Work, College, Politics

Returning home to Westminster was not to the old poultry farm where I grew up but to a second-story one-bedroom flat on Main Street in the center of the town where Mamma and Irma had moved after selling the farm. They shared the bedroom while I slept on a cot in the living room. The apartment house was owned by Dante Arcangeli, a building contractor who was part of a large Italian family who had lived in town for many years.

After settling in and buying a single-breasted gray suit that accommodated my now slim frame, after my “fat boy” image when entering Navy boot camp, I took the bus to Fitchburg to see if I could get a job in the Raivaaja composing room. John Suominen, head of the newspaper’s board of trustees and secretary-treasurer of the Workers Credit Union housed in the Raivaaja building on Wallace Avenue, said they weren’t hiring as they were adequately staffed with the addition of new printers from Finland in the early Post-World War II period.

Speaking of Finland, my mother had received word from Lahti where a number of relatives from Pappa’s family had settled as evacuees from now Soviet occupied Karelia, that my uncle Juho Siitonen was gravely ill from cancer. A bachelor in his early 60s, he was living with a niece Elvi Pajunen and her teen daughter Anneli. So, knowing they were practically penniless, I chipped in a contribution from my Naval mustering out pay, augmented by a donation from Mamma to help out Juho. We heard later from Cousin Elvi that he had been sick in bed that day when the mail was delivered containing the money while she was at work. Her daughter Anneli had come home from school for lunch and found her grand-uncle dead holding the money and our letter in his hand. The money was used to pay for Juho’s burial costs. Like Pappa, he, too, had been a heavy smoker and paid the price.

On my job-hunting I took the bus to nearby Gardner and noticed a sign reading “Hatton Printing.” I got off at the next bus stop and entered the building to ask about a job. Mr. Hatton took a shine to me and hired me as a hand composition apprentice, setting type manually hand from the California job case. There were no Linotypes or other typesetting machines in the plant. The only other comp was a middle-aged Finnish-American journeyman printer who I remember was called Wilho. Two pressmen made up the rest of the print shop crew. Hatton’s son worked with his father in the street-level office in an administrative capacity. It wasn’t a union shop which I would have preferred, but I would have had to go to Worcester to find one, which would have meant a long bus commute. So I worked through the summer at Hatton’s, commuting daily from Westminster by either bus or hitch-hiking, a habit I’d picked up in the Navy.

The Finnish Farmers’ Coop local in Westminster was still holding its Finn-hop dances monthly at the Town Hall which I began to attend. I didn’t have a car or driver’s license yet, so I began some distance running evenings for a few miles on the back roads to keep in shape. I’d spend some summer evenings at Arvo Niemi’s gas station and garage which he had opened recently in the middle of town. A number of other young Westminster guys hung around the garage working and tuning up their Model A Fords, with Arvo letting them use his tools on the house. But I was generally pretty bored and craved the more exciting extra-curricular activities of my recent Navy life.

Many of the Westminster ex-GIs were joining the local American Legion post. I was asked to join but demurred as already then I looked on it as a conservative jingoistic organization. I can remember the old time gas bag Legionnaires of the WWI era spouting off their 200% patriotic flag-waving spiels years back at Memorial Day school assemblies during my junior high school days. Eddie Muhonen, who had been a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and some other vets were trying to start up an active VFW post in Westminster. Although I hadn’t any war zone experience I was technically eligible to join as I had sailed on a warship in the Pacific within six months after the conclusion of hostilities. I went to a couple of meetings of the chapter but was turned off. Memorial Day was approaching and the big debate was whether VFW participants in the parade to Woodlawn Cemetery to honor the town’s war dead should wear their uniforms that would indicate their wartime rank on them. Those who were commissioned officers generally favored it and those with lower rankings opposed it. I considered this pretty dumb and never went back or joined.

At work on lunch break, on nice days I’d eat my food outside finding a ledge to sit on. A couple of Westminster guys, Toivo Mäki and one of the Robillard brothers who worked in a nearby Gardner factory, would often join me. After their military discharges they had shipped out briefly as merchant seamen from Boston to Mediterranean ports, but they preferred factory work near Westminster. But Toivo’s ambitions went beyond that. He told me he had been accepted at Syracuse University on the World War II veterans’ GI Bill where he planned to study accounting.

