Hospital Days


 #1       Jeff was very ill in the spring of ’69 with a problem that first surfaced during his Vietnam tour five years earlier. He was in a VA hospital in Miami, and the illness had become serious. He didn’t have long to live, but that wasn’t widely known. Dozens of his friends and comrades in the GI antiwar movement sent him get-well cards and letters.

           Donna Mickleson wrote Jeff several encouraging letters. She was a co-founder of the first GI antiwar coffee house, the UFO, in the town near Fort Jackson SC. Other coffee houses followed outside large Army bases in Texas and Missouri. Donna was now on the West Coast, considering opening another one near Fort Ord in Monterey CA. She wrote Jeff again:

Lie in the Sun and Smoke Dope

          Sure hope things are going well. Am thinking of going down to set up a coffee house in Monterey myself and living out in the Carmel Valley. You can come and lie there in the sun and smoke dope, and I’ll tell everyone you’re a long lost third cousin who spent the past six years doing an archeological dig in the Sudan. 

                                               ##### 

#2      Susie Rosenberg, aka Susie Creamcheese, a good friend of Jeff’s, has eluded me for years. Part of his circle in Chicago, she occasionally lent a hand distributing Vietnam GI (VGI). Her friends told me she was from a well to do Chicago family in construction, didn’t work or attend college, and was generally considered a zany, free-spirited flower child. She was nicknamed Susie Creamcheese after Frank Zappa’s fictional Valley Girl, but thought of herself more like Janis Joplin.

            I met many of Jeff’s contemporaries, but never Susie. We spoke once in mid-’69 during Jeff’s last days in a Miami VA hospital. She and blurted out, agitated, “They’re killing Jeff, you’ve got to get down here.” Jeff died the next day.

            I had no idea who was calling until nearly 40 years later researching Jeff’s memoir. I wanted to speak with her about Chicago and his last days but no one has been able to find her.

            When Jeff fell ill and died Dave Komatsu, VGI deputy editor, was unable to keep the paper afloat. Absent Jeff as grand strategist, principal writer, and chief fundraiser – as Dave put it, as the “soul” of the operation – he couldn’t pull it off. A long time left activist, Dave and his wife Kit decided to move on, establishing a paper directed at factory workers, a beat more familiar to them. As Susie wrote to Jeff at the hospital, she hoped to work with them on Wildcat.


Jive Attitude Really a Front

March 24, 1969

Dear Jeff –

          … Oh guess what – it’s still up in the air, but I’ve been rapping to Kit and Dave and I think I’m going to work with them on the working class paper. As a matter of fact, I’m starting job-hunting tomorrow for assembly line work. We’ve had a lot of talks and I guess they’re finally realizing that my jive attitude is really a front. …

           All My Best to One of the Grooviest Comrades I know, Susie

           Word reached me 35 years later that Susan Rosenberg would be speaking at Hamilton College. I assumed that Jeff’s old friend Susie had at last surfaced. It didn’t seem out of line that she joined Weatherman – the violent spin-off from SDS – went underground, got caught, served time.

            I contacted a colleague at Hamilton and made arrangements to meet Susan/Susie, who’d apparently become a writer. A picture of her turned up on the Internet. I sent it to an old Chicago hand to let him know I’d finally found Susie; he shot back it wasn’t. The photo was of a tall slender, dark-haired woman. Susie was short and blonde.

            Meanwhile, a great deal of adverse publicity was swirling around Hamilton’s invitation. Rosenberg had been sentenced to 58 years– at the time the longest sentence for such charges – and served many years in maximum security, much of it in solitary, until pardoned.

Clinton Pardons an Ex-terrorist

New York Times, January 22, 2001

             Ms Rosenberg served 16 years in jail after she was found… unloading 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons, including a submachine gun, from a car. She admitted her role in the New Jersey case, in which she had planned to supply others with explosives for politically motivated bombings.

          Susie Creamcheese, where are you?     

#####

#3         Despite his illness, Jeff kept in touch with friends around the country. A number of them made the long trip to Miami to visit him. He corresponded with others, and he kept in touch with a few by phone. Late spring ’68, he called an old college girlfriend. She was glad to hear from him and said, “How are you?” To her great surprise, Jeff replied, “I’m dying.”

