Friday, December 10, 2010


"If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem"
-VISTA recruitment poster

Welcome to Above This Wall: The Life and Times of a VISTA Volunteer 1969-70 a memoir by Bruce Greene. The Preface, 12 chapters, and Afterword were posted between October and December of 2010. To read the complete work, you will need to refer to the postings by month. Look at the Archive to the right of the page.
The Preface and early chapters are found under October. You can read the memoir chapter by chapter or skip around if you like. Please feel free to comment on anything in the space provided. If you have any problems or questions, please send me an email at

Monday, December 6, 2010

One for the Ages

One Sunday afternoon we all gathered on the steps of 1506 Rosewood Ave. for a group shot. In this photo are Fellow VISTAs David, Larry, Kim, Deidre, and Bo. David's friend Jeff was visiting from Wisconsin and a few high school kids from the "Free University" who often hung out at our house on weekends complete the lineup. Everybody tells me that this should be the cover of the book. What do you think?


A Letter to Myself at Twenty-Two

Dear Bruce,
Your Vista housemate David Soffa dug up this photo from November of 1969. Six months out of college and you seem so serious. Looks like you are standing in front of a brick wall. I know you felt more like you were up against it. Let me tell you now, from where I sit, you’ve moved above this wall.
Though I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you have always been in my thoughts. Over the years, your passion, intuition, and experience have served me well. This year in Texas will turn out to be more meaningful than you realize. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is what I need to tell you, so listen carefully; there will be no question/answer session to follow.
I know you are disturbed by the poverty you have seen. The black and white photos and TV images can’t begin to address the sensory overload that comes with life on the edge. Continue to absorb everything. Open up your senses. Let the food you eat, the streets you walk, and the faces you see become seared in your brain. Look deeply at the red color of the beans, the gray-spotted Masa Harina, the five shades of green in the watermelon rind. Taste more of that government cheese, powered milk and peanut butter from the can. Capture forever the dry, bleached, cracked wood of your house, the flashy turquoise exterior of the barbeque place down the street; look again at their juke box near the counter with only B.B. King, Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland records. Take in Carl Adam’s smile, the swollen veins in his arms, his children’s sepia skin. File away Juke Boy Bonner’s well-worn guitar, Lightin’ Hopkins gold teeth, and someone’s midnight wail around the corner. Keep looking for the culture of the underclass, it’s sometimes hidden by the refuse of cheap and cheaper highs, Apple Wine, MD 20/20, Robitussin, and Thunderbird. Let the imprint become permanent. Breathe in the steaming sopa at Las Casuelas, hear the conjunto sound of Flaco Jimenez. The neighborhoods, issues, living conditions you encounter daily will surely change; sadly, others just as bad will take their place. The inequity and injustice that chips away at your spirit can silence you. Don’t let it. Change will come. Not as you might imagine, and even more slowly. But it will happen. Nothing ever gets in the way of an idea whose time has come. There will be joy.
I’m proud of you for treating the people you lived with as family. Remember that quality and use it well throughout your teaching career. Keep a critical eye. Your ability to empathize with those you serve is deeply embedded. It’s an important part of who you are. In all you do, don’t ever forget that. “Treat your students as if they were your own children” will become a popular catch phrase. They are your own children. There will come a time when you take severe criticism for siding with poor people. Americans don’t want to see poverty; it smells, it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly, it exudes guilt, and it especially gets in the way of having a good time. Yes, I’m afraid it’s a constant. People will tell you it’s always been around and always will and they are right. But deal with the folks you encounter as individuals, try not to blame them for their conditions, and continue to help them see the big picture. Encourage that elderly couple you met at the welfare rights meetings to keep voting, despite the budget cuts they must endure. Whenever you encounter an all too threatening alcoholic, remember Solomon Scott. His caustic wit and fierce intelligence will help you separate the disease from the person. Like other social ills, poverty takes many forms. The bankrupt exist in all levels of income. True, there is no reason to romanticize life on the bottom, but like a riverbed, it can be rich in nutrients. Feed from this stream; emerge like it’s aquatic insects and watch where your wings take you. Like most self-perpetuating systems, poverty can be overcome. It’s simply a matter of will.
Your fear, while inhibiting, is powerful. Keep it separate from your anger and it too will serve you well. Who wouldn’t fear the KKK, oversized roaches, untrustworthy cops or the most violent urban areas in the country? Laugh with your fear. (Give it a try, at least) That will help you keep perspective and remind you of all things human. Try not to let your fear interfere with your judgment. You have an innate ability to see all sides of an issue. Develop that quality. Hone it thoughtfully and see if it doesn’t dispel unnecessary anxiety. Act with caution, but never fear to act. Go to Washington D.C. and march with your generation. Remind your elected officials that dissent is patriotic. Befriend the most intense fear you feel; you’ll need to, for your survival is at stake.
You’ve learned a good deal about gender and race in the last few years, but not enough, and certainly not enough about class. This year will address that in subtle ways. Pay attention. The “Father Knows Best" world of your childhood existed only on television. “Happily ever after” has been stricken from the record. Norman Rockwell land is a nice place to visit, but no one ever lives there. Keep in mind the advantages that you’ve had. (I forgive you that chuckle.) I know our family was always hovering on or below the poverty line itself, but other givens in your life have placed you ahead in the game from the outset. Your skin color grants you privilege immediately. Your education has been better than most. I know you paid for all of it, but you could work. Be ever mindful of these things.
Let me close by telling you something you may already know. This year has tested your moral compass. Your direction is set. Walk on. Your intuition won’t always save you, but on the most crucial issues it will remain solid. In the years to follow what appears set in concrete: technology, political economies, physical geography, energy resources, will erode. Turn your collar to the wind, Bruce, and like a boxing referee always says, “protect yourself at all times.” Teach others to separate their love of country from the fear of their own government. That love will keep you fighting and learning, and uncovering what matters most. That fear will continue to expose the lies and the liars. Read everything, keep singing, signing petitions and suggesting. Take risks; find the humor whenever possible, and interrupt when you must. (You do have something to say) Remember bread and roses: art lives in human need. Welcome the mystery.

Be well,

The man you became.

Postscript: Reunion


The voice is identical. One sentence and 35 years melt away. Kim wants to know what kind of beer I think she should bring. No Lone Star here. We amuse ourselves with the possibility of finding a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine just for fun, but quickly abandon that notion in favor of a nice syrah, a cabernet, or a known microbrew. An hour later Kim meets me at a coffee shop in Berkeley. I’ve walked down the hill from my mother-in-law’s home. She’s driving a dusty, faded blue sedan.
“Can you believe it,” she says, “this old Toyota used to be Joan Baez’s car. It belongs to one of the guys at the home in Woodside where I’m staying. He let me have it for the day.”
“Far out,” I say, just to make her smile.
Settling into the drivers seat, I’m struck with the notion that because Kim asks me to drive, my journey back to the late 60s this day begins in Joan Baez’s car. What other strange trips lie ahead.
By 1:00, it all comes together. Almost 39 years to the day we first met in Austin, Texas, David, Kim, Terry and I marvel at being in the same room together. In David’s funky Victorian house, on an overcast Berkeley afternoon, typical for June, the hugs are unusually tight. We sneak long looks at one another. Smiles turn into laughs. Hours trickle by. Many old stories need re-telling, many new stories emerge. Before the day ends, we bring two other former VISTAs into the conversation through speakerphone. Michele, still in Texas and Arnie, now in Chicago, both take time from their 21st century lives to consider who we were in 1969 and who we have become today. Not surprisingly, their thoughts often coincide with many of ours. With few exceptions, we come to realize that going in, we all assumed that VISTA was only about those we would serve. In time we have come to believe that the experience was equally about our own growth, our own change, and our own needs. We could never have known that at the time. The selfless act of working for those less fortunate always says more about the giver than the receiver.

David at home June,2008

While some felt that the war on poverty was a game played with a stacked deck, others weren’t so sure. What is certain, however, is that our ideals and designs were massive, our resources almost non-existent. Both Terry and Michelle, who worked in semi-rural organizing efforts felt inadequate to the tasks left for them. Those of us who worked in the inner city could at least rattle off a number of projects we either originated or aided. The VISTA Communications Center on Rosewood St. impacted various community groups; we’re certain about that. Had we been able to use even a fraction of today’s technology, certainly we would have reached more people. VISTAs today regularly benefit from computers, email, cell phones and digital photography. They are no longer required to live in the communities they serve.