Previously, I’d had no plans to undertake a university education. I had gone to trade school to focus on printing as a livelihood. I had not taken the college preparatory courses that were standard in a fully academic high school. But, then, why not, as I had my own GI Bill rights to pursue higher education. Irma graduated in June, 1946 from the ninth grade at 14 from Westminster’s junior high school and would be commuting on Flanagan’s bus line to Fitchburg High starting in the Fall as a sophomore. I found out that Fitchburg State Teacher’s College would accept me as a student, and I signed up for the Fall semester. Old man Hatton wasn’t too happy when I gave my notice to quit to go to college, but then I would become the first of my family ever to have gone beyond a high school education.


Since my mother commuted to Fitchburg to do part time housekeeping day work, Irma would be going to Fitchburg High, and I to State Teachers’, I told them why hang around Westminster, it would be much more practical for us to move to that city. So we made the move, settling into a two bedroom tenement in a house owned by a Finnish family named Hendrickson on the single block Omena Street, Omena translated as Apple. The neighborhood was in the heart of Fitchburg’s then still sizeable Finntown. Irma could easily walk to school, and although a longer hike, I could stride to State or take the bus. Mamma would take a bus to West Fitchburg for her housekeeping chores. As were most Finnish women, she was an industrious and competent worker. She was also an excellent negotiator when she applied for day work. She would insist on a lunch allowance as well as employer-paid bus fare. Ands she never failed to get these fringes.


I don’t know if I really wanted to be a teacher but the first two year’s courses offered a solid grounding in liberal arts, good on any campus. The World War II GI Bill offered a fantastic break for the American working class youth who had served. Most, including myself, would have probably never gone to college without it. It also subsidized trade apprenticeships and home loans for vets with families It was the best Federal investment the New Deal Era ever made, allowing working class youths to get into middle class professions. Many millions enrolled with some going onto graduate school. The war had broken the back of the Depression and the economy went onto a solid postwar boom that lasted into the 1970s, by and large. The unions were still strong, and until the 1970s, the American working class did much better than it had ever done before or since.

One day that fall, walking home via downtown from class I noted a printing plant near the railroad depot, Blanchard and Brown Printing Company, a commercial job shop. Printer’s ink still coursed through my veins, so one day I stopped by the shop and asked the owner, an Italian Americas named Louis Dragotti about the possibility of part-time work in the composing room. I told him I was a student at Fitchburg State and only wanted a few hours a week. Lou was an ITU member and the only comp in the shop, though he employed two pressmen and ran the Linotype himself. His wife (Rose?) did collating and bindery work as well as kept the books. So Lou hired me on that basis as a hand comp. The Dragottis had two adult daughters with Norma, the younger, also a freshman at State.

I told Rose that I had a widowed mother doing housework in Fitchburg as a living. Immediately, Mrs. Dragotti said she needed someone to clean house since she was at the shop most days. She asked to meet Mamma and they hit it off. She offered more money than my mother’s employer, a single paper mill executive, did, so she quit, and went to work at the Dragotti household almost immediately. Rose’s elderly Italian immigrant mother also lived with them and was good company for Mamma as she worked. Neither one spoke English that well but they got along famously. Mamma worked for them until her retirement at 62, due to her increasingly severe arthritis during the cold New England winters. By her retirement, domestic workers had become included under Social Security during the Truman Administration so that gave her a source for a modest income.

Irma’s plans were to finish high school and then go on to Becker’s Business College in Worcester to become a medical secretary. She was a straight A student at Fitchburg High all the way to graduation. I did well through my first semester at Fitchburg State and studied extra hard as compensation for my lack of preparation for a college curriculum and also got top marks for the fall semester and started the next semester.

I found life somewhat boring and unsatisfying in Fitchburg. I went to the Finnish dances at Saima Hall and saw a few of my Westminster period schoolmates married off. I went to see Fitchburg High School basketball games and games played by the Finnish Reipas Athletic club made up of second-generation Finns on the court on the top floor of the Raivaaja building. The one diversion that did interest my intellectual curiosity were the lectures of Elis Sulkanen, a Raivaaja editor on atomic energy at Saima Hall.


Sulkanen was a significant player in Finnish-American socialist history. As a young immigrant he was a Marxist activist in the Upper Midwest. The Finnish IWW was a major player, and Sulkanen and his fellow Marxian Socialists worked with the Wobblies and co-founded a newspaper Sosialisti with Leo Laukki, who headed the IWW-run Work Peoples College near Duluth. However, Sulkanen and other Marxists like Onni Saari said: “We are not revisionists, (referring to the Raivaaja supporters) nor are we syndicalists, (referring to the IWW), so we can only be revolutionary socialists.” The majority IWW supporters of Sosialisti took over the paper, forcing Sulkanen and his faction out. The Finnish IWW then founded the Industrialisti, that supported their Finnish language cause of industrial unionism until about 1973 when it expired. Industrialisti for some years was the only daily newspaper the Wobblies ever published in any language.

