Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Cub Scout

June 20, 2017

I made it to Webelo,
I was a Cub Scout.
I had a niece who was older,
tried to get me to work through
my little merit badge projects
by half-assing everything.
She was prescient,
last I saw her
she was working at Jack in the Box
and pregnant I believe,
it was after all the Summer of Love

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He Bought the Farm

April 25, 2017

He Bought the Farm

The red mule bucks

and snorts in his stall.

What is, is.

The thatchy thick straw and manure

mix heavy in my shovel,

stick to my boots like Iowa will.

The windmill creaks, moans

to acres of treeless nothing…

hours drift into days,

months, years.

No more Mr. Lounsberry.

He died on the road

astride a John Deere.

They auctioned off

his tools, he became

part of this barren earth

already dead…

no more canning tomatoes,

or carving watermelon

shooing flies in the heat

while the kids played

by the spoiled creek

no more in awe of the galloping

jackalope’s ears

floating low like wings

over waves of stunted cornstalks,

impotent furrows.

 

my mind is jealous

April 20, 2017

it’s been blown to smithereens

your mind is finely tuned

like mine would be in my dreams

Kill the sky!

avenge yourself  this acid reign

of thunderclaps and lies

 

New Leaves

April 19, 2017

Turning over new leaves is the hardest thing

stuck to the muddy earth each one hides old hurts

I thought one leaver left me for a cross dressing accountant

but no, she wasn’t really “mine”, besides

he died right away and she got all his money

you’ll have that.

The first leaver left me for a “fatter, dumber version” of myself,

the kids told me she exclaimed

after catching her new hubby calling sex lines on his Mom’s credit card

I mean you can’t make this up

Sometimes, I like leaves.

 

 

 

Responsibility : My Journey From “Pro Life” to Abortion on Demand, with No Apologies

March 7, 2017

It costs a dollar to cross

the narrow toll bridge

over the Big Muddy into Bellevue,

most folk headed to the air show at Offut

the rightists were feeling their oats

the doctor gunned down in church,

watch for rooftop snipers

Blue Angels in the sky,

run to Walgreen’s for earplugs, buy ’em all!

bombers lurk on the ground too

They have their Desert Shield and Operation Rescue,

we have our shields of cardboard and cotton sheets

“Welcome, welcome, the clinic stays open!”

we outwomanned and outmanned

we came from everywhere and out of nowhere

Nikki shone: she knew how to fight.

we used sheets, blocked their cameras.

They mumbled rosaries at us, waving pictures

of bloody fetuses

I was born into the quintessential suburban home just outside Independence Missouri. Now the area is densely populated with typical tree lined streets and miles of ranch style houses, but my father built what was one of the first ones, if not the first one, in the eastern suburb of Independence, which also happens to be the home of the Reorganized Latter Day Saints church and, amazingly, the place the Mormons, a competing and much larger church, says will be the place of Christ’s return.

So I am a descendant of devout followers of Joseph Smith, a much more pious version of Donald Trump. In fact, shades of Trump, the reason he was “martyred” was because he ordered the burning down of a newspaper office that was bold enough to tell the truth about him- that he intended to build a theocratic community. An angry mob descended upon the Carthage Illinois jail where he was being held, and he was shot.

Mom always placed a high value on “responsibility”, possibly because our lives were so chaotic, and the general milieu of the anything-goes sixties made her impress this on me.  I most certainly believed in God, and could not fathom why anyone would swear or sin, what with Hell and its Lake of Fire waiting. Yet people all around me did these things, as if there were no eternal consequences!

Dad’s side of the family were hard core RLDS, Mom’s mother died in childbirth and her father ran off during the Depression, leaving Mom to be raised by foster parents. She had me when she was about 23, but by age 27 she was divorced and Mom and I moved to Bossier City Louisiana, where Mom worked as a clerk at Barksdale Air Force Base. General Barksdale was a Confederate who fought at Gettysburg- southern military bases were often named after Confederate officers. My mother was pro integration, which was really radical and she had to keep quiet about it, and I witnessed Jim Crow segregation although I was too young to really process what my mother was telling me about it, except her saying “this will not last”.

