Other Places,
Other Times.

Lexington, Kentucky, 1970's     

By Edward Ordman        January 29,2010
(A draft chapter for possible inclusion in a book “Other Places, Other Times”)

    My first teaching job after my Ph.D. was at the University of Kentucky in the Department of Mathematics, I arrived in August of 1969.  Three of the memorable events of that few years that changed my outlook on life are worth retelling here:

1. The race problem, 1970's.

2. Is it still paranoia, if they really are out to get you?

3. The wheels of justice receive a slight realignment.

1.       The race problem, 1970's.

            I’d thought of myself as a pro-integration activist in the mid-1960's, as a college student, signing petitions, writing letters, gathering contributions to help the Freedom Riders, occasionally picketing and marching.  Like many others, I didn’t realize how much of the problem still survived in the mid 1970's.
            In the Fall of 1974, my first wife Hinda and I had just returned from a semester in Australia, where I had been doing research on an NSF grant and doing some teaching.  Our very old car, passed on to me by my uncle when it got too old for him, was on its last legs. Hinda was pregnant. It was time for a new car.
            I’d been denied tenure the previous year in Mathematics. The department’s enrollment was sinking rapidly, and everyone coming up for tenure that year was let go as the department grew smaller.  I wanted to move from teaching mathematics to teaching computer science, so I’d taken a job as computer jockey in the College of Business.  For that one year I had a very imposing looking office in the Dean’s suite, although not an imposing salary. I consulted with the University Credit Union as to how much I could borrow for a car loan, and my wife and I went car shopping.
            We purchased a new Pontiac, my first and last experience buying a new car.  We bought it from Charlie Sturgill Pontiac, a long-established dealership very near the campus.  A few days later, we noticed an oil or grease puddle under the car. We took it back to the dealer, who reported they could find nothing wrong.  We took it home, found one of the few very clean parking spaces in our apartment parking lot, and left it overnight. There was a greasy puddle under the universal gear, the large gearbox where the drive shaft meets the middle of the axle on a car powered through the rear wheels.  We took it back to the dealer, and a day later they said the problem was fixed. We took it home, and it still leaked. We laid newspapers under it to show the dealer. 
             After the next dealer fix failed, we started calling repair numbers in the car’s instruction book, reaching someone in Pontiac, Michigan, who said they would send a “Zone Representative” to look at the car and talk to the dealer if necessary.  The Zone Representative, when he arrived, was Black, which didn’t strike me as having any significance. We went and had lunch together in a nearby restaurant, and after the meal he could see the puddle under the car. I suggested he take the car to a different dealership, but the nearest other dealership was perhaps thirty miles away and he felt that this dealership needed to be taught how to fix the problem. So we took it back to the dealership and he said he would have a talk with them.
             When I went back to pick up the car the next day, it had a dent in the door.  I demanded to talk to the head of the dealership.  That man practically screamed at me for bringing a “Nigger” into his place of business.  Under no circumstances, he said, would he allow any of his employees to take instructions from a “Nigger.”
         Needless to say, the universal gear still leaked. I phoned the Zone Representative and reported the conversation. “I’ll call you back tomorrow,” he said.
         He didn’t. Two days later I called the office in Michigan and asked for his extension. That extension, the company operator told me, had been disconnected.  I asked for him by name; no such name was in the directory. I asked for the Zone Representative for my zone and was connected with someone. No, they had never heard of the man who I had talked to previously.  They could come look at my oil leak, but would have no way to know how a dent had appeared in my door.
          I started calling attorneys around the city. Several told me that Charlie Sturgill Pontiac was a long established business, that local juries would not be sympathetic to a case involving a racial element, and that since I was a very young man with a very large beard no one would believe me anyway. It wasn’t worth their while, they said, to take such a case.
          Somehow it didn’t occur to me to call a reference librarian, but I did have a stockbroker - I was in the very early stages of figuring out how to develop some retirement savings. I called my stockbroker and asked for the name and address to write to the Chairman of the Board of General Motors Corporation. The broker took the time to explain to me the concept of “inside” and “outside” directors - that the Chairman was a General Motors full-time employee, but there were also directors who were not - and he suggested I write to an outside director as well as to the Chairman, and emphasize the racial aspect of the problem.
           A couple of weeks later, an older and distinguished-looking gentleman appeared in my impressive-looking office at the University. He introduced himself as an officer of Pontiac Division of General Motors, who had come from Michigan to talk with me. I recounted the story. No, he could not talk about what had happened to the prior Zone Representative. No, he had very little control over Charlie Sturgill Pontiac. Individual franchises were privately owned and had a great deal of operational independence.  Would I consider simply having him give me my money back, and him taking the car?  There were, after all, other General Motors franchisees in Lexington.
           I told him that I was unlikely to buy another General Motors car until I got a letter from General Motors saying that Charlie Sturgill Pontiac was no longer a GM franchisee, or that there had been a substantial change in management. I wanted to know what had become of the Zone Representative. He said he understood, but offered no information.
           Shortly thereafter, my marriage went on the rocks. My wife, who would be my ex-wife after the six-month waiting period expired, wound up with the new car, and when our very old used car finally expired I got another old used car.  In the following decades, I’ve never bought another new car. While Charlie Sturgill Pontiac no longer exists, I never got a letter from General Motors so advising me, and I’ve never bought another General Motors car.

