This space is dedicated to the proposition that we need to know the history of the struggles on the left and of earlier progressive movements here and world-wide. If we can learn from the mistakes made in the past (as well as what went right) we can move forward in the future to create a more just and equitable society. We will be reviewing books, CDs, and movies we believe everyone needs to read, hear and look at as well as making commentary from time to time. Greg Green, site manager
*****Then and Now-A Pamphlet On The American Labor Struggles Of The 1930s
Workers Vanguard No. 1072
7 August 2015
New Spartacist Pamphlet
Newly available for purchase is our publication Then and Now, which explains how class-struggle leadership made a key difference in three citywide strikes in 1934. We reprint below the pamphlet’s introduction describing its contents.
The “Then and Now” article in this pamphlet addresses the crucial political lessons of the 1934 strikes by Minneapolis truckers, maritime workers on the West Coast and Toledo auto parts workers. Waged amidst the all-sided destitution of the Great Depression, these strikes, like others that year, confronted the strikebreaking forces of the capitalist state. A key difference was that these strikes won. What made this outcome possible is that their leaders were, at the time, committed to a program of class struggle. Unlike other trade-union leaders of that day—and today—they did not buy into the notion that the workers had interests in common with the employers, their political parties or their state. Instead, these strikes were fought by mobilizing the mass strength and solidarity of the workers in opposition to the forces of the capitalist class enemy.
The review of Bryan Palmer’s book Revolutionary Teamsters provides a more in-depth study of the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes, which were led by the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA). Here they confronted the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) governor of Minnesota, Floyd Olson, who commanded the allegiance of many workers with his often radical-sounding, friend-of-the-little-guy rhetoric. The FLP postured as a “third party” alternative to both the Democrats and Republicans, but it was no less a capitalist party.
This is effectively addressed in the 1930 article “The Minnesota F.L.P.” by Vincent Dunne, who went on to become a central leader of the truckers’ strikes. As Dunne makes clear, the two-class Farmer-Labor Party was based on the subordination of the workers’ struggles to farmers and other petty-bourgeois forces “whose political outlook is bounded by the illusion that it is possible to achieve security under the capitalist order.” After an on-again, off-again alliance with the Democratic Party, the FLP finally merged with the Democrats in 1944.
Dunne and other CLA leaders of the Minneapolis strikes had been armed for battle against farmer-labor populism by Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, who in the early 1920s had intervened to pull the young American communist movement back from giving political support to the capitalist “third party” candidacy of Robert La Follette, a maverick Republican Senator from Wisconsin. The excerpts from Trotsky’s introduction to his book, The First Five Years of the Communist International, summarize his opposition to this opportunist course which, if pursued, would have politically liquidated the fledgling Communist party.
Today, what remains of the gains that were won through the momentous class battles of the past continues to be ravaged in a one-sided class war enabled by trade-union misleaders, who have long forsaken the very means through which the unions were founded. The working class, the poor, black people, immigrants and countless others at the bottom of this society have paid the price in busted unions, broken lives and all-sided misery.
To be sure, it is not easy for the workers to win in the face of the forces arrayed against them. Many strikes, even very militant ones, will lose. But as was demonstrated in the three 1934 strikes addressed in this pamphlet, when important working-class battles are won it can dramatically alter the situation. These victories inspired a huge labor upsurge later in the 1930s that built the mass industrial unions in this country.
Hard-fought strikes can provide an important school of battle for the workers in which they learn the power of their collective strength and organization and begin to understand the class nature not only of the capitalist system but of the government, laws and political parties that defend its rule. But while able to strike important blows against the conditions of the workers’ exploitation, trade-union struggle on its own cannot end that exploitation. To win that war there must be a struggle for working-class power under the leadership of a revolutionary party that can arm the workers with the understanding and consciousness of their class interests in the fight to emancipate labor and all of the oppressed from the bondage of capitalist exploitation.
Box 1377 GPO, New York, NY 10116, USA
Frank Jackman comment on the labor Struggles of the 1930s:
Everybody, everybody who has been around for the last generation or two and has been breathing knows that the rich have gotten richer exponentially in the one-sided class war that they have so far successfully been pursuing here in America (and internationally as well). We really do not need to have the hard fact of class thrown in our faces one more time by the dwindling band of brave pro-working class leftists who must be legitimately perplexed by the lack of push-back, lack of basic trade union consciousness that animated those of a couple of generations ago to at least fight back and win a few precious gains. Or to have those of the think tank crowd of craven sociologists and make-shift policy wonks who are always slightly behind whatever the current reality is and well behind on what the hell to do about it if they would dream of lowering themselves to such considerations tell us of their recent discovery that the working classes (and the vaunted middle too) are getting screwed to put in working class language. What we really do need to have is some kind of guidance about how to fight back, how to get some room to breathe and figure out a strategy to win some class battles, small, large, hell, any size if for no other reason than to get the capitalists, mostly finance capitalists these days to back off a bit in that relentless drive to push everybody else to the bottom.
So it is very good, and very necessary, that this informative and thought-provoking pamphlet, Then and Now, goes back to the 1930s, the last serious prolonged struggle by the American working class as a class. Goes back and discusses those three very important class battles of 1934 –Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco all led centrally by “reds,” by those who had some sense that they were joining in episodes of the class struggle and were willing to take their lumps on that basis. It probably would have seemed crazy to those militants that over 75 years later that their battles would be touted as the last great struggles of the class and that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be looking over their exploits with a certain admiration (and maybe puzzlement too since they have not seem such uppity-ness, ever). It speaks volumes that today’s leadership of the organized working class in the trade unions is clueless, worse, consciously works to keep everybody under their thumbs clueless about the battles that gave them their jobs. But that should not stop the rest of us from picking up some pointers. Read this one-and act.
*****In The Hills And Hollows Again- With Mountain Music Man Norman Blake In Mind
Recently in discussing Sam Lowell’s relationship with mountain music, the music from down in the hills and hollows of Kentucky where his father and his people before him had lived dirt poor, almost beyond dirt poor one they settled in and had forsaken any betterment by heading further west once the land gave out , land that they did not provide very good guardianship for since they made every mistake in the agricultural book before it turned to dust, for generations eking almost nothing out of the land that had been abandoned decades before by some going west driven spirits who played the land out and moved on, some moving on until they reached ocean edge California, Bart Webber noticed that he had concentrated a little too heavily on the music of Sam’ s father’s Kentucky hills and hollows. Sure a lot of the music came almost intact from the old country, old country here being some place in the British Isles, music that a guy like high Brattle Street Brahmin Francis Child collected and that if you give some serious attention to you will find that the core narratives presented there could be heard come any Saturday night Hazard red barn dance. But there were other places down south like in the Piedmont of North Carolina where a cleaner picking style had been developed by the likes of Etta Baker and exemplified more recently by Norman Blake who has revived the work of performers like Aunt Helen Alder and Pappy Sims by playing the old tunes. Some other places as well like down in the inner edges of Tennessee and Georgia where the kindred also dwelled, places as well where if the land had played out there they, the ones who stayed behind in there tacky cabins barely protected against the weathers, their lack of niceties of modern existence a result not because they distained such things but down in the hollows they did not know about them, did not seem to notice the bustling outside world.
