Lexington, Kentucky, 1970's
By Edward Ordman January 29,2010
(A draft chapter for possible inclusion in a book “Other Places, Other
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“Oh,” she said,
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.
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.
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
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.