'/> Uncommon Hours: Narrowing the degrees of separation at Prospero’s: Trim Bissell
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Narrowing the degrees of separation at Prospero’s: Trim Bissell

Narrowing the degrees of separation at Prospero’s: Trim Bissell
Bob Sommer

Uncommon Hours

Prospero’s Books in Kansas City is the kind of bookstore that is increasingly rare in what co-owner Tom Wayne calls “the post-literate age.” It’s the kind of bookstore where the owners actually read books.

Wayne and his partner Will Leathem also burn them—but that’s to make a point (and it’s a topic for another posting).

Anyway, my wife and I visited Prospero’s on New Year’s Eve to search out a children’s book she’d been trying to find, and Wayne brightened when he saw me and pointed to one of the men regularly parked behind the counter, saying he’d just been recommending Where the Wind Blew to him. The man was in his sixties, bearded, and immediately pulled a copy of Ed Sanders’ Shards of God from his bag to recommend to me, another novel of the Vietnam era.

A few days later I got a lengthy email from “the old volunteer guy” behind the counter, as he calls himself. Mark Zorn is a retiree and self-published poet. He said that after browsing through my novel, he had a story to share about his own encounters with a 1960s antiwar activist who became a fugitive, Silas Trim Bissell. He gave me permission to share that story here, which I’ve supplemented after some fact-checking.

If the last name Bissell is familiar it’s because Trim Bissell’s great-grandfather founded one of the largest vacuum cleaner manufacturers in the country. A regular allowance from that fortune later supplemented Bissell’s seventeen-year life underground.

Zorn had studied English literature at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and took a poetry course taught by Bissell in 1963, during his sophomore year. The two became friends when they discovered that their girlfriends both lived in the same house.

Zorn lost touch with Bissell after college, but ten years later he moved to Eugene, Ore., and after he’d been living there for a year or so, he thought he recognized Bissell, now sporting a big beard and hanging around the grower’s market.

“We never spoke,” Zorn wrote, “and barely ran into each other, and I wasn't completely convinced it was him, but I was pretty sure. Then one day about ten years after that I practically bumped into him at the library and introduced myself. He actually tried to deny who he was and said he didn't know me. I was having none of that, and when he realized this he took me back in the stacks and told me his story. He said he never acknowledged our relationship because I was too much of a loose cannon. And in truth, I can be impulsive, especially verbally.”

Bissell told Zorn he was living under the alias of Terry Jackson and was wanted by the FBI for the attempted bombing of an ROTC building at the University of Washington.

Bissell and his wife planted a bomb that failed to detonate in conjunction with a speaking engagement on campus by Yippies leader Jerry Rubin in January 1970. They were caught and later went underground.

According to Zorn, he struck up a new relationship with Bissell in Eugene. An accomplished poet and painter, Bissell was devoting most of his energy to his painting at that time.

“Lots of self portraits in a German expressionist style,” Zorn wrote, adding that Bissell “was still folk dancing―they called it contra dancing―I thought it must be some form from Nicaragua, the more fool I. But basically the typical Earlham folkie trip with a hippie overlay.”

Zorn was as candid about how he perceived Bissell as he was about himself.

“We enjoyed one another's company from time to time for a few years,” he wrote. “I was struck mainly by the fact that he seemed totally into himself. He did have a girlfriend who became his wife―nice woman, again, a typical Quaker type (to me).* Pliant on the outside, steel rod on the inside. Kinda forbidding looking. You know, those eyebrows, sort of a perpetual scowl. Just my impression. Maybe she didn't trust me. Why should she?”

Bissell was finally outed, possibly betrayed by a neighbor, he believed, and sent to Lampoc Federal Penitentiary, where he served 17 months. He was released in 1988.

Zorn stayed in touch with Bissell and visited him while he was in prison.

“I was glad to have done it,” Zorn wrote, “but again, my impression was that he was self-centered to a fault. Minimum didn't look too bad to me; I thought his newsletters [from prison] were a bit self-pitying, but what do I know? Never been jailed. On the way home I listened to the entire opera by [John] Adams, Nixon in China, on the radio. Never had heard an English language opera. Loved it.”

Zorn saw Bissell occasionally after his release from prison and described Bissell’s efforts to help torture victims from Central America. Whatever faults he may have found with him, Zorn was impressed that Bissell “continued sticking by his principles.”

Bissell died of cancer in 2002.

An added coincidence for me in this story was learning that Bissell took his Master’s degree in physical therapy at Duke University in 1981. We probably passed one another occasionally on campus during that period, while Bissell was still a fugitive.

Zorn’s is without doubt the most detailed, and most interesting, story that anyone familiar with my novel has shared about his or her connection to that time – but it’s far from the only one, and certainly one of the great pleasures of hearing from readers is hearing such stories.

* Earlham College is a Quaker institution.


  1. You missed the part where he lied to his girlfriend in Eugene. He was in a committed relationship with a friend of mine and told her he was "taking his dog back East so a 'friend' of his could watch it while he was in prison." This friend back East became his wife. And what of all the hours of support given by his girlfriend, the organizing of jail support, the visits to him in jail? When he was permitted to see to his personal affairs before entering his final jail time, he chose to cheat on his girlfriend. When I last saw him at a contra dance in Eugene just before his death, I did not even say hello. And I do not regret it.

  2. Trim was a great friend of mine. I met him at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1966 when I enrolled in his creative writing course. In 1970 after he had been arrested in Seattle, he returned briefly to Detroit and asked me to go underground with him and Judy. As much as I loved him, I could not agree to do so. I myself moved to Seattle in 1976. I visited Judy in jail a couple of years later but did not see Trim until after his capture in 1987. When he was released from prison, he came to see me again and recorded our long conversation. I would love to know if that recording still exists. He had promised me a copy, but although we corresponded by e-mail for several years after, I never got the recording.
    I am puzzled by one item in Zorn's account: that he had taken a course taught by Trim at Earlham in 1963, when in fact Trim would have been a junior or senior in Ann Arbor.

  3. I got in touch with Mark Zorn regarding the discrepancy about dates. Here’s part of his response:

    “yes, i think joel's right, i got the date wrong. i was at earlham '62-'66 and i hooked up with catharine my junior year, which wd have been fall '64 at the earliest. i think 1965 is a closer date…”

    Bob S

  4. I'm rather sure that Trim was my Humanities professor my freshman year at Earlham, the fall of 1965.