It might not have been a precise 60 years ago, but sometime in 1954 there were two young radicals in Ocean Park, California, both members of the Socialist Party, out on an errand along the board walk. One was Maggie Phair, and the other was me.
It was the quiet period under Eisenhower. But for young radicals the important news was the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, where the forces of Ho Chi Minh had defeated the French Army on May 7th, 1954.
Here in the US there was a push for some kind of US military intervention to save the French. Richard Nixon was urging the use of nuclear weapons (vetoed by Eisenhower).
Maggie and I had set out with a stencil, a roller, and some ink – the stencil read “Send Dulles, Not Troops, to Indochina,” (John Foster Dulles was the Secretary of State then).
It was late at night, the boardwalk was deserted. To our West were breaking waves and the beach. We planned to stencil this slogan in front of several cafes that would, in the morning, be doing business. Hardly a revolutionary gesture, but at least an act in a time of silence and conformity.
I had with me a manila folder which contained a few family snap shots, the mailing list of our contacts at UCLA, (from which we had both recently graduated), and the pasted-up copy of a flyer on Vern Davidson, a young leader of the Socialist Party who had been arrested for refusing military service and was shortly to begin serving two years in federal prison. I had laid the manila folder down on one of benches along the board walk, so I could better focus on the stenciling.
It was my intent to take the flyer in that folder to the offset shop the next day to get copies made to distribute at UCLA.
After Maggie and I had finished our work, I went to the bench to pick up my manila folder – and it was gone!
I was an awfully middle-class kind of young radical, who didn’t automatically view the police as the enemy. Let us admit it, I was naive. So the next day I phoned the FBI and said that something very minor had been stolen from me, but that if the thief was patriotic, he would turn it in to the FBI and in that case could they let me have it back – I wanted some family snap shots.
The FBI, probably amused, insisted they knew nothing about any stolen manila folder.
The matter would have ended there – a mysterious theft in the night of a manila folder with nothing of value in it. But about a year later my parents reported having gotten the snap shots in the mail. No note, no explanation, no return address – just the snap shots. (Actually, when you think of it, a touching human gesture from someone in the government). My parents’ address had not been on the folder.
Vern served his two years, emerged to get a law degree, lived a good life, and died not too long ago. I never did try to do another paste up on the leaflet – I had spent so much time working on it I couldn’t bear to do it all over again.
I was thinking about this incident recently and thought I’d write it up to cheer young radicals who think small gestures of resistance are not noticed. They are. Some agent of the government, in Ocean Park, California, on a deserted board walk, 60 years ago, was keeping his eye on two young radicals, stenciling an anti-war slogan on the sidewalks, and stealing, as proof of his time spent, that slim manila folder.