by Claude Clayton Smith
All Hell broke loose in Iowa City after the National Guard killed the kids at Kent State.
It was just before Mother’s Day, 1970, a sunny May day toward the end of the semester. Several thousand students were loitering on the wide grassy area along the Pentacrest—the five original buildings of the University of Iowa—the ground so littered with blankets and beer cans and bongs that I could hardly find a spot on which to squat.
Frisbees were flying everywhere. Strains of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord wafted on breezes laced with sweet-smelling pot. The mood was festive despite the tensions dividing the nation, simply because it was such a grand and glorious spring day. The weather had turned unseasonably warm. Girls were in shorts or granny dresses, their long hair held back with colorful headbands. Some wore blue jeans with peasant blouses or tie-dyed tee shirts, their breasts as unfettered as the breeze. Bare-chested guys sat on the grass in shit-kicking boots and old jeans with wide belts and bellbottoms. Others wore bright tank tops like old men’s undershirts. Shoes and sandals had been shed in favor of bare feet. Everyone was wearing love beads. I’d made some myself, alternating earth tones on a length of elastic that hugged my neck as if it belonged there.
Final exams were approaching but no one was in class. It was early afternoon and I’d just come up to the Pentacrest from the OAT—the Old Armory Temporary—where I’d been holding conferences with my freshman students. I had an office in the OAT and was avoiding the TA cubicles in the English-Philosophy Building in order to avoid Ann-Margret, a wannabe actress who looked like the original—hence my nickname for her— because our relationship had run its course. The OAT sat beside the Iowa River, which bisects the campus. As it turned out, it was old all right—a pre-fab thrown up after World War II—and equally as temporary, because it would burn to the ground before the day was out.
But first I had to hurry to my basement digs on Church Street to check the mail. I was expecting a letter from my college roommate in Vietnam. He’d been drafted from his high-school teaching, while I had landed safely in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gary’s last letter had hinted of a move into Cambodia.
Half an hour later, when news of Kent State broke, I was back at the Pentacrest, my hair bound with a pheasant-filled tie filched from my landlord’s closet, sitting in the street with a thousand others, the words of Jane Fonda echoing in our heads. “Take to the streets!” she’d urged during a campus visit. So we’d taken to the streets. I was feeling guilty because my college roommate was squatting in a rice paddy somewhere in Vietnam while I was literally screwing around in Iowa City. I’d recently been purged of venereal warts with dry ice at the university hospital—there was an epidemic at the university—and the current chaos seemed like Armageddon.
Then the festive mood turned ugly. We were blocking traffic to end the War. It seemed entirely logical. The only vehicle we let through was a florist’s van, in honor of Mother’s Day. “Flower power to all you mothers!” we yelled, and the van driver caught the spirit: “Right on!” Then a pickup truck came roaring at the crowd, its redneck driver putting an end to our demonstration with one of his own. He was protesting as a citizen, he was later quoted as saying, since his taxes paved these city streets. We thought he’d stop but he didn’t, effectively parting us like the Red Sea. After which everyone scuttled home.
That night we congregated at the river to watch the OAT burn. I don’t think anyone to this day knows how that fire started. The OAT was a firetrap that deserved to be burned, which was why I kept nothing of value in my office there. Or the OAT just might have gone up in flames as a matter of principle. Or it might have been a burnt offering to the great God of War. The timing was uncanny, and the OAT lit up the night sky with red flames like an Iowa sunset. “Right on!” everyone yelled. And the OAT burned right on down.
But not everyone enjoyed that fire. Several graduate students watched their doctoral dissertations go up in smoke, and one of the professors from the English Department, addressing us by bullhorn, was choking back tears. In the morning it was clear that, fearing further violence and destruction that might rival Kent State, campus officials had had enough, declaring an end to the semester although final exams were yet to be taken. They announced a variety of policies for those worried about their grades, then sent us home to our parents—who didn’t want us either.
Fortunately, I’d been selected to go abroad that summer as a group leader on The Experiment in International Living. I was taking twelve high school students to live in Delle, France, a village of less than three thousand inhabitants on the Swiss border just south of Basel. I was relieved to be out of the country.
In contrast to the States, Delle, a medieval village in the heart of rolling farm country, was tranquil and timeless. No one there spoke English, and my hosts—Jean and Liliane Lassauce—had no TV. Each of my students had a host family too, making my job of roving ambassador relatively easy. I’d been an Experimenter to England in 1965, when the program was restricted to college-age participants, but this summer was a test case for the younger kids. They were only sophomores, and if they did well, the program would be opened to high school students in the future.
Several dozen people of all ages, waving signs emblazoned with our names, were waiting at the tiny station when our train pulled into Delle in the late afternoon. For a few minutes the platform was a confusion of scrambled luggage and welcoming embraces, then the family groups dispersed one by one.
