Mother is not now, nor has she ever been, a member of the Communist Party. That’s the standard formula, and the story I tell. Mother a Commie? She is a member of the First United Methodist Church, of Teacher’s Local 417, and of a bridge club that meets regularly and never plays bridge. That may sound suspicious, that “bridge club,” but it’s my opinion it is not a cell, not a front for anything more than unrestrained gossip.
Until recently, Mother was not what most people would call political. She always seemed to me to exist in a world bounded by comfortable prejudice on one side and ill-considered catch-phrases on the other. She regarded politicians, from the President down to her City Councilman, as uniformly idiotic, beyond the reach of common sense and good solid Christian morals. Her idea of their bumbling, though, didn’t reach much beyond the construction of a new road in one place and not another—“What are those bozos thinking? Lining their pockets, that’s what they’re doing.”—and the irksome intrusion of election posters and television ads—“I think I’ll sit this one out. They’re all the same, those guys.” Mother was one of the few citizens who could spot no difference between Eugene McCarthy and Richard Nixon, between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, between her ass and her elbow, one might say. One might say that, but not Mother who lets no foul word pass her lips, no word that might reflect the slightest swerve from the predictable.
You recognize Mother from this description? You know her? Then you are as outraged as I at the charges brought against her. Subversive activity indeed. Mother was a loyal American, insofar as she ever pondered what that might mean. Probably as much as the next person, which isn’t much. Consider, though. She always stood for the national anthem, not in her home, I mean, but football games. She forced her fourth-grade students to pledge allegiance, even though the school board didn’t insist. True, she did that for forty or so years and it may have been no more than stubborn habit. But it’s a habit worth honoring, I say. She paid taxes, more or less; she set off sparklers on Jul 4; she honored the Pilgrim Fathers with traditional Thanksgiving meals; she often lent her cheering support to our athletes in the Olympics, though she has been known to waver there, being only human.
I recognize that such things do not amount exactly to evidence, not the sort that would persuade a jury. That just shows you how inhuman and willfully blind our judicial procedures can be. Sane people would dismiss these charges out of hand. I mean, just take one look at Mother, engage her in conversation for three minutes, hell, ask her directly about Bakhunin or Marx or Chomsky. It’s not that she doesn’t have views, but who could regard them as a danger, I mean a danger in the same way a true anarchist would be? Mother will, I know, recklessly identify herself as an anarchist. I wish she wouldn’t and have told her so. But does she listen? She goes on yammering about it to anyone who will listen, which of course the cops have done. Do they care that she is way out of her depth? Will they throw her a life-preserver? Don’t even ask!
That she can be kind of interesting on anarchism, I will be the first to admit. But it’s a bad idea to have views on anarchism, any at all, especially interesting ones. That’s like having an intriguing position on child-abductions. Mother would ben much better off sounding just like everybody else on anarchism and communism and how countries caught in their snares simply envy our freedom. She sounds just like everybody else on all other subjects, so why not these? Like talking to your back porch to tell her that, though. Mother can be downright perverse, not even recognizing her own self-interest.
She tells me that self-interest cannot interfere with truth. Where’d she get that? I’d like to know. No I wouldn’t, as I know where she got it, from the travel group she joined for a trip to—get this!—Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam.
“How about Hawaii, Mother?”
“How about two weeks of boredom, you mean. I’m not interested in hulas and luaus, and volcanoes.”
“There’s lots more than that in Hawaii, Mother.”
“Pineapple plantations, for instance.”
“Oh well, the, that tips the scale. Always wanted to see exploited workers up close.”
“OK. But don’t expect me to go along.”
“Who asked you?”
Of course I did go, just to protect Mother, which obviously I managed not to do.
You can see from her remark about “exploited workers” that Mother had the seeds of ignorance in her even before the trip to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But they would never have sprouted had she not been unlucky enough to get herself involved there with a lot of bad influences. I don’t men by that to blame her fellow tour group travel-lers, though I can tell you that some were doozies. For all I know, however, only Mother reacted to the tour highlights in such a loony way.
I’ll get to details later, maybe, but I I’ll say in advance that nothing in this account is disloyal to Mother or to The United States of America. I’ve said before the worst that can be said about Mother’s so-called “subversive” positions ; “loony.” And some would not go that far. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s admit that much. But just ask yourself, is looniness perilous to national security? If so, I think there’s several million Americans would be convicted, starting with a good many preachers, residents of Roswell, New Mexico, and New England Patriot fans (and their coach).
I know I should stick to the story and not be so opinionated myself, as you couldn’t be expected to be swayed by my views, not matter how well-considered and often objective they might be. You’ll discount them because of my familial tie to Mother, not imagining that it’s precisely that tie that makes me the most valuable witness. But I can say that till the cows cone home and it’ll not do the slightest good. So, let’s turn to the bare facts. Mother dislikes that term, by the way, because “bare” makes one think of unmentionables. As I say, a ridiculous view; but is it one held by a fire-breathing, bomb-throwing terrorist? How likely is that?
