Chapter II: Go East
The smell of war seemed to dominate the air. More military-clad men and women were appearing on the streets in our city. It appeared to be just a matter of time before we would be up to our ears in it. Still, America seemed to be aloof from it.
Nominations for officers in the Firemen's Union were the topic on the waterfront. At a meeting of a small group of our Party members, it was decided that I should run for Port Agent of the New York branch. I would sooner have made a bid for Honolulu port agent, but Honolulu already had a halfway-decent guy there who was planning to run. For the New York position, a half-assed reactionary character was running for reelection. The complaint about him from the rank and file was that he was not paying attention to the job; he spent most of his time redbaiting anything and everything while conditions went down the drain. Yet, this guy had some qualities that some of the rank and file liked. I would have to work hard to beat him.
I was considered strong among West Coast firemen, but there were lots of men sailing out of the New York branch that needed to be contacted and won over. "Go east," I was told, "and campaign back there."
I joined the Columbian, an American Hawaiian Line freighter on the intercoastal trade, as an oiler. I quit the ship in New York. It was my responsibility to visit or make contact with any West Coast ships that came into any East Coast port while balloting was in progress. That meant, of course, dashing up to Boston or down to Philadelphia or across to Newark or to any little nook and corner a Marine Firemen's Union contracted ship might pull into.
Boarding a ship, I generally tried to catch the men at the messroom table when they were all together. I'd introduce myself, say a few words about what I was running for and my intentions when elected. In most cases I would run into some shipmate I had sailed with. That always made the job easier, since the crew member picked up the gauntlet and gave the crew the assurance that they were about to vote for the right man.
Our membership used the "Australian system" for voting a ballot handed each member with two envelopes, one blank. The voter was to mark the ballot, put it in the blank envelope, and place it in the other stamped envelope which carried the address and vault number of the bank. After a six or seven week period of voting, long enough to make sure that all the membership had a chance to vote, the ballots would be counted and the winners declared.
I decided to stay around New York until the ballots were counted. If I won, then I was right there for the job. If I lost I would grab a ship back to San Francisco and resume shipping off the West Coast.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in New York was contact my mother. Since my main purpose in New York was to visit ships and meet union members, requiring my being up late at night and on the move, I decided it would be best to find a furnished room where I would not be burdensome to my mom. I found one on the East Side. I promised Mom that I would drop in to see her as often as possible.
She lived in an old three-story tenement house on 11th Avenue and the corner of 24th Street. From her front window she could see the 23rd Street ferry slip and a few piers on the West Side. Her's was the only house of its kind in that area; many of the tenement houses had been razed years before to make room for industrial enterprises like one-story mechanic shops, a dairy delivery substation, a restaurant and a small service station. On the ground floor was a firm that specialized in valves of all kinds for small water craft and home plumbing. She lived in a two-room flat just above the valve shop. There was a long flight of stairs to get to her floor from the street. At the top of her stairs was a door that opened to a passageway that separated the rear flat from the front one. This door had a stained-glass panel where one could detect someone on the other side of it without making out who it was.
I came up the stairs one day and knocked on the glass-paneled door. I knocked and knocked some more, maybe four or five times. Getting no response, I called out to her loudly enough for her to hear me even if she was in another room. I detected some activity and finally her form emerged at the door. When she was assured that it was me, she unlocked the door. When it opened I could see tears in her eyes and fear in her face. "Son," she blurted out, "who did you kill? The FBI has been here looking for you and they said they'll be back to get you and they'll break down the door if necessary." She then dropped to the floor in a faint. I picked her up and carried her into the house, set her down on the bed, then dashed to the sink for water. A wet towel to her face and a sip of water brought her around.
Slowly I coaxed the story out of her, asking her on several occasions to backtrack for more details. She had heard a knock. While getting ready to answer it, she heard it repeated, this time louder and more rapid, becoming a banging which instilled her with fear since she thought it may have been some drunk who wandered up the stairs.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"It's the FBI. I'm looking for Bill Bailey and you better open this door."
Now my mother became more excited, afraid, nervous.
"What do you want with my son?" she asked.
"Never mind what we want him for. Where is he?"
"I don't know where he is."
"Yes you do. We know you know where he is. You better tell us. Now open this door so we can have a look."
"No, I won't," she replied. "I don't open my door for anyone."
"Lady, I'm gonna come back here tomorrow looking for him and you better produce him. If you don't open the door then, we'll put the axe to it."
She cooled down after assurance that I had done nothing wrong, especially anything that would require the FBI to be on my tail. I tried to hide my rage over what had happened. I excused myself and said I was going out for a pack of cigarettes and would be back a little later.
Out in the street I raced for the phone. When I reached the operator at FBI headquarters I said, "Lady, I want you to get this down pat. My name is Bill Bailey, spelled B-A-I-L-E-Y, and I want to tell you now, loud and clear, that if you ever again send an FBI man around to my mother's house and get her so unraveled and nervous, I promise you I'll put a hatchet into the skull of the dumb bastard you sent around. I will not stand by and see anyone upset my mother. Do I make myself clear?"
The operator was beside herself. "Sir, Mr. Bailey, please stay on the line. Easy, Mr. Bailey." I could hear the clicking of lines and a male voice came on. "Yes, Mr. Bailey, this is Agent Morgan. Now, what is it that's getting you all excited?"
I repeated what I had told the operator, this time slightly more excited than before. I even promised to take commit mayhem on not just one agent, but two if two should be sent. I was assured that the FBI had not sent anyone out looking for me, and they added that it was never their intention, now or ever, to harass an old woman. However, they did tell me they were anxious to find out what really happened. They proposed that I take a cab at their expense and ride downtown to their headquarters to explain once again, while they "checked other sources."
When I entered their office, four men were waiting for me. After introductions I was motioned to a chair, and I went over the episode again, venting my wrath at what the bastard had done to my mother. They showed much interest and sympathy, and as soon as I stopped talking one of the men said that after talking with me on the phone, they started to do some checking. They concluded that when I left the Pacific Coast to come east, I did not tell my draft board that I was making the move. If I mailed a notice, it never reached the board in time to abort their next step--turning the matter over to the FBI. An agent told me that a few thousand young people had been hired by the agency to do one thing only--to check up on, locate and harass men who were playing games with their draft boards and staying clear of the armed services.
Since the young kids were now part of the FBI apparatus, they really thought they were FBI agents and most times ran amok as if they were chasing down saboteurs or spies, said the agent. This was not the only complaint that had been made about their flights of fancy and weird tactics. "Maybe some of them do deserve a kick in the ass or a club across the head with a broomstick," he said, "but please, Bill, not the way you want to do it, with a hatchet!" He promised that he would intercede and make sure that it never happened again. It never did.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three