Charlie and Me December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), Charlie and Me.
Tags: autobiography, berkeley, Canada, childbirth, city government, clark kerr, conscientious objection, david harris, dow chemical, goldwater, irvington, jfk, julian wedgwod, lbj, mcnamara, montreal, NDP, new jersey, newark, quebec, resistance, rusk, san fernando valley, toronto, toronto council, uphs, Vietnam War
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(I think I can say honestly that I loved both my parents equally, and I believe that their influence on my life and character was equal as well. However it was Charlie, intellectually and politically oriented like myself, who could both inspire me and get under my skin. He was clearly a less secure individual than my mother, and I don’t think I ever achieved anything of any significance whatsoever without thinking about how it would please my father. I cannot vouch for all the historical facts in the “story” that follows, especially with reference to the year 1941. What I know about the events of January 26/27, 1941 are all hearsay, my having been minus one day old at the time; but I was young then and had a good ear.)
Hitler’s armies are in control of most of Western Europe, and the Japanese military is cooking up a secret plan to attack the main US naval base in Hawaii, which will represent a daring move to demolish in a single blow America’s capacity to wage war in the Pacific. It is January 26, 1941, and it has just begun to snow in Newark, New Jersey.
At about 8:30 PM, Charles Hollander leaves the grocery store that is owned and operated by his cousin Morris where he earns the ten dollars a week that supports him, his wife, Anne, and their two year old son Neil. He steps out onto Springfield Avenue and decides that the storm is not so bad that he cannot save five cents by walking to their Jacob Street flat instead of taking the bus. Then he stops for a moment for a second thought. He gives himself a mental kick in the pants for thinking of saving a nickel when his wife is in her ninth month and due at any moment. He catches the first number five that passes going east and heads for home.
Charlie, as he is known to just about everyone, was “political” in his youth. He presided over a reform-oriented Democratic “Club” whose political hero and inspiration was Jersey’s own Woodrow Wilson. With his quick mind and law school background Charlie was considered by many to be an up and comer. Instead, he chose to buck the party establishment by joining a reform ticket that opposed the party bosses in a primary election for the State Assembly. To the injury of a losing campaign was added the insult of being blackballed from the party’s patronage (including WPA jobs). For good.
Despite the sudden and rude termination of his dream for a career in party politics, Charlie had no lasting regrets. For it was through his political involvement that he became good buddies with Max Korabiak, the husky son of a Ukrainian immigrant, who drove a truck making deliveries for his father’s burgeoning ice and coal business. Ice boxes (before refrigerators could be found in most homes) demanded to be kept ice cold in the summer, and furnaces consumed tons of coal in the winter. Max was proud and ambitious, and a later business failure was to lead to what in those enlightened times was called a “nervous breakdown.” Max ended up spending the rest of his adult life wheeling and dealing and outliving several generations of attendant staff at the same State Hospital for the Mentally Ill in upstate Overbrook, where he also was able to look after the well-being of his mother, Sadie, who had been confined several years before with the same amorphous diagnosis and where she also made her home until her very last days.
At one of their Democratic Club’s annual dances, Max had introduced Charlie to his younger sister, Anne; and though both Anne and Charlie had arrived at the dance with their own dates, they left together. It was but a few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, 1933, that Charlie borrowed his friend S. Donald “Red” Rappaport’s Model A Ford and eloped with Anne to the poor man’s Niagara Falls: Elkton, Maryland. Red came along as a witness.
Whether Anne’s hard working old world style tyrannical father, William “Bill” (neé Vasily) Korabiak, had no use for Charlie because he was poor or because he was Jewish is hard to say. Probably a little of both. Upon their return from Elkton – it had been an overnight trip and they were back in time for the New Year’s Day party at the Korabiak home cum ice dock cum coal bin on Hunterdon Street, with no one being any the wiser about their new marital status – Anne continued to keep house and raise her three younger brothers (as she had done since she had “dropped out” of the sixth grade when her mother left the home for good) until Charlie could save up enough cash to rent the Jacob Street flat. When months later she finally broke the news to her father and took leave for good, old Mister Korabiak now had another reason to hate Charlie, one that hit much closer to home. Charlie had, in effect, signed Anne’s Emancipation Proclamation, thereby causing Bill the net loss of one full time domestic indentured servant.
Charlie arrives at the Jacob Street flat shortly after 9:00 PM. He is exhausted, for his day at the grocery store is long and tedious, and the walk from the bus stop to the house is all uphill, but he is relieved to find everything ship shape. Little Neil is crying, but what else is new. After grabbing a quick supper – Anne had already eaten – Charlie will now have to take over the seemingly endless task of getting the baby to sleep so that Anne can rest. He says a silent and secular – for the religious part of his Judaism really never took root – prayer that the new baby will be a quieter one. The law of averages, he thinks to himself, has got to be in our side on that score. Charlie tries to put out of his mind the fact that once the recalcitrant Neil decides to trade weep for sleep, his kitchen duties – in the form of a sink full of dirty dishes and a hamper full of soiled diapers – await his attention. His responsibility for these kinds of chores goes back beyond Anne’s pregnancy. Having escaped from one slave master, she was not about to replace him with another, albeit a younger and more handsome one. She was a grade six drop out, and the new wave of feminism was decades away from raising its unruly head, but Anne was ahead of her time. Charlie was expected to pull some of the domestic weight.
As he sleepwalks through the dishes, Charlie’s mind drifts back to that last visit to Dr. Hautman’s office. Hautman, a tall, dark haired handsome man, a half-generation older than Charlie, was a general practitioner, that’s about all there was in those days. He charged only what you could afford, gave you all the time you needed, both in the examining room and with making payment. He never sent a bill, and he never considered making house calls anything other than part of his job.
While Anne would be getting dressed in the doctor’s examining room, he and Charlie are talking about the war that day in the front office. Two peace loving Jewish men agonizing over what seemed to be the inevitability despite Roosevelt’s apparent hesitancy of their country once again getting sucked into the middle of another European conflagration. Although Hitler’s attitude toward Jews was well known by then, no one could have imagined the atrocities that were to follow, so it was not that unusual that many American Jews were blasé about getting involved. Neither Charlie nor the good doctor would have considered themselves “isolationists,” yet both men were cynical about what would be achieved by fighting another World War.
“They said the last one was the ‘war to end all wars,’” the doctor reminded Charlie who had mentioned that he was starting to see no way the U.S. could not get involved again, “I don’t know about you, Charlie, but why is it that the big shots always call the tune, and it’s the young kids that go over and get shot at? Sure Hitler’s a maniac, but who drove the Germans into his arms with the impossible reparations debt from the war? Wilson tried with the League of Nations and where did it get him? I’ve got two boys a lot closer to fighting age than your little Neil. Those boys mean everything to me and Sarah, and I’ll be damned if I want to see them sent five thousand miles to die on foreign soil.”
Charlie nodded agreement. “When will the fools that run this world ever learn, when will they ever learn?” he added, shaking his head.
Charlie had completed training with the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC), a sort of non-academic R.O.T.C. for civilians, and when called up would enter the army as a second lieutenant (unbeknownst to him at the time, however, he would never see active duty due to a bone deformity that caused him to fail his physical when he finally tried to enlist).