Terry and Kim June, 2008

Kim leans across the kitchen table in David’s comfortable home and says, “You never really know how many people you affect do you? People don’t always let you know, surely you know that, Bruce, as a teacher. I think there are probably people we met or worked with that do remember many of the things we tried to do.” I am quick to agree. “There may be no way of knowing or measuring our impact, but sometimes just being there, seeing and talking to people on their turf has far reaching consequences,” I say. “I’m certain for many of the folks we tried to help, the presence of a white kid from 2000 miles away, who volunteered to come to their communities, warts and all, was important. It may have been a rare opportunity to share a meal, a story, or, in my case with little Randolf, a bed with someone from another social reality.
“They may have only allowed us in their lives for the $2.00 a night we paid to stay in their places, but by the end we both understood our backgrounds a little better, “ says Terry.
“Hey do you remember the woman we lived with till the end of training in Houston,” Kim adds. “Perry, at the housing project, Perry that was her name.” “Yeah Perry, Terry says, how could I ever forget Perry.”
“This was a woman who’d survived a lot but in the end she had a simple explanation. In her bedroom, right on the nightstand she kept a bottle of bourbon and a Bible. That was it, those two things. That’s all you’ll ever need in this world Perry said, and she meant it.”
If Saul Alinsky’s ideas are any yardstick for success then we can look at what came after VISTA service. He stressed, “starting from where the world is now, not as we would like it to be.” Being a VISTA meant going to that world, surviving there and leaving it somehow different than it had been. To Alinsky, organizing meant working within the system. Ultimately, most of us did. Former VISTAs occupy every level of the health care, legal, and educational systems. They not only are teachers, doctors, attorneys, and journalists, they continue to be artists, musicians, and writers.
There is a very real danger to romanticize the ‘60s while looking back. Media creations like the term “hippie” don’t help. Anyone who was there knows the complexities of that decade and the shifting consciousness that embraced young people was filled with blessings and curses. As writer Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests:
Whatever you think of the ‘60s, though, one thing is undeniable: They
tore us apart, ripped American society to pieces and threw those pieces
in the air so they rained down like confetti, falling into new configurations,
nothing where it used to be. It was an angry time, those who found stability-
“identity”—in the old configurations fighting those intoxicated by the poss-
ibilities of the new.

I’m not sure the pieces that rained down were like confetti. Some of them landed more like bricks in my neck of the woods. Many folks I know are still angry, their cynicism honed into daggers. But the bulk of us remained intact. We may be a bit more judgmental or critical than we used to be, but we continue picking up the pieces of this culture that continue to fall.
The best explanation of what it meant to be a VISTA Volunteer came during our training. One of the trainers, assuming the stance and tone of a Southern preacher told us a version of a story that has many incarnations. He stared silently over his eager flock and began, “If you want to know what VISTA will be like, and if you are ready for this job, let me tell you the story of the chicken and the pig.” He proceeded to relate the tale of a chicken and pig who were walking by a church where a gala charity event was taking place. Caught up in the spirit of giving back the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution. “Great idea,” the chicken says, “Let’s offer ham and eggs.”
“Not so fast,” said the pig testily. “For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment.”
After the nervous laughter subsided he finished his presentation with one line:
“We’re asking you for a total commitment.”

Where Are They Now?

By the mid 1980s, I lost contact with most of my VISTA family. A community of innovative educators replaced my troupe of poverty warriors. Over the decades, I had exchanged phone calls with Kim and Arnie a few times, bumped into David around Berkeley occasionally, and spoke to Terry every year between April 4 and 7, our birthdays. When I began this project, I had the power of the Internet in my corner. The ease with which I managed to track down most of the people mentioned in this book never ceases to amaze.
It has always been my opinion that most, if not all of us never drifted far from our values. That translates to working in either helping professions, or some sort of field that promotes social justice. You be the judge.

Of the original 30 or so on the VISTA Houston, Texas list, excluding the one’s who were attorneys, here is what I know:

Jose Arcaya –Forensic psychologist, New York, New York.
Albert Boo Bronson- attorney and photographer
Hugh Grady-College professor, Shakespeare expert, Pennsylvania
Sue (Grady)Wells-College professor, English, college writing, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
Kim Greene-MSW Director Health agency Miami, Fla.
Arnie Reichler- Director Career change program, Chicago Ill.
Larry Schaaf –Professor, History of Photography, Baltimore, Md.
David Soffa- Raconteur, architect, stringed instrument repair, Berkeley, Ca
Terry Toombs- Masseuse, Petaluma, Ca.
Mike Gilfix, attorney and elder care advocate, Mountain View, Ca

Two ex-library books sit on top of the books jammed in the top shelf of a small bookcase in my office. I’ve purchased them online from small bookstores that advertise through the large online powerhouses that dominate the trade. According to my research, they are among the only books ever written about VISTA. Both hardcover, they once sold for top dollar. Now they barely bring one dollar. Aside from an Americorps/VISTA web site featuring vignettes from various volunteers, a fine article written by San Diego Union journalist Lee Grant about his experiences in Houston the year before mine, and a recruitment pamphlet offered as a collectible by Go Antiques .com, they are what remains from the VISTA I knew. The two books, entitled, VISTA and Warriors For The Poor remind me of those old black and white films we used to see in high school. Both volumes have been stamped discarded.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 12

Leavin’ Texas

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
Robert Johnson
Hellhound on My Trail

I had six months. Enough time to see a bit of the country while working my way back home. Of course, the notification of a draft board appearance would abruptly end my wandering. No matter. Hellhound or not, I was ready to move on. The work I’d begun could continue without me. New VISTAs were on the way. The window of time between the end of my service and reclassification appeared more like a guillotine everyday. My government believed I could better serve in uniform. Ironically, for weeks I’d been plagued by the notion that I might never get out of Texas. What began as a passing thought had turned into a mild obsession. I had dared to think about taking control and responsibility for my own life. My goals were being poked around like unwanted food on a plate. I longed to eat everything, but what if I never got back to California? What if this is where my struggle ends? What if I leave the country? Will I be able to see my friends and family?
Kim was game for this adventure. She was clear in her support. Her style left no doubt. Staring deep into my face, her smile would vanish replaced by sadness then wonder.
“I love you Bruce Greene, “ she would say. “Whatever happens, wherever we have to go, I’ll go with you.” Do you understand that? Do you know we will fight this together?
“I know Kim, I know.” Inside I didn’t know. But how long? This can drag on for years. How will you feel when your future has gone nowhere, are in another country, and living with a felon.
Sometimes, if the mood was right we’d launch into a chorus or two of “Side By Side,” then fall over laughing. The mood was rarely right. Still, some time on the road would give me the opportunity to sort out many questions. I needed to think about myself, my future, my direction. The big university seemed so inauthentic, and costly. I decided to see if I could stretch the small stipend VISTA’s receive at the completion of service from one coast to another. Being a feather in the wind was never in my plans. But I could hear my old world grandfather whispering, “you know, it vouldn’t hoit.”
We needed a vehicle that could economically and safely get us from state to state and serve as mobile hotel room as well. A pick-up truck? A station wagon or a large sedan? No, a VW bus, what else? Everybody I knew could drive a VW. It seemed like we’d all owned a VW bug at one time or another so it was an easy transition. If the Volkswagen Microbus was the largest model available, it was also a statement. Being a 23 year old with a college degree, a few dollars in my pocket, and some time to kill in a VW bus might not be such a bad thing. But finding a bus we could afford in Texas might take time. Forget about safety. I felt like Pa Joad trying to get to the Promised Land in a dicey truck on a tight budget. Aside from the stipend, VISTA also paid gas mileage for those who chose not to fly home. How cool, my leisurely search for America would be paid for by the government.
The ad said Sugarland, Texas. This former company town turned suburb on the outskirts of Houston wasn’t too hard to find. David gave us a lift and provided a third opinion. The vehicle was mechanically sound and within two weeks of our departure date, a suitable, but slightly rusty VW bus sat in our driveway. Its former owner had taken reasonably good car of the van, but since he used it primarily to tote and launch a small boat, the undercarriage and roof had some rust issues. About halfway on the drive back to Houston, we realized we hadn’t tried the radio. Relief! Tinny, but recognizable voice of Harry Nilsson filled the interior.

Everybody’s talkin’ at me,
They don’t know a word they’re sayin,’
Only the echoes of my mind,

People stopping staring, I can’t see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

We knew instantly we’d found the right vehicle. Three voices sang the last verse as
David passed us with a wave and a bemused expression on his face.

While we waited for the final VISTA check to arrive, I did a bit of sanding and bodywork. I coated the underneath with one of those miracle products sold only in auto parts stores and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the bus came with a wood platform that fit neatly behind the front seat. It was nothing more than a piece of plywood with 4x8 legs nailed on, but it held and fit perfectly. We could store our clothing and few belongings underneath the platform and put a small mattress on top. Our VW had a working radio and functioning windows. The tires had to come off. An assortment of mismatched, well-worn retreads, I started to sweat just looking at them. All we could afford were better retreads. After a final scrubbing, vacuuming, and a coat of wax and we were ready to roll.

