|I winged from Duluth to O'Hair in a plane just like this.|
Note—The tenth and last installment of my memoir series about by experiences with the Draft, Justice System, and prison during the waning days of the Vietnam War Era.
I strode across the broad lawn of Sandstone on a brilliant morning, the cheap plastic shoes given to me by the Feds already in their first few moments extracting additional punishment that should have been outlawed by some kind of international anti-torture law. I waited briefly in the warming sun for a local bus to take me the two miles or so into the town on Sandstone, Minnesota where I had to make a connection to Duluth and ultimately to the airport for a flight home.
There was no bus station in town, but across the street from the marked stop was a tavern, a simple looking white frame building with a Hamm’s sign over the door. I had an hour or so to kill until my coach was scheduled to arrive. What the hell.
Despite the relatively early hour, the joint was open. Once inside, after my eyes adjusted, it was one of those places with knotty pine paneling, short bar with battered chrome and red leather stools, a big old back bar with a grimy mirror covered with faded snap shots and pithy adages on placards. The décor was deer heads, stuffed muskies, girly calendars from seed stores and auto parts places, and an array of Hamm’s signs replete with sky blue waters and dancing bears. Three or four older men in overalls and seed company caps perched on stools. They looked up as I banged through the screen door and returned to a close examination of their beers.
They had to know where I came from. Who else would wander in decked out in the polyester and Rayon of a five dollar pimp and carrying a canvas bag but a con fresh from the joint down the road? They had seen it before. None of their business. I ordered a glass of beer on tap and a shot of Christian Brothers from the bored middle aged lady behind the bar. When in Rome, drink like a Roman. Aaaah. Mighty tasty. Exactly like freedom. I had another round before it was time for the coach.
I left knowing that my silent companions would have something to talk about for the rest of the morning.
The Duluth airport was as you would suspect, small, uncrowded, and relaxed. I picked up the ticket arranged for by my Fellow Workers in Chicago. I don’t recall how long I had to wait for the flight. Not too long, probably. After a while the few passengers for Chicago were called out to the tarmac. If memory serves me right, the plane that taxied up to the gate was a Frontier Airlines two prop Convair 240, just like the ones who used to land behind my house at the airport in Cheyenne.
This was only my second ever commercial flight—the first since flying to California with my family when I was six. The seats were commodious and there was plenty of leg room. The young stewardesses—they were still called that then—were friendly an attentive. One asked me “why are you flying today?” To my surprise, I found myself telling her. She seemed sympathetic. Even on a prop plane, it was a short flight to O’Hare. And they even served a meal and I bought a beer. That’s how long ago this was.
My girlfriend Cecelia was waiting at the gate. She had to take time off of work to come pick me up, no small sacrifice when you are eking by pay check to pay check. I hadn’t really expected her. But I was glad to see her. It was not exactly one of those airport/train station scenes where long separated lovers rush into each other’s arms for a passionate embrace, but it was nice.
Even then O’Hare was a huge, bustling, sprawling place. A good hike from the gate, then down the escalators. With just my little brown canvas bag, I had no need to wait for my baggage, but by the time we reached the doors on the lower concourse the blisters on both feet from those plastic shoes were torn open and I was in agony with every step.
We stepped out into the full blast furnace of a Chicago summer on steroids, intensified by the acres and acres of parking lots and asphalt. It was a good hike to Cecelia’s black VW Bug. I collapsed my frame onto the scorching seats and cranked down the window. The inside was roughly the same temperature as a ceramic kiln. Cecelia switched on the radio. The first song that popped up after a Magikist commercial was Delta Dawn by Helen Redding—the woman I had poured my heart out to in an inappropriate fan letter while I was still at Cook County. That already seemed like ancient history to me.
Just before we exited the parking lot, I asked Cecelia to stop by a wire trash bin. I struggled to get those shoes of—blood was soaking my socks and even the socks were worn through in places. I handed them to Cecelia to toss out her window into the basket.
Finally we were home, the first floor of a spacious two flat on Fremont Street just south of Addison near Wrigley Field. I had taken off the blue polyester leisure suit jacket. Sweat drenched the completely unabsorbent clingy Rayon shirt. The place was stifling despite the best effort of a single over-worked box fan in a window. I collapsed into my thrift-store easy chair. Cecelia ran out to pick up pizza from a favorite local joint, tiny Mama Leone’s on Sheffield. We ate in the living room, pizza box open on the coffee table and drank Dago red Pisano in tumblers from a gallon jug. There were spurts of conversation and long silences. Cecelia smoked intensely.
Finally it was time for bed. In those days, especially in the August heat, I slept in the nude. At Cook Count and Sandstone I had become slept fully clothed, just in case. It was wonderful to feel the momentarily cool sheets against my wretched hide. Despite the heat, Cecelia came to bed in a long cotton nightgown.
When she shut the lights out I proceeded to make the move that young men long separated from young women are wont to make, I threw my arm over Cecelia’s shoulders and caressed her breast. I was leaning in to kiss her when she set bolt upright. “I just can’t do it now. It’s too soon.” Oh.
I gathered up my pillows and moved to the green sofa in the front room. Cecelia and I never slept together again.
I had little time to process this personal development. The IWW General Convention was convening on Labor Day Weekend. Friday, August 31, delegates from around the U.S. and Canada were drifting into town. We had given up our large second floor hall in a converted bowling alley across from the Biograph Theater and moved to a storefront on Webster Avenue near Halstead earlier in the year, so the union had rented the Shoeworker’s Hall on Milwaukee Avenue for the convention. I knew the business agent, an old former Communist from when we had worked together on a May Day Rally at the Haymarket the year before.
