Thursday, April 23, 2015

Political Prisoner

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  Nelson Mandela

Because I was in California last week, I missed an opportunity to tell Steve McShane’s students about political prisoner Katherine Hyndman, whom I profiled in a 2006 Traces article entitled “Triumph Over travail.”  It began:

    On October 7, 1952, two agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested 45 year-old Katherine Hyndman at her Gary home.  The agents took her to the Crown Point jail, where she was incarcerated for nearly ten months in a cellblock with prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts, and murderers.  Two years before, over President Harry Truman’s veto, Congress had passed the McCarren Internal Security Act, which called for the deportation of alien subversives.  The wife of a Gary steelworker, Hyndman had immigrated to America at the age of five from Croatia and had joined the Communist party in 1929, following in her father’s tradition.  Her criminal record [for helping evicted tenants move back into their apartments during the Great Depression] proved an insurmountable obstacle in her subsequent efforts to become an American citizen.

Locked up in Cellblock 3, North Hyndman began a prison diary that is now part of a Calumet Regional Archives collection.  She wrote on the backs of envelopes and cards since she was denied all writing paper save for a one-page letter to her husband each week.  She dedicated her writings “to the millions of Americans who have been ‘guests’ of the government, whether local, county, state or federal, and have partaken of the nameless slop that is called food in our ‘generous’ institutions in the richest country in the world.  The pigs on our little farm in Iowa were better fed.”

Here is Hyndman’s first entry, written two weeks after she arrived:

  My original six cellmates wanted to know “What are you in for?”  My arrest, without bail, on deportation charges was hard to explain.  I told them I was a non-citizen and that the federal government considered me a security risk, that I’m alleged to be very dangerous and subversive.  They took one look at me and laughed at the preposterous idea that a person my size [barely five feet tall and weighing 90 pounds] could overthrow the government.  It just didn’t make sense.  It was too fantastic to be real.  None had heard of the McCarren Act.

Former Lake County surveyor George Van Til reported to a federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, a week early to insure access to needed medications and commissary supplies. Stripped figuratively and literally [for a body cavity check] of his dignity, he began serving an 18-month sentence for activities that are common practice among officeholders.  Recently a half-dozen former and present-day African American elected officials invited Van Til to lunch and thanked him for being one of their few suburban elected officials who truly cared about minority constituents.  Indeed Van Til remained committed to Gary, the city of his birth, and attended countless community events.  At the end of the meal they all held hands and someone said a prayer to give George strength during his coming ordeal.  I conveyed the same sentiments over the phone to him. 

After more than 40 years of government service without enriching himself at the public till like so many others, Van Til deserved a better fate.  Having lost practically all his savings in attorney’s fees and living expenses while out of work, and ineligible for Social Security while incarcerated, he is expected somehow to start paying restitution for the hours employees allegedly engaged in political activities.  I’ll have to send him my Postwar Steel Shavings that contains Katherine Hyndman’s diary.  Maybe it will inspire him and cheer him up some.

Two trainers were holding forth in IUN’s library/conference center lobby with comfort dogs.  All day students lined up to interact with them.  I recall the first time I saw someone with a comfort dog and to my surprise noticed that the person wasn’t blind.
 Donald Fagen of Steely Dan

The Friday before I arrived in Rancho Mirage, members of Steely Dan were staying at a nearby hotel – probably the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa - preparing to perform that night at the Coachella Festival in nearby Indio.  Donald Fagen wrote this journal account for Rolling Stone magazine:

              The address card on the desk mentions “Rancho Mirage.” But could that be the name of a town?  It sounds more like a brand of toaster over.  Weird.
              In the dark room, trying to wake up, I heard the strains of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” [from the musical Annie] wafting in from outside.  I slid the curtain open; blinding sunshine.  Giant palm trees and white pavilions.  On a patch of well-mowed grass, a group of children were running and laughing and yelling, playing various games with multicolored balls, like croquet balls only bigger.  These games, one with wooden ramps, another that required goal posts, were entirely unfamiliar to me.  The scene had a dreamlike quality, and that Lewis Carroll poem came to mind:
              ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
              Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
  These activities must be part of the hotel’s day-care service.

In a book about displaced Serbians after World War II Dorothy Mokry found a photo (above) of her mother Sofia Dragic and her brother George [wearing a Chetnik cap] at the Eboli refugee camp in Italy.  Dorothy’s family was originally supposed to go to Australia with other Serbian displaced persons, but she contracted pneumonia and nearly died.  Eventually St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Gary sponsored the Dragic family, so they ended up in Indiana rather than Australia.

On the final night of bowling the Engineers edged out the Dingbats for fifteenth place.  The McCanns won’t be back next year, so I made it a point to chat with Bob and Shannon and convey how much they’ll be missed.  Shannon’s father, a longtime steelworker at Inland and member of Local 1010, trained women and minorities hired in the aftermath of the 1974 Consent Decrees.  Lots of mill workers lamented the new hiring guidelines, but Shannon’s dad realized that the safety of all of them depended on the newcomers being properly trained.  Like many “lifers,” his health was seriously impaired by his work environment, and he died shortly after retiring.
I started editing the student journals from Steve McShane’s class.  Sidney Algozine mentions attending a wake of someone who died much too young. Steve was able to convert the photos from tiffs to jpegs.

No comments:

Post a Comment