The last days of Tom Hayden: “I am wide awake in the unforgettable present moment.”

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Tim Schick and Rob Meachum review back issues of the Michigan Daily with Tom Hayden in the 1970s. (Photo: Ken Fink)

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On the West Coast, I was quick to get the news of activist, author, and legislator Tom Hayden from the Los Angeles Times. The obituary briefly mentions that he was editor of the Michigan Daily circa 1960 – before Jane Fonda, before the Port Huron Statement, about the time of the Students for a Democratic Society was founded.   
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I met him briefly in 1976, at the offices of the Michigan Daily on 420 Maynard. He was there as part of his Indochina Peace Campaign effort – he had objected to a position The Daily had taken, as I recall – but I knew that Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review (and now consulting editor at large for Yale University Press and publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books), would know him perhaps as well as anyone. I was right. He published this week in The Nation:
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A week before he died, I went to say farewell to Tom Hayden. I’d known him ever since we met in Berkeley in 1969 during the tumult of People’s Park, when he was 29 and I was 16. I knew he was gravely ill, debilitated by the stroke he’d suffered the year before, just three weeks after he’d agreed to write a book I’d been urging him to undertake for Yale University Press. For the next 18 months, we would work closely together on a modest book-length essay about the legacy of the Vietnam protest movement. I had suggested he write it as a natural outgrowth of the conference he and other antiwar veterans had organized in Washington, DC, to protest the Pentagon’s plan to sanitize an official commemoration of America’s Vietnam veterans. That plan had conveniently omitted to mention those courageous vets who protested the war, the brave young men who resisted the draft, or the many millions of patriotic citizens who had come together in an unprecedented movement of opposition.

hell-no

Out next May, his last book.

Tom was appalled that our legacy of protest was in danger of being forgotten. As he wrote: “One can only guess why so many elites want to forget the Vietnam peace movement by history cleansing, why public memories have atrophied, and why there are few if any memorials to peace.” We talked about how efforts to end an unjust war had been whitewashed and stricken from mainstream memories, and what to do about it. He felt that “the steady denial of our impact, the persistent caricatures of who we really were, the constant questioning of our patriotism, the snide suggestions that we offered no alternative but surrender to the Communist threat have cast a pall of illegitimacy over our memory and had a chilling effect on many journalists, peace dissenters, and the current generation of students today. Of course, one reason for this forgetting is that the Vietnam War was lost, a historical fact that representatives of a self-proclaimed superpower can never acknowledge. Accepting defeat is simply not permissible.” We agreed that if truth is famously war’s first casualty, memory is its second. Tom’s book would be a necessary intervention in the on-going conflict between empire and democracy.

That the book got written at all is something of a miracle. I was shocked to receive an e-mail from him just days after he’d signed the contract with Yale, telling me he’d suffered a serious stroke. “I am the victim of my own reckless character,” he wrote. “I was photographing a toxic pit of fracking wastewater out in the land of the devil, Kern County. It was hot, the air full of dust, the black ooze sinking into the aquifer below and evaporating into the air above. I threw myself into the cave of the devil and the devil blew back into my heaving lungs. It was something like Ginsberg staring into the eye of Moloch. And so in the course of an exhausting day and night my breathing worsened and I eventually fell into a stroke and was rushed twice to emergency rooms, doctors and nurses, and the MRI machine where I experienced life and loved ones passing before my eyes. The man at the MRI was named Jesus. When it was over and I asked him how his day was going, he said with an upbeat shout, ‘You survived, everybody’s gonna survive in this place today.’” Tom went on to say that while he would “need therapy to help recover my brain over the next little while,” he assured me that “if you call me, and I hope you will, it will seem that I am my old self, slicing and chopping words into sentences and arguments, living again in the immanent world that I nearly left behind.” …

He closed his missive, which he’d written from his hospital bed at 5 in the morning, “I am wide awake in the unforgettable present moment, and now I must try to sleep.”

Tom always did live in the unforgettable present moment, and he refused to be hostage to an easy, self-aggrandizing nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s. As much as he had a profound respect for the ways that history, as was once so famously observed, weighs upon the brain of the living like a nightmare, he spent his life trying to write it by making it in the here and now.  …

Read the whole thing here

 


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