Volume 26, Number 2


Darrell Petska

I am Leo Frederick Burt.

Wanted by the FBI for sabotage, destruction of government property and conspiracy.

Committed August 24, 1970 in response to America’s war-making in Vietnam, the war at home and the provocative presence of the Army Math Research Center within the ivory tower of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Without due regard: A late-night warning call, a meager pause, the explosion—a conflagration of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil—claiming one person’s life, heavily damaging portions of the building housing the Center, but sparing much of the Center itself.

I have been in hiding more than 40 years.

* * *

Derelict hotels and motels
Abandoned farm buildings
Cheap rooms rented by the week or month
Ranch hand bunkhouse
Shelters for the homeless
Back seats of junk yard cars
Underbellies of bridges
Property handyman’s cottage
Slow trains and buses
Public library restrooms
Church vestibules
Park shelters
A small house with a shared bed and unobstructed views of sky

* * *

Names cost little when they’re not your own. I’ve had to lift many.
“We pay day laborers only by check, Mr. ______.”
“Mr. ______, the doctor will see you now.”
“These are the shelter’s rules, Mr. ______. Are you able to read them?”
“If you feel the need to talk more, Mr. ______, stop by the rectory any time.”
“Do you have any experience working with livestock, Mr. ______?”

Several times over I’ve reinvented my life—the person I was at 22 scarcely recognizable now. My alter-selves inhabit my mind like ghosts. In my memory only a young boy, happy in the common streets of his hometown, appears fully real.

* * *

Just the other day I entered a 7-Eleven to buy a newspaper. A cop came inside as I paid the clerk. He went directly to the coffee dispenser, glancing at me as I passed him on my way toward the door. I nodded, my heart pounding, then walked slowly to my bicycle and pedaled off.

How have I been able to move about unapprehended? A 40-year stretch of good luck? A knack for disguise? Looking back, I see myself winding through rifts in the everyday world that somehow cloak my passage. Along those shrouded paths move many akin to me.

Early in my flight, waking from a cold night against a haystack, I met one such fellow traveler. I’d taken a quick scan of my surroundings: a few feet away he lay, an old dog with nose tucked against his matted tail.

Walking the hayfield’s edge the night before, I’d spotted an animal padding along behind, keeping its distance. Sometime during the night, his hunger and the loose, warming hay had made him brave an approach. I tossed him a piece of bread from my pack, speaking softly, nothing more required to become fast friends. Together, we crossed the countryside three days until an early winter storm forced me to shelter in a town. He began to tremble as we neared the wavering lights, settled on his haunches before reaching the first strip of businesses and refused to go farther. In my memory he lives among many other wanderers smart to the ways of a world that can land you, in a hurry, far from the pleasures of home.

* * *

Having avoided capture so long, why now this overture? I’m caught in a tug of war: on one side the ghost I’ve become pulls for its status quo, while on the other my flesh-and-blood self presses me to come forward. And then there’s death, breathing down my neck.

Looking constantly over your shoulder makes every stopping place a prison, remote from family, friends, the life once anticipated. I’ve imagined, more than once, throwing off my aliases in some public space and shouting: I am Leo Burt, Leo Frederick Burt. Come get me. I am your man.

I’ve long since moved past rationalizing my earlier life—guilty as charged. The facts are undeniable: in targeting a building, we took a life. Our protests were all about protecting life.

Am I remorseful? Fear and loneliness are exhausting, leaving little emotional energy to spare. I’ve tried to live my life forward, but I’m not immune to regret. My focus strays often to what’s been done.

I’m no danger to anyone, but systems of justice demand their due and surely would scoff at the punishment meted out by decades on the run. Personal comforts? Sleep? Health? Gone. Yet the deprivation I felt most acutely was lack of emotional connection. After awhile, I despaired of ever again experiencing normal human relations: when you can’t share anything of yourself, you receive nothing in return.

I still ache knowing I’ll never enjoy the family life that seemed my due as I emerged from childhood. Now I merely mimic kindly grandpas smiling and winking to all the kiddies, so proudly chirping out their names—as they should: we are born into the pleasantness of hearing our name.

* * *

Like an addict I read the news. So much turmoil and want, though what can I do? I think. And I try not to think.

A mind lying low has much time to wander. Once, I convinced myself a full pardon remained a distinct possibility. To think that Leo Burt could yet become just another name on the rolls of the legitimate! (When the priest of my childhood forgave my sins, I practically levitated out the confessional door, every little wickedness lifted from my shoulders.) But far from raising my spirits, thoughts of pardon only reinforced my sense of exile from the place I’ll always call home.

I’ve learned the pointlessness of revisiting the naive dreams of my generation: peace, love, plenty—America the Beautiful, you know? The young grow older and become pragmatists. Maybe that explains why humanity is so slow to accomplish so little of significance for the spirit.