“Charlie, I want you to know something. If somehow we get dragged into this thing, and when you are called up, I don’t want you to be worried about Anne and the kids. I will take care to make sure they are in fine health when you get back, and you can take that to the bank. And don’t worry about money, O.K.? Right now everything is as it should be with Anne. The baby’s gong to be as big and healthy as the last one. She could be popping out any day now. You understand what I’m telling you? I’m counting on it being a girl.”
Here is how I became a city councilor.
For years I had resisted the temptation to run for political office in Toronto. I was in my seventh year as Executive Director of the now legendary 519 Church Street Community Center, and I won’t deny that I wasn’t at times restless for a change. But I had plenty to keep me happy right where I was. I had had the opportunity to take a lead role in the development of City of Toronto policy toward city funded but independently run community centers, and therefore to a certain extent I knew my way around City Hall. Of late, in reaction to the Mulroney Conservative government’s cuts and privatization of the student summer employment programs that had been initiated in the Trudeau era, which had a profoundly negative effect on the ability of non-profit organizations to provide a wide range of community and social services over the summer, I had helped to organize and was national coordinator of the Save our Summer Coalition (S.OS.).
Since emigrating to Canada in the summer of 1968 to avoid up to five years in a federal prison for my anti-Vietnam war activities, I had slowly gotten my feet back into the waters of political activism; and, since 1980 when I took the position at The 519, I was even drawing a decent salary, thanks in part to my friend Anna Furstenberg’s having convinced me that it is possible “to do well while doing good.” It was not quite the same as the street level political activism I had known in Southern California. There I had been involved in helping to support the United Farm Workers, under Cesar Chavez, by organizing boycotts of non-union grapes and wine; I had gotten involved with the Black community in various Civil Right demonstrations and projects; and, of course, was involved in a wide range of anti-Vietnam War activities, including the picketing of local draft boards and military installations, demonstrating against Dow Chemical, the maker of the horrendous napalm bombs that was eating flesh of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians, and organizing and participating in teach-in and sit-ins at various campuses.
I had spent several frustrating years involved with the Democratic Party. Although my inclination, which had taken root in my student years at Berkeley (1958-1962), was for direct action of the street variety, until the revolutionary gusts that swept the nation beginning in the mid-sixties, it seemed as if the Democrats were the only game in town for progressive political activists. The final straw for me, however, came shortly after the 1964 presidential elections, where I had poured heart and soul into the campaign to elect “peace candidate” Lyndon Johnson in an Armageddon like battle against the war-mongering Barry Goldwater. It was Johnson, of course, who, once elected, proceeded to escalate US involvement in Vietnam that lead eventually to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides and expansion of the conflict into Cambodia and Laos.
After leaving the Democratic Party, I had studied, adopted, then rejected anarchism and was beginning to become interested in the Marxist-Humanist movement founded by Raya Dunayevskaya. When I got to Canada and learned that there was a third party — a socialist party! – I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It wasn’t long, however, before I discovered that the New Democratic Party (NDP) had pretty much abandoned its socialist CCF roots. It was socialist in name only, it was no longer looking to transform but rather to reform. I soon saw the logic of whoever it was who had characterized the NDP as nothing more than “Liberals in a hurry” — that is, reformers with no desire to remake a system that was structurally flawed.
So, although I was under no illusions, and although I did not choose to join the Party, I could not deny, especially since I was directly involved via my work at the community center with city government, that on neighborhood-based issues, it was generally the NDP that could be counted on for support, both with respect to policy and practical assistance. I therefore was quite willing to actively back NDP candidates in the old Ward 6 where I worked and especially in Ward 7 where I lived. In so doing, I got to know, became friendly with, and worked side by side with a number of NDP grass roots activists as well as elected city councillors.
Nevertheless, when John Piper jogged into my office at The 519 at lunchtime one afternoon, and those who know John will know that I mean that literally, I outright rejected his suggestion that I seek to become the NDP candidate in the Ward 7 by-election to replace Joanne Campbell, who had resigned to accept an appointment from the Provincial Liberal government. Joanne, a life-long New Democrat representing a Ward with a twenty year tradition of sending hard-working progressives to City Hall, had become somewhat of a controversial figure several months prior to her resignation when she announced that she would no longer participate in the NDP caucus at City Council but rather would sit as an “independent”. Many Torontonians are under the illusion that party politics do not apply at the city level since the Liberals and Conservatives do not run under the party banner but rather call themselves “independents.” However, a true independent at city council is as rare as a true idealist, and the same Liberal and Conservative organizations that support provincial and federal candidates are mobilized for the city level campaigns (in fact, city council has always served as the “minor leagues” for many a future Liberal and Conservative member of the provincial and federal parliaments). The NDP, on the other hand, openly and formally nominates candidates who, when elected, participate in a caucus, albeit without the discipline that is exercised at the senior levels of government.
A couple of weeks before John’s appearance at my office, I had received a phone call from Joanne’s assistant at City Hall, Jeff Evanson, to inform me that Joanne would be resigning the next day, that he would be running in the by-election to fill the vacancy, and could he count on my support. He neglected to mention to me that he would be running as an “independent” with the active, if clandestine, backing of the Liberal Party (who found him a Provincial job after losing the election). Oblivious to the impossible to conceive of at the time fact that I would be Jeff’s opponent in that election, and although I assumed he would probably win the NDP nomination and get my eventual support, I told him (assuming that he was asking for my support for the NDP nomination) that I could not offer my public support until I knew who all the candidates were. It had always bugged the hell out of me that so many people gave their public endorsements based upon the first person to ask for it; and I later came to find out as a city councilor that this was also the case amongst councilors when lobbying their colleagues for support for a particular council vote or appointment. So much for principle in politics.
In any case, since I had long ago decided that it would be against my principles to be an NDP candidate for anything, it didn’t take any real consideration on my part to reject Piper’s suggestion. John Piper is that unusual combination of intellectual and jock. He is one of the most persistent and persuasive persons you will ever want to meet, or not want to, as the case may be. He filled me in on what an Evanson victory would mean for Ward 7, that is, nothing less than a Liberal coup d’etat. He told me that the NDP needed to come up with a strong candidate fast (this was June and the by-election was to be held in November), and that he was only asking me to participate as a candidate in the nominating process to help develop a strong field of candidates. He showed me a list of people who were considering entering the race for the nomination, including the Labor Council’s Linda Torney, a person for whom I had and have tremendous respect.
Our meeting ended up with my withdrawal of an outright rejection in favor of my agreeing to at least consider the possibility. This was a major step for me, one that showed that I was not immune to setting principle aside when it came to realizing a practical strategic objective, in this case, not letting the Liberals get away with the sleazy and dishonest attempt to “steal” Ward 7 with their “independent” candidate.
After consulting with family, friends and confidants, I decided I would take the plunge. Since I would be running, if nominated, not simply to carry the NDP banner but rather to stop Jeff Evanson, i.e., actually to win; once I made the fateful decision, I put every ounce of my energy into it. When it became finally known who would be seeking the NDP nomination, it became clear both to me and to the Ward 7 NDP executive, that because of my history of community involvement I was the only one with a chance, albeit an outside one (given Evanson’s virtual “incumbency” and head start), to actually win the seat (Linda Torney had decided not to seek the nomination).
