Chapter XXI: Journey to War in Spain
It was nice to be back in my favorite city of strong unions and old friends. I would have no time to waste in San Francisco. My first task was to find all the information I needed to get to Spain. While looking up some old friends, I found out they had already reached New York on their way to Spain. I met some Party comrades, expressed my desire and the machinery was put into motion to get me on my way. I would have to obtain my passport, which was easy. All I needed was a few dollars for some photos and the cost of the passport.
At the passport office I worked on my application form. "Where do you intend to go?" was one of the questions on the form.
"Paris," I wrote, "to attend the Paris Exhibition."
"What is your occupation?" read the form.
"Studen," I wrote. I signed the application and handed the money and pictures to the young man behind the counter. He read the application and neatly added a "t" to "studen." He looked up at me and smiled and said, "Don't forget to keep your head down."
In the week I spent waiting for my passport, I wrote several long articles for the Western Worker, the West Coast Party newspaper, about the workers' lives in Hawaii.
Almost every week, five or ten men from the West Coast would depart from San Francisco for New York, then Spain. When my passport arrived, there was a big inscription printed across the first page, "Not valid for travel in Spain." After a few warm handshakes and last minute instructions on whom to contact in New York, I was on the Greyhound bus as it headed east. There were five of us on that bus heading for Spain. Two comrades had come down from Seattle, one from Portland and two of us from the San Francisco Bay Area. Our limited funds for traveling allowed for nothing more than hamburgers and coffee for the next five days across the United States. The bus stopped for a ten-hour wait in Chicago. That suited me fine; I had a chance to see Pele. It seemed like centuries since I had last seen her.
I took off for Pele's home while my four pals roamed around Chicago taking in the sights. She met me warmly and introduced me to her parents. Her mother had prepared a wonderful Hungarian meal. I sat at the table like a 14-year-old schoolboy looking across at Pele, trying to communicate with her. She seemed distant. Her good manners, if one may call them such, told her to wait until I had at least eaten my meal before telling me the bad news. "I'm getting married," she said as one might say, "It's a beautiful day" or "Pass the salt."
If there was any more conversation left in me it vanished. I stammered around a bit trying to find something more to say than "I hope you will be happy." It was still five hours before the bus was to leave, but it didn't matter. I wanted to get out and into the street.
"You will write?" she asked as I started to leave.
Back at the bus depot I sat around waiting for the other fellows to show up. I don't know when I ever felt more depressed. It was still a long wait. I decided to walk a bit. I came to an employment agency where they advertised jobs on placards that decorated the entrance. One caught my attention: "Marine Fireman for an ore carrier on the Great Lakes. $100 per week, plus room, board and liberal benefits."
I was amazed at the figure of $100 a week. That was over three times what a deep sea fisherman got. My curiosity got the best of me. I made my way upstairs to the office. A sign on the door read, "Please knock before entering." I knocked and waited a few seconds. The door opened, revealing a tall, shapely, good-looking woman in her late 20s in a revealing dress. "Yes," she said with an enticing smile. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm interested in the fireman's job. Can you tell me more about it?" I asked, finding it difficult to look her in the eye.
"Oh, you're looking for work. Well, that job is no longer available, but I'll let you work for me for five dollars, if you like."
"Well, that isn't what I had in mind," I answered.
"What did you have in mind? Trying to get me down to two dollars? Look, creep, if you don't think I'm worth five crummy dollars, then screw off down the street and for two dollars have your pick of all the black crows you want! Now get the hell down those stairs." She slammed the door shut.
The bus rambled through the night toward New York. My thoughts were jumbled and it was impossible to maintain any continuity for less than a minute. I hadn't expected Pele to tell me such devastating news. I rather believed that she might suggest that, once I returned from Spain, things could work out for us. That would have been welcome news. I had little sleep as our bus pulled into New York on a warm Sunday morning.
Perhaps 50 men listened to one of the speakers instructing us on the second major hop to Spain. "There's to be no screwing around on the ship," he advised sternly. "Remember, you're passengers en route to Europe, not Spain. As far as you're concerned, Spain does not exist, so don't mention it to anyone. We know there are members of the government aboard, even Franco agents, and their job is to stop volunteers from reaching Spain. They may sidle up to you and try to get a conversation going about Spain; stay clear of them. There's to be no boozing or chasing of women aboard.
