Chapter 5: Life Interrupted
I enrolled at Cal the week before classes formally started, and we began football practice for the freshman team at that time. Even though I was really looking forward to it and excited about it, they had already given us big play books and I could tell the whole thing was going to be more like a job and a business. In high school you had to learn plays and you had to practice, but it wasn’t all so serious. There was a camaraderie about it and there was a particular social experience that went along with it in a school like Berkeley High at that time. It was also just fun. But I could already tell this was going to be a much different atmosphere. Nevertheless, both because I loved football and because it was sort of a thing I’d always dreamed of doing, I still wanted to play football for Cal.
“Uh Oh, That’s Not Good”...Hospitalized
But during that week I started feeling sick. I would be throwing up a lot. I noticed that while I hadn’t changed my diet or anything, I was gaining weight really quickly. Even though a lot of different things indicated that something was wrong, I thought that maybe I just had a little bit of the flu. But this persisted for that whole week, and I kept vomiting all the time. It’s one thing if you do that a couple of times in one day, or for a couple of days. But this went on all week. Every time I would do anything and exert myself, I’d feel alright for a little while, and then I’d feel terrible. Or I’d be hungry and eat food, but as soon as I ate I felt terrible. I was staying that semester with my parents, and finally I talked to them and said, “I really think I better go to the student clinic and see what’s wrong, whether I have a bad case of the flu or whatever.” So my dad drove me down to the student clinic, and I still remember the last words he said as I got out of the car and headed for the clinic: “Well, don’t let them keep you.”
So I went into the clinic, and I described my symptoms, and they gave me a urine test and some blood tests. Pretty soon they came back and said, “We have to admit you to the hospital. You’ve got kidney casts in your urine and you’ve got albumen, protein in your urine, and that means there’s something wrong with your kidney function.” So I was put in a room, and as I mentioned I had been inexplicably gaining weight, so they said, “Don’t give him anything to eat, but let him drink as much water as he wants.” They wanted to see what would happen—and between that afternoon and evening I gained five pounds, because my kidneys were basically shutting down and I was retaining all the water that I was drinking.
At this point my parents called a friend of theirs who was a doctor and asked him to go check and see what was happening. When they told him what the urine tests had showed, he said, “Uh oh, that’s not good,” and explained to them that it could mean there was a serious problem with my kidneys. I was in this room with three other people, and all of them were having visitors; they were all laughing and joking, and this doctor friend of my parents came in—and he didn’t have the best style—he just yelled at everybody in the room: “Be quiet, settle down, don’t you realize that this patient here,” pointing at me, “is very sick?” And that was the first time that I knew that I was very sick. I knew from what they said about the tests that something wasn’t right, and the fact that I was gaining this weight meant something. But this was news to me in a very bad way: “this patient is very sick.” Right after that, they moved me into a room by myself.
This all happened very quickly. The next day, the head of the medical staff at the student health clinic, who became my doctor—his name was Mort Meyer and he was a really great guy—came in and took over my case, because he recognized it was very serious and he told me, frankly, that I was very sick. And for a couple of months I was in the hospital, in a bad way, because my kidneys just completely shut down.
But it’s kind of funny. They were telling me I was very sick and, obviously, the way they were saying it meant they were serious. You could follow that logically and know that you might die. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t really think about dying. I just knew I was very sick and the question was how to get well, that was what was in my mind. My parents, I know, got the point that I was very sick, and the implications of that. After all, there were no transplants at that time. They could put you on dialysis—where they basically take your blood out and filter it and put it back into your body, because your kidneys are supposed to do that but they’re not functioning—and they almost did that with me. But you couldn’t stay on dialysis indefinitely, and dialysis then wasn’t even as good as it is now. I know that my parents understood right away the seriousness of the situation. Although my father was very affectionate and wasn’t one of these fathers who wouldn’t show emotions, he didn’t cry a lot in front of other people. And I was told by my mother and my younger sister, later on, that he went into a closet and just wept, because he understood what this meant.
To save my life, I became kind of like a test tube. They would come in every morning and take a bunch of blood tests to see what the chemicals in my blood were. Since my kidneys weren’t functioning, I wasn’t allowed to eat anything for about a month. I could drink around five hundred milliliters of water and an additional amount of water equal to whatever I was able to urinate for the day—which was often very, very little, because it’s your kidneys that release the urine. So all this uremic poisoning was backing up in my body, because I couldn’t urinate—the doctor used to come in, look at my eyes and see that I had uremic poisoning in my eyes.
They would come in the morning and take these tests, and if my potassium were too low they would give me potassium during the day, in pills; and if my potassium were too high, they would give me something to counter-balance that. So I felt as if I were a test tube and they were chemically adjusting what was going on in my body to keep me alive, especially during the acute phase, which lasted more than a month. That’s why I couldn’t eat anything, because they didn’t want anything to complicate things further—every time you eat, it affects the chemical balance of everything in your body.