Although I freely admit, and did so at the time, that my decision to join the NDP and run for a city council seat as an NDP candidate was a compromise with a previously held principled position, I was determined that when it came to issues and matters of policy, the NDP was going to have to live with my political radicalism and independence of thought, which was not negotiable. Since there is no policy “platform” and no disciplined caucus at the city level, it seemed to me that I could do this without deceiving either the Party, the electorate or myself. But could the NDP live with me?
I met with the members of the local executive informally. Piper had been their emissary, and although they were prevented from making a formal endorsement, they wanted to give behind the scenes encouragement to the person they considered to be the strongest candidate for the nomination. A couple of the members of the executive were excited to have an unabashedly “left” candidate, others were glad just to find someone who had a bit more than a hope in hell to beat Jeff Evanson. Everyone was worried about my past radicalism, especially since I made it, as that intellectual giant Richard Nixon would say, “perfectly clear” that I did not intend to move one inch closer to the NDP mainstream from where I stood about six and a half miles to its left. “Is it true that you were a draft dodger,” I was asked. “No,” I replied – sighs of relief all around – “actually I was more like a deserter.”
Largely through the efforts of a few dedicated friends and associates and the amazing organizational efforts of my then wife, Cathy Crowe, I won the nomination with a comfortable margin, even though one of the other candidates, University of Toronto campus chaplain Eilert Freirichs, gave a speech at the nominating meeting that was ten times better than my own. With the nomination in hand, in the general by-election it was me against Jeff Evanson and a handful of fringe candidates with no organizational backing (including an ex-landlord of mine and a drag queen).
The campaign was one of the most salient experiences of my life. I don’t think I ever worker harder over a sustained period of time. Because of what Jeff had done in using his NDP job as a springboard to running as an “independent”, secretly supported by the Liberals, against an NDP nominated candidate, the race took on the aura of internecine warfare. Many NDP supporters had no idea of what Jeff had done and gave him their support believing that he was going to be like Joanne, a more independent minded NDP’er. Although I had years of community organizing and he had basically done only party work, Jeff was now the “community” candidate and I was the “party hack.” Oh, sweet irony. Former NDP allies were now on opposite sides of the fence, and life long friendships were strained (Piper, for example, had grown up with Joanne Campbell and is best friends with her and her husband, ex-NDP councilor Gordon Cressy; the friendship weathered the storm; the first thing I did when I won the election was to work to mend fences; Ron Kaplansky, a graphic designer who did Evanson’s campaign sign and literature designs, is now a good friend of mine; Jeff, however, did not give me the traditional courtesy of conceding defeat on election night).
We had a hell of a lot of ground to make up. We spent tons of money to hire the best NDP organizers available (the debt incurred remains unpaid to this day). Piper served as interim Campaign Manager until we were able to bring on the incomparable Sherril Game; a future Provincial Consumer Affairs Minister in the Rae government, Marilyn Churley, was the campaign secretary. Piper, who was later to become Ontario Premier Bob Rae’s public relations director and was subsequently forced to resign in disgrace when he made a serious tactical error in an attempt to protect a Cabinet Minister who had been falsely accused of sexual abuse, designed an unbeatable campaign strategy, but one that would only work if there was enough time.
I won by 222 votes. If the campaign had lasted another week, I think I would have won by 2000. We had a lot to overcome, but we had all the momentum. Victory, to use a cliché, was sweet. The first thing I did, of course, upon being confirmed as the winner, was to phone my dad with the good news.
You know, my father had been in politics for a short time in his youth. He too was something of a maverick. He had been President of a Democratic Party “Club” and had unsuccessfully bucked the Party establishment, which cost him any chance of further advancement. He was never nearly as radical in his beliefs as I am, but much of what I have learned about principled behavior in politics I have learned from him, more from his actions than his stated beliefs. It’s funny for me to say this, because my father is always preaching pragmatism to me. “You have to stoop to conquer,” is one of his favorite sayings.
My father graduated from Mercer Beasley School of Law in Newark (long since, I believe, absorbed into Rutgers University) but never practiced law. For some reason, after his first unsuccessful attempt at passing the New Jersey bar, he lost heart. He had lost both his parents before he was twenty, and in his teens took off riding the rails hobo style to California, where, had he been a little more shrewd, would have landed a bit part in a John Wayne movie. His ultimate destination was Japan, which he never made. After losing his one and only election and his betrayal of the party bosses, he dropped out of political activism never to return. He remains more or less progressive in his outlook, and I am sure he never voted Republican. Maybe because of being so seriously burned when he ventured outside the boundaries of the established order of the world where he thought he saw his future (i.e., the New Jersey Democratic Party), he became a strong advocate of “working within the system.” He could never fully endorse my decisions to work outside the system, although at some level I know he understands my uncompromising idealism and my “impractical” obsession with principle.
Although my Dad left politics for good after his defeat, he kept in touch with some of his old buddies, one of whom, Isaiah “Ike” Turner, was the first Black elected to Newark’s city council. How many times has he told me the (possibly Apocryphal) following story about Ike’s first council meeting: It would goes without saying that the white incumbents were not apt to give a cordial welcome to this “uppity Nigger” who dared to think he had a right to elected office. So how does old Ike deal with the cold shoulder he receives when he takes his place at his very first council meeting? He introduces a motion to give members of council a significant raise in pay (something that almost all politicians lust after but have to be careful about proposing). The motion passes unanimously, and from that day forward Isaiah “Ike” Turner is one of the boys.
Would you like to know what I did at my first council meeting?
In Council procedures there is something called an “Order Paper motion” which any member of Council can put on the Council agenda in order to get an issue directly before the Council. It is used when there is no time to follow the normal laborious committee process on a particular matter of urgency; or – and this is what I often found advantageous — when there would be no hope to get a recommendation passed by a committee and put before the Council (Council committees are notorious for killing controversial initiatives before they can reach the Council as a whole for debate).
At my first Council meeting I put a motion on the Order Paper to the effect that the Council declare Toronto a “disaster area” with respect to the problem of homelessness and request immediate emergency assistance from the provincial and federal governments. Order Paper motions are debated after the Council has disposed with all its committee vetted business, so that it was late in the evening when it came up, and the members were tired and grouchy. Those who did not consider my motion a scandal treated it as a joke. I was made fun of and ridiculed – who is this rookie councilor with this screwball motion? Nevertheless, the Council was forced to take its collective head out of the sand, and a two-hour debate, the first of its kind, took place in Council chambers on the city’s crisis in housing. Needless to say, the motion did not carry. The vote was something like 35-4. Not even all my NDP colleagues voted for it.
The Ghost of Ike Turner was not pleased, and I never became one of the boys.
(Twelve years later, in response to the tireless organizing and lobbying by Cathy Crowe and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the Toronto City Council, and then municipal council’s across Canada, passed similar motions, calling for federal intervention in the housing crisis.)
And yet, despite the fact I was not prone to follow in the hallowed footprints left by Ike Turner’s fancy footwork in the council chambers of Newark, New Jersey, no one was more proud of me for my seven years as perpetual outsider and a constant thorn in the side of Toronto Council …than my dad.
