• Daniel Vollaro

The Comet

I came of age in an era normalized to political violence | The escape of Joanne Chesimard was part of that story for me.

On New Year’s Eve 1979, I walked across a frozen cornfield to join three friends in a dark meadow about a quarter mile from my house. The cornfield, which sloped gently uphill from the Northern edge of Clinton Knolls housing development, had been plowed under in September, and my sneakers crunched softly in the frozen dirt. The night soared above me in a star-splashed dome. Behind me, my neighborhood was still lit up with Christmas lights, streetlights casting round pools of light on the streets.

At the top of the hill, the cornfield ended abruptly and the meadow began—the place we called the fox dens because it was dotted with sinkholes and furrows, and because we had seen foxes darting in and out of the trees nearby. When I reached the top of the hill, I could see the dome of firelight near the trees. I eagerly joined my friends at the fire.

“When I first heard about Chesimard’s escape, I immediately thought about that scene in Sergio Leone’s ‘For a Few Dollars More,’ where Clint Eastwood busts a companion out of prison by scaling the wall outside and placing dynamite against the window bars.”

The four of us huddled close to the fire for warmth. It was a primal sensation, the ground breathing warmth into the air, like magma pushing out of a crack in the Earth.

We were ready to greet the new year.

Try to imagine our excitement. Everything we could remember experiencing in our fourteen or fifteen years had fit neatly into this decade called the 1970s. We had all been born in the mid-1960s, but we retained few vivid memories of this decade, unlike our older cousins and siblings who seemed to recall the “Sixties” as a vast epoch filled with strange, salacious, taboo experiences. For us, the Sixties hung shrouded in mystery, tantalizingly close and yet as far distant from our experience as an ancient civilization. No, we were children of the 70s, whatever that meant. We felt like runts of the litter, the children that time forgot. But at midnight, 1980 would arrive, and the page would turn. We would finally have a brand new decade to call our own. That is why we were shivering in the fox dens instead of sitting in our warm living rooms watching the ball drop in Times Square with our families, as we had done every other New Year’s Eve we could remember. There was something elemental about this night, as if some once-in-a-lifetime alignment of celestial bodies was about to occur, and we wanted to honor it properly, under the stars and close to the earth.

The air was glacial. I imagined that if I could turn down the temperature by just a half degree, snowflakes would suddenly materialize from the blackness all around us. I could feel every molecule of the night air on my skin. But the quivering circle of light around the fire pit was liquid, alive and pulsing with energy and laughter. We were jostling and wisecracking and teasing. We were sharing our favorite moments from Bruce Lee movies, and Rocky, and Pumping Iron, and from our own great canon of 1,001 exploits gathered from the square mile of neighborhood and town and woods and reservoir shoreline that had formed our entire universe up until this moment. Someone had brought a handheld radio, and we occasionally turned it on to check the status of the New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square. The tinny announcer’s voice sliced through the night, jarring and mechanical, so we turned it off again and revved up the conversation.

There were stories cascading into stories in a never-ending stream. Our voices pushed out from the fire circle, across the frozen grass and into the silent pine trees that hunkered in the darkness nearby.

Sometime before the ball finally dropped, I told the story of Joanne Chesimard.

It was impossible not to tell this story. Chesimard was the biggest news to hit our small town in decades—the Black Liberation Army terrorist cop killer who had been sprung from a jail cell practically in our backyards. On November 4 of that year, three BLA members had walked into the prison and busted her out. A real-life jailbreak. The prison was less than a mile from my house, on the other side of Route 78, just across the road from Laneco supermarket, where my mother shopped for groceries. Chesimard was serving a life sentence in the maximum security ward of the minimum security women’s prison for first degree murder, assault and battery of a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery. What we knew (the story everyone in New Jersey knew) was the less complicated morality-play version, which simply said that she had killed a New Jersey State Trooper during a traffic stop in 1977.

Breaking her out was easier than it should have been. Everyone commented on this. Her compatriots signed into the prison as visitors and then whipped out concealed .45 caliber machine pistols, took two guards hostage, and left the prison with Chesimard stowed inside of a stolen prison van. They drove onto the property of an adjoining hospital for the mentally retarded and then leaped into two getaway cars. About two hundred feet away from this parking lot is the entrance ramp to Route 78, a six-lane highway that cuts straight across the breadth of New Jersey. It was the perfect getaway.

And so it was that Joanne Chesimard had passed through our quiet corner of New Jersey like a comet, flaring brightly and briefly before disappearing again back into the darkness.

