The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist/Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

Marriage—Travel in 48 States

1920 – 1930

(Carmen and Sharon Born; New York City – Waukesha, Wis.)

In New York City

I was nervous and in no position to hold down a job. Two scholarships to the Rand School in New York City were open to a boy and a girl from the middle west and they were given to Selma and me. George Herron, a radical professor in the middle west had married a wealthy woman by the name of Rand and they gave money to erect and run this Socialist school. The night of my arrival there was a mass meeting in the auditorium of the Rand School and Mother Bloor was speaking about my case as I entered the back of the hall. Someone told her and she asked me to come forward. I was not ashamed to kiss her in public as she represented to me all that was ideal.

While Selma was not a Christian nor an anarchist, she was radical and understood enough about my feelings to be in accord with my opposition to the church and the state when it came to marriage. Accordingly on December 24, 1919 we kissed each other and made the mutual pledge that "we would live together as long as we loved each other—for the Revolution." (This day was to go down in history for another reason, for it was the day when Vanzetti was accused of the Bridgewater holdup.) So we lived together near Union Square and continued our studies. We lived in Hell's Kitchen and other places. Later I worked with my friend Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union as secretary of the League for Mutual Aid. And again as secretary of a building cooperative. Selma worked in the office of the WORLD TOMORROW, a pacifist magazine.

While in New York City I wrote several articles in the I.W.W. paper, THE FELLOW WORKER and spoke at one of their forums. I was giving the pacifist argument when a burly fellow worker said no cop was going to tell him what to do and we had to fight for our rights; being pacifist was only cowardice. Before I could answer him a small red-headed young man got up and said: "Yes, you are brave. Last week when the cops raided us on Union Square all you big fellows ran away and left me there alone to fight them all. I'm not a pacifist but I think more of this fellow who does what he says than of you big guys who talk brave and run away."

During my second month in solitary in Atlanta in July, 1918 I had written a poem, Hypocrites, and now in November, 1920 THE ONE BIG UNION MONTHLY of the I.W.W. published it:

I wonder if the devil laughs,
And sings a joyful song,
As to "Onward Christian Soldiers,"
"My Country Right or Wrong."
The Christians each other slaughter
And lynch and mob and maim,
All those who will not help to kill
In lowly Jesus' name.
I wonder if the devil laughs,
And if his joy's increased,
To see the god of gold worshiped
By preacher and by priest;
Who teach contentment with your lot—
Unless you run the game—
And wink at sin and grab the tin
In lowly Jesus'name.
I wonder if the devil laughs,
And adds oil to his fire,
To make a warm reception for
That saintly son and sire,
Who teach love and the golden rule,
While practicing the same;
By raising rents and burning tents
In lowly Jesus' name.
I wonder if the devil laughs,
Or if he sheds a tear,
As the revolution's growing
Much stronger year by year;
And whether love or dynamite
Our victory shall acclaim,
Our foes will fight with all their might
In lowly Jesus' name.

I also had an article in THE TOILER, the organ of the Communist Labor Party edited by my old friend Alfred Wagenknecht, on the Socialist Party convention. Around this time about a dozen Socialist Assemblymen in Albany were being expelled because of their radicalism. They were not very radical but the Lusk Committee was out to get even pinks. In their testimony of the trial it was brought up that I had been secretary of the Socialist Party in Columbus, Ohio in 1917, and was routed by the state organization to oppose the war and the draft. Seymour Stedman, once a candidate for Vice President on the Socialist ticket himself, was the defense lawyer and his rebuttal was that I was not a Socialist but a Quaker. Later I wrote to him telling him that he knew the facts and he replied that he had forgotten. The squeaking Assemblymen lost their jobs anyway, and later all of them lived through another war and supported it. Evan Thomas, Julius Eichel, J. B.C. Woods, and Selma and I met every two weeks, along with other pacifists, and held meetings under the name World War Objectors. We published a large leaflet with a picture of the Perfect Soldier, Bob Minor's huge man with a bayonet but no head, and issued it under the heading Stop the Next War Now. I bought thousands of I.W.W. bronze amnesty buttons and sold them at meetings: a picture of a man behind bars. We went to Margaret Sanger's office and helped distributed her illegal birth control pamphlet and other literature. I remember talking to bewhiskered Edwin Markham, author of that epic that had cheered me in solitary: The Man with the Hoe.

