Forty years ago, an oil-dripping heap with the name of a fictitious
band painted on its side took a coterie of young activists to the
famed music festival 40 years ago, and to their own turning points
By Paul Lieberman
August 15, 2009
Reporting from North Adams, Mass. - The statute of limitations should
protect us from prosecution, so let the truth be told -- we used
anti-poverty funds to buy the Frankly Dankly bus in the landmark
summer of '69. One of our group still insists we "passed the hat" to
pay for the thing. But he's a respectable lawyer now, so we'll allow
him that fog of memory. Everyone else is willing to 'fess up that we
dipped into money intended to help the poor to procure the
oil-leaking school bus we saw sitting in a lot with a "For Sale" sign.
Oh, we had a cover story for spending the $500 -- that we could use a
roving tutorial center to reach kids beyond the old mill towns where
we were soldiers in the war on poverty. We no doubt hoped that would
be the fate of the bus, eventually. But first we tore out the seats,
painted the sides bright red, white and blue, and etched on the name
of a nonexistent rock band, Frankly Dankly and His Seven Little
All-Americans. Then we loaded it up with turkeys and pancake mix and
headed over the Berkshires to a muddy farmland in Bethel, N.Y.
We actually had tickets for the three-day Woodstock Music and Art
Fair, our coterie of idealistic college students who exemplified an
era that blurred the line between political activism and
experimenting with new lifestyles. We'd spend days helping low-income
families find housing, then gather at night to mull over our motives
and shed our inhibitions with encounter groups that left us
half-naked on the floor. We would open a community center with a
parade down Main Street.
This weekend's 40th anniversary of Woodstock is spawning a new
torrent of recollections of that summer that may leave generations
born before and after screaming, "Enough!" But trust me, the Frankly
Dankly saga is not just another baby boomer nostalgia trip, for from
our crew came a movement that's a lightning-rod today.
The Office of Economic Opportunity had been established by President
Lyndon Johnson to spearhead his Great Society anti-poverty efforts,
but President Nixon was skeptical of it and in 1969 put a pair of
up-and-coming Republicans in charge. Let's not blame Donald Rumsfeld
and Dick Cheney, however, for what we did with their money -- North
Adams, Mass. was far below their radar.
Our adventure began with two fellow Williams College students who had
spent time in this community of 18,000 built around a brick factory
that once made Civil War uniforms. The southward flight of the
textile industry had devastated New England, so a team of 18 was
assembled to help out here and in nearby Adams, some with full slots
in VISTA (the Volunteers in Service to America), others dubbed VISTA
Several of the group had just graduated from college, but two girls
from Bennington College were merely through freshman year, and
sauntered about in big, floppy hats. I was only a year older but had
street cred as a New Yorker who'd marched in my first demonstration
while in my mother's womb, though I'd also worked as a riflery
instructor, trained by the NRA.
Bill Cummings was the son of a West Point graduate and had married a
fellow military brat, Salli Benedict. Bill had become disenchanted
with the war after seeing the wounded in a hospital in the
Philippines, where his father was based while staging night bombing
raids over Vietnam. Chris Kinnell was a lanky basketball player from
supposedly laid back Pacific Palisades. Bruce Plenk was a
self-described "save the world type" from Utah who believed that a
crusade for social change could be waged with "a lightness and fun to it."
Wade Rathke was not about lightness and fun. The onetime Eagle Scout
from New Orleans was, like Cummings, married already at 20. Though he
attended the same elite college as us, Wade had supported himself for
a time driving a forklift. He had taken a year off to do draft
counseling only to become disillusioned when better-off kids were all
that came through the door. Now he'd lean silently against a wall at
our meetings, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Our orientation coincided with a Boston rally of the National Welfare
Rights Organization, where we met Saul Alinsky, who had become a
legend organizing around the Chicago stockyards. "When you come into
a community, you don't have 'issues,' " Alinsky told us. "You have
'sad scenes.' Your job is to turn those sad scenes into issues."
But how many college kids had what it took to go door-to-door in
housing projects to persuade welfare mothers to sit in at a
government office to obtain back-to-school clothing for their kids?
The Welfare Rights honchos saw one candidate in our crowd, Rathke. I
think many of us were relieved when he agreed to organize the city of
Springfield, an hour southeast of our western Massachusetts towns.
For the rest of us, the work seemed snake-bitten that summer. We
spent weeks promoting a meeting of tenants at a church in North Adams
only to have astronaut Neil Armstrong pick that night to step on the
moon. The two locals who showed up must have been the only ones
without TVs. It poured the day we opened the community center in an
old supermarket. Still, we danced into the wee hours to a band that
did perfect covers of Three Dog Night hits ("One is the loneliest
number . . .")and soon would play as a warm-up act at . . . well,
enter the bus.
Ads for the Aug. 15 -17 Woodstock festival promised "Three Days of
Peace & Music," peace first, music second. The promoters expected
50,000 people for a celebration of an egalitarian spirit with
"painting and sculpture on trees [by] accomplished artists, ghetto
artists and would-be artists." But what attracted us were acts such
as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. If
purchased well in advance, three-day tickets cost $18, so the
Bennington girls collected that and mailed in our money. Cummings
floated the idea of buying the school bus a week into August, saying
we could reach rural families. That's when I piped up, "Why kid
ourselves?" We all knew the real motive. Counterarguments flew back:
The bus cost next to nothing. We were paying ourselves a pittance,
$25 a week. We could say the $500 was from donations from college
alumni, never mind that all our funds were mingled. But I was an
effective spoilsport. We voted down the purchase.
Then everyone got drunk, or whatever, and in the morning we bought the bus.
