Tag Archives: civil rights

Long-time Activist by Anonymous

10 Nov

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles, more precisely, in the South Bay, a post-WWII suburb of mainly aerospace workers—the “white collar” of the “blue collar” workers who strongly identified with the patriotically conservative, non-political, hysterically anti-communist 1950’s “Leave It to Beaver” image of a white picket fence, two-car garage America.  My parents were the absolute antithesis: children of Communists who grew up in the depression and the radical ‘30s.  Although my schools were racially mixed, my little neighborhood was Caucasian, except for the family of a Mexican-American doctor who, at any rate, lived in the adjacent area of the cheaper, “flat-roof” slab houses.

Because my parents were very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements, I had a number of African-American (at that time, the politically-correct terminology was “Negro”) friends.  I had to walk over to their neighborhood to play with them—they did not feel comfortable coming to my house as it meant being stared at as they walked through the streets of my White neighborhood.

I felt more at ease with my non-Caucasian friends because I felt I could be more myself with them – I didn’t have to hide my parent’s political views like I had to with my (White) neighbors who lived closer to me – although I still didn’t feel that I could acknowledge my parents Marxist beliefs with my non-Caucasian friends—that I had to hold in check until the weekends, when we either went to visit my relatives (and their friends) in the bohemian (and by my era, hippie) neighborhood of Venice, or to visit the children of friends of my parents who lived in the city of Los Angeles and who were also “fellow travelers”.

The racial disparity became even more apparent starting in middle school—what was then termed Junior High School.  The classes were divided according to IQ test, and in my grade, there was only one Black/African-American in the “smart” class. Due to this, and  because her mother, who ran the local Head Start program. was an acquaintance of my mother’s, she became one of my closest friends.

In June 1967, there was a large protest in Century City against the war in Vietnam.  My mother, who was involved in Women Strike for Peace, took me and my siblings.  At some point, the police started to break up the demonstration.  They yelled through megaphones to disperse—but nobody could understand what they were saying because the sound was so distorted.  They had their billy clubs out and were indiscriminately swinging them at anyone in their path.  They almost hit my gentle, diminutive, grey-haired mother, and they did get one of my brothers, although he wasn’t seriously hurt.  I was so incensed by this—even more so than not allowing a legitimate, legal demonstration to take place—because the police were so stupid that they were shouting dispersal instructions which no one could understand through these ridiculous bullhorns.

By the time I got to high school, I was totally alienated from all but one or two of my neighbors and longed to go to an LAUSD high school where there were identifiable groups of student anti-Vietnam war activists.  So I got out of there as soon as I could, skipping my last year of high school and going to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade in the fall of 1970.  We traveled in a cross-county bus, headed to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, where we would sail to Cuba. This was at the time that Angela Davis had gone underground, when she was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.  Angela’s sister Fania was with us, which gave the police an excuse to continually harass us and stop the bus to haul her out—each time insisting that she was actually Angela in disguise.  The FBI disseminated all sorts of rumors and negative publicity to the local population in the towns we went/traveled through, stoking McCarthy-like panic.  By the time we got to Bangor, Maine, the hysteria was so frenzied that our bus was attacked—shades of Peekskill!

We boarded an old Cuban cargo ship that had been specially retro-fitted for us by slinging hammocks down in the bottom deck for us to sleep—separated into women’s and men’s sections.  It was hurricane season and we sailed through some rough seas—everyone, i.e., the Brigadistas (not the Cuban  sailors), got seasick and for a few days, the only food we could hold down was a few bites of hardtack.  The only relief was from a Brigidista, a gay guy from New York, who led us in mindful meditation.  Lying stretched out on the battered deck, his hypnotic voice led us–or at least me–into a euphoric state in which I actually felt that I was floating above it all.  It was such a soothing feeling which I continue to replay in my mind even now.

We were supposed to help in the Cuban campaign for the “Zafra de Los Diez Milliones”, but by the time we arrived, sugar cane season was over, so we were sent to the Isla de Juventud to pick citrus.  When we were done, Fidel Castro came to personally shake each of our hands in thanks for our solidarity against the blockade. In addition, we were toured all over the country, and as it was also the anniversary of “El Camino del Che”, we hiked through the mountains in the footsteps of that long march.