I first became seriously aware of the US involvement in Vietnam while I spent the summer months of 1964 as an intern at the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) Washington, D.C. office on Maryland Avenue, a hop, skip and jump from the Capitol building. In many ways it was an idyllic summer for me. We house-sat for a wealthy union bureaucrat in his posh mansion off of Connecticut Avenue, sharing it with Djawah, an Indonesian graduate student. Linda and I were at that time in our second year of marriage and still childless. She had landed a summer job in the State Department. We were invited to attend the celebration for the independence of Malawi, and I danced with Miriam Makeba. During the day, I mostly hung out in the Capitol building drifting from committee room to committee room. I had virtually no responsibilities as an intern; there was no supervision to speak of. I saw liberal Senator Yarborough from Texas get into a near fist-fight with ultra-conservative Strom Thurmond outside a Senate hearing room.
In another hearing room I heard some strange phrases I didn’t fully understand: “military advisors, limited engagement … dominos”. It was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee discussing the country’s involvement in a small country in Southeast Asia, a former French colony that almost nobody had ever heard of, where some kind of a civil war was going on that for some strange reason former Presidents and the current president, Lyndon Johnson had been worried about enough to send United States soldiers, excuse me, advisors, over to help out the good guys in the south but in a “non-combatant” capacity.
This was just before the war between the Viet Cong and the corrupt South Vietnam puppet regime had entered into the consciousness of the average American, but mountains of information passed through the NCC Washington office including some disturbing criticism of U.S. intervention in Vietnam by apparently well-informed critics. Although Civil Rights was foremost on my and almost everyone else’s mind that fateful summer (the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was before the Congress, and Linda and I spent as much time as we could at the twenty-four hour prayer vigil in front of the White House), I decided to follow up on what had been suggested by the Vietnam critics and began to look for more information about a war in a country that I had not previously known existed.
At summer’s end, having made my decision, after one year of graduate studies in theology (at Princeton Theological Seminary), to become a theological seminary drop-out, Linda and I went back to Southern California, and I resumed teaching at a Lutheran private school where I had previously taught for a year after my graduation from Berkeley. While in Washington I had introduced myself to Jim Corman, a young progressive/liberal Democrat who represented the 22nd Congressional District in California where we would be taking up residence. I was impressed with him and accepted his request that I work as a volunteer in his campaign for re-election in the November elections. However, it was not the congressional races that were front and center in that election.
In San Francisco’s Cow Palace earlier in the year, what many considered to be the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party had gained control of the convention and nominated as there presidential candidate the right-wing “extremist” ideologue, Barry Goldwater (who in today’s Republican Party would fall somewhere well left of center!). “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he intoned. The Republican theme was “In your heart, you know he’s right,” In my heart I knew he was wrong! You have to remember that this was in the middle of the Cold War, and to my thinking putting the nuclear trigger in the hands of an avowed Hawk was to risk the very survival of the planet. Most of the nation agreed, and, thanks to some pretty nifty television scare commercials connecting Goldwater with nuclear holocaust, Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in a landslide.
What also slid, however, was Johnson’s commitment to keep the peace. When he assumed the presidency following the Kennedy assassination, he had kept in tack most of the Kennedy Cabinet, including such shinning lights as Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. With the counsel and support of these men, Johnson took the nation into the morass of Vietnam and what turned out to be the United States’ first great military defeat in history. It would appear that the boys of Camelot were out for more than a friendly joust.
The sinking of an American battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin was all the pretext that was needed to win the support of the Congress (only two out of a hundred voted against the Bay of Tonkin Resolution in the Senate, Barry Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska) and the bulk of the American public for a major expansion of the United States participation in the war. By that time I had read much of the early anti-war literature (Howard Zinn, Robert Scheer, etc.), which was overwhelmingly convincing. I had learned that after the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, it was the US government that set up the puppet regime in South Vietnam that broke the peace treaty that would have unified the country (I was shocked to learn that then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had lobbied the Cabinet and President to help the French out of their jam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by dropping the Atomic Bomb on the Vietnamese. Eisenhower vetoed this plan. The same Eisenhower, who spent as much time during his presidency playing golf as Ronald Reagan did nodding off, also warned the nation in his Farewell Address, a warning absolutely unheeded, of the dangers of the “military industrial complex.” For these two events old Ike still holds a warm spot –albeit a small one — in my heart).
My intuition and reading told me that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a phony one designed by the U.S. military and government to get public and political support for a dramatic escalation of U.S. commitment in the civil war. This was subsequently confirmed years later. I therefore participated in the earliest of the anti-war activities, which consisted initially mostly of “teach-ins” as high school and university campuses.
My personal history as an anti-war activist pretty much followed the course of the anti-war movement itself, which escalated in intensity parallel to the government’s taking the nation deeper into the Vietnam quagmire. I was still a “believer” (that is, an evangelical Christian) at the time, and along with a handful close comrades, was involved in a Congregational Church in Pacoima, a transitional community in the San Fernando Valley of northeast Los Angeles, where an influx of Blacks and Chicanos were transforming the nature of a previously white neighborhood. I therefore concentrated much of my anti-war activism within the confines of the “faith community.” We offered educational programs on the Vietnam War to local Christian congregations, and when they refused to even listen, we would picket them for their un-Christian like refusal to get involved in the greatest moral issue of the day. As delegates representing our local congregation, we took an anti-war resolution to the regional conference of the Congregational Church, and when it was defeated after a vigorous debate, we donned sack cloth and ashes and sat-in at the alter of the Pasadena United Church at which the meeting was held. We were cursed, threatened and spat upon at many of the churches we picketed and accused of being everything from unpatriotic to Communist. When our own Pacoima congregation ultimately refused to take a public position against the war, we picketed outside our own church (one of our gang, Lew Fretz, eventually left the States and has been living and teaching in at Hamilton University in New Zealand, where he has preserved our original picket signs showing Vietnamese children being burned with napalm and uses them as illustrations in the course he teaches on U.S. History). I think the congregation finally got fed up with us and asked us to look for a “more compatible fellowship” after one Sunday evening worship service where we had volunteered to lead the “Bible study.” Instead of the traditional exposition of a particular Biblical text, we put on a skit in which a series of the poor and suffering individuals approached a student of the Bible asking for help and were rewarded with quotes from the Bible. We ended the skit by tearing pages from the Bible, igniting them with a match, and singing a popular Christian hymn: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Our minister, the Reverend Paul Kittlaus, with all the majesty of the British queen, was not amused.
Our core group consisted of Pete Flint, our moral leader and political guide, who had been drafted into the Marines during the Korean War and who had received a dishonorable discharge for his anti-war activities; Lew Fretz, who had just received his doctorate in History from Stanford; Lew’s wife, Margaret Fretz, a schoolteacher; Dick Bunce, a friend from and recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary; Linda Page, my wife, who was working on her doctoral thesis in Sociology for Princeton University and teaching at San Fernando Valley State College (today know as California State University at Northridge); and me.