Mom was pretty religious, and she took me to a Pentecostal church, where I heard a sermon about the “lake of fire” and was scared out of my wits, so Mom kind of stifled her interest in Pentacostalism and took me to an RLDS church, with a little less fire and brimstone. Since Mom had a relatively high paying government job, she could afford to put me in preschool and kindergarten, and it was there, one day during nap time on my little green cot, I heard the news that JFK had been shot.

Mom met Jerry, my stepdad, who was a charming guy but had little ambition or education, and soon we found ourselves living in the Ozarks of Missouri, and in near third world conditions, which was a constant for many years- Jerry held low paying jobs and put a priority on hunting and fishing. I wrote this poem about our idyllic hill country:

persimmons bend, supple swings,

frogs croak and locusts rub wings.

Dusk settles by firefly light-

Ozark hills are dark at night.

……………………………………….

……………………………………….

The reason right wingers promote “family values” is they seek to roll back the social wage fought for by the working class, so that the ruling class can relieve itself of any responsibility for the precarity endemic in their dog eat dog system, and place the onus on individual households for the success or failure of individual workers’ families, with or without a job. Historically the Church has been capitalism’s handmaiden in this effort (Engels, Fromm).

As the rise of capitalist social relations displaced the power of the Church, the theocrats had no choice but to join the new social system in partnership, or sink into total irrelevance.

The Church was instrumental in aiding capitalism by creating patriarchal norms that placed the onus on heads of married households for the success or failure of the family unit, letting the capitalist exploiters off the hook.

“Religion is concentrated politics”- Stan Goff

Mom had a miscarriage in the summer of 1972, and I wrote this poem about it:

She lost the baby in that cartoon bathroom,

sitting with her head in her hands

wishing she were a seagull.

My chore was to dig a small grave

as I had done many times to bury deer carcasses

but this time to place a coffee can coffin

in the ground.

I tossed the shovel

clatter!

into the bed of that white

trash pickup and the country

music radio played a mournful tune.

We moved alot and I went to many different schools, as a result my math skills were terrible, as well as my social skills. I was bullied, and I fought alot. We ended up in a migrant worker’s shack in a rural Michigan potato field, again with no running water or inside toilet. I skipped school alot, and ran away from home for about a week or so, and upon returning Mom sent me to live with her foster parents back in Independence. After that I became much more of a normal teen except I fell in love with pot and acid, and got kicked out of high school for drugs and fighting. My girlfriend and I made the fateful decision to go to Michigan, as she wanted to escape her abusive father and I felt it was time for a change. When we left the Kansas City area for rural Michigan we did not account for the fact that free birth control was not available in rural Michigan.

So when the inevitable happened, she became pregnant, I hatched the idea of joining the Army and having them pay for the baby, as abortion was out of the question; Laura was raised Southern Baptist, and I was nominally a baptized RLDS, this was a few years before the church liberalized and became a proponent of choice, which I found a little shocking, but chalked it up to the rivalry with the mainline Mormon church.

Viet Nam Syndrome

Momma didn’t want me to join the Army
but Daddy said he’d sign for me cuz I was only 17
and he already had reservations about Momma
making me into a sissy cuz she argued to let me stay home
I didn’t like hunting cuz that 30 ought six
had a kick that hurt my skinny shoulder
and it was boring and cold
compared to fishing and frogging
Daddy was a janitor at the college and it was special
when he brought home treats from the vending machines
food that was expired, you took your chances with salmonella
if you ate a sandwich with meat, but
30 years later I wondered
if Fredy Perlman had bought a sandwich out of one of those machines
if our lives had crossed in some small way
It dcesn’t matter if he did or not
I know, my heart knows he did
Red headed stepchild on a Greyhound, heading for Detroit
20 dollars in my pocket, left the woods behind
Four Mile Road was 20 miles outside of Kalamazoo
our biggest fun was throwing dead raccoons and stringers of dead fish
down on passing cars from atop the big hill
and hearing the cars swerve and rumble to a stop, gravel flying
as we ran into the woods laughing
but I was headed for the Army now
skinny legs with holes in the knees of my jeans
going commando, wearing no underwear
I figured I’d buy some when I got to the city
somebody asked me “who’d you kill?”
I said “Nobody, I just knocked up my high school girlfriend
and we were going to do the right thing cuz we didn’t believe in abortion and we
were gonna sneak off and get married
and the army would pay for the kid.
and he said “well the Army is the place the judge sends you”.
When I got to Detroit, I was the only white
in a sea of Black faces, and all the stores were boarded up
due to the rebellions.
except Walgreens, which sold no underwear.
They put me up for the night in a crummy hotel
and the minutes turned to hours, my humiliation
approached glacially,
knowing I faced the Guantlet in the morning
where they strip you down to your shorts- which I didn’t have-
and you get a series of shots with hand held “guns”
Sure enough, morning brought my fears to light
and I went through the Gauntlet stark naked.
Someone asked me if I was an “exhibitionist”
and I said no, I just didn’t have any underwear
after the shots were done we were herded into a room,
me still naked and everyone else still in their skivvies,
and we took the oath to defend the US Constitution from all enemies
foreign and domestic, my right hand held up in solemnity
but all I could think of was my nakedness

