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  • Writer's pictureKevin O'Keefe

Freedom Pants

The day my life changed irreversibly seemed ordinary, even by the end of it. In the early 1980’s, I graduated from university with a degree in theater, but in reality I majored in juggling, with a minor in Frisbee. In short order, I moved to New York City and became a semi-employed actor.

After attending a show with a few friends, someone suggested we go eat at this Chinese place in the West Village. At the time, noodles in peanut sauce and General Tsao’s chicken constituted the very edge of sophistication for my palette. Afterwards, the waiter tossed a basket of fortune cookies on the table. We made a ritual of opening and reading our fortunes. Mine was last.

“Never wear your best pants when you go to fight for freedom.”

My fortune got cursory notice from others at the table but I slipped the paper above my driver’s license in the clear window in my wallet. It remained there until one day fluttering to the floor of a studio where a community of burgeoning circus artists met under the tutelage of our leader - Hovey Burgess.

That night, back in my 5th floor walk-up, which I affectionately and accurately called the Cave, I pulled out the fortune and placed it between two pieces of Scotch tape, pinning it to my bulletin board.

On June 6, 1989, four years after getting the fortune cookie, the front page of the New York Times carried a photo that encapsulates the eternal struggle between freedom and oppression. Harkening back to David and Goliath, the image told a timeless story though the players were and remain unknown. It presents a standoff between a Chinese citizen and a large column of tanks coming from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. A few days later the video was released and this confrontation became animated.

This single man, seemingly on his way home from the grocery store, carries two shopping bags and stands directly in front of a column of tanks. Nearby, automatic gunfire can be heard. Instead of remaining on the sidewalk, out of harm's way, he consistently thwarts their progress by moving in front of the lead tank, almost daring them to run him over. The operator of the tank tries twice to evade or go around him. Then the man climbs onto the turret of the tank and has a brief conversation with a soldier inside. There is no record of what was said.

Then the man climbs off and stands to the side, waving them away. Their engines restart with billowing blue diesel smoke and the tanks try to resume their advance. Again, the man jumps in front of them and prevents them. Eventually he is dragged off the street by others.

Though nameless, he is not lost to history. He became “Tank Man”. Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. We never learn anything else about him. Not his name, story, or purpose. His fate, likewise, is unknown. Although it is presumed that he’s one of the 10,000 people (according to the newest estimate) that perished in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Also known as the Tiananmen Square Protests, ‘89 Democracy Movement, Tiananmen Square Incident, or the June 4th Incident depending on the mood, memory or erasure thereof, by the Chinese government.

My sister Ann worked in the archives of the Associated Press in Rockefeller Center around that time. On a visit there she showed me a vast store room filled with file cabinets and told me to peruse at my leisure. I soon found an image of Tank Man. She told me to keep it. I pinned up on my bulletin board, right next to the fortune cookie’s white paper.

Over the ensuing years the board became a kind of altar for me. A place where heroes like Gandhi, Kennedy and Jerry Garcia look down on me awaiting the ethical, political, and artistic choices that made my life. Also there, among the family photos and keepsakes of past circus collaborations, are quotes from Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan and Fellini. Occasionally I cull images or quotes that have outlived their usefulness.

One thing I reflect on now, thirty-three years later, is the audacious assumption of this fortune’s prediction. The assumption is not if I go to fight for freedom; it is when. The fortune implies that we all will fight for freedom. We don’t get a choice.

And then it offers some practical, even motherly, advice. Fighting for freedom can be dirty. It may even rip your pants.

There is a price to be paid if you go to fight for freedom. How much am I willing to pay? The price for you may not be the same as Tank Man, but it will cost you something.

Maybe, like me, you think of Kismet as something that happens quickly, in a flash, a lightbulb goes off and a new idea emerges which changes everything. Not so in the case of the fortune cookie and freedom pants.

I didn’t know why I kept the fortune long enough for it to yellow and darken with age. Tank Man remains important to me to this day. I used his image and told the story of Tank Man’s moral courage to fifth graders last week. Is it his voice that animates the fortune’s advice for me now? How do my heroes still speak to me, even from the grave? Is Tank Man an extreme example of the price paid? What is the price, what am I willing to sacrifice in any cause of freedom today? Can I summon the courage to don my freedom pants?


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