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Freedom Road by William Lashner

Freedom Road


Chicago, 1968

Oliver Cross took a commuter train to the revolution.

It was the same train his father took to work every weekday morning and the occasional Saturday, the Chicago & North Western from Kenosha to the Loop. His father boarded the train in Highland Park, the seats already filling with suited men briskly turning the half-folded pages of the Tribune or the Wall Street Journal, first checking the prices of their stocks, and then the Cubs score, and then maybe the national news if they could stomach it. Oliver expected he would take that same train each weekday morning and the occasional Saturday after he finished law school at the University of Michigan. Maybe he'd catch it from Evanston or Winnetka for a few years at the start of his career before he'd be able to afford the high-priced house by the lake or country club in Highland Park that was his ultimate goal. Oliver's father, a LaSalle Street lawyer, dealt in debentures; always the rebel, Oliver had his eye on the more rough-and-tumble world of mergers and acquisitions.

But the commuter train wasn't loaded with its normal contingent this day. It was a Sunday, late in the summer, a few weeks before Oliver would have to return to Ann Arbor for his second year of studying the law, and he rode the train with his great pal Finnegan, heading into the city to see the freak show.

"None of it matters," said Finnegan, also a law student, though at Loyola, which meant a lesser job and a lesser future, which gave Oliver a prickly sense of satisfaction. "They can huff and puff all they want but Humphrey has the nomination."

"Unless Lyndon steals it back," said Oliver. "I wouldn't put it past him."

"Johnson would definitely steal it if Kennedy were still around, the way he hated him. Too bad about that California thing," said Finnegan, making a no-ice-cream-for-you face.

"I'll never get over it," said Oliver.

"Me neither," said Finnegan. "Let's get a dog before we go to the park. I'm starving."

Being a child of his generation, Oliver was vehemently against the war, which meant staying in school to beat the draft and arguing over beers with retrograde assholes in the pubs in Ann Arbor. He had been an avid McCarthy supporter until Kennedy got himself shot in California, whereupon Oliver suddenly switched his allegiance to the dead man. It seemed the right thing to do. And there was something about McCarthy supporters that ate at him. They were a little too preppy, too sure of themselves, cold-blooded like their candidate, the former monastery student turned senator; they all smiled at you with the self-satisfaction of the recently ordained. Oliver knew all about McCarthy supporters, since he had been one for so long and fit the mold so well. But now, with the 1968 Democratic National Convention set to open in Chicago, the ghost of Robert Kennedy had his heart.

Better a dead man as president, Oliver figured, than Richard Milhous Nixon.

The commuter train that Sunday was filled to standing with the young, the restless, the earnest, the curious, and Finnegan, who was going for the girls. Oliver would have been content to sit out the noise and spectacle with a cooler of beer by the family pool, but Finnegan had convinced him this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "What about free love don't you understand, Cross?" Finnegan had said, which, all in all, was a pretty effective argument. And so Oliver sat on that train as it snaked through the tenements and industry of the northern part of the city. The fringed leather satchel of some longhair standing in the aisle banged into Oliver's shoulder with every turn.

"Sorry, man," said the longhair without doing anything about it. Probably a McGovern supporter.

The train emptied at Clybourn, and a jaunty, smoke-wreathed parade headed east over the bridge on Courtland toward Lincoln Park. There would be a concert, speakers, Yippies and hippies, and girls with loose shirts and flowers in their hair. The sky was high, the day was perfect, and Lincoln Park was the place to be, as long as you left before eleven because Mayor Daley had decreed that the park was to be emptied by eleven.

"The last train back is at ten fifteen," said Finnegan, looking over a printed schedule as the two waited for a couple hot dogs at a shack on Armitage with a VIENNA BEEF sign overhead.

"I don't expect I'll last that long," said Oliver. "Let's catch something about five."

"Unless we catch something else."


"Don't be such a killjoy."

"Unlike you, Finn, I have a girlfriend."

"In Michigan, man. What's that got to do with anything?"

"When's the first train after five?"

"Five thirty-seven."

"Let's shoot for that. The festival should be over by then and Florence is making a ham."

"What happened to you, Cross? You're like an old man already."

The franks came freshly grilled, with long slivers of pickle, hot peppers, and tomato slices, along with onions and that peculiar Chicago relish that is so green, it looks like a traffic light signaling go, eat, enjoy. Oliver splatted mustard on top - no ketchup, thank you - and took a bite. Through the soft bun and garden loaded on top he could feel the casing snap between his teeth and taste the spurt of grease. Suddenly there was no war, no politics, his mother was still alive, his father still knew how to smile, his brother was home from Vietnam, and Ernie Banks was back to playing shortstop at Wrigley Field.