When our travel date was set, all that remained were some good-byes. 1506 Rosewood was the perfect site for a going away party. A final round of Sloppy Joes, Lonestar Beer, a sip or two of Mateus and the promise to keep in touch were on the agenda. We all collected phone numbers, especially home phone numbers. Our departure was simply one of many. Service for the class of 1969 ended in June.
“We’ll probably see you in California, if you end up there, “ David said. He and Larry, full of tales and promises from the California VISTAs intended on spending some time with an alum already living in San Francisco.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll all end under the same roof again. I heard the draft counselors in the Bay Area were among the best.”
My trip home from Houston to Los Angeles will go by way of New York. Kim wants to see her family and I want to see the East coast. With gas at 35 cents a gallon, a $5.00 fill-up allows us to leave Houston with a full tank. I think we can make Dallas by nightfall. The late spring weather softens the miles. First night, a turnout right off the highway is the best we can do. I scramble around the “bed” we’ve set up and can’t control my laughter. In all my squirreling, I’m hunched over, butt higher than head. It seems I’m mooning each set of headlights that appears behind my behind. The joke is lost on me when I remember I’m in Texas. Is the door locked?
The weather remains pleasant and the microbus is humming along through Mt. Pleasant, Texas. By Texarkana, I realize we’re actually going to be out of Texas. Driving through I can’t keep Cotton fields Back Home from looping through my brain.
“It was down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana, in them old cotton fields back home.” I realize we really are close to Louisiana too just as a border stop looms on the horizon. I’ sure we have nothing illegal aboard, at least as far as I know, but as the line to the kiosk slinks forward, I visualize a thorough search. How stupid could we be driving a VW bus through the south in 1970. Did the joy of having our very own microbus impede my thinking? Was I even thinking at all? We were headed through Arkansas, not Sunset Boulevard. The next big city was Little Rock not Malibu. At least we had a Texas license plate. I really believed that might make a difference. Right? A shot of adrenalin later and I knew it meant nothing. When I see the border patrol guard I brace myself. He’s straight out of Easy Rider except he’s two inches shorter and a good hundred pounds heavier than the prototype. I see him leaning into open car windows speaking briefly with each driver then waving them through. He seems to be asking for something. They don’t actually ask people if they are carrying any contraband?
“You do the talking,” Kim encourages.
“No you do the talking, he’s not going to believe anything I say. You’re cute and blonde, just smile and call him officer.”
We put on our calmest faces and brace for the encounter. The guard is outside the booth now and I can see his blue uniform shirt ruffling out from his pants. A leather belt corrals the mass of exploding belly; it’s tag end hanging like a dead snake. I slide open the window and he speaks.
“Y’all carryin’ any hawgs”
“Pardon me,” I choke out
“Hawgs, y’all ain’t transportin’ no hawgs is ya?
“No hogs, I say, trying to keep a straight face.
“Oh no officer,” Kim chimes in, “We ain’t got no hawgs.
We chug a chug out of Texas. The meaning of the moment is lost in a surfeit of nervous laughter. “No hawgs, nary a one. No sir, “ I wear out the phrase as we motor the 25 miles northeast toward Hope, Arkansas and a look at the current world record watermelon. In this town that would become known as the birthplace of Bill Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Lester Kent pose proudly with their Gargantuan on post cards. I purchase one and seriously discuss what it must have tasted like with one of the employees at a local fruit stand. In 1970, Hope is known for record breaking watermelons and the production of outstanding Hi-Fi and Stereo equipment. As we leave, a roadside sign reminds us to return to Hope, Arkansas, for “A slice of the good life.”

This is really where my story ends. No more Texas means no more VISTA. The journey back into the mainstream took about three months. From Arkansas we drove straight through Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee and took a small side trip to the Great Smokey Mountains. When the fog turned too thick to travel, we ducked in to a roadside turnout to wait. These moments of unscripted downtime always took their toll. Even if I dozed off, my dreams were usually full of draft scenarios. Either I’d be about to take a physical or boarding a bus bound for some unknown destination. On this occasion the motif was what came to be called the step. Draft resistance came to fruition the moment an inductee refused to step forward after the swearing in ceremony. This was a long-running feature in the theater of my mind.
Awaking from this catnap, I realized it was time to touch base and call home. Ordinarily, I’d call home by reversing the charges, now, however I had come into possession of a credit card number. Rumored to be the account of Stanford University, the credit card always worked. One had only to dial the operator, state that this was a “credit card call,” recite the number, recite the desired area code and phone number, and wait for the ring. I’ve often wondered how many people used that number. It passed through word of mouth from coast to coast. With the number came the caveat, always use this from a phone booth. We did.
One day right before we reached the East coast, we made a stop in Williamsburg, Virginia. The historical capital of the state, Williamsburg has been completely preserved as a Colonial museum. It’s quite an attractive, charming place. I took mild interest in strolling in and out of the old shops watching the artisans make candles, print from antique presses, and even make wigs for the landed gentry. A blacksmith held my attention for half an hour, but I quickly turned cynical. It would be another decade before Colonial Williamsburg recognized the contribution of African-Americans. No mention of slavery crossed the docent’s lips as she guided tours across the cobblestones of this quaint village. I soon found myself providing commentary…bitter commentary.
“See that bell tower, I’ll bet that’s what called the slaves in at the end of the day,” I’d say. “I wonder when they tore down the slave quarters?” When I asked the tour guides, they immediately converted the word slave to servant. I wanted no part of this. Someday I’d like to return to Williamsburg and indulge my sense of history. I’m confident the museum hides none of our true heritage these days. We drove from Williamsburg to Baltimore that afternoon. By the next morning, I read in the Baltimore Sun of an event that had taken place the previous afternoon. While I was grumbling about a diluted version of American history being doled out in Williamsburg, some of my contemporaries were making a stronger variety in Ohio on the campus of Kent State University.
The massacre at Kent State has a mythology all its own. Yes the crowd was unruly and yes some demonstrators had burned down the ROTC building (really more a shack) the day before. Because president Nixon had recently announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the Peace Movement became outraged anew. We know now that only one of the four students killed that day was shot in the back. We know, too, that the girl in the iconic photo kneeling beside of the victims was a 14-year old runaway. It took years and more than one trial before an out of court settlement was reached over the tragedy that occurred that day. At the time, there was only one message: They will shoot, they will shoot students, and they will shoot you.
By late summer of 1970, we’d made it across the country. Somewhere between Hershey and Harrisburg Pennsylvania I encountered the most blatant racism I’d ever experienced. While filling the gas tank, a chatty young man offered that he was also a local baseball scout. I told him I was a longtime Giants fan, and his eyes widened.
“I do some scouting for the Giants. In fact there’s a young man right now at our local high school that’s got a pretty good chance of becoming a Giant. Personally, I hope he don’t make it. Cause he’s a nigger, and I don’t like niggers.”
His matter of fact tone startled me. As nonchalantly as telling me he doesn’t eat onions or tomatoes, this guy dumps a load of bullshit on me and then smiles and wishes me a safe trip.
I remember the beauty of the Black Hills in South Dakota, the plains of Wyoming and the stunning volcanic colors of Central Oregon. When September came, I landed in the Bay Area and accepted a job working with emotionally disturbed children at a community residential treatment center in Berkeley. There I made my stand. Through excellent draft counseling from The American Friends Service Committee, and experience working in another treatment facility, I lived my values, working non-violently in two extremely violent atmospheres. The theory was simply that if you went before a judge after refusing induction, doing this type of “approved” alternative service might convince that
judge at the last minute that you were, in fact, sincere about your beliefs. By the spring of 1972 the draft law added a new classification, I-H. My counselor told me the H meant “holding.”
“There is a group of guys like you that are between 24 and 26 who have made it known you will not go. It’s easier for draft boards to draft 19-year olds. So they will put you in a holding pattern until you turn 26. At 26 you become too old, unless of course there is a national emergency.”
My counselor’s name was Michael Brown. I could have kissed him on the spot. The long struggle had suddenly evaporated like an evil mirage. I walked out of the Friends’ Meeting House on Walnut Street in Berkeley that day and promptly applied for the Graduate School of Education of the University of California. While I never saw Michael again, I’ve thought of him often after that day. At 26, I completed my student teaching and was fortunate enough to land a job at El Cerrito High School in the East Bay.
Over the next 33 years, my VISTA experience served me well. Teaching in an extremely diverse urban high school, I have always been sensitive to the invisibility of poverty. Often, that sensibility enabled me to suggest to either a colleague or student teacher that other factors might be at work in dealing with a student’s resistance or defeatist attitude. My battles as an educator have always involved equity, social justice, and the challenges of teaching in schools that are vastly under-resourced. My students ranged from the children of successful entrepreneurs and university professors, to undocumented immigrants, incarcerated felons and the struggling middle-class. Many, like myself were first generation college students.
In teaching psychology, history and English, the ability to draw on my experiences to illustrate concepts or anecdotes helped keep my students engaged, curious, empathetic. With the new millennium it became apparent that these students, (born between 1980-1990) knew little of the years I’d lived through. Relying solely on stereotypic notions of the 1960s, they loved the idea that their teachers may have been part of the drug culture, but never considered the anti-war movement. They had a media constructed visual image of a “hippie” but knew nothing of VISTA. By the fall of 2004, with the U.S. firmly entrenched in Iraq, no sign of any “weapons of mass destruction, and my students, like the country becoming increasingly polarized, rumors of another draft surfaced. My younger colleagues and the kids in the Amnesty International student group I sponsored began urging me to speak at an upcoming noon rally. The opportunity to address a group of concerned high school students was attractive, but I knew I must preserve some semblance of neutrality.
Looking over the collection of young faces that October afternoon I saw everything from fear to indifference. In their innocence, these young people, whatever their opinions, had no frame of reference to help them navigate the months ahead. I knew what to tell them. I wanted them to know that the Vietnam War was largely a lie, that many of their number would die defending abstract ideas they could neither spell nor define. I wanted them to know that patriotism means having the courage to question and criticize your government when it is mistaken. Ultimately, I wanted them to know that there would be difficult days ahead; days that would require their voices to be heard, their bodies to march, their minds to remain open.
It is a singular experience to address a crowd of people knowing that you have something crucial to say, something that someone else needs to hear. Knowing that you have seen what they can only imagine. I can’t recall everything that I said. My intention was to suggest that these young people think deeply about the decisions their government was making. I wanted to make sure that when they discussed these issues with their friends and family that they didn’t fall into the tired, useless trap of equating love of country with disagreement with the government. There were other speakers and lunch time was only 35 minutes. But in those few minutes, hearing the wind shake leaves free, looking beyond those faces, and then focusing momentarily on one, then another, until… I swear, I saw my reflection.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter 11

