My Friend Davey Brinn

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My friend Davey Brinn died. It’s been over a year, closer to eighteen months, but I just found out. We hadn’t seen each other for over twenty years. Somewhere along the way we lost touch with each other. Then we reconnected. Our reunion was only via email but it was one of my best days of this millennium. I wanted to see him—in my mind I started making plans. But I didn’t. And then he died.

Life plays funny tricks on you if you take it for granted. I thought I was pretty good in that regard. I slipped up on that one.

We Meet in the Dorm at Michigan State

Davey was my best friend during the most intense period of our lives. Well, I won’t speak for him but it certainly was the most intense period of my life. There’s a joke that goes, “If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there.” It’s a dumb joke, a reference to the supposed memory-numbing qualities of marijuana. The truth is, if you were an active part of what history now refers to as “the sixties” but generally considers the time period beginning in the first year or so of the sixties and ending midway through the seventies—if you demonstrated against the Vietnam War, loved the music, experimented with mind-enhancing drugs, supported the Civil Rights and other liberation movements, mistrusted authority, rebelled against your parents, got busted at least once, marched often, dropped out of school, hitchhiked anywhere, or any combination of those and other known acts of defiance and celebration and trauma and courage that marked the period—you didn’t forget it and you haven’t lost the feelings that were attached to those events. Your best friends today you probably met then. Like Davey.

Davey and I met at Michigan State University sometime not long after Fall 1967, when we entered Wonders Dorm to begin our freshman years. It wasn’t a momentous meeting. We never lived on the same floor, never hung out with the same crowd, never even had a conversation in passing that I can recall that would have covered more than two paragraphs apiece. But the first time I remember his face it had a smile directed toward me and I smiled back. From then on, when we saw each other we smiled. I recall those smiles now and think that they were speaking to the deep friendship that was about to happen.

That deep friendship happened after “Kent State.” If you were from the period or have even the slightest knowledge of American history, the reference is clear. On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were murdered and nine others were wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen during an antiwar rally to protest President Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia. Students at universities and colleges throughout the country went out on strike, including at Michigan State.

At Michigan State, where Davey and I were now juniors and still living in Wonders Dorm, the small radical community grew exponentially and merged with the off-campus radical community to become a powerful countercultural, antiwar force.

I wasn’t from that radical community yet but I certainly by that time opposed the war—like most other liberal Jews from Cleveland’s east side suburbs where I was raised. Now, after four vicious murders, I was compelled to learn the history behind it and the arguments in favor of actively opposing it. I began going to marches and demonstrations and symposia and other events that could help me to better understand what was happening. Soon I was hanging out at Snyder-Phillips, the dorm complex that took on the important role of “strike central.” There, I joined in with the others as we wrote leaflets and flyers, tuned in to and shared news from campuses around the country, planned marches, rallies, and demonstrations, and inhaled a radical analysis of society. For many, like me, it was our first exercise in thinking free from suburban restraints. I began as an observer, intellectually curious to understand what was happening. I became a participant.

Busted Together in the Student Union

Two weeks after Kent State, on May 18, I arrived at strike central in the early evening, sometime after dinner. While catching up on the campus strike news from around the country, I happened to read a flyer that advertised a teach-in on racism that was taking place at that very moment at the MSU Student Union. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say, it was already by this time well in progress. I hurried over and entered the building, the last person to join what was already an overflow crowd. There were no places to sit. I stood in the back of the room by the door and observed a lively discussion.

MSU’s public relations department at the time was reaping a harvest of civil rights good-vibe points after having recently scored a major liberal coup d’état with the hiring of Clifton Wharton, a board member of multiple Ford and Rockefeller foundations, as its new president. Oh, and he was black. That was the coup. He was the first black man to be named president of a major university; his father had been the first black man to pass the Foreign Service exam and become a career ambassador.

