You Have to Tough Up

by Matt Olson


I was always getting whacked in the nose. I remember, and it's a fact, that when I was late-2 or early-3 years old, my same-aged pal hit me in the nose. Happened again before I was much on the road. Bobby Thompson had older brothers who beat the hell out of him, so he knew exactly how to set me down at age 4. The story about my cousin and the rake is in this site somewhere. In those early, early years, my dad was too busy to get involved or too distracted by trying to make a living. Maybe he felt these events were, more or less, the standard stuff of growing up.

Jump ahead to 1957. We moved lots when I was a kid. My dad was a U.S. Forest Ranger and went wherever he won a better job. Now was Gallup, New Mexico, and I was in first grade. I came home crying one day. A 3rd grade kid, Billy G., had socked me in the eye and choked me down. My dad tried to calm me, in his own hapless way, and we had a mostly pleasant evening. He went out for a few hours, and when he got back, he told me we would do something about "it" in the morning. I did not understand.

He roused me by 7 next morning-- in this case a Saturday. He had already been up for two hours. He took me out to our garage. We lived in a duplex apartment in Gallup, and we sort of had a one-car garage, but not quite. The semi-garage was now my designated gym. The car could be outside in the weather. Didn't matter. He had decided.

He had filled a double-layer gunny sack with sand. Sand. He rigged up a block-and-tackle arrangement to hoist this hundred pound-plus bag and lock it. This was to be my Heavy Bag. Night before, when he was out and about, he found a Speed Bag--- that hanging apparatus for rhythm and accuracy...tada ta tada ta tada ta ... yes? It was up on the wall, just the right height for a first grader. He had also fashioned a jump-rope--put genuine tape around the ends of a piece of rope. And that was about it. 

Here's the deal. When he went off to WWII, he took up boxing. He already had plenty of rage and plenty of fights in his pocket. While he was in the Army, he won two Lightweight titles on different military bases, and his bad attitude never improved. There was no way he would see me come come crying again. Training began.

I loved learning to work the Speed Bag. That was musical. Learning to jump-rope-- doing the quick skips and crossovers-- was a rush. The Heavy Bag was especially interesting, and both of my wrists and hands remember it today. Somehow, in his rush to tough me up, he never thought about gloves or--better-- wraps to protect my wrists and hands. So here's a first grade kid, hammering on a hundred-plus bag of sand--hands bleeding with nothing but frequent threats and infrequent encouragements from the coach. Wrists were preparing for an arthritic sensation and surgery in about 60 years. We sparred every day. He didn't throw many punches and let me hit good body shots. It was good training; and he taught me to hit hard. When I was 10 or 11, I stepped to him. He finally threw one for real. When I regained my senses, I waited for 5 more years before testing those waters again.

 I could punch, despite my small hands and my "mother's wrists." I knocked down Billy G. with one shot within weeks after training began, and I only had to do it twice before he understood. I beat up two 6th graders somehow mad after I jeopardized their uncle's job by setting the elementary school on fire. They were upset and wanted to fight. This time, I understood. I know it sounds bad, but it was a small fire, and Uncle Pete put it out by himself. 

 By age 11 or 12, I did not want to hit anybody, anymore, anytime. I was almost 5' 7"--about the same as now. It hurt to hit; it hurt to get hit. And other guys were starting through their growth spurts. I didn't know that mine was done, but I was tired of getting hit.  Last general schoolyard fight I had was with Henry Jackson, because he called me "Mertue" (or Myrtue). Every Navajo kid who lived in the BIA dorms in Holbrook, AZ, between 1962 and 1964 knows why Henry and I had to fight. Call me a fuckin’ Mertue. He should have known better. None of the rest of yours' business. And because of the whole deal, the whole deal, I was so ashamed. It wasn't cause I fought a Navajo kid. We fought all the time, cause they knew. At least they knew they could fight with me. The Mormons and other random kids had no clue and wouldn't dare mix it with the BIA dorm Indians. They helped me tough up for sure.

I was maybe the only, or for sure one of the onliest, in my 7th Grade Civics class in Holbrook, Arizona, who said aloud that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was doing the right and moral thing and that he was asking for nothing more than legal Constitutional Rights. Not exactly a comment designed to make friends with the Mormon kids, who, by 7th grade, were already starting to close-off outsiders. I read about Ghandi, and non-violent resistance. I saw the logic--and tragic loss-- of the argument. No worry. I believed and still do.  I had two brief relapses, but I keep trying. This is one about the relapses.