            I had been up north at the time, so when I heard her story decades later, I too was surprised. Although my father had been in denial and my mother determined to be optimistic, however illusory, I had been under the impression that, though very ill, Jeff’s condition was stable. In our correspondence and occasional telephone conversations, Jeff had never given me reason to think otherwise.

   With my parents long gone, there was one person who would have known the truth – my cousin Lesley Sharlet Barden. At the time, she lived in Miami and was Jeff’s closest companion as he lay dying. I wrote Les, “Did he ever talk about his impending death with you?”


                                He Knew He Was Dying

  To answer your question, YES Jeff knew he was dying. It got really hard for me to visit him toward the end because of the way he kept losing weight and because of your mother. I had to keep lying to him. I’d tell him there was a new medicine they were going to give him.

 He was mentally very strong and never felt sorry for himself. 

                                      #####

#4      Jeff had been an SDS leader during university days. When he graduated in ’67 and moved on to Chicago where he founded the GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, he was closely associated with the SDS national leadership in the city.

          As the war wound on in spite of vast protests, grand marches, and outsized demonstrations across the country, frustration mounted and divisions over strategy widened within SDS. The organization gathered for what would become its final national convention in June ’69.

   Jeff had died just a few days before, and the tragic news flashed throughout the antiwar movement. As the SDS convention got underway, it promised to be a wild affair as the two implacable factions vied for the soul of the organization. Yet there was a moment of unity, albeit brief, at the opening session.

           As John Maher remembered:

A Minute of Silence

          The chair asked us to rise for a minute of silence in memory of my friend Jeff Sharlet, editor of Vietnam GI.

                                            #####

#5           I’m not sure my father ever got over the loss of Jeff, his youngest. When my mother died five years after Jeff, she said to me in her last hours that she was at peace about Jeff. She had a similar illness and had tried every conceivable life-saving therapy to no avail, but the knowledge that she had exhausted the medical possibilities gave her peace of mind that she had done everything to save her son.

           My father lived on another eight years, and I thought maybe he got over it. But one time we were summering on Cape Cod and having dinner with a friend and her son, then about Jeff’s age at the end. In some ways the young man resembled my brother, which my father recognized, and was as ecstatic over it as if Jeff had come back to join us for the evening.

    Although my father had never fully understood Jeff’s deep commitment to dissent against the war, like the mother of a GI killed in Afghanistan years later, he would have shared her sentiment upon her loss, ‘He didn’t shirk any of his years. I felt honored that he was my son, and I was able to be part of his life’. 

Long After the Guns Go Silent

            Long after the guns go silent, time passes, rights and wrongs fade – the parents grow old, the young widow remarries, children grow up, move away, but the boy who went to war remains, forever young, in the silver frame on the mantle.

           The strange poetry of war obits, the military fanfare at graveside, the heartrending notes of Taps closing a life – all become distant memory. Pain dulls, but never goes away. The young men in those picture frames remain unchanged, the boy who went off to war remains as we last remember him.

            And so it was with my brother Jeff, who served in Vietnam, was possibly exposed to something harmful there – perhaps Agent Purple, we don’t know – and died several years later at 27.

          For our parents, now long gone, as for all those North Country families as well, as for the mother of the Afghan GI, in spite of reaffirming sentiments, nothing could have been worse than losing a child.

 #####  
#6       Dick Boris, an IU grad student, described hearing the news of Jeff’s terminal illness.

I Got Dead Drunk

           In February ’69 I received a job offer from Dickinson College. On returning to Bloomington, friends threw a party for me. In the middle of the party someone arrived with the news that Jeff had just been operated on and found to have a terminal condition.

           The news had a depressive effect on the festivities. I got dead drunk. We were all ‘horribly impacted’.
 #####
NEW CONTENT 
#7            As Jeff was trying to fight the disease taking his life, he received many dozens of get-well cards, notes, and letters. Many were from his extended family as well as his friends and comrades in the Movement.

But a number of others were from total strangers who had read of his illness in the underground press. Some of these people were GIs, others civilians opposed to the war.

You’ve Certainly Done Your Share

Jeff

I was sorry to hear of your illness, but do hope that you are fully recovered and back in action before too long. The prospects for ending the war don’t seem overly bright, but you’ve certainly done your share and should feel some satisfaction.