Fast forwarding a few years, I had 3 kids, all boys, by the time I was 22. We moved to Iowa in 1982 and I recall going to a pro life rally in Des Moines. I saw a Black man with a NARAL button, and could not fathom how anyone could be for abortion. My wife and I loved our children dearly, even though none were “planned”, and could not imagine the mindset that could’ve justified truncating their very existence in the womb.

I went to college on the GI Bill, and in one class a pro choice speaker visited, and I asked her how, if it is alive one minute and the next it is dead, how is that unlike murder? She refused to even acknowledge me, and kept reading from her prepared speech. I concluded from this that I had won the argument and this sustained my pro life (which I now call “forced pregnancy advocate”) beliefs for another dozen years.

In late 1994, my first marriage was over (she left me for a “fatter, dumber version ” of myself but that is another story!) and I was about to marry a second time, when I met the Marxists on a Firestone picket line. I was immediately taken with Marxism, but   still harbored backward views on affirmative action and abortion.

After awhile I understood that affirmative action was merely a way of clawing back some of the stolen wealth of the  workers, upsetting the employers’ holy notions of “supply and demand”; POC are paid less because they are POC, as women are paid less because they are women.  Class struggle is the only recourse.

When I began to think about things politically, I skipped right over the petit bourgeois justification for abortion, which is “What about my career?”, and went straight to the revolutionary socialist position. As with affirmative action, so what if a white person doesn’t get to be a boss? Being a boss should never be our goal. So with abortion- so what if my conception is that the fetus is “alive”- what is life worth with the boot of patriarchal oppression upon woman’s neck, forcing her into unwanted pregnancy , denying her equal footing with men to struggle politically for her rights?

My third wife has a degree in mathematics and computer science, but was forced by her overbearing Catholic husband (his nickname on the job was “the preacher”) to stay on the farm instead of pursuing a teaching career or going with one of the many big companies who tried to recruit her. She left him after 17 years, the same length as my first marriage, mainly because he railed at her about an abortion she’d had at 17 and how she needed to repent. A wayward boy had knocked her up in the back seat of a car at a drive in, while others looked on and laughed, and he committed suicide 3 months later. Her parents raced her to an abortion clinic. Fast forward 25 years, her uber religious mother and overbearing father are watching a tv evangelist telling her she is going to hell, but my passive wife did not stand up and say “how dare you sit there and listen to that man say these things?”. No, she is of the Bible Belt, as I am, where shame rules, where women are to be silent in the face of outrage.

While I am no longer “religious”, and have managed to alienate most of my family with my irreverent humor (I figure if you can’t joke with your family about religion, who can you safely do it with? This turned out to be a bad calculation!), when I think of the darkest times in my life when I was truly wronged and betrayed by others, I note one thing of huge significance: I still live by the Biblical “Golden Rule”. That is, I would not have done those things to another person if the shoe had been on the other foot, if that makes sense. So I still manage to take some psychic comfort from my early religious exposure, also, Biblical allusions abound in my poetry. They don’t call it “the wisdom of the ages” for nothing; simply for artistic reasons I like to invoke Scripture, to add heft and “spiritual” authority to a piece.