The Lassauce family lived in a restored nineteenth-century farmhouse just across from the station. Jean and Lili were in their early thirties—I was twenty-seven at the time—and their son Eric, away at a colonie de vacances, was eleven. The Frisbee I brought as a gift for young Eric was the first Frisbee ever seen in Delle.
Lili, a caring and spirited individual, worked at the bank in the village. She was old enough to remember German bombs exploding in the neighborhood, one of which had killed her childhood friend. When I asked if the people of Delle ever discussed World War II, she said le moins que possible, given the gamut of stances from resistance to collaborateur. But it was easy to tell where her sympathies lay. Jean, more reticent than his wife, was a supervisor at a local factory. He was slim but wiry, with a shock of black hair and a prominent nose. When we visited his usine for a brief tour, each worker greeted him with obvious respect. Later, I solved a mystery that had been plaguing his staff for weeks. They were having problems understanding the instructions for a new machine from the States. The instructions were in English, and Jean had no idea what the word “drawing” meant—drah-vange, as he pronounced it.
“C’est le dessin,” I said. And everyone smiled, then cheered.
I visited Lili at work, too, taking Jean’s bike up the lane and over the railroad bridge, descending into the village along a series of twisting streets, always struggling to remain upright on the slippery cobblestones. This was usually at mid-morning or just before lunch. Sleeping late, I’d throw open the wooden shutters that kept my tiny bedroom in total darkness, and, blinded by the daylight, make my way down to the high-ceilinged kitchen for the wonderful coffee and fresh bread waiting there. At the bank Lili would chide me for sleeping in, but once the jet lag was behind me I was up at dawn. Jean kept regular working hours, but Lili had to stay at the bank each evening until the day’s receipts tallied. Any error would keep the entire staff overtime, often for hours.
I loved to bike around Delle. The central square held an ancient statue within a circular fountain, and the landmark clock tower prevented me from losing my way, rising as it did above the sloping, tiled rooftops of the village. Quaint bridges crossed a shallow river here and there, the water rippling out to the ruins of distant ramparts where it had once filled a defensive moat. The local watering hole—La Buvette—occupied the ground floor of a narrow five-story building of which the top three were broader than the bottom two, leaving room, I was told, for wagons to pass by in the old days. Another curious structure boasted Les Cariatides—five painted wooden carvings like the figures on the prow of a sailing ship. Spaced along the façade of the building, they rose at a forty-five-degree angle to support an overhanging roof. Each represented some quality of justice. Chateau Feltin, just around the corner, dated from the sixteenth century. It was in need of repair, an enormous gatehouse to a much larger chateau on an estate now lost to the ages. At a shop beyond it I bought a béret.
Next door to Jean and Lili lived a local character known as Charlot, a squat old man with a bulbous nose and shrewish wife twice his size. The two were perpetually at war. To keep the peace Charlot disappeared each afternoon, dressed in baggy pants, a loose long-sleeved shirt and black vest, a béret pulled aslant of his forehead. On his arm hung a woven basket, and within the basket was a checkered linen cloth. Heading for the local woods by a circuitous route, he would return just as stealthily several hours later, his basket laden with mushrooms beneath the checkered linen. Then he’d hand the basket to his wife and there’d be peace for a while.
Yves Michalet was my counterpart in Delle, a local teacher in his early forties who lived in an apartment adjacent to the village schoolhouse, a building with a castle-like stone turret and winding staircase. He too had a young son named Eric, a schoolmate of Eric Lassauce. But his attractive wife, Marie-Rose, was a bit standoffish. Though born in France, she’d been raised speaking German, and her French accent was telling. They had a younger daughter as well.
Yves was a handsome man with fashionably long black hair and one eye that drooped slightly, as if he were perpetually squinting. Being a teacher himself, he knew how to address me at just the right speed so we always understood each other perfectly. To get acquainted he took me on a tour, including les pas du diable—legendary stone footprints in a shady glade—where the Devil had allegedly appeared to a would-be saint. Nearby, I stood with one foot in France and the other in Switzerland, a cliché pose, as Yves pointed out.
We spent much of our time visiting my students in their French family homes. Yves knew all of the French students, since they’d been in his classes, and was familiar with their parents as well. It took us several weeks to make the rounds, a happy task that meant long evenings at table. My students had been placed with families of similar socio-economic backgrounds, and so the wealthiest American lived in “the American quarter,” a section of the village with the pretensions of a suburb. But even the lovely modern home where we dined that evening—like all homes in Delle—had no screens on the windows, and as luck would have it, a large bluebottle fly was soon swimming in my wineglass. What to do? Spoon it out and put it on my plate? The conversation was bright and convivial, growing louder as the hours slipped by, and whenever I tipped my glass, the fly would float away from my lips to the opposite rim, so I was safe for the time being. It was a large wineglass—the fly had appeared on my third refill—and by the time I had sipped my way to the bottom, that fly was so pickled I shut my eyes and chugged it, maintaining the international peace.
