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In the Black: 1967 – Marty Keegan

ITB130725a - In the Black 1967 Cover - 180w

The cream-colored Cadillac De Ville convertible with Illinois license plates cruised south down Interstate 95 with the top down, long strands of hair dancing like crazed Salvador Dali puppets in the slip stream above the heads of the occupants. Marty Keegan rode the hump in the back seat, flanked by two pretty, yet clueless coeds along for the adventure that a weekend in Washington D.C. promised. Mark drove the borrowed luxury sedan, courtesy of Bill’s father, courtesy of the handsome salary paid him by Commonwealth Edison. Mark and Bill were having a loud and animated debate, followed like a tennis match by Diana, who sat between them in the front seat, but which Marty Keegan could not hear in back over Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton blasting I Feel Free out of the rear stereo speakers.

“Cadillac!” Marty Keegan yelled at passing vehicles, pointing to the occupants in his own car. “CAD-DIL-LAC!”

The coeds blew kisses to passing motorists, flashed the peace sign and smothered Marty Keegan in hugs and kisses. He fondled their breasts openly and winked teasingly at commuters imprisoned in their daily routines. The coeds were from his Poli-Sci class. Being a revolutionary had its upside — and Marty Keegan was looking forward to the prospect of getting laid in the nation’s capitol.

Marty Keegan’s freshman year at Columbia University had been a text book case study in the carnage that results when youthful dreams crash head-on into institutional granite and cultural concrete. His naive vision of emerging from the Ivy League’s only journalism school a crusading reporter, then following in his grandfather’s footsteps, battling to change the world for the better of all mankind, was threshed and winnowed by the undergraduate Core Curriculum and course pre-requisites, until the grains of his aspirations were laid bare for the millstone of the American education system to grind them into flour ready for proper societal leavening. But the same hormonally supercharged hubris, the universally youthful aura of immortality, and an embedded sense of familial destiny that propelled his recklessness on the Fighting Eagles gridiron and sustained his rebellion in the halls of Harry S. Truman High School could not be contained by the Morningside campus and it wasn’t long before his restlessness spilled over the dikes of academia.

After a thoroughly unsatisfying Lion’s football season that involved far more running, bench pressing and bench sitting than gridiron playing, Marty Keegan sought quiet refuge at what he called “Butler Beach” — the library stacks where he spent free afternoons and evenings on the fourth floor paging through the bound copies of TIME, Life, Newsweek and The New York Times, digging back through the decades to wander through the great watershed events of the Twentieth Century captured first hand by the idols of his craft — absorbing the heat of amazing photo journalism and heroic reporting of the ferocious battles of World War II exploding off glossy magazine pages; then back to feel the despair and desperation of that economic dust bowl known as the Great Depression rising from musty newsprint like an Oklahoma dirt devil; and then back again further into the “Roaring” decade that led to that very Black Tuesday in October, 1929, when Y.T., Jr.’s grandfather plummeted to his death at the other end of Manhattan Island. The “Crazy Years” of Jazz, Flappers, Art Deco, Prohibition, amazing technological advances and seemingly plentiful material excesses gave Marty Keegan a creepy, yet uncomprehended feeling of deja ju as he sat there forty years downstream in American history.

Seeking inspiration and, perhaps, redemption and validation from the acolytes of Walter Lippman and John Dewey, it seemed the more free time Marty Keegan spent at “The Beach” the more doubt gnawed at his faith in journalism like termites feasting on the foundations of a home. How could those reporters and editors of those times have missed a monster like the 1938 TIME Magazine “Man of the Year,” Adolf Hitler, and the horrors he unleashed on the world? How could they have not seen and understood what would happen? It was all right there in Mein Kampf, in Hitler’s own words, for crying out loud. How could they have not stopped him? Instead of wasting ink and paper on the “outpouring of birthday greetings” and praise for Benito Mussolini and all he had accomplished “for the good of Italy and humanity” why did they not stop these madmen, stop the suffering, stop the violence and stop the death they reeked on humanity? Who really cares if he and Hitler made the trains run on time, if those trains ended up running to Auschwitz and Treblinka? As Marty Keegan jogged through Morningside park or around the Central Park Reservoir, he tried, but could not fathom how the supposed watchdogs of the Fourth Estate had so badly missed the realities staring them straight in the face that would later spawn some of the darkest years of modern history. And so he reached back further, back into his own family’s past.

