Guest Post: What’s the First Crusade Got To Do with the Free Speech Movement?

Fifty years ago today, at 3:05 a.m. on December 3, 1964, Edward Strong, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, started speaking through his bullhorn to the eight hundred or so people occupying Berkeley’s administration building. Strong told protesters to leave the building they’d occupied peacefully the day before, or face “disciplinary action” and more than six hundred police surrounding the area.

The protesters stayed. That event was one in a series of clashes. I met with some of these protestors at Berkeley’s FSM50 reunion this fall. Miriam Hope Friis, my stuttering sixteen-year-old from The Ninth Day, accompanied me. (In the book, December 3 is “The Fourth Day.”)

By now Ooligan Press knows my passion for connections across time and space. But why, they’ve asked, link the Free Speech Movement and the First Crusade?

Let’s start with 1964. Since The Ninth Day is a companion novel to Blue Thread, I had to play by Blue Thread rules. The main character had to be about sixteen and named Miriam after a dead relative. I could have gone back from the 1912 of Blue Thread, but going forward worked better. Miriam Hope Friis is named for her grandmother (Miriam Josefsohn) who died of cancer, a disease I was diagnosed with after finishing The Ninth Day. For the family saga between Blue Thread and The Ninth Day, go to my website and download the free ebook, Florrie’s Story: Life after Blue Thread.

Doing the math, I found myself in 1960s America. Yes! A wild and bumpy ride filled with tragedy and hope, angst and excitement, grand plans, catastrophes, and the push, push, push for a better society. The 1964 campus-wide protest at Berkeley started with an administrative notice that a small strip of land would be subject to a ban on political speech. According to the notice, the ban had already been in place on campus for years. No big deal, right? Wrong.

Now let’s shift to Pope Urban II speaking (without bullhorn) to a council gathered in a French church in 1095. Urban II urged the assembled to raise an army to defend Christian Constantinople (now Istanbul) from falling to the Muslim Turks. Not a huge army, more like an elite band of knights who might later defend the pope himself. No big deal, right? Welcome to the First Crusade, and several more crusades and events that have led to bloodshed to this very day.

That’s the link that got me started on The Ninth Day, but here’s the one that knocked my knickers off. The LSD haze-craze of the 1960s and the religious fervor fed by Saint Anthony’s Fire, a disease plaguing the European poor in 1095, are bound together by the grain-infesting fungus ergot. Ergot, you could say, drives much of The Ninth Day.

I believe that what happened in Berkeley, California, during the fall of 1964 changed human society for the better. What happened in Clermont, France, during the fall of 1095 changed human society for the worse. Of course, who am I to say? Just one person. A writer. A teller of tales. But remember this: one seemingly small action can make a big difference. Don’t ever let anyone—especially yourself—tell you that you don’t count.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, engraving by Martin Schongauer, d. 1491.

Between You and Me: Forgotten Bits from 1964


This photo-poster hangs on the wall of the Free Speech Movement Cafe on the Berkeley campus. That’s graduate student Jack Weinberg in the back of a police car after his arrest on October 1, 1964, for violating a campus ban on political speech. The police had driven the car onto Sproul Plaza on campus. After Weinberg’s arrest someone (we still don’t know who) shouted “Sit down!” Hundreds did, setting off a mass sit-in that lasted about 36 hours.

I spent months studying 1964 and the Free Speech Movement as background for The Ninth Day. I covered the big news, the stuff you’ve likely heard about recently as we look back fifty years: civil rights, Freedom Summer, the Beatles, the presidential race, Vietnam. Before 2014 slips away, I thought I’d share a few outtakes from my research, tidbits overshadowed from 1964 that never made it into The Ninth Day.

  • Bel-Gem Takes The Big Apple. New York City hosted the World’s Fair in 1964. Maurice Vermersch and his family came from Belgium to set up a waffle shop in his country’s Belgian Village. He called the sweet fluffy treat “Bel-Gem” waffles, and they became an instant success. Vermersch knew how to promote his Bel-Gems. He had put the waffles through a test run with American taste buds at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.
  • Astronaut Slips in the Bathroom. John Glenn is best known as the first American to orbit the Earth. According to NASA, Glenn’s flight aboard the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft last nearly five hours, during which time Glenn pulled a maximum of 7.7 Gs and traveled in orbit about 17,500 miles per hour. Glenn resigned from the space race in January, 1964, and announced his political race for the U.S. Senate seat from Ohio. Several weeks later he slipped on his bathroom rug, sustained head injuries, and withdrew temporarily from politics. He won that Senate seat from Ohio ten years later.
  • Mustangs Hit the Road. In April of 1964, the Ford Motor Company introduced its new sporty car, the Mustang, at the New York World’s Fair (waffles and wheels, a mighty combination!). The iconic car appeared in the James Bond film Goldfinger that fall and got its own song in “Mustang Sally” the next year.
  • Heist of the Century Nabs Uninsured Jewels. Climbing in through a bathroom window at the American Museum of Natural History, thieves made off with several gems, including the famous Star of India, the world’s largest gem-quality blue star sapphire. Weighing more than 563 carats, the Star of India is about two billion years old. In 1975, the movie “Murph the Surf” told the tale, making the heist way more daring than it actually was. All the jewels except one were later recovered and the Star of India is back at the museum, no doubt under tighter security.

The Ninth Day tells the story of Hope Friis, a normal teenager living in Berkeley, California in the 1960s: she hangs out with friends, spends time with her family, and dreams of winning a singing competition and college scholarship despite her pronounced stutter. It seems like she has everything under control, until she takes part in the Free Speech movement that engulfs the city—a choice that could crush her chance of competing.