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Feb 08, 2021

Fiction Historical Fiction American

Willa tilted her head to look up at the giant stone columns at the entrance of the Chicago Field Museum. She didn’t know why her dad and step-mom Renee insisted on dragging her to things like this whenever they traveled. She was seventeen now. Why couldn’t they do normal things like go to a water park or rent a boat?

 “This place was built to hold artifacts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition,” Dad said. He was always acting like a walking encyclopedia with his facts and figures. If you asked him about any topic, he could tell you at least one thing that he thought was interesting. Willa never asked, but she received these nuggets of info anyway. “That’s the one with the famous serial killer H.H. Holmes.”

“Dad…” Willa groaned.

“If you keep rolling your eyes like that,” Renee warned, “they’ll roll right out of your sockets, and you’ll lose them. I will not help you put them back in”

Willa gave another eye roll out of spite.

They walked through the large entrance doors and into a large white display hall lined with arches and more columns. Stone statues of women in togas stood guard atop pillars in each corner, looking down from the second story. A towering pair of elephants stood frozen on one side of the hall while a dinosaur skeleton (a brontosaurus or brachiosaurus or whatever one had the long neck) watched on. Flying above it all, suspended by wires, was a model pteranodon.

Willa gaped at the enormity of it all, but when her dad looked at her, she shut her mouth and pulled out her phone for a selfie.

“I always liked seeing the Egypt room,” Dad said, looking at the map.

“Well, I want to go to the gem room. Maybe I can give you some ideas for my next birthday present,” Renee joked.

Willa was already wandering off to another exhibit hall, the sign above the door proclaiming “The Turbulent Sixties” in a neon psychedelic font.

“Meet us in the cafeteria at noon!” Dad called after her. “If you’re not there, I’ll be forced to turn on the tracking in your phone and come get you.”

Willa waived over her shoulder to acknowledge that she heard, but she was already being drawn into the exhibit. Old tube televisions were stacked precariously on each side just inside the entrance, and shows with Elvis and The Beatles danced and sang on the black and white screens. Next came a display of what could have been a teenager’s bedroom with spinach green shag carpet and blacklight posters of flowers and rainbows. A plaque on the side described how modern some of the features were and the impact they had, but Willa ignored it and kept walking.

Next, Willa was startled to see a realistic pair of mannequins, one dressed as a cop in short sleeves and a helmet wielding a club, and the other a young man with shaggy hair in jeans and a navy blue t-shirt with a white peace sign on the chest that held his arms in the air. Another television was placed next to them playing news footage of the 1968 Democratic Convention Riot. Willa’s heart thudded as she took in the realism of the cop’s raised club and the dark sunglasses covering his eyes while reflecting the image of the young man.

She moved on, trying to shrug off her uneasy feeling.

A little further down the exhibit, she saw a plywood arch painted to look like stones with a fancy crest as the keystone, and a small sign to the left read “University of Chicago - January 1962.” The inside of the arch was dark, so Willa had no idea what could be inside. Could it be more pop culture like a Woodstock concert, or would it be more violence? She hoped for the first option.

She walked through the arch, once again ignoring any smaller words on any signs she passed. The darkness of a hallway swallowed her. Her stomach dropped, and she felt her ears pop as if she were in an ascending airplane. When she finally emerged from the darkness, she was in a room resembling the hallway of an office building filled with teenagers and young adults. Doors lined the walls, and many of the people were seated on the floor while others milled about. What kind of lame exhibit was this? Had she wandered out of the exhibit and into some staging area where workers took their breaks?

Some of the people were conversing amongst themselves, but one man stood out in his maroon sweater with a white shirt collar, talking loudly in a Brooklyn accent to a group clustered around him. “What we have here is not right,” Willa heard him say as she drew closer. “It is down right racist. The University of Chicago is not segregated, and there is no reason for the university to allow segregated housing.” Many of the people around him nodded their heads in agreement, frowns creased their faces.

This man had to be a docent for the exhibit. There is no way a normal person would be wearing a sweater over another shirt in the 90 degree Chicago summer heat.

“What’s he talking about?” Willa asked a girl next to her wearing a trendy pair of cat’s eye glasses.

“Bernie is fired up again. He’s been organizing these sit-ins all week because the university owns several segregated apartment buildings.”

“You should have heard him yesterday,” said another girl with her blond hair up in a bun. “He was saying this was intolerable.”

Willa realized these must also be performers in the exhibit, and she was starting to warm up to the realism of it all. These actors were taking everything so seriously, sitting shoulder to shoulder and blocking doorways, having lively conversations, and above all, this Bernie with his enthusiastic speaking drawing the attention of anyone in his orbit. She decided to sit with some of these kids and take in what Bernie had to say.

As she listened to his passionate arguing against the University of Chicago’s segregated apartments, she felt a niggling at the back of her mind, a feeling that she was supposed to know something. She looked around, taking in the young men in flannels and sweaters with corduroys or jeans, and the young women in skirts and occasional slacks. Bernie’s forceful Brooklyn accent tickled something inside her that she couldn't quite put her finger on.

“Is that Bernie Sanders?” she asked a boy next to her.

“Yeah. I kind of think he likes to hear himself talk.”

Willa squinted at the dark haired twenty-year-old arguing in front of her and shook her head in disbelief. This man was supposed to be the future presidential candidate “Feel the Bern” Bernie Sanders, and he was leading a sit in here in Chicago? Bernie Sanders of the “give everyone free tuition” and the cute knitted mittens? Everything was too realistic, and she was starting to feel the uneasiness she felt at the riot display creeping back.

An older man with slicked back gray hair and old horn-rimmed glasses came through one of the doors. “You kids shouldn’t be here. You should be in class.”

“We’re not leaving until you do what is right,” Bernie responded.

Willa reached for her phone so that she could record this, but when she fished around in her pockets, it wasn’t there. She had no choice but to sit and watch.

“You will have no choice when you’re all expelled,” the older man declared and returned to his office, slamming the door behind him.

Willa held her breath as Bernie turned back to the crowd and smiled a grin that she had seen on television dozens of times, laughing on late night television or in the presidential debates. This wasn’t just an actor portraying Bernie Sanders. Somehow this was twenty-year-old Bernie Sanders organizing a sit in, explaining what they were there for to anyone who would listen.

Willa looked back at the dark archway that brought her to this room in 1962 and then around at the kids standing up (or in this case sitting down) for what they believed, even if it meant that they risked expulsion. What had she ever done that had this much impact? Posted a black square as her profile picture on social media?

She decided to stay where she was for now and be a part of history.


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