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Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Gift for Francis


Well, there it is, all of it in my mind.  And I hesitate to get to it.  Maybe I'm afraid I can't do it.  But then I was afraid I couldn't do  any of it.  And just day by day I did it.  So that is the way to finish it. ...   I wonder if this flu could be simple and complete exhaustion.  I don't know.  But I do know that I'll have to start at it now and, of course, anything I do will be that much nearer the end....  Finished this day — and I hope to God it's good John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of  The Grapes of Wrath,” October 26, 1938.


On a dead-end street a yellow, triangular sign reads: “End.” But underneath, spray painted in black, is the graffiti.  It reads: “War.”

Of course, this is a crude effort that ends nothing, but it is telling.  Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden once held court in Chico, California, home to the sign, and the thicket behind it.  Their Campaign for Economic Democracy was a powerful force in state and local politics.  In fact, back in the day, not only was Vietnam (and ultimately guns on campus) giving students angst, but the plight of farm workers as well.

Just up the street from the sign, an apartment complex housed many of those angst-filled students over the years, and others unable to pay high rents.  It was a Chico haven, of sorts, and telling in its own right.  Prior to his visit Pope Francis was given a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath."  There is little doubt he understood the angst, and the plight of the downtrodden.

"Cura Personalis," one of the six values of the Jesuits, translates: "care for the individual person." Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived this, without question, and the apartment complex up the street harbored the insight as well.  It offered sanctuary against the injustice of an often uncaring world.

Euphemistically called "Richardson's Arms," the tiny studios, ten to each "longhouse," packed 'em in like sardines.  But there were no complaints at the "Arms," even though most Chicoans could not imagine being impoverished thus  albeit, in a veranda-shaded world.  Out in a wider Chico world, the middle-class ruffians from the Bay Area were helping the world.  At the Richardson's Arms, many were just trying to escape it.


As in most of America at the time, anti-war protests were common.  In 1966, for example, a speaker at a demonstration in downtown Chico, Ed DiTullio, was fired at Cal State after angrily reacting to a heckler in the crowd.  The Asian-history professor had been station in Korea.  Out of the crowd someone asked: "On which side?"  He was fired for using an obscenity.

Tom Reed shared this story with Robert Speer, a reporter for the Chico News & Review.  According to Speer, Reed later helped found the first local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was a student organization known for its activism against the Vietnam war. Tom Hayden, along with Robert Alan Haber, wrote the SDS manifesto.

On a more practical note, however, students shared, and experienced, the benefits of student activism up front. On campus student protests ultimately closed West First Street (its traffic blocked students walking to and from class, and caused safety concern).  But the genesis of it all seems to have started with DiTullo.  What happened to DiTullo has been elusive, and little seems to be known.  Don Hislop remembered the story, but his account in "History News" is also incomplete, and differs somewhat from what Reed told Speer.

From that earliest turmoil, however, it is clear the student community blossomed.  While many staged protests and sit-ins, others were working more constructively.  Tim Tregarthen and Carlene St. John, for example, ran for office on campus, and were elected for student president and vice president, in 1966, according to Speer, and made good on a promise about stating a tutorial program.  The Associated Student leaders started CAVE, a community action volunteer organization.  And one of C.A.V.E.'s  first tutorial programs was at the Gridley Farm Labor Camp. Students studying at Chico State, and others, helped teach the children of migrant farm workers.

All this effort did not go unnoticed at the Arms.  Concern for others was at the heart of the Chico experience.  This is not to say the student community was perfect, nor community "regulars" supportive.  But opportunities to help promote change were real and raw.

Simply, Chico activists and volunteers headed to state hospitals to help the severely, developmentally disabled, and many others.  They helped transport the elderly to appointments and recreational events.  They arranged community meetings to coordinate activites, and thousands of Chicos community members organized nonprofit recycling facilities, crisis centers, low-income health clinics, a natural-foods co-op, a peace center, a heritage association and a center for gays and lesbians.

Did it help?  The debate is ongoing, and in Chico sounds much the same.  California made Cesar Chavez's birthday a state holiday, but Scott Will, a Vietnam veteran in Paradise, California, became upset anyway. Chavez's birthday, March 31, is the day after Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans' Day.

Today this country is more in touch with a union organizer," he told the Chico Enterprise-Record in a letter to the editor in 2009, "...than acknowledging those of us who fought for our country in Vietnam."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  To be fair, Will did admire Chavez, and his work organizing field workers. But the debate is not over, and clouding the issue the holiday has become an excuse to party.  The News & Review has written about it, and the conservative Chico Enterprise-Record.

Even a coveted sit-in over gun-toting campus cops, failed to make a lasting difference at Cal State.  In "Armed and Alarmed," Richard Ek explored how Chico State students occupied Kendall Hall, the Chico State administration building on December 3, 1975.  Students were camped out in the halls for weeks.

The campus police were armed anyway.

And, the debate has turned bizarre.  In Roseburg, Oregon, for example, where a mass shooting took place on the Umpqua Community College campus, the faculty and staff, according to news reports, had just finished debating whether to arm campus security officers. They are not armed there, and the debate centered on stopping violence with guns.  The very thing once thought to prevent an act of violence has come full circle.  Yes, it was horrible, but:

Will any effort ever make a difference?

(Street Photos: Google Maps.)

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A reporter, who lived at The Arms, and visited Kendall Hall's turmoil, remembers not the organizer who recruited him, but being back home with Paul, a transplant from Oklahoma, cooking black-eyed peas.  His secret?  Slow cooking, salt, ham hocks and Anaheim peppers.  Delicious!  He liked it quiet too.  He said he was promised quiet when he moved in.  With paper-thin walls, it was a pretty good policy.

The owner of the complex made his tenants feel they were important.  On a second stay, in the 1980s, the tone had shifted, and a lot of folks liked to party.  The owner put a picnic table back behind the old washhouse.  No one really complained about anything though.  Everyone was family — albeit one more like Oscar The Grouch.

For those who remember Jane's father in "The Grapes of Wrath...," well, that's what it felt like living there.  It was as if everyone knew, and understood that Rose of Sharon should feed the stranger in a barn.  And understanding this is a knowledge that can never be lost. Watching Scott Pelley give Francis a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" was a compelling moment.  Steinbeck's book, and its ending, is gut-wrenching prose.  No doubt Pope Francis knows all about it.  

And a reporter too, in his own way, who in a kitchen the size of a large bathtub watched a 9-inch television screen in disbelief.  PBS in Redding, if memory serves correct on the broadcast, aired not the Fonda film, but one that showed the true ending.  It was California during tough times, that's for sure.  Just the way it was, and will always be for many around the world.  All we can do is try, and get back to work.  

On a hopeful note, in the fall of 2016 C.A.V.E. will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Yes, Steinbeck got it right.  Supporting one another, and the foundations we share, matters.  The novel is a wonderful gift.

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Pope Francis accepts a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath."  Scott Pelley explained why he chose the novel on 60 Minutes Overtime (the subscriber link below).  Originally the video was available to all CBS viewers.  Pelley believed the novel pertinent to the refugee crisis in Europe.  The Observer agrees, and will continue to share the event.  


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