Finally in the spring of 1921 Selma and I read Thoreau and Walt Whitman and decided on hiking over the country. I was working as a soda jerk at the Pennsylvania station. We quit our jobs and with $100 set forth. When I looked at the calendar I saw it was on the exact anniversary of my entrance into solitary: June 21. What happened during the next four years I have written in a manuscript entitled High Roads and Hot Roads. Suffice it to say that we never thumbed a ride but waited for people to ask us.

We hiked first over Staten Island, visited Walter Hirshberg in Atlantic City, whom I had known as CO in Atlanta. His father was an old time anarchist who ran the Boardwalk Bookstore. Got to Norfolk and had a three weeks ride on a leaky coal barge; back up to Boston where we visited with Francis Xavier Hennessey, now a fallen away Catholic, who had been a CO in Leavenworth. Then to see John Dunn in Providence, R. I. We climbed Mt. Washington one night; and found the New England people the kindest folks of the whole country. Visited my folks in Saginaw and Selma's in Milwaukee. Then spent several weeks in Chicago as guest of my old radical friend Ed Smith. Visited Waldheim cemetery where the Haymarket men are buried and placed a rose there. Then down through the snow towards Georgia.

Before we came to Sewanee Mountain in Tennessee, we stopped at a store to buy food and were told that on the other side of the mountain we would see a painted woman on a horse right near the Bottomless Pit. That she would make a sign to a man in the bushes and he would throw us in the Pit. We joked all that afternoon and next day about this prediction. Around 3 p.m. we rounded a corner and sure enough saw a woman about 35, with painted lips, on a horse. She asked who we were and where we were going. We told her and we must have sounded all right for she motioned to a man in the bushes to lower his rifle which had been pointed to us all of the time, saying, "They're o.k." We asked if there was a Bottomless Pit nearby. The woman told us to look around and right behind us was a hole. She told us to throw a stone in it. We did so and could not hear it splash. "How deep is it?" we asked. "No one knows, and if they drop in there they'll never know anything," she replied. We hurried on down the mountain and at dark came to a house. We asked for a drink of water and were in turn asked if we were going over the mountain, "Just came down," we replied. "What, didn't those people on the other side of the mountain rob you?" the lady asked. We told her we had heard a story about the woman on a horse and the man in the bushes with a gun from the other side of the mountain, but no one there had disturbed us. "That's Pop," said a small boy referring to the man on the horse. "You shet up!" said the mother. We camped there that night.

In Rome, Georgia we said hello to the parents of Joe Webb, and they gave us a picture of him on the chain gang. Whether I had done Joe a service to save him from the rope for the ball and chain is a question. In Atlanta we went out to visit the prison. Ex-convicts are not allowed to return and visit. As we came to the outside Tower the guard laughingly said, "Go ahead; I guess you are no ex-cons." We sat on a bench with about twenty other visitors waiting until a guard would show us through the prison. DeMoss, who had framed me into solitary passed several times and looked at me, but I suppose he was not sure about me. As we were going through the yard and got near the house where I was in solitary so long I whispered to Selma and she very sweetly said to the guard who was escorting us:

"Officer, how many people do they have in solitary now?"

"About 30. . . . Oh, we don't have solitary any more," he hemmed and hawed.

As we went through the kitchen the Negro lifer who had given me my food in solitary winked at me, recognizing me.

We worked in Georgia for 18 months. I studied the history of that state for an article for THE NATION in its series on States, but as I recall it was not published. On the streets of Atlanta one day I met a rather seedy man who recognized me. He asked me to come around to his church, but in the midst of his missionary effort he must have remembered that this was the animal he had under his torture for 8 1/2 months while he was deputy warden, for he suddenly stammered and changed the subject before the invitation for salvation had been fully delivered. So even Deputy Girardeau had a conscience. We had a visit for an hour with the DA who had dismissed my case, Hooper Alexander, and he was exceedingly cordial.

Through reading Harry Franck's books on travel we got the idea of going to South America and obtaining a passport. All I had to say was that I had not been convicted of a felony within the past five years. It had been six years since I had been sentenced. We left Atlanta in the spring, climbed Mt. Mitchell in the Carolina's, went across Texas and up to Milwaukee in time for the state Socialist picnic in the late summer. We visited our folks leisurely, spent a few days with Haldeman-Julius at Girard, Kansas, where both of them wanted us to link our names as they had. Selma had retained her full maiden name, Selma Melms. Somehow we did not like the idea. Julius insisted that we should visit his friend Charles J. Finger of Fayetteville, Arkansas. When we arrived at his farm he discovered that I was the conscientious objector whom he had planned to see in Delaware, Ohio jail in 1919, but he had to leave the town before doing so. He was a wealthy operator of railroads, junking them or making a success for a syndicate. Somehow he felt that this was a useless life so the whole family sold their houses and cars and bought a farm in Arkansas. Here he wrote books about his early days as a castaway on a cannibal island and other tales of derring do. It was a standing joke in his family that when his sons wanted to roam the world, saying "you did it, Dad, when you were 17," he always advanced the age to 18 or 20. He read chapters from Dickens before the huge fireplace each night. Next we saw "Coin Harvey," who had become wealthy and famous writing about free coinage of silver in 1896 and had started to build a castle at Monte Ne, Arkansas, from which he would direct the World Revolt. A strike of masons interrupted it and it was never finished. Now he was building a pyramid there to contain records of this civilization. He figured Arkansas would be about the last place a conqueror would invade or erosion would destroy.

