Was there some point at which you stopped being involved in this sort of thing?
About three weeks ago.
There was a point though — I joined the Communist Party in 1966. By 1976 I was quite weary of it. My basic feeling was this: we’d had a war. And I had signed up to be a soldier. I had not signed up to argue or do philosophy. I had signed up to fight. And the Communist Party seemed at the time the best place to do that.
The Communist Party is very much about doing things. Talking about things, understanding things, discussing things, deciding things, not for you bubula, here’s your assignment, go out and do it. OK. I was real sick of talking and I wanted to do. And for the most part the things we did were reasonable and sensible, up until 1972. At which point Comrade Gus Hall saw his reflection in the mirror, fell in love, and decided to run for President.
And everything we had learned in the Party, which was, “Don’t go to a demonstration to wave your banner, go to a demonstration to take on those tasks that need to be done to make the demonstration work. They need monitors, you’re monitors. They need leafleters, you’re leafleters. They need phone callers, you’re phone callers. You’re not there to advertise yourself. These people who come out to demonstrations to sell their newspapers and wave banners with their name and their organization in big type, they’re parasites. We believe that the mass movement changes society, not the vanguard party. The vanguard party helps lead the mass movement but the main thing is to move people from non-action to action.
“It’s not to recruit them into the party. If you do this the best fighters will say, ‘Hey, how do you know how to do all that stuff? How come you guys always make sense?’ Then you can say, ‘OK, I have to tell you something. I’m in the Communist Party. This is where I learned this stuff. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to come to some classes about Marxism. You know? If you’re interested, maybe you’d be interested in joining.’
“But, that’s not what we’re in the business of. We’re not trying to rack up membership. We’re trying to make this movement work.” 1972? 180 degree turn. Suddenly, we were all about building the Party. Fuck the mass movement. Gus Hall über alles. George McGovern, who’s he? He’s anti-war? He must’ve stolen his platform from the Party. Just insanity.
Gus thought he was gonna carry Minnesota [his home state]. Heh. He got less votes in New York than there were Party members in New York. I voted for McGovern, I can tell you that. And then I found myself in opposition. Well, being in opposition in the Communist Party is not really productive use of one’s time. It’s not built for that. When it was running smart it made great sense and did incredible work. Our meetings were hugely productive and interesting. When it got into this, it was nonsense. And I was drifting away.
I eventually was expelled for failure to attend meetings or pay dues. But, you know, I’d gotten married, started a family, but when I was in trade school I was agitating about the conditions for the students. Soon as my kids were in school I was at the parents group and then down at the school board as they tried to make cutbacks in our kids’ school.
You said you were in trade school. Where was that?
That was at Laney Community College in Oakland. Learning to be a machinist. That didn’t work out. I tried being a machinist and as soon as I enrolled, every industry that employed machinists started laying off. So there were 5-year journeymen, you know, coming out of their ears and here I was just out of trade school, no certificate. Decided to become a game designer and publisher.
But I could not stop being active. Chile fell. [In 1973 Salvador Allende, the Marxist, democratically elected president was deposed and either committed suicide or was murdered in a coup. Until 1990, the country would be ruled by a brutal military junta headed by Augusto Pinochet.] Then dozens of demonstrations. You know? I was never raised to shut up. And as soon as I already had a family there were issues around there to fight about. So, I have never really stopped.
Recently, when Black Lives Matter started going, I thought “OK. I’ve been attending NAACP meetings for six, eight years. Worked with ACT-SO, a program for talented black kids sponsored by the N-double A. It’s academic, technical, sports, dance, music, oratory, essay, that kind of stuff. OK. Then I wanted to get involved in Black Lives Matter [but the local NAACP chapter head expected another community organization to take on that responsibility.] I was also trying to finish work on a game, work on my book, second book [on military history]. And take care of my health.
And I discovered the last one was slipping through the cracks. I was also stressing out of my mind because every time I tried to focus on a problem two others are grabbing my elbows and saying, “No, me! No, me! Me first! Me first! Don’t think about that! Think about this!”
At that point I said, “Hold it. Hoooold it. This ain’t workin’. OK, I resign.” And I said, I’m not gonna do this all by myself. The [NAACP] chapter’s not on board. It’s not my place to try and run the chapter. I’m gonna focus on what I need to get done. And first of all it’s keeping from going in the hospital. So. We’ll start with that.
You’ve got lots of great stories. What’s your best story?
After I quit being a machinist I started designing and publishing war games. Military history simulations, board games with cardboard counters and rules, probability and dice and stuff. No one actually gets hurt in these games so it’s not realistic. So I had published a number of games and one of the places where we sell them is at gaming conventions. This was in mid-summer and I didn’t have a new game but I thought I should make an appearance somewhere so I decided to go to Gen Con run by the people who do Dungeons and Dragons. When I go to a war gaming convention, on my table are my games, brochures for my games, and anti-war literature. So I went around to Women for Peace and grabbed a handful of whatever they had. This would have been in the mid- to late-eighties. Yeah.
My table was at the back of a very large hall and I was trying to save money so it looked like hell. A few people came by I knew and that was nice. Anytime what I thought might be a customer would walk past, I would put on my best shit-eating grin and try to persuade them to buy something.
