A man was arrested in May by Illinois State Police following a traffic stop after finding $815,000 in heat-sealed bags in the motor home he was driving. The cash smelled strongly of cannabis and while most people saw a 65 year-old man arrested for possible drug trafficking; I noticed that he was a convicted terrorist and he used to give me free lemonade.
The man who was arrested is Karl Armstrong, currently residing in the Town of Madison, and it seems he might be circling back to some of his old habits, and this time he may not have the anti-war movement to give him cover.
Karl and his brother Dwight grew up on the North Side of the city of Madison in typical blue collar fashion. Karl attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison beginning in 1964 and attended off and on after that. During this time he became radicalized against the war in Vietnam. He was not alone, as Madison during the war was a pulsating hotbed of anti-war activism, much of it through protest but there were many others like Karl who saw the awakening as the beginning of the revolution.
An early watershed moment for the anti-war movement in Madison and around the country was in October in 1967 when a large protest against Dow Chemical recruiters (the makers of Napalm) being allowed by the university to conduct job interviews on campus. The protesters occupied the building holding the interviews and Madison police were called in by the university to clear them out, which they did, clubs swinging.
The event came to be known as the Dow Day Protests, and seeing good wholesome Midwestern university students protesting was a relatively new thing in the heartland. But it was also shocking to see police beating those same students, and the bloody images from that day galvanized many. The event helped launch the political career of current Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; who became one of the key student leaders on campus.
There was one key irony of Dow Day that would not become apparent until decades later. During that time there was a young married couple attending graduate school at the UW that were not swayed by the events on campus; and maybe the protests hardened their views.
Lynne and Dick Cheney were each pursuing doctoral degrees at the time and viewed the protests on campus as an annoyance.
Dow Day may not have registered much with the future warmonger Dick Cheney, but it had a great effect on Karl Armstrong who by that time had re-enrolled at the UW. In the next few years he would integrate into the student protest movement.
However he became fixated on the war and his studies suffered from time to time, which eventually delivered him for brief stretches to visit his uncle in Minneapolis. His uncle was a drug dealer of some consequence and Karl (and sometimes Dwight) would stay with him, especially when money was short.
By 1969, Karl along with many UW students and activists in Madison, had become obsessed with the Army Mathematics Research Center that was hosted by the university and given space in Sterling Hall on campus. The center’s charter required that half of its time be spent on Army projects.
The activists wanted Army Math to leave because they felt that much of the research contributed to the United State’s war efforts in Vietnam. The building, which hosted other academic departments including Physics, was the target of constant protests and other rebellious acts.
Karl had become frustrated with the anti-war movement in Madison and wanted more direct action against the government. He torched an ROTC installation on campus, tried to set fire to the Selective Service office but instead damaged the UW Primate Research Center, and attempted to use dynamite to destroy a power sub-station that supplied the nearby Badger Ammunition factory northwest of Madison.
On New Year’s Eve 1969 Karl and Dwight stole a two-seat plane from Middleton’s Morey Airport and flew in snow showers to that same ammunition plant and tried to drop the equivalent of Molotov Cocktails on the vast facility. Dwight, who previously worked at Morey as a lineman (fueling planes etc), had only a few lessons but they managed to fly the plane at night, in winter weather. They abandoned the plane at nearby and tiny Sauk-Prairie Airport, using only the lights of road flares set out along the runway by Karl’s girlfriend.
It was this event that Armstrong used to define his actions from then on. In sending communiqués to the campus newspapers and other underground publications it was signed the “New Year’s Day Gang”. The NYDG would gain some notoriety on campus and the events at Kent State in the April of 1970 would push Karl to propose the most violent action yet.
By the summer he had recruited to his cause 18 year-old David Fine, a UW Freshman and 22 year-old Leo Burt who like Fine worked at the “Daily Cardinal”, the primary student newspaper on campus.
