A Wobbly Farewell | Our Town | Chicago Reader

A Wobbly Farewell 

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It begins with music and it ends with music, as gatherings of the members of the Industrial Workers of the World often do.

The husband-and-wife folksinging team, proud Wobblies from Minneapolis, open up with "I'm Gonna Work a Four-Hour Day." He plays the guitar and she the mandolin. Her elastic face shines through the Joe Hill ballad. And after the speeches are over, she leads the crowd of about 100 in "Solidarity Forever." Everyone stands to sing, and follows the lyrics in little red IWW songbooks.

A woman is explaining that this is their anthem and favorite drinking song.

Carlos Cortez is the emcee here in the Sulzer Library meeting room. He's an artist and 40-year Wobbly, and his long graying hair tied off in a tail and his bushy gray mustache and discreet gold earring give him an image to fit his station. "Greetings to friends and fellow workers of Fred Thompson, the great tree that fell last March."

The great tree. Fred Thompson of Logan Square died March 9 at age 86. He'd held ID number X22063 on his little red Wobbly card since September 1921. He was surely not the last Wobbly, but he was about the last who spent his youth living the Wobbly life that is the stuff of the legends -- hopping boxcars, organizing workers, preaching the one-big-union gospel at factory gates and on street corners and going to jail for it.

A.L. Nurse, age 87, is one of the many Wobblies here. He flew in from Thompson Falls, Montana, for this memorial. He's the one who signed Fred up. There are labor history scholars here from all over the world. They all had extensive dealings with Fred because no IWW history could be complete without his memories. Lots of just plain folks have come: a very old and tiny woman in a wheelchair; a baby in a lollipop jumper fidgeting with her father's sunglasses, which keep her quiet; a very large bearded man who carries himself like a turn-of-the-century politician on a whistle-stop tour. And there's a woman who knows little of the IWW, but who heard that a man has died who used to speak on soapboxes on the corners of Division and Washtenaw, Roosevelt and Spaulding . . . She remembers seeing such a man when she was about ten years old. Maybe he was Fred.

Franklin Rosemont of the Charles H. Kerr Company, the famed radical publishing concern that Fred and some pals rescued from oblivion in 1971, speaks of Fred Thompson: "Like many Wobblies, he was especially gifted in the fine art of hoboing. A fellow worker recalls that back in the 30s, Fred taught him everything he knew about climbing aboard freight cars, things to avoid, how to make the ride as pleasant as possible, how to jump off.

"Fred was always a bookish child. He told me once when he was just a few days old his parents held him out the window on a chilly day so he could watch a parade. He acquired a bronchial condition and he spent a lot of time reading books and he became a radical."

A.L. Nurse works his way up to the podium. He's hunched and takes slow, dragging steps. "I've never been a speaker," his rough voice quivers, "but I did know Fred Thompson." Silently, he breaks into tears. Then he tells a story set in 1921 about a young man just arrived in California who kept coming to the IWW gathering place after work. "I thought maybe he wanted to sign up. So I asked him if he belonged and he said, 'No, but I sure would if I knew where to get a card.' I said, 'Right here.'"

A few months later Fred was sentenced to San Quentin for passing IWW literature to an undercover cop in Marysville, California. He was convicted under an act forbidding criminal syndicalism, which was elastically interpreted to cover about any frowned-on organizing activity. Fred spent seven years there. He earned extra time for organizing prisoner work stoppages. He got out a few hours earlier than he was expected to the day of his release, which is why he escaped the immigration officials who came to take him back to his native Canada.

Cortez says Nurse and Fred were brothers in the "side door Pullman fraternity," those travelers who rode the rails. "There was nothing romantic about it. It was the economy of the time. It was the cheapest way to get around."

In honor of that tradition, IWW singer J.D. Freeman does another selection from the Wobbly songbook, "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum!"

Cortez thanks him for the tune and says, "I can't think of a better name for an IWW musician than 'Freeman.'"

The Fred Thompson stories ring out for better than an hour. He worked in countless jobs in countless industries. He organized Cleveland metal workers, Kentucky miners, Illinois berry pickers. He edited the Industrial Worker, the IWW newspaper. He retired in 1972 but stayed active at IWW headquarters in Lakeview. Recently, he was diagnosed as having Lou Gehrig's disease, and then he pretty much gave up and stopped eating, not wanting to see it run its course.

Cortez turns the mike over to Utah Phillips, the most famous living Wobbly troubadour, for the finale. Utah has an abundant white beard and hair tied off in a tail. He wears wide tan suspenders and a tie. Naturally, he mixes songs in with his Fred Thompson stories.

"Only one thing that hasn't been made quite clear here is that Fred had an abundant sense of humor, a true sense of the bizarre. It's in this spirit, and since suitable memorials are in order, that I'd like to propose one. And it's consistent with the IWW tradition of direct action. They've just started the drug testing of workers back home."

He calls it jar wars.

"I'm an independent contractor, you know. I go around singing songs and telling stories. I'm ineligible for that. I feel woefully left out. So I just pissed in a jar and sent it to the White House. Well, you can all do that in Fred Thompson's name. We could start a national 'Fred Thompson Drop Your Zipper for the Gipper Campaign.' He would like that, you know."

Now Utah Phillips tells the story he wants Fred Thompson remembered by: "Phil Melman, the great Wobbly, did time in San Quentin with Fred on that same bust. He said, 'Don't ever tell Fred I told you this story and don't ever tell it while Fred's alive.' He said Fred Thompson in prison was the best organizer he ever saw. He said, 'Fred organized the convicts into only masturbating on Saturdays so it wouldn't lose its therapeutic value.'

"Now that's an organizer."

On November 11, Fred Thompson's ashes will be scattered in Waldheim Cemetery, near the monument to the Haymarket martyrs. That's the 100th anniversary of their executions.

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