We attended all the protest demonstrations. We organized anti-war activities at Valley State in cooperation with Tom Lasswell, a campus chaplain and member of our Pacoima congregation, and with the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). We recruited John Buchanan, a Professor of Speech at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys to run as an anti-war candidate for the Democratic Party nomination in the 43rd State Assembly District. We picketed Dow Chemical, the maker of the infamous napalm. We demonstrated at local draft boards and the local National Guard headquarters at the Van Nuys Airport.
I cannot tell you how many times I burned my draft card. This was before the days of photocopy machines, so there was a technical problem. I cannot remember how we solved it, but I ended up with a supply of draft cards and even made Newsweek Magazine where a photo shows me along with two others in front of the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, draft-card torch in hand.
And what was my draft status? 1-0, if that means anything to you. I had been 1-A, that is, prime draft material. However, I applied to my local draft board for “conscientious objector” status, as I had been counseling many others to do, and – only because of my religious background – it was granted to me. [Note: insert here something of the history of conscious objection, Quakers, etc.] This did not protect me from the draft, rather it meant that if drafted, I would be able to do “civilian public service” at home rather than go into the armed forces either as a soldier or a medic (conscientious objectors with 1-A-0 status serve as medics on the battlefield).
Aware of the fact that I was likely to be drafted (I was twenty-four years old in 1965, and young men were drafted up to the age of twenty-six), I looked for work that would qualify as civilian service and was hired by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) to do venereal disease epidemiology with the Los Angeles County Health Department. Sure enough, I was drafted in 1966 and was successful in having my health department work qualify as my civilian service. My job was to interview patients diagnosed with Syphilis and to bring in their sexual contacts for examination and possible treatment. I worked out of health centers in Watts (South Central Los Angeles), which was predominantly Black, West Hollywood, which was predominantly Gay, San Fernando, which was predominantly Latino, and Van Nuys, which was predominately white middle class. If you ever need a survey course on the sexual habits of a broad spectrum of society, I’m your guy.
It was sometime in 1967 that I went to UCLA to listen to a talk given by David Harris, who had formed a movement, which he called “The Resistance.” David had first made news when, as Student Body President at Stanford, he was kidnapped by members of the football team who proceeded to cut off his long hair. He went on to become seriously involved in anti-war activities and married the popular folk singer, Joan Baez. His message to young men of draft age was that using their draft deferments (e.g., student deferments, conscious objection, etc.) to keep out of the war was in effect a form of collaboration with the war effort. He called for total non-complicity with the Selective Service System (i.e., the draft). I was struck by the logic of his position, which also underscored the fact that it was uneducated poor whites and Black men who were making up a disproportionate part of the waves of soldiers sent over to slaughter and be slaughtered in the jungles and swamps of Vietnam. David himself was eventually drafted, refused to be inducted, and was given a five-year prison sentence, which he served until paroled.
For me, becoming a part of the Resistance meant giving up the “privilege” of my conscious objector status. I was helped along with this by my employer, who at that same time ordered me to shave my beard and transferred me out of the “field” and into the downtown administrative offices of the USPHS. Rebel that I was (and am), I refused on both counts and was unceremoniously fired. Rather than finding other suitable “civilian service” work, I ignored this obligation. Instead, I helped found and taught at the “I-Thou University of Young People” (Guinness world record for most pretentious Name of School), an alternative school in the tradition of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. In effect, I had gone AWOL.
Soon I received a visit from two FBI agents who wanted to know about my anti-war organizing and my non-compliance with my obligatory civilian service. I refused to speak with them. Several months later, in June of 1968, I was indicted by a federal grand jury for the crime of refusing to perform civilian service as a conscious objector, and I was arrested by the same two agents. I was home one afternoon having lunch with Alex, a huge brooding sixteen year old who was living with us a foster child and attending the school. I answered the door, and before I could swallow what was left of the baloney sandwich I was still chewing in my mouth, I was handcuffed and ushered out to a car where I was transported to the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
This was the first time I had been arrested since I was ten years old and caught by the local police throwing rocks through the window of an abandoned house (haunted no doubt) on Halloween night in Irvington, New Jersey. At that time I was roughly sat down in the back seat of a squad car, given a stern lecture, let go with a warning, and stumbled home shaking in my boots (I have a vague recollection that I may also have wet my pants). This time I felt an intense vulnerability with the cuffs on, and began to imagine myself the victim of police brutality. But the two agents were professionals, they realized that my alleged “crime” was of a political rather than a violent or anti-social nature, and on the ride downtown in their beat up and aging Plymouth (was the FBI having budget problems?) we engaged in a lively and heated argument about the moral imperative to commit civil disobedience in the face of your government committing crimes against humanity. I got as far as having them admit that they would have resisted under Hitler (sure they would have), but Vietnam, they insisted, was not the same thing.
At the L.A. Courthouse I was given the traditional one phone call, which I used to call home, and arranged for Linda to be notified at the college so she could drive downtown and bail me out. I had male friends who had been arrested during demonstrations who had been raped at the infamous L.A. County Jail, and I had no desire to put myself in that position. It turned out that I was released by signing what is called a “Personal Surety Bond,” in my case in the amount of one hundred dollars. This was the simplest and most innocuous way of being released once arrested, and I admit that I felt cheated and undervalued. I didn’t even have to put up any money. It just meant that if I jumped bond, I owed the government one hundred dollars (in 1973, when from Canada I plea bargained with the U.S. Attorney to be able to return to the States – this was before the general amnesty – the charges of “interstate flight to avoid prosecution” were dropped, and I pled guilty to the main charge of failing to perform civilian service and was given eighteen months probation. But no one ever thought to dun me for the hundred bucks!).
Out on bond I had a life-changing decision to make: stand trial where conviction was assured and serve up to five years in a federal prison (plus a $5000 fine), or flee. I was married at the time and the father of a one-year old daughter. I did not have the courage or the strength of principle of a David Harris, who was also married with a child, and I decided, in consultation with my family, to leave the States and start a new life in a foreign haven. I did some research, and, although we would have preferred to settle somewhere in Latin America, it seemed as if the only countries where there was absolute safety from being extradited were Sweden and Canada (Canada will not extradite to the United States a person accused of a crime that is not a crime in Canada).
Linda and I decided that we had no desire to exile ourselves as far away from home as Sweden, and Canada offered the opportunity to live in a French culture. We opted to settle in Montreal. I had draft counseled a student of Linda’s, Jim Falconi, who had fled to and was living in Vancouver. I would “slip out” of the country by flying to Vancouver to stay with Jim until Linda finished the school year and could drive up with our daughter, Malika, and join me before heading east to La Belle Province (Quebec). Falconi shortly thereafter also moved to Montreal, changed his first Name to Giacamo, and we ended up managing together the Montreal Paperback Bookstore, whose owner was the eccentric Julian Wedgwood, heir to the Wedgwood china fortune (Julian once showed me an elaborate chart of his family tree, with Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of Wedgwood China at the center, and he pointed out that one of his ancestors was Charles Darwin. I was duly impressed). Today Giacomo Falconi, who adopted the separatist politics of Quebec, owns and operates a prosperous rare book shop in Old Montreal.