On the cross-country bus trip back from Canada, I decided to not return to Southern California, so had the bus drop me off in San Francisco.  I had the address of an acquaintance of my parents, a nurse who had gone to Spain to drive an ambulance in the fight in their civil war against fascism.  She lived at the very top of Portreo Hill.  I didn’t have any money so I trudged all the way up those steep streets, dragging my heavy duffle bag, only to find out when I finally got up there that she wasn’t home, but out on Alcatraz, as a nurse volunteer in the Native American occupation of the Island.  I hitchhiked back over the Bay Bridge and found a place to stay in a communal-living house on Channing Avenue in Berkeley, a few blocks from the water.  It was not a particularly safe neighborhood in general for a naïve teenage girl, but I quickly found out that I didn’t have to worry because it was around the corner from the West Berkeley Black Panther headquarters, which had the neighborhood kids marching around military-style, patrolling the streets.  I liked to watch them, dressed in army fatigues with their red-capped berets covering their Afro-styled hair, shouting out their revolutionary slogans as they paraded by in formation.

I needed to find work, but there was a recession on, so after days of systematically walking down the commercial streets, one after the other, knocking on the door of each and every establishment asking for a job, I finally managed to get hired at the MacDonald’s in East Oakland, on Hegenberger Road.  Also not a safe neighborhood, but I had become very friendly with a Venceremos Brigade member from New York, a Borrinqueno leader of the Young Lords—it turned out that his cousin, quite co-incidentally, was one of my customers, and as he was in the local gang, he looked out for my welfare.  The supervisor at McDonalds was intrigued because I had gone to Cuba illegally, and he tried to recruit me into training for their management program—go figure!  I barely made enough money to get by but the manager let me take home the food that was left over at closing.  As my roommates were vegetarians, we usually fed the hamburger meat to the dog.

One day, I was with a roommate at the Berkeley Co-Op (Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley) supermarket, and she took a piece of fruit while we were in the store and offered me a bite.  The store had two-way mirrors all around, up at the top of the walls, to catch shop-lifters.  They saw this happen, accused us of stealing, and called the police.  They let my friend go but because I was underage, they arrested me and I was sent to juvenile detention.  I was in jail two days. There were some pretty rough girls in there and at the beginning I had some trepidation. But after hearing how I had had the bad luck to be so stupidly arrested and was being shipped back to my parents against my wishes, they became sympathetic and friendly and we passed the time chatting. My parents had to pay the $10 it cost to fly me back–that was a day’s wage for me—but as a consequence of my sudden departure, all my things were left behind, including my most prized possession: a bust of Marx carved by a comrade from a bar of Ivory soap.

Now being back in L.A at my parent’s house, I was visited regularly by the FBI as a result of going on the Brigade.  My bedroom was adjacent to the front porch, so whenever there was an early Saturday morning knock—which was always when they came–I peered through the curtains of my window to see who it was before answering the door.  If I saw two young men dressed in suits, I knew it was agents and not Jehovah Witnesses –who always came with at least one woman–so I’d yell at them to go away.  For years after I moved out, they continued to hassle my parents about me, although more sporadically.

Although I consorted with various political groups, my favorite was the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL, or “the League”).  I thought they had the best “revolutionary line” because not only were they affiliated with the CPUSA and therefore multi-national and determinedly anti-racist, but a number of the members were also in the Black Panthers, which gave them considerable cachet to my way of thinking.  Most importantly, besides the serious stuff like classes on Marxism, the League knew how to go out and have fun—plus, they held the best Soul Train-style dance parties!  I still remember how to do the Funky Chicken!!

The local YWLL organizer had a contact in a factory near my parent’s house that made “Hot Pants” for New York’s haute couture fashion industry.  Me and three other YWLLers got a job there.  Most of the workers were undocumented women from Thailand.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up learning some basic Thai.  They were very concerned that I wasn’t married, and were constantly trying to get me to come to their cultural events so that I could meet an “eligible” man. They even taught me some of the traditional arm and hand movements of traditional Thai dance.  Occasionally there wasn’t a lot of work coming in, so the company owner, wanting to save on labor costs, would announce that the INS was going to make a raid, which scared those workers who were undocumented, so they would not come in for a few days.  It would always be a lie!  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU or “the ILG”) was trying to organize the shop, so we were supposedly helping with that.  However, I didn’t like some of the ways the ILG was conducting its campaign.  The female workers had the lowest-paying, menial jobs, while the male workers had the higher-paying jobs as “pressers” and “cutters”.  The Union officials were all men and this disparity didn’t concern them.  It was what they were used to in the industry and they didn’t want to hear my complaints about it.  As the union struggle intensified, the four of us were eventually “outed” and subsequently fired.  I remained in touch with a few of the women for many years, so I was able to practice the Thai phrases that I had learned.