Very early one morning as we were hiking on a dirt road in Arkansas we chatted for a minute with a farmer going to market with a wagon load of tomatoes. We bought some, Selma liking to eat them like apples, with salt. Haldeman-Julius had given us a score of his Little Blue Books, so, as we finished one we gave them away. Giving one to the tomato merchant-farmer he looked at us closely and said: "Be you all Socialist?"

"Something like that. I was a conscientious objector in jail in Atlanta in 1917–19 and my wife's father used to be Socialist sheriff in Milwaukee," I answered.

"Let me shake your paw," said the farmer, wiping the tears from his eyes, "I haven't seen a Socialist for years. Not since I used to give medicine snake shows over Texas and then end it up with a Socialist speech. You must stop at my house and visit tonight. It's 18 miles down the road; turn off there by the red filling station." We promised to see him that night. His wife was friendly when we arrived, after refusing a ride to Little Rock from a man who had picked us up. We picked blackberries that afternoon and I had my introduction to "chiggers;" that "thang," as they say that gets under your arms and knees and itches and itches and you can't see them at all. After supper our host said we should walk a mile down the draw and say hello to Will who had done time in Leavenworth. We did so and met a 6 foot 6 jolly native whose voice boomed for a quarter of a mile in regular conversation. I had heard vaguely of such a character but had never met him. He had gone into Texas and worked in the oil fields; then onto farms where with others he joined The Working Class Union, a division of the I.W.W. Along with others he had refused to register and when taken into court and asked by the judge why he didn't go to war he said: "Why don't you go yourself; you old s.o.b.?" He was threatened with "contempt of court," and told them that is just what he had for the court. Two officers came toward him and he lifted them each by the neck and gently knocked their heads together, as much as saying that if he really wanted to he could do a good job at it. He was absolutely without guile, an "innocent" who didn't know enough to be afraid; and the court had to be adjourned, for no order could be kept with Will around. He got 20 years in Leavenworth and proceeded to act the same way there. An officer drilling the men would slip and fall in the mud. Will would laugh loudly and was put in solitary; here he yelled and made such a noise that they let him out and gave him a job picking up pieces of paper blowing around, with a spiked stick. Some fat guard would order him around and he would run after him saying; "I'll stick this thang in your fat belly," and the guard knew he would. He was called to the "head doctor," as he called it and asked why he didn't learn how to behave in jail. His reply was that it would "spoil me for the outside." He was finally catalogued as a "natural born anarchist" and discharged, for with Will in jail there could be no semblance of discipline.

We had read of the School of Organic Education at the Single Tax settlement of Fairhope, Alabama, across the bay from Mobile. Passing through there we were persuaded to stay because the history teacher in the high school had suddenly got married and left and they wanted me to teach history. I demurred that I was not a college graduate, was a jailbird and anarchist, and that my wife and I were married common law. They needed a teacher badly, it seemed, so I stayed. Selma had learned how to make baskets from pine needles and was interested in the English folk dances which they had at the school. We lived a mile north of town in a cement block house where huge pine cones and knots of pine made a cheery warmth in the fireplace.

