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LIFE AT HARD LABOR by Ammon Hennacy - Catholic Worker odds & ends
October 15th, 2008
05:58 am


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LIFE AT HARD LABOR by Ammon Hennacy
My mother worked, when she was eleven years old, hoeing in the garden in Ohio for 25 cents a week. In 1904, when I was eleven, wages had increased and I worked for my grandparents for around $6 a week. In those days the work was from sun-up to sun-down, and cows were to be milked afterwards. I was then a Baptist and a Democrat and found time on rainy days and odd hours to clean and dust the country church: fill the oil lamps, clean the chimneys, and all "for the Lord." I also gave $15 a year to the church, which was much more in proportion, than most farmers gave. There was one essential thing that I learned: the habit of working.

During the winter of 1911-12 I milked eight cows, morning and night, and walked or rode eleven miles to school. My grandfather had broken his leg in August and this being an easy month to make promises for the winter, I volunteered to stay that winter. I was on the track team, took five subjects, and drove Mother Bloor around , horse and buggy, to organize Socialist locals in the vicinity.

Billy Sunday had disgusted me with religion and I had quit the Baptist church. The minister who had baptized me in the old swimming hole had told me never to read the APPEAL TO REASON, the socialist weekly. I did so and became secretary of the Socialist Party in the town where my father was Democratic mayor.

But this winter was too much for me and the next summer I went to Cleveland with a crew selling cornflakes, house to house. Seven summers and later seven years as a salesman and eleven years as a social worker were needed before a study of Tolstoy and THE CATHOLIC WORKER turned me from this life as a parasite to the farm work which I have been doing for the past ten years. It is a good thing that I like to do manual labor on the farm. A life of not paying taxes and of voluntary poverty such as I have set forth, requires work as a basis.

To talk about the dignity of labor, of life on the land, of a vegetarian in his own garden, of refusing to pay taxes, and then to mooch for a living gives a lie to all conversation. The best feeling that I have had during the past year was to look at the two rows of potatoes which I had laboriously hilled just right and planted before a storm broke over the mountains and the driving rain made me seek the refuge of my cabin. It also happens that I like to write articles describing my work and ideas. (I think better as I type.) But the pleasure in writing an article or a book is outdistanced by my work in the garden and fields.

Working for a wage without enjoying the work that you do puts you in the class of the rich man whom someone has said is just a poor man who has money; you are a poor man who makes money. John Goldstein has written articles in THE INDUSTRIAL WORKER on communities and the reason for their failures. Nearly all of these colonies have failed because they did not look upon work as a pleasure. In some colonies most of those who came were those who were looking for a life without work; and in others, such as the Llano Colony where I visited for a time, there was a dictator who knew little about having work planned or done efficiently. I have lived in a Single Tax Colony and visited the Doukhobors in Canada. Friends tell me that two groups having a sensible idea of work still exist: the Hutterites in the Dakotas, and the House of David in Brenton Harbor, Michigan. A recent issue of the SATURDAY EVENING POST tells of workers owning plywood mills in the Northwest, one mill employing a thousand workers. This exploiting of others, whether it is done in a cooperative or the Bruderhof Colony in Paraguay, where the natives are hired to do the dirty work, is not working toward the ideal.

During the past ten years I had nothing to do with those props of capitalism: rent, interest and profit. They remind me of the verse which I carved on the wall of my solitary cell in Atlanta in 1918, I had read it years before in the APPEAL TO REASON.


The merchant calls it Profit,
And winks the other eye.
The banker calls it Interest,
And heaves a cheerful sigh.
The landlord calls it Rent
As he tucks it in his bag.
But the honest old burglar;
He simply calls it Swag.

All this leads up to the conclusion that for myself a life as a "wage slave" for farmers gives me a freedom that I could not conceive of in a community where there is no freedom of thought or of action. Are these communities a refuge from the storm of the outside world? If so, as an active One-Man-Revolution I want no part of them. If their purpose is to show the world that communities can exist without the profit motive it seems to me that all they have taught the world is that they succumb to the gadgets of the outside world sooner or later.

Today I spent nine hours pulling weeds in our garden and just before dark I planted two dozen each of egg plant and peppers. I eat from this garden every day in the year. For the past six months I have irrigated barley. This is really not difficult for the water runs slowly. The only experience new to me in this work is that the sugar and malt in the barley mix with the dew as I walk through it checking the flow of the water, forming a paste which when dry made my overalls a veritable coat of armor. As usual Cindy and several other dogs came up with cold nose and muddy paws, but after I had greeted them they went on their way exploring gopher and skunk.

Coming to the farmhouse at 7:30 a.m. after my night of irrigating recently I saw the big bull loose in the open driveway, pawing the earth and snorting. Just then James, my ex-army captain boss, came up and walking gently toward the bull, he finally grabbed him by the ring in his nose and led him captive to the pen. This was the real pacifist way of handling the problem. As my grandfather told me: "Don't run from a bull or a billy goat; they have four legs and you have only two, and you can't make it"

On the way home that morning (April 8th) I saw the pickers in the strawberry fields. I had always wanted to do this work but have been too busy. They pay 70 cents an hour now rather than by the basket as very few berries are ripe; in 1942 in Milwaukee I remember eating berries at 10 cents a quart. I tried raising them one year here but was not successful. They have to be irrigated every four days in the season and weeds pulled from them the year round...