With the Russian Revolution, Sulkanen and his “revolutionary Marxist” tendency became part of the Workers (Communist ) Party which morphed into the CP-USA during the 1920s. In 1927, Sulkanen, Wilho Boman, and Henry Askeli were expelled from the CP and the pro-CP Finnish Workers Federation for “opportunism.” Their crime? CP members of the FWF should have a higher-weighted vote on issues than those FWF members who didn’t belong to the Communist Party. The expellees objected to this undemocratic procedure.

Sulkanen and Askeli later joined the Socialist Party Finns while Boman dropped out of politics. After the Finns quit the SP in 1938 because of the disruptive activities of the Trotskyists who had entered the SP primarily to recruit its left wing youth, in the 1940s the Finns formed the social democratic Finnish-American League for Democracy. It was strongly anti-Communist and supported the Democratic Party by and large and the right wing faction of the Finnish Social-Democratic Party led by Väinö Tanner. Sulkanen was a prominent editor of Raivaaja then and a popular lecturer. The FALD lasted into the 1980s and then died out as the first-generation Finns died off. Sulkanen’s major accomplishment was a book he wrote which became a social democratic Finnish classic: Amerikan Suomalaisten Työväenliikkeen Historia published by Raivaaja in 1952. (The History of the Finnish-American Labor Movement.) There has never been an English translation of this book which I and various scholars have used for reference purposes. I wrote a review of his lectures on atomic energy in Finnish which Raivaaja published. (More on Sulkanen later.)



I was extremely restless at this time and felt confined at home, and didn’t get along all that well with Mamma and felt I should go to college somewhere else so I wouldn’t have to live at home any more. It was time to leave the nest. So I sent for catalogues around the country to see about a transfer. Roger Bellows, a Navy shipmate was going to the University of Michigan and urged me to apply there. But Michigan said I should have more academic preparation and a record to apply there so I approached Michigan State College (later University) at East Lansing for admittance. They were wide open especially for veterans as they were trying to broaden their academic portfolio, beyond agriculture and engineering as a traditional land grant college. I was accepted for the summer quarter of 1947.

I had enrolled and begun the second semester at Fitchburg State, but felt boxed in, restless and trapped. I believe I had a form of nervous breakdown. So one day I packed a bag while Mamma was working and left her a note that I was leaving. I vaguely thought of San Francisco, hopped a Greyhound bus and went west. I got off in Chicago and started looking for a job, when it occurred to me: “What the hell am I doing here?” So I wrote to my sympatico history prof at Fitchburg, Dr. Donald Harrington, that I’d had a nervous breakdown and had pulled out in mid-semester and wanted to formally quit and would start over at Michigan State where I’d been accepted. He was cooperative and agreed to help process my withdrawal. I then decided to head back to Fitchburg, but thought I’d first visit East Lansing to see the campus in which I was now enrolled. So I took a bus to Michigan State, hung out in Lansing a couple of days and then took another series of buses to Fitchburg.

My mother was quite forgiving about my escapade. I had no problem withdrawing officially from my student status at Fitchburg State. I continued to work part-time off and on at Blanchard and Brown, setting type. I was still restless but now that my summer goal was established I could hold myself together better. I took a couple of hitch-hiking trips. One was to Jackman, Maine right near the Canadian border. From there I made train connections to Quebec City, and then by bus to Montreal. I hitched through part of upstate New York, southern Vermont and New Hampshire back to Fitchburg. In New Hampshire I was picked up by a traveling salesman, also WWII vet. He was a liberal Democrat and I told him I was planning to attend college at Michigan State. He was a member of a new postwar veterans organization American Veterans Committee (AVC) which had a progressive and liberal agenda under the motto “Citizens First, Veterans Second.” Compared to the conservative American Legion and VFW, this appealed to me. AVC was first founded in 1943 and was for civil liberties and civil rights and was pro-labor. It had racially integrated chapters in the Southern states from the beginning. He said there were college campus chapters forming all over and there was probably an AVC chapter at Michigan State and I told him I’ll look into it when I get to East Lansing.