Even when I wasn’t eating, I used to vomit three or four times a day. Vomiting became a function like blowing your nose. It was unpleasant, but I got so used to it that when people would visit me and I got nauseous, I’d say, “Could you excuse me for a second? I have to vomit.” Despite that, one thing that was hard was that I’d get very hungry every day. There was a guy across the hall from me who had hepatitis. And, because that weakens the body, they had him on a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet. He would describe to me how he had two or three milkshakes a day, and I would get really jealous. You know, in the hospital, one of the things people look forward to, if they’re not too sick, is meal time—it breaks up the monotony and you get something to eat. I used to lie there and listen to the dishes clinking on the trays, but I could never eat. I was hungry, but if I had eaten I would have felt even worse. I can still remember when, finally, they let me have something to eat—it was a peach. I remember how grateful I was, and how I profusely thanked the orderly in the hospital who went out and got that peach and gave it to me with some fanfare.
Of course, there were a lot of ways in which this whole thing was very difficult. The treatment wasn’t as bad as the sickness, but sometimes you kind of wondered, because they’d have to get potassium in me by one means or another. So one time they gave me these great big horse capsules that were full of potassium, and I’d have to take something like fifteen of them at a time. I’d take so many and then I’d throw them up, so then I’d have to take them again. Or they’d give me this potassium in liquid form. One day after I’d passed the most acute stage of this, they brought in this glass of orange juice, and they said here’s some orange juice with just a little bit of medicine in it. I said okay and I started drinking. I took one swig, and I can’t even describe the taste, it just made my body shiver, it was such an awful taste. I went, “Yucch, what is that?” “That’s potassium, but there’s only a teaspoon in there.” I said, “I don’t care—please, the next time you bring me potassium, bring me the potassium separately, and then give me the orange juice on the side—I’ll take the potassium down and then I’ll have the orange juice to wash away the taste.” Since then I’ve used this as a metaphor sometimes—the one teaspoon of potassium that ruins a whole glass of orange juice.
But that was not as bad as what I had to go through earlier, when I couldn’t orally take in the potassium because I’d throw it up. Then they decided that the only way they could keep it in me was to give it to me by enema. So I’d have to have an eight-hour drip of potassium coming in by that means. It didn’t hurt, but there was a pressure build-up, the way it is with IV drips. If a nurse doesn’t come around to check it every so often, then the drip will start going a little faster. The nurses can get very busy and preoccupied with something else, and it starts going faster and faster—and the more it goes, the more the pressure builds up. One time I was something like seven hours and forty-five minutes into the eight-hour potassium enema: the pressure is building more and more, and I’m furiously pushing on the buzzer to get the nurses to come and turn it down, but before they could get there everything just came back out! And I had to start it all over again. These are the kinds of things you had to put up with in order to overcome this disease, especially in its acute phase.
All this was very difficult psychologically as well as physically. For example, one of the ways that my parents knew I was really sick, and even I recognized it, was one Saturday they were visiting me and there was a Cal football game on the radio, and my dad said to me, “Do you want me to put the football game on?” I was lying in bed and I could barely work up the energy to answer, “No, I’m too tired, I don’t feel up to listening to it.” And they knew that if I were too sick to even feel up to listening to a football game, then it was very serious.
There was also a time when a doctor other than Dr. Meyer was on rounds at the hospital, and he came in to check on me. He asked, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Not very good.” So we started talking, and then I told him: “Here’s what bothers me. Sometimes when I stand up, like to go to the bathroom or something, if I feel up to that, pretty soon I feel weak and bad, but then if that’s the case I can sit down; and then when I’m sitting down and I feel really bad and really weak, I can lie down; but what about the times when I’m lying down and I feel really weak and really bad—what do I do then?” And the doctor looked at me and said, “Just try to rest.” It only dawned on me later that clearly I was very close to dying—that was really what my question reflected—and the doctor, of course, knew it, but what could he say?
I never had the attitude that “I’m dying, I’m just gonna let go.” I had the attitude: “I’m sick, I’m gonna get over this.” I would always ask the doctor, “When am I gonna be well, when am I gonna be over this?” Because I was young, and even though this hit me completely out of the blue and really knocked me down, I felt like “I’m going to overcome this, I’m going to conquer this, I’m going to get back on my feet, I’m going to do what I did before.” But, of course, it is very difficult when you feel the way a lot of youth do—invulnerable and optimistic and enthusiastic and very confident about life—and all of a sudden everything’s knocked out from underneath you, you’re just barely hanging on to life, and you feel completely vulnerable in a way you never did before.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: World in the Balance
During the acute period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, those events, and their implications, loomed much larger, even in my own mind, than my own situation of being sick. Everybody sensed to one degree or another—certainly anybody who was paying any attention, and most people were, they couldn’t help it—that the world could literally end at any time. I still remember feeling very, very deeply, right down into my bones, that the whole world could come to an end. At that time, I was back on a restricted schedule in school, but I followed this whole thing very intensely.
