Chapter XI: Organize in Norfolk
The next day I left for Norfolk with a ten-dollar bill tucked deep in my pocket, a few belongings in a shopping bag and a stomach full of butterflies. I found the Party office deep in the heart of the ghetto, in a ramshackle building that should have been razed to the ground long before. I met the Party section organizer, a guy named Joe Kline, a stocky, partially-bald man pounding away slowly on a typewriter. He peered through thick glasses as he tried to find the right keys on the old machine.
After introductions, Kline asked me many questions about my experiences, about things in Baltimore and about the West Coast strike. I asked when I would meet the rest of the comrades. He replied that there were none, but there were a lot of sympathizers, most of them small Jewish shopkeepers who were spread out in the ghetto.
Since Kline had a little office plus a large room that could hold 25 people, it was decided that I would use his office. He had a key made for me. It was also agreed that he would give me five dollars a week and write the Baltimore office to ask for two dollars more weekly, so I would have seven dollars a week total to live on. As it turned out, Baltimore decided against sending the two dollars, so I had to make it on five, which was not easy. I couldn't afford to rent a room, so I prepared to sleep on the floor.
My first evening there I went out and bought myself some bread, milk and baloney. I placed the food on the floor of my new quarters and went into the office to gather some papers to read while eating. When I stepped back into the room I was shocked to see six big gray rats chewing away on my supper. By the time I returned with a broom to chase them away, most of my supper had either been eaten or carried away. I got rid of the rest of the food, then sat in the far corner with the lights on all night, the broom snugly in my arms. The screaming and fighting of the rats echoed in the walls and ceiling and below the floor. The next day I found the hole beneath the sink where they found entry. I got myself as many glass bottles as I could, smashed them into small pieces and poured the pieces down around the hole. As the days went by I made it a practice to bring back a bottle each day to add to the hole.
It didn't take long to locate all the places where the seamen hung out: the bars, restaurants and cat houses. Most of my visits to ships centered on the coal colliers that converged on Norfolk and Newport News from all the eastern seaports. Since there was an MWIU branch in those ports which paid a lot of attention to the colliers, most of these coal-transporting ships were in pretty fair condition. Many good men were on these ships and bought the union papers from me.They even sneaked me into the mess room now and then for a meal.
There was one big pier that handled all the cargo. The large freighters from all parts of the world used this pier. The only drawback was that to get into it you had to pass through the main gate, which was constantly guarded. You also had to show a ship's pass to the guard. But I was a Communist with a sacred duty to perform; I couldn't let an obstacle like a guard at the gate prevent me from doing my duty. A wire fence surrounded the large compound. I scouted it thoroughly and found the right spot. Unobserved, I pulled up and bent part of the fence so I could crawl underneath it. With a bundle of literature strapped tightly to my waist, I crawled under the fence going in and coming out every time a ship pulled into those piers.
There were no lectures, no social events. Norfolk was culturally starved, and with no money I could not even take in a cheap movie or have a good meal in a decent restaurant. I washed out what clothes I had at Party headquarters and hung them out to dry. Lots of cheap restaurants could be found in the whorehouse area where I could get a bowl of beans for a dime. My diet consisted mostly of beans, donuts and catfish. I looked forward to those times when a special ship came in and I was offered a good meal.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, two men were shot down by the police when the employers made another effort to break the strike. The waterfront in San Francisco was splattered with workers' blood. A general strike had been called. The strike had reached its zenith. It would be won or lost in the next few days. Newspapers were running stories that the Communists were preparing to take over local government. The Red bogeyman became a daily feature in the papers. Communists were being singled out, arrested and beaten by the police. Vigilantes were organized and they raided the homes of known radicals, even beating women in their homes. Despite every obstacle thrown in their path, the Communists and striking seamen and longshoremen stayed together. I felt tormented, knowing that in another part of the country the great struggle was taking place, and I was in a somewhat safe position. I felt that no matter what I was doing, it wasn't enough. I developed guilt feelings. I felt frustrated. I felt mad at my fellow workers who were riding the ships up and down the coast, doing next to nothing to help their West Coast fellow workers. I managed to raise a few dollars to ship off to the West Coast. I sold more union papers and discovered that the East Coast seamen did accept the literature more readily than they did before the strike. But all this did not soothe my belief that the best solution would be for the East Coast seamen to "hit the bricks" in a united seamen's strike. I hid my feeling of disgust when I talked to seamen and found myself rationalizing why East Coast seamen would not revolt. I plodded on daily despite my feelings, because I knew that sooner or later they would revolt, and every day's work would bring the day of reckoning closer.
I will always remember one day. It was by far the best day of my entire stay in Norfolk. Two ships had come into the big pier. One belonged to the American France Line, the other was a Luckenbach ship. They were tied up end to end at the same dock. I boarded the American France ship first, went into the mess room and laid some literature on the table. Some crew members picked it up immediately and started to read it. The boatswain asked, "You belong to the MWIU?"
"Yes," I replied, not knowing whether I would be invited to leave or face an argument.
"Good," he said. "I wanna join up."
"Me, too," said another seaman.
I had all the necessary papers, application forms and membership books out on the table within seconds. As I started writing, other crew members came into the room and got one behind the other. I scribbled out their names and placed dues stamps in their books. I had signed up the entire crew. I learned later that one guy, the boatswain, was the best-liked guy on the ship, admired by the crew. He was a Bostonian from a family with a union background. All during the trip he told the crew that unionism was their best salvation. He was determined that at the first port they came to with an MWIU office, he was joining up. When I came aboard the stage had been set. All I did was sign up a willing crew.
