The Piano Man of the Cardiovascular Center

Errick Thomas plays the piano for patients in the Frankel Cardiovascular Center

Errick Thomas

That night in an Ohio pasture fifty years ago changed me, as has loving a person with executions in his family. Before those experiences, I had not fully understood that rule breaking has consequences and those consequences can break your heart.

It was spring of my freshman year and it was the wrong college. I chose a Quaker school in the Midwest hoping to hold onto my family's liberal politics while discovering the heart of America. Instead I encountered Richard Nixon-style Quakerism and a profound sense of dislocation. But it was 1965 and sparks of protest against racism and the war in Vietnam were everywhere. At my school, left-leaning students gathered at a corner table in the student union. One evening as we played endless hands of bridge, someone mentioned that a Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled the next night in a town ninety minutes away.

"Let's crash it," someone suggested.

"We could protest," someone else added.

"Disrupt it."

"That's nuts," a third person weighed in.

"But wouldn't it be amazing?"

There were six of us at the table-four scruffy East Coast Jews, a black woman from the South and a freshman from Cincinnati with long blond Joni Mitchell hair. We would have a difficult time passing for Klan members or even likely recruits. But we were passionate and intensely curious, with the unthinking invulnerability of the young. I had been active in civil rights and was not ignorant of the potential danger, but I couldn't ignore the presence of this loathsome event nearby. I'm not sure what I expected to accomplish, or what difference I imaged our attendance would make other than a silent statement of protest, but I had to go.

The thrill of breaking rules might have been another motivation. In those days, many colleges had curfews for women. On weeknights I was expected to be in my dorm by 10:30pm. I had broken curfew before and knocked on a side door about midnight. Several dorm-mates saw me at the door and looked away. No one let me in and I slept that night on the carpeted floor of a piano practice room.

"Can we get back by curfew?" I asked as we drove a borrowed car through dark Ohio farmland. There were five of us. We had convinced our black friend not to risk her life to come with us. Being Jewish didn't show, I reasoned; I could pass.

"Definitely," said the other freshman woman. She was dating an upperclassman and had also faced the stony refusal of rule-followers in the dorm.

We spotted the turnoff to the rally site. There was a long line of cars on the gravel road and a gate.

"Looks like they're checking ID's," the driver said. He drove past the turn and pulled off the road a quarter mile on. It was a moonless night and we hadn't thought to bring flashlights. Climbing fences and stumbling across the uneven pasture took forever. We crossed three fields, heading towards an orange glow on the horizon.

As we got close, the glow sharpened into a burning cross.

We brushed twigs off our jeans and blended into the crowd, sticking together. Ordinary-looking people milled around tables. They chatted with each other, thumbed through brochures and signed petitions promoting racial hate and anti-Semitism, while balancing paper plates soggy with pie. The pie smelled wonderful but we didn't eat. The five of us wandered glassy-eyed through the crowd shoulder-to-shoulder, afraid to talk, worried we'd be identified as interlopers. Most people were dressed like us in everyday clothes, but a cluster of men near the makeshift stage wore white robes and hoods.

One man stood out in the crowd of hooded men, his white sheet illuminated by the flames of the cross. The others treated him with reverence; I now believe he was Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. I stared as he lit a cigarette and lifted it to the slash in the hood, to the place where a man's mouth should be. He inhaled and the ash flared red. Smoke seeped out through the jagged mouth hole cut in the fabric and two thin tendrils spiraled out the eyeholes. The haze hung suspended around his tapering hood for several seconds before dissolving into the springtime air.

Overpowered by that image of twin plumes of smoke, I remember nothing else about the rally except riding back to school in silence, arriving just before curfew. I couldn't sleep. I knocked on the door of the dorm advisor, a sympathetic woman just a few years older than me, whom I trusted not to turn me in for leaving campus. Sobbing in her arms, I described it all: the burning cross, how hate was served up on paper plates with apple pie, the ordinary appearance of evil-thinking people, cigarette smoke curling through eyeholes cut in a bed sheet.