I made my way to Bellevue Nebraska, to a clinic defense shortly after the murder of Dr.Tiller, and it was the most intense direct action event I’d ever been involved in. I wrote a poem about it, but left out a line about Catholic nuns swaggering down the street twirling their rosaries like Bloods or Crips, it was surreal. The other side, Operation Rescue, had people who had actually done violence and bombings before, so there was a real risk to personal safety I had not felt even on the most raucous picket line.

The action was called by NOW, and there were three communist groups there, the Socialist Worker’s Party, World Can’t Wait, and a smaller Maoist group. We massively outnumbered the collection of misfits Operation Rescue could muster- they had about 50 or less, we had six times that. One older woman on our side, an SWP comrade from New York, wondered aloud how anybody could possibly be against abortion? I said “I know how, I used to be against it”. “What made you change?”, she asked. “I became a Marxist, you guys did it, I started reading your books!”.

There was a young nurse, only 21 years old, who had flown by herself from New York and displayed amazing  organizing skills. I marveled at this woman- when I was 21 I was working on a railroad track gang swinging an eight pound hammer from sunup to sundown and trying to feed five people; politics was some distant realm, on TV.  Here she was, young, smart and organizing the hell out of things. Her name was Nikki, and she began directing us to “get some sheets”. We used sheets to protect the incoming patients from seeing the signs showing bloody fetuses, and our chants drowned out the other side’s as we walked the patients in to the building shielding them. Like a general in a war zone, Nikki changed tactics as the situation progressed, ordering, politely, some of us to spread out down the street to stop the antis from misdirecting patients to their phony “clinic”.

Nikki admonished me for wearing a red t-shirt, as it would give a sniper something to key on. “Watch for snipers on top of those buildings”, she calmly intoned. As I learned about who our opposition was, it was apparent that the people who were taking pictures of us to spread around on their internet web of zealots were quite dangerous and had been involved with bombings of clinics, and no doubt were in the loop on the murder of Dr. Tiller. It was chilling to say the least.

They had vowed to close the clinic, and not only did they fail but were humiliated by our superior numbers. Dr. Carharrt, who had taken over Tiller’s duties, thanked us and gave us tee shirts with his slogan “Trust Women” on the front and “this clinic stays open!” on the back.  He had been harassed and had several horses killed by arsonists at his farm, but he refused to be cowed by the theocrats.

It was an inspiring day, but we know the fight will continue and only intensify. A future of glorious struggle lies before us, and there are no guarantees of victory, but what an honor to fight back and win a battle!

This is our time, embrace the struggle, fight for the rights of working class women and all oppressed peoples!

Miscarriage

March 7, 2017

She lost the baby in that cartoon bathroom

sitting with her head in her hands,

wishing she were a seagull.

Now my chore,like many times before

was to dig a hole where I’d bury deer carcasses

only this time it was to place a coffee can coffin

in the ground, and when it was done

I tossed the shovel

clatter! into the bed of that white

trash pickup truck

and that country western radio

played a mournful tune

 

 

A Covenant

March 3, 2017

 

If one manages to keep a covenant

who is keeping score but God?

Grandma kept the ghost family alive

even when real ones were dead-in-life,

the two young mothers were best friends

had a kid each by the same father, my son.

Year after year they sent newspaper clippings

of the boys’s athletic triumphs to Grandma

whilst their father lay in prison or a psych ward

crippled by schizophrenia

one day grandma  called

to see about Russell and tell him of her doings

she wasn’t my relative, just my first ex wife’s mother

I said “I’m so glad you called, I was fixin’ to call you

to get ahold of your daughter and tell her Russell needs his mother”.

She said “they don’t talk to me, after Dad died there was a big fight over inheritance and..”

I said “welcome to my world, my kids don’t talk to me either, except Russ, he needs me”.

She said she had been afraid to call, afraid I’d be mean and hang up.

But she’s been praying for Russ every day..

I said “no no, it’s okay really, call anytime”.

Historical Materialism and the Difference Between a Mobilization and a Strike

January 2, 2017

If a boss did it, he is guilty. If a worker did it, she was framed. This is the correct way to see the relationship between capital and labor as it is manifested on the job.

