Lester Washburn "was an active union member..., first in the Reo local and the Lansing UAW, then serving on the UAW executive board and becoming a regional organizer and international president of the UAW-AFL. Between 1933 when unionization started and 1937 when both the Reo sit-down strike and the Lansing Labor Holiday ocurred (Washburn is always given credit for the sit-down at Reo and the Lansing Labor Holiday), Washburn and the Reo Joes he represented became auto union men."
(The Story of Reo Joe by Lisa M. Fine, Temple University Press, 2004. p. 75, par.2)
There are memories of some people and places that seem just a little bigger than life. My memories of Grandpa are like that, partly because visits with him were relatively brief, often separated by considerable lengths of time. Perhaps for this reason the memories seem clearer and are necessarily more selective.
A grandson's recollections could not possibly be adequate to form a portrait of the whole man or of a whole life. However, the same selectivity allows the image to remain untarnished.
The resort on Lake Julia near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a couple of hundred miles north of Milwaukee, flashes in my mind when I think of Grandpa and my childhood. I've been back as an adult. The lake is not nearly so vast, the woods not so thick, the cabins not so spread out, and the rock Cheryl and I climbed not so formidable, as when I was little.
There were deer in the clearings at dusk, bear at the dump, raccoons, squirrels and chipmunks; fishing, swimming until your lips turned blue, frog hunting, horse shoes, badminton and croquet; the invigorating aroma of pine on a crisp breeze, the smell of fish being cleaned; the sparkling shimmer of sun on the lake rippled by a gentle wind in mid-afternoon; the summer house which was also the office, pine board walls, oversized red leather davenport and matching easy chairs that groaned when you moved in them, the pungent odor of pipe tobacco, pipe collection, a cast iron stand holding a thick, square glass ash tray - just right for knocking the ash out of your pipe; the driftwood as part of the decor, Grandma's paintings, wide living room window overlooking the lake, Zane Grey novels, a big bar of Ivory soap in the bathroom.
2:00 am welcomes on summertime Saturday mornings, the start of our occasional long weekends; the necessary chatter about the route taken, the traffic, etc., before going on to bed.
Grandpa, to me, meant Cheerios for breakfast, Bisquick pancakes basted with warm sausage grease and syrup; big, milky white bowls mounded with vanilla ice cream topped with honey; cream sodas; the '49 Studebaker pickup with the starter under the clutch pedal - my first experience driving it (we almost ended up in the tree at the bottom of the hill); the shed with your rock cutting and polishing tools; the mosquito fogger - I can still hear it coming.
Summer, '68 graduation present: the fishing trip with you and Dad. I almost sent you into eternity from a 14' aluminum boat on a lake in Canada. Returning from a long day of it among several islands, I was at the throttle when I skipped us across a barely submerged rock pile in the middle of nowhere. You were still seated in the bow of the boat when we came to a halt. As I remember, the motor bounced out so quickly I didn't even shear the pin. The boat got us back to where the trailer was set up, but there was a small matter of damages to be paid to the owner.
Fall '69, continuing in college at River Falls, Wisconsin. I was following the same path I had set out on at Utah State the previous year. Only much later did it seem paradoxical for a peace-loving hippie to now be aspiring to radical activism (the Vietnam War Moratorium was one of our more conservative enterprises). At the height of activity and camaraderie, when least expected, I got your letter. It was several pages long, typed, as best as I recall a warning about the Left with its dubious aims, deceitful tactics, and undesirable consequences. It dragged me out of the clouds momentarily. I tried to shrug it off. It takes a 20-year-old dreamer to ignore the voice of years of first-hand experience. Your career in the Labor movement had opened your eyes to much that I could not yet see. You were not a Communist; you did not want the movement to come under their control any more than you wanted to see it corrupted by the mob.
Winter '71-'72: you had recently moved to the farm, a beautiful quarter section, just 20-30 miles from where the resort had been. Toby, the St. Bernard, filled the kitchen and then some, slobbering on all she met; Linda and I stayed with you while we were trying to resettle up north from the Milwaukee area. There was the long drive for me to work at the shoe factory in Merrill and your loan to help us with the down payment on our 80-acre place.
Grandpa, farm and cancer form one memory for me. We were there when you found out about the cancer. Your knee went out while you were changing storm windows, which meant that you ended up in Wausau for surgery. They discovered, almost accidentally, the cancerous kidney.
