Where to start?
My first teacher of writing, back in the early Jurassic when I was in college, suggested that a good way to learn to write was to write autobiography - on the theory that the writer would learn to economize on word-usage from a desire not to be seen as a self-aggrandizer.
And so I try that here.
My name - Thomas McKelvey Cleaver - is symbolic of the three great streams of immigration that created this place we call America. I used to hate my name as a kid, since it was so different from those of my friends, who claimed it was “high falutin.” When I later learned it was three of the four surnames in my family, and what they symbolized, I began a lifelong love affair with the true history of my country.
William Thomas was a Welsh farmer forced off his land by the enclosure movement in 1747; history says this was important in the development of England as the first industrialized country, but I grew up learning the old doggerel that “the man who stole the goose from the commons was transported to America, while the man who stole the commons from the goose was transported to Parliament.” He wound up in Pennsylvania, where a generation later his son William Jr. would join the Continental Army with his good friend Isaac Cleaver - the great-great-great-great grandson of Peter Klebber, a German Quaker from Frankfurt who led his Meeting to Pennsylvania in the second year of colonization in 1681, where they would found what is now the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown and become the first group of Europeans in history to make the non-ownership of slaves a condition of membership in their community in 1688. Together, they crossed the Delaware with General Washington and both stood proud as Sergeants of the Continental Army six years later at Yorktown. James McKelvey, a Scotts-Irish radical who participated in “The ‘99" - the only Irish rebellion against English oppression that involved both Protestants like my ancestor and Catholics - arrived in America in 1800, running from Lord Cornwallis’ noose. The fourth name in my family - Weist - arrived as political refugees in 1849. Peter Weist - Professor of Humanities at the University of Frankfurt and a member of the Congress of Frankfurt in the Revolution of 1848 - arrived in New York City with a Prussian death warrant on his head. His sons would fight for freedom a decade later, while his great-grandsons would participate in the final destruction of Prussianism a century later on the beaches of Normandy and the battlefields of Europe.
My family came to America seeking religious freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom - just like yours did, whenever they arrived. It is a 325-year-old struggle that continues today with as much strength and fury as when the first of my ancestors bumped into North America.
In my own life, I learned at an early age the facts, but not the content, of my family history. I began learning the content on August 2, 1964.
That night, I had the mid-watch (0000-0800) in the Staff Operations Shack aboard the USS “Pine Island,” as a member of the enlisted staff of Commander Patrol Forces, US 7th Fleet. In those days, the world was quiet enough that no one said a word if you pulled four chairs together into a “rack” and got a little shut-eye. But at 0100, I was awakened to sign for a FLASH message from our destroyer on the Bulova Patrol in the middle of the Tonkin Gulf. USS Maddox reported she was under fire from enemy PT boats.
My job was to awaken the Chief of Staff - a very competent US Navy Captain - and the Admiral. That was something else. The Admiral had won the Navy Cross at the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944, leading airplanes from escort carriers with no worthwhile armament against the main Japanese Battle Fleet, which was in position to destroy the invasion of the Philippines. They convinced the Japanese admiral from the fury of their attacks that he should reverse course. My Admiral won victory from the jaws of defeat. But, by the time I knew him 20 years later, my Admiral was a drunk. The event that began that night is known to history as The Tonkin Gulf Incident - the formative event that brought America full-force into the Vietnam War. My life would be intimately involved in this war - and the war against the war - for the next nine years. It would define my life to this day.
A month later, I began a lifelong learning process that the country I love and the government that runs that country are not inseparable. “Pine Island” was in Subic Bay and I was on liberty in Olongapo - a city known through several generations of sailors as “the asshole of Asia.” I walked into a bar, and there was a friend I had made back in the States in firefighting school while we were awaiting transportation to WestPac. We’d last seen each other six months before in Yokosuka, Japan, where we’d celebrated his promotion to Fire Control Technician Third Class. Only now the rank insignia on his uniform was Seaman/Fire Control Technician “Striker.” A demotion.
After a couple of ice-cold San Miguels, I heard his story: Senior Petty Officer of the Watch in the fire control tower aboard USS Maddox on August 2. That night, he convinced the Captain there were no targets to fire on. The next night, after they’d been joined on patrol by USS Turner Joy, the Commodore of the Destroyer Division ordered him to open fire on enemy targets. He responded that the only target was Turner Joy and refused three orders to “open fire,” with the result he was court-martialed for disobedience to a direct order and reduced in rank.
Four years later, I would work with Fred Gardner to create “Support Our Soldiers,” the GI Anti-war Coffeehouse movement. On that same night in 1964 Lt(jg) Gardner - Assistant Gunnery Officer aboard USS Turner Joy - ran from the fire control tower to the bridge to inform his commander that there was only one target on the radar: Maddox.
