"They left the sneaker in the fence!" said Michael Kilday, his eyes watering at the memory. "They left the sneaker in the fence!"
"They" were the hundreds of heavily armed cops and, later, National Guardsmen, whom Governor Ronald Reagan ordered to make a clean sweep of People's Park in Berkeley in May 1969. The park had been created — as a symbol of non-violent resistance to the war in Vietnam — on university land, and the UCal administration tolerated this "illegal" activity. But Reagan, calling the campus "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants," sent in the troops. The sneaker belonged to one of the protesters who were beaten, maced and shot with birdshot (one, James Rector, was killed, another blinded) while trying to escape the assault.
Kilday arrived not long after the smoke cleared and saw the sneaker still wedged there. He still can't get over the memory 44 years later.
"Some day, I will write a book with that as the title... 'The Sneaker in the Fence'," he says, laughing ruefully.
For now, Kilday, who grew up in Bristol and now lives in Wolcott, is content with his half-memoir/half-polemic "A Yippie's Lament," which was recently awarded first prize in non-fiction by the Connecticut Press Club. The book — which he will read and sign in New London on Dec. 21— begins in his sophomore year at Boston University and ends with the ascendancy of Obama. Kilday left for college in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and the seemingly endless wave of protest, inner city riots and assassinations. He gravitated to campus politics, which would have been hard to ignore at BU.
"The SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] was strong at BU," said Kilday. "We would have meetings and someone would stand up and take your picture. We figured it had to be the FBI because Hoover loved this sort of clandestine thing. I felt then, and feel now, that peace, love and understanding is the only way to go. And, on a more practical level, I didn't want to die in a meaningless war."
Still, by 1970, Kilday had become disillusioned with the tenor of campus dissent, due in part to the wanton destruction and the violent overreaction of Boston police. "We were no longer dissenters," he writes in his book. "A line had been crossed making us common vandals." Ah, but if you think "A Yippie's Lament" is the confession of a reconstructed arch-conservative turncoat, you will be surprised to learn that the 63-year-old Kilday still adheres to the core beliefs he held then. He even dresses in a manner of a laid-back college professor, though he actually worked for 36 years at Aetna as a software engineer.
"I believe in Aristotle's prime mover, that there are immutable truths and nothing will change them," he says. "I fought through the cynicism, tried not to harden my heart. Whenever I am at a book event, I open by reading a quote from Plato from the book about 'what is happening to our young people?' and then ask people to identify who wrote it. They never can, because it could have been written last week. Do we think these aren't things that everyone has had to confront?"
Kilday's book is packed with thoughtful ruminations like this, as well as reminiscences of his own youthful activism. Though the term "yippie" is often used interchangeably with hippie, the term derives from the Youth International Party founded by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, provocateurs who used "pranks" to convey far more serious truths. For example, the yippies showered the Wall Street trading floor with dollar bills at the height of one day's activities, bringing the money machine to a screeching halt — and anticipating by 40 years the arrival of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Kilday thinks the Occupy movement and its cronies, like Anonymous, are "the next generation's version of what I was doing, more modernized, of course."
"We were street people, though, we did things face to face, and I think they may miss some of that sense of human contact," he said. "We also had a soundtrack, and a cultural push that went with it. We had a counterculture behind us. I still retain hope for the young people I meet because they ask 'Why?'"
Michael Kilday will be at the Monte Cristo Bookshop on Saturday, Dec. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m., 38 Green St., New London, 860-608-5902. Information: trueearthchanges.com