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Blood on the Tracks
The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson A Psychohistorical Memoir
By S. Brian Willson
PM Press Copyright © 2011 PM Press
All rights reserved.
July 4, 1941
Books have beginnings and endings, but I don't think of my life that way. The journey is what is important, not the destination. I may have an idea or an experience today that changes everything I thought or did the day before. As Gandhi said, life is an experiment with truth, every day.
I was born on July 4, 1941, in Geneva, New York, in the heart of the beautiful Finger Lakes region of Central New York State. I still have a drawing I made when I was very small of a Fourth of July parade. In the drawing, a boy holding a U.S. American flag leads the parade, followed by a fire truck. I suspect I am the one carrying the flag. Typically, as a young child, I had assumed that all the floats, marching bands, and fireworks were for me. After all, it was my birthday. Of course, I found out as I grew up that my personal story was only a tiny part of a much bigger story.
This book about my life is also about that bigger story, the story of U.S. America, the America that stretches from the North Pole to the tip of Patagonia, and the even larger story of our way of living in this world, on this earth. I've learned that, in life, everything is connected. My experiences growing up in small towns in upstate New York connect me to the history of the United States of America, to the Indigenous people who were here before me, and to the people I met in Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, and elsewhere. However, it took me a while to sort out all those connections. In fact, I am still learning about them.
My family lived in three different homes in my first nine-and-a-half years, but none were more than a mile and a half from Geneva General Hospital, where I was born. My mother often commented on how much I liked to be outdoors all day long as a toddler, even in the heavy snows of winter. Since my earliest years were during World War II, we shared a large lot with many neighbors who worked their victory gardens. My father had been too young to serve in World War I and too old for World War II, though he did serve as a neighborhood air raid warden, looking for visible lights from homes during the many blackout alerts. Geneva was close enough to the East Coast that fear of German bombings was high.
As I got a little older I would occasionally accompany my father on Saturdays when he went door-to-door selling — or trying to sell — the famous Fuller Brush line of products. On Sundays, my mother made sure my older brother and I got into our best clothes for Sunday services at the nearby First Baptist Church, where my father was a deacon and my mother sang in the church choir. As one of the regular attendees in children's Sunday School, I was recognized as the polite boy who always opened doors for seniors and who sometimes played clarinet at church events. My Sunday School teacher later described me as "very cooperative, no problem whatsoever ... just an ideal little boy." Our family was as all-American as you can get. My parents, who had both grown up in small towns in western New York State, were staunch Republicans who believed in the value of hard work. My father was ardently against the New Deal and labor unions, and held the kind of racist views that then seemed mainstream. Both my older brother, Dwight, named after famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody, and I played ball, rode bikes, and generally lived the kind of small-town lives depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings. One of my fondest childhood memories is playing with my tough steel construction toys — bulldozer, boom crane, road grader, earth-hauler, power shovel, and dump truck — creating a small road system in our yard. If I got lucky, I might find a flint stone arrowhead right in my own backyard. Later, when I got old enough to ride my brother's hand-me-down balloon-tired bike, I would cycle a mile to the fascinating Seneca Burial Mound (not far from the hospital where I was born), which was a treasure trove of arrowheads.
Before long, I had a box of arrowheads. I would feel each one with my fingers, noting its texture, shape, weight, size, and sharpness while enjoying the subtle color variations of dark-grey, blue, and black. Some had a glassy appearance. I often wondered what life had been like for the ancient peoples who had once lived and prospered on the very ground on which I played.
At the time I knew little about the Seneca Nation, or the powerful Six-Nation Iroquois Confederacy of which they were a part — just that they existed. Like my family, friends, and community, I assumed they were inferior to Europeans. In second grade, I drew a crude picture of a large cowboy firing a rifle at close range directly at a much smaller "Indian" boy whose arrow is just leaving his bow. The bullet's trajectory is shown just as it is about to enter the young "Indian's" head.
I was already on a journey I didn't even know about, one that would take me back to New York State as an adult to speak to the remaining Indigenous Seneca and around the world to speak to the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Viet Nam. But that would come much later.
In December 1950, during Christmas vacation, my parents took me out of fourth grade and moved our family 150 miles further west, to the tiny farming community of Ashville, New York. I had grown fond of my Geneva elementary school and my neighborhood friends, so leaving brought me great sadness. I was learning to play the tonette and my dairy farm scene had been selected the best painting in art class.
One consolation of the move was that I would see my brother Dwight more often. Nine and a half years my senior, he was a sophomore at Fredonia State Teachers College, located in the county where we now lived. My parents had made the move to a run-down, 110-year-old house in an effort to lift our family out of serious financial straits. Our new home was set on two-thirds of an acre, and the vegetable and fruit gardens we planted became an important part of our family's home life and sustenance.