They all, all the hills and hollows people, just kept plucking away barely making ends meet, usually not doing so in some periods, and once they had abandoned cultivating the land these sedentary heredity “master-less men” thrown out their old countries, like Bart mentioned mainly the British Isles, for any number of petty crimes, but crimes against property and so they had to go on their own or face involuntary transportation they went into the “black god” mines or sharecropping for some Mister to live short, nasty, brutish lives before the deluge.
But come Saturday night, come old Fred Brown’s worn out in need of paint red barn the hill people, the mountain people, the piedmont brethren, hell, maybe a few swamp-dwellers too, would gather up their instruments, their sweet liquor jugs, their un-scrubbed bare-foot children or their best guy or gal and play the night away as the winds came down the mountains. This DNA etched in his bones by his father and the kindred is what Sam had denied for much of his life.
But like Bart had mentioned as well when discussing the matter with Sam one night sometimes “what goes around comes around” as the old-time expression had it. Take for example Sam Lowell’s youthful interest in folk music back in the early 1960s when it had crashed out of exotic haunts like Harvard Square, Ann Arbor, Old Town Chi Town and North Beach/Berkeley out in Frisco. Crashed out by word of mouth at first and ran into a lot of kids, a lot of kids like Sam, who got his word from Diana Nelson who got it from a cousin from North Adamsville nearer Boston who frequented the coffeehouses on Beacon Hill and Harvard Square, especially the famous "cheap date" Joy Street Club and Turk's Head on the hill and the equally "cheap date" Clue Blue and Club Nana in the Square after the Club 47 got too expensive once everybody and their brother and sister wanted to go there, who had “hipped” her to this new folk music program that he had found flipping the dial of his transistor radio one Sunday night.
See Sam and Diana were tucked away from the swirl down in Carver about thirty miles as the crow flies from Boston and Cambridge but maybe a million social miles from those locales and had picked up the thread somewhat belatedly. He, along with his corner boys, had lived in their little corner boy cocoon out in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner figuring out ways to get next to girls like Diana but who were stuck, stuck like glue to listening to the “put to sleep” music that was finding its way to clog up Jimmy Jack’s’ hither-to-fore “boss” jukebox. Christ, stuff like Percy Faith’s Moon River that parents could swoon over, and dance to. Had picked the folk sound up belatedly when they were fed up with what was being presented on American Bandstand and WJDA the local rock station, while they were looking for something different, something that they were not sure of but that smelled, tasted, felt, and looked different from a kind of one-size-fits-all vanilla existence.
Oh sure, as Bart recognized once he thought about it for a while, every generation in their youth since the days when you could draw a distinction between youth and adulthood a century or so ago and have it count has tried to draw its own symbolic beat but this was different, this involved a big mix of things all jumbled together, political, social, economic, cultural, the whole bag of societal distinctions which would not be settled until the end of that decade, maybe the first part of the next. That big picture is what interested him. What had interested Sam then down there in in Podunk Carver about thirty miles south of Boston was the music, his interest in the other trends did not come until later, much later long after the whole thing had ebbed and they were fighting an unsuccessful rearguard action against the night-takers and he was forced to consider other issues. And Sam had been a fighter against what Che Guevara, a hero to Sam's generation and later ones too in desperate need of heroes when the night-takers went berserk, called the "the belly of the beast of the world's problems in America, ever after.
The way Sam told it one night a few years back, according to Bart, some forty or so years after his ear changed forever that change had been a bumpy road. Sam had been at his bi-weekly book club in Plymouth where the topic selected for the next meeting was the musical influences, if any, that defined one’s tastes and he had volunteered to speak then since he had just read a book, The Mountain View, about the central place of mountain music, for lack of a better term, in the American songbook. He had along with Bart and Jack Dawson also had been around that time discussing how they had been looking for roots as kids. Musical roots which were a very big concern for a part of their generation, a generation that was looking for roots, for rootedness not just in music but in literature, art, and even in the family tree.
Their parents’ generation no matter how long it had been since the first family immigration wave had spilled them onto these shores was in the red scare Cold War post-World War II period very consciously ignoring every trace of roots in order to be fully vanilla Americanized. So their generation had had to pick up the pieces not only of that very shaky family tree but everything else that had been downplayed during that period.
Since Sam had tired of the lazy hazy rock and roll that was being produced and which the local rock radio stations were force- feeding him and others like him looking to break out through their beloved transistor radios he had started looking elsewhere on the tiny dial for something different after Diana had clued him in about that folk music program. Although for a while he could not find that particular program or Carver was out of range for the airwaves. But like a lot of young people, as he would find out later when he would meet kindred in Harvard Square, the Village, Ann Arbor, Berkeley he fortunately had been looking for that something different at just that moment when something called folk music, roots music, actually was being played on select stations for short periods of time each week and so it was before long that he was tuned in.
His own lucky station had been a small station, an AM station, from Providence in Rhode Island which he would find out later had put the program on Monday nights from eight to eleven at the request of Brown and URI students who had picked up the folk music bug on trips to the Village (Monday a dead music night in advertising circles then, maybe now too, thus fine for talk shows, community service programs and odd-ball stuff like roots music to comply with whatever necessary FCC mandates went with the license.) That is where he first heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk, a new guy named Tom Rush from Harvard whom he would hear in person many times over the years, and another guy, Eric Von Schmidt whom he would meet later in one of the Harvard Square coffeehouses that were proliferating to feed the demand to hear folk music. Those coffeehouses were manna from heaven, well, because they were cheap for guys with little money. Cheap alone or on a date, basically as Sam related to his book club listeners for a couple of bucks at most admission, the price of a cup of coffee to keep in front of you and thus your place, maybe a pastry if alone and just double that up for a date except share the pasty you had your date deal all set for the evening hearing performers perfecting their acts before hitting the A-list clubs.
He listened to it all, liked some of it, other stuff, the more protest stuff he could take or leave depending on the performer but what drew his attention, strangely then was when somebody on the radio or on stage performed mountain music, you know, the music of the hills and hollows that came out of Appalachia mainly down among the dust and weeds. Things like Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow, Gold Watch and Chain, Fair and Tender Ladies, Pretty Saro, and lots of instrumentals by guys like Buell Kazee, Hobart Smith, The Charles River Boys. Norman Blake just starting his rise along with various expert band members to bring bluegrass to the wider younger audience that did not relate to guys like Bill Monroe and his various band combinations, and some other bluegrass bands as well that had now escaped his memory.
