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1968: Year of the Rat

The first automobile I owned was a 1959 Triumph TR-3. It sat low to the ground, and featured sloped doors, bug-eyed headlights and a tachometer mounted on the dashboard. The car wasn’t old, but it was all beat up. The canvas top was missing, the bucket seats were ripped, and the brakes weren’t very good. The TR-3 was painted bright yellow and, when I stomped on the accelerator, looked like a lightning bolt streaking down the highway. I loved driving that car, but burned out the engine in less than six months. I was more careful and considerate with my second sports car, a red 1963 Triumph TR-4 that I bought in February of 1968. I was twenty years old, shared an apartment with my new girlfriend, worked as a disc jockey doing live rock and roll shows on weekend nights and, whether performing in bed, onstage, or in the driver’s seat of my car, I thought I was cool.

As the Year of Revolutions played out around the globe, I would learn that I was just a dreamer, a boy who wanted to be – in no particular order – Alan Freed, James Dean and Sterling Moss. Freed was America’s top disc jockey, Dean was the epitome of cool, and Moss was the best race car driver of his generation. I was a kid who listened to the Beatles playing Revolution #9, but thought only about revolutions per minute. When I was onstage, I introduced records and rock bands. I talked about music. The only slogan of the era that I knew and understood was Make Love, Not War. I was living an undisturbed, easy life in the fast lane. I didn’t pay any attention to the political landscape of America when I cranked up the motor (and radio) of my Triumph and drove all over the Maryland countryside. Yet, like when I raced my car at night along narrow roads in crazy abandon, 1968 would be an exhilarating wild ride through the darkness.

On the day I picked up my ’63 TR-4 from the dealer, I filled the gas tank and headed southwest out of Baltimore, intending to take a short drive on Route 40 to Patapsco State Park. Six-hundred miles later, not far from the city of Knoxville, I began to understand that I was also enjoying a free ride, living a life without any hazards other than sharp curves, inconvenient stop signs, and un-plugged microphones. In my world, images of dead or wounded soldiers were only characters from the movies, and small photographs in newspapers and magazines.

A few miles outside of Baltimore, I noticed a hitchhiker standing on the shoulder of the road. I skidded to a stop and offered him a ride. He was about my age, neatly dressed, wore his hair in a crew cut, and walked with a limp as he approached my car. Joe was a traveling soldier, and he paid for the lift by teaching me about Tet. I don’t remember if Joe fought at Hue before the North Vietnamese offensive began, or if the friends he left behind were dying there as we traveled south, but I do remember that he lived in Tennessee, a land where, for Joe, rolling hills would soon replace rolling thunder. I drove him home on a cold winter day in 1968. Joe limped because he left a leg in Vietnam, but his sense humor and dignity had stayed with him. I laughed out loud, and listened in stunned silence, as Joe told me stories about his participation in the Vietnam War.

Like most Americans, I learned about the war by watching evening news broadcasts on the three television networks, and glancing at newspaper headlines. Although I was a prime candidate for the draft – teenager, working class, uninformed, willing – what little interest I had concerning the war had ended in 1966 after spending three days at the Fort Holabird induction center. On the morning after I attended a Rolling Stones concert at the Baltimore Civic Center, I was one of dozens of young men from my neighborhood ordered by the Selective Service to bend over, grab ankles, and cough on cue. I was tested, questioned, and showed enough balls to prove I had the courage to kill. But, I failed my physical. The United States Armed Forces didn’t want me. Three military doctors, one at a time, looked me in the eye and confirmed that I was indeed blind in the other. I was free to go.

I dropped Joe off near his home, then headed back home knowing that I wanted to learn more and, even though I wasn’t able to kill gooks in the jungles of Vietnam, I wanted to do something that would make a difference. The hours I spent listening to Joe had opened my eye to what was happening in Vietnam. He was a proud soldier, told me so, and convinced me to support the troops. One the trip back to Baltimore, I thought about Joe and his stories. But, the feeling of brotherhood burned out quicker than the engine of my first car. I continued on with my life. My career as a disc jockey was at its peak, my girlfriend wanted to be a wife (and a mother), and I was taking corners at sixty miles per hour on dirt roads. Not much changed after my trip to Tennessee with Joe. I was still blind in my left eye, but my vision had improved: I began thinking about what I was seeing on the evening news.