Outside of correspondence I hadn’t seen my cousin Lempi since my Navy boot leave. I wrote to her about my plans for the summer semester at Michigan State and since it was spring, she invited me to come to Walden, New York where she had purchased a large frame house in the country and was in the process of renovation and repair to be opened as a summer resort by Memorial Day, 1947. Walden is near Newburgh on the Hudson River and the building might have been a boarding school at one time with its many sleeping rooms. During the war years she had married a non-political immigrant German baker working in New York City named Martin Arenz. Toward the end of WWII they had purchased a smaller farm house in the country about fifty miles north of New York City to operate as a summer retreat with room and board for Gothamites who wanted to get out of the city from time to time. Martin would join her on weekends from his NYC bakery job riding on his motorcycle to lend a hand. Since he was a German citizen he had to sign out and in with the New York Police Department during the war years whenever he went out of town. To make the resort operation larger and more sustainable they had found a much larger property about 70 miles up the Hudson from the City in the country on Orange Lake in Walden, a few miles west of Newburgh. There was a boat dock accessible to their property on the lake for guests interested in rowing and perhaps swimming and fishing. The clientele they were aiming for were City families with children with the mothers and kids staying at the resort during weekdays, to be joined by their working fathers on weekends. To get a more progressive and liberal clientele, they would advertise in classifieds with the Nation and New Republic weekly magazines. The retreat would be called Windy Hill on Orange Lake.

I thought Lempi’s offer was splendid and readily agreed to come down to help and enjoy. I wouldn’t get paid but given free room and board. So I took a train from Worcester to Albany, switched to a NYC-bound train going south, getting off the Beacon, NY, just across the Hudson from Newburgh. I took the ferry across the river to that city where I was met by Lempi and her cohort in their car. To my surprise there were three partners in the project, not just Lempi and Martin. She was now in a non-conjugal, platonic relationship with her husband, and was joined by a lesbian lover Marion (Mickey) Morris, a Russian Jewish woman about a decade younger than my cousin. They were now life partners and remained so for the rest of their lives. Yet the affable Martin accepted the situation and remained part of the resort team for some time. Mickey was a bright, intelligent and witty left radical and a Socialist Workers Party comrade of Lempi’s. Lempi’s official and business name was now Jane C. Arenz for the rest of her life and I’ll refer to her as Jane from here on. (I enjoyed them all. Later on Martin asked for a divorce and opted out of the Windy Hill partnership, married a German woman and had two daughters with her. Martin was a welterweight exact look-a-like to Max Schmeling, the German heavyweight boxer who took the crown from Joe Louis, only to lose it in a brutal one-round rematch.)

It was an exciting month for me. I did construction, painting and repair work in sprucing up Windy Hill for its opening. My biggest job was several hot days in the back yard, pick-axing and shoveling through slate to enlarge the sewer line from the main house. There were numerous bedrooms on four floors so with a houseful of guests they needed an adequate sewer connection. We would only work a few hours a day so there was plenty of time for kibitzing, eating and quaffing a couple of beers. I was the only non-smoker among us four. We talked and laughed a lot on subjects ranging from family history to light political exchanges. With their Trotskyism, Jane and Mickey could have proselytized me on their sectarian politics about which I knew nothing, but political talk was mostly in a lighter general vein. But it all helped in my political development to hear stories of their many experiences in the labor and left radical movements. Martin was a quiet, good-humored gentle fellow with whom it was fun to banter. He and I slept on bunks in one of the sitting rooms, while Jane and Mickey shared an upstairs bedroom. We also went on grocery shopping and hardware store trips. We did accomplish a lot to spruce up the great lady which looked like something of a house of the seven gables. I developed a great tan working in the sewer trench. I also painted a sunroom garret at the top of the house with windows on all sides, as well as a ping pong table in the front yard. Their plans were to operate Windy Hill in the summer months, and stay in their Manhattan flat winters and work waitress or cooking jobs in the City.


On opening weekend around Memorial Day Windy Hill was solidly booked. Among the guests were several Trotskyist members of Jane’s Socialist Workers Party. I’ll digress here briefly to discuss U.S. Trotskyism to readers not familiar with it. This agency developed when a number of members of the 1920’s Communist Party who identified with Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in his losing battle to oppose Joseph Stalin’s machinations to destroy his opposition to control the Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union as the successor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who died in 1924. Among them were James P. Cannon, a former IWW organizer who had joined the U.S. Communist Party when it was developed, and Max Schachtman, a New York City student activist who had been the first national chair of the Young Communist League. Ironically, when they were thrown out the CPUSA was controlled by the faction led by Jay Lovestone who, with his followers, was expelled in turn the following year for being on the wrong side of the dispute between Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, a prominent early Russian Bolshevik who was later executed by Stalin when his power became absolute. Stalin’s most loyal American lapdog William Z. Foster became national chair of the CPUSA. Around 1935 the Reverend A. J. Muste, socialist-pacifist founder of the Brookwood Labor College, turned out many young labor organizer talents who were prominent in the campaign to organize the CIO in the recovering American mass industry during the 1930s. Cousin Jane was one of these organizers along with her close friend Freddy Paine of New York. I never got to discus Jane’s role in this organizing but I know she was active in the pivotal Auto-Lite sit-down strike in Toledo.