This is where it all got jumbled up for him Sam said since he was strictly a city boy, made private fun of the farm boys, the cranberry boggers, who then made up a significant part of his high school. He furthermore had no interest in stuff like the Grand Ole Opry and that kind of thing, none. Still he always wondered about the source, about why he felt some kinship with the music of the Saturday night red barn, probably broken down, certainly in need of paint, and thus available for the dance complete with the full complement of guitars, fiddles, bass, mandolin and full complement too of Bobby Joe’s just made white lightening, playing plainsong for the folk down in the wind-swept hills and hollows.
Then one night, a Sunday night after he had picked up the Boston folk program station on the family radio (apparently the weak transistor radio did not have the energy to pick up a Boston station) he was listening to the Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower when his father came in and began singing along. After asking Sam about whether he liked the song and Sam answered that he did but could not explain why his father told him a story that maybe put the whole thing in perspective. After Sam’s older brother, Lawrence, had been born and things looked pretty dicey for a guy from the South with no education and no skill except useless coal-mining his father decided that maybe they should go back to Kentucky and see if things were better for a guy like him there. No dice, after had been in the north, after seeing the same old tacky cabins, the played out land, the endless streams of a new generation of shoeless kids Sam’s father decided to head back north and try to eke something out in a better place. But get this while Sam’s parents were in Kentucky Sam had been conceived. Yeah, so maybe it was in the genes all along.
*****Coming Of Age, Political Age, In The 1960s Night- A Baptism Of Fire-Making War On The War-Makers-The Struggle Against Nuclear War
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
He was scared. All of fourteen year old Peter Paul Markin’s body was scared. Of course he knew, knew just as well as anybody else, if anybody thought to ask, that he was really afraid not scared, but Peter Paul was scared anyway. No, not scared (or afraid for the literary correct types), not Frannie De Angelo demon neighborhood tough boy, schoolboy nemesis scared, scared that he would be kicked in the groin, bent over to the ground in pain for no reason, no reason except Frannie deep psycho hard boy reasons known only to himself. Markin was used to that kind of scared, not liking it, not liking getting used to it but he was not tough, not even close although he was wiry, but not Franny heavyweight tough, but used to it. And this certainly was not his usual girl scared-ness on the off chance that one, one girl that is, might say something to him and he would have no “cool” rejoinder. (Yes, girls scared him, not Franny scared but no social graces scared, except in the comfortable confines of a classroom where he could show off with his knowledge of two thousand arcane facts that he thought would impress them but no avail then, later he would be swarmed, well, maybe not swarmed but he didn’t have to spend many lonely weekend nights studying to get to three thousand arcane facts) This was different. This, and his handkerchief-dabbed wet palms and forehead did not lie, was an unknown scared.
See, Peter Paul had taken a bet, a “put your money where your mouth is" bet, from best freshman high school friend Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, if you want to know the full name. Now these guys had previously bet on everything under the sun since middle school, practically, from sports game spreads, you know Ohio State by ten over Michigan stuff like that, to how high the master pizza man and owner at Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, Tonio, would throw his pizza dough one strange night when Frankie needed dough (money dough that is) for his hot date with girlfriend Joanne. So no bet was too strange for this pair, although this proposition was probably way too solemn to be bet on.
What got it started, the need for a bet started, this time, really had to do with school, or maybe better, the world situation in 1960. Peter Paul, a bundle of two thousand facts that he guarded like a king’s ransom, went off the deep end in 9th grade Civics class when he, during a current events discussion, exploded upon his fellow classmates with the observation that there were too many missiles, too many nuclear bomb-loaded guided missiles, in the world and that both sides in the Cold War (The United States and the Soviet Union and their respective hangers-on) should “ban the bomb.” But you have not heard the most provocative part yet, Peter Paul then argued that, as a good-will gesture and having more of them, the United States should destroy a few of its own. Unilaterally.
Pandemonium ensued as smarts guys and gals, simps and stups also, even those who never uttered a word in class, took aim at Peter Paul’s head. The least of it was that he was called a “commie” and a "dupe" and the discussion degenerated from there. Mr. Merck was barely able to contain the class, and nobody usually stepped out line in his class, or else. Somehow order was restored by the end of class and within a few days the class was back to normal, smart guys and girls chirping away with all kinds of flutter answers and the simps and stups, well the simp and stups did their simp and stup thing, as always.
Frankie always maintained that that particular day was one of the few that he wasn’t, and he really wasn’t, glad that Peter Paul was his friend. And during that class discussion he made a point, a big point, of not entering the fray in defense of his misbegotten friend. He thought Peter Paul was off the wall, way off the wall, on this one and let him know it after class. Of course, Peter Paul could not leave well enough alone and started badgering friend Frankie about it some more. But this was stone wall time because Frankie, irreverent, most of the time irreligious, and usually just happy to be girl-smitten in the world, and doing stuff about that, and not worried about its larger problems really believed, like the hard Roman Catholic-bred boy that he was underneath, that the evil Soviet Union should be nuclear fizzled-that very day.
But Peter Paul kept egging the situation on. And here is the problem with a purist, a fourteen year old purist, a wet behind the ears fourteen year old purist when you think about it. Peter Paul was as Roman Catholic-bred underneath as Frankie but with this not so slight difference. Peter Paul’s grandmother, Anna, was, and everybody who came in contact with her agreed, a saint. A saint in the true-believer catholic social gospel sense and who was a fervent admirer of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker for social justice movement started in the 1930s. So frequently The Catholic Worker, the movement newspaper, would be lying around her house. And just as frequently Peter Paul, taking grandmother refuge from the hell-bend storms at his own house, would read the articles. And in almost every issue there would be an article bemoaning the incredible increase in nuclear weapons by both sides, the cold war freeze-out that escalated that spiral and the hard fact that the tipping point beyond no return was right around the corner. And something had to be done about it, and fast, by rational people who did not want the world blown up by someone’s ill-tempered whim. Yah, heady stuff, no question, but just the kind of thing that a certain fourteen year old boy could add to his collection of now two thousand plus facts.
Heady stuff, yah, but also stuff that carried some contradictions. Not in grandmother Anna, not in Dorothy Day so much as in Peter Paul and through him Frankie. See, the Catholic Worker movement had no truck, not known truck, anyway with “commies" and "dupes”, although that movement too, more than once, and by fellow Catholics too, was tarred with that brush. They were as fervent in their denunciation of the atheistic Soviet Union as any 1950s red-baiter. But they also saw that that stance alone was not going to make the world safer for believers, or anybody else. And that tension between the two strands is where Frankie and Peter Paul kind of got mixed up in the world’s affairs. Especially when Peter Paul said that the Catholic Worker had an announcement in their last issue that in October (1960) they were going to help sponsor an anti-nuclear proliferation rally on the Boston Common as part of a group called SANE two weeks before the presidential elections.