I was pleased and honored to be asked by Worker’s Power admns to write a few thoughts about the upcomng SEIU “general strike” one day action planned to protest the election of Donald John Trump as US president. I have been on strike four or five times, once I was locked out for 27 months at Bridgestone Firestone.  So, forgive me in advance to be so bold as to take on the role of teacher here; I don’t want to imply that I have all the answers, but these discussions need to be raised by somebody, and well, it might as well be me!

I am going to refer to four theorists in passing here, only as sort of touchstones, not to elevate theorists above the real power of the working class,  but to add flesh to the bare bones I’ll be constructing here. These theorists are Adam Kotsko, professor of religion at Shimer College in Chicago,Adolh Reed Jr., also an academic and long time African American activist, Fedy Perlman, anarchist theorist who got in trouble for letting his students grade themselves and was active in the anti war movement,and finally Jodi Dean, political science professor at Hobart College in New York.

I wll be giving a class if you will on hstorical materialism in the process of explaining why a one day action is not a “strike”. Go easy on me, I am not one who is comfortable being an “instructor”; it seems so pompous to me, but I must share what I’ve learned and let the chips fall where they may.

I wrote a cover article in the Des Moines Iowa magazine Cityview, titled “Firefight: Diary of a Firestone Striker”. I began with a killer, if I do say so myself, depiction of a meeting we had, ten months into the strike wich was held at a high school gym. I really know how to set a scene and build tension in a narrative; I am a naturally good writer but have not had alot of training, so stellar prose can suddenly turn janky if I don’t have a good editor- this piece will have one, I’m sure! Anyway, the scene was, the company had sent half of us letters stating we were being permanently replaced, whereupon , predictably,  we began to turn on each other, like a scene from Lord of the Flies.

The president of the local was a narrow minded, conservative bastard, but he never erred on the side of capitulation to the hated Company, I’ll say that for him. He tried to keep the crowd together, but there was a vibe of anger that some had crossed the picket line to sign a paper saying they’d return to work “unconditionally”. He explaned that some had been duped by the company and were sorry for having done it, but then something incredibly dramatic happened: A guy stood up and said “My family has suffered as much as anyone else’s, and I say that anbody who signed that list is just like those who went to Canada to avoid Viet Nam, they are traitors!”. Then a guy stood up and said “I went to Viet Nam and I signed that list. Those of us who got that letter are done, but the rest of us have got a lot to lose”. A key thing to note is this guy was a leader of the pipefitters and mechanical trades, one thing you learn is that the higher skilled workers will be he first to surrender- which flies in the face of the old trope that with enough education and skill you can go out and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and easly get another job. That is a lie. Another thing you learn from a strike that you wouldn’t learn from a one day  action.

Well the next thing that happened was, about six big guys stomped that guys ass right there, and he was only saved by another big guy who dragged him out the side door. That senior pipeftter led all his men across the picket line the next day.

Where am I gong with all this? well, a strike is something that, if it goes on very long, will turn violent, which is bad because it usually means the strike is lost along with public opinion. A one day “mobilization” is not a strike, a strike is where you actually come up against the rulng class and you have high personal stakes in the fight. A strike has the kernel of socialist revolution,whether the strikers are conscious of it right away or not. A one day so called “general strike” against Donald John Trump is easy, you don’t stand to lose your car, home or marriage over it, it is an example of failng to call things by their right names.

In the vernacular of historical materialism, Donald John Trump is what is called a “Bonapartist”, a reference to Napolean’s feckless nephew who was elected in France on a platform of authoritarianism- he claimed to be a strongman who would get things done by ignoring  civil niceties and solving all the social problems for you, even if his tactics were crude and brutal, he would “do the neccessary” in the name of the forgotten little man and make France great again like it was under old uncle Napolean. Donald John Trump is a Bonapartist. I call him by his full Christian name so as not to allow him to ingratiate himself with the workers by using the folksy “The Donald”, or simply Trump, as if he was a good old buddy of the workers- think of “Jimmy”Carter, “Dubya” Bush, they try to obfuscate the fact that they are representatives of the enemy class. I don’t play that, because I see things through the lens of historical materialism- which for me at least is a “way of seeing”- Jodi Dean talks about the “Commnist horizon”,the real material baseline that never lets us down.  Actually existing commnism ended in 1989, but the fear that workers might take power still terrifies the ruling class, they still invoke the slur of “communists” in their propaganda,as if Barak Hussein Obama was a communist, etc. There is power in the word, and Jodi Dean wants to name it and claim it, take back the banner of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” from the Stalinist past and weild our power in a dictatorship of the proletariat- although I’m not painting her position fairly; she thinks the “dictatorship of the proleariat ” and other Marxist terms are outmoded and suggests building a party with the slogan “sovereignty of the people”.