I worked in various other factory jobs after that–assembling disc brake pad kits (until the manger’s sexual harassment got too much to bear, so I quit), at the Papermate factory in Santa Monica doing quality control of Bic pens on the midnight shift, and then, finally, a better-paying union job as an International “O” Operator for Ma Bell (AT&T).  I worked a split shift, which I really liked because I could do political work in between.  But the union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) was not a very progressive organization—at least not in Los Angeles at that time.  The supervisors were all men, and we had to raise our hands and wait to be acknowledged if we needed to take a bathroom break.  It was not the most exciting work, so I would take “Black Beauties” to help me focus.  I’d arrange my switchboard so that the telephone cords were all nicely positioned, precise and straight, which the supervisor would praise me for–clueless that it was only due to the effect of the speed pills!  I took pride in being able to get a call through in an emergency, such as a hurricane—even routing the calls through other countries if necessary.  Because I worked near the city of Gardena, at that time a predominantly Japanese community, I learned rudimentary Japanese in order to place my calls more effectively.  I remember one intriguing co-worker who lived in South Central but was originally from New Orleans.  She had a side business raising rabbits in her backyard, peddling the meat out of her house but would occasionally bring some to work to sell out of an ice chest.  She would cook the rabbit southern-style and share with me at lunch.

At this time I was living near Banning Park–in Wilmas13 territory, so the rent was lower than in other areas—but it was still 50% of my salary.  I would hear occasional gunshots, and to get home I’d have to walk by a bunch of young men hanging out along my back fence, but they pretty much left me alone.  I had an open dirt space in the backyard, where I tried to plant vegetables, although the only thing that grew was corn, but it was delicious and sweet–it could be eaten raw, right off the cob. It also attracted mice; I’d see them sticking their noses up out of the gas rings in my stove top.  The landlord just told me to buy traps, but I wouldn’t.

I was volunteering at what is now the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research but strongly disliked the way that the proprietor treated his spouse, so I decided I wanted a change. Having been awarded $100 because an elderly man rear-ended my car, it was enough to buy a ticket to fly overseas. I didn’t return to Los Angeles for some years.

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High School and the Influences of slavery, Assassinations, and the Vietnam War, by Kathy Green

11 Nov

rail biking with Chuck

Kathy Green was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. After majoring in geology, she became a National Park Ranger for five years. During that time, she met Chuck Kroger [the editor’s brother], whom she married in 1978. They settled in Telluride, Colorado in 1979, where they co-founded Bone (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction company. When Chuck died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Kathy and co-workers continued the company’s projects. Kathy enjoys hiking, running rivers, making art (including silk dying), and working for environmental and social justice in her region.

 

Background: Missouri was the compromise state in the Civil War. Some of my great great great ancestors fought on the confederate side and owned slaves. My mother still has the slave book from that time, recording the births and deaths of the slaves. My mother also was told (oral history) that my fifth great grandfather was a “good owner” because he never broke up families.

I was in first grade in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson was running for president. My family had moved to Webster Groves a year earlier. Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb, was more conservative and Republican than my family. My understanding is that all of my family had been Democrats since the Democratic Party was formed in the 1830s. A few family “rogues” have married Republicans but their kids have all been born Democrats. I came home in tears one day in late October 1956 because we had had a mock election at school. Out of 30 students in my class, Adlai Stevenson had gotten only six votes. Come election day that November, I was “working the election”—almost six years old, standing the required 100 feet from the door to the school/polling-place door, smiling and trying to hand every approaching voter a Stevenson brochure. Working elections was a family activity. A little metal pin of the bottom of a shoe with a hole worn in the sole is one of my prize possessions to this day. Go Adlai!

