Of all the freaks who congregated at the second table left of the front door of San Francisco State’s Commons, the most unique was a pugnacious little guy named Bob Kaffke (Koff-key). If there ever was a man born to be investigated by the FBI, Kaffke was he. He had a one-track mind and that track was non-stop revolutionary socialism. And at our table he had a congenial, or at least non-judgmental audience.
The Commons was not a village green where the the peasants kept sheep at night, but rather a big noisy cafeteria filled with cigarette smoke and students of every variety smoking them. Jocks, business majors, drama majors, art students, blacks, Asians, sorority sisters – every group had a corner and one, two, three tables that were theirs and nobody else sat at them. Unless it was raining or something.
After the student strike in 1968, President S.I. Hayakawa tore the building down, making the pithy comment: “The Commons breeds revolution.” Replaced it with the Student Union – lots of little rooms where groups stay isolated. But in its day, the Commons was the intellectual and cultural ignition point for everything that was Happening in San Francisco. Don’t let those Berkeley people tell you anything different. Plus you could get a bowl of chili with extra soda crackers for thirty-five cents.
Funny to think of us all after so long. The peacenik table in those early years — ’61, ’62, ’63. We were lit majors, polly sigh majors, philosophy majors and biology majors, mostly dressed in beat war surplus peacoats or field jackets and scruffy beards or Cost Plus Guatemalan peasant skirts with handmade sandals and maybe a wool flannel stadium coat- (the kind that had toggles and leather loops instead of buttons) against the foggy San Francisco afternoon. Plus more young guys who didn’t attend classes at all, but took the M car out to State to hang in the Commons and eat chili. Future founder of the Family Dog Chet Helms was one regular visitor.
Vietnam was just a worry in the left wing weeklies. The Freedom Rides were beginning but their struggle seemed far away in the south somewhere. Ban the Bomb: that was the issue of the day. The government had restarted atmospheric testing of H-Bombs at their Nevada test site. Radioactive clouds were drifting over the little cowtowns of the west and heading for Vegas. Doctors found Strontium-90 in middle class American mother’s milk. “Perfectly harmless,” said the middle class American fathers in Washington.
Then there was Cuba. Fidel Castro was nationalizing all the American-owned sugar plantations and the US was unhappy about it. Kennedy decided to embargo all trade between the US and Cuba, import or export. That would hurt the Cubans good. Still, there are limits to pain. According to legend, Kennedy purchased 5000 Cuban cigars for his personal use immediately before ordering the embargo. (It’s still in place after nearly fifty years – did it work?)
The cold war was full bore. Commies! Fidel was a Commie, get it? Now those evil Svengalis were were only ninety miles away. Anything could happen! And most likely, anything included an American invasion of Cuba followed by a rain of nuclear warheads and the end of civilization. That’s how I figured it.
Redbaiting was also full bore. Complaining about the imminent possibility of nuclear rain was tantamount to admitting you were a communist in some people’s minds. A fellow-traveler. One of those students the evil Svengalis liked to dupe! A Comsymp! I was sure that J. Edgar Hoover had my picture in his files.
Yet what had I done? I was an English major, but I preferred to spend my afternoons singing folk music on the lawn in front of The Commons like a peacock spreading his plumage. Calling all girls – look, a beautiful, sensitive poetic folksinger come to serenade you. Come, sit down beside me. But death was lurking in the clouds. Maybe we’d better sit inside.
In my simplicity, it seemed to me if a country wanted to be communist, they should be able to do whatever they want. It’s their country. And, in 1962, it looked very much like we were about to invade Cuba and take ’em down. I thought it was a classic case of the big schoolyard bully pushing his weight around, and this cocky little one foot tall midget Fidel Castro lighting another cigar and blowing smoke in the bully’s face just before he got creamed. So we would listen to Kaffke’s tirades with tolerance and a certain measure of agreement.
He was not the centerpiece of our table by any means. But he had a ferocious intensity and a lack of humor that placed him apart. His one subject was humorless dead ahead radical socialist politics. Unilateral versus bilateral disarmament. Pacifism. Conspiracy. Bay of Pigs. FBI agents under your bed. Always serious, never getting the joke, always dead set on his fixed idea – some vague revolution sometime somewhere that would lead to world peace and kindness and gentle lambs. Except first a big satisfying bloody revolution.
