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By Jody Forrester
Odyssey Books, September 2020
During the late Seventies, after the war in Vietnam had ended, a television reporter interviewed an Army veteran who had come home to run a business. The veteran sat behind a desk answering questions about his time in combat, laughing off any suggestion that it might have affected him. After the interview, the reporter pointed to a notebook on the desk, a journal the veteran had kept during his tour of duty, and asked him to read from it. The veteran opened the journal to a random page. As he began to read out loud, he lost his composure and broke down in tears.
Anyone who protested the Vietnam war will appreciate the candor of Jody Forrester’s memoir. Whether you were arrested at a demonstration, burned your draft card or stood silently at a campus vigil, her story will evoke the spirit of those actions. Like the veteran caught off guard by his repressed memories, some readers may react emotionally to Forrester’s story of estrangement from a disapproving family, and from fellow radicals who questioned her loyalty to their cause. The lack of acceptance, and the perceived absence of love, will sound familiar to those of us who lived as political outsiders.
Her search for acceptance began early: “When I was in the third grade, I wanted to be Mexican.” In the Fifties, white girls growing up in southern California might not have wished for this, but she lived in Venice, a diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles where the close-knit Mexican families barbequing in the parks must have seemed happier than her own.
A combative relationship with her older sister created tension that grew worse after her mother took the girls, aged 4 and 6, to a child psychologist. When the doctor slapped Forrester in the face, she slapped the doctor back, the first in a series of rebellious acts that extended into adolescence. Shoplifting at local stores, exploring street life on Sunset Strip, smoking a joint most mornings before class – she grew apart from her family. In 1967, when LBJ visited Los Angeles, she was among the demonstrators detained by the police, an incident that enraged her father.
After graduating from high school, Forrester moved into a Hollywood apartment with a girlfriend. She survived a “summer of drugs”: dropping acid at least twice a week, doing daily bong hits, even shooting up heroin on two occasions.
This happened during the late Sixties, a dangerous time for young people who had grown disillusioned with their surroundings. As a war halfway around the world disrupted life in the States, risky behavior provided escape from that disruption. Forrester’s memoir reads like a diary, recording her attempts to fit into society wherever she could, even as she drifted away from it.
In the fall of 1969, she matriculated at San Jose State University, where she met Joe, a campus activist, and joined the Revolutionary Union (RU), a regional Communist organization. Embarking on a three-year relationship, she left her dorm to move in with him, noting that “he brought two rifles to stow under our bed.”
Guns Under the Bed begins with a flash-forward to the night when Forrester and several others waited with those guns at the ready, thinking that an unfamiliar car parked across the street belonged to government agents who were about to raid the house. That proved to be a false alarm, but her deadpan tone rings true, echoing the attitude of many who believed that armed resistance was the answer.
Like the veteran who recounted his combat experience, Forrester documents the political casualties of that time: the four students murdered at Kent State; the three members of the Weather Underground, a violent faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who died in a Greenwich Village townhouse when their homemade bomb blew up. Though she narrates these events in a reportorial voice, the memories may move some readers to tears.
In 1970, during Nixon’s visit to San Jose, she got close enough to his limousine to pound on the window with a piece of concrete. Her description of his startled expression provides a moment of humor. Around the same time, while demonstrating on behalf of the United Farm Workers, she spent a night in jail with a group of Mexican women who accepted her as one of their own.
After a falling out with Joe and the rest of her ideological family, Forrester quit the RU and took a job fabricating microchips in what would later become known as Silicon Valley. She tried to fit in, but her radical past caught up with her. The FBI contacted her employer, who had no choice but to fire her.
Eventually, she moved to Vancouver, where she worked at a government-sponsored recreation center until its funding expired. She then went further north, into the Canadian bush to plant trees, her arrival at camp serving as prelude to the punishing labor that eventually forced her to leave:
“A muted palette of colors heralded the April dawn as the bus lumbered over a narrow river bloated with rainwater and ice-melt.”
This reminded me of the Vietnam veteran’s journal, the words that broke him down on camera. I’ve never been able to find the video, but his line went something like this:
“Under a mustard-colored sky, our chopper landed in the jungle and we jumped out into the elephant grass.”
These two passages convey the sorrow that many of us experienced during the late Sixties. Our political heroes were jailed or assassinated. The draft boards drove some of us underground, or across the border to Canada, while others fought a war in the streets. If we left those streets to escape the violence, It was never far behind.
Reading Guns Under the Bed evoked personal memories. In the spring of 1968, I participated in the student takeover of Columbia led by my friend and classmate Mark Rudd. As a member of SDS, I knew one of the Weather Underground members killed in the Village townhouse explosion. When I heard about this book, I assumed that Forrester’s experience could not have had the same urgency, the same sense of imminent danger, as mine. Reading her account of those times, unembellished with any declaration of self-importance, I realized that her search for truth and acceptance resembled my own, that her story went straight to the heart of the struggle we had in common.
She closes her memoir with a description of how she finished writing it, sorting through the records of her years in the Revolutionary Union. Before recycling the box in which her papers had been stored, she shook it out in back of her house, “launching the debris to the ocean breeze.” The reader shares her relief at closing the book on her past.
Copyright 2021 Woody Lewis
Woody Lewis is a Social Media Strategist and Web Architect. He holds a B.A. in music and an M.B.A. in finance from Columbia University, and an M.F.A. in writing and literature from Bennington College. His blog covers social media strategy for newspapers.