The hardest part of going into exile, of course, was going to be the leaving behind of family and friends. For security reasons no one could know about our plans except my political group and my parents. The discussion with my parents was heart rending. They “understood” and did not understand at the same time. My father was caught between his pragmatic ethic and, I believe, the knowledge that what I was doing was moral and right. My parents have gone through all kinds of “stages” with me over the years, from my conversion to rabidly evangelical Christianity, to my student shit-disturbing (including locking horns with Clark Kerr, the illustrious President of the University of California), to my political radicalism, to the Hippie days, and to my present life in South America (my fourteen years as a community center administrator — salaried! — and city councilor in Toronto, I think were the only ones that were really easy on their souls). They have not always agreed with me, but never once have they withdrawn their moral and emotional support. My mother told the FBI where they could go (and it wasn’t a very nice place) when they came looking for me; and my father, who worked in the aerospace industry, was put in an awkward position by my actions.
As my father had watched my escalating radical activities – we were living in the same general area of the San Fernando Valley – I could sense a growing uneasiness on his part. This was based entirely, I realize mostly in retrospect, on his concern for my personal safety. But he used all the ammunition he had at his disposal to dissuade me from taking so many risks. He argued that I could achieve more by “working within the system,” that, yes, you have to “stoop to conquer.” I can remember some pretty heated arguments. But, as I say, there were never threats, ultimatums, or withdrawal of friendship and emotional support. In spite of his fears for me, I know that my father never ceased to be proud of what I was doing. He later (while I was living in “exile” in Canada) went downtown to the federal courthouse for the Los Angeles trial of Daniel Ellsberg, the government researcher who had leaked the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed much of the government’s lies and treachery. He introduced himself to Ellsberg and proudly told him about my having had to go into exile because of my opposition to the war. When Vietnam era Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, published his book admitting that Vietnam was a huge mistake, my dad phoned to congratulate me “on being right all along.”
It was a typical smoggy morning in early June as my parents, accompanied by Linda and one year old Malika, drove me to the Burbank Airport where I would fly to San Francisco and connect to Vancouver. I thought I saw FBI agents everywhere. The farewells in Burbank were, of course, highly emotional. I thought I would never again be able to set foot on United States soil. You can imagine how my parents must have felt as I boarded the aircraft that would take me thousands of miles away, possibly never to be able to return.
It is the only time in my life I have ever seen my father cry.
Charlie would later joke to Neil and me that his secret weapon in getting us to sleep at night when we were babies was to sing to us, because we immediately would fall asleep so as to not have to listen to his operatic interpretations. But the fact of the matter is that Charlie actually has a pleasant tenor voice, and he did succeed in lilting both Neil and himself into dreamland that night on the studio couch in the living room at about ten o’clock.
He awoke just after midnight to the sounds of the snowstorm lashing against the windowpane just above his head. Apart from the howl of the angry winds, the house remained in complete silence. Anne had gone to bed who knows what time, and must be sleeping comfortably in the adjacent bedroom. Charlie looked outside and thought to himself, “better that it not be tonight with the storm raging as it is.” Anne was still suffering with the remnants of her flu, and although Dr. Hautman said not to worry, going out in this weather certainly was not what the doctor ordered.
Everything was set for the big moment. The old ’34 Packard that Anne’s brother Ernie had loaned them was parked downstairs a half a block south on Jacob Street, and there was gas in the tank. When the moment came, they would drive Neil to Charlie’s sister Molly’s to be left in her care, and phone Dr. Hautman from there since they had no phone in the house on Jacob Street.
Charlie thought to himself, with a smile, about Dr. Hautman’s prediction of a girl. He really didn’t care that much, as long as Anne and the baby come out of it O.K. either sex would do. A girl would be nice, however, maybe one a little quieter than Neil, although apart from his nightly colic, Neil was really a pretty cute baby, and Charlie thought to himself I really have nothing to complain about. He had a lovely and devoted wife, a half decent roof over his head, and the country seemed to be about to pull itself out of the depression. Although what he earned in Morris’ grocery was barely enough to get by on, it was a job, and in those times simply having a job was everything.
But the ominous possibility of another war crept again into his thoughts and put something of a crimp into his reveries. He already had one potential future soldier, and the thought of that cuddly dark haired toddling noise maker someday going off to kill and, what would be unthinkably horrendous, be killed himself, was not something any parent should ever have to contemplate. Yeah, maybe a girl after all.
Charlie took a long and loving glance at Neil, who was by now deeply and safely into sleep. He gently lifted himself up and carried the baby to the crib in their bedroom at the foot of the second hand maple wood bed that he shared with Anne. Upon looking up he saw to his surprise that she was not asleep, but rather sitting up with her back against the headboard. Although the room was mostly in darkness, enough light peeked through the bedroom window from the lamp-post outside so that he was able to make out the expression on his pregnant wife’s face. What he saw left no doubt in his mind.
It was time.
With hardly a word said between them, Charlie began to dress Neil as rapidly as he could without waking him. Although Neil fought bedtime with stubbornness that sometime drove both Charlie and Anne to despair, once he was gone he was gone. Thank god for that. Anne’s “overnight” case for the hospital was already packed and ready to go. As Charlie dealt with the baby, Anne slowly got up from the bed and began to dress herself. She hadn’t mentioned it to Charlie, but the contractions had actually begun in the mid afternoon. Since they were sporadic and spaced widely apart, she hadn’t been sure it was the real thing, and it was right in character with her stoicism that she didn’t bother to say anything. But now that her water had broken and the contractions were beginning for real, there was no doubt about the imminent arrival of number two.
Charlie sat with Neil in his lap, the baby fully dressed and ready to go. Heavy woolen pants, sweater and jacket, all hand me downs from one of his sister Rose’s boys. The tiny watch cap, scarf and mittens that Anne had knitted and the cheap rubber boots they had picked up in the second hand shop. He watched Anne as she was in the final stages of putting on her winter clothes, and he urged her to put on a second sweater as he could see what the wind was doing outside. He couldn’t help thinking again, for the millionth time since they were married how lucky he was. Anne was a real beauty. He thought of the way she looked when he first met her eight years ago. With her hazel green eyes, her radiant skin, and her flapper hair-do she could have passed for Mary Pickford. According to her brother Max she had had tons of “suitors,” and Charlie still couldn’t really understand why she had picked him.
They really didn’t know one another when they ran off to Maryland that New Year’s Eve of ‘33. Charlie was so smitten that he would have driven to the moon and back if that was what it would have taken to make her his wife. Anne was impressed with Charlie, he was the first one bright and serious enough for her to even consider marriage, and marriage for Anne was her Underground Railroad to freedom. She could tell he was a good man, an honest and kind man. He was Jewish but she didn’t care, and that was something for a Ukrainian girl. She might not yet have been in love, but when he proposed, she didn’t hesitate. She knew her father would be furious, but she never imagined it would take a full five years before his stubbornness would wear down and break the wall of silence he had built between them (William Korabiak and Charlie would eventually become great friends, and Charlie loves to tell how Bill once told him, “Charlie, you a good man, I like you; only thing, you is poor.” Neil and Roger as children never experienced either a hint of their grandfather’s anti-Semitism or any antipathy toward their father. Nor had they a clue about the tyrannical character of his younger days. To them “Pop” was always a sweet white haired affectionate grandpa; and, when as adults they heard the stories about his tyranny, intolerance and philandering from their parents and aunts and uncles, it couldn’t have come as more of a surprise).