I was, for a time, obsessed with comets. In 1976, when I was eleven years old, I had read an article about Halley’s Comet. The article was quite detailed on the subject of this particular stellar phenomenon, with charts and illustrations, but in particular, I noted that this comet returned on its orbit passing close enough for humans to observe without a telescope every 75 years and that the next close encounter would come in ten years, in 1986. Ten years. That seemed like a lifetime to me, but I could also imagine it. I would be 21 years old. I would be alive to see it. That year on New Years Eve, I noted that I was another year closer to seeing Halley’s Comet. And I would repeat this private ritual on every New Years Eve for the next nine years, my own countdown to the most famous comet in human history.

I was that kind of kid, always reading, always making my own maps and charts and drawings of the things I obsessed over. I tried to fit these disparate obsessions into my life, but they were like puzzle pieces that wouldn’t quite lock together. Like Halley’s Comet, which prompted dozens of drawings, some literal and forensic, like the renderings I made from the images in the World Book Encyclopedia entry, or the more fanciful ones inspired by my research into the origins of the word comet (from Greek, kometes, “long-haired star)—all of this in order to connect with the virtually unknowable reality of this mass of rock and ice that will only ever pass within ?? of the Earth.

All of this to say that yes, Joanne Chesimard was very much like a comet. A spectacular flash of ineffable light that could only be apprehended from a great distance by someone of my background, race, and privilege. What could I possibly know about the Black Liberation Army that I didn’t read in a book, or revolutionary politics, or robbing armored trucks, or life on the run, or any of the other things that Chesimard had experienced? I knew almost nothing about black people or their history in America. Clinton is one of those Colonial-era New Jersey towns that sits squarely in the middle of the “crossroads of the Revolution,” with its white church steeples and its white sense of collective well being. In those days, Clintonians were proud of saying that they could leave their doors unlocked at night, that children walked half a mile to school every morning, never out of view of a crossing guard; that fathers commuted East to their white collar jobs every morning and returned for dinner at 6 p.m. sharp. We shared a wholly unearned utopian sensibility that was only possible in the absence of any real understanding of the racial dynamics of America. Joanne Chesimard—a solder in the Black Liberation Army—may as well have been a visitor from the outer reaches of the solar system.

When I first heard about Chesimard’s escape, I immediately thought about that scene in Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More,” where Clint Eastwood busts a companion out of prison by scaling the wall outside and placing dynamite against the window bars (I had seen this movie in the “Fistful of Heroes Week” on the 4:30 Movie on ABC, along with four other Spaghetti Westerns. Clint was a hero to me and my friends, the cigar-chomping tough guy who killed with impunity and always had the best lines). There was something cinematically daring about Chesimard’s escape, as if it had been staged for an action movie. Who had ever heard about a prison break occurring in real life? I certainly had not.

I knew for certain what I was supposed to feel about her: She was a cop killer, a terrorist. There was no class of villain more vile than this. Chesimard’s role in this particular crime-and-punishment drama had already been well minted in our corner of New Jersey, and if you flipped the coin over, you would find Werner Foster, the slain state trooper, who in death had been cleansed of all sin and thrust up onto the mantle of cop martyrdom. That well-circulated picture of him—the serious man-boy with the big, confident chin staring straight into the camera as if he was born to wear the triangular epitaphs of the New Jersey State Police—is the perfect counterpoint to Chesimard. These two, the black terrorist and the white state trooper, had been bound together in Manichean struggle, the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. I was supposed to hate her and worship him.

But the 70s had already confounded any easy accounting of justice in American society. Throughout my childhood, the news was filled with lurid stories of politicized crime. I knew more than I should have about the Weather Underground, the FLN, and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. I knew that the BLA was a radical splinter group that emerged from the collapse of the Black Panthers. I read newspapers voraciously. I spent hours in the library pouring over encyclopedias and issues of Time Magazine. My mother called me “precocious,” which was her way of saying that I was oddly at ease talking to adults about current events. I could carry on conversations about the Oil Crisis and the Raid on Entebbe. I could name all of the munitions carried by an F-14. I knew about the Black Panthers and the SDS. I had opinions about Watergate and The Sixties (which was a particular interest of mine having spent summer vacations with older cousins who had been to Woodstock). So, while I did not know prior to her escape that Joanne Chesimard was imprisoned less than a mile from my house, I had read about the murder of a state trooper on Route 80, reportedly by members of the Black Liberation Army. I knew at least this much.

But even before I was exposed to any of this, a bourgeoning political consciousness had already begun to form around my reading of Robin Hood and Don Quixote and Dickens Tale of Two Cities (in which I sympathized more than a little with Madame Defarge). My politics, as yet unformed and nameless, had begun to cleave leftwards, and by age twelve, I was already predisposed to see the world as a corrupted place in which small bands of righteous outlaws stood up to the titanic forces of evil.

