About a hundred prisoners filed in, hobbled with leg irons and bound together by a long chain. The four of us onstage began to perform a series of familiar folk songs. "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" was among them.
My main job at first was to hide my complete lack of musical skill, for I was there for another reason. It was the winter of 1964, and I was an Antioch freshman on duty at one of the college's more infamous co-op jobs, being a "normal control" at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md.
A normal control takes medicine that is also being given to people with a disease. I was in a ward devoted to children with cystic fibrosis. When they died, I ground up their organs so experiments could be run on the tissues.
The hospital's 13th floor, locked and guarded, was devoted to performing medical experiments on federal prisoners. If they survived, their sentences would be commuted.
After completing the songs we planned, I revealed our real purpose, kept secret from the hospital administrators who had approved our performance: to lecture the prisoners about how unjust their treatment was.
They were furious at us, grumbling, then hooting as they rattled their chains. I had learned a lesson I could not so easily have obtained in a classroom -- that not all victims welcome their would-be liberators. The next day the hospital informed me that, had I not been scheduled to return to Antioch the following week, I would have been fired.
Monday, June 18, 2007
The Chronicle: : By CARY NELSON