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