At the same time that I was a young child being taught to work elections and work to preserve historic buildings from demolition, my grandfather, John Raeburn Green, and the family law firm were under severe criticism and lost many clients during the McCarthy witch-hunt. My grandfather believed that everyone deserved counsel and he believed in free speech. He took the pro bono case of a man accused of being a Communist and defended him before the Supreme Court (and lost). For that volunteer work, Joseph McCarthy, from the Senate floor, called my grandfather and his law partner (one of the senators from Missouri) communists—a scary and destructive event at the time. Many of my family preferred to be activists that flew “under the radar” after that experience. We were never afraid to be Democrats, to work for social justice, environmental justice, and other liberal causes. We just did not need recognition—especially in the Senate. I didn’t understand the risk completely. I don’t think even my grandfather understood it that well. But I grew up my entire life with this story. My mother said never to tell anyone you were a socialist or a communist.

When I was five, my kindergarten teacher taught us the National Anthem and Dixie, one right after the other. One time when my family went to a ball game, everyone stood and sang the National Anthem. When it was over I started in to sing Dixie. My mom asked what on earth I was doing, and I said, Singing the next stanza. She said, No! Can’t you tell that those are two different songs? I couldn’t; apparently I’m tone-deaf/musically challenged. Throughout elementary school our music teacher had us sing both songs in succession.

 

Our family were big Hubert Humphrey supporters. Once John Kennedy became the Democratic candidate for President, we were all for him. We worked hard to help Kennedy win the election. Many of our friends were Republicans so during the 1960 election and during his presidency, I heard these friends rant and rave against JFK. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was almost 13 years old and in eighth grade. They told us over the junior high school speaker system that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. School was dismissed. I walked out of school confused and upset, into a howling rainstorm. As I tried to find the friends that I usually walked to and from school with, my mother suddenly appeared with my little brother to drive me home. Everyone was crying. At home, the TV was on full time—that never happened in our house; we traditionally watched only an hour or two of TV a day. All our friends came by our house over the next few days. The people that had been ranting and raving against Kennedy were crying and praising him. I found this total change in their feelings startling and confusing.

In my high school, Webster Groves, there were a series of ironic things that happened in my history classes. We were reading about socialism and communism and about sharing the wealth, and it seemed so intuitively obvious that that’s how the world should be run. On the one hand we were practicing duck and cover to protect ourselves from the Communists, but on the other hand we were learning how fair those systems are. Webster Groves was a pre-Civil War town that had had plantations and farms with slaves. Every kid knew disturbing history. In my junior year we had a teacher who was new to the area and kind of young. He started out with a lecture about people who had been slaves taking up the names of their owners after the Emancipation Proclamation. We were sitting there, black and white kids, some with the same last names, and we all knew that Johnny’s great great great grandfather had owned Sally’s family way back. We’d known this our whole lives, and the teacher was giving us this huge lecture. We were thinking, Yeah, so what? The teacher asked if there were any questions, and the black kid popped up and said, Yeah, I’ve got the same last name as he does because his grandfather owned mine. The teacher got a horrified look on his face. Apparently the history teacher didn’t know the history of the town he was teaching in. Things were not always perfect between the white and black students. We knew our history and knew that it wasn’t good or kind, but we felt it wasn’t worth dwelling on. Most of the time, we students wanted to move towards more racial equality. These high school lectures followed being taught to sing “Dixie” along with the “National Anthem” all through elementary school. Strange….

The next year we had Modern European History. A woman teacher started the first class with an introductory lecture. This class had about 20% black and 80% white students, with two random Asian students whose parents were professors at the big universities. The teacher lectured that we all came from Europe and that European history is the most important in the world, and on and on. She stopped and my friend Janet raised her hand. Janet has blond curly hair and blue eyes. Janet said, I am a Cherokee Indian, and this history has nothing to do with me, and why did you say that it did? The teacher said, Oh. She quickly started roll call, and she got to the name Janet Bushyhead. Janet raised her hand. She really was a Cherokee Indian and a princess at that. An Englishman had married into her tribe years and years ago, so lots of Bushyhead family had blond curly hair and blue eyes. Her dad looked much more Cherokee but her grandmother and sisters did not. It was a priceless moment. We were bratty sixteen-year-olds in 1967. To see the look on this teacher’s face. The black students were all smirking. Had one of them challenged her, they probably would have gotten sent to the principal. We thought, how can she lecture us when she could look out across the classroom. Maybe you don’t see the sleeper Indian princess in disguise but you could see the diversity that we did have in this small town.