On another wine-related occasion the luck ran better. We had taken our French and American students on an excursion into Alsace-Lorraine, where we visited a local winery. While down in the wine cellar one of the girls in my group casually mentioned that her father was an importer of fine wines. She was asked her father’s name, and our guide’s mouth fell open. “Monsieur Aaron?” he said. “C’est pas possible!” We were soon skipping through the cobblestone streets with gift bottles of wine.
But there were difficult times as well. One of my students should never have been accepted to the program. The youngest of nine children—and the only boy—Arthur had shown up for orientation back in the States with his mother and eight sisters. His mother had confided that she was glad I was Arthur’s group leader because he was in need of a father figure. Arthur coped with his fear of The Experiment by taking photographs, his new camera his first line of defense. He took photographs of everything, keeping France at arm’s length rather than confronting it head-on. On our very first night in Delle, as I was later told, he drove his “French brother” from their shared bedroom, insisting, “C’est ma chambre!” Fortunately for me, on the following day his host family left for a vacation on the coast of Spain, where Arthur passed a month alone, playing in the sand.
Once my visits with Yves were completed, I was free to enjoy my time with Jean and Lili. On one occasion we traveled to Belfort, where the famous lion sculpted by Bartholdi guards the chateau. On another occasion, drinking late at someone’s third floor apartment, I felt so peaceful and happy that life seemed surreal, a feeling confirmed when I glanced out the window to see a motorcycle rising into the night sky. Blinking, I looked again. Some sort of festival had gotten underway in the little cobblestone square down below, featuring a daredevil who rode a motorcycle up a wire.
A few days later, as Jean roasted a pig beside a pond outside of Delle and Lili sunned herself in the grass, I paddled about in a kayak. Finding a bamboo pole, I went fishing, catching a hefty carp that I held up for them to see. Lili guessed that it weighed four kilos. Later still, visiting Eric at his colonie de vacances, I won a sack of groceries by guessing its weight—identical to the weight of that carp.
Then the kind of thing happened that I’d dreaded all along. One of the girls in my group—there were seven in all, innocent and dewy and unaware of how attractive they were—telephoned to say that her “French father,” who was actually Italian, had tried to kiss her. I solved the problem by hastily arranging an American “sleep-over” at the home of one of the other girls. The amorous father seemed to take the hint, and peace was restored.
Then there was Peter, a shy prep-school boy who had brought his guitar to Delle and often went off to strum it by himself. One afternoon I found him sitting alone with his guitar and crying softly. We were at a lake in the Vosges Mountains on a joint excursion, and the students had paired up to go paddle boating. Peter had gone too—that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that, for the first time in his life, he actually felt a part of something. The esprit of the day—of the experience in Delle—had overwhelmed him, and he was weeping with joy.
During the final week of our visit we threw an American party for the French, complete with hot dogs (“chaud chiens”) and custom-made buns (“les petites pains”) created by the local baker from my elaborate drah-vange. The students made a tree to present to the village, decorating it with fake dollar bills to perpetuate the myth that, in America, money grows on trees. The idea was supported by Lili’s schoolgirl English text, in which the first lesson began “My tailor is rich.” There was singing, a series of skits, and Yves read selections from Le Petit Nicolas, a favorite character in books for young children. Then someone put an old Paul Anka album on the record player and Lili introduced me to Michele. She was a friend from the bank—half French, half Vietnamese—a product of the days when the Vietnam War had belonged to France alone. The resulting mixture of the races had produced a kind of Polynesian princess. Twenty-five years old, Michelle was the reigning beauty queen of the territoire de Belfort. The lights were dimmed and we danced to Paul Anka: Put Your Head on My Shoulder.
It was after midnight when I walked Michele home. The stars were out, the summer evening chilly, and as we wandered the cobblestone streets I suddenly found myself trying to explain about the War. How some of us had been drafted and some of us had not. How I’d taken part in protests in Iowa City. And now here I was in Delle.
I don’t know if Michele really understood anything I tried to explain that night. It was the attempt, I hope, that mattered. I just held her—she was shivering and crying softly—after which the remaining days in Delle became a blur, permeated by the melancholy perception that something wonderful that had just begun was already ending.
Claude Clayton Smith is professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of seven books and co-editor/translator of another. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. With the late Alexander Vaschenko of Moscow State University, he is co-editor/translator of After the Bear Feast: The Poetic Dialogues of N. Scott Momaday and Yuri Vaella, forthcoming in the spring of 2016 from Shanti Arts Publishing.