This little guy in a yellow suit with the expression of a shark on the frame of a minnow comes by and hands me a business card. He’s from the Dungeons and Dragons people, the ones putting on the convention, and he says, “This material is in violation of the convention rules. We’ve had complaints. You have to take it off the table.” Well, my shit-eating grin went right away and I said, “Gee, sonny. I don’t know where you got your law degree but as far as I know the First Amendment applies in Wisconsin, too.” And he says, “No. You signed an agreement. We have a right to determine what goes on this table.” And I said, “I don’t think so.” And he went away. And I thought, ‘OK! Round One for the good guys!’
The convention was at a college campus. He came back after a while and this time he brought the head of the campus police. And he says, “This gentleman here says your material is in violation of the convention rules and you have to take it off the table.” I said, “I’m not selling it, Officer.” He says, “You’re not?” I said, “No, it’s free!” I said, “If you go down that aisle there you will see games that deal with annihilating the population of the planet using germs or nuclear warfare. You will see books for sale on how to kill people with a ballpoint pen. How to harass someone with a lawyer. All kinds of things. Here I have a statement from Helen Caldicott on the medical consequences of nuclear war. One from the retired head of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps on the morality of nuclear war. Think of it as research materials to go with the games. “But, it’s free. I’m not selling these.”
The campus cop said, “Oh. Well, I guess that’s OK,” and wandered off. And I thought, “Aha! Round Two to the good guys!” A few hours later, back comes K____, the little guy in the yellow suit, with the head of the campus police and five guys wearing hard hats, a nerdy little group of geeks. That was K____’s idea of a goon squad.
K____’s blonde and very Aryan looking. He pushed all of my buttons. He was carrying a copy of the contract I had signed which said that TSR Incorporated had the final authority on whatever was on the tables as to its suitability. They’d had a problem before. Someone had made a roleplaying game called Alma Mater. It was about a modern high school. Jocks. Druggies. Nerds. Reality! And they hated it! Whereas, boars cutting off people’s legs and gals in chain mail bikinis, that’s cool family stuff. Yeah.
So he says, “You, this is your signature.” I said, “Yes, it is.” He said, “Then you have to take this stuff off the table.” I said, “What happens if I don’t, Officer?” You have to understand, I was a member of the Free Speech Movement, it is my firm belief that one is required to defend the First Amendment with one’s body if need be. He says, “Well, if you don’t take it off, they can take it off.” I said, “What if I don’t let them?” And he said, “Then I arrest you for disorderly conduct.” I said, “Officer, can I have a minute to think about that, because, you know, this is an important principle.”
I looked around. I thought, “Here I am in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. If I stand up on the table and start shouting I really don’t think I’m gonna assemble a crowd who will sit in and protect me. I have no money for bail. And I really doubt the ACLU keeps office hours on Saturdays. Oh, shit.” He says, “You can put it in a box under the table.” I said, “If someone asks for it can I give it to ‘em?” He says, “Yes.” I said, “OK. What about speech?”
And K____ says, “We’ll handle that on a case by case basis!” And the officer says, “We will not! He can say whatever he wants!” He was really pissed. But, you know, he thought, “Legally the guy’s got me.” Oh, fuck. My adrenalin was pounding in my ears. I was hot and flushed. At that point a couple of guys who were nearby from other gaming groups came by and said, “Well, you know, we would’ve sat down, you know, if you’d ….” I said, “Thank you.”
So then I grabbed one of my fliers, turned it over and wrote a petition: We the undersigned protest TSR Incorporated’s use of police and contract power to prevent People’s War Games, that’s my company, from handing out free literature. So, I put that on the table and the next thing you know, people from tables around me start coming over to sign it. One distributor comes over and says, “These people are crazy! You know, the one problem we have selling this stuff is people think we’re pro-war. Most of the guys who work for me would go over the border if there was another war.” I said, “Yeah.”
Then some high school kids come up and they read the petition and they go, “What’s this? What’s the literature?” I showed them the box. They said, “So, you’re sayin’ if we took some of this and we put it out on the free gaming areas we’d be breaking some rule?” And I said, “Yeah. I think so. How much you want?” They took some out to the free gaming areas to distribute it. But, then la pièce de résistance. There was an old man in the hobby named Lou Zocchi.
Uncle Lou. He’s Italian! He’s working class! He’s informal! He also is a ventriloquist. He does magic tricks. He’s out of Biloxi, Mississippi. He’s a colonel in the Air Force National Guard Reserve. And he’d been a sergeant in the Air Force originally. And he does his magic show on the boats goin’ up and down the Mississippi and he sells dice. And he’s been in the hobby forever and he’s a friend of mine. Well, Sharon Zocchi who had been his secretary and was now his wife, about forty years his junior, comes on over.
And Sharon says, “You got some of that literature? Lou wants to put some of that on his table! We remember about the Danes and Jews, we aren’t gonna let them do that to you! Give me some of that literature.”
The Danes and the Jews! [During World War II, when the Nazis occupied Denmark, a brilliant campaign of nonviolent resistance by the Danes protected Danish Jews.] I’m sitting there with my jaw somewhere around my knees. Uncle Lou would do that for me? “You’d be surprised at what Uncle Lou would do.” I handed her a handful. Next thing you know other manufacturers, game publishers, are coming over to grab, including some guys who are really conservative. Some aren’t. A lot of people in the hobby are surprisingly not. They came over and got literature and put it on their tables until there were 23 tables in the room with my stuff on it!
At the end of the convention as I was packing up to go K____ comes by and gives me a real dirty look and says, “We’ll be ready for you next time.” And I said, “You’ll never be ready for me, cocksucker.” That’s the end of the story. Is that a good one or not?
That’s a helluva story.