With the overnight case safely placed on the back seat of the car, Charlie went back to the flat to fetch his wife and child. With Neil in one arm, he used the other to guide Anne gently down the steps from their second floor flat, out the front door and onto the front porch, which by now was almost completely covered with snow. He was treating her as if she were a breakable antique which prompted her to say, “It’s O.K., Charlie, I’m all right, I won’t fall, just get me into the Packard and for god’s sake drive carefully.”
It was just before one in the morning when they got to Molly’s. Molly and Morris were first cousins so Molly’s maiden name and married name were one in the same (if she had been Latin American where they use both parents’ surnames, she would have been called Molly Hollander Hollander). The sad thing was that their daughter, Lorna, was born deaf, and in those days schools for the deaf did not teach American Sign Language, so that Lorna’s ability to communicate was always limited. Morris and Molly, groggy eyed from sleep, took a minute to come alive. Mollie fussed over Neil while Morris attempted to get Dr. Hautman on the phone. Anne was starting to have stronger and closer contractions, and Charlie was beginning to worry that they might not get to the hospital on time. Morris finally got through to the doctor, who asked a few questions then said he would be on his way to the Presbyterian Hospital. He was a lot closer than they were, so he would be sure to be there when they arrived. He told Morris to tell Charlie that there was plenty of time, that he shouldn’t tarry, but that there was no need to rush. Charlie didn’t need to be reminded that driving conditions were getting worse by the minute. Morris volunteered to accompany them to the hospital, but Charlie said no, someone has to be rested to take care of the store tomorrow, that Morris should get some sleep. He would call from the hospital as soon as there is news.
It would normally have been about a fifteen-minute drive from Molly’s house in the nearby suburb of Irvington to Newark Presbyterian. In this weather it was going to be a half hour or more. Anne sat in the front seat next to Charlie, endured the contractions with her characteristic stoicism, and on the whole was calmer than Charlie, who couldn’t refrain from asking her how she was doing every thirty seconds. “Don’t worry, stop talking, and keep your eyes on the damn road.”
It was close to two a.m. when they entered the emergency, were interviewed by the receptionist, filled out forms, etcetera. It was close to two thirty when Anne was finally admitted. Charlie was nodding off as they waited in the reception area, and when they came for Anne, she was halfway down the long hallway before he realized they were taking her up to the maternity ward. He had to run to catch up and barely got to where she was sitting in a wheel chair before the elevator arrived. This was the last he would see of her until after the delivery. He gave her a peck on the cheek, told her to be brave, and had a forlorn look on his face as the elevator door opened and the nurse pushed his about to deliver wife into it. As the door shut in his face, Charlie felt moisture running down his cheek.
He stood immobilized for a minute, then he wiped his face with his handkerchief and then went back to the emergency reception area to ask how he could find Dr. Hautman. He was told to wait, and in a matter of a few minutes the doctor appeared with a smile on his face. “Hi, Charlie, didn’t I see you here just two years ago?”
“It seems like yesterday,” Charlie answered, “She just went up, I guess we’ve both got a long night ahead of us.”
Hautman nodded, and they discussed the routine. He promised Charlie he would periodically brief him on how things were going, but that if he could find a way to make himself comfortable on one of the hard waiting room chairs, he should try to get some sleep.
“You still putting your money on a girl?” Charlie asked as the doctor started away toward the elevator.
“Do we need another putz in this world?” he quipped as he strode away without looking back.
Charlie dozed on and off through the night, waking with a start whenever the doctor or a nurse nudged him to give him the news that the delivery was proceeding as it should. “What about her cold?” he asked Dr. Hautman, who had come into the waiting room at just after seven o’clock to inform Charlie that Anne was ready and going into the delivery room.
“It’s not a problem,” the doctor answered, “the delivery is going smoothly, and her general health is excellent. She is a strong woman, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine; I’ll see you in less than a half hour.”
That half hour lasted longer than all the previous half hours put together. Did Charlie pace? Is the Rabbi kosher?
At last Dr. Hautman strode into the waiting room with a broad grin written across his face. He spoke before Charlie had a chance to say anything. “You are a father again, my friend. Everything went perfectly. Anne and the baby are fine. A real scrapper, over eight pounds.”
“And?” said Charlie.
“And what?” A pause.
“Oh, yeah,” said the doctor, almost as an afterthought and with a wry smile, “cannon fodder.”
The Birth of a Godson December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Birth of a Godson.
Tags: carmen vascones, childbirth, ecuador diary, ecuador travel, roger hollander
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(Carmen moved from Guayaquil to Playas in 1991. When we met four years later she was living where she had originally settled, in a small apartment that was part of a complex owned by a colleague, the Psychologist Gabriel Ampuero. Gabriel is married to a Belgium woman, Marie, and they have five male children. The youngest, Paulo, was about five years old when I arrived on the scene. He spent a good part of every day with Carmen, whom he adored and was like a second mother to him. When I moved into Carmen’s life, I wish you could have seen Paulo’s face. He could have been the poster boy for the phrase: “if looks could kill.”
Gabriel and Marie had a servant and I use the word advisedly. Antonia Yagual Burbano (Latin Americans use both parents’ surnames, the paternal followed by the maternal. Yagual is by far the most common surname in Playas. I am not exaggerating when I say that probably one in ten have Yagual as either the paternal or maternal surname).
Antonia served as housekeeper, cook and nanny for the Ampueros. She worked full time Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday. She would also help Carmen with various tasks from time to time, and they developed and mutual respect and affection. It is not hyperbolic to state that she worked like a slave for Gabriel, Marie and the five boys, and I was later to find that, to keep things in balance I suppose, she was paid slave wages.
It is impossible to continue with the story without sounding like a prosperous liberal boasting about how generous he is to the “help.” So be it. When the Ampuero family packed their bags for a two year stint in the Galápagos, Antonia was left holding the bag, and an empty one at that. She was unemployed.
At that time Carmen and I had been living in our own home in Playas for about a year. We did our own housekeeping (a thankless job because we have only screened windows and the dust never lets up), but we sent our clothes out to be washed by hand (I know of one washer/dryer in all of Playas, that of the Ampueros). Ecuadorian women, for the most part, spend the major part of their waking lives washing clothes. No matter how poor, Ecuadorians have pride in their dress, and with the exception of street beggars, are always dressed in clean clothing). Carmen is allergic to detergent, and when I tried my hand a hand washing, my back said: no way José.
Hearing about Antonia’s plight, I asked Carmen how much the Ampuero’s were paying Antonia. I found it hard to believe. Although we were living entirely on my pension with only occasional income from the sale of books or paintings, the amount was feasible for us (in Ecuador it is most common for middle class folks to be able to employ domestic help). For five and a half days of hard labor, Antonia was earning the equivalent of about ten U.S. dollars.
Although this was not out of line with what domestic workers are paid in Ecuador, I could not in good conscience offer to employ Antonia for that sum. Carmen and I discussed it, and we came to the conclusion that we could employ Antonia at the same rate, but only to do light housekeeping and laundry, and for five half-days a week. We also gave her a sewing machine so that she could use it to earn money on her free half days.
