By DANIEL BICE
Posted: Nov. 24, 2007
Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. By Cathy
Wilkerson. Seven Stories Press. 422 pages. $26.95.
A few years ago, there was an excellent documentary about the
Weathermen, a.k.a. the Weather Underground, the radical activists
from the 1970s best known for bombing police stations and government offices.
That was followed by the publication of writings by several of the
participants in the movement. Out now is the film "Across the
Universe," which makes ample references of the group. In town just
the other day was Mark Rudd, a former founder of the Weathermen.
Now here comes yet another alum, Cathy Wilkerson, with a nearly
400-page book, "Flying Close to the Sun."
Why all the attention now?
The most obvious answer is the Iraq war and its parallels to Vietnam.
But does anyone really want to hear Rudd, Wilkerson or anyone else
from the Weather Underground offer their predictable thoughts on Baghdad?
Fortunately, Wilkerson spares us her take, for the most part.
Her surprisingly readable and self-critical memoir, instead, is the
story of how a young Quaker with a liberal bent evolved into an
advocate for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
First, Wilkerson dipped her toe into traditional politics by becoming
an aide to Wisconsin Congressman Robert Kastenmeier in 1966.
After nine months, - several of them living and campaigning for
Kastenmeier in Madison - she realized what she calls "the limits of
electoral politics," leaving it behind to assume leadership posts
with various left-wing organizations.
Along the way, she distanced herself from her family, restricted her
circle of friends, took up the writings of such revolutionaries as
Franz Fanon and idolized the activities of Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh
and the Black Panthers.
"I had come to accept that, as Mao said in his little red book of
quotations, political power did ultimately grow from the barrel of a
gun," Wilkerson writes.
No surprise, then, that she was quick to sign up with the Weather Underground.
The Weathermen initially did more harm to themselves than to any of
their targets. But that's what you'd expect when English majors, more
familiar with Che Guevara than with basic chemistry, try to make
their own explosives.
On March 6, 1970, Wilkerson narrowly survived the accidental bombing
of her father's Greenwich Village town house - an incident that
killed three friends who were in the basement preparing to dynamite
the officers' club at Fort Dix, N.J.
For the next 10 years, Wilkerson lived on the run. She finally turned
herself in in 1980 - a few years after the Weathermen disbanded -
serving a short prison sentence.
Today a New York City math teacher, she acknowledges the shortcomings
of the movement and her own failure to ask more pointed questions.
But she brushes aside regrets:
"While I have not shied away from exploring the weaknesses of
(Students for a Democratic Society) and the Weather Underground,
then, like now, the gravest mistake is inaction."
Dan Bice is a Journal Sentinel columnist.