—From EF—

Joe Hill. World War I. — Tom Joad. World War II. — Paul Robeson at Sydney Opera House. Vietnam War.

I’m writing this on the cusp of Memorial Day, 2024. A couple of years ago I put up a Memorial Day photo of my father taken in Paris, in a basement during a bombing raid in World War II. He and my mother’d had a lakeside tryst in the early summer of 1939, and I saw the light in February of 1940. He went to war, she went back to college, and I went to an adoptive home as a newborn. I doubt he ever suspected he’d made a baby. In those days, secrets were kept, and discreet arrangements were made. War makes its own arrangements.

This weekend I watched a movie and heard a radio broadcast and some connections snapped together in my head. Saturday night CB and Johanna and I watched the 1940 “Grapes of Wrath,” which ends with Tom Joad’s powerful speech to the mother he will likely never see again:

                    I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Sunday morning, driving to our regular ocean picnic, KPFA’s “Across the Great Divide” played John McCutcheon’s story of performing in Sydney, Australia, and having been coerced into singing “Joe Hill.” John’s intro described the man who’d sat in the front row for all three of his concerts, and his final command/request that John sing “Joe Hill.” The man had been an electrician for the years it took to build that opera house, and he was there when Paul Robeson took it upon himself to come to the work-site and sing for the workers—which he did for two hours, in 1960. The man had waited all these years for another American to come to Australia and sing “Joe Hill.” Here’s what had hooked him:

                    “Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
                    “Joe Hill ain’t never died.
                    working men are out on strike
                    Joe Hill is at their side,
                    Joe Hill is at their side.”

                    “From San Diego up to Maine,
                    In every mine and mill –
                    working men defend their rights
                    there you’ll find Joe Hill.
                    there you’ll find Joe Hill”.

Joe Hill was executed in 1915 and World War I started not much later. “Grapes of Wrath” was published in 1939, and World War II started not much later. Paul Robeson sang for the workers in 1960, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. Joe Hill and Tom Joad are heroes worthy of Memorial Day. They were ready to lay down their lives in service to the community of humankind, and who is to say that the devastation of corporate profit is less lethal than the machines of war? Read the news.

We appear to be teetering on another brink. We’re being blasted by Fox News and Truth Social, and where are Joe Hill and Tom Joad now, when we need them? Who knows. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s everybody who can get it together to reach out.

You decide.  


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