Frankie took that information as manna from heaven. See, Frankie was just as interested in knowing two thousand facts in this world as Peter Paul. Except Frankie didn’t guard them like a king’s ransom but rather used them, and then discarded them like a tissue. And old Frankie, even then, even in 1960 starting to spread his wings as the corner boy king of the North Adamsville high school class of 1964, knew how to use his stockpile of facts better than Peter Paul ever could. So one night, one fiercely debated night, when Frankie could take no more, he said “bet.” And he bet that Peter Paul would not have the courage to travel from North Adamsville to Park Street Station in Boston to attend that SANE rally by himself (who else would go from old working- class, patriotic, red-scare scared, North Adamsville anyway). And as is the nature of fourteen year old boy relationships, or was, failure to take the bet, whatever bet was social suicide. “Bet,” said Peter Paul quickly before too much thinking time would elapse and destroy the fact of the bet marred by the hint of hesitation.
But nothing is ever just one thing in this wicked old world. Peter Paul believed, believed fervently, in the social message of the Catholic Worker movement especially on this nuclear war issue. But this was also 1960 and Irish Jack Kennedy was running, and running hard, to be President of the United States against bad man Richard Milhous Nixon and Peter Paul was crazy for Jack (really for younger brother, Bobby, the ruthless organizer behind the throne which is the way he saw his own future as a political operative). And, of course, October in election year presidential politics is crunch time, a time to be out hustling votes, out on Saturday hustling votes, especially every Irish vote, every Catholic vote, hell, every youth vote for your man.
On top of that Jack, old Irish Jack Kennedy, war hero, good-looking guy with a good-looking wife (not Irish though not as far as anyone could tell), rich as hell, was trying to out-Cold War Nixon, a Cold War warrior of the first degree. And the way he was trying to outgun Nixon was by haranguing everyone who would listen that there was a “missile gap,” and the United was falling behind. And when one talked about a missile gap in 1960 that only meant one thing, only brooked only one solution- order up more, many more, nuclear-bomb loaded guided missiles. So there it was, one of the little quirks of life, of political life. So, Peter Paul, all fourteen year old scared Peter Paul has to make good on his bet with Frankie but in the process put a crimp into his hoped-for political career. And just for that one moment, although with some hesitation, he decided to be on the side of the “angels” and to go.
That Saturday, that October Saturday, was a brisk, clear autumn day and so Peter Paul decided to walk the few miles from his house in North Adamsville over the Neponset Bridge to the first MTA subway station at Fields Corner rather than take the forever Eastern Mass. bus that came by his street erratically. After crossing the bridge he passed through one of the many sections of Boston that could pass for the streets of Dublin. Except on those streets he saw many young Peter Pauls holding signs at street corners for Jack Kennedy, other passing out literature, and others talking up Jack’s name. Even as he approached the subway station he saw signs everywhere proclaiming Jack’s virtues. Hell, the nearby political hang-out Eire Pub looked like a campaign headquarters. What this whole scene did not look like to Peter Paul was a stronghold place to talk to people about an anti-nuclear weapons rally. Peter Paul got even more scared as he thought about the reception likely at the Boston Commons. He pushed on, not without a certain tentative regret, but he pushed on through the turnstile, waited for the on-coming subway to stop, got on, and had an uneventful ride to the Park Street Station, the nearest stop to the Common.
Now Park Street on any given Saturday, especially in October after the college student hordes have descended on Boston, is a madhouse of activity. College student strolling around downtown looking for goods at the shops, other are just rubber-necking, other are sunning themselves on the grass or park benches in the last late sun days before winter arrives with a fury. Beyond the mainly civilized college students (civilized on the streets in the daytime anyway) there are the perennial street people who populate any big city and who when not looking for handouts, a stray cigarette, or a stray drink are talking a mile a minute among themselves about some supposed injustice that has marred their lives and caused their unhappy decline. Lastly, and old town Boston, historic old town Boston, scene of many political battles for every cause from temperance to liberty, is defined by this, there are a motley crew of speakers, soap-box speakers whether on a real soap-box or not, who are holding forth on many subjects, although none that drew Peter Paul’s attention this day. After running that gauntlet, as he heads for the Francis Parkman Bandstand where the SANE rally was to take place he was amused by all that surrounds him putting him in a better mood, although still apprehensive of what the day will bring forth.
Arriving at the bandstand he saw about twenty people milling around with signs, hand-made signs that showed some spunk, the most prominent being a large poster-painted sign that stated boldly, “Ban The Bomb.” He is in the right place, no question. Although he is surprised that there are not more people present he is happy, secretly happy, that those twenty are there, because, frankly, he thought there might be just about two. And among that crowd he spotted a clot of people who were wearing Catholic Worker buttons so he is now more fully at ease, and was starting to be glad that he came here on this day. He went over to the clot and introduced himself and tells them how he came to be there. He also noted that one CWer wore the collar of a priest; a surprise because at Sacred Heart, his parish church, it was nothing but “fire and brimstone” from the pulpit against the heathen communist menace.
Get this-he also met a little old lady in tennis sneakers. For real. Now Frankie, devil’s advocate Frankie, baited Peter Paul in their arguments about nuclear disarmament by stating that the “peaceniks” were mainly little old ladies in tennis shoes-meaning, of course, batty and of no account, no main chance political account, no manly Jack Kennedy stand up to the Russians account. Peter Paul thought to himself wait until I see Frankie and tell him that this little old lady knew more about politics, and history, than even his two thousand facts. And was funny too boot. Moreover, and this was something that he had privately noticed, as the youngest person by far at the rally she, and later others, would make a fuss over him for that very reason talking about young bravery and courage and stuff like that.
Over the course of the two hours or so of the rally the crowd may have swelled to about fifty, especially when a dynamic black speaker from the W.E.B. Dubois club at Harvard University linked up the struggle against nuclear weapons with the black struggle down South for voting rights that those in the North had been hearing more about lately. It was not until later, much later, that Peter Paul found out that this Dubois club business was really the name of the youth group of the American Communist Party (CP) at the time but by that time he was knowledgeable enough to say “so what.” And it was not until later that he found out that the little old lady with the tennis sneakers was a CPer, although she had said at the time he talked to her she was with some committee, some women’s peace committee, within the Democratic Party. Oh, well. But then he would also be able to say “so what” to that accusation in proper “family of the left” fashion.
But forget all that later stuff, and what he knew or did not know later. See, that day, that October 1960 autumn day, Peter Paul learned something about serious politics. If you are on the right side of the angels on an issue, a central issue of the day, you are kindred. And although there were more than a few catcalls from the passers-by about “commies”, “dupes”, and “go back to Russia” he was glad, glad as hell that he came over. Although nothing turned inside him, noticeably turned inside him that day, about his politics and his determination to see Jack Kennedy and the Democrats take the White House he thought about those brave people at the bandstand and what they were standing for a lot for a long time after the event faded from memory. Oh yah, it was good to be on the side of the angels. And it didn’t hurt that he won that Frankie bet, either.
