When I was a teenager I read Photoplay magazine religiously. I didn’t want to be a celebrity but I was interested in how the rich and famous lived their lives. I cared more about being smart than popular or pretty. I was shy (can you believe it?). During the daily post-lunch walkaround period in the underbelly of my mammoth old high school I wondered, what might I accomplish in my lifetime?
A horde of teens walking in circles. No talking. No touching. No, no, no. My only choice: engage with the inner sanctum of my mind every day for twenty minutes. Perhaps that was a good thing, maybe even a precursor to meditation. Or becoming an ideas person? Sure, why not change how schools are run? What is historical truth? Why can’t I do this or that?
A lifetime later, I recall my three fantasy careers. I wanted to be a U.S. Senator, a psychiatrist, or a rock star. Which was most improbable? I can’t sing. I didn’t know you had to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. I served on the County Democratic Committee in Vermont, my highest level of political attainment.
Looking back, a career in politics seems the least craziest. Maybe it happened?
Watching the 1972 Democratic Convention in the tiny town of Twillingate, Newfoundland, I said to my then-husband, Henry, “Let’s go work for McGovern.” So we did. We were young and idealistic. We headed home when the summer ended.
McGovern was smart, a historian who was against the Vietnam War. Yeah, he was our guy for president.
Following that summer in the boonies, where Henry worked on his 32-foot Newfoundland fishing boat, known as a trap skiff, I advised young women under 25 about birth control. A few already had four kids. Their eyes drooped with fatigue while they popped loaves of bread into ovens, as easily as they became pregnant.
I wanted to do something that made a difference on a larger scale. We drove to DC, ready to be assigned to the McGovern campaign in a state different from my native New England. Montana was that place. Big sky country. I could see for miles and miles…
I was in my early twenties. I had never traveled west of Philadelphia. Excitement reigned across highways and plains and cornfields and mountains. Till we reached Great Falls, our headquarters for transforming the nation into a kinder, more equitable place. That was 50 years ago.
Out west. Wow. As a kid, whenever we drove around suburban Connecticut, I would ask my father, “Is that Texas over the next hill?”
“Yes,” he would humor me, knowing that I dreamt of being a cowgirl.
Great Falls was like any small city. Except for the tiny cans of beer you could swig down any time of day, entering a bar through swinging doors like on Gunsmoke. Except for grown men wearing cowboy hats and spurs on the backs of their boots. “Howdy,” said some of those men, tipping their hats to strangers strolling down the street.
My ex and I were the co-coordinators of Eastern Montana for McGovern. Our assignment included driving around in my little red Toyota to cow-poking and farming communities. Two Easterners chatting up locals, trying to convince them to vote for George McGovern. He was from their neighboring South Dakota.
I learned that farmers tended to vote Democratic and ranchers went for Republicans. Local Democrats told us that Sheridan County in the northeastern corner of Montana was full of socialist farmers. No need to go there. I wish we had.
We stayed with sister Democrats in towns called Petroleum, Glendive, Roundup, and Big Sandy. Unfolding our bedrolls — uh, sleeping bags — in old school busses, basements with animal heads hanging on the walls, heatless shacks, you name it. All for changing the direction of our country. Sent by politicians back east in DC. Like the U.S. Calvary?
“Don’t vote for Tricky Dick Nixon, he’s a liar and a warmonger, what has he ever done for the average cowpoke?” we asked anyone who would listen.
I’m proud that Montana came in seventh in its losing vote for George McGovern. We worked our asses off. When I finally met McGovern in a packed airport hanger I leaned over and said, “Just keep telling the truth.”
“Thank you, thank you,” he replied in what I thought of as his South Dakota twang. For sure he was in his automatic politician’s mode.
Our weekly pay was $50 for our amateur politicking around the state. The campaign ran out of money. Instead of cash, we got a new set of tires to head home, proudly displaying our Massachusetts license plate, the only state that went for McGovern. Bearing the bumper sticker that read, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts,” many drivers beeped and waved at us.
After McGovern lost the presidency in 1972, I figured that teaching was the best way to change the world. That’s how I made the choice to become a teacher, my first career.
I didn’t become a U.S. Senator. But if not politics, what else would you call teaching high school, running a bookstore, and being a journalist for an organization I disagreed with? Yes, I’ve sometimes been unable to control my anger, or chose not to. I’ve often tried to be diplomatic or compromise. Isn’t that what life — and politics — is all about?
And on Tuesday I’ll vote here for the first time.
Minneapolis, you are a puzzle to me. I want to learn more. Fancy mansions a half-mile from the workings of the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. A horde of candidates under 30 running for City Council and mayor. A Democratic haven. Longtime segregation. Wherefore art thou, Minneapolis?