"Now, each man will be given $100. We have experienced some maneuvering by the French immigration who are playing ball with the State Department. They have questioned some of our comrades about the money they had. A few of them had no money and the French wouldn't allow them in without some means of support. This $100 is not spending money; once you make contact in Paris you'll turn it over to our contact man. From then on you're in his hands. We will dispatch you in groups of 20. You will have a responsible comrade who will see that you toe the mark. If, in his judgment, one of you screws up, he'll decide whether or not you should be allowed to continue to Spain. Now, I'll call the name of the comrade who will be in charge, then I'll call the list of 20 he will be responsible for."
My name was called. I stood up so the 20 could see me. Two-thirds of them I knew, among them five seamen and the four who had traveled with me from the Coast.
We were to sail as third-class passengers on board the English liner Aquitania, which was one of the five largest ships in the world. It was two days before sailing. One thing had to be done. I would have to tell my mother that I took a job on some ship sailing for Europe and had no idea of the time of its return. I could never even try to explain to her that I was going to Spain to fight in a war where so far thousands of people had already been killed. There was no possible way that could be done; I didn't give it a second thought.
No one was on shore to wave goodbye as the liner moved away from the dock and sailed down the Hudson River, past the giant skyscrapers of Wall Street and out to sea. From the outset of the voyage we pretended not to know each other and avoided being seen in groups with three or more at any one time.
One big problem bugged me from the start. The dining room tables were set up for six people. I had been assigned to a table of five schoolteachers, all traveling together and over forty years old. They were charming, and their manners were impeccable. I sat at the end of the table, afraid to even ask for the salt to be passed. They passed up most of the heavy items on the menu and were content to nibble on the smallest amount of food possible. For the first two days I found myself leaving the table starved. At this rate I would be dead on arrival.
After the second day I ran into my waiter in the passageway.
"Hey, pal," I said. "How about doing me a favor?"
"Yes, sir. Anything you ask."
"From now on, don't ask me what I want to eat. Just keep bringing me everything that's on the menu."
From then on I ate as if trying to make up for all those years I went hungry. Since the teachers were always wrapped up in their own little world, they eventually paid no heed to the rushing waiter picking up empty plates and delivering full ones at my end of the table.
We awoke early one morning to find ourselves at anchor off LeHavre. The night before we had been told to be ready after breakfast to meet immigration and customs. After that we were to be ready to board with bag and baggage lighters to take us ashore.
We expected some trouble from the American consulate which had, on previous trips, attempted to convince some of our volunteers to return home passage free. Because the ship arrived so early, no consulate members were on hand. We passed all the necessary officials, boarded the lighter and within half an hour were riding a sleek passenger train to Paris.
For some reason we felt more secure on French soil than we had on board the ocean liner. We were in France, where the workers had helped elect a Popular Front government headed by Leon Blum the Socialist. We felt we were on some sort of sacred ground protected by a government which the Communists had helped elect. There was one salute, the Popular Front Salute, with the closed fist and raised arm. No sight was more welcome.
Paris was awe-inspiring. We disembarked from the train and worked our way through the hustle and bustle of the busy railroad station. Following instructions, we piled into taxi cabs, gave the drivers the address and awaited the next move.
Our contact was the headquarters of the Friends of the International Brigade. We were warmly greeted by French comrades and ushered toward the leader of the American volunteers. To my surprise, he was my old Norfolk section organizer Joe Kline, who greeted me with a big hug and a handshake. Each man gave him the hundred-dollar bill we had been entrusted with, along with a container of George Washington instant coffee. Why we brought this to Paris in such large quantities still remains a mystery. Quickly we received our new instructions. We were to stay in Paris overnight and leave the next afternoon. We were assigned to hotels. I found mine close to the Eiffel Tower. Taxis drove us to the hotel door. A sumptuous meal awaited us.
The men were on their own, free to take in the sights or just idle away the time until the next day. The Paris Exposition was taking place in the area of the Eiffel Tower. A few of us had toured as much of Paris as we cared to. Later that evening we took in the Exposition. It was a great experience; almost every country had its own exhibit building. Some parts of the exposition grounds reminded us of Coney Island, with hotdog stands and champagne stands in every nook and corner.