Working The Blues Street Corners-With Blind Willie McTell In Mind
By Zack James
Seth Garth was always intrigued by what he called the “blinds,” not the old railroad jungle hobo, tramp, bum use of the term ‘riding the blinds” but his own personal shorthand way to describe the large number of old bluesmen, mainly country blues guys who made a living on the streets mostly on the towns down South who were blind. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Earl Avery, Blind Amos Morris, you get the point, get the picture. Get the picture too of guys hanging on the street corners, hat in hand or maybe in front of them on the sidewalk a guitar at the ready. Guys, and gals too, still do that today on urban streets and in subways although Seth never remembered any of them being blind, at least not really blind although he had run up against a couple of con artists working a grift faking that blind deal.
He often wondered what it would have been like to pass them on some forlorn street, and wonder is all he could do since all those august names had passed beyond well before he came of age. Before he became old enough to appreciate the blues tradition that he got hopped on as a kid after accidently hearing Blue Blaine’s Blues Hour out of Chicago one fugitive Sunday night when the airwaves were in just the right seventh house position. Or something like that since even though a science wiz in high school, a guy who went on to be a weather man (not Weatherman like in the 1960s SDS split-off leftist action of whom he had known a few of them as well after a series of articles he did on the theme of music and politic using Bob Dylan’s phrase “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) tried to patiently explain that it was not some voodoo magic but had to do with airwaves and wind currents. Whatever had caused that intersession that hooked him for good even though he did not hear anything by any of the previously mentioned blues artists that night. That would come much later after he became an aficionado and became, maybe as a result of those fugitive airwaves, a folk music critic back in the day for several then thriving and authoritative alternative folk and blues publications.
According to ‘Bama Brown, the great harmonica player for Johnny Boy Williams’ blues band who was the last living link to those “blinds” the reason that they were able to survive on the streets is because even in the Jim Crow South a blind black man posed no direct threat to Mister. That they could walk the streets with their hats or little tin cups, maybe with some black sister to aid them (true in the cases of Blind Willie and Blind Blake), maybe sing harmony in an off-hand minute, maybe play a little tambourine to draw a crowd, to give the word since preaching on the white streets, the streets where the money was on say a drunken sot Saturday, by a black man was frowned upon. Whites had their own set of holy-rollers to patronize and did not need any blacks to draw away from their purses. That would get a black guy, blind or not, a swift kick back to Negro-town, to the cheap streets.
That was ‘Bama’s story anyway and it sounded plausible, and probably was as close to a reason that the blinds survived as any but later after some research, after listening to some precious oral histories provided to the Library of Congress by the Lomaxes, father and son, he started to question whether ‘Bama had the deal down pat as it seemed at the time (and as he had written about in an article about ‘Bama as the last living link to a lot of the old country blues singers, especially the Delta boys from where he had hailed before heading north to Chicago and fame with Johnny Boy).
Seth had been particularly struck by one oral interview given by Honey Boy James, a great slide guitarist in the mold of Mississippi Fred McDowell, who before he passed away in the late 1940s told Alan Lomax, the son, that the real reason that the “blinds’” were left alone was that in their heyday, the late 1920s and early 1930s before the Great Depression hit hard and nobody had spare change for records or for giving alms to anybody, even blind men, was that the record companies from New York and Chicago mainly would sent scouts out to the small towns of the South looking for talent. Looking for a sound for their ‘‘race” labels and in the process those agents would get word out that there was dough to be had if anybody, anybody okay, could find some talent. Obviously the roughnecks and hillbillies were as anxious to get dough as anybody else and the only way they could grab some was listening to the black guys on the streets, on Mister’s streets. And the only guys allowed on Mister’s precious streets were the “blinds.”
Seth found that piece of news interesting but he was more than a little pissed off that old ‘Bama whom Seth had given good cash to for his interview had “forgotten” to tell him about that possible explanation. Especially since ‘Bama at the time was with Johnny Boy when RCA came looking for a new black sound and had been scouted by Mac Duran, a well-known white record agent in Memphis at the time. Damn.
Click on the title to link to an article from the "Socialist Worker org. Web site. This is a guest commentary on the subject
Every January, as readers of this blog are now, hopefully, familiar with the international communist movement honors the 3 Ls-Lenin, Luxemburg and Leibknecht, fallen leaders of the early 20th century communist movement who died in this month (and whose untimely deaths left a huge, irreplaceable gap in the international leadership of that time). January is thus a time for us to reflect on the roots of our movement and those who brought us along this far. In order to give a fuller measure of honor to our fallen forbears this January, and in future Januarys, this space will honor others who have contributed in some way to the struggle for our communist future. That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices.
Note on inclusion: As in other series on this site (“Labor’s Untold Story”, “Leaders Of The Bolshevik Revolution”, etc.) this year’s honorees do not exhaust the list of every possible communist worthy of the name. Nor, in fact, is the list limited to Bolshevik-style communists. There will be names included from other traditions (like anarchism, social democracy, the Diggers, Levellers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also, as was true of previous series this year’s efforts are no more than an introduction to these heroes of the class struggle. Future years will see more detailed information on each entry, particularly about many of the lesser known figures. Better yet, the reader can pick up the ball and run with it if he or she has more knowledge about the particular exploits of some communist militant, or to include a missing one.
The names of the heroic Communist militants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are no strangers to this space. I have mentioned this before and it bears repeating here. The Rosenbergs were not our people (hard Stalinists rather than supporters of Trotsky), but they were our people (they defended the Soviet Union in the best way they knew how, and didn't complain about it in the end).
On The Anniversary Of Russian Revolution of 1905 As We Honor Of The Three L’s –Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht- -Honor An Historic Leader Of The American Socialist Left-James P. Cannon
EVERY JANUARY WE HONOR LENIN OF RUSSIA, ROSA LUXEMBURG OF POLAND, AND KARL LIEBKNECHT OF GERMANY AS THREE LEADERS OF THE INTERNATIONAL WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT. DURING THE MONTH WE ALSO HONOR OTHER HISTORIC LEADERS AS WELL ON THIS SITE.
Markin comment on founding member James P. Cannon and the early American Communist Party taken from a book review on the American Left History blog archives from 2006:
If you are interested in the history of the American Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past mistakes of our history and want to know some of the problems that confronted the early American Communist Party and some of the key personalities, including James Cannon, who formed that party this book is for you.
At the beginning of the 21st century after the demise of the Soviet Union and the apparent ‘death of communism’ it may seem fantastic and utopian to today’s militants that early in the 20th century many anarchist, socialist, syndicalist and other working class militants of this country coalesced to form an American Communist Party. For the most part, these militants honestly did so in order to organize an American socialist revolution patterned on and influenced by the Russian October Revolution of 1917. James P. Cannon represents one of the important individuals and faction leaders in that effort and was in the thick of the battle as a central leader of the Party in this period. Whatever his political mistakes at the time, or later, one could certainly use such a militant leader today. His mistakes were the mistakes of a man looking for a revolutionary path.
