Maverick Chronicles: Coming to Vermont

Bennington protest 1969

Protesting at the Bennington Battle Monument, 1969. Photo by Greg Guma

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist.

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in early March 1968, Sen. J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values.

The resolution, passed in 1964, had given President Johnson a blank check to wage war in Vietnam, based on a trumped-up military incident. Over half a million troops were mobilized, using fears of communism and falling dominoes to rationalize what became a major invasion. The operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the country in order to save it.

In March Eugene McCarthy, an ardent opponent of the war, won an astonishing 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote for president in New Hampshire. Four days later, Robert Kennedy officially entered the race, and by the end of the month Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. But on the same day that Kennedy made his move, U.S. soldiers lined up hundreds of old men, women and children in the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai and shot them dead. It was one of several massacres that remained secret until the end of the decade.

Just as the U.S. was looking for a way out it was losing its soul.

In the midst of growing chaos the prescient muckraker I.F. Stone wrote in his independent newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, “Everywhere we talk liberty and social reform, but we end up by allying ourselves with native oligarchies and military cliques – just as we have done in Vietnam. In the showdown, we reach for the gun.”

On April 4, a shot rang out in Memphis, ending the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In the days that followed, riots erupted in 125 cities, resulting in more than 20,000 arrests and the mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary. By July, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. Despite clear signs of deepening social conflict, however, the war overseas continued to escalate.

In the first five months of the year, almost 10,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, more than in all of 1967. At home, the violence and repression were just beginning

Academy of broken dreams

Shortly after finishing my last class at Syracuse University, I relocated to southern Vermont. In those days we called it “dropping out.”

Greg Guma

Greg Guma at 21. Photo courtesy Greg Guma

For a while this meant living out of a suitcase, and also that my base of daily operations became an abandoned box factory on the main drag in the village of Bennington. For reasons hard to fathom even now, I declined offers from Universal Television to write scripts and from CBS to intern in the New York news department. What can I say? It was the ’60s. Instead, I joined a band of erstwhile media revolutionaries led by a one-eyed visionary whose dream of building an independent film empire became, just briefly, a collective crusade.

Along with his wife and a bunch of recent college grads, our fearless leader – let’s call him Wild Bill – created the American Film Academy, a non-profit distribution middleman for college campus film clubs that was supposed to help launch our filmmaking careers. Eager to join a band of rebels, I signed on as in-house editor and all-purpose writer.

Arrogance and youthful delusion turned the AFA dream into a financial disaster in less than a year. High times in Big Apple, hobnobbing with film executives and eccentric millionaires, didn’t do much to pay our mounting bills or reduce the inevitable internal tensions. Sometimes we would joke about implementing Plan B, knocking off a race track Brinks truck in spectacular fashion. We were, after all, film fans.

Wild Bill often processed bad news by painting parts of the sprawling, empty factory or retreating sullenly behind a sky-blue door marked Studio A. On the other side was a cavernous loft left over from industrial days. We used it mainly to store posters for AFA’s feature film offerings, shown by the dozens of film societies we had organized throughout the Northeast. With a few backyard lounge chairs and windows boarded to block the light, the old factory floor was a perfect spot to screen movies.

The rest of us would keep working in the main office during these heavy times. As we perused film catalogs, typed up proposals or tallied our bills, we could hear the soundtrack and the hum of the projector as Wild Bill got his celluloid fix. You see, he was really brainstorming, considering the next move while watching Gary Cooper face “High Noon.”

Eventually, he would return to the office and reveal his latest plan. But first, a little painting.

By November the American Film Academy was dead and I was dealing with a tough reality. No income, a broken dream, and no immediate job prospects. Fortunately, I had made some contacts in Bennington, including a group of well-connected young Republicans for whom I created campaign ads. One contacted the local daily paper after his election to the state Legislature, and, in the nick of time, I had a job, maybe even a career.

As we covered the walls, using ladders and supplies purchased on credit with some card sent to a promising young college graduate, he would unfurl his latest scenario of success around the corner and the pleasures of life we would all soon enjoy. Armored against harsh reality, he would wink his one good eye from atop the ladder and remind us, “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” He smiled when he said it.

I think he was trying to convey his belief in a special destiny. Nevertheless,despite the divine right of one-eyed kings things played out poorly in this case. Our business manager absconded with the proceeds of several months’ worth of film showings, and our logistics director was drafted.

