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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill


Updated: Mar 13, 2023

A Memoir of Hope, Forlorn and Otherwise

Jan. 2016

I had really planned to go to Albany that weekend. A prepaid musical weekend with old friends, the “People’s Music Network”, a mild mannered and fairly docile group of old hippies who meet twice a year to plot world domination by means of singing folk and topical songs to each other . When my friend Ben suggested I go to Iowa instead I was quite dismissive. Iowa indeed. Simply miles away. We could sing about political change just fine in Albany, a mere two hour drive from my home in the mid Hudson valley. Then came the instant messages.

First: “Underhill!” [Jan. 27 at 4:15 pm] [ He was also calling my phone, but I couldn’t answer it at the moment]. “Paging the PMN, PMN come in, come in PMN.” He wanted PMN [People’s Music Network] to sponsor a Music for Bernie Caravan. I said I would send them an email and talk the idea up, which I later did [to no avail, as the group as a registered nonprofit cannot make political endorsements without risking…gasp…their tax free status! They wished us well however].

You have to understand that this young man has great powers of persuasion, at least where I am concerned. When we spoke on the phone a few minutes later he explained that he and some friends were going to rent a car and drive to Iowa to canvas for Bernie Sanders and they REALLY REALLY needed me to come along. Little did I know at the time that the most urgent reason they needed me was for my valid driver’s license and ability to drive, which only one of them, Jeremy, also had in full measure. Ben knew how to drive, but his license was tied up in legal difficulties; Tobi had a license but no highway driving experience; and Brian had no license and couldn’t drive at all. Looking back on the instant messages that were flying back and forth amongst them however, I am gratified to see that I am described thusly: [Ben] “Hey, potentially one more driver!!! This might really kick ass, hold the phone for more updates!!!”

[Jeremy] [the next morning] “So?”

[Ben] “My good friend, and FRIEND OF PETE SEEGER’S, Sarah Underhill, is gracing us with her presence. She is a registered nurse, a lifetime union woman, a registered legal driver with a license, and one of the finest singers I know, both of traditional Irish ballads, and a knockout singer of Union and Civil Rights songs…We are good to go!”

Well, with flattery like that, although here half meant to convince the other expedition members of my worthiness, how could I possibly refuse? Actually at that point I had already agreed. I had the Friday off already, thinking I would be driving up to Albany, so leaving Thursday night was no problem.

But as I was packing to leave my cozy little apartment, much like Bilbo Baggins being summoned away by dwarves and wizards to a fate unknown, I have to say that my heart nearly quailed within me. I was still tired from the LAST weekend’s madness [driving to Philadelphia in a blizzard to sing Shape Note hymns]. I was quite willing to vote for Hillary Clinton, after all, and have her be the first woman president, although I planned on voting for Bernie in the NY primaries of course. Going all those miles was going to be dreadful. When I looked at the route on the road atlas, I almost cried. I had hoped that Iowa was just east of Illinois, but not so. When I comprehended what a very long westward drive this would be, I felt faint, and wondered if my blood pressure was going through the stratosphere. But I checked it and it wasn’t too bad, so after packing some emergency blood pressure pills just in case, I set off, and as soon as I had made the decision and was underway, I was absolutely fine.

After a certain amount of negotiating as to where and when to meet me, where to rent the car etc. it was decided to meet me in Kingston at the car rental place near the thruway, where I could be officially added to the legal driver policy for the rental car, which as it turned out was a shiny red Patriot jeep complete with Massachusetts license plates and 4 wheel drive. It soon acquired a bright blue “BERNIE” sign duct taped to the rear windshield. And we were off.

Day 1 Thursday Jan.28, 2016.