During the spring and summer of 1968, all hell broke loose in the United States. The body count, however, was much less in America than it was in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was wounded, felled by a failed foreign policy. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were killed by lone assassins (or, perhaps, nefarious conspirators employed by the Mafia, the military, the Cubans, or the CIA). Thousands of protesters were gathering in the streets of America, where they fought against racism, the war, the police, and public opinion. A diverse crowd, the protesters included Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, Yippies, and individuals with personal agendas. The mobs of anti-protesters manning the barricades included the FBI, the media, union workers, and the police. The closest I got to the action was when I’d get stuck in traffic in downtown Baltimore during a protest demonstration, and was forced to listen to the drive-by shouting of grid locked, frustrated drivers.

My girlfriend and I decided to get married at the end of August, not long after I performed at three different shows on one night. I’d been a disc jockey since the age of fifteen, turned professional when I was sixteen and, for four years, worked at hundreds of venues in and around Baltimore. It was a good career, and I thought I was ready to add a wife to my life. In 1968, an eighteen year old could join the army and kill for his country (and drink beer, legally, in the nation‘s capital). But, to get married at the age of twenty, I needed a permission slip signed by a parent. With that coveted document in hand, my girlfriend and I drove (slowly and safely, in her VW Beetle) to northern Virginia, got married in a court house, then continued on to our honeymoon destination, Williamsburg. My new wife and I booked a hotel room, ate dinner at a faux-colonial restaurant, toured the town, returned to our room, turned on the television, and tumbled into bed. We didn’t get much sleep that night, though. It was August 28, and Walter Cronkite was reporting on the news out of Chicago.

My wife and I watched, along with the whole world, as ranks of Chicago policemen, swinging black batons, cut swaths through scattering crowds of antiwar demonstrators in a downtown park. The fear and panic of the fleeing people was palpable when their agonized faces flashed across the television screen. Bloodied young men and women were dragged by their hair to waiting police vans, then tossed violently inside the vehicles. A few angry protesters fought back. They were beaten to the ground, handcuffed, and then whacked a few more times. The Democratic National Convention was a bust. Inside the convention hall, reporters were assaulted and knocked to the floor as they tried to report on the turmoil. The American people would also get a good thrashing when convention delegates nominated Hubert Horatio Humphrey as their presidential candidate. The Chicago police riot lasted for days, directed by Mayor Richard Daley wielding his middle finger like a police truncheon. I was entranced as I listened to Walter Cronkite describe what I was seeing. The CBS anchorman was in a television studio in New York City, and I was in a hotel room in Williamsburg, but we were both able to observe – live – scenes of brute force. The newsman would soon speak out against violence and the Vietnam War. I would act out a role.

In Baltimore, the police were led by Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, a former Marine and tough administrator. As hot and humid weather settled over the city during the summer of 1968, Pomerleau worried about riots and out-of-control demonstrations. To keep things cool, Pomerleau initiated a few covert operations designed to infiltrate the peace movement. The Baltimore City Police Department had already de-fanged the Black Panther Party by using informants, and Pomerleau wanted to do the same to the leadership of peace organizations operating in the city. The Commissioner was aware of the acts of civil disobedience perpetrated by the Baltimore Four in 1967, and the Catonsville Nine on May 17 (in a small town near Baltimore), and he responded by approving plans to spy on peace activists and organizers. He had enough trouble dealing with scorched buildings and hot tempers ignited in the aftermath of the King and Kennedy killings. Pomerleau didn’t want draft records burned or bloodied in City Hall Plaza. Efforts were made to recruit new agents and, a few weeks after the city of Chicago exploded in violence, I met with two police officers in a dimly-lit corner tavern filled with off-duty cops slugging back bottles of Natty Boh, a brand of beer favored by Baltimore’s sports fans, steelworkers and policemen.