Just as I was starting on the road to non-violence, my parents moved us to Albuquerque, and I had to tough up again. Not sure how, but two of the most dangerous guys in my junior high became my friends. I knew one from Gallup! Both had parole officers. One had helped another junior high student acquire a protective metal plate in his head. No idea why they liked me; no idea why they didn't beat me down. Because of them, most people didn't fuck with me. I had only two fights in the Burque. One ended as soon as he learned that I could punch. That guy and I became good pals, and he taught me how to smoke cigarettes. Or maybe that was payback. The other tussle ended as soon as I hit Alphonso smack on his kneecap with a three-foot piece of rebar. As soon as I had his attention, he announced that the fight was over. Still, I carried an illegal knife to school every day--not bad cause some other guys brought guns. It was 1964. I got called out of class one day because someone accused me of cutting holes in the seats on a school bus. I figured that the knife in my pocket would seal my coffin, but when they found out that I didn't ride the bus, they sent me back to class. Close call. Never had to turn out my pockets or surrender the knife.

Next, we moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin. Actually only one fight there, although I tried to instigate two others-- just to get established, you see. I had a girlfriend in 10th grade, and this idiot named Bill was snapping her ass with a winter scarf. She asked him to stop, but he didn't. I told him to stop, and he laughed and popped her ass one more time. I pushed him against a wall and got off a clean kick to his nuts. When he slumped against the wall, trying to suck in some air, I punched him in the throat.  End of fight, and no broken knuckles or any of that hassle. No bloody noses or any other evidence he could take to the Vice Principal. He gave me decent distance for the rest of high school, which was good because I was still only about 5'7", and Bill was a big guy. I guess I took his breath away.

Toward the end of the next summer, I almost became a better person. Father James Groppi, Alderwoman Belle Phillips, Dick Gregory, and others coordinated with the NAACP to begin nonviolent, open-housing marches in Milwaukee. Milwaukee County (and Waukesha County too) had laws on the books that forbade people of color from owning property. Pay taxes, yes. Own your own home or business?  No. This was blatantly and shamelessly racist, but the Great White North is what it is. In the later 60s, it was reported there were more Klan members and other Aryan freaks in Wisconsin than in the whole Deep South. Remember, MLK refused to march north into or beyond Cicero, Illinois. He feared for his life, and he was damn right. 

The law affected us directly. In New Mexico and maybe even Arizona, my parents filed taxes and owned their homes jointly. This was illegal in Wisconsin, because of my mother. BIA Indian, the kind that gave me license and encouragement to play--and fight---with the dorm Indians. Didn't matter that she worked for the federal government. Under Wisconsin law, if my father died, nobody owned our home. It couldn't be her. It couldn't be me. There was too much good blood. My dad and I were watching local television news one evening. Upstanding White citizens were throwing bricks and other assorted shit at the people marching for open housing. The Milwaukee pigs were showering the line with tear gas and beating on them when possible. My dad asked me if I thought the Marchers were right. I said yes they were, and that the cops and Southsiders were wrong. His words were these: "Why are you sitting here on your ass watching TV?" Next night, I was at Saint Boniface church on the North Side, beginning my nonviolent training as a new member of the NAACP Youth Council, and getting ready to get on the line and be bricked and gassed. I even show up on two documentary pieces about Father Groppi.

The marches were led and guided by some young men--older than me but young-- called the NAACP Commandos. Their jobs were to make sure that we were peaceful and never acted out at the hate--that and to put their bodies in the way when the cops or anyone else attacked us. They were mostly Black, mostly from Milwaukee, and a few were Viet Nam vets. One White Commando turned out to be the older brother of a fellow, recently deceased, who I worked with at Hamline University for 37 years. Those guys were heroes. When the cops attacked the line, they avoided the Commandos as much as possible. It was easy to do because there might only be 10 Commandos trying to protect 200 people. The cops never went near the Viet Nam vets, and they avoided Major Milton cause he was one big guy.  They loved to find the weak spots in the line and wade in swinging their riot sticks. One evening, some bigot moron in a downtown hotel tossed a water glass out of a window, and it hit a woman two people ahead of me in the line. When she fell, the cops were on her like a dog pack. No curiosity about who might have thrown a glass out of the 10th or 12th floor of the hotel, but they beat her down good. She was, perhaps, 65 years old with grey hair- a dangerous and subversive person.

It was lots of fun getting gassed and bricked and sticked, but like all parties it came to an end. When the Civil Rights Act of 1968 became law, it contained a clause (Title VIII) that forbade unfair housing practices. Now, there was no need for Open Housing marches, for the Commandos, or for the NAACP Youth Council. We all just drifted away. I tried to believe that I took my non-violent training with me.

Two years later, I was in college at Madison... University of Wisconsin. The school was a great boiling pot of political awakening. Lots of clashes between students and the local cops. In late October or early November, the Teaching Assistants (TAs) organized for a strike. The great majority of classes... maybe 3/4 were taught by TAs. The "real" professors wrote grant proposals and did research. They paid TAs to teach their courses, but the TAs had no health care, no job security, and no nothing. In my NAACP vacuum, I signed up. Became an undergrad member of the Strike Force. I walked out of classes on strike, and got some PASS grades because we shut lots of departments down. No violence.

