The Presidio Mutineers - Lindy Blake's Great Escape
Randy Rowland was one of 27 GIs imprisoned at the Presidio of San Francisco stockade who staged a non-violent protest in October, 1968. They were charged with mutiny by Army brass trying to suppress dissent. The first three “mutineers” to be court-martialed got sentences of 15, 14, and 16 years. The case was widely publicized and helped alert the country to the level of dissent among rank-and-file GIs. Less severe sentences were meted out in subsequent court-martials, and the first few were reduced on appeal.
It was 40 years ago. We were all young. Facing a potential death sentence for singing “We Shall Overcome,” the 27 “mutineers” held a meeting in the cell block of the Presidio Stockade. Everyone who could escape should, we decided. We were not cooperating with the Brass, not even to participate in their kangaroo court-martial.
Not long after, some of the Presido 27 did escape. Walter Pawlowski, the guy who stood up during our sit-down, to read our demands to the commandant, was one of the escapees. Keith Mather, one of the “9-For-Peace,” and the contact I was supposed to meet up with when I arrived in the stockade, was another. They were recognizable ringleaders in the stockade protest which became known as the Presidio Mutiny. They had good reason to leave. Even before the sit-down strike, both were already facing many years in prison for GI resistance to the US invasion and occupation of Viet Nam. Now they faced additional charges of mutiny, the most serious of military offenses. Military regulations simply say “there is no maximum sentence” for mutiny.
Later, Lindy Blake and I, both “mutineers,” were cell mates in the prison ward of the post hospital when the first mutiny sentences came down, for 14 and 16 years, given to the first two of the 27 to be court martialed. I was the third ringleader, sent in to the stockade by the movement after a guard had killed a prisoner. My mission had been to learn what was going on inside, and find out what could be organized to take the prisoners’ struggle to a higher level. Lindy was a free spirit from LA, a lanky, blond hippie dancing to his own tune through the stockade experience. He had refused to go to Viet Nam, and was facing five years at hard labor. He was quick to flash a grin, knew some yoga positions, and could sing all the words to every Bob Dylan song there ever was. In the photo of the sit down where Pawlowski stands up to read our demands, I can be seen directly behind him, with glasses on. Lindy sits in front of Pawlowski, arms linked with Mike Marino and Ricky Dodd, looking over his shoulder at the camera.
Now we were in this cell together, with the mandate to escape if we could. Lindy and I decided this was as good a chance as we were likely to get. We were outside the fence, but heavily guarded. Our cement-walled cell was one of several lining both sides of a short corridor. A guard, who held the keys to each cell, was stationed in the corridor. Another guard manned his post outside a locked gate not far down the corridor, which separated the prison wing from the rest of Letterman General Hospital. A third guard, a rover, armed with a .45, patrolled back and forth outside, covering both sides of the prison wing. We had an outside window and decided the best escape was through its bars, so we arranged for a hack-saw blade to be smuggled in, and began to saw. We only worked at night. One of us would stand watch at the cell door, straining at the barred inspection port to catch the first sight of an approaching guard. The other guy would saw, timing his efforts to correspond to the 5 or so minutes when the roving guard was on the other side of the building.
To cover the sound of sawing, whoever was watching at the cell door would call down the corridor, asking the guards to turn up their radio. It was San Francisco, 1969. The guards were young too, and at night they tended to sit on either side of the mesh that separated them, listening to the FM. If they were nice guys, they would turn up the music when asked, which kept them from hearing the sound of our saw blade working the metal bar. If they were jerks, the lookout at the cell door would loud-talk them, with non-stop begging or verbal abuse. Most of the time they would turn it up just to drown him out. If they didn’t, his constant nagging provided the sonic cover needed to mask the sound of sawing.
The bars were fairly big, and the going slow. Each morning, when we knocked off for the day, we’d fill in the saw marks with soap, then blend in the soap with dirt from the floor to make the bar look whole. It was tense work, stressful enough to give you the bad pit. If we were caught, it would mean many years of additional charges on top of all the years we already faced. We only had one chance to get this right, so we were determined, methodical, and very, very careful. Finally we had one cut completed, and began on the next. Our blade was already dull, but eventually we could take the big bar completely out of the window and then soap it back into place to cover our progress. Each dawn we’d fill in our night’s work with the bar of soap, dispose of the night’s debris, hide our saw blade and collapse wearily into our bunks to sleep until the turn-key would kick us awake for morning count.
When we were about a week away from being done, I got a visit from the Catholic priest who served as my connection to the movement. “We’ve been talking it over, Randy,” he told me, “and we don’t think you should escape.” His reasoning was sound: the other recognizable ringleaders had already escaped. If I fled as well, those still in custody would be left with no solid connection to the movement. He had a moral argument as well. I had been sent into the stockade to organize the protest and if I ran away, those who had answered the call to resist would be left to face the drum roll alone. It was the moral equivalent of the captain being the last one off the sinking ship. I wasn’t eager to spend my life in a penitentiary. I was young and newly married. I had put a lot of work and many tense nights into our escape plot. But I immediately knew that the priest was right. I couldn’t go. Back in the cell, I explained to Lindy my decision to stay, and pointed out as cheerfully as I could that there was nothing in the new situation that said that I couldn’t help him escape. So that night we started up our old routine, one at the cell door, one sawing at the window.