So the organizers of the teach-in, knowing a teachable moment when they saw one, invited him to join us in our discussion. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it so he sent a friend. Actually he sent lots of friends, representing the campus, East Lansing, Lansing, Ingham County, and State police departments. They surrounded the Union. Then, shortly after midnight, the manager of the Union announced, “Everyone must leave the building immediately.” I’m sure he had been instructed to say those exact words by his hierarchical superior, who had been instructed on what to tell him to say by someone above him, but the words were for show only. In fact, before anyone who might have been inclined to escape could move, police entered the building through all doors.

A moment of awkwardness ensued. I was standing next to a woman who I recognized from strike central. She had never said a word to me to make me think she even knew who I was let alone cared but she was pretty and intelligent and my hormones had a way of screaming to me even in politically inappropriate times when they saw her. I whispered to her, “I wonder what they’ll do next.”

 

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That did it. Suddenly, two cops, each 6’8”, who had been standing behind me, grabbed me, one under each armpit, lifted me—all 5’4” of me—half a foot above the ground, and carried me out. My feet didn’t touch the ground until they threw me against the paddy wagon closest to the entrance.

I was the first of what came to be known as the MSU 132. I was the only one thrown into solitary confinement for committing my all-time bravest act of non-bravery: I didn’t sign my fingerprints, thinking no one else would either because that’s what our “What to do if you get busted” instructions said we should do, but everyone else did. I was the last one arraigned because I was in solitary all night while the others were being arraigned. Every one of the bustees and a growing crowd of supporters and admirers were there outside the jail to greet me—the unknown who was now seen as a major political heavy—including Davey, who had also been busted that night.

We Become Best Friends, I Join the Underground Press

As the only two bustees from Wonders Dorm, Davey and I suddenly shared an intimate bond that we hadn’t known before. Davey dropped out of school after that semester. I went back for Fall 1970 semester but didn’t return for Winter 1971. I moved in with Davey, the first time I had lived off campus since moving to East Lansing.

I already noted that I didn’t become a radical until the MSU Union bust. Davey, on the other hand, was by this time already a long-time radical. He was brilliant. He was well-connected. He was action-oriented. That summer after the strike he had joined the White Panther Party, the white countercultural counterpart to the Black Panther Party, and had been arrested again, this time in Grand Rapids during a protest outside a Spiro Agnew $100/plate dinner. By the time I moved in with him, he was already involved in Generation, one of East Lansing’s two underground newspapers. Davey took me to my first underground press meeting. It was December 1970. The staff members of Generation were meeting with the staff members of the other local underground newspaper, Bogue Street Bridge, to discuss the idea of combining staffs, resources, and energies and putting out an experimental joint issue. The result was Joint Issue, the first underground paper where I would make my mark over the next several years until the war ended. Davey was working on an article for the paper, on the state of the Movement. I was secretly in awe that he even knew the state of the Movement let alone had been tapped by the other staff members to write the paper’s position paper on it.

In the coming months, Davey and I did everything together or kept closely in touch when we were separate. When he and Patti, his wife and partner, hit the road to Seattle to stay with friends, I went with them as far as Boulder where I had friends. By the following May, 1971, we were all back in East Lansing. Along with about a dozen other local radicals, we joined thousands of protestors from around the country in Washington, DC, for the May Day demonstrations with the aim of shutting down the city. On the morning of the second day of protests, word got out that the police were arresting everyone who they found in groups of three or more so our group split up into groups of twos to meet up again at the point where the march to the Department of Justice was to begin. Davey and I walked together. On our way there, Davey said to me, “If they try to bust us, I’m not gonna fight it.” I said, “I’m with you.” That afternoon, 10,000 protestors were arrested in front of the Justice Department while Attorney General John Mitchell smoked his pipe and watched the proceedings from his office window. It was at the time the largest mass bust in the history of our country. Davey and I were among them.