One day, minding my own, I was at some kind of street party. I think it was on Mifflin, where the old time freaks lived. I know the band was Tayles' Blues Band, good lawd. As I'm enjoying myself, a friend and another guy, Crazy Joe, hauled me up on a porch to have a chat. Crazy Joe, a Viet Nam vet, says "You are some kind of organizer, right?" I said that I was involved. He asked why I wasn't involved with the Anti-War movement. I told him I was 4-F... disqualified from military service since I was 12. As far as I was concerned, the war in Nam was not my business. Rights, yes. War, not so much. Joe spent a few hours teaching me. If I was into civil rights, why wasn't I interested in the wholesale slaughter of the Vietnamese? Why wasn't I concerned that most kids drafted into that disaster were Black? Why, especially me, wasn't I concerned that the US was drafting people right off the Rez, when upper class white guys ( Like Dick Cheney and Trump and Ted Nugent) got exemptions over and over. Turned my life.

Some weeks later, there was to be a candlelight procession of anti-war protest. We would walk, everyone with a candle, from the campus to the capitol. We were to walk silently, in peaceful attitude, to the capitol grounds where various members of the clergy would read the names of Wisconsin kids that died in Viet Nam. In those times, there was a commons, near the U library, one-way streets hemmed it in on two sides. The U library blocked off one end... some other U building occupied the other. Most of the marching folks were gathered in the commons area with our candles... some were backed up behind us toward the middle of campus. Before we got in motion, buses full of Dane County Sheriffs and City Cops pulled up on the two streets trapping us on the commons green. These pigs piled out and just waded into the crowd swinging. They beat the shit out of anyone who couldn't get away. They went into the U library and beat on students not even involved. If you do not believe me, just check it out on your search crutch. The cops gassed the McDonalds near campus that night. And they were only getting started.

A guy I knew and I ran like hell, slow as I was, to a friend's apartment off of State Street. I really didn't know New York Pete well. He was from Brooklyn. He consumed unusual quantities of drugs. He once got up screaming as his flight from NYC to Wisconsin was taking off, complaining that the bus was going too fast. That night, while I wore my jeans, navy pea coat, and a bandana (for the tear gas--same blue bandana as in the cover photo), he was a wearing a gold lame suit. Looked kind of like Monty Rock III.  I suppose we became friends that night. I doubt he recalls it.

 The place where we went to hide was at the end of an alley. You could sit in the "living" room, look down the alley, and have a special little window on State Street. What we watched were cops chasing students in one direction, and then there would be cops and students going the other direction. Roiling clouds of tear gas or pepper gas blew left this time and to the right next time. The street show was subsiding after what seemed about two hours. Pete and I agreed that we could try to get back to our own places and wash off some tear gas. 

We walked down the alley and turned right onto State Street. What wonderful luck! Just coming around the next corner on the same sidewalk were 8 Dane County Cops, marching two by two, all decked out in riot gear and carrying the big sticks.  I immediately backed to the wall and put my hands up. Pete was from Brooklyn, however. The first two cops walked just past us, Pete was still pretending to be some random, casual person, wearing a gold lame suit, hair down below his shoulders, just walking down State Street at 2 AM. The second two cops stopped to protect and serve. The cop closest held his big ol' stick in both hands and snapped my throat even closer to the wall than I wanted. The other cop shoved NY Pete-- can't be too specific on the method, because I was a little distracted. What I remember with DIAMOND clarity is that NYP tried to kick his cop in the nuts. While his cop was beating Pete senseless, mine held my throat against the wall with one hand and beat my shins with his fucking big stick. He kept saying "Don't fall down. Don't you dare fall down."  He didn't know that I was tough up. I didn't fall, but I was crying real tears. My blue-jean bell bottoms were soaked with blood below my knees.  If you don't believe me, I'll show you the divots in my shins. The cops walked off, laughing. NYP and I helped each other home for the night. And I still wonder if he remembers any of his time at UW. I never saw him again.

Days later, maybe the next day, there was to be a protest on Bascomb Hill... center of campus those days. Some big classroom building at the top of the small hill. Lots of green space. If I remember correctly--but I have avoided Madison since 1970--maybe State Street starts at the base of Bascomb Hill. Some important Madison street does. So there we were. Lots of students and others assembled to protest the ugly treatment from previous peaceful protests. The cops showed up. They had no intention of tolerating this bunch of people with moral and ethical and ethnical arguments. They attacked. I continued to assume my better-than-thou nonviolent stance. Better to be sacrificed for a noble cause than to harm

During that horrible afternoon, the cops charged up the hill to clear us away. A cop, probably a good guy with a family and all that, shot a tear-gas canister at me. Not near me. I realized he shot AT me. I ducked. Almost reflexively, I picked up a red-brown paving brick that was nearby and threw it. Like my cousin Mikey, I had a good arm-- not as good as Mikey's, ever.  I only bounced it in front of the cop, but the bounce caught him in his left knee, and he went down like the sack of shit he was being.

