In November 1933, the Georgia Bulldogs, one of the top college football teams in the country, traveled to Connecticut to play their bitter rival Yale. It was during a terrible Depression, and in those days few fans traveled far to see their favorite college teams anyway, so there were almost no Georgians in the crowd that saw them beat the Elis 7-0.
But Georgia had fans, of a sort. Many of the residents of New Haven resented the Ivy Leaguers in their midst; a lot of them had packed into the stadium hoping to see Yale lose. As the final seconds ticked away, some of these townies swarmed the field and began to tear down the goalposts.
This was more than the students could tolerate. That these "unwashed peoples"--a phrase students commonly used to describe the townspeople--with their "irrational hatred" of all things Yale--should presume to mock their betters (and destroy private property) was enough to send the Yale students onto the field to reclaim the goalposts.
David Dellinger was a budding track star at Yale; an Olympic hopeful. Like most of his classmates, he was from a privileged background. His father was a prominent Republican attorney, a friend of Calvin Coolidge. As a boy, Dave had spent a night in the White House.
But unlike most of them, he had empathy for the townies. During the game, he'd confronted classmates jeering at them in the cheap end-zone seats. He followed his friends onto the field but saw himself as a non-combatant observer.
To the townies, he looked like a Yalie. He got blindsided. Stunned, he chased after the man he thought most likely had hit him, and threw a wild punch that connected. The townie "slumped to the pavement, out cold."
"I shall never forget the horror I felt the instant my fist struck solid flesh," Dellinger wrote years later. "It was the exact opposite of what Robert Frost speaks of as hearing 'the clean sound of the axe striking good wood.'"
Maybe it is too much to say that Dellinger was changed in that instant, though that's how they'd have it in a movie. Dellinger said it was the moment he decided to never strike another human being. Feeling sick, he dropped to the ground and cradled the townie's head. When the man came to, he walked him home "to be sure he was all right and to convey more meaningfully my shame, sadness and love."
I am not Dellinger. In my last fist fight, I did not stop after one punch. In its aftermath, I felt no love for the man who had wanted my wallet. But the shame and sadness were overpowering. Were I a method actor who needed to cry on cue, I could just remember that night.
I only know of Dellinger because I was a weird kid; when I was in eighth grade I somehow acquired a paperback copy of a book called "The Tales of Hoffman: From the Trial of the Chicago 7," which consisted of parts of the federal trial of a disparate group of radicals who were charged with conspiring to incite riots around the 1968 U.S. Democratic Party convention. (The one where Hubert Humphrey
won the nomination after President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race.)
The defendants were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, co-founders of the Yippies (Youth International Party), Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee, Tom Hayden, founder of Students For A Democratic Society, students John Froines and Lee Weiner, and Dellinger, a peace activist who was 20 years older than the rest. A journalist, noting Dellinger's professorial tweed jackets and corduroy trousers, wrote that he looked like "an off-duty scoutmaster."
I was fascinated by this book--with 32 pages' worth of courtroom sketches--and the comic banter between Abbie Hoffman and his namesake nemesis Judge Julius Hoffman. I remember being horrified by the drawing of Seale (whose case was eventually severed from the others, leaving the Chicago 7 rather than 8) tied to his chair with a rag in his mouth. (Referenced in the Graham Nash song "Chicago": Though your brother's bound and gagged/And they've chained him to a chair/ Won't you please come to Chicago/Just to sing.
The book didn't radicalize me; I grew up on airbases, sir and ma'aming everyone, and for a while entertained the idea of going to a service academy. But it demonstrated how heavy-handed and vindictive our government could be. Defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass (whose name the judge could never get straight) seemed to my young self idealistic and necessary people. The Chicago 7 were the first criminal defendants for whom I felt authentic outrage.
Over the years, I became disillusioned with most of the figures involved in the trial. But the more I learned about Dellinger, the more impressive he became. He drove an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, and though as a seminary student he was eligible for deferment when the conscription was instituted in America in 1940, refused to register. This bought him a year in prison, where he protested the segregated seating arrangements in in the dining hall. They put him in solitary confinement for that, where he realized "how little it matters what anyone does to you."
After Pearl Harbor, he was drafted. "All I had to do was register [as a conscientious objector]," he wrote. "But I saw the draft both as a coercive militaristic intrusion into the lives of the country's young males and as a calculated preparation for U.S. entry into a war that I didn't believe in."
So he spent another two years in prison.
Later he would organize the 1967 protest march that encircled the Pentagon, an event Norman Mailer wrote about in "Armies Of The Night." He traveled to China and North Vietnam, securing the release of a few American POWs Before he died in 2004, he'd racked up more than 50 arrests for protesting peacefully.
If you read "Tales of Hoffman" or watch the new Aaron Sorkin movie about the Chicago 7, Dellinger (played by John Carroll Lynch) comes off as a supporting character. He was not the most theatrical or charismatic man.
But he was possessed of genuine moral courage. He was around the radical left for nearly 70 years, but rejected communism because it lacked "spiritual dimension." He was a Christian. He was a persistent pacifist.
He understood the shame, sadness and love that lie just beneath our conventional defenses.