May 09
Lorraine Berry lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, although it's her transplanted home. On weekends, she can be heard throughout the area, cheering on her beloved Manchester City F.C. When not writing at Does This Make Sense? or Talking Writing, she can be found hiking with her two dogs, hanging out with her two daughters, eating what her beloved Rob has cooked for her, or teaching creative writing at a small college in the area.


Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 10:27AM

A Political Education

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In November of 1980, I was a college freshman. I had spent the entire summer prior to college working on a congressional campaign. It was exciting work, and I met many "famous" politicians, got to hobnob with political movers and shakers. I was young, and I was adopted by the campaign as the "kid," which should have meant that I made coffee and lots of photocopies. The deal was, however, that I was also intense and well organized, and I wound up being the volunteer coordinator. At 17, I felt as if I had become someone integral to the campaign; among my duties were organizing phone banks and sign parties and envelope-stuffing parties—a lot of what is called “get out the vote,” and the activities that are crucial this year for candidates seeking to reach the many, may voters who have never previously voted.

I also had an enormous crush on one of the campaign coordinators. He was a recent graduate of college, taking a year off before applying to law school, and he rocked my world. I thought about him constantly. Even when I went away to college, every weekend, I'd go back down to campaign headquarters and work with him. And, because I was going to college in the same congressional district, I still got to see everyone when they came up for events. He and I talked all the time. He was a huge Beatles fan, especially Lennon. We talked about music. About politics. About how the world was going to be a better place. We talked about human rights. About how labor unions were important. About how he was going to law school to get involved in international justice. Each day, my crush became more and more of a love. I was blissful in his company. I couldn't help it.

November 4, 1980. For a liberal Democrat, it may reign as one of the worst nights ever. It wasn't just Jimmy Carter getting trounced by Ronald Reagan. It was the liberal Democratic senators who lost their seats that night: Church, Bayh, McGovern, Magnuson. I forget all of them now, but I just remember being despondent. As the election returns came in, it just went from bad to worse to grim. A caravan decided to head south to our main headquarters so our candidate, who had clinched his race, could make his victory speech. It was late. After 11. Nobody noticed that I was pouring myself drinks from the open bar. But by midnight or so, with it hellaciously clear that nothing was ever going to be the same, I was pretty drunk.

My best friend from high school had voted for Reagan. In a blind, drunken fury, I sat down and wrote her a long letter about what her vote would cost us all: it wasn’t just women’s equality and abortion rights, it was such things as a foreign policy that would put us in bed with heinous dictators. Hell, even college student financial aid would be slashed. The list went on and on. (And, 25+ years later, I look at that date as a watershed night of changes that have gradually stripped away from the culture all of the things I hold dear as inalienable rights.)

He was also drunk. He offered me a ride home to my parents' house. My folks had no idea I was in town, of course. I remember we got into his car and he said to me, "Well. You have two choices, I can drive you to your folks, or you can come home with me." Guess which I chose? No longer a virgin, my fantasies about this guy had always included sex. Of course I said yes. And what I needed from him was more than sex. I needed comfort. Some assurance that the world that I thought was collapsing all around my feet wasn't really collapsing. That it wasn't really as bad as it looked. That this country had not really just elected Reagan and a band of such conservative dismal Republicans that certainly, now, Orwell's 1984 was about to manifest itself. He needed that, too. He needed to lose himself in me, to pretend that the world would be blissful.

So that's what we did. We went back to his apartment and we fucked all night long. The things I remember from that night was that it was the first time I ever had a penis in my mouth, and I remember how surprised I was by how it felt. It wasn't slick, as I had somehow imagined. It felt like skin, just softer skin. I can't say as I really had a clue what I was supposed to do with it in my mouth. And I certainly didn't know what to do when he put his mouth between my legs. I was too drunk to appreciate whatever it was I was supposed to be feeling. But I remember being happy that he and I had finally found each other after all these months of tension between us.

The room was light by the time I fell asleep. We slept for a few hours, and then, when he woke up, he said to me, as only a 22-year old male could, "That should not have happened." I don't think I could have been more devastated. He drove me to the bus station, and I remember crying all the way to my college town.

