|The IWW designate me a Class War Prisoner.
Note: This continues a series of memoir posts about my experience as a Draft Resister during the Vietnam War. A version of this first appeared in two parts on The Third City blog.
Judge Sam Perry gave me two weeks to put my affairs in order before reporting to begin my three year sentence for draft resistance. I actually had damn few affairs to put in order. My life was pretty simple. But I was grateful, I guess for a little time to prepare.
I had to figure out what to do about work. That was second shift at the Schwinn Bicycle framing plant on the west side. At first I planned to put in the final two weeks on the job, mostly so my girl friend Cecelia would have a little cushion for taking up the entire cost of rent and utilities at our place on Freemont Street. I knew she was worried about that. But we finally decided for me to give a week’s notice instead.
My foreman at the plant was more than a little ticked off when I told him. I was the only guy who was cross trained on all of the welding machines on the line, the spot welders that attached clips and small parts and even the big flash welder that fused the front forks to the main frame. I could take the place of anyone who missed a shift or cycle in and of machines so the operator could go to the bathroom or seek first aid for the frequent injuries associated with hot metal and a fast paced line. He told me he would never have spent so much time “developing me” if he knew I was planning to up and quit on him for no good reason. I hadn’t explained why I was leaving. He told me not to come crawling back when I couldn’t get as good a job.
I did share what was going on with the younger guys on the line. They were a little incredulous that I wasn’t just hightailing it to Canada, but supportive. The last Friday, as always, we took our checks to be cashed at a nearby saloon over lunch. We smoked dope in the car on the way there. The guys each bought me a quick shot. I bought them some too. We smoked another doobie on the way back.
Got there 45 minutes late. The line was at a standstill. The foreman was fuming. He yelled at the other guys and told them they were all written up. But he needed us and sent us all back to the line despite our generally obvious impairment. I want to apologize now to any bicycle buyers who might have purchased a product produced on that line the wee small hours of the morning. I hope no one was killed.
I phoned my councilor at the American Friends Service Committee and reported the outcome of my trial. He was astounded and angry that my lawyer, Jason Below, had not even tried to use the defense based on my not being told that I had been removed from the pool of eligibility, which they had recommended to him. He suggested that I should file an appeal based on “incompetency of council.”
Hmm. I turned that notion over in my mind for a moment. I pictured the likely result of marching into Federal court and charging that my lawyer, one of the best known hot shot corporate attorneys in Chicago and one who had volunteered his services selflessly to me at no cost, with incompetence. Likely to a Judge who belonged to the same posh downtown clubs and whose wives served on the same charity boards. I envisioned being sent to hard time in Leavenworth for life. I told my councilor I’d take a pass on that.
He did say I could file a request to have my sentenced reduced, but I couldn’t do that until I was actually in the slammer. I could draw up the papers myself from the joint, he said. Just find a jail house lawyer to show me how. He assured me there would be no shortage of them. I was dubious, but it turned out he was right.
Another task was figuring out what, if anything, to tell my mother who was physically ill and in very precarious mental health. Phone consultation with my Dad in Des Moines resulted in an elaborate scheme. I would call her and tell her that I had just signed up with the merchant marine and was shipping out immediately on a tramp steamer. I obtained some picture post cards from various ports in South America, Africa, and Europe and wrote brief messages on them spaced over the next three years. I sent them to Dad who arranged with various people to post them from the cities at intervals.
The whole scheme was so lame, and so unbelievable that anyone with any sense could have seen through it in a trice. My mother, however, was a champion of willful denial of bad news and it turned out swallowed the whole thing hook, line, and sinker.
A lot of my time was spent making the rounds of friends, fellow workers in the IWW, and others who I had had collaborated with in various radical episodes. I guess when I started out on this, I imagined that I would be lionized as a brave martyr to the revolution. I imagined that going to prison would punch my ticket as a revolutionary. After all hadn’t all of the great ones done time in the slammer and come out stronger and more committed? I was sadly disillusioned to learn that almost no one else shared this view. Most of them knew me too well to detect anything heroic about me.
Take my friends at Solidarity Bookstore, the anarchist hotbed on Armitage Avenue across from Waller High School. The folks there were all Wobblies, but also much more ideological than many of us. I had joined their collective and taken shifts at the store and had joined in creating a Chicago chapter of the International Black Cross, an organization dedicated to the defense of anarchists around the world charged with crimes and supporting “class war prisoners.” I co-edited and contributed to Black Cross Bulletin which was circulated around the world.
I assumed in light of our work with prisoners that my sacrifices would be particularly appreciated there. Not so much. The general consensus was that I was “collaborating with the state” in my own persecution. A real revolutionary, I was told, would never voluntarily surrender. Instead, I should go underground and form or join a revolutionary cell ready to smash the state by any means necessary. Failing that I should at least go to Canada and fight on as an exile.