The two most striking buildings were those of the Russian and the German exhibits. Either by design or by accident, both buildings faced one another. The German building flew the swastika while the Russian building displayed a huge statue of a man and a woman posed with hammer and sickle held aloft. It looked as if they wanted to take off and hack away at the German exhibit. High aloft on the building flew the red banner with the hammer and sickle, the national emblem. At night the red banner stood out sharply with ten big spotlights shining on it.
For the next few hours we occupied one of the benches watching people pass us; every now and then we took turns visiting the concessionaires and returning with hotdogs on French rolls and large glasses of champagne. We all shared the feeling that this was perhaps the last time for some of us to ever see Paris. As the taste of the chilled champagne grew more delightful, we knew that it was the best time to get the hell out of there and snatch some sleep. Hopefully the next day would be a good day.
Cabs were waiting for us at the hotel door to take us and our belongings back to headquarters. We were permitted to take a few personal things out of the suitcases, nothing heavy or awkward, and the suitcases were then taken from us to be stored God knows where. For all practical purpose we had no further need of them.
Kline addressed us. "There have been some problems at the border, or frontier if you wish. No longer is it permissible to ride across the border in comfort. Some comrades before you had to hoof across the Pyrenees, and comrades after you will have to do the same thing. Some of our comrades have been caught by right-wing French border guards and arrested. You will have to be very careful.
"You will travel by train and get off at Toulouse. You will go through the station and go one block to your right. You will see a cafe called La Paix. Enter, sit down at a table and ask the waiter for lemonade with ice in it. He will handle the situation from there and instruct you further. For all practical purposes you men are geology students on a rock-hunting tour, if anyone should ask. If anyone here understands the slightest bit of French, now is the time to remember what you learned. I know it will come in handy."
We asked a number of questions, like what happens if Cafe La Paix is burned to the ground when we get there?
"Don't worry," said Kline. "Right at this moment they know the exact time you are to arrive. The 'railway system' we have going is so good that the chance of even getting lost is remote. If the place is burned to the ground, don't worry, some fireman will most likely come up to steer you correctly."
We played cards, read or slept as the train rambled on toward Spain. We wondered about our pending walk across the Pyrenees. None of us had any prior mountain experiences. In fact, none of us could even guess the height of the Pyrenees. All we knew was the Pyrenees separated us from our objective. Well, why worry about it; we still had a long way to go and a few obstacles to overcome.
Sure enough, Kline was right on target. They were waiting for our arrival. When we entered the cafe, tables were set for lunch. Our contact advised us to take the local train and get off at Carcassonne, where we were to go to a hotel called La Bleu Oiseau (The Blue Bird). Reservations had been made for a group of touring geology students. So good was the "railway system" that soup was already being poured into our dishes when we walked into the hotel.
We received our new instructions. After a good night's sleep and an equally good breakfast, we reboarded the local train for Perpignan. This time we had someone to escort us on the train and to our new contact. On a not-too-busy street we were ushered into a small hotel. We seemed to be the only people there with the exception of the hotel keeper, his wife and a maid and cook. Our contact told us to stay put, that the city was full of Franco and German agents and that we were too close to our final destination to allow anything to go wrong. We enjoyed some coffee while he went out to make contact with the guide who would take us across the mountains. An hour later he returned looking distressed. He beckoned me to accompany him. We drove for several miles toward the Spanish border and stopped at a neatly-painted cottage with a small vegetable garden surrounding it.
Our new contact must have been at least 60 years old, with slightly gray hair and a ruddy complexion. Once inside his comfortable home, the argument became heated between him and my companion. Since they argued in French it was impossible for me to know what they were arguing about. I had to guess when the old man kept making gestures like he had a backache or when he pointed to his feet and made a face as if describing pain in his feet. I guessed right when I concluded that my contact was trying to get him to take another group across the Pyrenees and he was protesting that he had just taken a group across the previous night and needed some rest and sleep. The old-timer's reluctance to guide the group heated up the argument. After another five minutes of loud utterances, the old-timer agreed. Smiles returned to their faces. We got into the car and returned to the hotel, where we were told again to wait while he departed.
