In ’68, the world was watching, and I was there
For 40 years I’ve been able to say, “I was there.”
There. At the Hilton. In the fray. In the thick of the protests and subsequent riot that went down on August 28, the penultimate day of the1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago.
I was 17. I had no idea that history was being made. But I was there. And for exactly 40 years I’ve been telling that to anyone who seems interested.
I’d been in Glenview that day, planning to sleep over at Judy Gerstein’s, my best friend and roommate at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Jud (her nickname) had a mother, Mama G (her nickname) who always treated us like her friends. She was spontaneous and ironic, had a little white dog and kept at least three bowls of M & Ms in every room of the house.
Mama G always wanted to be where the action was, so she packed us in her car and drove us to Balbo and Michigan on the night of August 28. “Come on, let’s go, let’s see what’s happening for ourselves,” she laughed. (Today, at 80-something, she admits she could have been arrested for bringing minors to a riot.)
Jud and I loved hippies and Students for a Democratic Society. And we hated the Vietnam War, and everyone over 30 except Mama G. But we were not into riots or violence or blood. We still kind of liked The Beatles and Bass Weejuns. M & Ms, too.
But Mama G said that’s what we were doing--going to where the action was. So that’s where we went. She was the adult, and we did what she said. But what’d we know? We wanted to go and see people like Jerry Rubin--who were like movie stars. Although we did look forward to getting home for our midnight snack: a bowl of M & Ms.
Exactly where Mama G parked the car I don’t remember. Today, she says she remembers parking right on the street outside the Hilton. But I’m sure parking was a problem that night—just as it is in the South Loop where I live today.
No sooner did I have my eye out for that dreamboat Abbie Hoffman, than there we were! Smack dab on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton--in the midst of The Battle itself. We could have been killed. We could have had our heads bashed in by billy clubs, our feet stomped on by storm trooper boots, our nostrils filled with poison, our hair drenched with who knows what.
But Mama G, being a glamorous 40-something—totally out of orbit in a spot where she wasn’t supposed to be—got invited into the Hilton by some kindly handsome gentleman (a plainclothes cop?) who took pity on her and her girls and probably wanted to ask her for a date.
We sat for hours inside the Hilton watching the reporters and activists, youthful adults and old nuts escorted inside for medical treatment and first aid (treatment was being administered in the Normandie Lounge, no less). The fight was on and the whole world was watching. Including my parents, who treated me with a mixture of disbelief and awe when they found out where I’d been the next day.
It turns out that a lot of the blood may have been ketchup—a little fact I just learned from a book I have been reading that contains the history of the Hilton, “Chicago’s Grand Hotels,” compiled by Hilton PR man Robert V. Allegrini. He claims that sympathizers hurled ketchup onto the Democratic Convention/Vietnam war protesters from the rooms above to make the wounds look worse.
Allegrini also claims that the Hilton tried to lock its doors that night to keep the protesters out, but found out too late that the doors had never been locked—no keys existed—and they weren’t about to start locking now. Thank goodness. Jud, Mama G and I may never have been where we were on that fateful night—safe and snug in the Hilton lobby.
Eventually we got back to Glenview--and the M & Ms. How and when I don’t know. But to this day, every now and then when I find myself in or around the Hilton, I go back to 1968. When I am walking through the main hotel corridor to Kitty O’Shea’s or to get to an event in the ballroom—or to use the ladies’ room on the way home—I can often see the blood (ketchup?) dripping from the heads of the guys beaten by the pigs.