B. Greene
Roaches and Seeds

Free time was an unknown. Most of us had been students all our lives. Equally unfamiliar was the city of Houston. But time management and strong motivation, make an effective VISTA. Although we numbered 50, including lawyers and supervisors, aside from infrequent post-training meetings, many of us didn’t see each other all that much. The daily demands of our individual projects, the geography, and inconsistent transportation kept us out of touch. Then came the Project House. The former convent, with amenities like large dining and laundry rooms, showers, and well-equipped kitchen served as hostel and meetinghouse. Get-togethers increased. Still, it was not uncommon to hear about what others were up to by word of mouth. Arnie Reichler became the subject of many conversations and rumors.
Arnie, a VISTA originally from Queens, New York, kept us thinking and laughing. Recognizable instantly by his rapid speech and thick eyeglasses, Arnie was one of the only male VISTAs who wore no facial hair. His daily uniform consisted of faded blue jeans held up by a worn, floppy leather belt, white tee shirt, about one size too small, and thick black oxfords. His thinning hair swirled back over his broad forehead in one assertive swoop. Soft, vanilla skin gave way to a farmer’s tan line that took the appearance of a rose-colored bib around his neck. Arnie viewed the world leaning forward, looking through tortoise shell horn rims edging down the bridge of his nose. It’s fair to say that his conception of Houston was much like Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous first impression: “four square blocks of Manhattan set on a plain.” A poet and writer, no subject eluded Arnie. Each day supplied him with an unending string of topics and images. Even though he wrote constantly, Arnie had set upon an ambitious project changing the content of Houston’s libraries. Like many hospitals and schools, one particular library was named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The irony of this library serving mostly Black and Latino communities was not lost on Arne. He set out to fill the shelves with books relevant to those patrons. He was appalled at the lack of material about the lives of those who the library intended to serve. To stock the shelves with materials on Cesar Chavez, or Dolores Huerta, primary source documents of American History, the writings of Martin Luther King and the works of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston was his goal. It was an ideal project because it could be invisibly done.
Arnie was no more histrionic than the New Yorkers in my family, but a New Yorker in Texas is a different animal. Over-zealous about everything he did, Arnie was constantly in motion, constantly rattling off ideas, lines he’d written, his current ailments, or the latest authentic restaurant he’d discovered. Like me, he could be funny, intense, emotional, and neurotic. I began a series of bi-weekly visits to Arnie’s North side home because I wanted to nurture his friendship. He’d studied the fine points of the Selective Service law, and being a fellow draft resister, was always evolving strategies for communicating with his draft board. I thought I might also be useful as a bibliography source for his library project. My undergraduate history thesis looked at the individual and social realities of Black poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay, and I was fresh from other history and literature courses with experts like professors Gary Nash and Ron Takaki. Throughout these years, books by Black writers previously unavailable were being reissued constantly. VISTA was providing book kits for various projects and I reasoned if enough of us received the 25 or so paperbacks we requested, we could donate many copies to local libraries. I’d asked for titles about the blues, social history, current affairs, and various ethnic studies volumes. Mild shock ensued when we actually received copies of Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.
I often encouraged Arnie to submit his poetry to the The Issue and he’d usually give me an on the spot reading, of his latest piece. A prolific poet. I saw him as a budding Allen Ginsburg or perhaps a younger version of Laurence Ferlenghetti. He’d tackle any topic with irreverence and enthusiasm. Fortunately, we were able to publish his work from time to time. He and I even organized a series of poetry readings at the Project House where VISTAs, encouraged to either read their own work or something else they liked, gathered to sip cheap wine while even cheaper candles burned. But curiosity also motivated my visits with Arnie because he enjoyed certain notoriety on the project with regard to his pest control methods. My housemates and supervisors continually encouraged me to witness this first hand.
Arnie’s battles with cockroaches in his apartment were legendary. While most of us simply made peace with them, usually in the form of jokes or planned ignoring, Arnie set out to exterminate every last one. To be unconcerned about the constant presence of these 2-inch flying pests was a badge we wore proudly. I’d find them lurking in piles of dirty dishes in the sink or inside the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. They ambushed the unsuspecting in dirty clothes hampers or cracks in the wall.
“Hey did you see the size of that roach in the kitchen last night? I hear he rides a motorcycle now,” someone would say.
“No I missed that one, but two of his buddies took the car out last night.” That’s how it would go. Where we became accustomed to simply swatting or thumping them off when we awoke, Arne went after each one. He wouldn’t stop until the corpse was flushed away.
Word on the street was that to really appreciate Arnie in action, you had to sit with him over coffee in his kitchen. In the middle of a conversation, if he spotted a roach, Arne would remove his shoe and using the heel as a hammerhead, go after the doomed pest. He took particular pride in whacking Texas cockroaches. “Excuse me,” he’d blurt out in mid-sentence, then slowly rise and became a roach splattering madman. Red faced, sweat dripping, and panting, he’d calmly return to his seat.
“This is the method that works best,” he’d add. “I’ve tried just about everything else.” He wasn’t kidding. Arne’s parents owned a pharmacy and would send him monthly “Care packages.” Aside from his roach fixation, Arne was showing signs of hypochondriasis. His family would send him enough painkillers, bug sprays, stomach upset preparations, shoe insoles, cough medicine, roach traps, chewing gum, toiletries, lotions, first-aid products, and candy bars for the entire project. “Whadda ya need,” would be Arne’s familiar greeting. Carloads of VISTAS would come by for a monthly visit to “Arne’s drugstore.” He believed in sharing the wealth and there was always someone who hadn’t seen the roach terminator in action.

These two are collaborating on something.

For all the entertaining moments Arnie Reichler gave me, I was able to return the favor, unknowingly, a few months before my year ended. One afternoon I received a call from a young woman who was registered in my Rock and Blues Analysis class. She called to say that she had no transportation for the meeting that night and wondered if I knew of anyone she might contact for a ride. I asked her if she could get to downtown Houston and perhaps I could pick her up there and give her a lift. Kim, who was back in Texas, was uneasy about the student.
“How’d she get your number, maybe someone else can give her a ride,” she said. I insisted on following through so we gave the girl a ride. When it was clear she was quite attractive and not particularly pleased that Kim was with me, I made sure that somebody else took her home. What I didn’t know was that Kim had planned a surprise birthday party for me after class that night. Many VISTAS would be there and she needed to arrive with me at exactly 9:30 pm. I asked Arnie if he’d give my “groupie” a ride home and he gladly agreed. But when he didn’t show up later for my party I grew concerned. In fact nobody saw Arnie for three days.
Finally, he surfaced. Hyper as ever, he told me he’d been at the Project House for a few days. It seems that on the way home from my class the “student” was interested in hearing some of his poetry. Rather than drive across town, he took her to the former nunnery because it was right in the neighborhood and an excellent setting for reading poetry. She liked it so well they remained in one of the spare rooms for a few days. According to Arnie, this woman “had a thing for New York Jews.” Arnie was happy to answer all her questions about his ethnicity, his hometown, even his sexual prowess. She had assumed that I fit the bill, but he assured her that was not the case. “I told her you were Jewish, but definitely not from New York. She had some weird ideas, you know how some of these Texas girls are, and somebody needed to set her straight.” Arnie proceeded to go into too much detail about their fun-filled time together. He was particularly fond of the fact that their poetry discussion and the lovemaking that followed were done in an ex-nun’s room under a crucifix. “I kept looking up at that thing,” he told me; “it was a very beautiful experience.” Some new poems followed.