The good news is that we workers can take power and break all the rules and run things in our own interest just like Trump did. Bonarpartism is the mirror image of what workers rule might look like, only instead of cuttiing through the red tape to make life miserable for workers like Trump does, we could take power and force him and his class to heel.

Adam Kotsko on the blog An Fur Sich recently wrote a short think piece on the idea that the Democrats need to “fight like the Republicans”, and how in order to do that, it would take a revolutionary party that would forcefully repress the GOP, and the Democats are not that kind of party. He slammed his point home with a hstorical materialst idea: when two rights are in conflict, force decides. That means, if I say I deserve a good job a home and health care, and you say that imposes on your right to lord your private property over me and your right to exploit me, force will decide. How much political, collective power can we amass to counter our class enemies, and how much force can they amass? these are issues of historical materialism.

Since the halcyon days of the victories of the civil rights movements and the Viet Nam victory over imperalism (by the way, you notice I never say “we” when referring to “our” country- the bosses and landlords want us to think “we” are all n this together- another historical materialist take), the Left has slid into a mode of operation that focuses on representation rather than actual labor militancy- btw the “mobilization” is a good thing, it is the false “representation” of it as a strike that is problematic. Adolph Reed J. is great for explaining how it is that the unions cannot teach workers working class economics- I’ll call it “historical materialism”- because if they did the workers would begin to question capitalism, and that would endanger the union beauracracy’s uneasy place of privilege as mediators of the day to day struggles- and they also fear the union could be crushed if it came to scorched earth combat. And so workers only hear the boss’s idea of what economics is, through the radio and internet propaganda systems. No wonder they voted for you  know who.

I recall trying to get a modest loan from the Firestone credit union- which was named after the union! The “Local 310 Credit union”, and was turned down due to bad credit, by a kid who asked me how long I’d worked tere- I said six years. He told me he only had three months onthe job. Later, when  on strike I saw the parking lot filling up with repossessed striker’s cars, and it came clear to me hat the credit union wouldnt exist without the workers, and now when we are fighting for our livelihoods, the bank showed no mercy. You begin to see how capitalist exploitation is reified. Fredy Perlman wrote an essay “The Reproduction of Everyday Life”,  where he explains how capitalist social relations reproduce themselves, reify themselves, each day as we go to work.To reify something means to take something from the abstract and bring it to the concrete; capitalism is reified anew each day that we accept these relationships as unchanging and sacred. We must fight the notion that the bosses create wealth, no, labor power and nature create wealth, and the capitalsts parasite off our labor. Marx once said ” a bird s more free than a man, as it as to build its nest but one time, whereas (under capitalism) a man can build ten houses and still not have one of his own”.

The workers I know who voted for Trump (and yes I am angry with them for abettng racism knowingly!) did so mainly in response to their feelings of precarity, uncertainty- it was actually poignant to me the way they hoped against hope that trump would “bring back coal” and give them a measure of security. Never mind that he seems to be an insane liar, he painted  a picture of himself as a savior of the “forgotten man”, but as Adolph Reed scoffs, precarity was and is the default state of workers already-always. He claims the notion of the “precariat” as a new thing is ludicrous. He says, in effect, we should call things by their right names and not make up fancy new words to obfuscate and depoliticize, to regress into “representation” as substitute for real,bare knuckled struggle. Remember, even if you do nothing, the struggle will come to you anyway. The rightists understand the stakes- and we need historical materialism to help us see through the fog and resist capitalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Oreo Gang

October 25, 2016

 

 

 

They called us “the Oreo gang”, three white guys, four Black guys, working on the Kansas City track maintenance gang in the summer of 1980. Friday was truck wash day, where we’d knock off early and visit the local package liquor store. One of us would go in and get a six pack of Olde English 800, and put a six pack of pop on top. The pop went to the front section of the truck, where sat Albert and Kelly, two old Black trackmen, and our foreman Scott who was sort of a hippie. The back section got the beer, and soon a joint would be lit and we would cruise the streets of downtown Kansas City drinking beer and getting stoned after a hot day of putting in ties by hand and driving spikes “windmill” style, if you know what I mean, and hoping for some “sugar digging””, the term for soft soil instead of the craggy big rocks they called “pink lady”.