The downward spiral escalated after I introduced Wild Bill to my uncle. A successful entrepreneur in the New York tire trade, he in turn brought us to a tax lawyer – and vanity filmmaker – who worked for Huntington Hartford, the multi-millionaire A&P heir and owner of Show magazine. An agreement to help Hartford with his publication in exchange for support of our film projects ended in mutual disillusionment when Bill, who became associate publisher, could not produce the magazine and, even worse, lost the lawyer’s equipment while filming in a Manhattan park with Joe Butler, then drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

By November the American Film Academy was dead and I was dealing with a tough reality. No income, a broken dream, and no immediate job prospects. Fortunately, I had made some contacts in Bennington, including a group of well-connected young Republicans for whom I created campaign ads. One contacted the local daily paper after his election to the state Legislature, and, in the nick of time, I had a job, maybe even a career.

The Bennington Banner would soon become my anchor and graduate school. Personal problems went on the back burner as I immersed myself in community life – feuding school boards, a disorganized local government, and the expensive, quirky Bennington College.

Covering the community

The Banner newsroom was a large, open bullpen filled with manual typewriters and competing conversations. At one end, a picture window loomed over a picaresque main drag in the heart of the village. At the other, just this side of the swinging door to production, Bennington Banner Editor-in-Chief Tyler Resch worked over our copy. In a corner, the teletype cranked AP reports onto a long roll of yellow paper that spooled onto the floor.

Each weekday morning I woke up around 6 a.m. to get downtown, read the Albany papers and start developing photos taken the night before by the staff. Because I had attended commercial photography school, I also ran the darkroom. By 8, I was checking on the overnight accidents, writing up items for “Over in New York,” and printing contact sheets for review. By 9, I was pumping out bylined stories on the clanking keyboard of a huge old Remington. The finished newspaper hit the streets shortly after noon.

During my first week on the job, in December 1968, Richard Nixon was back in Washington selecting his cabinet. Vietnam peace talks were stalling in Paris and the Defense Department called up another 33,000 young men to fight the war, bringing the total to half a million troops. My beats in southern Vermont were far less momentous – district court, local schools and the village trustees.

Anti-war protest, 1969

An anti-war protest in Bennington, November 1969. Photo by Greg Guma

Despite a bit of bravado during my job interview it was a challenge. I had edited a magazine and a weekly newspaper supplement at Syracuse, plus some writing for the campus daily. But this was real pressure. I knew next to nothing about the local scene.

On my first night Tyler accompanied me to a school board meeting, drew a crude diagram identifying the people around the table, and left me there. It was sink or swim, totally nerve-wracking. In the grand scheme one story mattered little, of course. But for the Banner’s readers, it meant more. My report was their main way to know what was happening at the moment in the school system. If I could not explain it I had no business calling myself a reporter.

As luck would have it, a political storm was brewing. A new high school had been built in the blush of a progressive educational era. But it was also at the hub of Bennington’s pain. Its alma mater, “The Impossible Dream,” turned out to be prophetic. An idealistic plan for local education was about to be bludgeoned in a repressive backlash.

Just before I started work the school superintendent resigned and a dispute developed over who would replace him as acting chief. The elementary school board wanted Assistant Superintendent George Sleeman. The supervisory union, which included representatives of both the elementary and high school boards, wasn’t so sure.

On the surface it looked like a minor bureaucratic fracas, a question of who could sign checks and make decisions until a permanent chief was selected. But it was actually part of a long-running cultural clash over the fundamental direction of education and community life.

Next: Bennington holds a culture war

Greg Guma

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  • Hi, Greg,

    I enjoyed this, as I did your contributions to the Valley Voice those many years ago. I’ve been doing some (much briefer) reminiscing in my columns for the Addison Independent, archived on my blog at http://www.gregdennis.wordpress.com.

    Keep ’em coming.

    – Greg

  • Patrick Cashman

    Just to be clear, this series is meant to celebrate Mr. Guma’s choices? While so many of his peers volunteered to serve their nation at war, Mr. Guma chose to be a hobo and pursue whatever particular interest siezed his fancy. Perhaps as a counterpoint Vt Digger could offer a series by someone who chose a course other than self-indulgence during this period.

  • Christian Noll

    “Just to be clear, this series is meant to celebrate Mr. Guma’s choices?”

    Why not?

    “While so many of his peers volunteered to serve their nation at war, . .”

    You mean that war which was started all the way over in the Gulf on Tonkin by those big bully Vietnamese torpedo boats which were firing ‘real’ torpeados at our poor US Navy destroyers?

    I’d say Mr. Guma did well enough to stay out of it.

    “Serving our nation” Mr Cashman isn’t at all what it used to be.

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