Was there anything better in the whole wide world than a Chicago dog?


Oliver Cross missed the five-thirty-seven north to Kenosha. He also missed the ten-fifteen. Instead of being asleep in his bed at midnight with a stomach full of Florence's ham, he found himself on Clark Street, just west of Lincoln Park, holding hands with strangers on the front lines of a war.

On his left stood a red-haired, freckled girl with a bandanna stretched over her nose and mouth to protect against the expected fusillade of tear gas. On his right stood a tall man with glasses and a beard shouting out a string of obscenities. They were part of a line that fronted a writhing mob of youth facing off against a row of helmeted, blue-shirted police intent on clearing the roadway with all deliberate violence and speed.

And right then, in the middle of the madness, Oliver couldn't have told you how he got there.

He had lost sight of Finn in the afternoon hours, during the short-lived so-called Festival of Light, where slithering guitars and unintelligible lyrics had been blasting through the crowd and across the lagoon in the middle of the park. Everyone had been pressing forward because the band wasn't on a stage and no one could see a thing, and in the melee, the two friends had lost contact. Oliver was actually relieved to be alone; he wanted to dig the brave new world in which he found himself on his own, without Finn's judgment or sarcasm. The music was loud, the mob was dancing. There were balloons in the trees, and hats of every variety, and Mary Jane was being passed freely from hand to hand as if the drug itself were an integral part of the festival.

That Abbie Hoffman sure knew how to put on a show.

Oliver wasn't much for drugs - he was his father's son and would have preferred a martini - but somehow, there, it had felt wrong to give his usual "No thanks, I'm cool." The crowd itself told him he wasn't so cool after all. There were kids within the throng, high schoolers still, with so much natural defiance in their bones that he felt suddenly defensive. Pulling back would be to somehow deny his generational membership. So you could say he was shamed into it - peer pressure, yes! - but Oliver had spent his day so far as a tourist gawking at the young stoned hippies, so filthy their scented message had to be purposeful, as well as the bearded beatniks with their fisherman's caps, the organizing Yippies with their special white jackets, the black kids with their cowboy hats and berets, the hip girls with their slouch bags and blazing eyes. Oliver had spent so much of the day, so much of his life, being ever so careful that maybe it was time to cross a fucking line.

And that was how, in the midst of a cataclysmic swirl of mediocre rock, he had found himself seriously stoned when the city abruptly cut the power to the amplifiers, the crowd surged, and all hell broke loose.

For Oliver, in the midst of the craziness, things suddenly had become distant and unfocused, unconnected by acts of his own will. He drifted through a wild landscape divorced from any reality he understood, like the Hieronymus Bosch painting his mom used to show him at the Art Institute.

He could remember a young man, shirtless, tall and thin, flailing his arms and legs to a wild drumming before falling into the lagoon and swimming off. "Revolution," he called out when he reached the island in the middle of the water and waved his arms like a madman. "Bravery. No retreat."

He could remember sitting within a wide circle on a beach and chanting Om Namah Shivaya with Allen Ginsberg. Allen Howling Ginsberg!

He could remember kissing a girl with a white headband beneath a tree in the dimming light of dusk, a pretty girl who disappeared as suddenly as she had arrived. Oliver called after her but he didn't know her name. "Hey, Headband!" Five other girls turned around.

He could remember wandering the green fields after darkness fell, making his way by the flickering lights of trash fires, stumbling across lovers in the shadows, listening to the strum of folk guitars, being offered and accepting more hits from more joints, and all the time being carried forward by the drums, the drums, the pounding drums, beating out a secret message sent from one relay to the next in a line that surely spread across the whole of the continent.

He could remember great beams of light prowling through the park, followed by news teams with their heavy, hungry cameras.

He could remember watching a rousing charge toward a row of toilets surrounded by police, the chargers being chased away by raised batons in what felt like a wild game of capture the flag. Instead of joining in, he had unzipped his fly and drowned a small tree.

He could remember a young kid sitting on someone's shoulders, waving the Vietcong flag and shouting, "Stay in the park! The park belongs to the people!"

He could remember the people's strategy delivered calmly through bullhorns by the Yippie marshals, "Break up, don't bunch," even as a helicopter flew just above the tree line, the blinding oval of its searchlight slithering across the ground.