Kelly was considered something of an Uncle Tom (“the union don’t sign yo’ paychecks!”) and was teased mercilessly by the younger Blacks- “Drive, Kelly you turtle headed mother fucker!” (ok his head did look somewhat like a turtle’s), as our truck bounced along, tools rattling, smoke wafting from all doors.

I remember how lucky I felt when I went down to see my VA man (“Went down to see my VA man, he said “son don’tcha understand?” by Bruce Springsteen really happened to me) and was hired for a seasonal job with the railroad. Despite what some may believe, the early Reagan years were marked by recession and a farm crisis that rocked the Midwest.

When winter came I got back on at the steel mill where I had accumulated only four months seniority, and worked long enough for my insurance to cover my youngest of three boys’ birth; the Army had covered the other two. Then the mill closed and I went back to the railroad gang- but at the close of summer, they closed the Kansas City yard. I called the union, they said I could work in Iowa so I jumped in the car and drove to farm crisis country. I went to college on the GI bill every winter and searched mightily for a permanent job (a visit back to the VA man resulted in not exactly “son don’tcha understand?” but a variant: “You gotta show me something, all you have is fooling around on the railroad”, as if his work, at a big desk in a tall building, was real work and my digging and spiking and sweating was “fooling around”).

When I got to Iowa in 1982, there were many houses for sale. In the winter months I went to a community college .  I went to get free cheese from the county office and was told “why don’t you go back where you came from? We have our own unemployed people here!”. She still gave me the cheese, but it wasn’t a warm welcome.

I hated Sundays the most; that was the day you could count on that no job would be found. I became an expert in how the Iowa Job Service worked, and my veteran status put me in the front of the line, but there were still no opportunities. By 1984 the track work had dried up, and I taught myself basic electricity and got hired as a Signal Apprentice, but had been out of work for eight months. They shut off our heat. I had to go to Chicago to work. I left my family huddled around space heaters, carrying a pack of food stamps and a new Diner’s Club credit card I’d sent off for in desperation. In Chicago I learned that Diner’s Club cards were like meant for high rollers, and I couldn’t even pronounce “pate'” at the first restaurant I came to. It began snowing, and I had to climb under the little Chevette and bang on the starter with a tire iron to get the starter bendix to spring loose and start the car. It was a time for prayer let me tell you– one time I stole a tire and wheel from a gas station and I had the feeling that if I had the balls to steal it, it would fit but I would have to answer to God! It fit.

During that eight months I was off work, I wrote some poems and got third place in Iowa State’s annual poetry contest.One of the three I submitted was about living on food stamps, from a child’s point of view, and trying to understand the role of the police- mind you this was six or eight years before I became politicized. Neal Bowers was my teacher, a well known poet who deals with the South and the Civil Rights era, and he said he’s seen alot of student copies of this or that poet, but never William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweep”. I learned later this was a compliment whether he meant it so or not- (note, writers or musicians, if somebody name checks your work even in the negative, it’s a compliment), but the poem was written in a muddled, almost pornographic doggerel (which sums up  my poetic voice btw) that he felt would’ve

worked better in plain English. I said “No, this poem is a rant, this poem is angry, it is and must be a desecration of language”.

Ofiser Frendly

Ofiser Frendly wares blak shiny shoes

and a big shiny baj on his unform thats blue

He says if sum one trys to give you drugs just say no

if you see sumthin suspishus just call and let him no.

Me and Bernie tryd to tuch his gun

but he sed no it mite go off and hurt sum one.

The teecher thankd him for cummin to speak

and sed the PTAd lik to have him nex week.

Daddy lost his job at the meet paking plant

and sed he was tird of bine gas with the chanj bak from food stamps.

He broke ten windows in our howse

I dont know why

but he lookd lik he was about to cry.

I aksd him to be nic and play by the ruls

after all thats what Oficer Frendly sed wen he cam to my skul.