For those not familiar with this period a helpful introduction by the editors gives an analysis of the important fights which occurred inside the party. That overview highlights some of the now more obscure personalities (a helpful biographical glossary is provided), where they stood on the issues and insights into the significance of the crucial early fights in the party.
These include questions which are still relevant today; a legal vs. an underground party; the proper attitude toward parliamentary politics; support to third party bourgeois candidates ;trade union policy; class war defense as well as how to rein in the intense internal struggle of the various factions for organizational control of the party. This makes it somewhat easier for those not well-versed in the intricacies of the political disputes which wracked the early American party to understand how these questions tended to pull it in on itself. In many ways, given the undisputed rise of American imperialism in the immediate aftermath of World War I, this is a story of the ‘dog days’ of the party. Unfortunately, that rise combined with the international ramifications of the internal disputes in the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International shipwrecked the party as a revolutionary party toward the end of this period.
In the introduction the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of the book by stating the Cannon was the finest Communist leader that America had ever produced. This an intriguing question. The editors trace their political lineage back to Cannon’s leadership of the early Communist Party and later after his expulsion to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show? I would argue that the period under study represented Cannon’s apprenticeship. Although the hothouse politics of the early party clarified some of the issues of revolutionary strategy for him I believe that it was not until he linked up with Trotsky in the late 1920’s that he became the kind of leader who could lead a revolution. Of course, since Cannon never got a serious opportunity to lead revolutionary struggles in America this is mainly reduced to speculation on my part. Later books written by him make the case better. One thing is sure- in his prime he had the instincts to want to lead a revolution.
As an addition to the historical record of this period this book is a very good companion to the two-volume set by Theodore Draper - The Roots of American Communism and Soviet Russia and American Communism- the definitive study on the early history of the American Communist Party. It is also a useful companion to Cannon’s own The First Ten Years of American Communism. I would add that this is something of a labor of love on the part of the editors. This book was published at a time when the demise of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was in full swing and anything related to Communist studies was deeply discounted. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the American Communist Party (and its offshoots) needs to be studied as an ultimately flawed example of a party that failed in its mission to create a radical version of society in America. Now is the time to study this history.
*****Reaching For The Stars-With The Apollo Moon Flights In Mind
By Bradley Maxwell
Several years ago, in a period when Larry Turner after years of studied denial and distain began to think about the matter both as a way to clear up his head on the issue and to satisfy a growing curiosity, he through the beauties of modern high-tech got in contact with some old classmates of his from Riverdale High. The fact of the matter was that he had been thinking about doing so for a number of years before that but somehow that studied denial and distain always got in the way. The impetus of an upcoming class reunion, or rather knowledge that it had been almost fifty years since he had graduated from high school with the Class of 1963, had sharpened his senses about clearing things up, getting some questions answered about why so many years ago he had as he called it “brushed the dust off his shoes” from any connection with the town, and those whom he had known there.
Despite the fact that so many years had passed and some questions would never be answered for the simple fact that some of those who would have known the answers to Larry’s inquiries, including his parents and a couple of his best friends who had died in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, he decided to “suck it up” and find out what he could find out about where the roads had gone awry on him. That said Larry was not thinking only about the dramatic and heavy burden of family misunderstanding and the like but about his youth, and about the days when he was in his way filled with wonder, filled with a desire to reach for the stars at a time when that was physically no longer out of the reach of humankind. Yeah, so Larry wanted to think about the days when if he had stuck with it he could have reached for the stars, gone on a different road.
Getting in contact with old classmates these days from fifty years ago with all the modern social networking apparatuses to choose from is almost as simple as walking across the street in the old days to see if “Jimmy” was home and did he want to go to the courts and play a little hoop. In Larry’s case that was made easier by the simple expedient of Googling on the Internet for the Riverdale High School Class of 1963 and he came up with two quick possible sources of information. First a Facebook page put up by Nora Morris (nee Daley), who had been the Class secretary, had been a head cheerleader, and had been the chief social butterfly on all the committees that mattered in high school, the Fall and Spring dance, class day, prom, and Civic Pride committees. Moreover she still lived in town, still lived in Riverdale, and had a million connections that Larry would make some use of later. The second source which had been linked from the Facebook page was a website dedicated specifically to the upcoming class reunion. So Larry was in business.
Now Larry was not all of the following: a class officer, a sports player, a dance, Fall or Spring, class day, prom, or Civic pride committee member, or any school clubs. So he had not particular affinity with Nora Daley, and she probably did not even know he existed, but he nevertheless contacted her about joining the class website (he had seen nothing on Facebook that except some names, most of which he recognized if he did not know personally, and what they had been doing since high school, which would have helped him in his quest except that link to the class website). He sent her an e-mail via the website saying he wished to join the group.
Now the way this website stuff works, or the way it worked for the Class of 1963, was that all two hundred and seventy-three members of the class who graduated had their class photographs listed on the site (those who had not had their photographs taken for the yearbook simply had their names listed). If you wanted to join the site you just clicked on your name, provided some information, as much as you desired to tell a candid world, clicked on a “submit” icon and you were, pending webmaster Nora’s okay, a member of the site. Larry cleared all those low-bar hurdles and Nora sent him a personal e-mail via the site both to welcome him and to tell him that as he suspected she did not remember him from school.
And why should she have remembered him since in many ways he had been the angry young man, for lots of reasons including a hazardous home-life, had been as filled with teen angst and alienation as Johnny (Marlon Brando) in The Wild One and James Dean in RebelWithout A Causetwo films which he closely associated himself. Although when he was younger, when he was eleven or twelve, he had been as full as pipe dreams and good will as any kid at Danner Junior High.
Nora Daley in her role as class site webmaster, and probably just the way she was as a personality, in order to generate some on-going conversation would put up a bunch of questions on the homepage of the website. Silly things like-who did you have a secret “crush” on, who did you go to the prom with (Larry hadn’t), do you remember those great night before Thanksgiving rallies in support of the football team’s struggle against arch-rival Overton High in the gym (Larry did attend the one senior year), and who was your favorite teacher (Miss Soros, Larry’s English teacher but she did not like him, or rather thought he was an underachiever, a bad sign in her book).
But Nora also posed more serious questions like how did it feel to live in the red scare Cold War night during school with all those crazy air raid drills which were worthless if you thought about it if the Russians decided to throw the big bomb at us. Like what was your attitude, if any, about the black civil rights movement down south that was filling up all the newspapers and televisions with its details. And like the question that Larry felt very comfortable with-what did you think about the exploration of space and what it would do for humankind (Nora used the more old-fashioned “mankind” reflecting perhaps an older learned ethos in her question).
