Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
After I got out of the Army, I became involved in the anti-war movement as well as the other main causes of the time, women’s rights and racial equality. We’d go out and do street theater, we’d march, we printed broadsides that I cringe to remember and thankfully have no copy of, we spoke before groups, we did whatever we thought might help. We would go out to protest the war and agitate for a wide range of ideals at any opportunity. During one of these protests back in 1968 some friends and I kidnapped Ronald Reagan at UCSC and held him captive for about two hours.
Man, we were idiots. Our hearts were in the right place, but man, we were idiots, so let me be clear about this story. I would never do this again. It was disrespectful to Governor Reagan, big time stupid, criminal, and wrong. Hey, I was so dumb back then, I actually thought that Karl Marx was one of the good guys, and you can’t get much dumber than that. Today I hold that by way of Lenin and Stalin and Mao and Ho and Castro and a host of franchised Mini-Marx wholesale and retail killing enterprises around the world, Karl Marx is the one man in modern history whose ideas caused the most human death and suffering … so as you see, today I’m not the same dumb young man in my story. Still a fool, to be sure … but an old fool, not the young fool I was then.
Anyhow, that precis doesn’t mention a few things, actually more than a few, so let me add to the history of the time. This is a story about a young man who was outsmarted by Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan at that time was the Governor of California. The Governor also sits on the Board of Regents of the University of California, with dozens of campuses. The newest of these at the time was UCSC, the University of California at Santa Cruz. And he’d come to UCSC for the annual meeting of the Board.
I tried to go to college at UCSC, I really did. I registered and paid my fees. I was commercial fishing at the time, lampara netting with an old Sicilian fisherman in a lovely old 27′ (5m) wooden Monterrey boat, for pompano and other fish. I loved the work, the fishing, the sea life, and I wanted more than just that. I wanted to study marine biology, I was fascinated by the strange creatures we’d catch at times, moonfish and ocean sturgeon and threshers sharks with huge long tails. I wanted to learn more about them, so I applied and got accepted at UCSC, and waited for the schedule of classes.
The news was nothing but bad. The Intro to Marine Biology 101 class, along with a couple of other marine classes that would have interested me, were at 8 AM. Not a problem normally … but lampara netting is done only in the darkness. So my normal schedule was, I went to work at dusk, and got off work around four or five in the morning, sometimes six, collapsed into bed exhausted, and slept ’til around noon … I could have handled a class at eleven, but eight was out of the question. I’d figured there’d be one afternoon marine biology class, but no.
So I continued to fishing until the end of the season. By then it was halfway through the semester, so after the season when I had time I went back up the hill to the lovely campus, and I officially dropped out of school, and mentally said goodbye to my dreams of hanging out on the campus with the college babes … ah, well.
Of course, I still needed money. With no fishing, I went down and I signed up with the Laborers and Hod Carriers Union. I found out that a hod was what a young strong guy uses to carry mortar to the guys laying bricks. But I never did that work. They called us up by number, you had to be in the hiring hall, longest in the hall hired first. So I sat in the hall every morning for an hour or so for about three days, and then my number was called … and they sent me right back up the hill to UCSC, to work for the crew constructing the gorgeous outdoor amphitheater built into the hillside. I was put to work digging the ditches into the hillside for logs that form the amphitheater bench seats you see in the picture above.
So there I was, laboring away on the Amphitheater, practicing my shovel moves in the hot sun on the first day, and I thought “Man, I dropped out of college three days ago, and here I am digging ditches. My beloved Dad warned me that would happen … but dang, I had no idea it would happen so fast!”
Anyhow, I still got to see the college babes on my lunch hour. And even better, now I wasn’t some immature college kid. Despite being only three days older than before, suddenly in their eyes I was mysteriously transmuted into the noble full-grown Union workingman, what better? … hey, like I said, I was young and dumb.
I do find it humorous, though, that despite the fact I never did get to attend UCSC … I helped build it.
Anyhow, I started to tell the story of when Ronald Reagan came to Santa Cruz for the meeting of the Board of Regents, and somehow I always end up on some other trail in the forest of life’s stories, there’s more forks than there are roads and I get lost easily—but regarding Reagan, there were lots of contentious issues in front of the Board of Regents at that meeting: free speech, who could speak when and where, what facilities could be used for whose meetings, would the University boycott grapes, a whole host of stuff.