When I was in high school, my dad became the selective service attorney counselor, so that if you were going to get drafted, you were provided with a lawyer to talk to. This was a volunteer post. It was interesting for me; I was a very shy, gawky, geeky sixteen-year-old high school kid and I was watching the sports stars at my school a year or two older than I who had not gone to college or dropped out and now were being drafted and would come over one evening a week. My dad would come home early. I would sit at the top of the stairs where I could hear what was being said. They were almost in tears. I’d listen to what my dad was telling them about deferrals. There wasn’t much hope he could offer them. It was sad, and some of them never came home. This counseling brought it all alive for me, just like World War II later came alive for me when I traveled in Germany. My mother told me a lot of stories about World War II, and watching this unfold in my younger years brought it all home and understand the impact of being in your teens and early 20s during that war was so incredibly major.

My parents started out tolerant of the Vietnam war; it seemed like something the U.S. ought to do. My dad had served in World War II. It made him grow up but it also distorted the rest of his life. In time my family got more and more angry about the war. Both my grandmothers had these big buttons that said “Grandmothers for McGovern” and were very active in his campaign. That’s one of the things that shaped my high school years from 1965 to 1968. The other thing that influenced me was the knowledge that my great great great grandfather had owned slaves, and then, after “Roots” was aired, to see black people come to our house to look up their family histories in the slave book. Then in the spring of 1968 a lot of dramatic events happened. Martin Luther King was killed, and then the night before I graduated from high school, Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was this weird feeling. I can remember we were having our family dinner before we went to the graduation ceremony, and there were these graduate parties afterwards, and I was sitting there all dressed up in those silly clothes, supposed to be celebrating the biggest event of my life, and we’d just had another assassination. It was really hard to reconcile the two: to go forward with the ceremony and the congratulations and to party that night and the assassination the day before. There wasn’t much alcohol and barely any marijuana at this party because it was 1968 in the Midwest. Five years later everybody would have gotten drunk or stoned to mourn the assassination. But it was a real wake-up call that these things were happening my senior year of high school.

Graduating from high school is a big change in your life, but graduating into a world where assassination was becoming an everyday occurrence was scary. What would college and adult life be like?  [to be continued]

White Owl Cigars and Racial Tension: Hauler on a Tobacco Farm, by Marty Bernstein

2 Oct

Marty today
Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a coope
rative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.

In the summer of 1965 when I was fourteen and in junior high school, my family moved to Springfield, MassacWhite Owl Cigars with Owlhusetts from Long Island, New York. In the summer I got a job on a tobacco farm in the Connecticut Valley. It was called a shade tobacco industry. They made tobacco for the outside of White Owl cigars. The farm was owned by the Hathaway-Stene Tobacco Company.

Young boys and girls woulMarty Circa 1965d be hired to work there every summer. There was a hierarchy by height that determined what work one would do. Shorter boys were pickers because it was a handicap to be tall when picking. (Harder to stoop.) The foreman was my gym teacher, Mr. Gallucci, whom I liked. He would take us on a school bus out to the field.tobacco shed.little girls

I wasn’t a picker but a hauler. I would pull a metal framed canvas bin, about the size of a drawer in a chest of drawers with a loop in one end, down the rows to pick up the leaves. I would take them to a large shed, where all the girls worked “sewing” the leaves and hanging them to dry and age.

I had come from a lily-white, middle-class suburb on Long Island. When I got to the fields, there were both black and white boys, many of them working class. I had never been around black kids before. There was a lot of hostility and racism towards them. Although I never heard the white boys use the n-word, they called the black kids “Cottonbolls.” One time it came to blows between the two groups, and I assisted in stopping the fight. I hung out more frequently with the black kids than with the white ones.

White Owl Cigars ad with father reading to 2 kids                                                  White Owl Cigars ad with father and kid in car

All the kids came from Springfield. They went to fairly segregated schools but ironically they all played ball together at the ball park, where they seemed to get along fine. At that time the schools were de facto segregated but not by law. The junior high schools were neighborhood schools. When I attended junior high school there were no Jews in the area. The principal told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in the academic program, although I loved school and had always gotten good grades. My dad thought that the principal was an anti-Semite.White Owl Cigars ad with Jesse Owens

The four senior high schools were not neighborhood schools. They were arranged by type and were segregated by placing kids in the school deemed appropriate. The top school that was overwhelmingly white was called Classical High School. Its focus was the liberal arts. Timothy Leary had graduated from there.