The semester ended and I went to Appalachia for a "Poverty Program" summer job. I don't remember discussing the rally with anyone. The sense of danger did not linger, nor did the image of a cigarette flare and twin curls of smoke spiraling into the night.

Back at school the next year, I met a curly-haired freshman from New York. We bonded over anti-war protests and argued about political strategy. We kissed for the first time under a table in a deserted classroom. "I don't play games," I told him. "I don't either," he promised. At the end of the year, I dropped out of college to return to Kentucky and Robby transferred to Michigan but we stayed in touch. When I moved into his communal house in Ann Arbor two years later, Robby told me that his parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Over the next six months, I read his parents' death house correspondence on my lunch hour at my secretarial job at the university. I went home every evening and compared Robby's raccoon eyes with the photographs of the five-year-old visiting his parents on Death Row at Sing Sing. I read every book on the Rosenberg trial. I devoured old newspaper and television footage of the arrest and the trial, the protests and the execution, trying to understand the circumstances that had orphaned my sweetheart. Robby and I married and moved back east. We had two daughters and his family story became mine. Over time, his remarkable legacy grew almost ordinary.

One evening in 2011, I watched Robby interviewed on television about the expected indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917, the same Act used to convict Ethel and Julius. The harsh television studio lighting reflected off my sweetheart's glasses as he spoke. The program cut to the grainy black and white newsreel of columnist Bob Considine recounting Ethel Rosenberg's execution by electric chair. Considine described the "ghastly plume of smoke that rose from her head and went up against the skylight overhead."

I had seen that documentary footage before. But for the first time that evening, watching the legal violence against the mother-in-law I never met, I was stunned by the parallel visual images of her electrocution and the Klan leader's smoking hood. When I crashed the Klan rally I had not yet met Robby and I knew very little about the Rosenberg case.

In the decades since the rally, I helped Robby create the Rosenberg Fund for Children in his parents' honor. I also became a fiction writer. While writing my first novel the Klan memory surfaced. The book was published in 2011, and I often read that scene at events. Perhaps it took inhabiting my 19-year-old self to write that memory into a scene, and reading those words out loud over and over, for the terrible similarities to echo.

That night in an Ohio pasture fifty years ago changed me, as has loving a person with executions in his family. Before those experiences, I had not fully understood that rule breaking has consequences and those consequences can break your heart. And I hadn't yet learned just how many rules in our world need changing or breaking.

Years and ideologies separate those two smoky plumes, yet the fearful rhyming of the images braid together to nurture and inform my writing and my marriage. As a novelist, I am drawn to stories about injustice and risk taking. I'm engaged by characters who must balance on the tightrope between their political yearnings and their precious human connections. I'm fascinated by themes of changing the world, despite the odds of terrible losses.

In our culture, romance is portrayed as flowers and chocolates and walking barefoot on the beach, but my fifty-year love for a man orphaned by execution is also enriched and deepened by rhyming smoke spirals. Like other terrifying images from our world, both historical and contemporary, those smoky plumes offer inspiration and illumination. Even when images are too annihilating for everyday contemplation, they live powerfully in nighttime flashes, in activism, and in our most profound connections to each other.

Ellen Meeropol is the author of three novels: House Arrest, On Hurricane Island and Kinship of Clover (forthcoming in 2017). In 1968, after following her future husband Robert Meeropol to Ann Arbor, she worked in the University of Michigan School of Public Health. A former nurse practitioner and part-time bookseller, Ellen is fascinated by characters balanced on the fault lines between political turmoil and human connection. Her short fiction and essay publications include Bridges, The Cleaver, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction and The Writers Chronicle. Her dramatic script "Carry it Forward" telling the story of the Rosenberg Fund for Children was produced in June 2013 starring Eve Ensler, Angela Davis, and Cotter Smith.

Reprinted by permission of the author and Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics.

An Execution in the Family, LSA Magazine, the alumni magazine of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan.