Copyright 2010 by Michael Crifasi
Bill Arthrell is simply an amazing human being. He's been the subject of multiple profiles, including three by the author here. This is the last of those, which were written or presented over the course of approximately 16 years. Bill remains kind enough to be the subject of this prolonged investigation. Such willingness to open a life for all to see is the stuff of awe, still.
Bill Arthrell arrives at Tommy’s with three over-stuffed manila folders. Each folder, ragged and bent, overflows with white pages. Haphazard edges stick out in crooked directions. Bill tosses the folders, along with his black parka, onto the small table. Outside Tommy’s, itself a stalwart icon of Cleveland’s counterculture past, the blizzard and thirty-mile-an-hour winds keep roaring.
Bill sits. Today he doesn’t wear glasses. For anyone who’s seen his news clippings – the Sixties and college radicalism, days traversing Death Valley on foot and alone, trips to Vietnam to publically apologize for the U.S. all by himself – this comes as a surprise. A hundred press photos show Bill always with thick, black-framed lenses. Now, however, his wind-reddened face stands naked.
At 58, Bill still has the wet eyes of a young puppy and the booming, staccato voice of a teenage street actor. As is, he can seem almost too loud and too live for the world he nervously and excitedly inhabits. These points sometimes cancel out the rest of his appearance. This includes his thick, imposing frame (well over six feet); his clean-shaven, soft cheeks; his equally soft and bald scalp; and the white, creased t-shirt he wears. This shirt is emblematic of Bill. Emblazoned across its chest in red, black, and copper reads a single sober message: Kent State, 1970-2000.
With an intense look, giant palms planted firmly on jeans, Bill leans forward. Big shadow falling over menu and coffee, he begins the interview.
“Well,” he says.
A child at the next table twists abruptly.
“Where do we start?”
Bill is famous – no more so than as one of the original 25 indicted for the May 4, 1970 tragedy at Kent State. The encounter began peacefully, an energized if harmless university protest haranguing the war in Vietnam. But following refusal to disperse, the National Guardsmen, called in by the Governor, somehow lost control. Shots ripped into the crowd. Dozens were wounded. Four died.
Of the hundreds of students there that day, Bill still wonders why he and 24 fellow protesters were singled out.
“2000 people,” he says, “and one percent get indicted. Including me. Why?”
Only later, after talking about catharsis and therapy, does he offer an answer. It turns out the government may’ve had reason to see Bill as a specific political catalyst that spring after all.
At a demonstration just two weeks earlier, 300 people showed up to see if Bill would really go through with a nebulous threat he’d posted around campus. That week, fliers claimed he was going to napalm a live dog for all to see.
“Guerilla protest. 300 people came out to see us napalm that dog. And they just stood there when we made them think about what they really came to see.”
“We were never going to napalm a dog. I’m a Buddhist for God’s sake. What I said that day was that hundreds of civilians were being napalmed in Vietnam every day, but nobody rushed out to stop that. And napalm wasn’t even legal. Our own government had agreed to that. But yet, there we were, using it every day.”
Another student, present at the ceremony of the napalm dog, recalls it as “true street theatre” and Bill as a “master of ceremonies.” Impressed to this day by Bill’s life as an activist, this same classmate says his rhetorical skills and deep-seated conviction were more than a little attractive to his fellow coeds. “He loped around campus like a labrador,” she says, “and women followed him everywhere.”
Though he wasn’t arrested for the napalm dog incident, nor jailed for the charges stemming from May 4, Bill has, to date, been arrested 12 times. He won’t offer many stories about these incidents. Instead, he makes them out as very mundane – once or twice a girlfriend sent him bail money; usually he was out by the next morning. Though the arrests helped Bill’s activist image, often they just proved embarrassing and expensive, especially for a poor idealist living on and off with his parents into middle age.
Today, Bill works as a high school history teacher.
“My career,” he recalls of the nearly thirty years he’s spent in education, always in the inner city. “I didn’t get everything, I didn’t get the wife and kids, but I’ve got my career.”
Recently, Bill left Cleveland’s John Marshall High.
“A prison, maybe worse. Nothing gets done there. Nothing can.”
He just transferred to nearby Rhodes High School. Admittedly “given up on changing the whole world through teaching,” he still holds to the notion of making some difference.
“Helping one kid, even showing them someone does care. Ten bucks, twenty at Christmas. Not every kid, but a few. That’s the difference.” It’s this that keeps him going to his “hard, incredibly hard job.”
