Editor’s note: This story contains a graphic description of a war photograph that some may find disturbing and/or triggering.
Marty, a senior from Queens, burst through the door of our three-bedroom, six-person suite in Eastman Tower, already yelling. “Vinny, you gotta get over to the Physics Building tunnel and get one of these before they’re gone!”
Marty was holding what had to be the Torch Yearbook, looking different from most with a gold cloth covering and black letters. It was certainly yearbook time, late April, in 1972. Still, I might have asked what was so special, but Marty kept talking, loud and fast, saying, essentially “This is the greatest darn yearbook ever made. This is going to darn-well drive the administration crazy!”
In truth, I lived with Marty all school year, and I doubt he ever once said “darn.” But you get the idea.
I was a sophomore in my first year at UAlbany and confused — about a lot of things, actually, but in this case about the exhilaration over a yearbook. I’d seen the 1971 edition and was impressed. The photos were mostly large, strikingly lit and expertly composed, and told a story of campus life amid the shadow of the Vietnam War. It reflected UAlbany’s participation in the nationwide student strike in early May of 1970 and the bitterness of the May 4 shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University by National Guardsmen.
Marty had participated in the UAlbany strike and recalled with passion how he and other students pounded on first-floor classroom windows, demanding that kids get up from their desks, abandon their books and profs, and march. Many classroom windows were broken. An explosive device went off in the Dutch Quad Flag Room, a piano was destroyed in the lobby.
But this was now April of 1972. The number of college-aged boys being drafted was falling rapidly. Even as a high school senior in May of ’70, I remember how Kent State had brought a grim reality to the risk of angry (sometime violent) protest. President Nixon’s U.S. winddown of the war left fewer kids like myself (with a low draft lottery number), vulnerable to the draft.
By 1972, on the rise were the words “student apathy,” in the ASP, in classrooms and eventually yearbooks. What could Torch ’72 stir up at this point?
Marty showed me, shoving the senior portrait section to my face. At first I didn’t see his point. Two big pages of five rows of small black-and-white portraits of mostly neatly dressed, well-coiffed seniors. But there was something akilter in the in the middle row — every other photo had a slanted bar to the right and some kind of wall or post to the left, framing a young face. The face was pained. That’s when I focused.
“Oh my God,” I said. The face had no neck, and it was repeated six times on each of the two pages, alternating in the middle row with smiling or otherwise confident-looking, well-coiffed seniors. The head of a young Viet Cong, decapitated and dangling in air. Page after page for 45 yearbook pages. (A full shot of the scene, just before the section, revealed the “post” to the right to be a rifle, the wall to the left the leg of a South Vietnamese soldier proudly and almost gleefully holding up not one but two heads by the hair.)
“Isn’t that fantastic?!” Marty said, his face lit up. He despised the human cost of war, but he delighted in knowing this cost was going to be shoved into the faces of the “Establishment.” To Marty and other seniors, having gone through the protests of May 1970, the war and the protests were still vivid. For many, they were moments of the highest passion in their lives.
For us underclassmen, it was becoming the past. (The one reference to campus protests in the ’73 Torch referred to days gone by.) I headed three flights upstairs to people my own age, a suite full of sophomores, two of whom I’d gone to high school with. Mike, from Manhattan, was bent over the open Torch gazing at the senior section. “I don’t believe this,” he said, mouth agape. He looked up at me. “Do you believe this?”
Don, one of my high school mates, emitted fury. “How am I going to bring this home and show my parents — with all these heads!”
I found that persuasive. I didn’t really like looking at pages of death spectacle photos, but I knew I’d subconsciously keep flipping the book open to that section — to that unfortunate guy, and the many students in the middle rows who’d gotten their yearbook pictures taken feeling full of happy achievement — and whose parents would despise that book and maybe the University the rest of their lives. (Marty, on the other hand, told me, and I believed him, that, instead of being tucked safely in the lower two rows, he’d have wished to have been among the heads in the middle.)
Would I go get the book? No. I had transferred into UAlbany after a freshman year at Fordham University, my parents wondering why I’d want to leave a nice Christian school (it wasn’t) and go all the way upstate (I kept telling them it was only about halfway up) to some radical campus that had even abandoned general education requirements. I kept telling them UAlbany kids were no different than Fordham kids — a few more high on smoke, a few less high on liquid.
But now this. No, they would never see Torch ’72, and I got my high school buddies to shut up that summer when my mystified mother queried them, “So, why didn’t he bring home a yearbook?”
I could have had a built-in excuse. The book, 380 pages and weighing nearly five pounds, seemed to disappear after a few days. If it sold out due to popularity, where did it go? I saw very few copies on campus in my school years nor in the decades I’ve worked here. Did the administration step in and dump a few boxes? I’ve never gotten a concrete answer.
Torch ’72 was an object of discussion that year through the end of classes and finals. After my initial shock, I sat down with it, and discovered a gateway to the political consciousness of one Ron Simmons, a gay black radical senior, the book’s editor and a talented photographer and writer. The first thing written in it was an absolution of the Student Association for anything people would see in the book. It was essentially all on him.
And “all” was more than Vietnam. Sexually, past books were utterly hetero. In Torch ’72, Simmons changed that, devoting 16 pages to gay life on campus (only two of the 16 to gay women), with sections on pollution and women’s rights, and a Simmons essay on the militancy required of new “black elite” college-educated men and women. He displayed no bigotry, blasting a capitalist “power elite” that subjugated whites and blacks alike by way 24-page section on poverty showing poor whites and poor Blacks in equally hopeless conditions.
The book was already revolutionary to that point, yet not gung-ho antiwar. Simmons even took time to pay tribute to the silliness of college youth . . . and, of course, to the concerts, plays and sports.
But he had one more arrow in his quiver. The senior photo section was ushered in by 26 pages, beginning on page 271, of photos and essays depicting death, suffering and despair in Vietnam. In retrospect, individuals perusing those pages might have expected something unsettling still to come.
It came, like a cudgel, with the death spectacle photos. Simmons, who died in 2020, concluded the book by asking if, through Torch ’72, readers understood the price of war, bigotry and economic oppression better. “Or was it all for nothing?”
Nothing, however, is for nothing if it leaves you with indelible images. Torch ’72 is forever the yearbook “with the heads,” but it’s also, in photos and words, an articulate witness to a unique time and place of absurdity, joy and anger.
In 2020, The University Art Museum presented Torch '72/2020, a commissioned project by artist Shane Aslan Selzer that used the yearbook as a “visual prompt to speak about the trajectory and lineage of intersectional justice efforts on the UAlbany campus,” according to a press release on the exhibition. Selzer, whose parents graduated from UAlbany in 1972, says of the yearbook: “It was a radical document I had stumbled upon that felt like a guide to living.”
CORRECTION: The original published version of this story erroneously stated that the remainder of the 1972 academic year ended early and that the commencement ceremony was canceled. This text has been corrected. We regret the error.