The next one was the Technical High School. It had a mixture of white and Black and Puerto Rican. The third was Commerce High School, which was mainly black and Puerto Rican. The Trade High School was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The next year I went into the Classical High School, where all the classes were academic anyway. In high school I attended weekly silent vigils against the war in Vietnam. I believe it was organized by a church group like the Quakers or Unitariatobacco drying in shedns. Also the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At the tobacco field we earned $1.10 per hour, less than minimum wage. I remember I made $44 a week. There were poor sanitary conditions in the fields. Wooden barrels on little trailers would come around bringing us drinking water. (Apparently the barrels had formerly held wine. We could smell the residue.) We had to relieve ourselves in the fieldfield workers in tobacco farms. There were two groups: day and migrant. The migrant workers—Puerto Ricans—were kept separate from us.

 

I was glad to have this job. First of all, it gave me some spending money. Also, it was my first significant experience with racism. And I got the chance to understand manual labor and appreciate the manual laborers.

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

Brownies and Legionnaires, by Alyson Ross

10 Aug

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When Alyson Ross was in her 20s and 30s, she wrote short stories for confession magazines and others of that ilk. For a 10,000-word story, she would receive three cents a word ($300). She jokes that as a Catholic she had to go to confession so she thought she should write confession stories. Alyson taught English and ESL for 27 years at East Los Angeles Community College. She has been retired over 20 years and is still writing, including working on a long, fictionalized family saga. She has traveled to 35 countries so far.

                       

Of the dozen or so Civil Rights marches in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles metro area] that I went on, the most memorable was the first. In the early 60s, many suburban cities had unwritten covenants preventing people of color from buying or renting a house or an apartment. We were marching to persuade people to end this practice.

A week before one of the demonstrations, the local American Legion post presented my daughter’s newly formed Brownie troop, of which I was a parent leader, with an American flag. As the legionnaire marched up the aisle, I noticed that he was so tipsy that he almost dropped the flag. After presenting the flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, he spoke a few words, some of them slightly slurred, about how proud we should be as Americans.

On the morning of the Civil Rights march, the leader told us to avoid eye contact with people who would heckle us and under no circumstances to shout anything back at them. As the march proceeded, several bystanders joined us. And as we were warned, so did the hecklers, running along beside us and repeatedly shouting things like ”Are you walking with them or sleeping with them?” After hearing this taunt dozens of times, I could no longer restrain myself. I turned to the heckler next to me and shouted “Both!” To my amazement I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the legionnaire who a week earlier had presented my daughter’s Brownie troop with the American flag.

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                                                    Alyson (right) and her writing group

When we lived in Douglas, Arizona in first grade, there were only two non-Mexican students, a girl named Donna and myself, who were white. The other school kids lived in poor houses. Since my name was French—Balliot—the teacher thought I was a minority too, so she would talk louder to me. I was able to observe the cruelty of the teachers towards the students.

*****

In fourth grade history class in Los Angeles we read that slaves were well-treated, spent their time singing and dancing, etc. I told the teacher that wasn’t true but she replied, “The textbook says so.”

*****

One afternoon our neighbor, Mrs. Jones, came crying to our house. She had seen a black woman with two daughters on the streetcar and told the woman that her girls were the cutest pickaninnies she’d ever seen.  The woman had then said “something very cruel” to Mrs. Jones, causing her tears. My mother sympathized with Mrs. Jones. They both wondered why the black woman had been offended.

Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that word was an insult.

*****

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Alyson’s 80th birthday party                      Birthday present for Alyson

 *****

When I taught vocabulary-building at East Los Angeles College in the ’70s, my students and I marched and rallied against the administration. We were teaching in old, decrepit World War II bungalows while the administration had suites. Every Tuesday at noon there was a vigil at the administration building protesting the war.

*******

My daughter, who was attending Pomona College, got sick on the day of a peace march and couldn’t participate. She gave her sandals to a friend to wear so she could say her sandals had “walked the course.”