Jim and Ed were detectives. Ed was a dapper dresser. He was tall, thin, and looked sharp in the lightweight windbreaker that he wore when working undercover. I never saw Ed in a uniform, but I always noticed the large bulge under his left armpit. Ed wore a size .38 Special. Jim was a rumpled and overweight mess. We sat at the bar, toasted the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas, then talked about sports, women, and beer. The conversation turned to the recent demonstrations against the war. I told them about Joe, the road trip to Tennessee, and the increasing concern I felt for my peers, in Vietnam and Baltimore. I mentioned the television coverage of the trouble in Chicago and, ignoring the flashing red lights in the rear view mirror of my mind, blurted out a really silly and presumptuous comment: “I wish I could do something to help.” Jim and Ed exchanged glances. Like a spider to the fly, I was being recruited by two of Baltimore’s Finest. It was a fateful meeting, an encounter that entangled me in a web of deceit, crime, and punishment. We continued to drink and talk, and I was drunk and disordered when I finally agreed to work as an undercover police agent. I wanted to do something. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be James Bond. I thought I was cool.

During the months following my first meeting with Jim and Ed, I lied and spied my way into a minor position of responsibility in one of Baltimore’s most active peace and justice organizations. I was more mole than rat. I participated in many covert actions during the autumn of 1968, but my role in the peace movement was insignificant and limited (and fraudulent). I attended demonstrations, marches and meetings, and sat in on planning sessions – listening and learning – when leaders of the peace and justice group gathered to discuss peace and justice. My police handlers, however, were pleased with my work. It didn’t matter that I often produced paltry results, Jim and Ed believed all was going well until I discovered a bomb plot that blew up in our faces.

* * *

I approached the house on Howard Street through the alley. It was nighttime, dark, and difficult to see. I crept up to the back entrance, hesitated, then opened the door and entered the home of a peace group responsible for many protest actions in the city of Baltimore. The kitchen lights were off. I flicked on my flashlight. Stacks of paper were spread out on the kitchen counter. I was looking for one particular pile of documents. Earlier in the day, while snooping around in the house on Howard Street, I had noticed the mimeographed sheets of paper, and realized I‘d uncovered something important. But, there were other people hanging around in the kitchen. I didn’t want to raise suspicions by stealing a copy in broad daylight, so I waited for the night.

I could hear muffled voices coming from the front of the house. Members of the group were holding a meeting, but they had no idea that I was also in attendance. I moved silently. Jim and Ed were in an unmarked police car, parked a block away, but close enough to keep the house under surveillance. It didn’t take long to find the pile of documents. I grabbed a copy, stuck it in my coat pocket and headed for the door. I left the building, walked down the alleyway, turned a corner, and waited in the shadows until the police car stopped in front of me. The entire operation lasted less than three minutes. I got into the car. Ed and I held on tightly when Jim stepped hard on the gas pedal. We sped off, out of the alley, onto the streets of Baltimore, on our way to police headquarters. Thrilled with the success of our mission, we shared grins and handshakes. I gave the document to Ed. It was filled with chemical symbols, written instructions, diagrams and mathematical equations. The document was titled The PBJ Bomb. Ed stopped smiling as he skimmed the contents. He told Jim to go faster. I wasn’t oblivious to the implications of what we had stolen, and I could see that Ed was upset, but there was only one thought on my mind as Jim maneuvered the car around large potholes and slow pedestrians: I should be driving.

After arriving at police headquarters, I sat in the car while Jim and Ed took the PBJ Bomb document inside the building. I didn’t have to wait very long, though. My partners returned in less than an hour. They got in the car, and we drove off, heading out of the city. Ed was smiling again. He told me that the document caused quite a commotion within the Baltimore City Police Department. Bombs were being detonated all over the world in 1968, so it wasn’t difficult to believe that one or two could be planted in Baltimore, especially if the bomber obtained, from their local peace organization, printed instructions on how to make an improvised explosive device. I had stolen only one copy of the PBJ Bomb document, from a stack at least six inches in height. The pile of papers that I discovered was a weapon of mass dissemination, and an immediate response to any potential attack was being organized. The information in the document was being examined and analyzed. The upper echelons of the police department were pleased that we had uncovered the PBJ Bomb plot and, for our good work, we were given the rest of the night off. We drove to a bar near Jim’s home and settled in for a night of drinking, back-patting and self-congratulations. In the morning, we learned the truth, and suffered the consequences.

The document was a hoax. The leadership of the peace group believed they were being targeted by the police, and decided to find out the truth by ferreting out the mole. Someone was feeding the beast by passing on information to the police, so the leaders decided to change the diet by creating a recipe, using scientific terms, on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They titled their concoction the PBJ Bomb.