2.       Is it still paranoia, even if they really are out to get you?

            I think I’ve heard that phrase, or something like it, many times. I’m quite sure it has been the caption on a cartoon in The New Yorker.  I’ve only seen it happen explicitly, with an actual clinical diagnosis, once.  I was friendly with an undergraduate student living in the dorms at the University of Kentucky, where I was teaching, when she started reporting the symptoms. I’ll call her Mandy. She felt she was being followed.  Clothes in her dresser seemed to be subtly rearranged. There were sometimes odd clicks on the telephone in the dorm.  Over a few weeks, the symptoms seemed to get worse.  Mandy laid a hair over her desk drawer and when she came back from class, it had disappeared.  But she couldn’t find anything that was real evidence. Her roommate reported nothing. The dorm Resident Assistant said she hadn’t seen anything strange.
           Mandy spoke with the Episcopal Chaplain, who suggested she talk with the Student Health Service. They listened, and sent her to a psychiatrist.  He discussed the problem with her, agreed that she was finding her own perceptions unreliable and that what she was perceiving was making her fearful enough to interfere with her schoolwork. He suggested that she check into the psychiatric ward of the University Hospital for two weeks for observation.
           After two weeks in the hospital, Mandy was released. Within the hospital, she was told, her perceptions were accurate: she wasn’t reporting things that didn’t happen, she didn’t have inappropriate feelings of being followed. Of course she was being observed, but she knew that, that was what she was there for. She was ready to return to campus and see how things went.
           When she got back to her dorm room, it was a disaster scene. Drawers had been dumped out, closets and desks emptied, both her clothing and that of her roommate was all over the floor. Almost ready to scream, she sought out the Resident Assistant.
           Oh, you don’t know, said the RA. You were out of town and we didn’t know how to reach you. A few days after you went away, your roommate was arrested for selling drugs.
           Mandy soon learned the rest of the story. One of the “students” down the corridor had been an undercover policewoman.  The police had been sure that illegal drugs were being sold on the corridor, but hadn’t known who was doing it.  By a week or two before Mandy “went away”, they were sure they were being sold from her room, but didn’t know whether she or her roommate was doing the selling.  It was her departure from the scene that allowed them to gather evidence against the roommate; it had been very convenient that she had gone away for two weeks when she did.
           The polite fiction “out of town for a family emergency” produced the odd consequence that she had spent the full two weeks in the hospital, quite unnecessarily.
           Yes, Virginia, you can be diagnosed with paranoia, even when they really are out to get you.