Fort Hood

        I read about you in the Fatigue Press. I was stationed in Thailand and only saw one issue of Vietnam GI, but I enjoyed reading it. It answered a few of my questions about the real Nam. Good luck and get well soon.

Miami

        Sorry to read in the Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace about your misfortune. Wish I had only known a few days ago that you were out there at the VA Hospital because that place has practically been home to me. I was just out there less than a week ago for a check-up.

        I’m a paraplegic and it’s a bit hard for me to get out there. Anyway our local ‘Veterans for Peace’ commander knows you are out there so he will try to get by to see if he can do anything for you. He’s a retired Chief Petty Officer; real nice guy.

Shalom

        I just learned about your illness from the current issue of Movement. Of course, you don’t need a bourgeois get-well card to help you, but it beats the shit out of a draft notice. May the devil which haunts you be exorcised and settle on Ellsworth Bunker or some similar pig. FTA
#####
NEW CONTENT 
#8        Jeff continued to receive get-wells from strangers who read about him.

Appreciate What You’ve Done with Vietnam GI

Dear Jeff

           You don’t know me, but I read something in the Movement how you were sick. I really appreciate what you’ve done with Vietnam GI both in the States and abroad.

   The struggle against imperialism has been immeasurably helped by sowing the seeds of reason and humanity among the ranks of the Praetorian Guard of the Empire.

   If you’re in New York, you can stay with me and my girl if you need a place to stay.

Santa Cruz

           If you ever feel that you might like to talk to someone, this stranger will be willing to listen.

  P.S. Enclosed is the San Francisco Chronicle article on yesterday’s GI-Civilian March. It was really successful – it’s always such a good feeling to be at the top of a hill and looking back seeing so many people who came too.

New York

         Get well soon – a Guardian reader.

El Centro

        I read about you and your Vietnam GI in the San Francisco Express Times. I hope that you’ll get well soon and continue the struggle against war. You sure have a lot of people joining you, including me.

        This nation sure needs more people like you Jeff.

West Seneca NY

        As someone who still mourns playmates killed in the 1st imperialist war of 1914-18, I identify with your spirit and integrity. NEVER SAY DIE, JEFF. 

#####

#9        Still more get-wells received by Jeff at the hospital.

You Are a Very Valuable Member of Society

Minneapolis, KS

          I got one copy of your paper, Vietnam GI, and I was so pleased with it. I read about your operation in Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace. I am so concerned about this war and our military extension over the world.

          My older brother was in the Spanish and Philippines trouble – another was in WWI. All my long life (almost 79 years old), I have worked against the war system.

           I went to a meeting in Leavenworth, Kansas last week. Some of the prisoners from the Presidio of San Francisco have been sent to prison there.

           You are a very valuable member of society – we need you. May God preserve you for many years.

New Rochelle, NY

           While we don’t know you, we write with great affection for you and your friends, for your ideals and your efforts to help put things right.

Evanston, IL

          I read of your illness in Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace. Get well fast, Jeff. We need your strength and courage and ability in our cause.

Stockholm

           HANG ON! Joy & Revolution. Red Greetings from Sweden.

Miami

          Jeff also received flowers sent by friends, including Sonny and his family. Sonny had a 7-11 and check-cashing store next to Jeff’s father’s in Miami. He was a Florida redneck and a wonderful guy.

          On one occasion, Sonny got a tip that he was going to be held up on payday when he had the most cash on hand. He set up a defensive perimeter. His brother, Vern, back from Nam, somehow with his M-16, took a position behind the potato chips while Sonny with his .45 hid behind the meat counter.

  The hold-up men entered, Vern opened fire, and they ran like hell with Sonny firing at them as they took off down the street.

#####
NEW CONTENT 
#10     
As Jeff was slowly dying in a Miami hospital, the GI opposition to the war, which he had done so much to engender, was mounting.

Many Soldiers in Peace Activity for the First Time

           April 5, 1969 witnessed a large turnout of GI and civilian demonstrators in several of the nation’s major cities. Roughly a hundred thousand people marched in New York, 40,000 in San Francisco, and 30,000 in Chicago.

           The Easter GI-civilian demonstrations, coordinated at the national level, ‘involved many soldiers in peace activity for the first time’.

#####