Somehow I had agreed much against my better judgment to drive to Iowa with four other people to campaign for Bernie Sanders. The crew of four included my friend Ben Bath, the dynamic and passionate devotee of Socialism, Sacred Harp music, and political revolution, not necessarily in that order. His comrade and erstwhile roommate and singing partner, Jeremy, a six footer with a lovely smile and voice and no shortage of leadership capability [and a valid driver’s license] was on hand, as well as the transplanted Californian Brian Harris, who I call the Marin County Maharajah. [Not a mere Berkeley Brahmin like myself. Ben and Jeremy classify as Boston Brahmins, although Ben is half NYC Jewish Communist; Tobi is more of a classic Jewish American Warrior Princess, in the best sense of the word. Not that I should be going around classifying people at all! ] Brian is a quiet young man who is not nearly as pretentious and supercilious as he used to be when an undergrad, and in fact is a very nice guy of calm temperament who is adept at finding decent restaurants even in the wilds of the Midwest. He also became the de facto scribe, taking notes on all the Bernie Sanders campaign songs we planned on singing, as we adapted traditional union songs, civil rights songs and hymns to the purpose. Like Ben and Jeremy, and myself for that matter, Brian sings and obsessively collects old ballads etc. The dynamic Tobi Erner completed the team. In her early thirties, petite, slender and shapely, with a delicate silver nose ring and a mass of black curls, she is a social worker in Manhattan. Both she and Jeremy had worked in the past for the Public Interest Research Group, opening regional offices and managing them in various states, so they were each highly organized, hard working and smart, with a lot of experience running canvassing operations, like the one that we were about to participate in. Tobi also happened to be the sister of one of Ben’s and my mutual friends, Phil Erner of Brook Farm. After introductions, signing me up as a driver [just in the nick of time, for the rental office was about to close], and cramming my gear into the car, we set off. We drove down Rte 209 to my friend Dennis’s barbecue joint and got dinner, at least for the carnivores in the crew. Then we continued on through the darkness to Binghamton where our vegetarian, Brian, got Indian takeout. Thence on to my Dad’s in Wellsville [stopped for a brief visit to the King Alfred statue], getting there after midnight, where I slept in my sleeping bag on the living room floor. Brian and Jeremy got a couch apiece, and Ben and Ms. Tobi took the fold-out bed in the study, and tended to share sleeping quarters thereafter.

Day 2 Friday Jan. 29. We slept until 8 [meant to get up at 7] and were on the road after greeting Dad, a hospitable soul who didn’t bat an eye at our invasion and encouraged us on our mission. We raided his fridge for some breakfast and then loaded out. Driving west past Jamestown we ran into the worst weather of the trip, a sudden blast of lake effect snow that slowed us down for a good hour before we thankfully got past it. After that the roads were clear and mostly dry for the entire trip. Long hours of driving ensued, with Jeremy and I taking turns at the wheel. We did a lot of singing, improvising new lyrics to old songs and getting some nice harmony in with Jeremy’s bass, Ben’s tenor and my treble, with the others chiming in. We sang “Solidarity Forever”, “Give Bernie Sanders Your Vote” [ a parody of “Give Me Just a Little More Time” by Jeremy], the “Internationale”, “Eyes On the Prize”, “Drinking Gourd”, “There is Power in the Union”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Venga Jaleo”, “Viva La Quinta Brigada” , “Which Side Are You On”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “Roll the Union On”, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister”, “The Banks Are Made of Marble”, “This Land is Your Land”, “Pastures of Plenty”, and all the other old good ones. Tobi , when not singing, was organizing us up a hotel room or two in Des Moines courtesy of the campaign, emailing and messaging back and forth with the other organizers. The use of the smart phones [we all had them except Ben, who was temporarily phoneless] was more or less continuous. News articles, songs, campaign updates, humorous jabs at Hillary and the Republican candidates, were constantly being accessed. Brian had managed to leave his phone charger at my Dad’s, so competition for use of the car’s phone charger was brisk and ongoing. We stopped for lunch at a place actually called Whitey’s Diner in rural Fremont, Indiana, where we played and sang outside the diner and a young fellow stopped to see what was going on. We asked him who he supported in the upcoming presidential race, and he was for Bernie. Matt Engalls. He said he liked to play and sing Woody Guthrie songs himself.

Tobi’s assiduous networking paid off and a rather down at heel Motel 6 , with a giant digital billboard of candidate Ben Carson looming over it, became our home for the next 3 nights. There were two rooms and Tobi and Ben claimed one of them, leaving the rest of us to share two double beds in the other. Jeremy being large of frame and assertive in personality commandeered one bed for himself, and so Brian and I shared, very chastely, the other bed, and this configuration continued for the duration of the trip. I warned them that I sometimes snore, but got no complaints of this.