They wanted your kidney, then your dignity, and you said no. Our visits that winter found you fighting: with black market laetrile, initially from Germany; urine samples sent to the Philippines; the small tackle box converted into a vitamin dispenser; low protein, vegetarian diet; Jethro Kloss's book on herb teas; hot baths chased with cold showers. The tobacco, red meat, white flour and sugar, even the ice cream, were all out of the picture now. And you beat it! No surgery, no radiation, no chemotherapy. We have related your experience to many people. Some have chosen the same path as you. It led Linda and me to decide not to accept conventional treatment if we are ever faced with it.
Summertime on the farm in '73: You and Grandma, Linda and I, seated at your dining room table after a noon meal. Grandma asked me point blank what had caused us to change. Recently converted, we were still living the transition from hippie to full-time Christian service. The nuances of the philosophical battle we had been through were still fresh on our minds. I don't recall all that was said, but I remember how much I appreciated that you heard us out.
Pervading every memory to the point of crowding other details into the background are the discussions; always ready to talk at the drop of a hat, be it with family, visitors, or customers at the resort. Your deep-throated, gruff voice filled the room. Talks were always lengthy, deliberate (not to say slow). They covered many subjects from cheese to evolution, Agnosticism to Laetrile, and nearly everything in between. There were detailed reminiscences of the Labor Union days, including your key role in the LANSING LABOR HOLIDAY OF '37 (scroll down), the struggle to clean up the New York chapters of your union, the ensuing battle with and over JOHNNY DIOGUARDI, and your testimony before the McClellan Committee in Washington.
Whether after a meal or late at night, on a porch or from an easy chair; whether recounting past experiences, discussing current events, or taking part in loud conversation with family: as a kid, I grasped little, but I was always mystified.
When I was allowed to take part, I learned quickly enough that to bring up a subject or to ask a question was to automatically preempt any other activity for the evening. Easing back in your chair, gazing with your good eye somewhere over my shoulder, meditating over choice of words: it all meant that we would be there for a while. But I never felt cheated, or like I was being patronizing, or that my time was not spent profitably. It seemed like mutual respect and friendship were not contingent upon agreement of opinion in specified areas. It was possible to disagree, even in delicate matters, without coming to blows.
Mission, TX in recent years: driving the 1500 miles from Cancun to the border to obtain new Mexican visas; 18 hours the first day, 16 the next; exhausted and dirty, we would arrive late; always received with a strong handshake and a hearty welcome.
The Condominium in Mission meant a chance to check your progress with the genealogy research. You succeeded in putting together an impressive history of the family; watching you use the photography equipment to take pictures of old pictures, actually improving them for the records; dinner at Luby's, always turkey and dressing if it was Sunday; Family channel Saturday mornings for all the old westerns; C-Span for the Congressional proceedings, you have stayed well informed; when the TV was off you usually had your nose in a book. We tried to get you to record on tape your reminiscences with the hope of assembling a factual biography some day, but you never got around to it.
Fall '91: after 20 years, at age 85, the cancer has come back; just home from Wisconsin for the winter, you suffered a crisis which put you in the hospital and from there to the nursing home; your voice is characteristically strong, you still have your wit and your memory, although you struggle to remain oriented on a day-to-day basis; you have stoically accepted that these are your last days, that you will not be returning to the Condo.
When we talked in the hospital, you stated that when confronted with hard situations, you made the best decision you could at the time and lived with it without thinking about it again; the nursing home had to be, so there was no fretting about it or fighting it.
It's not a bad place. The food is average and the coffee is cold, but the employees are congenial and considerate; they are already on a first name basis with you and you enjoy the banter and the company.
You spoke with a satisfied tone of the full life you have led. Looking back now, you commented that it was funny how you ended up in the labor movement for 30 years. You would not have thought that you had it in you. And it certainly had not been premeditated. As a carpenter in the Reo plant in Lansing you ended up as spokesman to the plant manager because your department had been shortchanged on pay for some piecework. The department got its pay and the foreman lost his job. You were elected secretary of your local union, 12 present, long before the plant was organized; and everything rushed forward from there.
November 24 '91, 12:30 am: the second seizure was devastating; I don't know how you survived the next 24 hours in the hospital, yet you recovered enough to return to the nursing home five days later. You can barely stand and you look so worn out. We watch you go down a little every day. I pray you do not suffer when the end comes; and we all sit around wondering just when that might be.
As for myself, I write these lines to help me not to forget. Of the many privileges afforded me in this life, one of the finest has been this: I knew Lester Washburn as my Grandfather. I am not ashamed of keeping the memories alive, nor of the hurt I feel as he passes from this life. I cannot ignore the enduring influence that he has had on me. His example of putting it all on the line for the cause he believed in emboldens me to live for something nobler than self-gratification. I can only aspire to be the calibre of man that I have always thought him to be.
(Lester Washburn died in the nursing home in Mission, TX, February 04, 1992.)