Daddy sur was acting funny that day

he fild the car up with gas and drov away didnt pay.

Ofiser Frendly cam noking at our door

and he wasnt kwit the sam as he was befor

He took Daddy away to jale

Mommy had to call Grandma for munny for bale.

Daddy sined a paper sane hed bin iresponsble in the past

and for too yeers he wouldnt rite any more bad checks or steel any

more gas.

The skul cownsler started takin to me

she said you can trust me Iv got a mastirs decree.

She sed peenut butter and chips wernt too nutrishus

and aksd if Mommy and Daddy were on drugs and I sed no

I’d call Ofiser Frendly if I saw anythin suspishus.

 

Here is another poem I wrote about the railroad, part of the three I got the prize for:

 

What Old Men Do When They Tell Their Wives They’re Going to Walk the Dog

Old men come down to the depot just to see what’s still there,

the switch lock, the train orders, the dispatcher’s chair.

Yellowed papers hang from clipboards of a grander time, when

the Rock Island Rocket ruled the main line.

She breezed through town at a hundred miles an hour,

with a hearty “Highball!” from the man in the tower.

Picks and shovels once held by artisans of track

now stand covered with cobwebs in the gandy dancer’s shack.

All that remains is a weathered shell, broken shed

and dreams of legends in an old man’s head.

And that is my railroad story, just a footnote or prequel to the strike wave of 1994 when Caterpillar and Firestone and Staley strikes rolled across the Midwest. It was as if it had all happened to some other person, and indeed it did, because change only comes with class struggle. How did I learn this?

After a bout with a bleeding kidney, which I dared not claim as work related for fear of being a “marked man”, I had been off work for nearly three months waiting to get an angiogram  that would clear me for work. Just before the phone got disconnected I was called for interviews at both Amtrak and Firestone. Since the Amtrak job was in Chicago and my wife didn’t want to move, I went and got the job at Firestone. After only two weeks, we went on a two week strike that resulted in my gaining the same amount of pay I’d been making at the railroad, and I didn’t have to move!

Seven years flew by, I was divorced and on strike again, this time for what was to be 27 long months. About 3 months in, a Socialist Worker’s Party member came to our picket line. He offered to buy me coffee at Village Inn, so we went there and began talking about the strike. “Why don’t the other unions come and help us stage a big rally and chase out the scabs?”, I asked, as he seemed to carry an air of expertise on these matters. “I mean, our union president should get on the phone and call the other union presidents, and…”, then he gently interrupted, “you uh, might find this hard to believe, but they really don’t care that much”. “what do you mean, they’re always talking about solidarity…”. “Yes, true, but those guys are not going to give up their cushy jobs for you. Those guys spend more time hanging around the bosses than they do guys like you. They have an office, the bosses have offices, they talk to each other, relate to each other. They are just figureheads” “W-w-hy can’t they just pick up the phone and call the other unions?”, I stammered. “Who’s he gonna call?” he replied. “He’s just a figurehead, you are the union. Besides, union contracts come due at different times, it’s not like we could all walk out at the same time”.  “Why that’s terrible! Somebody’s gotta do something about this!” That’s when he looked at me as if down the barrel of a gun and said, “there’s only one person who can do anything about this and that is YOU”.

We talked some more, and I didn’t ask him to elaborate, there was no need. I knew what he meant although it would take years to fully digest, or rather incorporate the full meaning and truth of that one sentence. Not only did he mean me personally, he meant me as the rank and file, as part of a mass of conscious workers, fighting for freedom from  class domination.

What Old Men Do When They Tell Their Wives They’re Going o Walk the Dog

August 14, 2016

What Old Men Do When They Tell Their Wives They’re Going to Walk the Dog

 

Old men come down to the depot just to see what’s still there,

 

the switch lock, the train orders, the dispatcher’s chair.

Yellowed papers hang from clipboards of a grander time,

when the Rock Island Rocket ruled the main line.

She breezed through town at a hundred miles an hour,

with a hearty “Highball!” from the man in the tower.

Picks and shovels once held by artisans of track

now stand covered with cobwebs in the gandy dancer’s shack.

All that remains is a weathered shell, broken shed

and dreams of legends in an old man’s head.