On top of being a nationally quoted activist (his statements have appeared in Time) Bill has also lived all over the world, including Oberlin (his Ohio birthplace and home), London, Sweden, the Village, Germany, and Thailand. The list goes on. His favorite country in the world remains Thailand, a place he left only because he missed his home and family in Ohio. Not all places have been so kind though, including New York City.
“I left the Village when I was 42,” he says. “I’d been living in this little shitty apartment, living the writer’s dream, totally broke. It was very romantic. Then I got mugged for the second time and said to myself, ‘Bill, you’re 42, living like you’re 22. Eventually you’ve got to admit it’s not going to happen. Time to grow up.’ And that’s when I came back and settled into my career for real.”
Bill is a published poet and editor. A book of Cleveland-inspired poetry he collected, Heart’s Cargo, first found professional publication in 1985. Cleveland State University press later reprinted it in 1996, as part of the city’s bicentennial celebration. The anthology, originally self-published, contains five of Bill’s own poems.
Literary work and activism both brought Bill close to celebrity over the years. Ron Kovic, the veteran and inspiration for Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, registers among Bill’s good friends. And, at the protest – and subsequent arrest of hundreds – during the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, Bill recalls being in jail with Allen Ginsburg and Jane Fonda. He doesn’t go into detail about meeting either, but does say the following:
“I made the trip to Florida and back to Oberlin, including two arrests, with 48 cents in my pocket and nothing else but the clothes I had on. I walked out of my parent’s house with my mom crying and telling me not to go. I told her I had to be there, just minutes after seeing it all start on TV. I jumped up right there and then and headed for the highway, my thumb out.”
“It was the largest arrest in Dade County history. And the Dade County Police charged one bail for short hair and another for long. But a thousand singing, chanting, unruly hippies got the bail dropped pretty quick. Eventually, the police simply gave up and let us all out. How about that? And, on the way back, we got picked up by a guy with a case of Budweiser and a beat-up truck. From there, we got drunk from Titusville, Florida to Cincinnati.” Asked about regrets, Bill brings up loneliness. Though he’s had many girlfriends, including a very serious one in Thailand, he was never able to “pull the trigger.”
“I would love to’ve had a wife and kids. I saw those Cary Grant movies too. I want that. I still want that. If not the kids, then at least the marriage. I still kid myself that I might meet someone. I still do.”
A solitary life, however, may have been good for poetry.
“My therapist says that to be a real poet you have to be alone. He says that explains me. He’s a photographer, too. Takes beautiful pictures. I’ve known him since Transcendental Meditation and the Seventies.”
“But you know, in my early days [as a poet], I used to say ‘writing is how I find my soul.’” He laughs. “But something about that is true. I like that. Writing is how I figure out the world, how it makes sense. I make it make sense. I like that.”
Moving from writing to politics, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) arises. SDS is a student-advocacy group Bill once fronted at Kent and sympathizes with still. Where are they now? he wants to know.
“Nobody cares. There’s no moral outrage.”
He blames videogames, television, and instant culture for combining to throttle the student advocacy movement.
“Pacified. They’ve been pacified,” he says of the generation he teaches. “The establishment got them. It got everyone though, not just the kids. Even I’m more materialistic these days.”
“I’m in SDS.”
A skinny kid – ruffled brush of curly hair, tight t-shirt and tighter jeans: the apparel of so many hipsters and Tommy’s employees alike—is busing the next table. Bill’s eyes explode into action; his body recoils in obvious surprise. Shaking off a moment’s uncertainty, he tosses out a hand. “No way! Hey, man…Bill!”
This new voice, Josh, is a senior at nearby Shaker Heights High. He’s recently run a revival SDS/antiwar rally, which has brought in “amazing numbers.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe all the kids who came. Solid group. Every Friday. Ranging from ultra-preppy girls to punk kids.”
Bill mentions he was in the Kent State 25. The phrase doesn’t seem to register. Still, Josh and he exchange names, emails, numbers, and enthusiasm.
Josh, having to leave, then promises to return for more talk.
“I’ll get back, slow night. Be right there. Promise.”
The Iraq war itself then comes up. Bill, like many, views Iraq II as similar to Vietnam. This time around though, he’s more incensed by the administration allowed to create the conflict than the war itself. He quotes William Randolph Hearst, invoking yellow journalism. At this mention, it dawns that his speech is always punctuated with relevant quotations and historical references. He actually makes so many that they begin to blur eventually.
“Well, Ulysses Grant said the same. “
“That’s what Thoreau was getting at. He didn’t want the consumerism either. He rejected it just like us.”
“Michael Moore is the only real leader left. Is someone going to kill him?”
