Clint and Virginia Jencks introduced me to Berkeley’s local FM radio station KPFA. There was nothing else like it. An interview with Paul Robeson, the blacklisted singer with the remarkable voice; a conversations with a priest who worked inside San Quentin prison; a blacklisted professor who served prison time for defying McCarthy; a sympathetic discussion of homosexuality … the first in American broadcasting. There were commentaries by Soviet apologist William Mandel, Conservative Republican Casper Weinberger, movie critic Pauline Kael, Eastern mystic Alan Watts and the
Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth. There were programs by opera buff Anthony Boucher, Jazz enthusiast Phil Elwood, and a late night folk music show by Gert Chiarito that attracted local musicians like the then unknown guitarist Jerry Garcia.
The station was listener supported, accepting no other funds, and hence on a perennial campaign to attract more paying listeners. With the dearth of FM radios available at the time, KPFA offered a free FM radio with every subscription. We jumped at the opportunity and started listening every night.
KPFA’s signal did not come through clearly in the lower hills of El Cerrito. We had to sit by the radio and twiddle the dial.
It felt like living in occupied Europe during World War II, listening to the BBC over a short-wave radio. There may have been a reason for that. The driving force at KPFA and Pacifica at the time was Elsa Knight Thompson, who had learned her craft while broadcasting for the BBC to millions of Europeans in occupied Europe during World War II.
I couldn’t imagine that KPFA would have any jobs available. Wouldn’t everyone want to work there? Nevertheless, I called the station. They told me they weren’t hiring but they were looking for volunteers and that’s how most people joined the staff.
KPFA’s offices were above Edy’s Restaurant (the original Edy’s). I almost missed the small door at the end of Edy’s plate glass windows on Shattuck Avenue and then walked past it several times to get up my courage. Finally I climbed the sagging, narrow, steep wooden stairs painted an institutional
green, entered a hallway with a warren of offices piled high with old copies of the New York Times, stacks of magazines and mimeographed pamphlets, a sense of impending chaos, a cross between the temporary headquarters for the latest protest movement and a bohemian coffee shop.
Squirreled away behind a partition in an island of calm, a patient, proper gray haired lady, the indispensable Vera Hopkins, uniquely paid attention to my claim that I had an interview with station manager Dr. Harold Winkler.
I had on my jacket and tie but most of the staff were dressed like college students or San Francisco beatniks, a level of informality unusual in any workplace in those days. Winkler also had on a jacket and tie. He seemed subdued and exhausted. His office was the book-lined alcove of a university professor, with a large, wooden desk, a blotter and ink well, a neat pile of papers, in and out boxes, a green shaded bank lamp and a black rotary telephone. He was a small man, with wide shoulders, an elegant neck, confident chin, thin lips expressing a permanent sense of disappointment. He wore rimless glasses. His hair was neatly trimmed and a distinguished shade of grey.
Among Winkler’s first questions, how many foreign languages did I speak? I had the immediate sense that I was talking to somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told me to come back to volunteer in a week. He’d find a place for me. It was Friday, April 29th 1960. I needed to give my father notice. We settled on May 13th.
The following week, Nikita Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union had shot down a U-2 spy plane. CIA flights over the Soviet Union were an open secret. Time Magazine had published an
article about the U-2’s in 1958, hinting at illegal flights. But no one could believe that Eisenhower would jeopardize his summit with Khrushchev scheduled ten days later. We were relived when his administration issued a statement that the U-2 was actually a weather plane that had gone off course. The summit was still on.
Then, on Saturday May 7th, Khrushchev put pilot Gary Powers on display. Powers had been captured alive, neglecting to take his CIA provided suicide option. He told the Soviets everything. Khrushchev showed off the gold watches and coins Powers had carried with him to barter with the locals, the suicide pin to use if captured and copies of the pictures the U-2 had taken of Soviet air fields.
Eisenhower might have avoided responsibility and kept alive hopes for a summit by blaming his staff, but his generation didn’t do that. It may have been a mark of his character, but for Khrushchev it was a slap in the face. Not only was the American President untrustworthy, he didn’t mind admitting it. Khrushchev cancelled the summit and called off Eisenhower’s trip to the Soviet Union.
The hope for world peace was shattered for at least twenty years.
We were sure the CIA had set this up, but apparently Eisenhower authorized the flight. He walked into the
Oval Office on May 9 and said out loud: “I would like to resign.” Everyone in the world knew that he had lied,
albeit in the name of national security. Much later, in retirement, Eisenhower said the greatest regret of his presidency was “the lie we told about the U-2. I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to pay for that lie.”… “I had longed to give the United States and the world a lasting peace. I was able only to contribute to a stalemate.”