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Maimed firefighter reminds Ayers of bombs' toll

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Neil Steinberg

David Cales saw the bomb that blew off his hand. He was a 26-year-old Chicago firefighter, a pipeman on Engine 8 out of Chinatown, that April day in 1983 when his company answered the call after an explosion at a Near South Side restaurant.

The second bomb was in a shopping bag. Cales looked inside, saw the three sticks of dynamite, and instinctively went to throw it off a roof crowded with fellow firefighters.

It exploded -- six firemen were hurt, Cales the worst. All the fingers on his left hand were blown off. His eardrums were shattered. He could not see.

But don't hold any pity parties for Cales -- his eyesight returned after surgery. He was given new eardrums -- his fingers could not be returned, but doctors in Louisville, Kentucky, in a daring bit of surgery, took one of his toes and attached it to his hand, so he would have a digit opposite his thumb. He had a total of 33 operations.

"I accepted it," he said. "I never had a nightmare; never had a dream." He left the department, went into real estate, did well.

"Should a person like that be honored- "

The only time he chokes up talking about himself is on the topic of his son, also David, a hot prospect with the Cubs organization, pitching AAA ball in Arizona now.

Cales was supposed to go on a trip this week to see his son pitch -- he does that whenever he can. But something more important came up, so he canceled it.

That something is a University of Illinois at Chicago board meeting Thursday, hearing public comment on the professor emeritus status of Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman radical turned respected professor of education theory. He retired from the college last summer, and is up for the honor, which he would have received already, but the board, led by president Chris Kennedy, spiked it, noting that Ayers, in his radical days, signed his name to a manifesto dedicated, in part, to Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy.

Sirhan Sirhan isn't why Cales is staying in Chicago, to be one of three people scheduled to testify before the board. Ayers was also a member of the Weathermen, revolutionaries who wanted to ignite social change with bombs. They weren't very good at it; their victims were mostly themselves. Cales sees a connection between his case and Ayers.

"He's a bomb thrower, just like the guys who threw bombs on the roof where I got hurt," he said. "Does a person like that deserve to be honored- "

It's a complex question, and I'm reluctant to frame it in emotional terms. Academic pursuits are supposed to be based on the merit of achievement within one's field. For 30 years, Northwestern University has endured the presence of Arthur Butz, an engineering professor and Holocaust denier.

The school's position is: we don't put academic work to the litmus test of personal belief -- that's something the Soviets did. If he's a good engineering professor, he could believe in fairies, if it doesn't intrude in class.

The opposite stance is: schools are businesses. Having a wingnut as a professor detracts from the school's hard-earned reputation. There are plenty of engineering profs who aren't Holocaust deniers, plenty of education profs who aren't arrogant, unapologetic former chiefs of violent radical groups.

Then there's the matter of marching off in to the past, trying to punish people for things they said 30, 40 years ago. Here Ayers would be better off if he didn't display the cold, junior Lenin hauteur so prevalent among 1960s radicals. To me, the sticking point isn't so much who Ayers was then, but who he is now and how quick he is to disdain anyone who disagrees. The issue is, would the honor enhance him, or would his being given it taint the honor- I'd say the latter.

"He's still the same bad ass he was then," said Cales. "I don't think he deserves anything, a person who hates his country."

Speaking of which. The 1st Amendment keeps the government from infringing on freedom of speech; it doesn't give you immunity from the consequences of your remarks, nor does it demand that you be treated as if you didn't make them. You want to gaze in rapture at your glory days as a 1960s bomb thrower- Go for it; I can see the allure -- the 1960s worked, in many regards, prying society away from all kinds of ossified views and hidebound rituals which were crazy in themselves.

But you shouldn't also expect to hoover up nugatory honors and special library privileges at the same time. Eugene Debs wasn't angling to get into the Hall of Fame; Emma Goldman didn't apply to the Junior League. And Ayers -- I guess to his credit, if you want to give him credit -- isn't the one making a big deal out of this. He's aloof, naturally, looking down on us -- pathetic clueless bourgeois ants -- from the lofty heights of his own self-regard. I don't think UIC could honor him any more than he honors himself.