We did paint it off-hours. Then we paid a local sign man to letter on
"Frankly Dankly and his Seven Little All-Americans," a name fellow
students used for a phantom band they kept promising would play at
parties. We bought sleeveless T-shirts and painted "F.D." in red on
each. Salli, our Earth mother at 21, roasted the turkeys. We took off
mid-morning Friday, Aug. 15, our kazoos playing Canned Heat's "Going
Up the Country."
The bus drew stares whenever we stopped, which was at almost every
gas station because it wouldn't hold oil -- there was a reason we got
it for $500. In quaint Millbrook, N.Y., a couple hurried their
children into their car at the sight of our bus. There was a power to
the budding Youth Culture, even if it split our society.
The traffic became inch-along dense miles from Max Yasgur's farm,
where the festival would be, but we talked our way through one
checkpoint by insisting, "We've got Mr. Dankly's equipment in the
back!" Then a second security guy checked, saw only our kazoos, and
guided us into a field with two dozen other painted buses. Mud caked
the sneakers and moccasins of the thousands of youths in their own
floppy hats and painted t-shirts trudging like refugees in a war zone
past where cattle had grazed a day before.
We joined the procession and 45 minutes later heard the dim sound of
music. We glimpsed the makeshift towers behind the stage. They'd
given up on taking tickets. We were directed up the far side of a
hill, sensing the mass of people but seeing little.
Finally, we made a left and took in the spectacle through dimming
light: We were halfway up a natural amphitheater that once was an
alfalfa field but now resembled a staging ground for the Roman
legions. Though we were a quarter mile from the stage, it looked as
if every inch was packed, with more people than we'd seen in one place.
Years later, we could not be sure what we witnessed and what we saw
in the Woodstock movie. A few of us thought we caught the opening
act, Richie Havens, but the first I recall was Country Joe McDonald,
doing his anti-war ditty: "And it's one, two, three / What are we
fighting for? / Don't ask me, I don't give a damn / Next stop is Vietnam."
Then I went exploring up the hill and lost our group. The youth
culture that had gotten us so much attention en route swallowed me
up. After the night ended with Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome,"
I feared I'd never find the bus, but did, somehow. The next morning,
Bill and Salli made pancakes for hundreds of passersby. So the bus
did do some good for humanity.
Saturday was a wet blur. Someone had to wake Bill so he could hear
Sly and the Family Stone. Sunday, we were gone long before Hendrix
performed his agonized Star Spangled Banner. We were intent on being
at our $25-a-week jobs Monday morning.
Before we knew it, most of us were back at college, but a core stayed
in North Adams and engineered one tangible success, construction of
low-cost housing. Little was said of the bus, which never made any
community rounds. Suffering from a cracked block, it was last spotted
in a field, left to rust into oblivion with our memories.
It took work to find some of the crew: Bill Cummings is a PhD
ecologist who monitors development projects in Pakistan but lives
outside Chapel Hill, N.C. Though he's no longer married to Salli,
she's there too, directing public health programs, the latest
targeting obesity among poor women. They dote on four grandkids and
recently took a couple to an outdoor concert by Bob Dylan, Willie
Nelson and John Mellencamp.
After years as a legal aid attorney, Bruce Plenk coordinates solar
energy projects for the city of Tucson. Our basketball player from
Pali high, Chris Kinnell, is a minister in upstate New York, just
back from a mission to Zimbabwe. The guy who swore we passed the hat
to buy the bus, John Kitchen, is a lawyer who works with the disabled
in New Hampshire. One of the Bennington girls became a psychologist.
Wade Rathke, in contrast, was a snap to find. He's been living what
he calls his "Britney Spears moment" since the presidential race that
put Barack Obama, a onetime community organizer, in the White House.
That's when the organization Wade founded, ACORN, hired 8,000
canvassers to register 1.3 million voters. Backers of Sen. John
McCain accused it of trying to steal the election.
Wade never did return to school that fall of '69, but the local
papers reported his progress in Springfield, where he led hundreds of
welfare mothers demanding vouchers for winter coats. He was thinking
of returning south to establish "a strong conflict group,"
concentrating on poor whites. Then he was gone, to Arkansas, to
launch the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Nowadays, he's a favorite villain of the right. "I'm not surprised
that I'm seen as a dangerous dude," Wade said when we reconnected for
the first time in four decades. "In fact, I am."
I asked him about his bid to organize "the rest of the planet," as
one report put it, but I mostly wanted his explanation for missing
the Frankly Dankly bus. "Knew about the bus," he replied. "We had
seats on the bus."
It seems his wife, Lee, (now his ex) had been intent on going with us
and shelled out $36 for two sets of tickets, but Wade was not going
to be diverted from his Welfare Rights work. Yet over the years his
memory combined the summer's events into a semi-fable that had
Woodstock weekend as the turning point in his life. The tale had him
driving his Ford Econoline van to meet us only to have it break down,
so he hitched instead to Springfield and resolved to become an organizer.
"Who knows where I would have wound up if I had gotten on the bus
with you guys," he said. "I might have thought I had a future shaking
a tambourine in a rock 'n' roll band."
The summer of '69 was a turning point for me, as well. I found I was
a pretty good observer and, perhaps, had a conscience. Later, when I
gravitated to investigative reporting, and projects on working
conditions and healthcare, I thought of Saul Alinsky's exhortation to
turn "sad scenes" into issues. But I was pulled toward entertaining
people, as well, and thought of our embrace of lightness, a quality
often overwhelmed by the meanness of today.
My wife and I go to the Berkshires each summer, and North Adams is a
regular stop, for the factory that made Civil War uniforms has become
a great museum, MASS MoCA. I take back roads, indulging the fantasy
that I'll spot kids playing in a patch of high grass, in the corroded
hull of vehicle with a trace of odd lettering on its side.