Instead of selling Fuller Brushes, my father took a job selling insurance door to door, but success remained elusive and my parents struggled to make ends meet. There was little money for new clothes for a rapidly growing schoolboy, but fortunately, each year, a rich uncle generously purchased a full set of clothes for me — larger sized shirts, pants, coats, underwear and shoes. (Many years later, after this same uncle left a small fortune to my mother, I discovered that he had made his millions as a stockholder in IBM, which had become the wealthiest corporation in the world after its business alliance with Nazi Germany to automate the Holocaust, tracking Jews and Gypsies from points of apprehension to concentration camps to extermination.)
Ashville was a village of 350 people located about twenty miles south of the town of Westfield (population 3,000), where my mother had been born in 1907. Her father had been hired as a "Christian bookkeeper" for Dr. Charles Welch, president of Welch's Grape Juice. Dr. Welch was a teetotaler who developed his juice as a nonalcoholic alternative to wine for use in Methodist communion. Ashville was also twenty-five miles southwest of Shumla, a hamlet of fifty people, where my father had been born.
The village, typical of its day, possessed most necessary services to which residents could walk: general stores, feed mills, a diner, churches, library, grange hall, barber shops, blacksmith, fire hall, post office, grade school, and a garage. The volunteer fire department had one of the town's first TV sets and invited villagers to watch boxing and wrestling every Friday night. The farthest I ever traveled was our Sunday trips to the First Baptist Church in nearby Jamestown and occasional trips with my dad three miles to the next town's movie house to see the latest Randolph Scott westerns. Regular attendance at church was required, and my perfect Sunday School attendance earned me five straight summers of church camp on a pristine lake in western New York State.
Most of my activities, from walking to school, fishing and playing sports, going to the local Methodist Youth Fellowship, Boy Scout meetings, and weekly supervised youth recreation, happened within two-thirds of a mile of my home.
I suppose that some of my current ideas about the importance of small, local, sustainable living come from my experiences growing up around those four corners, even as, in hindsight, I realize it was a parochial, stereotypical 1950s McCarthyite town, filled with racism, sexism, and an unspoken classism.
Like Apple Pie
My life revolved around the outdoors. I spent warm days fishing at or swimming in Goose Creek, which meandered through our village. My friends and I rode our bikes around town, played pickup ball, and traded baseball cards. In the winter, I was the town's most ardent sidewalk shoveler. In summer I regularly mowed lawns, earning plenty of money which I added to the numerous tips I received for shoveling snow during our heavy winters. At night, kids came to my house to play basketball almost any time, since I had rigged up in our backyard the only outdoor lit court in town.
I bought so many baseball trading cards the general store ordered an extra box each week, just for me. Nevertheless, up until eighth grade, I was a terrible athlete. Being the last kid selected for teams was emotionally painful, and the feelings of rejection and exclusion could be intense. No one wanted "Brian the Brain."
In seventh grade, while my brother was serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, I was learning more about New York State history and that of the Seneca "Indians" and the Iroquois Confederacy of which they were a part. Our textbook, Exploring New York State, explained that the "Empire State" motto originated in 1783 when George Washington suggested that the territory, now clear of "Indians," become the "seat of empire" of "vast power and wealth." Our text described how Washington had ordered his army to "crush" the Indigenous people because of their threat to frontier settlements, from which the "primitive" inhabitants "never recovered." "All their villages were destroyed, their fruit orchards, their growing crops, their stores of food," "their power was gone forever." Just as well. They possessed "no machinery of any kind," "almost the entire area was covered with thick forests" unlike today when "more than half the land of New York is cleared for ploughing and pasture," and "like more civilized peoples, the Five Nations never thought of conserving their natural resources." So now I knew more about the history of those arrowheads, or so I was led to believe.
My life changed dramatically halfway through eighth grade. In some miraculous way, my hands, eyes, and feet finally became coordinated. Suddenly, I was a good athlete. I could dribble and shoot the basketball, hit and field the softball, and smoothly perform gymnastics. Instead of the last kid picked for teams in gym class, I quickly became the first. Then I became the captain and could pick a team myself. I finally felt accepted by the other boys.
By the time I had finished eighth grade in June 1955, the fact that I, a boy, was valedictorian was not so embarrassing because I was now a respected athlete, rather than just "Brian the Brain." In those days, and in that district, eighth grade was the big graduation because so many kids in the rural area, especially boys, either did not go to high school, or knew they would never finish. I nervously gave the valedictory address on "Sportsmanship" at commencement. My mother saved that speech. Ironically, my address was somewhat prophetic. One of my conclusions was that being a "good sportsman" requires "not giving up easily when handicapped."