Muste and associates tried to organize the American Workers Party around 1935 as more democratic than the CP-USA, and was to the left of the Norman Thomas Socialist Party. The AWP didn’t last long but many of its young militants joined the Trotskyists. Jane and Freddy were among those militants, while Muste returned to his pacifist roots as secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Trotskyists, who considered themselves true disciplined Bolsheviks, entered into the SP-USA to try to capture a growing youth element rising in the YPSL and SP. This “entryism” was successful in 1936 as they recruited a lot of these fresh elements to their ideology. After raising a lot of havoc within the SP in their heavy-handed divisive tactics, the Trotskyists were expelled in 1938. They then founded the SWP and published a newspaper The Militant. ( I never had a chance to discuss this SP incursion with Jane when years later I found out about it.)

In 1940 there was a split between the Schachtman and Cannon currents within the SWP. The issue was the class nature of the Soviet Union. The Cannon folks defended the USSR as a degenerated workers state but which should be critically supported because of its state-owned industry, although Stalin was seen as a murderous son-of-a-bitch. The Schachtmanites saw the USSR being controlled by a new bureaucratic class so that system could no longer be called socialist or Communist. Schachtman called the system “bureaucratic collectivism.” His British political couterparts, led by Tony Cliff, called it “state capitalism.” The whole issue came to a head when the USSR’s Red Army attacked Finland militarily in November of 1939. The Schachtmanites considered the attack as unjust while the Cannonites critically defended this action by their “degenerated workers’ state.” So an organized split was inevitable, and the Schachtman cohort set up the Workers Party in 1940, which eventually was renamed the Independent Socialist League. Their newspaper was called Labor Action. The Cannonites continued as the SWP and published The Militant. “Splititis” bcame a Trotskyist disease over issues of what the “correct political line” is on this or that question, resulting in new sects not all that different than what happens in fundamentalist Protestant religious sects. But now let’s return to that wonderful Memorial Day weekend at Windy Hill in 1947.


Among their Trotskyist guests were Freddy Forrest, a political name for Raya Dunayevskaja who had worked as personal secretary for Leon Trotsky in Mexico City before he was murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent. Of course, Freddy Paine, Jane’s old Musteite union organizing comrade had to be there. A vivacious, outspoken former NYC radical street kid of Italian descent, Freddy was married to Lyman Paine, a wealthy Harvard-educated Trotskyist architect and a direct descendent of the famous 18th and early 19th century revolutionary Tom Paine.

Both Freddys and Lyman became part of the Johnson-Forrest tendency of the SWP, Johnson being a Jamaican-born black revolutionary Marxist thinker and writer named C.L.R. James and Forrest being our aforementioned Freddy. The Johnson-Forrest tendency eventually left the SWP to fly on their own. Also at Windy Hill that weekend was Sylvia Ageloff of Brooklyn who unwittingly introduced Trotsky to his assassin in Mexico, a Spanish communist named Ramon Mercader, traveling under a Canadian passport under the name Frank Jackson, who was a trained NKVD agent. She was at Windy Hill with a German Trotskyist boy friend who spoke English with a strong German accent and wore dark glasses, lending an air of intrigue to the situation. I spent a lot of time talking with Freddy Paine about art and politics. She said whatever you do when you get to Michigan don’t join the Stalinists, realizing how green I was to American radical politics then.

Jane cooked for all the guests and Mickey did the serving, and Martin, cleanup and dishwashing. A chap named Hank strummed a guitar on the lawn, and played and sang songs I’d never heard: Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” recently minted, and Wobbly Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever,” which became the de facto anthem of the American labor movement. I had only heard my mother singing “The Internationale” and other old Finnish radical pieces which were no longer sung at Finnish Social Democratic events in New England in 1947, as they moved toward the right.

I left Walden after the holiday, joining Freddy Forrest on the ferry trip to Beacon, she going back to New York by train and me going north to make a Massachusetts connection at Albany. Without being pushy, she urged me to get involved in left politics. The whole experience gave me a lot to ponder about as I headed home to prepare my move to Michigan.

End of Installment 7