Our friend returned two hours later. He motioned to us to follow him to the back of the hotel. At the door was an old bus, curtains drawn on all the windows. He quickly motioned us into the bus and warned us to stay away from the windows. We pulled out of the side alley and onto the main road that linked France with Spain. The sun was almost down as we made our way slowly to the border. A half a mile before the checkpoint, the bus pulled off the road and the driver turned off the engine. There was very little traffic coming or going on that road.
Anyone passing the bus would believe that it had broken down and remained empty. A rap sounded on the bus door. The driver opened it and motioned to us to rush into the thick brush and weeds that surrounded the foothills of the Pyrenees.
No words were wasted. Our guide for the trip, that old man, was leading the group up a deer path. He carried a small cane and maintained a fast pace. None of us had any idea of how long it would take to cross those mountains. Only the guide knew and he wasn't talking.
We had taken our first step from the bus at about 6:30 that night. It was now 11:30 and we were still walking at a fast pace, huffing and puffing. The end was nowhere in sight. From time to time, whenever one of our comrades slowed down and left a big gap in the ranks, the guide would dash back and come down once or twice with his cane on the comrade's behind. He would grumble something in French, then dash back to the front of the line. We learned why he carried that cane.
Every time we climbed one high peak, we looked up to see another one, much higher than the last. We forded a stream that almost made us scream. The ice-cold water reached our chests. Joe Sansome, one of my close companions, was almost carried downstream by the force of the rushing water. With our clothes soaked and the air chilly, we climbed ever upward.
At two in the morning, our guide stopped and motioned us to rest. We dropped to the ground like wet sacks of cement. We were thankful for the ten-minute rest. At three in the morning we were fairly close to the crest. The guide motioned us to stop and be quiet. Off in the distance a howling dog could be heard. "Guardia Frontera," said the guide. Frontier guards.
A few minutes of rest and he had us on our feet again. This area was perhaps the most dangerous, with patrolling guards from both the French and Spanish sides. It was the French side we were afraid of. If we were picked up by the Spanish, the most they would do would be to turn their heads and allow us to continue. After all, it was republican territory and we were not their enemy. With the French it could very well be another story. Not all the French were true believers in the Popular Front, and not all French were in sympathy with the Spanish Republican government. To be caught now by the French would be the worst disaster possible. How could I face anyone at home, telling them that I came 8,000 miles to be caught a mile from the border? No. If the French patrols were to show up, the best thing to do would be scatter and make a run for it. They may get some--but not all--of us. The terrain was in the guards' favor, but the darkness equalized some of the odds. I had come too far to be cheated out of my goal.
The stars began to fade and dawn started to edge the darkness. We were now walking in six inches of snow and a few of our men were slipping and falling. We were not climbing anymore. The ground seemed level. We could look ahead now. We saw no rising cliffs in front of us, just trees and the light of the rising day between them. Our guide motioned for us to slow our pace. "España," he said, pointing to the ground and not bothering to muffle the sound of his voice. We could have shouted with joy, but we were so tired no one dared expend energy on exultation.
We had reached the southern edge of the Pyrenees. Ahead of us we could see a long valley and at the end of the valley an old Spanish farm house. The area looked like any scene of the backroad country of Nevada. There were no horses or cattle or decent grazing grounds. There were just deer paths and dried-up creeks that would be overflowing with water when the rainy season came.
The guide stopped and pointed toward the farm house. "Casa," he said. He motioned for us to go on, then clenched his right fist and raised it a few inches above his head. Each man passed him and said thank you. As the last man moved down the side of the mountain, the guide turned and headed back toward France.We were in Spain, the territory of the Spanish Republican government. Many of us had traveled some 8,000 miles to be able to stomp our feet on Spanish soil. As we trudged toward the farm house we were shouting within ourselves, "Hey, you bloody fascist bastards, Franco, Mussolini and Hitler! We've come a long way and waited a long time for this opportunity to join thousands of other anti-fascists from all over the world to form the International Brigades. By God, we're finally here on a battle ground that may one day help to decide the fate of the human race. We may not be the most skilled army in this world, but one thing's for sure--we're going to make you pay for every indignity you committed against the peace-loving peoples of the world. We intend to give a good account of ourselves. From here on, you're going to know we're here."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two