As our Communications Center took hold, so too did our friendships with other VISTAS and our community. Most of the work we did occupied weekdays. Weekends were reserved for unwinding and informal parties. Larry kept his relationship with Deidre, an Austin VISTA, alive by alternating weekends between Houston and Austin. Nancy Hite, a Fourth Ward VISTA, often spent her weekends with David. Just about the time they first connected, we got a call from Nancy one Saturday afternoon.

“What can I bring?”
“Just yourself, and make sure your house mates come with you, we need as many VISTAs from inner city Houston as we can get.”
Nancy was adamant about having a good turnout from the Third, Fifth, and Sixth wards. As the force behind this Fourth Ward open house, she wanted as much support as she could muster. Her little strip of downtown poverty was all set for an influx of direct action. Living in this community composed mostly of decaying shotgun shacks and an occasional church or street corner market, she had a good deal invested in its makeover.
Nancy was a second year VISTA, having endured the political and emotional tornado that was 1968 deep down in the alley of the Fourth Ward. She was tough as scrap iron, having survived a physical assault, numerous verbal threats, and the monthly challenge of making ends meet on a VISTA Volunteer’s scant salary. We needed to be there for Nancy. Hopefully, she would help our fledging efforts further on down the road. That was the VISTA way.
By the time David, Larry, and I arrived, the open house was going strong. The little Community Center was scrubbed and polished. Proud seven and eight year olds stood beside the reading books while their prouder parents sat at card tables collecting signatures: promises to return and contribute something. They needed everything. Books and school supplies, of course, but any working fan, ice trays, educational games; chairs would be nice too. Aside from tutoring, the refurbished center would be used for community meetings, receptions, recitals and the like. Having this facility in the heart of the community would change lives. No transportation needed.
“You don’t have to bring food because the locals will provide that,” she reminded us. “We need you to help organize childcare, talk with or assist the elderly so they can eat and visit with folks, and just be a presence.” Our orders were clear. Nancy urged us to talk up our own projects because that kind of networking might uncover a helpful friend or relative in our neck of the woods.
The day went well. After all organized activities were completed; everyone went to Nancy’s place where a buffet occupied every inch of her small front porch. With help from her neighbors, about 300 people were able to eat, schmooze, and extend the goodwill into the late afternoon and early evening. With the Orange Crush sky as a backdrop, musicians emerged. The Blues and the Sixth Ward go together like Pearl beer and barbeque. With most everyone filled with short ribs, chicken, and fish, plenty of lemonade and cole slaw, the only thing left to do was enjoy the moment. Kids shot marbles, jumped double Dutch, or tossed horseshoes. Generations swapped stories, talked politics or just listened to bluesy riffs sent adrift by small homemade amplifiers. Yet, in my mind, something was missing. I found a local VISTA and popped the question. “Do you know where we can get a nice watermelon around here?”
At this point, I must interject that I am a connoisseur of watermelon. I unabashedly adore it and I refuse to buy in to all the taboos and caveats about what I consider nectar of the gods. I know, too, about the relationship between racism and watermelon. Sometimes, however, as writer Ralph Ellison noted, in this short life it becomes necessary to own one’s passions. This is one of those times. I wanted nothing more than to contribute to one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Thus began my search for the perfect watermelon.
A colleague and I joined one of the residents and motored over to a nearby grocery store. Pathetic. They had nothing cold; what they did have looked anemic.
“Any other ideas?” I disappointedly asked. “What about that guy that sometimes has a truckload he sells from the vacant lot over near the freeway,” my fellow Vista asked. Strike two. Nowhere in sight. At least we tried; I consoled myself. The horizon flamed burgundy now and the Gulf Oil sign on the Houston skyline had replaced any trace of the sun when the only true Texan in the car suddenly said, “There is one other place we might try, you guys are up for it?” It’ll take about 30 minutes to go there and back, it’s the best I can do.” For a watermelon, the right watermelon, I ‘d consider the ends of the earth.
After a maze of turns and twists, we rolled down a dirt road with no dwelling in sight. Through the last of a half dozen dust clouds, I thought I saw an oasis.
“That’s where Rabbit live,” our guide said. We parked under an arching shade tree that came to resemble the inhabitant of the sheet metal and clapboard house standing nearby. Out of this tumbleweed with windows walked Rabbit. He resembled the male equivalent of Miss Jane Pittman. Introductions followed and he asked me what I was looking for. Somehow a watermelon, or even a big watermelon seemed so inept. I felt like I was standing before the god of all watermelon. “Take a look over here, “ he motioned. We followed Rabbit into a shed that contained a refrigerator. Inside, on every shelf rested watermelons. Some Charleston Grays, a few cut in half, others still covered with a smear of mud. “This what you lookin” for?” our guru said. I nodded, but must have looked puzzled, because he shot back, “How many people you fixin’ to feed?”
I didn’t want to say a few hundred, so I just mumbled something like “as many as I can.” In other words, I want the biggest watermelon you have. Rabbit got the message. “Follow me boys.” We went down a shaky staircase to another room where an old freezer stood. It was so dented and dusty I didn’t think it was working. About the size of a small bathtub, the freezer was plugged in, humming faintly, and wired shut with a knotted old coat hanger.
We offered to help, but Rabbit would have none of it. I watched him take a rusty pair of pliers and painstakingly free the latch. Inside the freezer sat the largest watermelon I have ever seen; at least in person. Deep green and about the size of a standard recycling tub, this was one watermelon for the ages. The old timer estimated the weight near 50 pounds. I was not going to do better; within minutes it was mine. I can’t recall the price, but I know it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars. Back then; the price of watermelon ranged between 5-10 cents a pound. It was never about money.
When we returned to what had now become a block party, we took the ice-cold trophy to Nancy’s house. It took two of us to carry it comfortably. Still reeling from the sheer beauty of this melon, I stood by as some of the more skillful residents of the Sixth Ward did the cutting. Anyone within a mile of that melon who had the taste for some was satiated. Yes, it was cold, sweet, refreshing and visually stunning. With the clean-up organized and in effect, many of the neighborhood kids and I spent the waning minutes of twilight competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. I was much too full to be a serious contender for the title.
That watermelon, like the Sixth Ward community center brought a lot of folks together that night. Like my experience as a VISTA it forced me to go beyond the easily obtainable and look into the heart of a culture. Both leave an unforgettably sweet taste.

I realize that some might unknowingly romanticize poverty or poor people. My intention here is only to recall one time, when in the midst of neglect, want, and dysfunction, something joyful and beautiful happened, if only for an evening. All the fear and uncertainty would surely return with tomorrow’s heat and humidity.