             

How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

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The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

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I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.

Blind Power, by Lynne Koral, Part 2 of 2

17 Jun

Lynne Koral

Lynne Koral is the owner of Koraling Genius Consultants, www.koralinggenius.blogspot.com, and has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for almost 22 years. She has a Masters in Social Work and in Public Administration and Policy Analysis. Disability issues have occupied her all her life. She is blind. You can read part 1 in the prior post.

Part 2

One of the early activities I was involved in was a fundraiser for muscular dystrophy, where we read poetry and sang songs by Rob and Gretchen, folksingers who seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I met a lot of blind kids on school buses, at school, and in recreation programs. As blind people we began to have issues. I joined the disability-rights movement with my friends Pat and Caryn. In 1969 we formed the Blind Power Movement. We were in a recreation program through the Lighthouse (New York Association for the Blind). Later we became more aware of some of our grievances against this organization. We wrote signs such as “Bread Not Breadcrumbs” and picketed in front of the building. We were asking for education of the parents of disabled kids and better treatment as blind kids. They had rules such as we couldn’t be friends with the counselors. We felt that the rules were condescending, judgmental, and arbitrary. Also, teachers had told us we couldn’t get jobs, that we were psychologically damaged; they were  constantly assessing us with all kinds of written and psychological tests.

At a park we met a journalist who wrote a fantastic article in the Village Voice about our group and our goals; it was reprinted in the Braille Monitor, the paper of the National Federation of the Blind. They only reprinted the article because they wanted us to be subsumed under their group and not go off on our own. [Note: I unearthed this Village Voice article from 1970 called “Rallying of the Blinks in a (Short-) Sighted City” by F. Joseph Spieler. Look for it in the next blog post. Ed.]

Caryn and I played violin, and I played piano too. Pat, Caryn, and I formed a musical group called “The Peace Sign.” We sang original songs.

In 1972 there was a class of kung fu for six blind students, taught by Ron Rosen, who wanted to prove that blind kids could do this. He taught us how to use our other senses. I enjoyed the discipline.

I also took a childcare class for infants. One of the Braille teachers taught a class in her home for five or six of us including Pat, Caryn, and David, my boyfriend. We wanted to be as normal as anyone else so we jumped at the chance to take this class.

In 1973 I went to Europe with David, who would later become the father of my baby. He was also blind. We were gone for 3 ½ weeks. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, we stayed at a youth hostel. We got lost and met a journalist named Ronald Sweering. He introduced us to other people, and we stayed at his house for a day or two.

We also visited the guide-dog school there. We met other blind people at an agency for the blind and visited their library. It was at that time that I realized that the Nederländers were more advanced in their equipment for the blind than the U.S. was, and they had accessible (to the blind) guilder notes; i.e., the notes had embossed dots on them. It was awesome! Traveling is so much fun because you get an enlarged view of the world. For example, you see that the U.S. is not the best country in the world in every way. I got to experience food I’d never eaten before like couscous. We tried all their food such as brotje (a little sandwich). It surprised us that they ate dinner at 10 pm in the summer.

The Watergate Hearings were going on at the time. We were able to get impressions about John Dean and Jeb McGruder9 from people from around the world who were staying at the youth hostel.  I remember sitting in the youth hostel and listening to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.

Watergate figures

The Anne Frank house was impressive. The steps were so narrow, you had to put your feet sideways. In Holland we got a sense of how empty some places were because of the effects of World War II and the German occupation. The aura was so different from the U.S. Just walking on the cobblestone streets, there was a sense of the difference of it all.

Anne Frank house

Anne Frank house

On the tram we held onto the leather hand stirrups. We had large framed backpacks which turned out to be a mistake because we couldn’t hear what was behind us. We hung out with other visually impaired. When we were at Ronald’s house we met other Nederländers who were smoking pot—legally.

Then we went to Paris and England. We met and stayed with people in both places. It was the first time I had gone through customs, and we flew first class on KLM for $223 round trip. We brought tulips and chocolate back with us. I loved this trip. I regret that I haven’t done more traveling abroad although I’ve certainly done my share of domestic travel..

in 1973, a while after we arrived home,  I moved in with David, and we were together for two and a half years. We were young and idealistic. Neither of us wanted to get married; it was bourgeois, we thought. We listened to a lot of Latin American and Puerto Rican music. I got pregnant sometime in March of the same year. I was determined to read everything I could about pregnancy and childbirth. With my Optacon (optical to tactile converter) I read “Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth” by Elisabeth Bing, and of course  I read Dr. Spock.