I cannot tell you how it felt. It was better than sex (I was 18. Didn't know much then.) The release had not come since I punched that stupid fucking Bill in the throat. Good Gawd! When you grow up poking people in the eye just to distract them or punching them up in the nose so they pay attention or taking out their knee sideways, it is hard to put it away and keep it locked up. My short stint as a non-violent pacifist was dangling by a thread.

The worst of it came at The Bridge. Cops are easy to ambush because of their herd mentality and authoritarian outlook. Two nights earlier, a Viet Vet led us up the Fraternity/Sorority Row. We pushed a  dumpster into the middle of the street and lit it up. It didn't take long until a cop car showed up. Unfortunately, the herd mentality and convinced these big porkers to crowd into their car 3 in the front and 3 in the back. When they pulled up, they were so wedged into the car they were struggling to get the doors open. A guy from Florida , Rick, had really been beaten badly earlier that week. He saw the opportunity before anybody. In the seconds before the cops could even move their arms, Rick smashed a cinder block-- not a red paving brick-- through the front-side passenger window. Have you ever seen a cinder block crash through a car window and into the big fat head pushing against that window?  It was awesome and inspirational! As debris suddenly rained down on the car, the driver managed to pork it into reverse and screech away. They did not come back that night. I got to spend most of the night in a sorority house, nothing naughty; but the women helped me clean up a few cuts and wash tear gas out of my eyes. I appreciated it.

 The dorm where I lived, actually where I kept my clothes and guitar and sometimes ate, was connected by the Witte Bridge, to a nearby dorm full of women. Co-ed dorms were, in those days, the stuff of teen-porn fantasy and would not occur for 20 or more years later when young men were learning to be less predatory. The evening began when the Madison cops threw tear gas into the ventilator system in my dorm. This was actually a minor incident. I already mentioned how they gassed the McDonald's on campus. They also gassed the children's wing of the UW hospital. They also blocked off Mifflin Street and hacked fire hoses so the fire department couldn't get in to put out fires in hippie houses-- fires that started because the pigs launched big, hot, gas-canisters into a few lucky houses. I told Senator William Proxmire, in person, about all this shit, and I still thank him for trying to sue the city of Madison on behalf of relatively peaceful people. 

Back to The Bridge. When the vent system blew tear gas into every room, 13 floors of male students headed for the exits. Cops were all over the place, taking a free whack with the big sticks, knocking kids down, and dragging some off. Those of us who had already been seriously gassed and beat around stayed inside and watched it happen. Once you've had a bunch of CS tear gas, it stops being annoying and only makes you mad. It makes you kind of high, but not in a happy way. When the streets cleared, we went out.... maybe 10 of us, and pushed a University delivery truck into the street under the bridge. Some of us got busy collecting paving bricks and other heavy shit for throwing. Others got busy puncturing the gas tank on the little truck. Somebody lit a match and we waited. When the fire department arrived, they waived at us and laughed and chatted. Even the fire department hated the Madison cops. They put out the fire and we hid and waited a little more. When the cops came, we ambushed them and got payback. One fine officer shot a big CS canister at me, and I grabbed it (cause I remembered to wear a glove!) and threw it back. Lucky toss; landed right between his legs. Unlike me and other students, he wasn't used to getting gassed. He tore off his helmet and gas mask in an automatic, but stupid, move to get relief. No helmet is a mistake when you are too close to someone with a brick, a bad attitude, and an arm almost as good as Mikey's. I hope he drools and stutters to this day.

A guy came up to me in the middle of this fest and showed me his gun--Smith & Wesson revolver. He said that if I would back him, he would shoot. I declined. Two few shots, plus he was crazy. Things were getting awfully confusing. I found my friends, Bob (thanks forever) and Jerry (now a MD) and we disappeared back into the dorm. 

Kent State was one or two days away. Only one student got shot by a cop in Madison, and he lived. The story showed up only in the Milwaukee newspaper, so little ruckus about it. The Kent State killings made national news. I'm sure that the Dane County and Madison cops, once inspired, could have killed more than four. It was time to stop this machine.

But they keep at it, don't they? The authoritarian rigidity remains in place. The herd mentality must be a cognitive deficiency prerequisite for the job. Close ranks. Internal hearings. No charges. No reason to look over here. Protect and Serve.

My statutes of limitations expired in 1976. There are still people in prison for inciting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968.