I’d never known anyone from Alabama before, much less an Alabama Jew. Boo Bronson fit the bill. Easily one of the most likable VISTAs in the class of ’69, Boo became a neighbor of sorts. Byron P. Forney, our landlord, had only mentioned the sagging structure behind the house. It was, in fact, the remains of a garage apartment. Overgrown with weeds, the actual garage itself was useless. The small dark space contained only some well-used garden tools and a sparse collection of useless paint cans. But up the small staircase sat a studio apartment with a small kitchen and tinier bathroom. Boo Bronson decided to make the place his own. Sub-letting the place to him divided our rent by four, twenty-five dollars each. After a thorough scrubbing, a new coat of NASA paint, and a few pieces of Salvation Army furniture, Boo’s place was habitable. For someone who probably had the most decrepit living quarters on the project, he also had the best car. Boo’s 1969 Pontiac GTO, complete with DUKE decal on the back window sat proudly in the driveway. He was one of the few Houston VISTAs who used his own car. Not a bad deal considering the government would pay for gas mileage. Despite that powerful pale yellow car, Boo was known for something else. He was a collector of cannabis. Part social activist, part hedonist, Boo Bronson stored his varieties of pot in hermetically sealed glass jars. He enjoyed showing and handling his collection like a gourmet. Cached almost ceiling level in an elevated kitchen cabinet, Boo would gladly get a step-stool and let any visitor sample the aroma and “purity” of his collection.
Of all the people I have ever known who made marijuana a regular part of their life, Boo had it best in perspective. He knew the difference between time and place and lived his VISTA life separately from his social life. Make no mistake; Boo was not a dealer, though he’d part with his specialties if the price were right. He merely knew his requirements for living and settled for nothing less. Toward the mid point of our year together, Boo developed a strong interest in the law and befriended a few of the new VISTA lawyers. He turned his attention to projects involving legal aid. I’d be very surprised if he is not a practicing attorney today.
To the left of Boo Bronson’s garage apartment was a single room directly above what used to be the garage itself. With decomposing walls and a floor of ancient, cracked linoleum, this space went unused until VISTA lawyer Marvin Feingold revealed his obsession. A talented guitar player, Feingold would stop by now and again to play and sing with David. He was particularly fond of David’s Gibson Hummingbird guitar. The instrument is named for the hummingbird design graphic on the face. Marvin wanted his picture taken with the guitar. No big deal, except he wanted to be nude, standing next to the guitar. He wanted the photo to be taken in the shabby room above the garage. For this, he would pay David handsomely. Never one to refuse easy money, David was honored to fill the request. On the appointed day, both musicians spent about an hour in the “studio.” The end product was a gift for Marvin Feingold’s wife. Small in stature like David, Marvin posed in all his glory holding the guitar by the neck at his side. The finished set of prints featured half dozen pictures from various angles. When word got around about this little project, VISTAS from every corner of Houston dropped by to enjoy a peek at Marvin’s full frontal fantasy. I think Marvin was pleased with his portrait and had plans to use the photo for an album cover should the need arise. Like most of the VISTA lawyers I worked with, Marvin was motivated, dedicated, and sensitive to the needs of his community. Still, we never saw this one coming.
That Spring I was again called to appear before my draft board. I’d asked for an occupational deferment because some boards considered VISTA an important job. Mine didn’t. I had no expectations and was not surprised that my request was denied. This was my cue to write a statement of consciousness objection, something I was prepared to do. On my brief trip home, I stayed with my father for three days. I hadn’t been in my family’s home for about six months, but it felt like decades. My entire perception had changed. Even the shabby carpet on the floor looked elegant to me. Had I become that used to no carpet on old wooden floors? The ability to take a shower whenever I wanted made me giddy. Television seemed irrelevant. I had no idea how much I never noticed about growing up in the San Fernando Valley. The neighborhoods looked so well kept and orderly. The visceral tension of my VISTA life was glaringly absent. When I returned to Texas I was delighted to find David and Larry at the airport waiting to pick me up. How nice, what thoughtful friends. They really care about me. Not exactly.
“Here’s your check, we’re going straight to the bank so you can cash it,” Larry announced.
“Then you need to pay the phone bill,” David added, producing an envelope. “If you don’t do this right now, Southwestern Bell is going to cutoff our phone this afternoon. With no phone we have no Communications Center.” Then came a big shit-eatin’grin.
I knew I had to sacrifice my pay this time, but someone would get me another day. That was the VISTA way. That’s how things got done at 1506 Rosewood. We never missed a call. We never missed a meal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 10

B. Greene

Issues and Answers

Across five states, we were spread as thin as Depression stew. Was that part of the grand design? After a few months of living in and at poverty, most of us were vulnerable to any notion that we’d been co-opted--hoodwinked, into a loosely organized army of rebellious idealists, fanned out over some of the most dangerous turf the country had to offer. Surely the FBI and Selective Service System must be having a good, long laugh over this. After all, what kind of community organizers could we be if we couldn’t even organize ourselves?
Some sort of newsletter or magazine to inform and inspire would be ideal. The transitory nature of the program made previous attempts at a regional publication difficult, if not doomed to failure. Yet, with our new cache of materials from NASA, an electronic stencil cutter, and a high-speed duplicating machine, we kicked around the idea from time to time. The catalyst came with news from Marshall, Texas where the entire VISTA project was suddenly ousted because of a publication. It was a local offering, aimed at empowering the black community. It didn’t help that the VISTA sponsored newsletter had the look and sound of the radical press. Words like “struggle” and “revolution,” found their way into community news items. Terms like “establishment” and “white power structure” amplified every fear fantasy the God-fearing townsfolk could muster. Clenched fists don’t play well in rural Texas. Perhaps if the VISTAs from neighboring communities or even states had been effectively organized, the Marshall project may have been saved. It was yet another example of well-intended volunteers trying to make change in a community with draconian institutions and ultimately being left hung out to dry. Months of delicate networking, coalition building, and trust, evaporated overnight. Promises, friendships, emboldened community organizers, all shown the door.

During an informal gathering at our Communications Center soon afterward, the conversation quickly turned to resurrecting The Issue. This now defunct monthly periodical once gave VISTAs all over the Southwest region a forum to share their stories, vent, write poetry, and unbraid the knots in their heads about the work they were doing. Some of the VISTA projects in more remote areas tried to initiate alternative publications. The idea was sound, but the cost usually prohibitive. When the Southwest regional office in Austin agreed to give us contact information, Larry, David, and I went to work. Within a week we produced a modest, revised, version of The Issue then waited for the response. I was struck with how easy it was to scan and then duplicate the Office of Economic Opportunity’s “All Postage Fees Paid “logo. A little press type and some cover stock gave our initial copy of The Issue an appropriate, if not professional, look. Within days, we began to hear from VISTAs scattered throughout the region. In came their ideas, complaints, poetry, and opinions. Letters with art work, drawings with poetry, journal entries, sketches, an errant joint or two, a recipe, a photo, a five-dollar bill. With each additional Issue, we published both regional and national news. Isolated VISTAs from Arkansas to New Mexico, Oklahoma to Louisiana suddenly had an audience and a forum. They wasted no time using it.
While the Rosewood St. Communications Center wasn’t quite the floor of the New York Times, it felt like Grand Central a day or two before publication deadlines. Specific roles emerged. Larry handled editorials and newsy items, as well as assistance with the layout and printing. David helped with all things technical, made decisions about paper, cover stock, and tended to the machines. I was the poetry editor. That meant that I solicited, read, selected and ultimately edited all the poetry published. I also obtained graphics, did the layout, and readied the final copy. Everybody stapled.
Our version of The Issue would be different. It would be by, for, and about the VISTAs in the Southwest region. That message got through and within a few months, two concerns generated the strongest feedback. Not surprisingly, the VISTAs of the Southwest region were grappling with the same questions we in Houston spent many nights debating: Are we being set up for failure by our government? Shouldn’t we be increasing our efforts to organize the middle class?
A contingent of VISTAs from Oklahoma likened their treatment to the “bait and switch” techniques used by car salesmen. Writing about a committee that sought their involvement and feedback for revamped training sessions, they warned the region that these committees could suddenly appear and disappear. In parenthesis after the text of their letter, Larry noted a similar experience with the State Training Board in Texas.

The Oklahoma letter as it originally appeared, complete with ink drawing.

If The Issue did anything, it provided volunteers in the field with an outlet for their ideas and emotions. It’s appearance in their mailboxes every month said, we know you are out there and what you are trying to do, while seemingly impossible, matters. That rough little collection of news, reprints, poetry, letters, and illustrations, said you are not alone. It said, tell us what you need, and don’t give up; don’t ever give up.
In December of 1969, after mailing out one of our first editions of The Issue, we received a letter forwarded to us via regional headquarters in Austin.
This is a personal statement of gratitude for you efforts in preparing
The Issue.
As one who was inappropriately accused of having produced “that VISTA
paper” in Marshall, Texas, I can say with sincerity that The Issue is a real
VISTA publication.
…(It) is not published by others for VISTA but …with a real involvement
of VISTAS in the field. This is what gives it its unique stance in…OEO
literature and what calls for its continuation.
Your editorial comments re the misuse of VISTA have expanded the scope
of my thought about my work.
…keep up the good work; you have my utmost support.