Davey’s Dark Side, We Drift Apart

I didn’t notice it when it was happening but Davey had a dark side. As my work on Joint Issue intensified and began to define my life, Davey was slipping away from underground press life altogether. As I organized marches and spoke at rallies and wrote political commentary and poetry and grew politically and socialized at community potluck dinners, Davey withdrew and became fatalistic despite never losing his crisp radical analysis or his sense of humor. I couldn’t understand it. Davey was one of my first friends to stop smoking pot, not because he evolved beyond it but because it brought up memories that he was trying to block. I couldn’t understand that either. We used to talk often about our feelings, something men were not conditioned to do, so I cherished those talks. He told me stories of growing up in the household of his father, a hellfire-and-damnation Church of Christ minister during Davey’s youth though a college administrator by the time I met him in 1971. I never grasped the pain that Davey felt. I never asked the right questions to help him probe deeper into the hurt. I wanted to but I didn’t know how. I knew from when we lived together that he was one of the great sleepers. I should have seen that as a sign but I didn’t.

Then we drifted apart—long story for another time perhaps. Short story: We both got swept up in the Me Decade that followed the end of the war, learned to “express our feelings,” and collided in a feeling-fest of misinterpretations. Both of us were fucked up in our own ways. We loved each other and we tried to connect but our words muddled our feelings. I knew time would heal that wound.

Davey’s Manuscript Brings Us Back Together

And so the good news was that we came together again. It began in the first days of May 2012 when I received a message from Michigan State University Press, publisher of my Voices from the Underground Series: “I just wanted to let you know that you received a manuscript here from David Brinn called ‘Mayday: A Memoir.’ If you’d like I can mail it to you.” The message included his email address. I wrote back immediately and instructed them to send it right away.

The next day I wrote my first letter to Davey. I caught him up on my life alone and with my family and concluded: “Again, great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the initiative. Life’s too short….”

I didn’t hear from him for six months. When I finally did, on November 6, he didn’t offer an explanation for the long delay between letters. Instead, he hinted that we were at the beginning of a long e-conversation: “I wanted to let you know you have connected with me. I decided I don’t want to try to write an autobiography for you. We’ll pick up the pieces as we go along.”

And we did with a series of letters back and forth that lasted over a month. From Davey’s niece Danielle, I would later learn about the health problems that were breaking his body down and stealing his independence. He had throat cancer while he was living in Austin, where he had spent the last healthy decades of his life among a close circle of friends. Somehow he survived the cancer but then he got an ulcer that almost ate through his stomach and killed him. He recovered. Then other issues arose and he had to move back to Michigan.

 

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Davey never wrote to me about the cancer or the ulcer but he did write freely and openly about those other issues, in particular his lifetime of manic-depression:

Got the depression under control around 1986 after falling fast in 1984. The mania was there for years but didn’t show up on the radar. So, for some time, things seemed okay. In 2006 I hit a spot where I simply could not sleep. When I told people how many (few) hours I slept they thought I exaggerated. The doctors tried the “do nothing” sleep meds (Lunesta and Ambien). So they gave me some Seroquel which is a powerful drug. To make a long story short, I took some. Didn’t do anything. Got furious. Took a bunch. (911. Slept 20 hours.) My family found out, and when I came to Michigan on a trip, they took me before a probate court, and my younger sister Kat had herself appointed my legal guardian. Kat’s a tough, no nonsense sweetheart. I go where she says for me to go.

 

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He wrote also about his past struggles with his father, with whom he was now making his peace; and about his beloved mother:

My dad is 94 and failing fast. Dementia. (At a family reunion Kat had to tell him who his 4 nieces were.) And yes we fought each other tooth and nail for decades. He’s always been self-centered and demanding. Lately I’ve been able to connect with him. I simply express my love for him. I hug him when I encounter him and hug him as I depart, and tell him I love him (which I do). It pleases him and me.

I do wish you could’ve met my mother then maybe you would be able to see why my siblings all love each other and care for others. My mother the walking cliché. A “saint.” Dad the talker. Mother the listener. Our “defense attorney” with my dad. Recently–out of the blue–I told Kat “I miss mother so much. If it hadn’t been for her I don’t know how bad my life would have been. She saved me.”

Quietly. “Dave, she saved us all.”