Marty Keegan’s grandfather spent his entire bright, but short newspaper career at the Kansas City Star. A.B. Keegan was a fourteen year old paperboy who, family legend had it, followed cub reporter Ernest Hemingway around the office during the six months of his tenure there before he left to drive ambulances in Italy during World War I. Twelve years later, the elder Keegan, by then a reporter for the Star, went to Amarillo, Texas, to look into the suspicious death of a lawyer’s wife, who was blown to smithereens in the family car six blocks from home. After just two days of investigation, he somehow learned what authorities could not or would not: that the husband was having an affair with his secretary. His intrepid investigative reporting resulted in a fifty-four page confession and a newspaper story that won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the stellar journalistic career launched by that prize was aborted only a few short years later when he was fatally injured covering the 1935 Metal Workers strike violently raging through Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. His own father not having the grit or stomach for the kind of danger men like Ernest Hemingway and A.B. Keegan faced in their work became a school teacher, and so it was on an annuity funded by his grandfather’s prize money and death benefits that Marty Keegan attended Columbia University. Marty Keegan searched for and found A.B. Keegan’s story on microfiche. He read and reread his ancestor’s prize winning prose. Somewhere in the intervening years, journalism seemed to have lost the fire that burned in the bellies of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Ernest Hemingway and A.B. Keegan. The Columbia freshman felt a heavy ancestral obligation in living up to his grandfather’s prize winning legacy, but, here, at the journalistic mecca founded and funded by Joseph Pulitzer, himself, which had recognized and honored a bud in Keegan family tree, he had become uncharacteristically unmoored and adrift from his own ancestry and ambitions.

Strangely, the thirty year old story of murder in a high plains cattle town by his grandfather resonated in Marty Keegan, softly at first, then louder and louder still. For a long while he was not sure why, until one day jogging up East Park Drive, out of the blue he recalled a series in The New Yorker about murder in Kansas by Truman Capote. Returning to Butler Beach he found the first article in the September, 1965 issue, and then the three following installments. It was a different kind of reporting, a different kind of story telling: a style that seemed to break away from the rigid Who-What-Where-When-How of the journalism of the past that had so obviously failed mankind by missing Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin and their terrible meanings for civilization, even as those monsters worked their wills right before the supposedly unblinking and objective eyes of the Fourth Estate. He reread the Capote magazine series. He sought out a copy of In Cold Blood and wolfed down the novelization of true crime and yet hungered for more of this so-called “New Journalism.”

Somehow, moving back and away from a strict factual, photographic rendition of space and time, with a feel more of fiction than current events, these New Journalists had, like verbal Dalis, Piccasos or Pollocks, captured the essential truths and a more primal reality of the crimes, sports, politics, cars, celebrities and music they wrote about. The chasm between facts and reality, between objective observation and subjectively divining truth, between passive recording of sensory input and journalism as a verb — as a call to action and change — opened before him. In his mind, Marty Keegan had always equated a reporter’s job with just seeking the truth and faithfully documenting it. He had always understood that was enough. But this new and improved novelized presentation of reality demonstrated that his role was to be more than a simple gatherer and sower of grains of truth. From his own winter of independent research at Butler Beach, Marty Keegan saw that the “Johnny Appleseed” model of journalism, spreading seeds called facts, had obviously failed in the past to move and protect society. The more that establishment publications, editors and reporters attacked what they called “parajournalists” the more Marty Keegan sought them out and embraced them. Weren’t the very giants of Journalism, like Hearst and Pulitzer — the very founder of the Columbia School of Journalism, no less — derided as purveyors of so-called “yellow journalism” by the same kind of establishment types of their era? Didn’t his own grandfather do more than just report? Didn’t he solve a crime? Didn’t he bring a murderer to justice? Didn’t he change things for the better? He believed if his grandfather had been alive, he would have changed the arc of history far beyond the city limits of Amarillo in the decades that followed. Marty Keegan, too, heard the siren calling to change the world through his words.

And so, Marty Keegan turned away from news locked in history and neatly stacked up in Butler Beach. He turned away from the staid and stale academic hot house vision of journalism and began seeking new news and new news telling and new news to be made. He lost interest in the Lions and their endless workouts. He would not return to the team in his sophomore year. Eventually, he went AWOL from The Columbia Spectator as well. His jogging ventured further north from Central Park to the upper reaches of West Riverside Park and St. Nicholas Park. The time he spent on the fourth floor at Butler Beach dwindled and he drifted further and further afield from Morningside Heights, mainly northerly towards 125th Street and easterly towards Lenox Avenue, seeking out and exploring new and sometimes unconventional reading rooms — bars, coffee shops, diners, parks — to escape the soft oppression of the Columbia Cabal of students, faculty and administrators, and their worship of establishment values.