Of course, they always give you only the U.S. imperialist side of the picture, and that’s what people get drummed into them. I remember this dramatic incident that they still like to replay from time to time, when Adlai Stevenson, who was the U.S. representative to the United Nations, gave this speech where he showed these photos of the Soviet missiles that had been brought into Cuba. And then he turned to the Soviet ambassador and said, “Are those or are those not Soviet missiles in Cuba? I can wait here till hell freezes over, Mr. Ambassador.” The Soviet ambassador wouldn’t answer, and Stevenson just kept saying, “Are they or aren’t they, Mr. Ambassador”—on and on like that, putting him on the spot. But they never show how a year before that, at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, Adlai Stevenson got up and vehemently denied in the United Nations that the U.S. had anything to do with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba—which, of course, was a blatant lie. So they like to show the one thing on TV as a highlight from history, but not the other thing where Stevenson was overtly lying in front of the whole world.
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy put a naval blockade around Cuba, and said that if any Soviet ship tried to break that blockade that would be an act of war, and the U.S. would respond. Kennedy tried to justify this—and I remember this very clearly—by claiming that the Soviet Union had violated the UN Charter by putting missiles in Cuba. Now even though I had a lot of suspicions about the government already at that time, and even though I was very angry about a lot of injustices in American society, and especially the oppression of Black people, I still wanted to believe in my government. I still wanted to believe the government could at least be brought around to doing the right thing. And I didn’t want to believe that on something where literally the fate of the world was involved, they would just openly lie to everybody. But I felt strongly, with the fate of the world up for grabs and hanging by a thread, that “I have to know the truth here.”
So I went to the university library and I dug out the UN Charter, remembering that Kennedy said it was a violation of the UN Charter for the Soviet Union to have missiles in Cuba. I read the whole charter through, and I naively expected I would find a statement in the Charter that would say, “It is a violation of this Charter for the Soviet Union to have missiles in Cuba.” Of course, I didn’t find anything of the kind. So then I started looking into it further: “Well, does it say it’s a violation for one country to put missiles into another country?” Of course, there wasn’t anything like that in the Charter either and, as I later found out, the U.S. had missiles all over the place, including in Turkey, and even though the ones in Turkey were older generation missiles, they were still missiles that could set off nuclear devices. These missiles in Turkey were closer to the Soviet border than Cuba was to the U.S. border, but they weren’t talking about that either in the U.S. media. I kept looking for anything in this UN Charter that would justify what Kennedy was saying about how this was a violation of the Charter. I read that Charter over and over, and I couldn’t find anything.
Kennedy was just lying. He was really saying, “We can do whatever we want, and nobody can do anything we don’t want ’em to do.” That was the logic he was using then, and that’s the logic that, right up to Bush, they use now. Some of my favorite lines from Bob Dylan are in the song where he talks about trying to get in a nuclear fallout shelter and the owner says, “Get out of here, I’ll tear you limb from limb.” Then the next lines are: “I said, ‘You know, they refused Jesus too.’ He said: ‘You’re not him.’” The way of thinking, or not thinking, that Dylan captured there—the inability or unwillingness to engage in abstract thought, and to abstract from one situation to another, the refusal to be consistent in applying a principle (what applies to you doesn’t apply to me; I can do what I want, and you can’t do it if I don’t want you to)—that same sort of “you’re not him,” or “you’re not me,” logic was being applied by Kennedy. And this was a big shock to me. I knew some things about injustices in American society, but lying on this level, lying before the world with the fate of the world literally at stake, was more than I expected. It may have been unusual to actually go and pore through the UN Charter, but there was so much at stake that I felt like, “I have to know the truth, and just because it’s the leader of my country, I can’t accept what he says when something this big is at stake.”
Of course, this didn’t immediately cause me to become a communist—I was still against communism, as much as I understood it, which was very little. But it shook me up a lot and kept circulating in my mind as other events, like Vietnam a little later, unfolded. The Cuban missile crisis and things like the fair housing struggle contributed to my feeling that there were important things in the world and I should do something about those things, I should do something important with my life when I got my life back. I still had the passion that I had for sports and things like that, but that was something you do for entertainment and fun—I mean your life could be about that, and I always thought that if I hadn’t ended up being a communist, maybe I would have been a high school basketball coach—but I was feeling that my life should be about something more than sports, as much as I still had real passion about that. I felt that there were so many big things going on in the world, I wanted to do something with my life that would mean something or, to use the phrase of the time, be relevant and not just be a personal passion for me.