Chapter XX: The UnAmericans
A week later, there was a knock at my door. "Well, if it isn't Bill Bailey! How are you, Bill?" I looked the guy over quickly for a point of recognition, but I could not come up with anything. He had a smiling face and was shabbily-dressed; he had the face and appearance of a man who had done a little hard work in his time. I figured it could be some maritime worker I had met, but before I had the chance to reply, he handed me a folded sheet of paper. "This may interest you," he said. Before I had a chance to open the paper, he turned and left.
The paper read:
"By the authority of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States of America.
TO: Frank O. Bell, U.S. Marshall
You are hereby commanded to summon Bill
Bailey to appear before the Committee on UnAmerican Activities or a duly-authorized
subcommittee thereof of the House of Representatives of the United States
of which the Honorable Harold H. Velde is Chairman, in their chambers in
the city of San Francisco at 10 a.m. on December 1, 1953."
The consensus was that HUAC was in town to do a hatchet job on the trade unions, especially the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. A number of ILWU members were subpoenaed to appear before the Committee. The newspapers were playing up to the Committee with manufactured stories of plots, intrigues and conspiracies.
There were rumors of a cat-and-mouse game of secret witnesses who would be conjured up to testify for the Committee. Who were they? The Committee was not saying, but others said they would create rumbles in the ranks of the Left and possibly expose some government agents working undercover within the ranks of the Party. These kinds of newsbreaks in the newspapers and on the radio were to keep the attention of the public on the Committee and their minds on the "insidious behavior" of the Left and the "conspiracy" that the Committee had come to town to expose.
Three days before I was to make my appearance before the Committee, a meeting was initiated by the Party to practice a "run through" of the hearing Prior to this meeting, I got out my history book on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and ran through it several times. I felt that if I had to rely on the Constitution and its Rights, I better know them.
The meeting of "victims" was interesting; there were several attorneys present who outlined how the Committee might proceed and how easy it could be for the unwary victim to get ensnared in its traps. They told us which questions should be answered and which should not, as well as what to cite as a refusal to answer a question. In addition, an attorney was assigned to defend each of us. I found myself comfortable and at ease with Doby Brin Walker, an able and dedicated attorney.
I suggested that I might write out a statement to read. "Why not," said one of the attorneys, "although I know there will be attempts to prevent anyone from reading a statement. But go ahead, draw one up."
That night I worked hard on what I wanted to say at the hearing: The witch-hunt technique of the Committee members involved their drumming up hysteria, labeling anyone who disagreed with them as traitors to the government; they were causing people to lose their jobs and even get ousted from their homes by unfriendly landlords. I accused the Committee of being anti-union and out to discredit unions. I ended up by telling them I would not be a cooperative witness to their un-American scheme of putting on a floor show for big business.
I had listened in on some of the hearings conducted by Joe McCarthy, and I watched as some of the "unfriendly witnesses" tried to take on McCarthy and his stable of "friendly witnesses." I concluded that our side was fighting a losing battle, because no matter how ardently we fought McCarthy at the hearings, his side prevailed. Our side ended up being escorted out of the hearing chambers by police. To leave them with a blank stage would be a lot better than trying to argue intellectually with a pack of publicity-hungry politicians. I would not deliberately prolong my stay on the stand. I'd say my piece and get the hell away.
On hearing day, there was much excitement around City Hall. Walking slowly through the marble rotunda and up the steps with my statement in my pocket, my mind was geared to doing the best I could not to make a fool of myself and come away from it all with some sort of respectability as a man of my class.
When I entered the spacious room, most seats were filled. The policemen at the door were keeping a number of people from entering the chambers by stating that the place was already filled and the rest of the seats were reserved for people with special passes or people who had business with the Committee. I had to show my summons to the policeman to get in, and I noticed that the passes people had were passes handed out to them by the UnAmerican Committee. The Committee made sure they were handed out to their friends, insuring a substantial number of supporters to cheer them on as they clobbered the "red hots."