By energy or inertia he eventually gravitated to Stella’s Diner, a quiet family establishment on the outer fringes of Harlem, where he devoured home-style southern cooking, gallons of coffee, The Village Voice articles and anything he could find authored by Truman Capote, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Thomas Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Shunned at first by the regulars, his persistent, yet quiet presence eroded away the novelty and resentment of having an obvious college student intruder in their midst and in time, he became an accepted fixture to be mostly ignored, except by Stella’s daughter, Yolanda, who closed the restaurant with her sister, serving customers while Bernice cooked. Polite, functional exchanges between Yolanda and Marty Keegan rooted and grew, until late at night, after all the other patrons had gone, she would sit with him to share a cup of coffee and conversation, usually under the heat lamp glare of Bernice through the server’s window to the kitchen. Woven into talk of themselves, their families, their homes, their futures, and their friends, Marty Keegan first learned how the hunger of Columbia University for real estate to expand hurt people and families Yolanda knew in Harlem and Washington Heights, forcing them out of their homes like refugees by swallowing up block after block of rental properties in their quest for campus lebensraum. Yolanda doubted the diner could long survive Columbia’s academic imperialism as the college was actually Stella’s landlord, owning the building where Yolanda’s mother founded her business shortly after World War II — any more than Austria and Czechoslovakia had survived Hitler’s ambitions, Marty Keegan thought to himself. He perceived a malevolence in the University’s actions that he laid at the feet of its “Fearless Leader”, President Grayson Kirk, and he felt an obligation to do what the journalists of the Twenties and Thirties had not done: stop the evil there before his own eyes.

Marty Keegan asked if Yolanda would help him to help the friends, family and neighbors wronged by Grayson Kirk. She agreed, so they began to meet sometimes before her shift, sometimes after closing, when she would lead him deeper and deeper into Harlem to tenement buildings, to small family businesses, to minister’s offices, to Well’s Restaurant to meet with the economic exiles created by Columbia University, seeing and hearing first hand their plight, their frustrations and their pains. Affecting his best Capote-Wolf-Thompson voice, Marty Keegan strove to capture the cultural clash between the Haves and the Have-Nots in New Journalism-style stories, profiles and vignettes that he sent to the editors of every alternative press publication he could find. With Yolanda’s by-line, some of the stories were published in neighborhood newsletters, church bulletins and civil rights organization pamphlets. When their narrative turned its focus from past individual injustices to the future impact of the new gymnasium to be built in Morningside Park on the whole city, an issue that was merely simmering began to boil and others began to join Yolanda and Marty Keegan’s chorus of protest.

Marty Keegan also brought those stories back to the activists that gathered at the West End Bar on campus, which stoked the fires of their outrage at “The System” and its obviously inherent injustices, helping them to feel a little less self-centered in their resistance to the War in Vietnam which had a rather self-serving purpose in advancing an avoidance of undesirable encounters with the local Selective Service Board. There he was embraced by a group of middle-management radicals who yearned for action and were growing increasingly bored and impatient with the slow and plodding “praxis-axis” leadership of the Columbia chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, which saw educating and organizing as their role in fundamentally transforming society. Marty Keegan had broken the gravitational pull of academia and smashed the paradigm they strained against in their endless hops-sodden debates by crossing campus boundaries and dealing with real people with real problems. He did not talk. He did not debate. He had gone off on his own to figuratively set a bomb and light the fuse that blew the Columbia gymnasium project off its racist rails.

As the radicals rallied to the cause of an oppressed minority in America, Marty Keegan found himself awash with timid whispers and prodded with inconspicuous nudges from less intrepid and more fearful peers that sent him into the stacks of Columbia’s International Law Library on the trail of Grayson Kirk evils that were not merely local to the Eden of academia there on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but were playing out on the world stage. As war raged in Southeast Asia, Grayson Kirk and his minions were collecting millions upon millions of dollars from the Institute for Defense Analysis to research and develop new and improved weapons to more efficiently and effectively kill foreign citizens and subjugate their sovereign nations for exploitation by the corrupt and immoral American capitalist system. Marty Keegan painted Grayson Kirk’s hands red with blood in a series of exposes detailing Columbia University’s complicity with the Military-Industrial Complex in a conspiracy of international death and destruction. Marty Keegan felt his dogged reporting would have made his grandfather proud. The administration of the University which had once honored A.B. Keegan took a much less favorable view of his role as one of the “IDA Six” radicals and called upon the Pentagon to call upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation to quell what was quickly becoming a public relations nightmare. Instead of a Pulitzer Prize, he was rewarded with an official government investigative file of his very own.

And so, Marty Keegan found himself sandwiched between two coeds in the back seat of the cream-colored Cadillac De Ville convertible with Illinois license plates — an automobile that reeked of the very essence of free market economics and American industrial muscle — which was transporting the vanguard of American student radicalism southbound to the nation’s capitol to participate in a national Moratorium against the War in Vietnam. With thoughts of getting laid — and maybe ending a war, too — dancing in his head, Marty Keegan had no idea that a Craftsman tool box in the trunk held dynamite, blasting caps and timers.

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