Although my methods were amateurish and crude – Inspector Clouseau as spy – the leaders didn’t realize that I was the culprit they were trying to uncover, and their attempt to learn the identity of the mole failed. Yet, the PBJ Bomb ploy was successful. I fell into the trap when I stole the document and gave it to Jim and Ed. The police were ensnared when they spent a long, sweaty night worrying about an assault that would arrive, if at all, hidden in the lunch boxes of children. Jim, Ed and I felt stupid, but were consoled by the fact that we did our job. It wasn’t our fault that the peace leaders were smarter. I worked covertly, and didn’t have to face the humiliation unless I looked in a mirror. Jim and Ed, though, had to confront the anger of their superiors and the jokes of their colleagues. I would continue working for the Baltimore City Police Department, but I stayed away from the Howard Street house, and faded away from Jim and Ed. The PBJ Bomb was fake, but our relationship took a direct hit. Eventually, as the winter of 1968 approached, the incident was forgotten. Richard Nixon was elected as the thirty-seventh president, and the activities of peace activists and police spies, like the bombing of Vietnam, escalated.

I had started working with Jim and Ed in September of 1968. Spying for the police so dominated my life during the following five months, I didn’t realize that I was ignoring my wife, and my career as a disc jockey. My wife and my audiences drifted away. Nor was I paying attention when I lost traction on a curve and crashed my Triumph into a tree, crumpling the front end of the vehicle, ending my nighttime jaunts on the back roads of Maryland. I didn’t even notice that I was absorbing the message of peace and justice. There was no epiphany when I realized I was on the wrong side of the barricade separating the American people. It was more of a gradual dawning, like when the morning sky slowly lightens, bringing on a new day. I crossed over the unseen barrier in Washington D.C., during the days of demonstrations accompanying the inauguration of Richard Nixon. I was on my final assignment working as a spy. Jim and Ed remained in Baltimore. I was standing outside the tent where Phil Ochs was singing his songs and, although I don’t remember the lyrics, the music seeped into my soul. I knew that it was time to quit working with the police. I stopped being a mole, and turned into a rat.

I had nothing more to say to the police, but I wanted to talk to the people who were part of the peace organization. I asked for a meeting with the leadership. I told them I had something important to communicate. I returned to the Howard Street house one last time, and was confronted by a dozen activists sitting at a large table, waiting for me to speak. I knew most of the people. I had worked with a few of them during protest demonstrations, and recognized others, including a member of the Catonsville Nine. For a young dreamer waking from a nightmare, it was a formidable group. I was blunt and forthright, though, admitting that I had been spying on them for the Baltimore City Police Department. They let me continue, and I talked about what I had done to subvert their cause. I explained the tactics used by the police. I named names, places, and events of importance. I was open and honest for the first time in five months. When I finished, I looked at the people sitting around the table, expecting to be yelled at, cursed, demeaned and, possibly, laughed at by those who knew details about the PBJ Bomb. Instead, their reaction, as a group, was brilliant, instructive, and deserved: silence, followed by all of them getting up from the table and walking out of the meeting. I left the room alone, and scurried out of the building.

A few weeks later, I was arrested by a cop in Baltimore County. I only mouthed off during a traffic violation, but the charge against me was a felony. I was facing jail time, but an appearance in court on my behalf by Jim and Ed kept me out of the slammer. When we talked to the judge, my former police partners didn’t know that their spy had ratted them out. I wasn’t sure, however, if other cops had learned about my confession from more adept (and loyal) police spies. I started looking over my shoulder. I avoided looking in mirrors. I stayed at home while my wife worked, listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors on an old hi-fidelity phonograph player. I played the music very loud. When the paranoia struck deep, I moved my family to a farming community north of Baltimore, needing to distance myself from what I perceived as police harassment, and the uncomfortable knowledge of having participated in spying against the peace movement. I continued living with my wife (and baby daughter, born nine months after the Chicago police riot) in a tiny mobile home parked in the woods, surrounded by cornfields. My career was dead, and the carcass of my Triumph sat rusting in the yard. It was a sad, dismal time and, when my wife decided to leave and return to the city of Baltimore, I was left behind. I was cool with it, though. I walked to the highway that passed near our home and, like the soldier from Tennessee, stuck out my thumb and disappeared into America.

JAMES T. PHILLIPS is a freelance reporter who has covered wars in Iraq, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo. His is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, edited by Cockburn and St. Clair. He can be contacted at jamestphillips@yahoo.com.

 

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