Larry was not sure whether Nora was asking these questions based on some rote recitation from some on-line time-line for the late 1950s and early 1960s when those events were current and came up with the questions that way or whether these were issues that she was interested in knowing the answers to for some other purpose. The way the thing worked was that if you had an opinion on a question you would write it up and submit it on that particular class opinion and comment page. Larry had briefly mentioned that he had attended the Thanksgiving football rally in senior year and had written a paragraph about it-mainly about how he was supposed to meet an unnamed girl who promised to be there who never showed up. And that was that.
Larry did the same thing, or almost the same thing, wrote a couple of paragraphs on the question of space exploration, a subject that had fascinated him when he was in junior high when he fancied himself a budding rocket scientist like a million other kids, a million other guys mainly. He had also mentioned in that posting that he had recently gone down to Washington, D.C. on some business. After that conference was concluded on a whim, or not so much a whim as curiosity since he was knee-deep in reading Norman Mailer’s literary account of the latter part of the “space race,” the struggle to put a man on the moon, Of A Fire On The Moon,he visited the Air and Space Museum just off the National Mall and noted that the old time thrill of wanting to be a rocket scientist (rather than his profession as a lawyer) came back, including memories about what it was like to have a sense of wonder back in those times. Stuff he had not thought about in many years.
That little posting got Nora to response and ask him to expand on what he was talking about. About that sense of wonder and intrigue connected with space flight, with being part of, if only vicariously, the efforts to win the space race. Larry’s posting had also prompted several other classmates to tell of their interests, a couple who were actually as he remembered serious about science and were members of Mr. Roberts’ science club after school and who went on to have roles in the NASA programs. Larry wasn’t sure he wanted to expand on what he had written in that first posting but Nora had as the Noras of the world will do “pretty pleased” him into writing something. This is what Larry wrote:
Space Wars, Circa 1960-by Larry Turner
Nora’s Question: In school in the early 1960s did you ever get caught up in the euphoria over the space program?
“We, all of us, are now old enough and presumably have seen enough of this sorry old world, to have become somewhat inured to the wonders of modern technology. Just witness the miracle of cyberspace that we are communicating through this very minute from all our diverse locations. My answer goes back to the mist of time when humankind had just developed the technology to reach for the stars, and we had the capacity to wonder.
For myself, I distinctly remember, as I am sure that you do as well, sitting in some Riverdale classroom as the Principal came over the P.A. system and hooked us up with the latest exploit in space. John Glenn's trip around the earth comes readily to mind. My friends, I will go back even further, back to junior high school, when we were just becoming conscious of the first explorations of space. The reaction to the news of Sputnik, the artificial satellite that the Russians had put up in 1957, drove many of us to extend our range of scientific knowledge.
I vividly remember trying to make rockets, in the basement of our family apartment, by soldering tin cans together fused with a funnel on top. I also remember taking some balsa wood, fashioning a rocket-type projectile, putting up wiring between two poles, inserting a CO2 cartridge and hammering away. Bang!!! Nothing.
After that failed experiment my scientific quest diminished. Moreover, I, a few years later became much more concerned about the fate of my fellow earthlings and trying to correct a few injustices in this world, but that is another story. Now that I think about it the question posed above really is aimed at those, unlike myself, who moved beyond boyish (or girlish) fantasies and used that youthful energy to get serious about science. Maybe you should tell us your stories.”
That little “dare” prompted William James Bradley, that is the moniker he uses now in his very successful car dealership in Overton, but back then, back when he was Larry’s best friend, or something like that, they never quite figured it all out, he was just Billy, to post the following “true” story about Larry’s early space exploits. This is a very different take on the meager offering that Larry provided. Here is what Billy had to say in his comment in response to Larry’s posting:
Billy, William James Bradley, comment:
Yeah, I know I haven’t talked to most of you in too long a while like I told you I would when I came on this class website. But Larry Turner’s very somber post at Nora’s request about his youthful interest in space got to me. Got to me when he cut short a lot of the details that really happened back then. Guess who was with him all the way with his rocket science inventions. Yeah, me.
So I am going to set you straight and tell you all about my best friend, Larry Turner, I always considered him my best friend so I don’t know where that “something like that” came from over at Danner Junior High, and his ill-fated attempts to single-handedly close the space gap they kept talking about once the commies put that Sputnik satellite up in orbit in 1957. Some of you who know me, knew me and my troubles back then at Danner, know that I was still kind of broken up about something around that time. Yeah, for you that don’t know I got caught up in some, well I might as well just come out with it, woman trouble, alright girl trouble, okay. So that colors the story a little, explains why I had time to spend with Larry and his foolish experiments. Just to let you know shortly after these space events I helped Larry with, once I discovered Elvis’ real take on the honeys, One Night Of Sin I got a new girlfriend, well, really an old girlfriend, an old stick girlfriend, Cool Donna O’Toole, that I had, as Larry always kidded me about, “discarded” when love Laura who had ditched me came into view. That isn’t getting us to the Larry space odyssey you’ve been waiting breathlessly to hear about so forward.
And I will get to that in just a second now that I think about it, or the heart of the story, but let me just take a minute to tell you this background story. It seems that Larry had had no objection, and shouldn’t have had, after all of Nora’s prodding, to having his space odyssey story told but he just wanted to tell the story himself. That is why we got that cock and bull whitewashhe posted but after I sent an e-mail and confronted him I said no way, no way on this good green earth are you going to get away with telling it that way. Hell, by the time he got done we were all to be weepy, girl weepy, or something about his tremendous contribution to space science rather than the simple truth- Larry should not be let with fifty miles, no, make that five hundred miles, no, let’s be on the safe side, five thousand miles from anything that could even be remotely used for launching rockets. Yeah, it’s that kind of story.
Besides, here is the real reason that Larry shouldn’t get away with his story, and I told him so. Larry, no question is a history guy, that’s probably why he wound up as a lawyer. He was crazy for people like Abigail Adams, and her husband and son, the guys who used to be Presidents, John and John Quincy, back in the Stone Age, and who Adamsville a few towns over is named after, one of them anyway. He also knows, although I have no clue why, about old times Egypt from going to the Thomas Cromwell Public Library branch at school and taking the Greyhound bus, taking the bus for that reason, can you believe this, over to Boston to the Museum of Fine Arts to check out their mummy stuff, and tombs and how they dressed and all that. Yawn.
Larry was also crazy for reading, not stuff that was required for school reading either, and writing about it, a book guy, no doubt. Get this, as an example that I have never forgotten whenever his name comes up, one time he told me about a book of short stories that he was reading about by a guy, an Irish guy, a chandelier Irish guy, Fitzgerald or something like that, who wrote stories about rich kids, very rich kids, rich guys with names like Basil mooning over rich girls. And rich girls with names like Josephine swooning over guys. Nothing big about that but like I told Larry at the time how was reading that stuff going to do anything for you, for us, trying, trying like crazy to get the hell, excuse my English, out of small town Riverdale. He’s was a cloudy guy see, even if he was my best friend.