Karl Joost
Jacksonville, Tx

Karl was particularly thankful for our re-publication of selected articles from major publications like the Washington Post, New York Times, or the local press. We gave all authors credit, but I don’t believe we ever asked for permission. It wouldn’t have mattered. The information mattered, nothing else. This kind of feedback kept us going. Within the next few months a clear dialogue emerged on what turned out to be the hottest of all hot topics: organizing the middle class.
“VISTA exists to co-opt us; it’s another way our racist, imperialistic, government can channel potential revolutionaries.”
“You knew your resources would be limited and these communities were dangerous before you signed up, didn’t you?”
All our social gatherings usually began with this conversation. Knee deep in this quagmire, the emphasis of our work was beginning to shift. The realization of our condition, white Middle Class college graduates, miles from home, economically marginalized, distrusted by and alienated from our communities became our paralysis. Obsessed with this unexpected existential dilemma, we began to engage a new enemy in the war on poverty: ourselves.
When Jose Arcaya, one of the few Latino VISTAs on the project submitted an article that was subsequently published in Volume 3 of The Issue, the conversation took on a personal tone that escalated to accusatory. Entitled “While in VISTA,” Arcaya lamented the cynical, fatalistic, tone invading the discussions among Houston’s Volunteers. In essence he called for the “few measly, middle-class, white Volunteers …in strife-ridden, incredibly alien…hostile communities” to stop intellectualizing our way out of the task we originally volunteered to do—work with poor people at their own pace and level.” The article went on to acknowledge and even agree with some of the opinions and concerns about Volunteers being tokens of a patronizing federal government trying to channel young dissidents away from potential revolutionary activities. Arcaya recognized, too, that VISTA was concerned only with the symptoms of poverty and had no interest in dealing with the real causes. But it was the last paragraph that enraged many on the Houston project. Arcaya wrote:
If VISTAs don’t do anything else during their year, they ought to at least
immerse themselves in the poverty experience. They ought to use the year
to be taught by poor people the meaning of poverty, not to fortify some college
SDS prejudice about the causes of poverty. They ought to arm themselves with
enough gut and intellectual experiences from the ghetto that when they resume their
non-VISTA lives they can propose realistic, concrete solutions to poverty. The
Revolution won’t do the poor much good if they die by bullets instead of by hunger
and disease.

Hugh and Sue Grady bristled with anger. Former SDS organizers at Fordham University, they were one of the few married couples on the project. The Gradys assumed Jose’s article was a personal attack and therefore did what most politically active radicals would do; they called a meeting, an emergency meeting, at their modest apartment.
I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed the role of a journalist on assignment. Besides, I was eager to get a glance at the Grady apartment because I’d heard conflicting stories about the d├ęcor. Some said if the Houston Police ever looked inside anyone within 50 feet of the place would be arrested. Sure enough, entering the small flat in North Houston, I came face to face with a large portrait of Chairman Mao taped to the living room wall. To the left, Che Guevara stared back at me, to the right the unruly mane of the king of beasts himself, Karl Marx, dominated the wall. Revolutionary graphics detailing various marches, political texts, and portraits of lesser-known leaders covered every inch of that apartment. A bookcase of brick and pine contained everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to a first edition of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. A hardcover copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice dangled off a stained, peeling coffee table no doubt obtained from the nearby Goodwill. Across the room, facing inward and away from daytime sun stood a tall, rough-hewn oak cabinet. Inside two elegant glass doors, on all three shelves sat Shakespeare: every play and a good two-dozen volumes of criticism.
Hugh Grady, twisting the ends of his wispy red moustache offered wine. Hugh was originally from Savannah, Georgia. Southern radicals held particular fascination for me. Rather chunky, Hugh reminded me of a Georgia planter. He spoke slowly, eliciting each syllable with the confidence and resolve of an aristocrat. Yet his politics were left of left.
“Ah wonder what makes Jose so sure he undahstans mah motivation for comin’ here?”
“Does he really think we’re… what did he call us, homespun Marxist-Leninists? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Sue Grady emerged from the kitchen and set a plate of corn chips on the large wooden spool that once held electrical cable but now functioned as a coffee table. She had the look of a New England librarian. Her long auburn hair was usually pulled straight back and tied; its thickness complimented her strong face and delicate mouth. Her vocabulary could be challenging, but tonight her anger made every sentence understandable.
“I think he’s got power issues,” she said. But if some asshole is going to insult me, I’d wish he’d have the cahones to do it to my face.”
“Ah don’t quite know what to make of it,” Hugh said. Red wine had trickled unnoticed and imprinted the front of his white T-shirt with three distinct droplets. “Doesn’t he know we’re about organizin’ the poor? Doesn’t he undastan’ a fuckin’ thing about oppressive governments?”
About a dozen VISTAS from inner city Houston showed up that night. After reading Jose’s article together the general consensus was that we could function as a project with individuals using whatever strategies felt most comfortable. As long as we were after the same goals, each other’s means justified the same ends. Nobody said anything but there were many in attendance at the Grady’s that evening who lost a little sleep wondering if anyone on the project was working undercover. We knew this was a governmental protocol. We had been to universities where not every student in the room was a student. A disquieting malaise, like the jaws of an enormous, vice began closing in. First came the desperate on the street. Fueled by drug addiction, hunger, and rage they twisted one end of the handle. A deceptive, duplicitous, government took hold of the other end. Only the families that we knew, the faces we encountered daily, could help us slip this grip. They seldom questioned our motivation. The poor are among the most generous people I have met.

My poem “Miguel” as it appeared in The Issue

Six months earlier, a Houston VISTA originally from the East coast had a carload of friends drop by on their way out to Los Angeles. They had been to the Woodstock Festival, and gave us an eyewitness account.
“It was fantastic, so many people enjoying the music together, sharing food, getting high, living and loving the moment. It’s gonna happen every summer from now on, man.”
To hear them talk, it seemed as if that scene would be reproduced all over the country. Someone on the project had saved enough to buy the first album of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, so we had some idea of what took place. The consensus was that young people had actually figured out how to live their values. That thousands of people could come together and peacefully enjoy their music, protect the land and each other, and change the image that often plagued their counter-culture. To hear them talk, it seemed it would only be a short time before Houston saw such a gathering of the tribes. Some from this Woodstock army tried to convince us we might be wasting our time trying to effect change with the poor. Again, they reminded us we needed to take a hard look at the government that was supposedly sponsoring our presence.
When the time came for these folks to move on, one guy in the group made a last ditch attempt to convince his friend to leave VISTA and find a job in the film industry with him.
“So how many lives did you save today,” he chided. “It’s not like that,” she tearfully replied. “It takes time to get people to trust us; go on, make a movie, I’m not ready to leave.”
His summer was very different from ours, but it jolted me into wondering if I was going to exit this year a different person. With the exception of friends who were married or had children, I expected others I knew to be willing to lay their bodies on the line for what they believed. That’s why I have always detested the term draft dodger or evader. I considered myself a resister. Similarly, if my country granted me the right to dissent, I gladly would serve its best interests. The V in VISTA was for Volunteer. The war at home, in my mind, was a higher priority than the one in Asia. I know now, the truth of that sentiment.
Another way VISTAs in the Southwest region supported each other was with friendly visits. Big cities like Albuquerque Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock were popular destinations. It was economy travel at its best. Usually a phone call would be enough to set up a trip. It was like having a free place to stay in five states. Granted, the lodging was in the worst neighborhoods these urban centers could offer, but the innkeepers were gracious and felt like old friends.
I was dying to go to New Orleans. The six-hour trip was nothing for five VISTAs and one GSA car. Besides it was a working vacation because collaboration with other VISTAs proved valuable. When the opportunity arose I jumped on the chance. David, Nancy, Kim, Larry and I headed toward New Orleans about 3’oclock one Friday afternoon. We were cleared until Monday. The small towns of East Texas were fascinating to me and when we crossed the border into Louisiana I was intrigued with a huge sign that greeted visitors. “Welcome to Louisiana, The Only State That Refuses to License Chiropractors!”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked. Nobody knew. Was the state proud of this fact or were Chiropractors condemning the state? A few miles down the road we stopped for gas. I kept telling myself, you are in Louisiana, and you talk differently, look differently, and think differently. But then I felt that way in small Northern California towns I’ve driven through. When the good ol’ boy at the gas pump, wearing a small red and white polka dotted cap, smiled hello, I wondered, am I being too harsh? Inside the restroom I glanced at the abundant graffiti. On a condom dispenser, neatly printed, were the words:
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty,
Nigger pussy, good as any!

No, I was not in California. That sense never left me.

Welcome to Louisiana; we’ve got what you need.

One of the films we saw during training involved some New Orleans VISTAs who had organized in a most unusual community dubbed “Gert town.” The poverty and living conditions in this strip of New Orleans ghetto rivaled any shantytown in the world. As with many small pockets of inner city in the “Big Easy” Gert town had it’s own distinct history and story to tell. Originally part of a large plantation, Gerttown became a maze of mostly unpaved streets and a fertile breeding ground for crime and poverty. Historically, many of the cities main streets stop just short of Gerttown. Yet the area is rich in jazz history having been the home of something dubbed “cutting” a forerunner to a modern day “battle of the bands.”

The VISTAs in Gerttown were excellent hosts. First we walked through the French Quarter, sampling some of the affordable neighborhood seafood places. One bar had an inexpensive Happy Hour that featured oysters on the free spread. Everyone learned how to eat crawfish and “suck the head” properly. Then we spent a little time in Jackson Square and ultimately worked our way down to the Mississippi River. I could hear Ramblin’ Jack Elliot singing in my ear, “Did you ever stand and shiver, just because you were lookin’ at a river.” As night fell, Gerttown assumed another personality. The muddy streets became less evident and the area’s numerous juke joints and nightclubs flashed their harlequin designs. Glowing reminders of Pearl, Jax, and Dixie beer provided more light than any street lamp.