Despite his battles with manic-depression, Davey never lost his political edge. “One of my themes in MAYDAY: A MEMOIR,” he wrote, “was David v. Goliath. Bad problem. People unaware for the most part. Helplessness abounds. People talk. They network. They stay at it. Knowledge and resistance grows. History is filled with victories of the ‘little people.’ The Vietnam War is an example. People’s victories will always take an ungodly amount of struggle. So we keep lighting a fire under the feet of the rich and powerful. They will always suit up and show up, so we will too. We have no choice.”

He imagined my students at Eastern Michigan University, where he didn’t realize I no longer taught, using it as part of their coursework:

Not as an ego trip but as a subject to study and write about. About the nature of struggle against the ruling elite in any situation. David and Goliath. How change always looks hopeless in the beginning. How change is an attitude (often taking great risks) and using good old fashioned elbow grease. Your students could use MAYDAY as a point of departure. They could pick out a similar subject to explore. The reasons behind struggles. The light of democracy being snuffed out everywhere in the world except in the “Colonies.” The war against the redcoats not being about the price of tea. Slavery. Union organizing. Populism. Women’s Suffrage. Civil Rights. Feminism. Gay Rights. The Vietnam War. Abortion. Healthcare, and always the “little people” against the “gray men.” The struggle goes on. Expect it. Prepare for it. Keep the pressure on. Keep the faith. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Intentions Are Always There

In Lansing, he lived with his sister Nancy for a while. I could have visited him then but I didn’t. Then, as his health worsened, he moved to Kalamazoo to be under constant care. I could have visited him then but I didn’t.

But the intention was there. Isn’t it always? I did invite him to an event in Lansing where I was going to be talking about a newly released volume from my Voices from the Underground Series but he had to decline because he had no transportation. He did say he would call me as soon as he fixed a problem with his cell phone but he never fixed it.

So when Emily said to me one day about midway through July, “Let’s find a weekend to go out of town,” and asked me where I would like to go, I said, “Kalamazoo.” There was no fall-back option.

I wrote to Davey: “I hope all is well. I’m trying to find a time to come to Kalamazoo to visit you. It’s looking like Saturday August 2 is shaping up as the first good time. Will you be around then? I’d love to see you again.”

During our brief flurry of emails, each letter was followed by a relatively quick response. So I was surprised when I didn’t hear from him right away. Fortunately, I had written a few weeks in advance of our proposed travel date. Five days later, on what turned out to be my 65th birthday, I forwarded the same letter to him again.

In an earlier message, Davey had given me the name of his niece Danielle, who was close to him. I called her. She wasn’t in so I left a message. I thought it was pretty high energy. I knew that she knew of me from Davey so I gave my name and said I looked forward to seeing him but I wanted to know that he would be available.

A few days later, she called back. I wasn’t in so she left a message. It wasn’t as high energy: “Ken, I’m sorry to tell you that my Uncle Dave died last March.” She apologized for having to tell me in a phone message, but there was no other way she could have told me given that my planned trip was only a few days away and she wanted to make sure I got her message in time to cancel my trip.

When I finally spoke with her on the phone she said Davey’s death surprised everyone. “We knew he wasn’t well, and he was weak. He didn’t like to focus on his health but he couldn’t eat without a tube. It caused numerous infections. He had trouble with his lungs, staph infection. Ultimately he passed from pneumonia.”

That call took place three days after I listened to Danielle’s message. I didn’t call her right back. I couldn’t. I thought about Davey. I beat myself for not having contacted him sooner. I took notes on what I wanted to say to Danielle so that my first call could be meaningful. I replayed key events in our shared history.

But who expected him to die? I certainly didn’t. His community of beloved friends who he left behind in Austin certainly didn’t. And so during all that time starting with my message from MSU Press I committed myself to visiting him. I put the idea on my list of things to do. But by the time “visit Davey” got to the top, it was too late.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I have few regrets. Not seeing my friend Davey one more time is one of my biggest regrets. It was a missed moment that I’ll carry with me until the next time I see him.

His last words to me were: “You did well, my friend. You did fine.”

So did you, Davey. Even through manic-depression you were positive. You kept your humor. You were inspirational, an example to follow.

[This blog entry originally appeared in The Rag Blog, October 16, 2014.]

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