Three weeks later, I'm late. It's just a day or two. No biggie. But I'm getting worried. This is 1980, and they don't sell pregnancy tests in stores. There's a health clinic on campus, but the earliest they'll do a pregnancy test is two weeks after a missed period. Three days. Four. Five. No blood. I call him, tell him the news. He's supposed to be leaving for Europe right after Christmas. He's supposed to be starting law school in the fall. This is not in his plans. He begins to call me every day to ask me one simple question. "Have you gotten your period yet?" And every day, the same answer. "I'm sorry. No. I haven't."

I didn't tell anyone. Who was I going to tell? I just carried myself through my days in a daze. I tried not to think about it. I had heard that stressing out would delay your period, so I tried to tell my body to relax. I went running every day, thinking that the exercise would make me start. Abortion was legal, and it was available in the college town where I lived. But I didn't know what I wanted to do. If I was pregnant, could I go through an abortion? I preferred not to think about it.

I saw my folks. Didn't mention anything going on with me. My father commented that I had gained weight at college, which was true. I seemed always to be eating. Dorm food, and then, late at night, pizza delivered to my dorm. I went to classes, did my school work. Talked to him every night. It was bittersweet. On one hand, he was talking to me and I thought I might be in love with him. On the other, he clearly did not want to be talking to me. He wanted me to go away.

Finally. The first week of December. I went into the health clinic the first thing in the morning. I peed into a jar. I would get my results in the afternoon—after three p.m. they informed me. He had arranged to meet me off-campus at 4:00. I showed up at three in the clinic office. "Negative" the nurse said, and I must admit, my feelings were mixed. I was happy to not be pregnant. But I also knew what it meant for him. He showed up at the café. I told him the news. He was so happy. He grinned, he sighed loudly; I thought he might do some kind of celebratory jig in the coffee shop. He was so happy I wanted to punch him. He was happy because he wouldn't be saddled with me. That he could let me go now. That I could go away and he could go away and that was that.

And he did.

But a few days later, I was sleeping and my mom called me. I thought she was calling because it was her wedding anniversary and I had forgotten. No. She was calling because John Lennon had just been shot to death. It was around 8 pm my time. The only person I could think to call was him.

And so I did.

He was crying, couldn't talk. I don't remember what we said, but the conversation lasted maybe 60 seconds. I wanted so much to hold him, make him feel better. But I couldn't.

It was the last time we ever talked.

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Quite the fascinating story about being a college freshman. I felt the same way about the '80 election as did my friends and it was discouraging how the country could be duped into voting for "Ronny Raygun" and what he represented.

Your personal story is such a moving tale of ups and downs and despite all the negatives of his behavior in the aftermath of your sexual liaison I am impressed how you reached out to him after Lennon's death which was certainly a depressing time for so many of us.
One has to wonder how different things may have been after that night had Carter and all the rest won. You certainly found a profound pivot point in both our country's future, and your own. And, thank you for posting it here.
Thanks Linn, Larry, and Neilpaul. I've been thinking a lot about 1980-81 because I'm about to start teaching, in the nonfiction course I teach, a book about the Central American revolutions. I protested our participation in those dirty wars, and for me, the Reagan years were about our support of military dictators, the flooding of the homeless into the streets, etc. The watershed was November 4. And that night.
So many awakenings, so much awareness painfully gained . . . you weave these experiences so tightly together. What a foundational year. Having read a fair amount of your work, I can see how deeply this period of time has informed the ways you live your life. This is a really, really strong piece . . .
Thank you, Owl. It's true. So much of the emerging me in this story.
I was wondering where You and some others went off too. We sure enough need wise Guides.
I am here briefly. Howdy.
I saw Larry Lauerman R.
That's nice. I'd rate too.
But 'Rate' button broke.
These are sobering days.

I may get an invite ti a Winery.
Lunenburg County Nova Scotia
They have Blueberry U- Pick too.

They brew a HoneyMoon Wine.
I wish humanity some gladness.
I see skies of blue. Birds in flight.