A seat was held for me in the front row by a friend. In front of me on one side sat the members of the Committee, with Congressman Velde in the middle. Facing the Committee on the opposite side sat members of the press who shared a long table. Between the press and the Committee was a small table with two chairs, a microphone, a glass, and a pitcher of water. This was for the witness and the attorney. About 15 feet in front of the witness table sat Tavendner, the Committee's big gun, who would direct the interrogation.
Silence overtook the chamber as the UnAmericans came into the room and took their seats. The press started to scribble notes, and the cops at the door turned two people away because there were no seats left in the room. Tavendner, taking his seat, declared the Committee in session: "The Committee will hear its first witness of the day. Will Kenneth C. Austin please step forward to be sworn in?"
Ken Austin, a longshoreman and close friend of mine, had been in the Party for many years. About five years earlier he had been expelled after a short trial because he had cast doubts on the abilities of the Party and its leadership. The pitiful thing was that, in addition to being expelled, he was placed on the "non-association" list. That meant that no member of the Party could have anything to do with him, socially or otherwise. It was a cruel stigma the Party placed on people expelled from their ranks.
Ken was a faithful supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and as he was being sworn in, an attorney from that group was at his side. "Mr. Austin," said Tavendner, "isn't it true that at one time you were a member of the waterfront branch of the Communist Party?"
"I refuse to answer that question or any other question dealing with the Communist Party as it's an infringement on my rights. I cite the Fifth Amendment as my source of refusal. I may add that answers to that question or others dealing with the subject you raised have the potential for incrimination."
"Well, then, Mr. Austin, would it incriminate you to answer this simple question: Have you been expelled from the Party? A simple yes or no will satisfy the Committee."
"I repeat the same answer I gave to your first question," answered Austin.
The Committee directed four more questions to Austin, and on all four he repeated the same answer. It was at this point that the Committee concluded they were getting no answers to anything from Austin. Tavendner asked the Committee if they had any further questions. Hearing none, Tavendner excused Austin, but told him he was still on call. As Ken stood up, he hesitated for a moment, then asked Tavendner, "Who is responsible to see that I get my days' expenses? I lost a days' work in being requested to come here." Tavendner told him the bookkeeper would mail him his expenses.
The next witness was Bjorn Halling, a handsome Swedish longshoreman who worked closely with Harry Bridges in organizing drives, a man well-liked by all longshoremen. After some perfunctory questions about where he was born and what his educational background was, Tavendner wanted to know what Halling knew about Communist spies operating in the United States. Halling looked at Tavendner with a smile on his face and said, "Sir, I wouldn't know a spy if he popped up in my soup." Even the little old ladies in the audience who were invited by the Committee laughed at Halling's answer. But the Committee did not find Halling's answer amusing. Velde requested that Tavendner admonish the spectators that they remain quiet during the proceedings.
For the next ten minutes questions were directed to Halling that related to his work of organizing men in different ports and to the power of the Communist Party on the waterfront. Halling brushed aside most questions, and some he said he had no answers for. He was polite and easy-going and gave the picture of a "veteran" of these affairs by rolling with the punches. The object of the questioning was to prove that he was a henchman of the Communist Party and was only taking orders from higher Party officials.
Since no written agenda existed, no one knew just where they would appear or who would be called next. My wondering came to a quick end when I heard Velde say to Tavendner, "Will you call the next witness, please?" and I heard "William Bailey, come forward and be seated." I reached for some notes, placed them in front of me, and then took out the statement I intended to read. I placed it on the table and tried to make myself as comfortable as possible after taking the oath.
"Mr. Bailey," began Tavendner, "tell the Committee where you were born, the date, and what schooling you have had." Well, that was a simple request. I saw no danger in the questions, or in the answers I gave him.
"Mr. Bailey, the Committee would be interested in knowing where you are now working," said Tavendner. I applied the brakes. This question was an infringement on my rights. No way was I going to cede to the Committee on this. "I don't see where telling this Committee where I'm working has anything to do with this hearing," I said.