It’s not like I thought revolution was a bad idea, but Cuba was a long way away man, and I had gotten my girlfriend pregnant during the summer. Now we were married and making each other’s lives miserable, and the future looked like death coming in a little apartment. The Commons was my lifeline to the cool world. I needed it bad. The little lambs would have to wait till I got off work. For me, Kaffke was part of the entertainment.
I wondered about the guy though. Sometimes he’d drop teasers about his past – he’d fought in Korea and received a Purple Heart. He’d been a boxer, fought under the name Ruby, and someone had put him in a novel.
He was diabetic – I saw his syringe and little vials of insulin in a kit he always carried with him. Yet in spite of the disease he had ridden horseback through Mexico from San Blas up to Tepic and beyond, camping out in the jungle and the banana plantations.
OK, maybe he was cool after all. Because THAT was cool.
He’d been married a couple of times and had a daughter – 13 or 14. The idea of one of us having a teenager astonished me. I was thinking about my own little kid to come. What will it be like to have a kid? I imagined us living in Greenwich Village and having lunch at a sidewalk cafe. She was ten in my daydream and I was a famous young novelist. No wife in sight! Or maybe I’d be a big English professor at San Francisco State and own an imposing house in the hills near Buena Vista Park and there she is getting on the 43 Roosevelt bus — off to the Conservatory of Music for her violin lesson.
Kaffke was a spectre of my personal nightmare, I think. What if I got to be thirty-five and I still was living with my parents and had nothing better to do than take the streetcar out to State and sit in the Commons all day. The horror!
Castro loomed large in Kaffke’s cosmology. One day he got into an argument with a passing Business major. I remember him saying emphatically, “Castro…he is a Saint!” Caught me up, because a day or two before Kaffke was defending his Catholic faith and described himself as a true believer. No, he was a Fidelista first and last in the years I knew him. Cuba Si! Yanqui No! He showed us an incoherent document he had written attacking the American embargo on Cuba, and I began to wonder if he had a screw loose. That would explain things! Yet, although he never graduated he told us he had over 150 units to his credit. That’s a lot of incoherent but passing term papers. No, he wasn’t crazy in that way. Just mad – really mad inside.
One time Kaffke disappeared and we heard he had a job teaching high school in Angel’s Camp, a little town up in the Gold Rush country. Math or civics or something. He lasted about four months, then one morning there he was, back at the table. As an exercise in civic responsibility, Bob had his students write letters to Kennedy criticizing his Cuba policy. The town fathers gave him 24 hours to get out of town.
What motivated a guy like that? I’ve often wondered. Was he making a principled protest against American colonial attitudes? Was he seeking personal glory? Was he just trying to make a buck? How did he support his daughter? Did he go down to the FBI office and report on the gossip around the Peacenik’s table?
I knew J. Edgar Hoover was convinced we were a threat to the American way! What a laugh! We couldn’t even get to our next class on time. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley – which really kicked off the massive student protest phase of the Sixties, was still a couple years away.
I knew plenty of Communists, older guys who would come out to campus and make speeches about class struggle sometimes. They had gnarled up little minds with one fixed idea, an obsession with a worker-ruled economy that just didn’t fit the world I saw growing around me. They were just part of the entertainment. The chances of being duped by them were zero. But Kaffke was a generation older than me. Maybe they still made sense to him.
I wasn’t surprised when Kaffke hit the front page of the paper on July 1, 1963. He was giving an exclusive telephone interview from Havana. My journal for the day simply notes: “So Kaffke and Lorie (Cantrell) actually made it. They’re in Cuba, by way of Paris and The Prague. He’s described as ‘a 35 year old art student from S.F. State’. He’s an art student? He’s thirty-five?” They were staying at the “luxurious” Hotel Riviera, guests, along with 57 other students, of Fidel Castro. The students were on a “fact-finding mission”, checking out for themselves if Castro had horns. I think they decided he didn’t. The article didn’t mention who paid for their tickets.
Bob Kaffke photo: Days of Rage (Memoirs of the Sixties)
J. Edgar Hoover; Women Strike For Peace Picketers – Library of Congress
Castro & Khruschev: AP
Peace Symbol: No Nukes North
Hands Off Cuba: Mary Ferrell Foundation