Good to see You. Blessed Be too.
A political education indeed Lorraine, which spans from all politics are local to your premonitions about Reagan. I think I read once that the Reagan administration had the most indictments of all presidencies, but I can't imagine them beating Nixon on that. So why is it people have such short memories on these things, and then you've given us the rich details from 30 years past, that the politic of an idealized relationship that was to begin a new age in your life paralleled the crashing down all around you, me and the country. The alchemy of disappointment and despair is instructive to us now as we enter this next year.

Craftily woven Lorraine dear, but then, your magic works because your brain is connected to your fingers.
A very sad and moving story, but so beautifully told. It brings back so clearly what it was like to be young and hopeful in America at the beginning of the 80s, until the era of reagan rolled in ....
I had been a college fresh(wo)man the year before but I remember 1980 like it was yesterday. Despite the pills, condoms and foam I also remember the fear of pregnancy, fear of pregnancy, fear of pregnancy. In my case it was a low body weight that terminated my periods but the fear was the same. Poignant story here that ends with JL dying. That we all remember too.

Nice to read you here today.
Youth, intensity, passion, animal instinct, attraction....youth, intensity, passion, animal instinct, attraction....

I could not believe we elected a movie actor to be the president in this country. That was a beginning of some very strange changes which would haunt us until now. Reagenomics, the health care debacle, the beginning of a real end of so many things and the set up for the mess we live with now.

Oh yeah, and the free of pregnancy being restored by the right. Asshats.
Ah, those wild and crazy college days -- as the song goes, love like youth is wasted on the young. This is grittingly honest, and you are to be congratulated on telling this bittersweet story without wallowing in regrets. Still, I sense a large dollop of "what if" in this post.

As for this -- "I look at that date as a watershed night of changes that have gradually stripped away from the culture all of the things I hold dear as inalienable rights" -- exactly. And let me assure you that for those of us who lived thru the Sixties, it was even more devastating to see all we had protested and fought for -- all our dreams dashed by a glib, prevaricator and the millions of ordinary people who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Well, reality has come home to roost, but unfortunately, too many Reagan Democrats still have not come home.
so good to see great writing, especially your great writing, on the site today. this really took me back to that year and the things that happened, that shook the world like earthquakes. weaving them with your personal story really worked. great piece.
What a fantastic story about the difficult experiences and realizations we have on the brink of adulthood.... (And I'm thrilled to see you back on Open Salon, by the way!)
Emily--thanks. I wrote a book manuscript this summer. I stayed off the sites like a good worker bee.
Candace--thank you. High praise from you is high praise, period.
Tom--yes. My parents were young, and I was very much a child of the 60s, so I was aware of what was continuing to be lost. And lost permanently, it seems.
Sheila--yeah. For me, it's always been hard to separate my politics from my body. In this case, it was literal.
Scarlett--the pregnancy thing. It was terrifying, especially when most methods of b.c. were just not usable for me.
Bart--thank you so much.
Barry--I'm touched.
Loved this. Love your honesty and economy-of-style writing (or whatever phrase I'm searching for to describe your style here.) Good to see you.
Nicely done! I can't help feeling in synch with you. I was just turned 20 in 1980 and the idea of Ronald Reagan in office had me sweating bullets, thinking, "Here comes a war with Iran, the draft and me in it." Oddly, I ended up joining the USAF in 1981 and in his next bid for President, I voted for him.

Not because I thought he was a great man or anything, but Mike Dukakis? Are you kidding me -- if they had managed to get Geraldine Ferraro as President and Walter Mondale as Vice, I would have gone for that.

Reagan, though, at least said he wanted to do X and then did his best to see it happen. I also thought, as a woefully underpaid Air Force servicemember, that pay increases for the military was long overdue (having been "in the Navy" my first 16 years of life, because my Dad was in the Navy and we weren't 'living it up' with his pay coming in.)

There were other things about Reagan that I did like and I don't think he was as dishonest as most make him out to be. He also stood up as President of the Screen Actors Guild to McCarthy and you have to admit that was pretty damn brave at the time.

Voodoo or Trickle Down economics is and was then, a sham. A sham we still have to deal with this very day and a hue and cry from the Right that it's what we need more of. Scary.