One time we thought that the plot was exposed. Thinking back, I can’t remember why we thought that, but to get rid of the evidence we ditched our hacksaw blade in a laundry hamper, hidden in our dirty sheets. Almost immediately we realized that we had panicked. But now our blade was across the corridor in a little utility room. Somehow we conned the turn-key into unlocking the cell to let one of us get into the utility room barely long enough to retrieve the blade, while the other distracted the guard momentarily. That clown act blows the top off any stress scale ever devised. Once back in the cell with our precious blade, and with the turn-key returned to his chair down the corridor, we danced wildly, between the bunks, out of our minds with fear and excitement. Even now, I can hardly believe we managed to retrieve our blade, but somehow we did, and the work went on.
Then one day, not too long before we figured to be done with our nightly sawing, the guards put another prisoner into the cell with us, a guy we didn’t know. Since we didn’t know him, and didn’t have contact with the general prison population to get anyone else to vouch for him, we decided not to risk the plot by bringing him in on it. His presence in the little cell added a whole new level of complexity to our efforts. We would be as boring as possible each evening, and he would eventually drift off to sleep. Once he was sound asleep, one of us would take the cell door position, and call down to the guards like usual, asking them to turn up the music. Only now, if they wouldn’t do it, we’d have to wait, because the plan B razz we had used in the past to cover the noise of sawing would most likely wake our cellmate. But often enough the guards would turn up their radio, and whoever was at the window, minding the rover outside, would begin to saw.
The lookout at the door had to watch for the guards in the corridor, and keep another eye on our cellmate. This guy turned out to be a sound sleeper, and although he woke up a few times, he never discovered our plot. It was incredibly tense, with the lookout job the worst, all worry and no activity. Sawing through steel with a hacksaw blade is tough but the guy with the blade had only to saw and to keep an eye out for the rover. Somehow, the act of sawing seemed to dissipate the tension. On the other hand, the lookout had to put himself into a state of hyper alertness, to watch our sleeping cellmate, watch for the turn-key in the corridor, and count the minutes before the rover would most likely return to our side of the building. We took turns in each position, not so much to relieve the sawman’s aching fingers, but to relieve the lookout’s stress.
Progress slowed down, but eventually the big night came. I don’t know how we were able to bore our cellmate to sleep. Finally, at the appointed hour, in the wee hours of a dark night, we waited for the rover to head to the other side of the building. Lindy stripped, to avoid having his clothes hang up on the jagged metal. I helped stuff him through the hole. He dropped to the ground below. I handed down a pillowcase full of broken window glass and other debris, threw him his pants, and he scampered off, naked, into the darkness, sack under his arm, pants over his shoulder, heading for a pre-arranged place where a car was supposed to be waiting to pick him up. That vision of Lindy, sprinting nude into the night, making a break for freedom, was my last look at him for many years.
Soaping the big bar back into place, I stuffed his bunk to make it look like somebody was in it. The longer it took for the guards to notice he was gone, the greater Lindy’s chances of making good his get-away. Pleased, but already missing the company of my comrade, I sat for a while on the edge of my bunk. We had pulled it off! Filled with both a big sense of victory and a huge empty place of sadness, I finally curled up and went to sleep. The next morning, as usual, the turn-key opened the cell door and came in, kicking each bunk to rouse the prisoners for morning count. At night they just periodically shine a flashlight through the inspection port to count bodies sleeping in bunks, but each morning they made you get up. This particular morning started off as usual. The guard kicked our cellmate’s bunk, “Get up, get up!” he barked. The cellmate stirred. The guard walked over to Lindy’s bunk and kicked it, repeating his command. Then he turned to my bunk. The rasp of his key in the lock had put me instantly awake, but I feigned sleep. He kicked my bunk and I pretended to be groggy. Lindy had been gone for hours, but there was no way I could know for sure that he had been picked up by our co-conspirators on the outside. Determined to stall as long as possible as a rear-guard action, I took extra time waking up. Finally I was dangling on the edge of my bunk when the guard turned back to Lindy, who had not moved. Kicking his bunk with greater force, the guard yelled “Get up!” and yanked back Lindy’s covers, only to realize there was no body in the bed.
Turning to me with a nervous look, the guard growled, “How many prisoners are supposed to be in this cell?” “I don’t know, you’re the turn-key,” I shrugged.
Nervously looking around the cell, he retreated back into the corridor to consult the gate guard. I could hear them swearing down the hall. In a couple minutes they both came into the cell, a violation of prison protocol for the gate guard to come inside the gate. They didn’t know what to do. The roster listed three prisoners, but the cell looked intact. If they reported a missing prisoner, and there was only supposed to be two of us, then they would be laughingstocks, at best. If they failed to report a missing prisoner, on the assumption that the paperwork was wrong, they would be in deep shit. They nervously talked to each other while looking around the cell. After all those nights of high anxiety, I was calm. The cellmate really didn’t know what was going on, but prisoners always enjoy seeing guards get some of their own medicine, so we just silently sat on our bunks enjoying the show. The guards were ramping up, searching the cell now. There wasn’t really any place for a prisoner to hide, but they searched anyway. They looked under all the bunks. One of them walked over, picked up a towel off the floor, as if he expected to see Lindy hiding beneath it. They were really nervous now, sure there was supposed to be three prisoners, but with no explanation for what might have happened.