The NYDG began preparations to bomb the AMRC in Sterling Hall and acquired a 1960s vintage Ford Econoline van to use in the attack. Early in the morning of August 24, 1970 Karl parked the van, loaded with nearly 2,000 pounds of a mixture of Ammonium Nitrate and fuel oil, in a loading dock of Sterling Hall.
While the time of day was picked to avoid human casualties, Physics researcher Robert Fassnacht was killed and three others were injured in the blast. The AMRC was hardly touched.
The members of the NYDG escaped to Canada, however all but Leo Burt were eventually captured. Burt has never been found and his whereabouts remain a mystery. Karl, Dwight, and Fine all served time with Karl pleading guilty to the bombing so long as during his sentencing hearing he could put the war on trial.
He called many witnesses to testify on record about the war, a so-called day in court for both Karl and the war. The bombing was the largest domestic terrorist attack until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.
Karl Armstrong was sentenced to 23 years in prison but only served seven and was released in 1980. He would go on to run several businesses in the Madison community including the Radical Rye, a sandwich shop near the central library; and Loose Juice a drink cart that was ubiquitous on the UW Library Mall and various neighborhood festivals.
Lemonade not bombs
I first met Karl Armstrong at the Willy Street Fair sometime in the mid-1980s, but I didn’t know it. My parents own property along Williamson across from what is now the parking lot of Plan B. My best friend lived next door and we waited with anticipation each year for the Loose Juice cart because we had a year to year unwritten contract with Armstrong: electricity for lemonade.
We would plug in a long extension cord from his cart to either my friend’s house or the property owned by my parents. In return for the electricity to run his blenders, juicers, etc., we got free lemonade both days of the fair. For two 10 year-olds it was one of the best deals around.
Fast forward to my second year in college when I had chance to view “The War At Home”, a documentary produced by Wisconsin Public Television. It was about Madison and how it evolved from the quintessential American town to be redefined as a center of mostly left-leaning activism via the anti-war movement.
At the very end of the film it showed Karl Armstrong being released from prison in Waupan and it dawned on me that the notorious leader of the NYDG was the nice man who gave me lemonade year after year at the premiere neighborhood festival in the city.
The irony is this festival was started by folks in the neighborhood to celebrate the kind of community that evolved from the social change that occurred the 1960s and 1970s in Madison.
“I still feel we can’t rationalize someone getting killed, but at that time we felt we should never have done the bombing at all. Now I don’t feel that way. I feel it was justified and should have been done. It just should have been done more responsibly.” Armstrong said.
Dwight would spend his years after prison driving for a cab company in Madison until 2001 when he purchased the Radical Rye with Karl. He died of cancer in 2010. David Fine finished law school but had a tough time getting admitted to the Oregon Bar due to his involvement in the bombing.
Now Karl Armstrong is in hot water again. The arrest in Illinois led to a search warrant for his Wisconsin home where computers, a cell phone, camera, and data storage drives were seized. Armstrong says he had no idea the money was in his motor home, and only had $4,000 in cash which he was using to fund his travels back to Madison.
The cash, found in several duffel bags and a cooler, was discovered during the search of the vehicle during the traffic stop when an officer noticed that some plywood planks under the bed had tool scratches near the screws that held it down. No drugs have been found in the motor home or Armstrong’s trailer home in Madison.
The bombing in 1970 fractured the anti-war movement in Madison and to a certain extent across the country. Debate raged among activists about what were the best tactics to affect change in U.S. policy now that the most extreme tactics had been employed and ended up poisoning the argument.
Armstrong’s legend has been elevated due to his actions attached to the anti-war movement 40 years ago, which may have helped him to earn early parole. It seemed that after prison, Karl did his best to make positive contributions to society through building long, peaceful ties in the community. However in reading about his journey to infamy, and adding in this week’s arrest, it turns out Armstrong’s lofty high-minded anti-war motivations have been compromised by a life-long penchant for basic criminal activity.
Nothing has been proven about why all that money was in Karl Armstrong’s motor home, but without a noble cause behind him, this time it may be hard for him to make lemons into lemonade.