My worst illusions no longer rear their ignorant heads. During the war, we saw ourselves as instruments for advancing our cause, “our” wills clashing with “their” wills in some high-stakes race against time and events. We failed to understand: life is less about will vs. will, force against force, and more about resolving the conflicts within ourselves.

* * *

I think often of the two worst days of my life. One is public record. The other cut short what I’d hoped would be a winter-long stay near a remote logging town. January had been severe, snow heaped high. Every few days I trekked into town for a paper and other necessary staples, sticking to a narrow back lane that brought me to the rear of a tiny grocery. A skinny alley led to the front door.

That day followed a blizzard and frigid temperatures. I made my way with difficulty along the lane and finally approached the alley, glad its narrowness offered a break from snowdrifts and the biting wind. I noticed someone seated about halfway in, back against one wall, knees tucked to chin.

Approaching cautiously, I could see only the small oval of a man’s face surrounded by the hood of a parka. Ice encrusted his mustache and beard. The pallor around his eyes and nose immediately alarmed me. I spoke to him, then prodded his shoulder. Although he appeared lifeless, his eyelids fluttered.

That flicker of life mobilized me. I tried pulling him upward, away from the wall. He groaned, surprised me by wrenching free of my grip, and slid back down the wall.

“Leave me alone!” he snarled. “I’m fine.”

Stunned by my impulse to help instead of avoiding involvement—and greatly shaken—I left him there. Who was he? Some drifter. Homeless. Alone. Tired. His good years long behind. Me. I feared that, one day, I would be that man.

I couldn’t sleep that night for thoughts of that poor soul refusing to get up, move on, live. The next morning I packed my few belongings, tacked a lie on the door for the landlord and hitched a ride on a logging truck away from town. For weeks I considered returning home, but I feared that, too. Always fear, and feeling utterly alone, whichever way I leaned. Spring came, helping decide at least my immediate future.

* * *

Good fortune, no, the best of fortunes, has also come my way: after so many years on the run, I stumbled onto love. I never expected that, never before encountered someone like her. She insists she knew, the moment we met, that we’d somehow complete each other. Now, little else matters. She knows me as I know her—from the ground up, every detail.

I trust her—that from a man who distrusts everyone. For years after I fled, I felt myself withering inside, like a prisoner kept in solitary confinement might. Some days I could scarcely breathe. I forgot the sound of my voice: if I spoke, someone else seemed to be speaking. I feared I might be losing my mind. Her mercy and kindness saved me from myself.

Does goodness make her culpable? If my true identity was somehow linked to hers what might become of her? She laughs when I worry, saying she knows our lives together are secure. I envy her confidence. Nothing, except her love, seems fully secure. I will protect her to the very end.

* * *

Is anything left of Leo Burt? I’ve shed his appearance, his habits, the certainties he lived by. These eyes see things differently than he once did. And this cragged soul I’m left with is a far cry from his unruffled naiveté.

Yet here is hope, hanging on like breath. And love, guiding my days. There’s something else, urgent like a reflex though mellowed by time: defiance, still flowing in my veins.

Once I defied god, country and myself. Now, I confront silence, easy answers and the surrender death represents. The battle has turned inward. By day, I’m both weapon and target. By night, watching the clouds of conflict give way to the stars, I’m able, in this place of relative respite, to understand what truly lasts.

* * *

I am Leo Burt.

You’ve seen me standing beside you in the check-out line at the grocery store. Or seated in the pew ahead of you at church. The old guy on the park bench watching families at play—me, Leo Burt, passing as a nobody scarcely deserving your attention.

I once doubted I’d reach this stage in life, the time for egotism and self-illusions long past, the moment for me to come forward and do what remains.

Saying, “I am sorry.”

To the fatherless family left grieving: sorry. To the idealistic youth from Havertown who saw his dreams disintegrate with a vanload of explosives: sorry. To everyone I’ve ever injured, maligned or otherwise hurt: sorry, sorry, sorry. Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

Before you I stand, in from the cold, closing the book on a war I made my own. I have no further need to hide.

What is the truth? After all, my life since August 24, 1970 has the feel of fiction: fabricated names, IDs, and addresses, shifting story lines—and, you’re thinking, a dubious narrator. Can you now trust this sudden transparency? Believe that before you reads my death certificate?

Leo Burt’s final days? I can attest he rose thankful each morning. Started the fire. Gave an old hound his due. Downed his first cup of coffee while his dearie lingered beneath the covers. And did what any reasonable man would: kept her coffee hot.


Author’s Note: Leo Burt, if alive, turned 67 on April 18, 2015. He was last seen in Canada, just days after the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing. Nothing more of his whereabouts or life-in-hiding is known. One informative article about the bombing and Burt’s involvement is

“A.K.A” is purely conjecture, written to examine how time might have changed Burt. His long absence from the grid makes his situation most intriguing.