They went back out and consulted the rover. Soon enough all three were in the cell, demanding to know where the third prisoner was. The cellmate truly didn’t know, and I played dumb, offering them nothing to ease their situation. The rover, who is never supposed to come into a prisoner area with his weapon, was nevertheless smarter than the other two and started methodically shaking the bars, determined to find an explanation. When he came to the soaped bar, it pulled off in his hand. He pivoted, wild-eyed, face contorted, steel bar held out like it was some sort of vile object. All three guards cried out like they’d been stung, and stampeded for the cell door, trying to get through all at once, in their rush to sound the alarm. We were left behind to placidly eat our breakfast, in a cell with a gaping hole. It was a long time later when somebody higher up the chain of command finally ordered the remaining prisoners be moved to a different, more secure cell.
Lindy had indeed been picked up at the designated place that night, and was spirited away to Vancouver, Canada, where he joined Mather and Pawlowski and a whole community of GI resisters living in exile.
It was almost exactly forty years ago that I helped Lindy escape from jail. Now Lindy lays dying in this cabin. His grand daughter is softly playing the old piano. Propped up in a hospital bed, in his own living room, Lindy is surrounded by windows that look out on the trees, mostly evergreens, which ring his giant garden. In his line of vision are rhododendrons in bloom, sagging fences and hand-hewn sheds. A black tail deer stands mid-day in the yard, accepting the generosity of family and strangers who have gathered for this passing.
Lindy’s 3-corner fool’s hat, its velvet somewhat faded with age, hangs on a hook near the bed. He lies quietly, mostly sleeping, but arousing once in a while to flash his grin at some new arrival here to pay him respects. Lindy’s time is measured in days, if not hours. The hospital opened him up, saw he was a goner, and merely sutured him back up. They released him to spend his last days in the place he loves, among those who love him. Both of his sons are here with their families. There is a scattering of friends sitting in the yard. Neighbors drop in with food and supplies. I notice that the women seem to curtsey or bow to Lindy when they approach, flashing mischievous grins. They treat him with the tenderness of old lovers, which—as it turns out—is pretty much universally true.
This place is a hippie’s dream of back to nature. The house posts are pealed logs, some found on the beach nearby, and some harvested from this patch of land on this remote Canadian Island. Walls and ceilings are unfinished tongue and groove. The plywood floors are painted in wild shades of blue and purple. Water comes from rain barrels on the roof, electricity from solar panels. The room is toasty, heated by the warm rays of the spring sun, and a wood stove. Lindy told me he knew in his heart for a long time that something was wrong with him. Then a few months back, part of a tree he was felling struck him in the chest. After that he attributed his escalating pain to the blow, not to cancer. Finally Lindy drove himself to the hospital, and now, only a week or so later, we gather to bid him farewell.
In response to my
call that Lindy was dying, Keith Mather, one of the key players in
the Presidio Mutiny flew up from San Francisco. Together we drove
north from Seattle, over the border, taking three ferries to this
island, where there are no policemen, to stand by our comrade in his
final hours. One of the women who was with him during his short
stay in the hospital tells us a classic Lindy story. At one point
after receiving his grim news, he held his breath, she told us,
pretending to be dead. She fell for the gag, until he laughed and
said “Got you!” “I was yelling at him, ‘You BASTARD!’” she related
in her Quebec French accent, “I was so mad at him. The nurses must
have thought I was crazy.”
As I sit beside him now, I’m thinking that the significance of a person’s demise is commensurate with the value of their life. Sharing the prison cell with Lindy, I learned lessons from him that I have treasured and held true ever since. I’m up here now because he sat down then. I’m sure that each person holding death-watch in this hand-made cabin, and many who are not right here, can testify how they, too, were touched and enriched by rubbing alongside this amazing spirit, my old comrade. My mental image of Lindy has always been of a lithe young man dressed in a three-corner fool’s hat, dancing gently to his own tune, through a happy crowd on a warm summer’s day. He never lost that flop-eared grin, he never ceased being a free spirit.
On April 9, 2009, forty years after he escaped from the Presidio, Lindy Blake, Presidio 27 mutineer, lover of many, father of two, passed away in his home on Cortes Island, at the mouth of Desolation Sound, in Canada. Keith Mather and I stood at his bedside and sang “We Shall Overcome” one last time for him. I wrote the following while sitting by his bedside that day:
Free Spirits Will Always Escape
Its me, Lindy, the
one who helped you peck your way
I have come, so
you may take flight again.
I’m here to remove
our secret "bar of soap."
I have come for
Free Spirits will always escape.
Randy Rowland lives in Seattle, where he works as a registered nurse at a trauma center. He co-founded and is a producer for PepperSpray Productions, a radical video collective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org