It would be wrong to say that I sympathized with Chesimard. I knew nothing of police shootings of unarmed black men. I knew nothing of black women’s lives or racial struggle. Black history was invisible to me at the time. I knew only the stereotypes that had been been fed to me from the moment as an infant when I first rolled over to stare at the flickering blue box in the corner of the living room. By the time I was ten, I had seen the lurid footage of buildings on fire in Newark, 1967, which had been played over and over so many times that they had been burned into my retina. My political sympathies, if I had them at all, aligned with my father’s and my uncle’s and my older cousins, following the unbending line of trust in government, police, military. And yet, there was something about her story when I first heard it, a spark of Robin Hood, a flash of Bonnie and Clyde. She had invaded the margins of my imagination and would not depart.

If I now sound blasé about Chesimard’s violence, it is because I have grown up, and in doing so, I evolved. I do not mean “evolved” in the current sense being “woke” (which is, to my estimation, just another way for educated people to express smug moral superiority around the subject of race). My evolution has involved a gradual sloughing off of uninformed attitudes about law and justice, crime and punishment, American history and American culture. The seeds for this personal and political transformation were planted when I was very young, growing up inside of a 1970s version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Clinton was a safe, nurturing, small town, and utterly lacking in cosmopolitan diversity, but surrounding it and penetrating it from the outside was a media environment that presented a Dystopian world of race riots, and blackouts, and smog-filled cities and a hole in the ozone layer. In this world, terrorists were hijacked airliners and kidnapped heiresses and robbed banks to fund their revolutions. They attacked the Olympics and bombed a disco in Berlin and killed the cousin of Queen Elizabeth by blowing up his yacht. America lost a war on the other side of the world and a corrupt president resigned in disgrace. There was white flight and the rust belt and the slow grind of wage stagnation. Every norm, every certainty, every verity of American life was under assault. Older Baby Boomers cultivate their shiny memories of Camelot—Neil Armstrong on the Moon and the Summer of Love—but to those of us born at the runt end of that generation, America was a lurid Wild West Show with car chases and guns firing and fire hydrants exploding and a young Al Pacino shouting “Attica, Attica” to an agitated crowd. Even as a boy, I understood that my hometown was deeply out of sync with this wider world.

All of this to say that on that night, New Years Eve 1979 at the fox dens, I was the one among my friends best suited to tell this particular story.

My version was a cinematic fantasy, like cops and robbers, who, like cowboys and Indians, occupied a rough moral parity in my imagination. I had played robbers as easily as I had cops. It made no difference to me.

My version did not once mention officer Werner, because Chesimard’s reasons for being incarcerated were not nearly as interesting as the manner of her escape. I was about as morally invested in her crimes as I was in the motivations of the terrorists who had attacked the Munich Olympics a few years earlier. It was, of course, easy to sympathize with the Israelis, who have always excelled at asserting their underdog status even as they trample another underdog under foot. In my limited boyhood imagination, the Israelis were great fighters, daring and cunning, but so were their terrorist enemies (only later would I learn that Israelis had themselves engaged in spectacular acts of terror against the British). The Israelis and Palestinians were perfect foils, a sort of Yin and Yang of violent antagonists. I mapped the same basic asymmetries of power onto the terrorist Chesimard, who, like the masked Palestinians I saw on the news, was clearly asserting some kind political justification for her actions. She was a soldier, in an army, and I lived in age where not all soldiers wore uniforms. The Israelis had soldiers. The PLO had soldiers.

My version also contained the interesting detail of the 1965 Mercury Comet, one of the two getaway cars. My family owned this same make and model vehicle in the mid-1970s. What I remember about this car was the hole in the floor on the front passenger side through which one could see the highway flowing out underneath.

Riding in her Mercury Comet, Chesimard turned onto the entrance ramp to Route 78 and disappeared into the ether.

Decades later, I would read that Joanne Chesimard had been spotted on the beach in Cuba, and of course, that made perfect sense to me, because Cuba had been the desired destination of so many airline hijackers in the 1970s. I remember that my friends and I would often joke about this, pretending to grip the armrest of an airplane seat and then shout in a faux Arabic accent: “Take it to Cuba.”

After President Obama relaxed the embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba in ????, Chesimard was again in the news. New Jersey wanted her extradited. Chesimard, in her late sixties, had been living in her own open-air prison of fear for decades, afraid that she would be “renditioned” back to the U.S. to finish her sentence.

When Halley’s Comet finally appeared in the the night sky in April of 1986, I was a junior in college. I remember looking up into the sky and not being able to see it. I had read in the newspaper that conditions for viewing the comet were the worst they had been in 2,000 years. For a moment, I thought I detected a faint white smudge in the sky, but in truth, I was not certain I had seen anything at all.