By age fourteen, I rode the school bus for the first time to Chautauqua Central High School ten miles away. I loved high school. I was a member of the National Honor Society and twice elected to Student Council. I was the first baseman on our summer Babe Ruth League baseball championship team. In my senior year, our Chautauqua "Indians" basketball team went to the semifinals but lost in the first round. I was selected to be on the league's all-conference second basketball team, and was the first baseman on our high school sectional championship baseball team, the latter honor a first ever for our school.
Going from being one of the least popular kids to one of the most popular helped me to feel empathy for others. I still remember a large Indigenous boy in high school who had a leg withered by polio without the expensive brace. He loved to play intramural sports but some kids didn't want him to play because he couldn't run well. As one of the two intramural team captains, I applied a principle that everyone on the team would play at least half of each game. I didn't want him to feel rejected.
A poster of St. Louis Cardinal's Stan "The Man" Musial, my boyhood "hero," hung over my bed. In the summer after my junior year, I turned down an opportunity to study in France as an American Field Service (AFS) foreign exchange student in order to play semipro baseball. Scouts watching those games often sat behind my father in the bleachers. Upon graduation, St. Louis expressed an interest in offering me a chance to play in the low minors if I chose not to attend college where playing amateur sports was prohibited at the time if signing any professional contract. I chose college where for three years I played basketball and baseball.
While I flourished outdoors, life inside my home was difficult. My father was a very hard man to live with. He was a teetotaling fundamentalist, anticommunist, antiunion, racist and virulently anti-Semitic. By 1960 he feared, along with many others, the post–World War II threat of a Communist takeover and, with Kennedy's presidential candidacy, a Vatican-directed Catholic takeover as well.
Those fears led him to passively support organizations such as Robert Welch's John Birch Society ( JBS), George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazi Party (ANP), Willis Carto's Liberty Lobby (LL), and the New York Catskill Branch of the Ku Klux Klan. He also was a regular subscriber to billionaire H.L. Hunt's right-wing Life Line newsletter. These were all extremist organizations that embraced a politics of hate. This was not just run-of-the-mill racism. These groups were possessed by a venomous, perhaps criminal psychosis, and advocated violence against communists, Jews, Catholics, and Blacks, as well as Eastern European and Italian immigrants. Today we would call them terrorist organizations.
When Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, was assassinated in 1967 in Arlington, Virginia, by one of his jealous lieutenants, the ANP dissolved into three groups, leaving my father confused as to who was the legitimate American Nazi figurehead. This diverted my dad's attention to Carto and his Liberty Letter, which later became The Spotlight. Among other things, Carto repeated Rockwell's belief that the Jews concocted the Holocaust and, instead of having been incinerated, they died as happy rich people in New York City. This hatred is a strange and dangerous phenomenon, and I struggled to understand why my father embraced it.
My parents were intelligent people, though they possessed small-town, conservative, patriotic values. They were raised with the typical Eurocentric racism against people of "color." They both were early graduates of the Dunkirk, New York Business Institute, where my mother was class president in 1928 and gave the welcoming address at commencement. My father was a math whiz. They were solidly middle class from 1931–1944 because my dad had a steady, well-paying job in the office of a successful flour mill, essentially providing bread as a food staple. Thus, they were comfortable during the Depression. But at the age of forty, in 1944, my father lost his job when a larger milling company purchased the mill. Never again did he find stable employment that adequately paid the bills.
Fear of failure wields intense emotional power. One way that people seek relief from such anxiety in an individualistic, acquisitive society is by becoming addicted to consumption, only to discover that more is never enough. Other escapes are racism, classism, fundamentalism, and sexism. My father was not a big consumer, perhaps because he was born into an agricultural town that valued saving over consumption. Instead, he became xenophobic, projecting his fear of failure onto alien others, who he believed prevented him from succeeding. The organizations he joined used his anxiety to convince him to support repressive authority systems — religious, political, social, economic — that identified "enemies" while creating mechanisms to control and eliminate them.
These repressive organizations don't actually solve anyone's problems. Instead, they play insidious tricks to satisfy the deep psychological need for security without addressing people's real problems — either the generations of fear-based racism, or the structural injustices that preserve class divisions. Ironically, permanent security is found only in community and through collective efforts. But in a market-driven, get-what-you-can culture, we are taught to be individualistic and narcissistic, and to reject collectivity and community. In his own way, I think my father was reaching for community when he joined groups like the American Nazi Party, but it was a false community formed through rejection rather than acceptance, hatred rather than love. Until we address the root of our anxiety, the shadow within, and learn to embrace mutual respect for each other and the earth, there will be no healing, just more fear, hatred, and war.
Excerpted from Blood on the Tracks by S. Brian Willson. Copyright © 2011 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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