The more things change, the more they stay the same

Goings-on this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, take scribe back to dark, troubled time 50 years ago.

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Many cars sit torched in front of the destroyed Pre-Owned Vehicles Car Service on the corner of 59th Street and Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wis.

Rick Telander/Sun-Times

KENOSHA, Wis. — The whole downtown smells like smoke.

There are burned-out stores, offices and public buildings everywhere. Ashes, charred sidewalks, scorched walls and shells of automobiles.

There are thousands — literally thousands — of windows boarded up on buildings stretching all the way from the Lake Michigan harbor area to the malls out Route 50 near Interstate 94.

The most plaintive boards say in spray paint, with an almost audible plea: ‘‘Children Live Here.’’

The protesting, rioting and killings that have followed Kenosha policeman Rusten Sheskey’s shooting of Black man Jacob Blake on Sunday, leaving Blake paralyzed, have been frightening.

I ask myself what I am doing here.

Well, it took me only 45 minutes to drive here from the northern part of the Chicago area, and I guess I came because I feel a need to bear witness, to understand, to try to figure out what is happening to this country my great-grandparents emigrated to from Sweden 125 years ago.

I don’t like the way I feel. I am drifting into a dark place. Very dark.

I am back in the spring of 1970.

I’m a junior defensive back on the Northwestern football team, just finishing spring practice, standing with Mike Adamle, my friend, the team captain and an All-America running back.

We’re in our coach Alex Agase’s office or in a quiet part of the locker room — I can’t remember which because this is a half-century ago — and we’re asking him if we can wear black armbands in the spring game.

We want to do this to show support for the students who have been shot and killed in the last two weeks by National Guardsmen and police at Kent State and Jackson State.

Agase is a squared-off block of a man, a three-time college All-America lineman, an NFL veteran and a battle-scarred and decorated Marine in World War II. As always, he has a stubby cigar in the corner of his mouth.

We know ‘‘Ag,’’ as we call him among ourselves, fought in the Pacific and earned a Purple Heart for vicious, up-close combat on Okinawa, a hellhole of carnage that clearly makes our sport of football seem like a romp in a meadow to him.

We explain our reasoning, our complaints, our desire to effect change — no matter how tiny — in a twisted, racist, Vietnam War-infested world.

After a time, Agase says, reluctantly, ‘‘OK.’’

Mike and I walk away, pleased with our good fortune, pondering how many players will be with us, how many neutral or against.

Suddenly ‘‘Ag’’ is there, his voice rising.

‘‘Wait a minute!’’ he says. ‘‘Not in the game. I didn’t know you meant in the game. No, you can’t do that!’’

He meant we could wear black armbands around campus, I guess. The game was sacred to him. We knew that. We felt it every day.

We ended up wearing nothing anywhere. The spring game got moved up to earlier in the day on Saturday because of a phoned-in bomb threat, and we played with hardly anybody in the stands. That was that.

Soon, all of Northwestern was in a near-riot stage. There were student riots all over the country.

Protesters tore down the heavy iron fence in front of Deering Library and University Hall, piled sections up at the corner of Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue, did the same at the other end of campus and effectively blocked commuter traffic headed to or from the northern lakeshore suburbs. Northwestern was declared a ‘‘free state.’’

In short order, school was canceled, chancellor J. Roscoe ‘‘Rocky’’ Miller told everyone to go home, you all can get a ‘‘T’’ grade for course credit, and the activism basically ended.

Mike was from Kent, Ohio, and knew one of the Guardsmen who might have fired on the Kent State students. We went home to our respective towns for the summer, and I recall never in my life feeling so out of sorts, so lost, so adrift in feelings beyond my control.

Until now.

The NBA has canceled games because of the Kenosha shooting. The NFL has paused.

Black lives matter. They do. But the hundred or so torched cars I see — and smell — here in front of me at the destroyed Pre-Owned Vehicles Car Service on the corner of 59th Street and Sheridan Road — yes, the same Sheridan Road we blockaded 50 years ago in Evanston — this takes me down the lightless rabbit hole.

How I wish for normal times again.

For no pandemic, no racial strife, no unfairness, no hate.

How I wish for the joy of games.

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