3.    The wheels of justice receive a slight realignment.

           The late 1960's and early 1970's were the peak of the movement against the Vietnam War on college campuses.  Among the events following the Kent State shootings were several weeks of anti-war demonstrations in Lexington, Kentucky. The Governor  of Kentucky sent in the National Guard.  On May 5, 1970, a fire destroyed the old wooden Air Force ROTC building at the University of Kentucky. While the demonstrations eventually calmed down, there was nervousness about such things for several years thereafter.
           A few years later, a bizarre sequence of events occurred. I can recount it because I sat through the entire courtroom trial, one of several trials I’ve been unable to resist attending.
           A university student, I’ll call him Fred since I forget his name, was seeking conscientious objector status. He said he had moral objections to war and would be willing to work in a hospital, but not serve in the army. Draft boards throughout the country were often reluctant to grant such claims, and he regularly wrote to the draft board, sent them news clippings and poems about the evils of war, or went by the office to hand anti-war materials to the secretary there who had actually become rather friendly with him over time.
           Then, one day, Fred was in a junkyard and found some bomb parts. He found a defective and broken external casing from an antipersonnel bomb, one designed to break into many small shards of metal to injure as many people as possible.  He bought it, reassembled the casing with masking tape, and wrote a letter saying what it was.  The letter explained he’d gotten it in a junkyard, it had nothing inside the casing, but that he wanted the draft board to see this evil device and perhaps it would help them realize how morally objectionable the war in Vietnam was. He requested that it be put in his file, in support of his claim as a conscientious objector. 
         Fred packaged the bomb casing in a cardboard box and mailed it to the draft board, certified mail, return receipt requested, with the letter explaining it in an envelope pasted to the outside of the package, labeled “Read this before opening the box.”
          The secretary read the letter, opened the box, examined the contents, and went to put it in the file drawer. Unfortunately, it was slightly too wide to fit in the drawer.  She called the state headquarters of Selective Service to find out what to do. As she testified in court, she explained to the woman at the state office, “Someone has sent me something to put in their file, and it won’t fit in the file drawer. What am I supposed to do?’ 
             The woman asked, “What is it?”
             “Oh, it’s a bomb.”
             “Put it down. Don’t touch it. Get out of the office!”  And she hung up.
             Before the secretary could call back, the woman in the state office had hit the panic button. Her first call was to the Army. In less than half an hour, two helicopters carrying an army anti-bomb squad were landing in the main street of Lexington, Kentucky, outside the draft board offices. The block was evacuated, the “device” carefully removed, and the headlines in the newspaper, starting with “Bomb Sent to Draft Board,” continued for days.
             Clearly, the county prosecutor felt, he had to do something. He hadn’t found anyone to charge with setting the ROTC building fire, but now he had one of those anti-war trouble makers clearly identified. He had to charge Fred with something. But what?  He asked if the federal authorities would charge Fred with sending a bomb through the mail. No, said the Post Office and federal prosecutor. All he had sent through the mail was some pieces of metal, properly packaged and labeled, containing no explosive device.
           Kentucky is what is called a “common law” state. It is possible to charge someone with violating the “common law,” under the precedents in force for centuries in England, without pointing to any specific law on the books.  The prosecutor charged Fred with “common law assault.”  As the judge explained to the jury, “assault and battery” is when you threaten someone and then attack them, for example by punching them.  This divides into “assault,” the act of threatening or scaring, and “battery”, the act of actually doing harm to someone. To convict of assault, he said, you don’t have to show someone was hurt, just that the defendant had scared someone.
          The problem debated during several days of the trial was, who was scared, and by whom?  The woman at the state draft board was scared, but she had completely misunderstood what the object to be placed in the file was.  Fred had never said or done anything to her.  The Army Bomb Squad leader testified.  He said, entirely believably, that they were scared whenever they went out on a job, that they were scared when they handled the ”device,”   that they were scared when they x-rayed it and still slightly scared when they took it to the “safe area” at Fort Knox and used another bomb to explode it.  Yes, he could tell it wasn’t an intact bomb as originally designed, but you had to be especially careful of devices that had been “tampered with.”  No, he said on cross examination, he’d never met Fred or received any message from him.
         Fred’s only contact, for the case at hand, had been with the secretary in the local draft board.  I’ll call her Susan.  By now everyone wondered, had Susan been scared?  She had testified before as to the receipt of the box and the first phone call, but she was now called by the defense rather than the prosecutor. She went on the stand again.  No. She said, she wasn’t scared of the package she got in the mail. The letter explained it well.  She had known Fred for a couple of years, he’d been in the office regularly, his name and address were in his handwriting on the outside of the package, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. 
          On cross examination, the prosecutor pointed out that even the army bomb squad was scared, they didn’t know what was inside that bomb; wasn’t she at least a little bit scared?  Couldn’t something dangerous have been inside there?  Didn’t she remember that fire in the ROTC building? Didn’t working in the draft board office seem dangerous? He took a very long time, but eventually he got a statement from her that maybe she should have been just “a little bit” scared.
           On redirect, the defense attorney had only one question.  When had she been more scared - when the package had arrived in the mail and she was dealing with it, or when she was being cross examined by the prosecutor?
          “Oh,” she said, “the prosecutor.”
          In the closing statements, the defense attorney pointed out that there was obviously no assault intended or committed upon the secretary. He asked for the charge to be thrown out; the judge said having listened to several days of trial, the jury deserved to be able to decide.
          The prosecutor stressed the great damage done by the defendant. The number of people that were scared. How much it had cost to send the army bomb squad by helicopter. The disruption of Main Street traffic. This was a chance for the jury to show the students that they could not go on disrupting the life of the city. I can’t recall if any of these statements were thrown out after objections, but arguably once a statement is made the judge saying “ignore that” doesn’t really have much effect on a jury.
          The judge instructed the jury. They could find assault only if Fred had himself scared someone.  If B told C that A had said something, for example, and A had no reason to expect B to talk to C and no intent of scaring C, then A had not assaulted C.  In common law proceedings in Kentucky, he said, the jury could recommend the sentence. If they found the defendant guilty, they could recommend a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to ten thousand dollars. 
         The jury was out for a long time, at least a few hours. I can’t remember if we had to come back the next morning to hear the verdict.  They found Fred guilty of assault. They recommended a sentence of six months in jail and a fine of five thousand dollars. The prosecutor beamed. The judge winced. The judge said he would have a half-hour recess before proceeding.
          When he came back, the judge made a statement.  Common law, he said, was a difficult area.  Judges had fairly wide discretion in common law cases. The people did have a say in how judges acted, since judges in Kentucky are elected for limited terms, and judges hate to do things likely to make people vote against them. But that jury verdict smacked of compromise, and that is not how juries are supposed to work. He could understand sentiment against the defendant. The defendant had done a pretty stupid thing, but stupidity itself was not illegal.  The only issue in his mind was whether the defendant had scared the only person he had direct contact with, the draft board secretary. He did not see any way that reasonable men could reach the decision that he had intended to scare the secretary or that he had scared the secretary. The judge was going to discharge the jury and enter a directed verdict of innocent.  The state was, of course, free to appeal.
          The local newspaper reported the result without seriously denouncing the judge. I don’t think the prosecutor tried to appeal. I came away feeling that there might be hope for American justice, yet.