To get the full flavor of Gerttown, one of the New Orleans VISTAS suggested we go to a neighborhood place right across the street. Probably converted from one of the numerous shotgun shacks, the establishment had a small crescent shaped bar and about a dozen small tables scattered throughout. Five of us surrounded one of the tables. Annie, the New Orleans VISTA informed us that things were done a bit differently in Gerttown bars. “You buy a bottle at the bar, then bring it to your table. Don’t worry, they have all sizes.” Two of us retrieved 5 small glasses and a pint of vodka. It was all right to bring in your own mixer, but all alcohol had to be purchased at the bar. We had a drink and took in our surroundings. A live DJ was spinning records and putting out a wall of Motown punctuated by an occasional funky blues. Kim, as she was wont to do, began to feel the music. A few couples danced, many more kept to the task of serious Saturday night drinking. A willowy woman in a short burgundy dress was doing her best to attract the attention of one man at the bar. Occasionally she draped herself over him like an oversize cape. He just hunched his shoulders and she’d back off. This dance continued for about 20 minutes. It seemed to me that she was getting more looks from other women than the object of her affection. Kim and I soon joined the couples dancing. We’d been the only whites in juke joints before, but the atmosphere here was somehow different. These folks all knew one another. This was their turf and we needed to be aware of that. Urgency seemed to define their actions, like an invisible timer ticking. After about half an hour the bartender slipped out from behind the bar and placed a fifth of whiskey on our tiny table.
“A welcome gift from this gentleman,” he said. A well-dressed black man in his 40s with a broad grin and an apparent appetite for whiskey soon joined us. Mr. Alexander proved to be a thorough gentleman. He danced with the women and told a few stories, before moving on to other friends at other tables. As the evening wore on, we wore out, still feeling the effects of the long drive. Annie set our unfinished bottle on the table of a friend and after nodding thanks, we walked back across the street. Thoroughly tired and slightly buzzed we crashed on the living room floor. About 2 o’clock in the morning we all awoke with a start. Annie ran in and shouted, “don’t put the lights on.” She proceeded to peep outside through the closed blinds. We took turns looking soon after. The small bar had emptied into the street. A chaotic haze of noise and movement enveloped the scene. All I saw were frenzied, shadowy figures. Police lights and sirens followed. An hour later it was dead quiet. Annie had slipped out to a neighbor’s place and returned by 3:30 with a full report. When she began with, “You remember that woman in burgundy at the bar,” I knew what was coming. Jealousy came armed here. Fortunately nobody died. An angry woman had pulled a gun or a knife; people hit the floor. Most took off before the police disarmed her and took her downtown for disorderly conduct. Saturday night had again surrendered to Sunday morning in Gerttown.
The relationship of violence to change lurked behind most political discussions by the end of my year. Just as the Civil Rights movement had given rise to more aggressive leadership, so too did the anti-war movement grapple with the pace and methodology to reach its goals. The Black Panther Party left no doubt where they stood. Marching into the California State Capitol building with guns was both a photo op and a declaration of war. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown had ties to SNCC, (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) but their rhetoric left no doubt that non-violence was no longer a guiding principle. So too had white radicals upped the ante after Chicago 1968. With the Jefferson Airplane singing “Up against the wall motherfucker,” and the Beatles multiple versions of “Revolution” confusion reigned. People were fed up with tear gas and billy clubs being a regular part of their First Amendment expression. The war in Vietnam was escalating with new fronts in Laos and Cambodia a real possibility. Political assassination was becoming the preferred tactic to deal with the growing Black Panther Party. Activists of all stripes were wrestling with the question of violence as a viable tool to seek retribution and achieve change.
Against this background, Abbie Hoffman made an appearance in Houston. One of the notorious Chicago Seven, Hoffman easily attracted attention everywhere he went. In Texas, Abbie Hoffman was like an organic farmer at a pesticide salesman’s convention. If one person could epitomize everything that was wrong with the youth of America in the eyes of President Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” Hoffman was the one. He was radical youth incarnate. While Rice University students battled with their administration over Hoffman’s right to free speech on the campus, he addressed an enthusiastic group off campus. My housemates and I attended. The audience contained sympathizers, undercover cops, the morbidly curious, and a handful of folks too stoned to be anything other than wasted at the time. Hoffman had recently published Steal This Book and after encouraging those in attendance to do the deed, he launched into tirade against those officials blocking his appearance on the Rice campus.
“Let’s go down there now and take that building over,” he shouted. “If you want to see who is prepared to act on their beliefs and force these corporate motherfuckers to stop stealing your education, then let’s go down there right now.”
He was making converts by the second. Even the stoners were wider-awake. By midnight the frothy mob moved in the direction of the university. We went home. I didn’t lose any sleep over making that decision, but sleep nevertheless came reluctantly. Dr. King was gone. The war in Vietnam showed no signs of winding down. My generation was losing patience and now the Klan was on my trail. I longed for the luxury of college to sit and sort out my morality with friends. How much was I missing? What else was going on while I’d been stuck in Texas making $6.00 a day? And then the final thought to be fingered like jagged rock: What if I never get out of Texas?
I read in the paper the following morning that a handful of students were arrested for creating a disturbance. Abbie Hoffman somehow managed to slip away.
“I wonder where he went, or where he slept last night,” I asked.
“That’s what always seems to happen, these guys think they are the voice of the people, the soul of the oppressed; wonder how long he’d last in the Fifth Ward?”
We were all feeling the tension these kinds of conversations spawned. Wanting to effect change in our assigned communities at a faster rate, wanting to be in touch with the larger issues going on in the country, and grappling with the inner turmoil that was tying our personal sense of ethics in knots. If he did noting else, Hoffman’s visit to my world gave me the impetus to explore the limits of my conscience. After that evening, I pulled back. I revisited the writers and thinkers whose ideas resonated deeply and stoutly within my mind. My draft board had rejected my claim for an occupational deferment so it was time to take the next step. I set aside any anger about the inequities in the Selective Service System to focus on my own belief system. I would spend the next week writing my statement of conscientious objection. This phase of my battle with Local Board #82 would continue for the next four years. But I couldn’t see that in the spring of 1970. All I could do was deconstruct my moral consciousness; find the depth of my own religious beliefs, my own concept of God, and my own political compass.
At first I relied on my knowledge of humanism. From the poetry of Kenneth Patchen to the texts of Gandhi and Dr. King. In time, all the beautifully turned phrases became echoes in an empty classroom. I turned to my senses and found time spent listening to music or riding my horse, or simply walking around looking deep into people’s faces helped my ideas about the sacredness of human life crystallize. When I set aside to write the statement the task became effortless. Yet, there was never a moment, from my initial introspection until the last sheet of my essay sprang free of the typewriter, that I expected it would ever influence a member of my board. To be sure, they would probably read every word. I imagined the thoughts drifting through their brains at the time. I could almost hear their snickers, see their physical discomfort. This would be just one more semi-eloquent, bundle of half-truths penned by a coward who never thought about what it took to keep this country free. My Eagle Scout distinction would be a momentary flare up of static in the military march soundtrack of their lives. I knew then that my statement of conscientious objection was for me and me alone.
Even though my Conscientious Objector’s statement looked less like an intelligent essay and more like answers to required questions, it came from my soul. My attempt to inform my reader about what influenced these beliefs was both intellectual and experiential. I wrote:
When I was 19, my mother became critically ill with cancer. She lived eight months knowing, as did my entire family, that she would soon die. Being my first intimate experience with death, this period of my life had a tremendous influence on my religious beliefs. Often, in her last few months, my mother and I spoke of life, death, God, and man’s relationship to other men. After her death, my religious beliefs became more firmly entrenched and now manifest themselves in my writing. Set against a background of increasing social change, the violence of war and racial strife, I became further resolved to act against the suffering of mankind, in the only way I could: non- violently.

I wrote about the sacredness of human life, quoted the Bible and Koran, and concluded with the statement:
To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.

There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,

Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:

There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.

My draft board might be smirking, they might be pissed off, or they might actually be thinking about something I wrote. I knew then that whatever they thought was irrelevant. When that statement, with all its Registered Letter tags and stickers left my hands, I took my stance. I have never been more certain of any ethical belief and never more proud of my ability to be honest.

Shortly before his death in 1989, a pensive Abbie Hoffman, in trying to summarize the ‘60s said:
in the nineteen-sixties, apartheid was driven out of America. Legal segregation - Jim Crow - ended. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. Now, it doesn't matter who sits in the Oval Office. But the big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, and headstrong - and we were right. I regret nothing

I don’t think he saw Iraq coming.