"Oh, yes, it has," said Tavendner. "Now, where are you employed?"
"Well, sir," I replied, "I'm still not convinced that telling this Committee where I'm employed will have any special bearing on its findings. In fact, I have a statement here which I would like to read that would be of interest to this body and surely deals with possible answers to some future questions."
Velde immediately responded: "That question which deals with your place of employment is of utmost importance to this Committee, because with the investigative powers granted by Congress to us, we intend to draw up legislation dealing with subversives working in industries that are vital to our country's defense. That is why you are asked where you are presently employed, and you are hereby ordered to answer that question."
Velde was getting a little excited. His voice had picked up an extra octave or two and he was stuttering. Tavendner picked up where Velde left off. "Now that you have been directed to answer that question, we are waiting."
"I have no objection to answering the question," I replied, "but I hear no response to my request to read my statement before this Committee."
"I ask you again," said Tavendner, "does the statement tell us where you are employed?"
"It may very well answer that question," I said.
"Did you write the statement, or did someone else write the statement for you?" asked Tavendner with a smirk on his face.
"Sir, I wrote that statement. It's a statement from William Bailey. What motivated you to believe that someone else had to write it for me? I am very well capable of writing my own statements," I shot back, with a slight rise in my voice.
"All right then. If the statement will tell us where you are employed, then let's have the statement."
I left the chair and, starting at the end of the table, handed each and every member of the Committee a copy. Then I walked over to the press table and handed each member of the press a copy, returned to my chair, and sat down.
"Just what I thought," said Tavendner, "the statement does not tell us where you are employed. Now, will you answer the question? Where are you employed?"
"Yes," said Velde, "we've waited long enough for an answer. Where are you employed? This Committee must have your answer to the question."
I knew I had come to the end of the road on that question, and it was clear that the Committee members felt that they had me over a barrel. I said, "Okay, I'll answer that question. I am not employed."
After all the hemming and hawing on the subject, springing this answer left the audience laughing and the Committee stunned. Tavendner felt he had been taken for a ride and reacted swiftly, "Well, then," he shot, "maybe you can tell us if you were employed as the West Coast coordinator for the seamen's branches of the Communist Party, which is the information we have?" His blade was now scraping the bone and he was telling me the tête-a-tête was over.
"Who, sir, may I ask, would give you information like that?" I knew it was a foolish question to ask, but why not.
"Never mind where we obtained the information. Is it true that you were employed as the West Coast coordinator of the seamen's branches of the Communist Party? You can answer that?"
"I refuse to answer that question or any other question dealing with names of people or names of organizations," I said.
"On what grounds are you refusing to answer that?"
"On the grounds that the answer could incriminate me. On the grounds of the Fifth Amendment of our Constitution. And on the grounds that I still think it's none of your business, and if that's not enough I'll dig up some more."
Tavendner shot back with, "You are a contemptuous witness."
"Yes," said Velde, "the witness has exhibited his contempt for this Committee and has not shown the least bit of cooperation, while this Committee has bent over backward to give him every opportunity to do so. Please continue, Mr. Tavendner."
"I don't think I have any further questions for this contemptuous witness."
My attorney asked if the witness was excused. A moment of hesitation, then Tavendner asked, "Mr. Bailey, are you now a member of the Communist Party?"
I had thought for a moment that I was off the hook and I was ready to leave the hot seat. Now he was about to start the whole mess anew. There was no way I was going to let him reopen this can of worms.
"I'll give you the same answer that I have given the FBI, the police department or anyone else who thinks that pressure will affect me, that it is none of your business what party I belong to."
"Do you belong to the Communist Party?" repeated Tavendner with a strong rise in his voice.
"I repeat what I just told you, that I give you the same answer that I have time and time again given the FBI, the police department, the anti-red squad or anyone else interested in my politics, that it's just none of your damn business!"
"It's pretty clear that the witness is in contempt of Congress," said Velde.
"Are there any further questions you want to put to this witness before he is dismissed?" asked Tavendner. Hearing no reply, he said I was dismissed.