The English teacher told me that Sam said he wouldn't study history and that new history teacher couldn't make him. This was in the Junior class. I told them all the story of the three blind men and the elephant. How one felt the tail and said it was a rope; another felt the trunk and said it was a tree; another touched the body and said it was a house. Of course they were all wrong for it was an elephant. I said it was the same way with history. The history books of one country said that country was right and the others wrong. The history books of a dominant religion or exploiting class said they were right and their opponents were wrong. What was history 10,000 years ago was mostly fable; even at 1,000 years ago we did a lot of guessing about it, and less than 300 years ago we had the fable about George Washington and the cherry tree. What then was the truth? On the Civil War I had learned only the side of the North and the folks here knew only the side of the South. There were three sides to a question: your side, my side, and the right side. Everyone was biased. So was I, but I admitted it; the others generally said they were teaching "the truth." As we did not know for sure about yesterday, let us try and find out about today, for this would be the history of tomorrow soon. Accordingly I told the students I would have the following papers on the rack for them to look at and every Friday we would have an hour discussing current events with absolute freedom of speech. They had the regular conservative Mobile daily, the Single Tax COURIER at home, the others I ordered: The CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, AMERICA, the catholic weekly, The Milwaukee LEADER, Socialist, The DAILY WORKER, Communist, FREEDOM, the London Anarchist paper, FELLOW WORKER of the I.W.W., The NATION, The WORLD TOMORROW, pacifist, the ARMY AND NAVY JOURNAL, and the WALL STREET JOURNAL.

The first day Sam lay down on a bench. Everyone looked to see what the new teacher would do. I had never studied pedagogy but I had had a good course in pacifism these past few years, so I picked up a dictionary and gently placed it under Sam's head and told him to sleep on. He wanted an argument and there was none. The next day he mumbled half audibly to George. I waited a minute and then told him to hurry up and tell George all the good news and when he was finished we could talk about history. He suddenly had nothing to say and from that time on was no bother.

A Disciple Church minister was head of the Boy Scouts and of the KKK in Fairhope. One Sunday he openly said from the pulpit that I should be tarred and feathered and drowned in Mobile Bay, for there was no room in that town for a person who was a traitor, a jailbird, a man who did not attend church, and who was not legally married. They burned a cross by our house. Some folks wanted me to have a guard when I went the lonely mile home from the folk dances at night but I felt my Celestial Bulldozer made way for me. Next week I went to see the minister and invited him to come to my Friday class and give a talk on the KKK. He promised to come and didn't. Three weeks later he was "called" to preach in another town. If I had started to run from such cowards I would be running yet.

Some of the students wanted to skip other classes and attend my history class for they had never had it taught in this interesting manner. I told them they couldn't do that and they had better figure out some other method. Accordingly about half of the high school met in a special history club where all kinds of questions were asked every Wednesday night from 8 to 11; no credit. This was the Organic method with a vengeance.

There was a Shakespearean group and Selma played the part of Autoculous in an outdoor presentation of "The Winter's Tale." During a vacation between semesters I shoveled manure for a Quaker farmer and graded tangerines at a packing shed. I still remember the wonderful lunch at the Quaker farmer's: whole wheat bread, honey and a pitcher of cream. That was all and you could have all you could eat of it.

There was an old fashioned silent Quaker meeting house nearby Fairhope. Selma and I went several Sundays. I found they were of the same Hicksite group as my great-grand-parents, Ashford, in Ohio. Later some of those Quakers went to prison in World War II, and some of them moved to Costa Rica to escape militarism. In late May we went westward across Texas again and climbed Pikes Peak on the night of the 4th of July, 1924. (We learned that next year the history teacher in Fairhope was an ex-army captain, so the pacifist was counter-balanced.) We stopped at Ludlow, Colorado and took a picture of the cross that marked the burning to death of the strikers and their women and children by the Rockefeller gunmen, years before. (Before this we had stopped at Leavenworth prison and visited Red Doran, Jim Thompson, and other I.W.W.'s still imprisoned. I was surprised to see Zerbst, my old warden from Atlanta. He was now deputy at Leavenworth. He could afford to be cordial now and praised the I.W.W.'s as being skilled workers.)

In Utah toward evening we saw what appeared to be thousands of maggots moving over a distant mountain. Drawing closer we saw they were goats. We watched that evening as the Greeks at the goat corral, backed a goat into a V shaped fence and milked her quickly into a huge washtub. They gave us goat-cheese (something you have to get used to) to carry along. After a few miles we hurried to a cabin off the road and knocked at the door, seeking to escape the rain. The door was slightly ajar and swung open. A sign said: "Cook what you want; clean up, and put out the fire." This was the open hospitality of the west that we had read about. We made coffee and oatmeal and soon it had stopped raining and we left. Later we found we never could buy cherries from the hospitable Mormons, for they always gave us some to eat and carry along.

In Seattle we met Red Doran on the street. He was a barker for a dentist. As we had little money left we hurried down to San Francisco and settled in Berkeley where Selma attended the Arts and Crafts School and I hurried into a job of selling Fuller brushes, taking an extension course in soils, beekeeping, etc. at the University.