So, off we go on this sixteen-day, three-country trip, complete with optional extras I wish hadn’t been there. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
We get to the airport and Mother, usually so compliant, insults the security guy at the checkpoint: “Oh come now,” she sneers, “lighten up, rent-a-cop, and go have a smoke. True, I got reefers, dangerous books, heroin, and bombs tucked in my girdle; but you got bigger problems than them if you try and search me.” Wonder of wonders, the guy just grinned and let Mother through, which does make you wonder about how safe our travelling really is. I’m not one to object to strenuous security measures, but I’m not the issue here. Mother is, and Mother is another matter.
I’ll never get this story told if I go step-by-step, so let me hit some highlights and then get to the legal stuff---the arrest, not to put too fine a point on it.
First, was the Landmine Museum and the COPE Visitor’s Center in Cambodia. For those who don’t know these places, they are both concerned with landmines. So far, so understandable. But they seem to me both pretty Anti-American. After all, we were fighting a war against Communist aggression, a holy war, you might say, trying to help the local inhabitants, not just of Vietnam but neighboring countries too, of which Cambodia is a prominent one.
What the museums said was that American bombers returning from sacred missions over Vietnam and flying back to bases in Thailand, simply dropped excess bombs in Cambodia (and Laos too but it’s Cambodia were focusing on now) so as to minimize the risk of landing and maybe setting them off. In other words, they make it sound purely selfish: better you than me! I should have mentioned that these were cluster bombs, spraying out small and medium landmines, which, I gather, buried themselves. They also say that this bombing took place despite the neutrality of both Laos and Cambodia, as if that mattered. Hey, there’s always some collateral damage in such times, war times, I mean. Anyhow, these museum places are set up to show the horrors of these landmines, even to this day, buried a little in the earth and lying in wait for poor farmers and little children, who imagine they are toys. The Landmine Museum is pretty restrained in its denunciations of Yankee inhumanity, but CORE is all about prosthetic limbs and whatnot, grisly and graphic in its statistics – thousands of victims overall and hundreds a year to this day – images of the hurt and crippled and dead.
I’m not saying they are lying but I make some allowances for telling only one side of the story. Not Mother. She swallowed it whole. Her entry in the Visitor’s Book makes for uncomfortable reading that I don’t recommend. As it was used as part of the evidence against her, though, I’ll reproduce a little:
I am so ashamed of my citizenship, though that was forced on me by the accident of geography. Not like I chose it, nor would I do so now. How anyone can see all this and not take active steps to help these enlightened countries and do battle against arrogant, imperialist America is beyond me.
I admit that’s intemperate, but Mother is incautious, prone to excess. Are such heat-of-the-moment scribblings worth noting at all? I think not, even if one adds in the post-script, where she gives all her personal information and invites the like-minded to join her in taking action. Those are the terms she uses, but c’mon! Who hasn’t sometimes said such things—when annoyed by the IRS, say, or potholes?
Had Mother’s activities stopped there, it’s possible nothing would have happened. But then, there were similar guest-book comments at The Musuem of American Atrocities in Saigon (OK, Ho Chi Minh City) and every hotel and restaurant we found ourselves guests at. Even all that, I feel sure, would have passed unnoticed or waved aside with a tolerant sigh by understanding American officials.
But—understand it’s hard for me to write this---things didn’t stop there. While in Vietnam, Mother wormed some sort of information from our local guide, who openly admitted he was a Communist. (I am amazed the Tour Company would employ him, and I let them know what I thought about it in a letter, a fiery one I can tell you.) Turns out she was hoping to locate not just information on what anarchic communism was all about but to find meetings she could attend, right there. Not like she was hoping to infiltrate either. She was anxious to sign up. Jesus Christ.
Had I known about this---well, needless to say---but I didn’t. She snuck off two nights running—to shop, she said. I should have known something was up, as spending money on frivolous things is not among Mother’s faults. Anyhow, what she was doing was going to these meetings, hanging out at some sort of headquarters.
Worse is to come. When it was time to go home, no Mother. Tour guide waited and waited but finally had to leave. I was tempted to leave myself, having lost patience but was persuaded to remain there and check on her. Long story short---more of the same, only with membership cards and an armband.
Finally, two weeks later, we fly back, Mother in full regalia, mouth flapping to one and all. With predictable results. Wouldn’t have been so bad without all those letters to the editor and public appeals to bomb the Pentagon and, for some reason, the fucking St. Louis Arch.
The people at the prison are very courteous, I’ll say that, courteous to me and to Mother, more courteous than she deserves I might say, were I a neutral observer. Her lawyer, though, is not so patient. I tell him just to wait Mother out, that she’ll come to her senses. Hell, is he getting paid or not? As it happens, no. He says professional ethics forbid him to charge when the client is so unwilling to listen, so determined to lose the case.
I’m often asked by friends of mine how I’m doing myself. Terrible. They ask how I think the case will come out as things stand. A clear loss. They ask what it would take to bring Mother to her senses. I do have an answer for that, but I will keep it to myself – for now.
James R. Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, a dozen short stories, and two novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett. He taught for years at Southern Cal and is now at Pitt.