How to 1971-72 Underground High School Newspaper

You Say You Want a Revolution

By Steve Watkins

Call it THE FREE PRESS, all caps. And just in case anybody might not get the message, write out the First Amendment underneath the header in giant letters with nothing else on the front page. Inside, though, there will be plenty: 

An article you lift from The Great Speckled Bird, an alternative newspaper out of Atlanta–a gonzo piece about them naming a high school after Walt Whitman, not knowing they’re celebrating the most famous gay person in American history and how cool is that? Not that you know anybody in New Bern who is gay. At least you don’t think you do.

A poem you write that borrows heavily from e.e. cummings and that you sign “steve kma,” your nom de plume, the “kma” standing for “kiss my ass.” Take it as a compliment when a kid reports back to you that a teacher reads it to his class and says there’s no way you could have written it, and you must have plagiarized the poem as well.

An editorial calling for an immediate end to the Vietnam War, and another editorial blasting the policy of teachers smoking at their desks between classes—not because you’re anti-smoking (it IS North Carolina, after all), but because it’s not fair that students have to go outside and herd themselves into the one designated smoking area no matter if it’s pouring or freezing, and there’s never enough time to finish your cigarette, while certain teachers are still blowing smoke rings in their rooms after the tardy bell rings for the next class. Name names.

A passage from The Handbook for Conscientious Objectors you get from some peace activists over in Greenville who have a table set up outside the East Carolina University gym and are handing out anti-war literature to kids lined up for what might be an Allman Brothers concert not long after Duane Allman, just out of rehab, dies from crashing his motorcycle into a flatbed truck back in Macon—three blocks from where Berry Oakley, their bassist, will be killed a year later when he slams his motorcycle into the side of a bus.

Another poem, this one by Steve Pridgen that is so personal and haunting and beautiful it makes you wonder how well you actually know him even though you call yourselves best friends.

Type that first issue on black carbon paper to be printed on a hand-crank mimeograph machine in the backroom office of a United Methodist Church bishop by the bishop’s sympathetic wife, a friend of your mom’s who hates the war as much as you do, which is why she helps, though she swears you to secrecy about her involvement. The bishop will lose his job if anybody finds out, just like the assistant minister at your church who is shit-canned after he preaches a peace sermon one Sunday. 

Though she has to keep to the shadows, the bishop’s wife will insist the staff include all your names on the masthead as a condition of using the mimeograph—your full name, too, and none of that “steve kma” business. Do what she says, not knowing what it will end up costing you down the road: the civil-disobedience arrest, conviction, and appeal, the revoked scholarship for your friend Warren, the threats, the assaults and batteries in the school halls, the vandalized car and constant stops and searches by the cops, the bust for planted drugs (or maybe your girlfriend Debbie is just carrying and doesn’t remember when they order her to empty her pockets), the rumor that gets back to your parents that you’re digging a drug tunnel to expedite your supposedly massive dealing operation, the getting beaten up by a sheriff’s deputy, which may or may not have anything to do with The Free Press, but the uncertainty won’t stop you from telling everybody it does anyway, because at the time it all seems to be of a piece.

Sell out your first issue in a day at a nickel a copy, though you hear stories about teachers snatching them out of kids’ hands and throwing them in the trash, clearly a case of illegal censorship, and great publicity besides. 

Be prepared for more fallout, like the blood-thirsty school librarian, a retired Marine, who you show the extremely poor judgement of calling a fucking fascist and who subsequently tries to have you expelled, and when that doesn’t happen he tells you that he’ll fight you any time, any where, and he believes in survival of the fittest and he will by-god end you. And the guidance counselor who says she doesn’t need to meet with you for the mandatory senior conference because she’s sure that in a year you’ll be dead or in jail.

As a goodwill gesture, bring coffee and doughnuts to the police station one night at 11 during their shift change. Give it to the cops in their parking lot, but forget one of the doughnut boxes in the backseat of Debbie’s car. When you return with it five minutes later, discover that the cops have poured out all the coffee on the asphalt and tossed the pastries in the trash.

Keep publishing because speaking out is existential. The war is still going on and guys you know are getting drafted and sent to Vietnam to kill and get killed. You’re facing the draft yourself, almost 18 and living in the nexus of the Marine World—20 miles west of Havelock and Cherry Point, the largest Marine air base in the world, and 45 miles north of Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune, where they train your friends to be those killers, and where they play “The Ballad of Lt. Calley” over and over on the Jacksonville radio in celebration of the My Lai murderer William Calley, who is convicted earlier that year (and pardoned by Nixon three days later) for ordering and leading the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers, all old people, mothers, children, even babies. 

Be disgusted. Be furious. Be ready to explode. Use Franz Kafka’s spelling for Amerika.

Join a small protest march around the perimeter of Cherry Point where all that separates you from the young Marine guards with their M16s are a shallow roadside ditch and several feet of concertina wire. Write about that, too, how it’s like looking at an alternate version of yourself in uniform who could kill you both with a squeeze of a trigger. 

Write about how everything is in flames—figuratively, and at times literally. Your racist school finally integrated the year before, 16 years after Brown v Board of Education, and there were riots in the halls. Several black kids were charged but no whites. They turned the black kids’ high school into a junior high, white-washed the name, the traditions, the heritage, the identity, all of it. As a “compromise,” they changed the name of the white high school from New Bern High School to New Bern Senior High School, which just pissed off the black kids even more. They also kept the white-school colors–black and red–which seems symbolic. Everybody figures you’ll have more riots, and there are already rumblings, though nobody wants to talk about it. Not openly. Not until one of your black classmates says a white P.E. teachers tried to molest her during Driver’s Ed and half the school walks out of class. Walk out with them just in time to see a truckload of rednecks pull up in front of the school waving a Confederate flag and their hunting rifles. Run ahead of the surging crowd with your friend Woody Manus to yell at them to leave before everything erupts. 

Go with Debby and Warren and Tanya—two white kids and two black kids–to the whites-only dance at the Elk’s Club. Insist that they sell you tickets, and tell them you’ll be back next week with more mixed-race couples when they refuse. Catch more shit at school when the Elks announce that they’ll no longer host any more high school dances. Get invited to the black kids’dance the next Saturday night at the community center where your mom is director of the Head Start program during the week.  

Remember that they don’t call rednecks “rednecks” here—like the guys in the truck with the Confederate flag. They call them “Grits.” As if that makes any difference. The guys wear all camo just the same, especially during hunting season. Either that or the Grit uniform of starched blue button-downs with the collar buttons never buttoned, high-water khakis, tan leather boat shoes, no socks. The girls’ uniforms are white shirts with Peter Pan collars, pleated mini-skirts, calf socks with garters, and flat-soled Mary Janes. Be pissed, but not surprised, when a teacher orders Debby in her bellbottoms and flannel shirt to stand up in the middle of a class so he can lecture her in front of god and everybody about how she isn’t dressed like a proper girl. 

Cover it all—the near riot, the segregated dances, the clothes lecture, the guns, the racism and sexism and militarism and bullying, the violent culture. Call for the legalization of pot. Argue for an end to the death penalty. Demand that John Milton’s Paradise Lost be replaced in the English curriculum with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

Swear there won’t be any conformity in THE FREE PRESS ever–and no euphemisms, either. You’re going to call bullshit wherever you see it, and shout it as long and as loud as your voices will carry.

Read Catch 22 as an instructional manual for how to survive until graduation, then follow Yossarian:

“The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”


Steve Watkins, editor and co-founder of Pie & Chai, is the author of 12 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is