Optacon

I never liked milk but was drinking two to three classes a day. I learned about Lamaze and the Bradley Method11, rooming in (where the baby stays with the mother). My parents wanted me to have an abortion; they were afraid they would have to raise my child. Not so!

I loved being pregnant, partly because I was warm all winter. The baby’s first kick from inside the womb was a thrilling experience. I was in two improvisational theater classes while pregnant and shortly thereafter with someone who was in a feminist improvisational group called “It’s All Right to be a Woman Theater” and part of the Pennywhistlers10. I remember their music from the album “A Cool Day and Crooked Corn.”

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Pennywhistlers

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A Cool Day and Crooked Corn

It's All Right to be Woman Theater
While pregnant, I also took a jujitsu class in New York at the women’s center. There I got to know several lesbian women for the first time. That’s where I became introduced to the Radical Lesbians and Lesbian Feminist Liberation in New York in the 1970s.

During my second trimester I went to California to get my first guide dog. I also took Lamaze classes and sought out the services of a nurse midwife. I was in labor for about 36 hours, and never did get the urge to push. I was given Pitocin [to induce labor], and finally they had to break the bag of waters. I was so glad to just have a healthy baby, a son I named Dimas. They were, as usual, not sure what to do about a blind new mother. I did have rooming in. I breast fed, but Dimas was a little jaundiced at first. He grew very fast though. We had a visiting nurse service. I learned how to hold him and support his head. He breast-fed very well.

In 1977 when my son was almost three years old, David and I split up. He moved to Los Angeles and I followed so that my son would be close to his dad. But David left Los Angeles six weeks later. I didn’t want to return to New York; David and I were no longer close and he had been fooling around. So I stayed and attended LA City College. But I was depressed and lonely.  Until third grade my son was in cooperative daycare centers in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles called Playgroup and De Colores.

In the late ‘70s I took a class at Cal State Northridge on black literature. We read the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines and Roots. I was the only white person in the class.

I met my friend Caryl in 1980. “You looked like an interesting person,” she told me later. There are three types of lesbians: the born again, the life-long, and the lesbian come-latelies.  I belonged to the latter type. But I had always been attracted to women to some extent. (As well as to guys.) Throughout the 1970s, I had been somewhat confused about my sexuality.

From my experiences in the 1960s and 1970s, I learned a lot about human interaction, and about respect and dignity for all people. I never understood why certain people who themselves were disenfranchised would disenfranchise others who were different or “the other.” I am now married, but I have always been a free-spirit. I hope to keep learning and growing as the years pass on.

[Note: You can read more about these blind issues at Lynne’s blog: www.koralinggenius.blogspot.com.]

Notes

1.   John Dean served as White House Counsel to United States President Richard Nixon from 1970 until 1973. He became deeply involved in events leading up to the Watergate burglaries and the subsequent Watergate scandal cover-up. Jeb McGruder was Deputy Director of Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President who pled guilty to conspiracy and served time in a federal prison as a result of his participation in the Watergate affair. The Watergate scandal was a political scandal that occurred in the United States as a result of the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

2.  The Pennywhistlers were an American singing group founded by folklorist and singer Ethel Raim and popular during the 1960s folk music revival. They specialized in Eastern European choral music. They toured throughout the 1960s, appearing at the Sing Out! hootenanny at Carnegie Hall, the Fox Hollow Festival, and the Mariposa Folk Festival, among others. They shared the bill with performers such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Reverend Gary Davis, Leonard Cohen, and many others. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

3.  The Bradley Method of natural childbirth, also known as “husband-coached childbirth,” is a method of natural childbirth developed in 1947 by Robert A. Bradley, M.D. (1917–98) and popularized by his book Husband-Coached Childbirth, first published in 1965. The Bradley Method emphasizes that birth is a natural process: mothers are encouraged to trust their body and focus on diet and exercise throughout pregnancy; and it teaches couples to manage labor through deep breathing and the support of a partner or labor coach. (Source: Wikipedia.org)