Despite this assessment, my friends agreed to help me with a project at self-improvement in the joint. The good Quakers had informed me that I would be able to receive books in Federal prison provided they were shipped directly from a book store and I filled out some paperwork. I selected a number of volumes from the bookstore that I had never had time to read—a new edition of the writings of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin translated and edited by an old friend, Sam Dolgoff, several books on the Spanish Civil War and anarchist collectives, and some studies of more modern European workers’ self management experiments. Following the example of Eugene V. Debs and other heroes, I planned to educate myself. It worked too, those books made it past censorship and helped me while away many an hour.
I got a little more support at IWW headquarters. Carlos Cortez, with whom I shared principle editing duties on a staff collective for the Industrial Worker was naturally supportive. Not only did we work together extremely closely, but the legendary artist/poet/editor was a rare World War II draft resistor. And in fact he had been sent to Sandstone, Minnesota to help build and be a first guest in the prison there—the same place I had just been informed would be my new home for the immediate future. Together we worked on some copy for the paper about my trial and upcoming absence. The union’s General Defense Committee also enrolled me as a class war prisoner and set me up to receive the usual $10 a month to be deposited in my commissary account, which would turn out to be pretty much all of my mad money for the duration.
Fred Thompson was my mentor. He had served a stretch of hard time at San Quentin in the 1920’s on a charge of criminal syndicalism—basically for handing out the Industrial Workers to striking hops pickers. That was a common fate of the old Wobblies I knew. Fred had a story to tell me by way of advice.
Laying in his cell night after night, he could tell by certain tell tale moans and groans that the other denizens of his tier passed the time almost every night beating their meat. Fred took a dim view of this. Not on any moral grounds, however. He was convinced that repeated overstimulation would rob the act of the value of its “therapeutic release.” So he organized the guys to masturbate just once a week. That’s right. A few years later I asked another old fellow worker, Herb Edwards, who had been in the pen with him if the story was true. It sure was, he said in his heavy Norwegian accent, “and that’s why Fred was the best damn organizer I ever saw.”
None the less, in the course of my confinement I can’t say I successfully followed Fred’s advice.
Most of the Wobblies, however, were puzzled why I didn’t just book for the border. And lo these many years later I still get the same question every time the subject comes up. So at the risk of interrupting the smooth flow of the narrative, I’ll take a moment to explain. You are free to decide if it’s bullshit.
Despite my proud radicalism, a good chunk of me remained the idealistic, and even patriotic, kid who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. My first lesson in civic morality—often reinforced by my father—was Davy Crocket’s motto, “Be sure your right, then go ahead.” Which, by the way, would turn out to be a pretty good shorthand for the high flown philosophy I later picked up from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I was also deeply impressed by the naïve patriotism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
So when, after considerable wrestling, I decided that the Vietnam War as a moral abomination in which I could not in good conscience participate, I was almost genetically programmed to stand up and act on my belief. That meant, to me, doing it proudly, openly and willing to take the consequences for my action. There was actually more than a little swaggering machismo in that notion.
The same sense of patriotism kept me from joining the thousands who left the country. Good or bad, I was American. And I wanted to stay in America. When the whole thing was over, I wanted to be able to go about my business as a free citizen, which is to say I wanted to stay in this country and continue to make trouble. I couldn’t do that in exile.
My refusal to go underground was simple vanity. I did not want to give up being Patrick Mills Murfin. I liked that guy. I had many noble aspirations for him and dreams of glory. I wanted to write the Great American Novel and have my name emblazoned on the cover and on whatever they give you for the Pulitzer Prize. I wanted to be the subject of admiring biographies when I was dead and buried. Hell, I wanted someone to make a movie of my life and cast whoever was that year’s Paul Newman in the lead. The anonymity of a life on the run could not compete with that level monumental egotism.
So it was resistance and waltzing into prison, trumpets blaring, for me.
Except that no one was really tooting those horns. As the days ticked down and I finished my rounds of visits, I was taken aback by how everyone seemed perfectly capable and willing to go on with their lives in my absence. All of my functions were smoothly being handed off to others, most of whom could do them better. I suspected Cecelia would not long wait before finding someone else to warm her bed, either.
That last Saturday I went to the barber for the first time in a few years. I got my hair restored to the same dorky style I had in high school, parted low on one side, clipped close around the ears and neck, combed to one side and then back so the front stood up a little. That brought back the cowlick that made me look like Dagwood Bumstead. I made this sacrifice, and I shaved my goatee for the first time since I played King Henry VIII in Man for All Seasons back in freshman year of college. I kept the yellowish mustache. This was on the advice of the Quakers to avoid rough handling by the con barbers in the joint.
Barely recognizable I attended one last great shebang of a going away party. It must have been a lulu. I have absolutely no recollection who threw it, where it was held, or how much I drank. I assure you it was a lot.
Then on a Monday morning I climbed alone to the El platform for my ride to the Federal Building.
Next: Cook County Jail.