Day 3. Sat. Jan. 30 Rising early and dining at the Perkins restaurant next door to the motel, we then reported with much joy to the Bernie HQ in Des Moines. Other volunteers from far and near were arriving, including a big red bus full of union nurses emblazoned with pro-Bernie logos. We played and sang Jeremy’s song for the local news cameras, checked in with the highly efficient crew, and were duly sent out to the town of Ankeny to report to the local Bernie HQ there. It had a big hand stenciled sign with a picture of Bernie crossing the Delaware propped up on the front porch. Inside was a busy team of volunteers, some from Oregon and Washington state, California, Woodstock, Kansas etc. We signed in, got clipboards of names and maps of neighborhoods to go door to door reminding folks to caucus, and , btw, to put in a good word for Bernie. I walked through a quiet working class neighborhood of modest well maintained homes. There was a John Deere plant in the town. Many a knock elicited no answer, but those who were home and of a mind to answer the door were a civil and even tempered lot, at least the ones I ran into. Ben of course got lost and ended up at a beer and cigarette party in a garage, converting Donald Trump supporters to the cause, but my encounters were with stay at home Moms, women of my own age, retired union guys. Many said they were for Bernie. Hillary had her fans, and I was a soft sell and talked of my own ambivalence, but held out the possibility that the status quo was in a state of upheaval. My oddest constituent was a large fellow with a shaved head, cowboy hat, and red white and blue outfit who was just buttoning up his jeans as he opened the door, indicated that the voter I was looking for, Bradley, was “in the other room”, and told me that he himself was the local precinct captain, or whatever they call them, for the Donald Trump voters for the Caucus. I cheerily averred that “Both candidates are revolutionary“ , hinting at common ground of some sort, and got the hell out of there. “Didn’t mean in to intrude!”. We ate lunch at a noodle restaurant and got some caffeine. After the second round of canvassing, as night fell and we were issued tiny flashlights, I was ready to call it quits. Not so my stalwart companions, who insisted on round three. I ended up in some shabby and mostly deserted student housing, but managed to give a large rainbow colored button away to a little boy, probably on the autism spectrum, who was full of love and exuberance as he answered the door, came boiling out of it, and then was scooped up by his Mom. They were for Bernie.

Our evening meals were all at the faithful Perkins restaurant, which is open at all hours, and we would eat huge and calorie laden meals and discuss the triumphs and narrow escapes of the day's canvassing. Tobi: " I made a woman cry tears of joy as we embraced and bonded over stagnant wages!" Or, Brian " Had long, really moving conversation about health insurance!" I was mostly thankful I had managed to keep up and actually knock on all my allotted doors - 55 of them on one day, for instance. According to Jeremy, 44,000 doors were knocked upon for Bernie across Iowa on Jan. 30 alone.

Day 4 Sunday Jan 31. Repeat of the day before: up early, eat at Perkins, accost everyone we come in contact with to vote for Bernie [and all of the waitresses at Perkins were for him], canvas, lunch at noodle joint, canvas again. I ended up in a slightly more upper middle class neighborhood of McMansions, beige on beige: beige homes, beige lawns, gray skies. Thankfully the weather was mild and the terrain, predictably, flat. My most poignant vignette was when a woman about my own age opened the door and when asked said that she would be caucusing for Hillary. When I inquired for her husband, whose name was actually on my list, she said, “Oh, he’s caucusing for Trump“. Then looking me in the eye she continued “…and it is HORRIBLE living in this house.“ That shut me up, other than remarking something like, “Well, we’ll see what happens,“ and I walked on thankful for my freedom from intolerable living conditions.

Our big plan for the evening was to attend an actual rally where the man himself would be present, on the U of Iowa campus, the last rally before the vote. Singing and capering, bearing our placards and festooned with campaign buttons, we found our way to a gymnasium in Des Moines. At first it was too crowded and they wouldn’t let us in. We waited with a large crowd in the foyer, listening to the cheers and introductory speeches emanating from inside. Leave it to Tobi, who schmoozed up some Korean journalists who were having trouble getting people to interview. They interviewed her and she convinced them to let us follow them through the press door. The place was packed, a huge bank of cameras and press people up on the bleachers behind us. We heard Jim Hightower, various young hipster celebrities such as the male star of the “Hunger Games“ movies and the musical duo Foster the People. We were cheering our lungs out and this only increased when Bernie himself made his appearance. We were right in front of him and got a good view. He was at a podium out in the center of the room. During breaks we got interviewed by journalists from Singapore and China and on the way out played our [Jeremy’s] song which got on the BBC news coverage, apparently, although I never got to hear the broadcast. I was proud to be with such fiercely articulate people as Ben, Tobi, and Jeremy, who espoused their views fervently to the press at every opportunity. The Chinese journalist asked them something about what they thought older people thought of Bernie. At this point I spoke up and said, “I’m an older person. Older people can be very cautious, and sometimes this caution is known as pragmatism. But young people have courage, and their courage can be very inspiring”. The other thing the young people have, a palpable motivator in the emotional barometry, is anger. They are pissed off. And they are as furious at Hillary as they are at Trump, Cruz and the rest of the pack. Furious at their loads of student debt, at their lack of prospects, at the cost of rent, at the measly coverage of expensive health insurance plans. Old enough to remember the hope and promise of Obama’s election, and then to have experienced the disillusionment of seeing how little he could actually accomplish. But this evening all was a roar of approval for Bernie and his family, and Ben and Jeremy got to shake his hand at the end. We left singing and celebrating and waving our signs at the traffic.