If I needed a jolt to lift my spirits, this was it. I was walking on a cloud. I collected initiation fees and dues and money for the Marine Workers' Voice. In addition the crew made a substantial donation to the West Coast strikers and a five dollar donation to me, personally. (I turned this over to the MWIU, since I thought it was wrong to profit personally.)
Since I had literature left over, I decided to visit the Luckenbach ship. To my surprise I met someone in the crew who I had met earlier on a coal collier, Red Corrigan. "Glad you came aboard," he said. "A few of us want to join up."
Out came the books and applications. Nine members signed up. Red had laid the ground work in the short time he had been aboard. What a beautiful day! Back at my office I made all the preparations to send in the names and money to the head office in New York. I also requested more membership books.
News from the West Coast was inspiring. The ranks were holding solid. Fewer and fewer ships were sneaking out of ports. The strikers had tightened up many of the loose ends. The public was supporting the strike more since the shooting and murdering of the two pickets. There was a general strike of all labor in San Francisco which shut the city down tight as a drum. The ruling class had seen what labor could accomplish. In spite of all the terror and the jailing and wounding of strikers the strike was holding together. Employers started to talk of negotiations.
A small tattoo shop in Norfolk drew most of its business from the men from the Navy base and our merchant seamen. A large display of tattoo drawings decorated the four walls. A sign on the wall read: "If you don't see what you want, make up your own and we'll duplicate it." Since I was proud to be a Communist, I saw nothing wrong in advertising my Party affiliation or my politics. I was proud of what I was trying to accomplish. I sketched on paper a crude hammer and sickle with the inscription below: "United Forever." "Can you duplicate this?" I asked the tattooist.
"If you can draw it, I can duplicate it. Sit down," he said. He dipped the electrical needle into the ink. Some guy walked in and watched as the tattooist completed the sketch on my forearm by giving the background a blend of red, making it look as if the hammer and sickle were floating in the air with a red sunset in the background. "Hey," remarked the observer, "so you belong to the Woodworkers' Union?"
A week later a dear friend showed up in the port. Harry Hynes was in on a freighter for a two-day stopover. I had great admiration for this man. In addition to being a devoted Communist, he was a compassionate person. His first words were, "When did you last have a good meal?" We went to the best steakhouse in Norfolk, then to a movie, my first since being in Norfolk.
"How much are you getting to subsist on?" he asked.
"Five dollars a week," I replied.
"What rooming house are you staying in?"
"None. I sleep on the floor at Party headquarters and try to bum my meals off ships."
Hynes was shocked and irritated. "If the Party didn't have the money, I could understand it. But we have the money, at least enough to see that our full-time professional revolutionaries get a bed to sleep in and decent food to eat. It's a disgrace that you have to work seven days a week and panhandle your meals.
"Look, here's ten dollars. That's all I got left with me. If you're going to hand it over to the Party, I won't give it to you, but it's yours to use to live on. Buy a pair of Tom McAns, but use it. The Party don't need your little donation; they should be donating to you. When I get into New York, you can bet I'm going to raise hell about this. The nerve of those bureaucrats. You can bet your last dollar that none of them are sleeping on the floor or bumming their meals."
Harry had a contempt for Party bureaucrats. Since he was a Party veteran and a long-time seaman, he had visited most countries in the world. He could tell you the names of the leaders of the Party in most countries, then list each Party's handicaps or good points. He was extremely well-read and as a result very verbal within the Party. "Bureaucracy is the death-knell of the Party," he would say. "We expect it in bourgeois parties, but it has no place in the Communist Party. When it is allowed to exist, you'll see the Party going to hell, then disappearing."
He used to shock me with his condemnation of some of our leaders. He'd call them well-fed fat asses who couldn't understand that you don't try to put a square peg into a round hole. "You remember one thing," he told me. "You're the guy that's out there in contact with the enemy every day, while they're safe and snug behind their desks. Don't let no sonofabitch browbeat you when you think you're right. They might have read all the fancy books about class struggle and think they know all the answers, but you're the one out in the weather. If a bureaucrat beats you down once, he'll do it time and time again. Stand up to them or you're not worth your weight in salt. Before I leave you, let me tell you one more thing: vanity, especially Communist vanity, is not always a desirable asset. That hammer and sickle you have stenciled on your arm, why did you do that?"
"Because I'm proud to be a Communist," I said.
"There's nothing wrong with being proud to be a Communist, but do you have to wear a hammer and sickle on your forehead just because you're a Communist? That's what I mean about Communist vanity. Don't ever get the idea that the Communists have all the answers, that the Communists are supposed to do all the talking and the workers all the listening. That's bullshit. We don't have all the answers. The working stiff is loaded with answers, and the more you talk to him the more you'll find him coming up with most of the answers. The workers know what they want and our job is to help develop their thinking processes toward a class-struggle orientation rather than every man for himself. A Communist has to operate under many conditions. Do you think you could walk around in, say, Cuba or Germany with a hammer and sickle tattooed on you and survive? Hell, you'd be shot in half an hour. What the hell good would you be as a dead Communist? What the hell good would you be to the workers? We want live Communists; hell, we have enough dead ones already. Think about it. There will be times when you'll have to deny you're a Communist. If you want to stand out like a pimple on a log, that's one thing. But if you want to be instrumental and productive as a Communist should be, then for Christ's sake do something about that hammer and sickle."
Joe Kline, section organizer, called me into his office. "Next week you're to head for New York," he told me. "I recommended you as a candidate for the National Training School. I've just received word that you've been accepted. The school starts in two weeks. You have a week in New York to get squared away before school starts. Consider this a big honor. Not every one is admitted to this school. The class will be made up of only about 20 people. You can bet they'll be the best people we have in the American Party, the ones who'll be future leaders. I know I made a good recommendation. I know you'll do your best."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two