A newspaper article from around then refreshes my memory of the events.
Wednesday’s protests echoed a 1968 visit to the campus by then- governor Ronald Reagan, who came to meet with UC regents. For three days, university students blocked buses, heckled speakers and held rallies to protest a decision to restrict Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver from speaking on university campuses. Protesters also demanded that the new College 7 be named in honor of Malcolm X, and that the United Farm Workers-sponsored grape boycott be respected in university dining halls.
After the Regents had met, Reagan came out from the meeting room and strode to the podium to address the assembled students, teachers, and general public. Some friends and I were sitting in the front row. I was maybe ten feet from Reagan. I remember being amazed at the amount of makeup he was wearing, although I shouldn’t have been. He’d been an actor, he knew the importance of appearances when making public appearances.
He started in speaking, and there wasn’t a sliver of good news in it as far as his listeners were concerned. As he announced decision after decision, every single one of them went against what the students wanted. And finally, at some point, he announced some really unpopular decision of the Board, I can’t remember what, but people were furious. The front couple of rows, sadly including myself, stood up and started yelling and screaming at him.
Looking back on it, I suspect that everything would have been fine if he had just stood his ground. My guess is we would have yelled, but you can only yell for so long. But he didn’t stand there. I think he was shocked when the front couple rows erupted in screams right in his face, he realized that despite the presence of some media he was unprotected and only ten feet from an outraged crowd … and he turned and ran.
He was scared, and I don’t blame him for that, in his shoes I’d likely have made the same mistake and run myself. But running from a crowd in that mood, well, that’s a tactical error. And when he turned and ran, what happened is just what you’d expect—stupidly and inexcusably, a dozen or so of us vaulted to the stage and took off in pursuit, right at his heels. We chased him down a corridor, prevented him from getting out by a side door, pressed him around into another corridor, and he went into the first open room he could find. We barricaded the door. It was the only door. We had him trapped, imprisoned, no way out. Of course, he’d locked the door as well, so we’d have to break it down, but we had no plan to do that.
In fact we had no plan at all, we were surprised as he was at this unexpected turn of events. We had the Governor of California trapped in a room, unable to get out, and we had no idea at all what to do with him or how to do it if we could figure it out.
We held him prisoner in that room at UCSC for a couple of hours, with some of my friends and I in the forefront … and here’s the crazy part. I think in a legal sense that those occurrences would absolutely qualify as the kidnapping (forcing someone to go somewhere against their will) and temporary imprisonment of a sitting California Governor … like I said, young and stupid.
How curious. Here, where I least expect it, I’m in a quandary. See, the Statute of Limitations ran out long, long ago on any illegal stuff I might have done as a young man. So I figured, I can talk about anything, ’cause nothing I did was serious, and you can’t be charged for stuff that long ago. But here, I’m saying that I was one of the “ringleaders” if you will in the commission of two serious felonies, the kidnapping and temporary imprisonment of the Governor of California. If guys with guns had done it, they’d have been thrown in the slammer immediately. Is there a statute of limitation on kidnapping, whether of the Governor or someone else?
But of course in reality, it wasn’t kidnapping, it was college students and other young eedjits making fools of ourselves, so after a couple hours the cops showed up. We were surprised they arrived that fast, the Santa Cruz cops weren’t usually that quick off the mark. They came in a flying wedge and drove us away from the door. They formed a corridor, shoulder to shoulder. Then, when all was ready, the Chancellor of UCSC walked slowly up the corridor of armed men, and knocked on the door of the room Reagan was in.
Knocked. That should have given us a clue.
After a few seconds, Reagan answered the door warmly. He looked immaculate, every hair in place. He came out, waved and smiled to the cameras. He was still wearing the thick makeup he’d put on for the speech, I was still close, I could see it. We were shouting a variety of inane contemporary slogans. He shook hands with the Chancellor solemnly, showed no surprise at the lines of police, it was as if Reagan and the Chancellor had just signed a momentous agreement and were memorializing for the photographers. He walked sedately and proudly between the walls of cops to a limousine and disappeared.