Day 5 , Monday Feb 1, day of the caucus. Canvassed once again in the morning, through a rabbit warren of low income housing full of disabled people, single Moms, and plenty of Bernie fans. Further up the street were fancier condos with almost no one home and lots of realtor’s signs, more like an “investment” housing development where no one actually lived. An older guy walking past said he wouldn’t be caucusing, but he was for Trump. “He’s going to win anyway. “ This wasn't true for the primary, as it turned out. We had lunch at the “Fighting Burrito”, where the menu items were named after Cesar Chavez, Susan B Anthony, Crazy Horse, Harvey Milk and Jesse Owens. Said our farewells to our fellow canvassers at HQ. Then packed up, not without a few tempers being lost . We were by this time highly exhausted. Brian and I peeked out the door of our room when loud and angry bellowing was heard in the parking lot, as Ben expressed his displeasure at Jeremy’s hurrying us along to leave a few minutes earlier than stated. After a truce during which Brian, Jeremy and I bought snacks for the trip at a nearby supermarket while Ben and Tobi enjoyed some alone time in their room, we got out of town in a jittery and pensive collective mood.

On the way through rural Iowa we stopped in the small town of Durant to try to observe a caucus in session. We had just stopped for gas, and Jeremy, who had been reluctant to leave Iowa at all without being there for the results of the caucus that night which we had worked so hard to influence, searched up the local one on his phone and we found it. We had driven through a huge patch of ground fog on our way east, but now it was dark, a raw, chilly night. Damp fog, freight train whistle from a passing train, slight whiff of manure in the night air. Inside the central school, Repubs and Dems were heading for separate rooms. Dems were in the cafeteria. We passed the cheerleaders practicing in the hall; their male counterparts, the basketball team, were sweating it out in the gym, all reminiscent of the rural western New York high school that I attended. We were welcomed as observers into the Caucus, not yet in session, where placards marked the corners where Hillary, Bernie and O’Malley each had a territory. Folks were trickling in and taking their places in an orderly and civil way. But we had miles to go, and could neither wait around for them to start , nor stay after the doors were closed to see the resulting process. With much reluctance on the part of the crew we continued on into the night. Farewell, Iowa, and Godspeed. We crossed the border into Illinois.

As we drove on hour after hour, the results of the caucus started coming in. We listened to the car radio and gleaned competing results from internet sites on the phones. Cautious optimism tinged with skepticism gradually turned to whoops of triumph as the narrow gap between the two main Democrats shrank to somewhere between .8 and .2 %. Iowa had come through for the socialist. We confirmed all this at a gourmet pizza joint, closing it down at midnight, and found our lodgings for the night in a cheap hotel in South Bend, the town where Notre Dame is, enjoying a discount procured by the able negotiations of Tobi with the sleepy desk clerk. Brian, Jeremy and I shared a celebratory toot of Tullamore dew from the flask I had been carrying with me for the whole trip [I had not dipped into it at all except for spiking my water bottle with it for the Bernie rally] and then sang some Waterson songs before collapsing into sleep.

Day 6 Feb 2 Tuesday. Groundhog Day. We breakfasted at perhaps the only hipster café in South Bend Indiana, thanks to Brian finding it on Yelp. Drove all that day, all the way through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then the home territory of Newburgh and the NY Thruway, fielding work calls on the way. Singing and reading the news articles off our phones. Picked up my car in Kingston and made it back home. The others put Tobi on a bus back to the city and continued on to Boston.

Bernie wrassled Hillary to an virtual tie in the caucus, and we helped.

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