10/31/12 - 'call me saturday... I may be bomb­ing an office building'

 In today's selection -- by 1970, despair and anger about the Vietnam War was resulting in protest bombings throughout the U.S., twenty a week in California alone. The targets were often major corporate headquarters. In the middle of it all, the famed Weathermen accidentally detonated a bomb in their own quarters killing three of their own:

"[In 1970], the country felt like it was exploding, often liter­ally. Despite a rash of nonviolent protests that included the October Mora­torium in Washington, the pro-peace movement's growing frustration over Vietnam was turning into a depression. That depression was turning into anger and desperation, and the desperation was turning to destruction.

"The exact number of bombs set off by a variety of radical offshoots depended on the source. CBS News placed the nationwide tally between January 1969 and the spring of 1970 at 4,330, about twenty a week in California alone. The U.S. Treasury estimated forty a week. In Manhat­tan, between August and October 1969, explosive devices had gone off in three buildings on Wall Street and in Macy's, followed by bombs at the Chase Manhattan Bank, the RCA Building, and General Motors in No­vember. A letter sent by the bombers to UPI stated their motives: The enemy was the 'giant corporations ... Spiro Agnew may be a household word, but [the public] has rarely seen men like David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan, James Roche of General Motors and Michael Haider of Standard Oil, who run the system behind the scenes.' Eventually im­plicated were employees of the Rat, an underground newspaper, and a man Time described as a 'health faddist.' In February 1970, the detona­tions in the New York area continued -- at a GE center in Queens and outside the home of State Supreme Court justice John Murtagh, who presided at a pretrial hearing involving Black Panthers accused of trying to blow up public spaces.

"Obtaining the materials to make a bomb was, one network news re­port said, 'ridiculously simple.' Dynamite came from anywhere, swiped from construction sites or military bases or, in some cases, purchased over the counter. (Where did those seven thousand dynamite blasting caps swiped from a Maryland plant in March go, exactly?) The laws for selling dynamite varied from state to state. In Oregon, all anyone needed was a name, address, and license-plate number. Other states required a blasting permit, making the process more difficult. 'The underground promises more bombings,' said one CBS reporter, 'and it is clear that ex­isting controls are totally inadequate to stop them.' Working on the script for his second film, Bananas, that spring -- it would begin filming in May -- Woody Allen acknowledged the prosaic ordinariness of the ex­plosions. When his character asks out a New York leftie played by Allen's ex-wife Louise Lasser, she replies, 'Call me Saturday... I may be bomb­ing an office building, but I'll know later.'

"In New York City, the relative ease with which explosives could be obtained and detonated by anyone determined or crazy enough to do it was slammed home at noon on Friday, March 6. One moment, 18 West 11th Street was a ten-room brownstone that dated back to the 1840s. The next moment it was a roof and a stairwell, a massive, gaping, flame-spewing hole in between. After neighbors and nearby drivers heard a massive explosion, the roof collapsed, along with all four floors; the two-foot-thick walls were scarred with holes that ascended twenty feet. The first to scurry from the building were rats, along with a few cats, fol­lowed by two girls -- one nude, another just wearing a T-shirt -- who were discovered by rescue workers and led to a building across the street. Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, at 16 West 11th, joined the gawkers on the street. Clutching a Tiffany lamp and several paintings he'd taken with him, he noticed that his desk, which shared a wall with num­ber 18, had fallen through the wall and into the burning rubble.

"When police and firemen began sifting through the wreckage of the explosion, they found the body of one man beneath the debris, followed by an even grislier discovery. A large power shovel cleaning debris out of the basement scooped up a body with two missing hands, one leg, and a mangled head, nails jutting out of the torso's flesh. At first, the fire de­partment assumed a gas leak caused the blast, but when an intact gas fur­nace was unearthed in the basement rubble on Monday morning, suspicions that bombs were involved were confirmed. The dead turned out to be three members of the radical group the Weathermen. One of them, Terry Robbins, had accidentally set off the bombs as he was assem­bling them. (The other dead were Theodore Gold and Diana Oughton, while Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson, whose father owned the build­ing, escaped, at least for a while; they were the two young women seen fleeing.) Along with body parts, police discovered sixty sticks of unexploded dynamite, caps to set them off, primitive nail bombs, and a map of the tunnels beneath Columbia University, one of the Weathermen's in­tended targets.

"Both the city and the country barely had time to digest what had hap­pened when, five days later, explosions detonated in three office build­ings in midtown Manhattan, in roughly the same area -- 42nd Street between Lexington and Third; Park Avenue and 55th; and Third Avenue at 46th. The targets were Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone and Elec­tronics, respectively. In each case, no one was hurt; police had been tipped to the pending explosions and their precise times by an anony­mous caller a half hour before. Streets were strewn with glass, elevators were deluged with water, and the buildings sustained structural damage. Over the next two days, six hundred bomb threats were called in to the city. On March 15, the Times reported, with no sense of sarcasm, that 'the number of bomb threats in the city declined sharply for the first time since Thursday.' An anonymous caller to the New York Police De­partment credited the Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone bombings to a previously unknown group called the Revolutionary Force 9."


David Browne


Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2011 by David Browne


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