We thought we had won. We patted each other on the backs and congratulated ourselves on our dash and brilliance. But when we got home and talked to our friends, we found out that the old man had outfoxed us completely, that instead of fame we reaped ignominy … appropriate, I suppose. Here was our mistake.
We were so busy congratulating ourselves that we forgot that there was a phone in the prisoners cell …
And seeing that phone, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, the ex-radio announcer, didn’t hesitate. He picked up the phone and called up the cops, explained the situation, got them moving. Then came his first master stroke … he called up the local radio station.
He knew they’d put him on the air live, he was the Governor after all, and they did, and he put his golden tones to work. Oh, to hear his story, he was reporting from the front lines in the culture wars, he was the beleaguered hero of the common man, fighting against the crazed communist hordes besieging his door like some movie plot he’d acted in. He mixed in the War, the domino theory, the yellow peril, folksy tales, from what I heard it was a masterpiece.
Not only that, but you remember the knock on the door when they took him out?
His idea … he was in communication by phone with the leader of the cops making the assault, his master’s touch was everywhere evident in how the situation ended. He arranged to be greeted by the Chancellor’s knock, he waited a few seconds before answering the door even though I’m sure he was already standing right there when the knock came, he’d staged and scripted the handshake and every part of the departure scene for maximum effect. Brilliant, I can only bow my head in admiration. Well played, that man.
But I didn’t hear his radio talk, of course, because I was on guard in front of his cell door, lost I’m sure in monstrously self-righteous satisfaction. His audience loved it, though, that became one more part of the official Reagan legend, he turned defeat into victory. He walked out of his temporary cell like a warrior monk leaving his place of meditation before battle, perfectly coiffed, polishing his halo and buffing his nails.
And good on him, I say at this advanced stage of my youth. Although I’m not a huge fan of Reagan’s, I’ve ended up liking and respecting many things about him, and I can laugh at a masterful trick like his even when it’s played on me.
In any case, when I got concerned, I looked up the law. I found out that as I had feared, in California there’s no Statute of Limitations on kidnapping the Governor or anyone else. Kidnapping is punishable by life imprisonment, and the relevant statute reads:
799. Prosecution for an offense punishable by death or by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for life without the possibility of parole, or for the embezzlement of public money, may be commenced at any time.
So in theory, I could still be indicted. Ah, well. I started out to tell the truth, can’t stop now, and I doubt greatly if I’ll be charged for kidnapping Reagan at this late date. And regarding the dangers, I can’t live like that. I won’t base my life on fear. The world is a wild and crazy and dangerous place, it’s true. And as I have more reason than most to know, some of the good folks out there are more than a few bubbles out of plumb. But I can’t live my life based on being scared that someone is going to come after me, official or unofficial.
I studied the martial art called Aikido off and on for some years, under a number of teachers. It’s an amazing path, after years of training I’m only a beginner. Ai-Ki-Do means the martial path (do) of harmony (ai) with “ki”, the essential energy of life.
In martial arts like Aikido, a teacher is called a “sensei”, a Japanese word meaning roughly “master”. When I studied Aikido at the Honolulu dojo, one of my senseis was an old Japanese man, in his seventies, a wonderful teacher. He said something like:
You think that because you know Aikido and your ki [energy] is strong, you can win the fight. This is wrong understanding. What if you are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and it collapses?
What good is your ki then?
I will tell you how the Aikido master wins the fight. When the fight breaks out on Second Street, the master is walking down Ninth Street. When the Golden Gate Bridge collapses, the master is watching from the shore.
So me, I don’t hide my identity when I write, I talk about what I’ve done and the stupid mistakes I’ve made. I make no effort to conceal myself. If Old Nick wants to find me, he knows where I am. I just keep walking out in the sunshine, in plain view, with a tremendous amount of likely foolish and ultimately unjustifiable faith that I’m walking down Ninth Street …
My regards to all, and truly, kids, don’t try this at home. My best advice is never kidnap a sitting Governor of California, or any other state for that matter, it doesn’t look good on your resume … especially a Governor who is as handsome, media-savvy, persuasive, and inventive as Ronald Reagan was in his prime. Big mistake. I take my hat off to the man, I disagreed with him on many things, but he was an American through and through. And he sure bested me in Santa Cruz, where the final score was Reagan 1, … and Willis lost.
… [© 2013] collected for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often”