Antonia would have been in her mid twenties at the time. She is intelligent, industrial, honest and fiercely loyal (sounds like a Girl Scout). She lived then in a dilapidated home (thrown together largely with scrap materials) with her mother, sisters, and various nephews and nieces. She was parenting one of her sister’s daughters, Lady, who was about three years old at the time. This sounds weird, but it is not unusual in Ecuador for older sisters or mothers to raise nieces and grandchildren.
There is no other way to say it, Antonia was more or less a concubine for Emilio, a poor fisherman, who was her boyhood sweetheart and whom she refused to marry. Emilio subsequently married and has children, but he has kept Antonia on the string. I think Antonia would like to end this relationship, but is afraid of Emilio’s violent reaction. She once had shown some interest in another young man, and there was hell to pay.
On a lot adjacent to Antonia’s home lived her elderly and ailing grandmother. Both homes were in effect “squatted,” that is, the land belongs to the City, and they occupy it by right of possession. When it was clear that grandma was on her last legs, we conspired with Antonia to acquire the property she occupied. This involved Carmen and Antonia taking an inkpad to the grandmother’s bed and getting her thumbprint on a key document. Thus began a two year process that involved unbelievable red tape, lost files, and a few bribes. It ended successfully with Antonia holding title to the land, which was purchased from the City through our financing. In addition to giving Antonia her own home, it saved the property from an unscrupulous aunt who lived in another part of town and wanted it for herself. As I write, Antonia is in the process of receiving government funding to build a new home on the property. We will pay for the construction of a foundation, and the federal government will pay for the construction of the house.
The following was an e-mail, dated December 4, 1999 sent to family and friends telling them about the birth of Giancarlo, who today is nine years old and our godson.)
This was going to be just a short note informing the chosen that, after a grueling but thankfully uneventful four flights, I am back safely and happily in Ecuador. But I have a story to tell.
I arrived Monday night, only an hour late and was met by Carmen with her brother Carlos at the airport. After doing a whole bunch of things including a visit to an eye doctor to do something about my bloodshot eyes (apparently a reaction to a virus and manageable), we headed back to Playas on Thursday morning.
On our way into town we passed by Antonia’s house to see if she had given birth yet. Antonia lives with her mother and god knows how many cousins, nephews and nieces in a ramshackle hut made of bamboo thrown together with other miscellaneous materials. They are what we would call “dirt poor,” and are so even by Ecuador standards. Antonia, who is in her early thirties, used to work for the family where Carmen had rented a small apartment so she has known her for about ten years and they are very close in a sort of big sister (Carmen) little sister way. About two years ago when her employers moved away leaving her without income, we employed her to do laundry and some house keeping on a half time basis (at the same rate as what she was earning before for full-time work) and Carmen gave her a sewing machine so she could learn a skill with which to work toward independence. Early this year she got pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, Emilio, whom she had refused to marry and who subsequently married another women and has had children with her.
Our arrival chez Antonia was fortuitous in that she was in the middle of contractions and had no way other than taking a bus to get to the hospital. We arranged to drop our stuff off at home and return to take her to Playas General, the hospital for poor people (and the only hospital in Playas), at six PM. Shortly after we arrived she was at 7 centimeters and a quick delivery was expected. At Playas General there is no labour room so she was told to keep pacing in the hallway until the moment arrives. There is also no ultra sound available at Playas General, and just prior to the birth Antonia had decided she couldn’t afford another one, which can be obtained at a private clinic (if we had been here we would have insisted and probably paid for it); so, even though she had been examined at Playas General two days previous, there was no ultra sound on record.
When she started to give birth it was discovered that the baby was in breech position and could not be born. Everyone, including the attending physician, began to panic, since there was not surgeon present at the hospital at the time and one could not be located. If we had not been there, according to everyone we have subsequently talked to, mother and baby almost certainly would not have survived. They were prepared to send Antonia to Guayaquil, and, Carmen tells me, possibly on the bus, as hard as that may be to believe, since there is no ambulance in Playas. What happened was that we got Antonia immediately to a private maternity clinic in Playas where they were able to get hold of their surgeon to come and perform an emergency Caesarian (coincidentally, another woman who had been in labor for five days (!) at Playas General shortly came over to the same clinic and had the second Caesarian) of the night.
Although there was extreme concern about Antonia because, in addition to the breech positioning, embryonic fluids were secreting a colour that indicated the possibility of serious infection, a healthy baby boy was born at 9:45 PM; and Antonia seems to be perfectly all right. It was an emotional moment for all of us when the attending pediatrician walked out of the operating room holding this wide-eyed alert little creature.
In Ecuadorian hospitals, both public and private, there is a degree of informality that would shock most Gringos. Illnesses and births are “family affairs,” and there is a constant interplay between medical personnel and families. For one thing, hospitals provide nothing, and I mean nothing. A doctor or nurse will emerge to approach a family member of so and so and hand them a prescription for a syringe, medication, intravenous, or whatever else may be needed. The family member then runs to the pharmacy to have it filled and returned to the proper person. The family provides everything, including such basics as drinking water and toilet paper.
At Playas General you wouldn’t believe how primitive the setting is (unless you’ve been to the third world). At the private clinic, things were substantially more modern and equipped but still quite lacking by North American standards (e.g., no monitoring devises or even outdated primitive looking ones). After the birth Antonia and baby left the operating room and were put in a recovery room, the next Caesarian was performed and we were left on our own (Carmen, me and Antonia’s mother). No one knew what to do, so my Bradley training and three birth experiences came in handy. The main thing was to get the baby to the mother’s breast, the need of which nobody seemed to be aware. This stopped his crying, and once he got the hang of it he wouldn’t let go.
Carmen has had to do some heavy duty negotiating with the clinic administration to get a discount on the Caesarian, but we have had to guarantee payment. Fortunately the cost of living is such here (and more so in Playas than Guayaquil) that we’re only talking about the equivalent cost of having a couple of teeth filled in Toronto.
An adventure, with a happy ending, and a nice way to come home.
Ps. Antonia requested a tubal ligation but was refused because there was no “husband” present to sign his consent.
Pps. We discussed this event subsequently with the physician we go to at a small clinic in Playas. What he told us was most disturbing. He said that surely there were surgeons, including himself, who were available that evening to perform a Cesarean at Playas General. Apparently, the nurse on duty there has an arrangement with the private maternity clinic (Gregorio Clinic where Antonia gave birth) to rule out all alternatives to sending patients in such emergencies to Gregorio. She gets a kickback.
Apparently the notion of sending Antonia to Guayaquil by bus was a ruse to motivate her to choose the Gregorio Clinic, where Gregorio Andrade himself did the delivery. Now here’s the kicker, the same self Gregorio Andrade, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, subsequently ran for and was elected Mayor of Playas, where he served one undistinguished term in office, undistinguished in the sense that, albeit a self professed reform candidate, he was no less corrupt than his predecessor. We got a first hand taste of the Doctor’s character when we learned that Antonia and baby would not be released from the Clinic until the full bill had been paid … in cash.
The baby, named Giancarlo, today is a bright and strapping lad, and he asked that Carmen and I be his Godparents at his first communion.