Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A perhaps meaningless anecdote on the subject of communists

No political significance here today, folks, just some distant memories that came up while writing the previous post.

When I was a college student in the early 1960s at the University of Texas (at a time when there was only one University of Texas, so the afterthought "at Austin" was unnecessary) a student effort arose to end racial segregation at some local movie theaters. The demonstrations against the segregated theaters lasted a year, and were ultimately successful, unlike almost every other political action I have been involved in since.

The several hundred students who took part were, as far as I could tell, the sum total of liberal or left-wing young people at the university at that time. Ever since then I have assumed, almost always correctly, that my political views were representative only of a tiny, and maybe even beleaguered, few. This realism has served me in good stead over the years.

Also, it was where I first met my future wife.

But I digress. One of the students I met was an actual communist. Quite a novelty. His name was Horace, and unlike John Stanford in San Antonio, whom I wrote about in the previous post, Horace was a secret communist, not a public one. I don't know if he was actually a member of the CPUSA or not, but he said he was when he got drunk, and in some other circumstances as well, usually unfortunate ones.

Nevertheless, given his normal penchant for secrecy, and given that Horace may have changed his views in the intervening years, I'll keep his last name quiet. But some of my readers will know who I am talking about. Horace was a quiet guy, who always seemed very reasonable, till you got to know him and observed that, among other things, he often showed up for work at his job at a used bookstore with bruises or a black eye or other physical damage, which, if you asked him, he would explain were the result of his being beaten up by frat boys. Horace was fiercely dedicated to communism, and tended to mention his wish to overthrow capitalism and the American Way of Life in the wrong venues.

Once, sometime in the early 60s, I'd guess 1962, I ran into him on what's called "the Drag," the main business street next to the UT campus and he asked me if I wanted to go to a John Birch Society meeting with him.

"Why not?" I said, without thinking about it much.

The meeting was in the student union ballroom. The ballroom was full, and the audience was bunch of people who were old, by my standards at the time, and overweight by anyone's standard. An overflow was milling around in the lobby outside, waiting to be frightened and thrilled by the invited speaker's accounts of treason within the government and the halls of academe.

We stood there before the speech, and Horace, usually very reticent, struck up a conversation someone who appeared to have some kind of gatekeeper duties at the door.

"What do you really know about Communists?" Horace asked him.

"Well, when you listen to the speech you'll find out. We know they've formed clandestine cells and infiltrated the government and the universities..." etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. He went on about Communism and Commies for a while. They're everywhere.

"No," Horace said, "have you ever actually _met_ a communist?" A few curious spectators had turned to listen to us. The guy stared at Horace like he had asked a stupid question. They're like spies. They infiltrate. They don't don't exactly show you their party membership cards.

Horace said "Well, y'know, you may be right about their being everywhere. But wrong about the membership cards. For example, _I'm_ a Communist."

There was a moment of silence kind of like Horace had just said he had leprosy. More of the onlookers turned to stare at us. The crowd of Birchers had by then converged, not in a friendly way, to listen to Horace. The guy Horace was talking to seemed to be trying to figure out if Horace was serious.

After all, despite a beyond-sincere belief in the omnipresence of Communism, this man, like all the several hundred others including, no doubt, the featured orator, had never actually met a member of the Communist Party, and probably didn't ever expect to. (This was long before the New Left and its kaleidoscope of communisms, real and self-proclaimed). Would a Baptist expect Satan to materialize at a camp meeting?

"You wanna see my membership card?" said Horace, pulling out his wallet.

The guy was still staring at Horace and trying to figure out if this was a joke. Suddenly he turned and pointed at me, and asked Horace "OK, is this guy a communist too?"

Horace, who was not trying to be funny--he never tried to be funny--said "No, he's a fellow traveler."

I guess that clinched it. The guy decided we were just student smartasses. He laughed nervously, and turned to listen to the speeches which were about to start. The little knot of Birchers around us dispersed. I actually don't remember what happened after that, but I think I got Horace to leave with me, contrary to Horace's natural instincts, which would have been to stay and eventually say something that would get him beaten up.

I lost track of Horace, over the years. I hope he has not come to grief.

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