As was customary there was a social Friday evening while delegates checked in and got housing assignments on the floors and couches of local Fellow Workers. As usual beer flowed freely and there was plenty of singing. And better singing than usual. Utah Phillips and some of the other touring musicians were in attendance. I circulated around the hall greeting old friends. I got hugs and high fives. But if I expected to be hailed as a returning hero, I was disappointed. No one wanted to make a fuss. There was other business afoot.
The convention that year was one of the largest in years and several important—and some controversial—items were on the agenda when the gavel went down on Saturday morning. The hall, like everything else in Chicago, was blistering hot, the slowly rotating overhead fans barely able to stir the heavy air.
The major item on the agenda was a new Industrial Organizing Committee (IOC) to revamp the unions approach to job organizing. I had been heavily involved in the planning stages before I went to the joint. The committee had already produced manuals for organizers and collective bargaining. Now we sought certain by-law changes on how organizers were credentials and who to report to when most of our Industrial Unions currently existed only on organizational charts. We were preparing to launch a major organizing drive for Metal and Machinery Workers I.U. 440 in the hundreds of small and medium sized unorganized factories and job shops that dotted Chicago. Some of the more ideological anarchist members were upset that our avowed purpose was to bring shops under IWW union contracts and because our organizing manual included instructions on the use of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election processes to gain certification. It was an old ideological divide between those who wanted to refuse to collaborate with the state and wanted to on rely informal, militant shop floor control and allegedly practical unionists seeking formal job protections for the members. The debate was lively, and sometimes emotional. In the end proponents of the IOC carried the day.
I surprised myself by not taking a leading role in the debate, though I stood up and yodeled a time or two. I was still a little distracted. I spent most of the time taking notes for the Industrial Worker coverage of the convention I was supposed to write. During breaks and meals, I booked down the street to a shot-and-beer liquor store saloon and partook in both options.
The weekend after the convention several of my Chicago Branch fellow workers arranged a welcome home outing for me at the Illinois Railway Museum in what seemed at the time to be off-the-edge-of-the-world village of Union in McHenry County. That just a few miles from where I live now, more than 40 years later, in Crystal Lake.
It had cooled off, finally. I came out in my old uniform of cowboy boots, jeans, plaid shirt with a red bandana at the throat, denim jacket with an IWW Globe and Stars patch sown on the back like motor cycle club colors, and my very battered old once white Stetson. After a day of gawking at the rolling stock—including a steam switch engine I had watched work in the Union Pacific yards in Cheyenne, a stainless-steel Burlington Zephier that I had once ridden on, and a CTA Ravenswood line train just like ones I had ridden countless times—we all climbed on a big steam engine and someone took a black and white photo to commemorate the occasion. It was the second and last photo of me without a goatee. I started letting it grow back in the next day.
Back home, things were understandably uncomfortable, but entirely civil, between me and Cecelia. I started spending evenings visiting my friend and Fellow Worker Kathleen Taylor who had an apartment just down the block on Cornelia. Kathy was a small lively young woman with a mass of semi-unruly dark brown hair, and large, expressive brown eyes. She was by day a mud hop—railroad yard clerk—one of the first women to have that job since World War II. She was the one who had organized the expedition to Union. She was a very active Wobbly. At the time she was Chicago Branch Secretary. And she was a musician and singer, playing the banjo and a beautiful small mahogany Martin guitar.
We were comfortable and easy with one another in ways that Cecelia and I never really were. One thing led to another. You know. After Kathy’s apartment was burglarized we decided to move in together.
Cecelia was not displeased. Relieved would be the correct motion. To her credit she had loyally stood by me through my entire ordeal from the first draft induction notice to my release. About half way through that mission she discovered that whatever we had together was gone. But I got no Dear John letter to make my time harder. After we split she withdrew from our IWW circle—we had met when she was a Three Penny Cinema striker and I was Branch Secretary. We lost contact. I heard she went back to school down state. Many years later I learned that she had a fine career, married, had children and grandchildren. Mazel tov!
Kathy and I found a fourth floor walk-up two bedroom apartment in a large courtyard building on Webster Avenue, across the street from Oscar Meyer School Park, around the corner from Carlos and Marianne Cortez and just a few blocks west of the IWW office. The building soon filled with several other Fellow Workers, despite the herds of roving cockroaches and became celebrated in local lore as Wobbly Towers.
In those days you could get a job in Chicago ridiculously easily. The by word was “If you can’t find work in Chicago, you can’t find work anywhere.” I got a job right away pulling drill presses at Ditzgen Corporation which manufactured engineering, surveying, and drafting in two large buildings on the either side of Sheffield Avenue at Fullerton, an easy walk from the new place.
Ditzgen had been founded in the 19th Century by Eugene Ditzgen, a leading German Socialist and the man who financed Charles H. Kerr & Company’s first ever English translation of Marx’s Das Kapital. It had recently left family hands and had been acquired as a subsidiary of a much larger company. The factory was one of the targets of our IU 440 organizing drive. I never brought the plant into the IWW but I did become a leader in a moribund old in house union, became Secretary, and negotiated a whole brand new contract with big raises, job definitions, and benefits for the workers there.
In 1974 Kathy was elected IWW General Secretary Treasurer. She and fiends formed a Wobbly band named the DeHorn Crew. I continued to work on the Industrial Worker becoming editor. We shared close friendships in Wobbly circles. We enjoyed out lives. The next four years were some of the happiest of my life.
And the goatee? It came back in once again a bright orange. It never left my chin again. Today it is gray.