6.06.2009

clash of wills

Thom knew only one person who had ever thrown tomatoes at a person on stage. In fact, he’d been invited to participate just moments before the incident.

It was in the fall of 1980 or 1981, Thom was not sure. He was a graduate student at the time at Florida State University, working on his Masters in English while also working part-time for the Department of Transportation editing operational manuals for heavy equipment. His class load and job did not leave much time for social activities and outside of a couple of co-workers and other part-time grad students, he did not see others regularly or go out often.

The restaurant complex on Adams Street, just a block from the State Capitol, owned by Simon Franks included a couple of cafes that catered almost exclusively to bureaucrats in offices within a few blocks. That was Monday-Friday business. Over one restaurant was a upscale jazz club called Rachel’s which was almost exclusively Saturday night business, and that is where Thom would go on Saturday nights with enough money for three Heinekens, sipped slowly while enjoying the vibes and deep bass and alto sax of the Hartman Trio.

Thom had gotten to know Hank Hartman, the vibe player, through a friend of a friend at a party when the two realized they may have been the only people in Tallahassee who appreciated the guitar work of Mason Williams. That bond led to political discussions and a shared longing for the Caribbean and many other similar interests, so even though they generally only visited once a week, during the band’s breaks when Hank would join Thom at the bar, they felt a solidarity in values.

G. Gorgon Liddy was in the middle of his college lecture tour that fall and came to FSU. Thom found Liddy and everything associated with him repulsive, especially there in the early years of Era of Reagan. But, always one to want to see personalities in person, he went to the lecture and was glad to have a sat on the aisle in case the whole affair got a little too disgusting and he’d want to leave early. As Ruby Diamond Auditorium filled up, Thom, who had gone alone, felt more and more alone. For one being a grad student he was older than most of the other students in attendance by only a few years but the gap felt much wider. Perhaps because the attendees seems to be genuinely excited about sitting at the feet of the author of “Will,” the one who would obey the President’s authority even though it meant breaking laws, the one who said he’d take a bullet anytime any place, just tell him what street corner to be on and when.

A few minutes before the lecture began, Hank came down the aisle and stopped beside Thom. They greeted each other, made comments about the character of the audience and with few words and head shakes agreed on their contempt for Liddy. Then Hank opened his coat to revel a small paper bag with two large tomatoes and simply said “wanna help?” and then closed his coat.

Thom was stunned, looked around to make sure others weren’t watching, smiled and said “Shit man,” then paused weighing his courage and then said quietly with an encouraging smile, “No, no, don’t think so...but be careful.” Hank just said “ok” and walked toward the back to find a seat. Thom was nervous, and thought it might partly be a little fear of being accused of what Liddy was convicted of...co-conspiracy.

The president of the Student Government Association came out on stage, welcomed the standing room only crowd, read a brief canned introduction and Liddy walked out on stage. Thom remembers his initial impression of the man: he was not very tall but was square and hard. His suit jacket was buttoned and tight and his chest seemed hard.

Before the applause died a blur of a person came running down the aisle past Thom and hurled two tomatoes at Liddy, never stopping or even slowing his sprint. Both tomatoes found their mark square on Liddy’s left lapel, splattering red juice all over his white shirt. The cheers from the audience immediately became moans and boos and “Hey!” in disbelief and anger at the treatment of Liddy and amazement that the pitcher had disappeared. Hank had made his two tosses while running at top speed, made them with pin point accuracy, and never stopped to see if he’d make the hit. He kept running right out of the exit door beyond the first row of seats with by four students in hot pursuit, poster guys for the young republican fraternity community.

The crowd wanted red meat now. It was hungry and angry and apologetic and offended and defensive and ready to be a mob.

Liddy never flinched. He never stopped pacing the center stage waving a gracious thank you for the welcome from the crowd. He never wiped a tomatoes from his shirt and simply let the pieces of skin fall of their own accord from his lapel. He began his lecture just as if nothing had happened, never acknowledging the incident even when two student government guys came out with towels to wipes up the floor. Thom remembered the story of Liddy once holding his hand over a candle at a party until his flesh burned. When asked what was the trick he replied "The trick is not minding."

Thom was amazed at the display of Liddy's will, but he was more amazed at the will of Hank to make his point, relentlessly. When students lined up at a microphone set up in the aisle at the conclusion of the lecture to ask questions of Liddy, Hank was the third person in line. He made eye contact with Thom and winked. Thom smiled and nodded approval to his friend.

When Hank asked his question about ethics, honesty, honesty, and the difference between service and disservice to one’s country, his tone was less questions as accusatory. It was obvious that no one in the audience but Thom knew that Hank had thrown the tomatoes, except Thom wondered if Liddy knew for as Liddy slowly and confidently answered the question he maintained hard eye contact with Hank who stared staring back. Neither blinked.

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