In 1969, Sam Melville and an activist group known as “the Crazies” conspired to bomb the Federal Office Building in downtown New York. He was later serving in Attica Prison during the uprisings, when he was shot and killed. His son, Joshua Melville, is the author of the new book, American Time Bomb, Attica, Sam Melville, and a Son’s Search for Answers. The following is an excerpt from that book.
The Sharon Krebs and Pat Swinton I met in mid-1988 looked nothing like the pictures of them I had found in archives at the Donnell Library. The one of Sharon was originally published in an underground newspaper and showed her walking naked; her subtle curves and long hair were the backdrop to a slaughtered pig’s head atop a serving tray. She, Robin, Demmerle, and a few other Crazies had infiltrated a Waldorf Astoria political dinner in 1969 disguised as waiters. They stripped to their skin and served the swine to a room full of appalled Democratic donors. A year later, in 1970, she and Robin were busted while trying to bomb a Chase Manhattan bank. She served about two years for conspiracy.
The day we met, Sharon was living a more sedate life in a Brooklyn Heights townhouse with a new husband and new last name. The remains of the fierce radical were reduced to an earthy sundress and a turquoise pendant. She kept her long hair. However, to train the frizz, she wore it like a nest atop her head. She worked in a civil litigation firm part time, as did other ex-radicals I had met. I guessed working with the law kept them connected to the cause. When asked what she did by strangers who did not know her past, she would reply, simply, “I’m a mom.” She must have been good at it too. Her hug took the wind out of me.
“My God, it’s like being in a time machine. You look so much like him.”
I was still not used to hearing that.
She apologized for not wanting to converse on the phone, saying she was concerned about security, and immediately segued by saying that she loved my father and named her daughter Samantha after Sam. “No, you don’t have a secret half sister,” she clarified.
She produced an old spiral notebook and folded it back on a page with a poem called “Contra-diction.” “I wrote this right after Attica.”
I think Sam was relieved
to have died
without killing anyone.
A gentle man, he once agreed that he would be
To spend his life disturbing
blade of grass.
And yet, once he said
that some of us
are only good for the
and will not be useful
for the building.
And he meant himself.
I once asked him
what he would do
after the Revolution.
“Blow things up,” he said,
And I imagined him
I was speechless. I had read my father’s poetic letters expressing his feelings to many friends in the movement, but this was the first thing I had seen where one of his close friends had written something poetic about him.
“The one thing that we all wondered through the years was, what happened to little Jocko? We all knew you existed but not what became of you.”
She meant it as praise, but it did not hit me that way. They all knew about me, but none of them encouraged my father to reach out or reconsider his choices because he had a son? It was like I had been abandoned not only by one man but by an entire movement.
I caught her up on my old life as a Wall Street broker and my new life in the world of music.
“Well, that is quite a transition. I’m glad it wasn’t the opposite way.”
“Yes, me too. I know Sam loved music.”
Settled in, I turned to my agenda by producing Growing Up Underground from my bag. “I wanted to meet you because I’m trying to understand how much of this is true.”
Her face fell at the sight of Jane’s book, as if her child had brought home a bad report card. “Well, I’ll try to help you, but Jane is so angry.”
“How could Sam have destroyed whole floors of large skyscrapers with not a single casualty, and yet, as Jane claims, be ‘unmindful of safety?’” I asked. “You think parts of the book are exaggerated?”
“Yes, of course! Jane had a bone to pick with Sam.” She laughed, causing some of her hair to fray loose. But my face remained serious, and Sharon could see I was annoyed that Jane had become my father’s accidental historian.
Over the next hour she imparted her version of the events, eyeing my hand as it scribbled during the parts where she disagreed with Jane. I looked up at one point to address what I thought might be her concern. “I want to get everyone’s perspective. I don’t want to play favorites.” I asked if she recognized any of Jane’s altered characters, remarking that I wanted to talk to them too.
“Well,” she said getting anxious, “that woman,’” she pointed at a name on one page, “that’s mostly me. Well . . . it’s me.”
“I already figured out that this other guy is actually John Cohen.”
She looked at the name under my finger. “Yes. She’s quite pardoning to John. John loved her and would do most anything she asked.”
“My mother said that John and some Weathermen wanted to burn Sam’s remains on Rockefeller’s lawn.”
She straightened up in shock. “I’ve never heard that, and I was in Weather. John is a pacifist, and I cannot see him setting fire to anything.”
Another Mom-sponsored inconsistency, I thought.
Sharon stopped verbalizing there, realizing that she was getting caught up in reminiscing with someone she didn’t really know. After that slip about Cohen, she became unwilling to confirm with a “yes” or “no” about other characters. She half nodded at some, looked away at others, until I asked about three characters Jane described: a “Tai Chi instructor,” a “Rutgers University professor,” and the “Puerto Rican radical.” Sharon put down her tea. “They weren’t arrested, and I’m not going to out anybody. I need to be clear about that,” she proclaimed, establishing a stern division between her moral universe and Jane’s.
“I thought you wanted to help me?”
“I do.” She paused, probably mulling over how help might manifest in a way she could live with. To let her off the hook I asked, “How about Jane herself. Could you put me in touch with her?”
“I haven’t spoken to Jane in over a decade. As part of Jane’s deal, she told the feds where they could find others. Nobody talks to her anymore.” Then, Sharon got quiet and eventually offered, “I can put you in touch with Pat Swinton. I think she’d talk to you since she’s already out, and her involvement is public record.”
I arrogantly played lawyer: “I don’t think the state can arrest anyone anymore for these crimes. It’s been two decades.”
Her face turned serious, her eyes big and scary. “They can think of all kinds of reasons to reopen cases. And they probably know about your visit here today.”
I laughed in my head at her hippie paranoia. But I would soon learn she was right.
Excerpted from American Time Bomb: Attica, Sam Melville, and a Son’s Search for Answers, by Joshua Melville. Published by Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2021, Joshua Melville. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.