Since 1922 I had been a nominal member of the Workers (Communist) Party because of my admiration for Ruthenberg, who had now been released from Sing Sing and was the head of the Party. He understood that I was an anarchist but that I wanted to be doing something and all the anarchists I knew of were a sleepy crowd. Accordingly I taught classes in American History each Sunday morning to the Finnish comrades in Berkeley, down by the waterfront. Each Thursday night I had a class of young Communists in Oakland and each Friday in San Francisco. By the time winter was over I understood that they did not want to learn about American History: all they wanted to hear was the word "revolution" over and over again. I could see no point in continuing my membership. I had never attended a party meeting; paying my dues by mail. I won a turkey as a salesman and Selma and Mother Bloor and a radical news vendor on the campus ate it for Thanksgiving Day. One evening in May I came home from a meeting and said to Selma: "Suppose we don't go to South America. Suppose we go to some place in the country near Milwaukee; start farming on a small scale; rest up from traveling, and have some children."

"I was thinking the same thing," she replied. We bought a sewing machine and shipped it home; Webster's unabridged with atlas, and a few other things that we knew we would never buy if we did not do it right then. In June we hiked in the breezy weather to the Valley of the Moon and slept near Jack London's place. Hiked over the snow to sleepy Carson City, where we spent a week with Abe Cohen and his hanger-on Dot-so-Lallee renowned basket maker. We sent home Navajo rugs from here. We rushed through the Babylon of Reno, through beautiful Truckee, (by Lake Tahoe) and crisscrossed California several times, ending up in Whittier, to work a month at an apiary run by a young Quaker woman. Then we had a ride with friends across the worst of the desert. Spent a week at Taos pueblo where we were friends of Juanita, sister of Tony who later married Mabel Dodge.

We zig-zagged here and there to cover some portion of every state. Although we were in many perilous escapades we were never injured in the 22,000 miles we covered; 2,200 of this was on foot. We went by mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and consider this sight by far the best of any in the country.

No matter what church I have attended or what religious teaching I have been studying my conception of God has not been that of a Super-Santa Claus or of a Benevolent Despot, but among other attributes a Force which brings together that of good which every sincere, although misguided, individual, is seeking. At least that much of the good that the person can understand and assimilate at the time. This is not a pantheistic or impersonal approach; it really regards God as dealing more with the person every day than many do who howl about Him on Sunday and especial holy days. So, no matter how many chances we took with people and places unknown we felt that it would all work together for good. (My Celestial Bulldozer again.) We had needed this running around: Selma to counteract the staid, comfortable bourgeois Milwaukee outlook, and I to balance my confinement in solitary. Now we would appreciate settling in one place, while before this any one place would have been a prison in our minds.

On my birthday, July 24, 1925 we arrived in Milwaukee with $105. We bought ten acres of woods with $100 down, built one room in a cozy section of the woods and rested after our long hike. Here, June 17, 1927 I helped the doctor when our daughter Carmen was born, and likewise on Oct. 23, 1929 (the day the Depression started) when Sharon was born. We did not notify a doctor until a few months before that a baby was expected, and had a Christian Science nurse both times. In 1931 I led a strike in a dairy in Waukesha which we won, but I was discharged. We had been happy with our cow and calf, sheep and lamb, police dogs, and life in the woods. We had built with our own hands and with the help of Selma's kid brother, Edmund, four more rooms. I had dug a cellar and carried beautiful rocks of all colors and had a mason build a huge fireplace. Here by the blazing wood, on the Navajo rug near Fritz, our police dog, and mother and child, with the wind whistling outside and June, the Jersey cow securely nestled in the small barn, was a feeling hardly to be improved upon. This house was at the top of a small hill surrounded by woods. I erected a long rope swing for Carmen and Sharon and when I ran under it full speed they would swing over the tree tops below like over the top of the world with screeches of delight. "Daddy, just one more swing," was a never ending request. When Sharon was three she climbed to the top of a ladder to help me fix some telephone wires in the woods. She wanted to be a tree climber. I took her and Carmen to a clearing where there were straight hickory trees and brought a mattress alone beneath the tree. Then I boosted them to the first limb and told them to try each branch as they climbed upward to see if it was dead or alive, and to go away to the top. This was repeated many times so that they never had any fear of high places. Later when Sharon was six she climbed to the top of a professional diving platform, held her nose with two fingers, and jumped in. She had just learned to swim and had no fear. When it rained there was a small stream a foot and a half deep and we all had fun wading and playing in the water. Fritz, the dog, would never leave the children and was very careful not to bite them, although he would spring at any stranger. We called our place Bisanakee, from the local Indian "Bisan" meaning "quiet" and "Akee" meaning "place."