And he could remember the official city car with a speaker on its roof announcing that the park would close at 11:00 p.m. and all journalists and demonstrators who refused to honor the curfew would be arrested. As a phalanx of police began its sweep westward from the lake, and the Yippie leaders urged all to leave, the mob ignored both and made a stand with cheers and chants.

"Fuck the marshals."


"This is now Che Guevara National Park."

"It's five minutes to eleven."

"Red rover, red rover, send Daley right over."

"Here they come."

"Onto the streets. Onto the streets."

And suddenly, without any force of intent, Oliver Cross found himself in the great confrontation of the night, of the week, of his generation, part of a groundswell fueled by youth and drugs and a righteous fury at an unjust and barbarous war. The protesters joined in battle lines against rows of police with their helmets and their batons, public servants who believed they were the final defense against an anarchy that was enveloping their city and threatening to destroy the very fabric of their nation.

To be honest, even at the vanguard of this epical clash, standing there with his high being burned away by raw fear, Oliver was still playing the tourist. Like any true student of the law, he found himself in sympathy with both sides. The police were not the enemy, nor were the demonstrators. Something was tearing the country apart, and that something was the root of the problem. They should be joining arms, the police and the young; they should be marching together against the malign powers that sought to divide them, whatever they might be.

"Hell no, we won't go."

"Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."

"Oink, oink, fascist pig bastards."

The police moved forward in rank. Spotlights reflected off helmet and baton. Cameras whirred as name tags were unpinned from blue police shirts and slipped into pockets. A plume of smoke rose from down the street.

"Prague, Prague, we are Prague."

"The streets belong to us."

As Oliver gripped the other protesters' hands and stood against the harsh formation of authority, a strange moment of stillness arose, when the shouts subsided and the police stopped their advance and the night seemed to hinge between ferocity and solidarity. A few angry calls from the rear of the crowd were swallowed by the quiet. A few white-shirted police among the rows of blue worked to keep the troops calm. A woman stepped forward from the crowd and offered an apple to one of the policemen, who grabbed hold of it and took a bite.

And Oliver imagined just then that he could see the future, that the massing police and the massed demonstrators would become one, an American collective working together to take control of the streets and, eventually, the nation. This was the America Oliver Cross believed in then, a sane land of brotherhood and equality where disputes over things as meaningless as a park curfew, as fraught as race, and as serious as war could be dealt with intelligently, humanely, with the forces of decency and law. And as a lawyer, Oliver naturally imagined himself at the epicenter of this great reconciliation. The hope of that reconciliation, and the image of his own great future riding astride that hope, was filling his heart when the red-haired woman next to him shouted out in a voice so sharp, it cut through the night like a scimitar:

"Your mother sucks dirty cock!"

Later there would be accounts of rocks and beer bottles thrown at the police from the back of the mob. Later it would be reported that packs of demonstrators rushed the fierce blue wall in a futile attempt to make it back into the park. Later all manner of incident would be put forward as the spark that started the riot, but Oliver Cross would never doubt that the words shouted by the protester standing beside him were the instigating factor, as if the police had just been waiting for an excuse and that fearless, reckless woman, releasing the hounds of her righteous fury, had given them exactly what they wanted.

The police charged. Batons flashed. The lines broke and there was a brutal to-and-fro when, in the middle of the battle, came the blow, a strike on Oliver's head so hard that it permanently creased his skull even as it knocked the world right out of him.

He drifted sweetly on the edge of consciousness. He had no name, no past or future, and the present, with all its chaos and violence, was only a distant babble. He raised his hands and fell to his knees and sank into the ground as if it were made of taffy. All was white static, a television left on without a signal. And out of that whiteness came the chanting - "Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya" - as figments of the world emerged: a beach, a park, a circle, a bearded man with glasses and little finger cymbals. "Om Namah Shivaya." Within the staticky now there was no must do, no can't do, no ambition or fear of failure, no right or wrong, up or down, yes or no. There was for him, just then, only freedom pure, filling every cell in his body. He felt himself expanding until he was about to explode with joy, every particle of his being joining with the great indifferent flower of the universe.

Later, Oliver Cross would say that this was the moment that changed everything, where he stepped out of one kind of life and into another, but that would not be the entire truth. Because when the next blow came, shattering his collarbone and deadening his left arm, he wasn't changed at all, just knocked right back into the world exactly as he always had been.

Except the world was now in flames.