Digging a ditch for a neighbor recently, I heard bottles smash on the highway. Two teenagers had frond them along the side of the road and were smashing them in the middle of the highway. "That's not a damn bit smart," I shouted at them. They could not see me but looked around and hastened onward. This lack of responsibility belongs not only to the youth, for while irrigating one night I saw a big car stop on the highway and a man take out sacks of bottles and junk and throw them along the side of the road. This was not a slum dweller who had no place to put his garbage, but a big city bourgeois who seemed to want to save the expense of paying a garbage man to haul his refuse away. A lady wrote a letter to a local paper about a dead cat on the street and no one came to remove it. A week later she wrote again and no one had paid any attention to it. In an anarchist society each one would be responsible and would not have to write letters to papers or to call the cops to have something done. They would do it themselves.

In my years as a salesman I never found a boss who would allow me to be honest in representing an article. I always used my own method despite the rules. If the article had one apparent weakness I would admit this at the start and then stress the good points. Likewise in selling ideas I admit at the start that myself and those like me are not going to win---all the more reason to keep on trying. When I first meet a priest I tell him I am not a Catholic and how terrible his church is; that the other churches would be just as bad if they knew how. Then I stress the Catholic Worker, the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi. I can't say anything worse so from the on I am saying something better. If I should hem and haw and dissemble I would not get the attention of the person to whom I am calling. If they get scared away by my frankness they are a weak porridge anyway who would not stand much of the truth.

"Is that the Communist paper that uses the name Catholic that they tell of on the radio?" asked four people one Sunday morning after the local red-baiter had denounced THE CATHOLIC WORKER. I replied that it was not a Communist paper, but was the best Catholic paper in the world and if they wanted to know more about it to ask the priest. All of them bought the paper.

"Is that the good Catholic paper that is sold on the streets?" asked a lady as I was shouting "THE CATHOLIC WORKER, Catholic peace paper, one cent, Catholic labor paper, a penny" in front of the bus station. I replied that it must be for it was the only Catholic paper sold on the streets. "I'm not a Catholic," the lady said, "I belong to the Grey Ladies and we visit hospitals. I have heard patients ask for it. I want ten."

One professional man invariably hands me a nickel or a dime for the paper but won't take a copy. "Makes me mad to read it. It is all true but what what can I do about it," he says. For a year or more a certain elderly lady has pointed to me and told all who would listen that I was a Communist and that THE CATHOLIC WORKER was a Communist paper. I paid no attention to her. One day when I was talking to a Catholic friend who for some esoteric reason won't touch a copy of the paper because it opposes Franco (Spanish dictator), but who stops and talks to me cordially, this woman comes up and says that I am a Communist and THE CATHOLIC WORKER is a Communist paper. The friend answers: "I have my own bone to pick with the CW but I have formerly read it for years and I know Hennacy from his articles for ten years and I am telling you that neither he nor the paper is Communist. Ask the priest and he will tell you that I am right." The red-baiter went away mumbling "Communist, Communist."

At another time a member of the air force was going to Korea in a few days. He visiting here, coming from New York City. He asked what kind of paper I had; said he had never heard of it. I told him that it had been published in his home town for 18 years. The name "Worker" sounded to him like Communist he said and he wanted to know if he could ask the priest, who was standing nearby, about it. I told him to go ahead. He did so and the priest, who was neither pacifist nor anarchist, answered: "If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for you," showing him the CW in his hand. I spoke to the man for half an hour and gave him several old copies. On the street corner a soldier with half a dozen service bars on his uniform smiled and said that was the kind of paper that was needed, a peace paper, and bought one. Another time a sewer worker from Seattle who said he was a Mormon and who read the CW in the library there and who was also a Wobbly, bought a copy.

Recently, Thomas, the Hopi conscientious objector and his wife and children were here. The Hopi silversmith met with us at Rik's one evening. Thomas has a college education and held the best job an Indian can hold at the agency in Keams Canyon. He quit this and went to jail. His wife was raised a Mennonite and lived in town as a nurse. Now they look forward to moving to their "summer house" near Moencopi where they will raise corn, melons and fruit. They have finished with the ways of the white man. We discovered Gov. Pyle's scheme's for getting the Indians to be like the white man. In conversation with newspapermen and those who formerly worked with him on the radio I get the impression that he is primarily an actor who sincerely believes that there is no conflict between his religious phrases and attitude and his support of the status quo. His talents are a grade above the banjo playing vote chaser. He has a pleasing voice and gives the impression of a sincere and gracious personality. This could all be true and yet he could never have an original thought or never once take a courageous stand against a system of society which degrades both whites and Indians. Did not McKinley make the best stooge that Mark Hanna could desire? McKinley prayed to God and God told him to bring the Bible to the poor Cubans, so we had a war. He did not know there was a sugar trust or a venal Hearst and Pulitzer cooking up a war. Such "innocents" make the best stooges.

Thomas brought along a copy of the January CRISIS which had an article on the Hopi by our mutual friend, George Yamada. Gov. Pyle deplores the fact that 83% of the land in Arizona is owned by the Federal government. What he does not deplore is that too much of this land is rented out for practically nothing to his wealthy cattlemen backers. The Hopi have only a fourth of the land they had before the Indian Bureau moved the Navajo in on them. The Navajo were moved in because the cattlemen needed more land. There is plenty of land but the wrong people have it. Meanwhile the Hopi, who are still traditionalists and who have not fallen for the white man's gadgets live close to Mother Earth, having faith in nature and in God, the Hopi name of which is Massau'u.--- (from the May 1952 issue of THE CATHOLIC WORKER)

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[User Picture]
Date:October 17th, 2008 07:13 am (UTC)
Very very interesting, especially the part about communities... 'hope there's more...
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