The truth of “the Tonkin Gulf Incident” it that had not a 20 year old Petty Officer 3rd Class and a 24 year old junior Lieutenant not adhered to the naval traditions they had been educated in, one American ship would have sunk the other that night. History would have been far different. In all my years of opposition to the war, I was never so happy as I was in 1970 when Daniel Ellsberg released “The Pentagon Papers” and I could tell the story I have just told you, with official documents to back me up. Finally!
I went to college and worked against the war, but putting up with people who didn’t understand my story or the fact that I had fought in the war and now wanted to fight against the war was too much - I ended up quitting school and working with Fred Gardner and several other good people, in the GI antiwar movement. I ended up at “The Oleo Strut” in Killeen, Texas, just outside Fort Hood.
In those days, Fort Hood was a “holding center” for Vietnam veterans who had more than 90 days left in their term of service. That summer, these combat-veteran troops were assigned to riot control. In late July, they learned 5,000 of them would be sent to Chicago to back up the Chicago Police at the coming Democratic National Convention. No one wanted to go. We came up with a little yellow 2" x 2" sticker: a white hand in the “peace symbol” backed by a clenched black fist. We made 1,000 of them, and the GIs took them with the intention of putting them on their helmets if they were called into the streets of Chicago.
The rest is history. Governments do not put troops into the street they cannot depend on completely. Thus, the troops stayed on the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and the Chicago PD knew they had no back-up. The Great Chicago Police Riot at the Democratic Convention was the result.
My other claim to historical relevance came that fall when I was responsible for booking acts at The Oleo Strut. A young teenager with a good blues band drove up from Austin to convince me he should be hired. The band sounded good and they were willing to work for the peanuts I could pay. The GIs loved them and they became regulars. In 1986, Stevie Ray Vaughan came over to me at the US Film Festival in Dallas and told his friends how I was the first guy to ever offer him a paying gig - he was that kid 18 years previous! Who knew? I’ve missed him every day since that awful crash at Stone Mountain.
In 1978 I received a letter from the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Department of Justice, asking me if I would like to have my COINTELPRO file. I said yes, and learned that the history I have outlined above was even more difficult, inasmuch as we were “targets” of the U.S. Government as “threats to national security.” Today, we face much worse under the “Patriot” Act.
I eventually obtained a Master of Public Administration degree in Environmental Management while working for one of my SF State professors, Bob Mendelsohn - member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. From there I worked for Willie Brown in Sacramento, re-electing Democrats to the Legislature, till I went through two divorces for politics and could no longer deal with things. I ended up in Los Angeles where I became a screenwriter (ten years in politics is a great “boot camp”) and spent the past 20-odd years writing a couple OK movies and checks for good causes.
I’m now a Hollywood screenwriter “over the age of 40" who didn’t make the studios a bazillion dollars. I lost my nice little home in the hills and now live in an “immigrant community” in the San Fernando Valley where I have relearned a lot of necessary lessons about what the Democratic Party must be about if we are to be the party we say we are. I’ve recently “re-upped” with old comrades from that war against the war I wrote of above, and I am egotistical enough to believe I have some knowledge to pass on to a new generation.
I am very glad to be working with my comrade-in-arms, Ryan Oddey. As a member of the generation who said “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” I have come in recent years to believe “Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.” Ryan - who I met through the power of the internet - proves me wrong on that point every day in every way. We have gathered a group of writers of diverse age, diverse background, and diverse viewpoint, united in a single goal. I’d have loved to have each of them as a comrade in arms in the fights I have described above.
I hope we’ll stimulate thought - and more importantly, action - in the struggle to take back our country from those who represent the dark side of American history. My family’s known them and fought them for a long time.
Thomas can be reached at TC@tafmess.com
I respectfully disagree with my comrade about his assessment regarding the level of trust you can put into my generation. I believe that every generation has its people that are inspired to make a difference, regardless of their age. My pathway into politics and blogging has been an interesting one, and I get excited when I realize that I am still in the early stages of my journey.
Ryan can be reached at Ryan@tafmess.com
Xaivier Martin - Contributor
- Xaivier was born in Oklahoma City, OK, but got to Texas as fast as possible.
Xaivier’s eyes were opened to the political world at the tender
age of 10 when his mother became the first African-American to run for
school board in the city’s history. From that point on, Mr. Martin
has spent a great deal of his life in politics. Highlights include meeting
Ann Richards and waiting for hours in the winter winds of Texas to hear
Bill Clinton speak. Not following the lead of his military family (all
branches are represented during holiday gatherings), Mr. Martin prefers
the pen to the sword. He is a former staff writer with The Dallas Morning
News and has worked as a speechwriter and campaign manager for various
races in Texas. He is a published poet, freelance journalist and aspiring
screenwriter. Brought up in the Lone Star State and
Scott Isebrand - Contributor
- Scott was raised in Iowa in the Christian Right, and is today a politicalactivist
in New York City regularly involved in Democratic Party work,