I left the chamber feeling in small way I had thrown a roadblock in their path. As I walked down the marble steps onto the main floor, a young college student came toward me as he removed a pair of earphones he had on his head.
"You are Mr. Bailey?" he asked me.
"Yes, that's me."
"Well, I've been listening to you on the radio, and I must say I don't very much like what you said to those congressmen."
"You don't?" I asked. "Just what was it I said that seemed to disturb you?"
"Well, he replied, "I suppose it's not really what you said, but how you said it. I don't think our congressmen or people that represent our government should be spoken to in the rough-and-tough manner in which you did."
I couldn't stand it. I cut him off. "Did you ever hear of the Boston Tea Party?"
"Yes, I have," he replied.
"Well, then, I should have protested the way our forefathers did. When they saw someone messing with our rights they threw the bastards overboard. I should have picked up a chair and tossed it at them. It's the only way to handle someone trying to take our constitutional rights away from us. I feel sorry for you, young man. Think about this. Reverend Neimueller said, 'When the Nazis rounded up all the Communists and socialists and put them in concentration camps, I did not protest. When they came around and did the same with all the trade unionists, I did not protest. Then they came around and rounded up all the Jews and put them in concentration camps. Again I did nothing. Then they came around and put me in a concentration camp, but by then there was no one around to call for help.'"
He looked puzzled as I abruptly ended the conversation and headed out the door of City Hall. That was that. The UnAmericans lasted a few more days of hearings. A few friendly witnesses showed up and tried to jazz up the proceedings with tales that tried to make your hair stand on end.
I still had to get our there and try to make a living, and each day it seemed to get harder and harder to do.
It didn't take long. Three days after my picture and testimony were splashed over the pages of the newspapers, I got a letter from my landlady. It was short and to the point: "Dear Mr. Bailey, commencing the first day of next month your rent is increased from $37 per month to $87. Thank you for your cooperation."
There was no way the belt could be tightened to meet this demand. The bastard, doubling the rent. It was clear what her politics were. This landlady I never did see. I paid the rent by mail, always on time. I never called her to complain about the bad water pipes, bad drainage, holes in the roof or bad wiring. I figured the less you see of the landlord, the better off you are. Besides, she lived across the Bay in El Cerrito. Since I had lived in this shack, I had put in new wiring, patched up the roof from time to time, repaired a lot of the in-house piping and plumbing, nailed up a lot of paneling on the walls and made the place a halfway-decent place to live. Since the rent was fairly low, it called on me to meet the landlady halfway.
Maybe there was room for a compromise. I called her on the phone. "But, lady, I've lived in that place for 12 years and never once called on you to do any repairs. I got out there and did them myself, and . . .."
"Mr. Bailey, let us not ramble on about what you did or I didn't do. The rent in two weeks will be what I said it will be. I want to remind you that you can look out your window and see the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Lots of people are willing to pay big rents to live in that place and be able to see the Bay Bridge."
"Lady, you have to have a neck like a giraffe to be able to see the Bay. It's not all that great. Besides, the floor is uneven, and it still takes an hour to fill the bathtub. I mean, I can understand a five-dollar increase in rent, but fifty dollars? That's a overdoing it a little, don't you think?" That was a dumb question to ask this money-grubbing cockroach.
"Mr. Bailey, shall we end this conversation now? If I receive your check the first of the month with the raise, then I'll assume you intend to stay on. If not, then good luck. I'm sure there's a multitude of people waiting to move in."
Well, I had news for her. I knew I would have to get out no matter what happened. So I put the house back to the way I found it. Off came the paneling from walls and ceiling. Next I took down the nice-looking dome lights and put back the socket and light bulb and let it dangle. How about that toilet, the flush box and new valves I put in? What about that water heater I almost busted my back dragging up the stairs? The old leaky one I replaced was still out there in the locker. I'd drag it back in and refit it back on the line. She would love that! After all, her generosity should not go unpaid.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three