the news, the fires, earthquakes, and downright lies are here, but I look away. At times, my meditations slow the avenging sword. Maybe love wins. I know the math, the struggles, the impossibilities of living a good, happy life. But I will teach Sisyphus how to balance the boulder. He and I look to the sun burning through the gray clouds. I turn round, knowing there is no exit, no way out, except through joy.
In 1961 and 1962, I believed in my country “’Tis of thee.” I stood tall for posture silhouettes that JFK wanted—why I don’t know; he had the bad back. I ate penny candy before biking miles to soccer games.
I knew the world was not as I dreamed when bomb makers confessed at our graduations and reverends stormed of injustice at the pulpit. Like the Russian refugees in some gulag, I read of meanness, heard stories of Odysseus slaying suitors when he returned home after so many years. There was food on my table, even as others wanted. The world is not fair, or even kind. I choose the manna offered.
I still believe that love and kind words can move the world. I walked unaware into marriage, floating on some cloud, believing that I could do better. That ideas, inventions, and hard, honest work were all that was necessary to move mountains—not guns, deceit, or storming barricades.
Maybe it just ain’t so, or so the refrain rings. The dreams I hold seem fantasies to many, not a guiding light. I will not let the dreams die. I stand in the schoolyard, looking up to the sky, knowing we can circle the earth, drawing circles around the moon, like Saturn. So why can we not move mountains to the kindness in our hearts? Why can we not believe in the goodness of each ray of light? Why, why, why not dream of a better world? And I do.
Joni Mitchell circles round?
Yesterday a child came out to wander
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game
John W. Ballantine, Jr. is an emeritus professor at Brandeis International Business School. He received hix bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, then earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from University of Chicago and NYU Stern, respectively. His economic commentary has appeared in Salon, The Boston Globe, and The Conversation, among others.