But here is something funny, and maybe makes this reading stuff of some use sometimes. Larry read in the Foreword, who the hell, excuse my language again, in this good green earth reads the Foreword, that one of the stories, one of the Basil stories wasn’t published because the publishers didn’t believe back in the early part of the last century that ten and eleven year old boys and girls would be into “petting parties.” Jesus, and I make no excuse for saying that, where had those guys been, and what planet, not earth. Definitely not then in Riverdale with us poor small town boys and girls. So history and book reading that sums up Larry in those days. Does that sound like a guy who can tell a space story, a nuts and bolts space story? No, leave this one to old Billy, he’ll tell it true.
I don’t know about you but I was not all that hopped up about space exploration, space races, or Jules Verne although I will admit that I was a little excited about the idea of those space satellites going up in the sky, those that started with the Soviet Union’s first object in space, Sputnik. But when they started sending robots, monkeys, mice, and small dogs I lost interest. I figured how hard can it be to do the space thing if rodents can make the trip, unmolested. Besides I had my budding career as a rock star of the Elvis sort to worry about so other kinds of stars took a back seat.
Not so Larry. The minute he heard, or maybe it was a little later but pretty soon after, that Sputnik had gone up, that it had been the Russkies who were first in space, he was crazy to enlist in the space race. I swear I had to stop talking to him for a few days because all he wanted to talk about, with that certain demented look in his eye that told you that you were in for a lecture like at school, was how it was every red-blooded student’s, make that every red-blooded American student’s, duty to get moving in aid of the space front. It was so bad that he would not even heard me talk about the latest rock hit without saying, hey, that’s kid’s stuff I got no time for that. Bad, right.
Now this was not about money, you know going around the neighborhood collecting coins for the space program like we did to restore the U.S.S. Constitution when it was all water-logged or whatever happens to wooden ships when they get too old. And it was not about maybe going to the library to get some books to study up on science and maybe someday become a space engineer and go to Cape Canaveral or someplace like that. No this was about our duty, duty see, to go out in the back yard, go down in the cellar, go out in the garage (if you had a garage) and start to experiment making rockets that might be able to make it to space. See what I mean. Deep-end stuff, no question.
Now I already told you, but in case you might have forgotten, Larry was nothing but a books and history guy, and maybe a little music. I had never seen him put a hammer to a nail or anything like that, and I am not sure that he has those skills. I do know that when we were making papier mache dinosaurs in class one time his thing did not look like a dinosaur. Not close. But one day he got me to go with him up to Riverdale Center to the hardware store to get materials for making a rocket. Larry was nothing if not serious in his little projects, at first. At the store we got some balsa wood, nails, aluminum poles, guide wire, a knife built for carving stuff, and about ten CO2 cartridges. The idea was to build a model (or models) and see which ones have the contours to be space-worthy.
Over the next couple of weeks I saw Larry off and on but mainly off because he was spending his after-school time down in the cellar of the apartment house where his family lived working on those balsa wood models. Then one day, one Saturday I think, yeah, it was Saturday he came over to my house looking for help in setting up his launch pad. The idea was that he would put up two aluminum poles, stretch the guide wire between the two poles and demonstrate what he called the aerodynamic flow of his models by attaching his balsa wood models on the wire with a bent nail. Propulsion was by inserting a CO2 cartridge in a crevice in the rocket and hitting one end of the cartridge by lightly hitting it with a nail. I was to observe at the finish while he covered the start. After about half an hour everything was set to go and Dr. Von Turner was ready to set the explosion. Except moon man Larry hit the nail into the cartridge at the wrong place and, if it had not been for some quick leg work that I still chuckle over when I think about it (like now) my friend would have lost an eye. Scratch balsa wood models.
Oh, you thought that was the end of it. Christ no. After catching some hell from his mother (and a little from me) he was back on the trail blazing away. This time though he kept it very low. I didn’t even know about it until he asked me to help him get some materials from that same hardware store and the Rexall Drug Store uptown. So here is the brain-storm in a nut shell. He said he saw the error of his ways in the balsa wood fiasco- he had used the wrong fuel and the whole guide wire thing was awry. This time he intended to simulate (yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either until he told me it was like practically the same but not the real thing, or something like that) a launching like he had seen on television and in the Bell Laboratories Science films we saw at school. Okay, get this, he built, using his father’s soldering iron, a small rocket out of tin soup cans (Campbell’s, naturally, just kidding) with a tin funnel on top and flattened metal for wings. Hey, it really didn’t look bad. The fuel, I swear I do not know all the ingredients but they all came from either the hardware or drug store so that gives you an idea about something. Apparently he read about it somewhere.
So, again on black Saturday, we are off to the back field to launch the spaceship Billy (named after me, of course) into fame and fortune. We set the rocket on a small launch pad that he made; he put in the fuel from a can, and then closed it off with a fuse device at the end. I, as honoree, was to light the match for take-off. I lit the match alright except a funny thing happened- the rocket quickly, very quickly turned into an inferno, and almost me along with it, except I too did some fancy leg work. Christ, Larry enough. And the lesson to be learned- you had better be young, quick, and have your insurance paid up if you are going to hang out with maddened rocket scientists.
After that experiment I think old Larry lost heart. A few days later I saw him reading a book about Abraham Lincoln so I guess the coast was clear. Oh yeah, and at school a week or two later he asked me if I had heard Jerry Lee Lewis’ Breathless yet. Welcome back to Earth, Larry.
Larry laughed when he read Billy’s posting. Sent him an e-mail with one word-Touche. But here is the funny thing Billy’s little missive got him thinking about something he saw at the space museum down in Washington. They had on display for the whole world to see the actual vehicle, or a test model, of the landing craft which the Apollo 11, the first men to land on the moon, used. Larry was amazed by the sight and spent some time looking at all aspects of the vehicle.What startled him was how amateurish the whole thing looked (as some of the other exhibit did as well). The thing with its odd-ball hooks, its off-center antennae, it patches of foil here, some misshapen boxes there, it funny landing pods looked like something he might have created in those halcyon days when he had enlisted himself in the space program when it counted. His conclusion; maybe he had given up too early on his rocket scientist dreams. Maybe he shouldn’t have been bullied by Billy to go back to reading books and listening to music.
Thinking about Billy though and his posting Larry began to think about that F. Scott Fitzgerald reference that Billy mentioned. Not about Fitzgerald’s Basil and Josephine stories but about The Great Gatsby and that haunting last few paragraphs that kind of summed up something about humankind. Larry wondered if those Apollo astronauts when they landed on the moon had the same sense of wonder about the prospects for that place as those long ago Dutch sailors did as they saw the first “fresh green breast” of land as they hit Long Island Sound. He hoped so.