”P.T. Barnum said it best, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute in this country.’”
Thomas Paine, Abbie Hoffman, Eugene V. Debs, the Kennedys, Charles Chestnut, Richard Brautigan, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Karl Marx, Malcolm X, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Tom Hayden, Cavaliers at Jamestown, Freedom Riders, Daniel Thompson – the list goes on and on. Bill is just what a history teacher should be, a walking encyclopedia of historical record. Sometimes his voice gets lost in all the others. But this never lasts long. He believes he has his own importance in history, even if only a small one. But then, as always, it’s back to the lesson.
d.a. levy, who Bill considers one of the greatest poetic/revolutionary voices of his generation, appears again and again. levy is a Cleveland dissident legend, though he’s nowhere near as nationally recognized as his contemporary Beats. Bill emphatically extols levy’s virtues to the waitress when she arrives, carrying water. He’s already stopped her for questions about the election and the war. Now it’s levy’s turn.
“And he was from right here! Right here!”
Bill says this while pointing to the floor of Tommy’s, where levy very well could have eaten.
When the waitress smiles weakly and heads off for coffee, Bill talks more of contemporary politics. He doesn’t know if he’ll vote in the upcoming election; the last were stolen. Even his home state played a part in the larceny, especially, Bill believes, thanks to Kenneth Blackwell: “He made sure the Republicans weren’t going to lose here.”
Bill admits he has no faith in the American democratic system, pronouncing even louder than usual, “No. No way! I’m totally cynical. No.” He does have his reasons. He names the greatest of these then. As he does, his voice grows louder and draws even more attention than usual.
“How could I trust the government? They killed my friends. That took so long to go away.”
A pretty, smartly dressed blond, maybe in her late-thirties, gives a glance. She repeats the gesture three times. Punctuating these glances are asides to her equally well-dressed friends.
Bill never notices. He’s already lamenting the gilding of Ronald Regan by Barack Obama and others in the year’s presidential race:
“My God, Barack. You don’t have to kiss his ass. He’s dead!”
Eventually the conversation moves back to politics in general.
“You know what the definition of a conservative is? Someone who admires the liberals of the past. George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. Teddy Roosevelt. Liberals. All of ‘em. Flaming liberals.”
By the time history’s liberal roster ends, the interview has been on for nearly two hours. Outside, the snow keeps coming down heavily, sideways and sometimes even strangely upwards. Taking advantage of the pause, Bill puts his hand to his mouth. Then he lowers his voice, returning to his period of fame.
“But you know what, it sure helped with getting laid. Best aphrodisiac in the world. My therapist says it’s too bad I didn’t get famous later in life. I’m glad I got it then, though, when I was young enough and dumb enough to enjoy it.”
Love has not been kind to Bill in the years since. His heart has been broken several times, including by a woman he “carried a torch for over fifteen years.” Dwelling momentarily, he finally looks up and comments on his famous youth once more: “I probably broke my share of hearts too. And I didn’t even know it.”
“You know that movie, Girl Interrupted?” he adds, taking a sip of coffee. “That’s me, ‘Boy Interrupted.’ In the middle of my life it was Post-Traumatic Depression. Then OCD. Then anxiety. Taken years of therapy. A lot of it came from Kent. But I’ve gotten through it. I have. But it explains a lot. Probably one of the other reasons I don’t have the wife and kids. Being interrupted.”
The conversation turns back to the Sixties. Many of Bill’s students claim they don’t protest or get ‘active’ because Bill’s generation did it and nothing really changed. You lost, his kids tell him. He, and They, the Love Generation, had it all and let it get away. Bill’s viewpoint remains steadfastly different.
“We didn’t lose in the Sixties,” he says.
“It was a tie.”
Minutes later, when the waitress leaves with the final check, Bill starts passing over photocopies: his exploits and their record. What seems like an endless supply of paper changes hands, but it makes next to no dent in even one of his envelopes. He offers over a copy of Heart’s Cargo too. After zipping up thoroughly, he thanks the waitress and urges her to stay active.
Josh, who never returned as promised, shuffles along the restaurant’s other end. On the way out, Bill yells back to him.
“I’ve got your number, man!” he says, “You’ve got mine! We’ll be in touch!”
Josh’s response, meek and distant, easily gets lost in the rush of snow from outside. On the sidewalk, Bill talks a little more about writing and going on from here. Then he gives a hug. It lasts a long time. Finally, he breaks away into the storm, headed for his car.
And his last words, tossed into the air with his big, gloved hand?
“Power to the people,” he says.
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