I ended up living for 6 months out of a backpack at that time, though and part of that was the terrible job Jimmy Carter did with getting our economy back on track. Jimmy Carter was really just too nice and too honest to do the job necessary in Washington -- which is sad on so many levels, inclusive of what Washington has become and remains to this day.

I think I'm just a few years older than you and for the most part, I have voted Democrat most of the time, with the exception being that one time for Reagan on his second run. My second time to vote for President.

As for your 'other' story within the story, drunk love and then finding out love is lust on the other side is a terrible way to end up. Hope that wasn't too damaging for you in the long run.

Wonderfully told.

Thanks for this wonderful coming of age and into wisdom (a hard way, to be sure, despite the great sex) story. As one who lived in Washington for some time (worked as a speechwriter in the Clinton administration), I appreciated all of your references to Democratic politics. I too remember those awful days in November and December 1980.

Great work.
grif--i always appreciate your appreciations.
torrito--oh, i know where he is. just don't feel a need to reach out.
dunniteowl--i am/was tough enough to learn from my tumble. i still grieve what we lost as a nation.
mary--yes. that passion from youth is to be treasured.
Great piece--the combination of politics and sex and young burgeoning lust/love was so vivid. Sorry he turned out to be schmuck. Rated.
when i think I've figured you out
the depth of your story
unravels another layer of you
and i get lost in the tone of your narrative
it's a good lost feeling
and those years you write of I remember
your first year of college
as it should be
an adventure.

and i sing :

~So long ago.
Was it in a dream?
Was it just a dream?
I know, yes I know.
It seemed so very real,
seemed so real to me ... ~
coincidentally, my mom called me to tell me about john's murder...this piece was beautiful on so many levels--rated
Fascinating story, so well told. So well told. ~r
jeez louise that was intense. I hate how much I related to that guy.
Drunk stuff is wrong - he was right about that, but what a loss.
What writing - thanks I think ...
No, thanks. Really.
Those are difficult years in our lives: things seem so clear and so confused at the same time. You capture that so well here. Excellent writing, FLW. Glad to see you back.
Intense piece here. My stomach was in knots and I related so well to the girl here, the one that will never be again be as innocent. Your blunt re- telling of the sex scene made it all the more tender.
We're chronologically on the same timeline, although my political and sexual awakenings came a little bit after yours. (But I do recall feeling a profound despair at the election of Reagan. My 18-year-old self just couldn't believe that anyone had voted for such a fossil.)

I think you've told what is probably a fairly common story in a very compelling way.
wow. that was like forrest gump without the shrimp.
A personal as well as a political education!

I was happy with your response to Torrito's suggestion - why on earth would you want to contact that, as Erika says, schmuck. (Okay, he was a young drunk idealist guy, etc., and he didn't disappear and refudiate at the first suggestion of pregnancy, but still not someone to let think (by contacting) that you still had a tender thought for.) (I'm a never-forget/never-forgive person - fool me once, that's it.)

What is this summer's book about?
A bittersweet and nostalgic remembrance of the 80s. There are elements with which I could identify through personal memories and others through your wonderful writing. Thank you for sharing your memories whose threads are engagingly woven together.
Each loss of a Senate seat was a body blow. Like yours my night was made memorable - I was rearended on a San Francisco highway (a car accident). Like you the country went mad for a night and ended up with little to show for it. You were kind to that guy; I'm thinking he pulled the R lever behind the curtain.
I apologize for the mass response. I spent yesterday trying to figure out how to mobilize my campus around issues of the death penalty.

I appreciate the responses you've all given me. It's funny: there's an assumption that liberal men don't treat women this way in relationships, but I've found that not to be true. It's sort of like the lyrics from Hair's "Easy to Be Hard," right?

Anyway, I emerged from that experience with one more story to tell as I got older, and more experience to draw from when talking to young men and women about love. :)

The tragedy that night was that my Cassandra pronouncements were right. November 4, 1980 was the last night of liberalism in this country.
Oh, and the book in question revolves around the events of this night:
and so it is or was or wasn't.
Such a gripping story and so well written. It will stay with me for a while.
This brought back memories of my own. 1980... what a shitty year that was.