Claudette Piper

Las Cruces, New Mexico

I grew up in Durango, Colorado, and I read voraciously—everything I could get my hands on. I also trained and exercised horses, and got into all the adventures and escapades available to us free range kids in what was still more or less the Wild West.

 

Schools were mediocre but I had some very fine teachers. Mr. Artz of the 6th grade specialized in levying thoughtful discipline designed to settle restless souls. One kid who yearned to be working on the family farm was seated to face a window. I was put in the corner with the encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Photo by Sam Struthers

In the 9th grade I had a social studies teacher who, in retrospect, was probably a leftist. He didn’t preach, but he asked questions that made me think differently about the bigger world, and he encouraged us to ask questions of our own. Some five or six years earlier, I had been horrified by the Rosenberg executions; I remember reading headlines in the Rocky Mountain News with a great deal of discomfort and suspicion. But at home, following the social norms of the time, religion and politics were topics never discussed at the dinner table.

 

My family generally voted Democratic, and in many ways they modeled concern for all. Every Friday morning, for example, we added to a widows’ mite box, which we kept near our kitchen table, and my parents were active in and financially supportive of the Episcopal Church. My family didn’t like Socialists because they (the very few in Durango) had not contributed to fundraisers for World War II—or so my family said. When I left for the University of Colorado, my brother, 12 years my senior, took me aside and showed me a list of organizations that I must not join. Included was the Young Peoples Socialist League, so naturally I was at their doorstep as soon as I got on campus.

I don’t recall everyone who worked at the Free Press when I was there. I remember Don McKelvey of course, and Joanie Donato, Charlie Thomas, Susanna Cobb, Suzy Q Groden, and Tim Kiefer and Allison Berry. I knew Karen Townsend a bit; as I remember, she traveled to California often. I didn’t go to work for the Press until March of 1971, but according to old date books, I spent three weekend nights, Oct. 2-4 of 1970, learning to print. I don’t remember who taught me, but it may have been Charlie, who worked second shift. Susanna taught me to run and maintain the folder. I spent a lot of time on the folder—running it, doing maintenance, and setting up for new folds. As I think back, I am surprised by how mechanical I was.

This is the chain I saved, and an 8mm Allen wrench like the ones I always carried in a back pocket.

Once, we had to hire a real mechanic to replace gears on the 20, and to save Press money, I spent most of a night stripping the machine to its bare bones and solvent-cleaning every piece I removed, lining them up on a nearby table so the guy who came the next day could get in and out fast. I saved a drive chain for the Chief 20 and used as a paperweight for many years.

We called the little press, the Chief 20, Sexy Sadie; the big one, the Chief 22, was Proud Mary. I printed a lot on Sadie, mostly two-color posters as I recall. Probably I printed flyers and pamphlets also, but posters stick in my mind because of the time a German video crew came to film us at work: I couldn’t get the paper to feed correctly for the second color run and every shot they took, I’m sure, was of me grabbing sheets and throwing them wildly, cursing all the while.

 

Scissors always disappeared from the packing table; I wanted to chain them to the table but I think I was outvoted. And I remember a time-analysis survey we compiled, with one section on repairing equipment, to which I added the category, "Time Spent Looking for Tools to Repair Equipment." I was always trying to bring structure and efficiency to the Free Press, but I suspect that most others found this annoying.

Everyone who worked at NEFP came from a unique background. My first sense of connection to the movement was as a young teen in the ’50s, wanting to sit in at Woolworths. My parents would have killed me and so I didn’t. But in Japan, in 1964 or so, the Chitose Army Base movie theater started running a video of flamethrowers in Vietnam while the audience sang the US National Anthem. Despite being military, much of the audience hated the violence. So on the next occasion several of us wives decided to be silent and turn our backs to the flag, for which our husbands were chewed out and advised to control us. The following week, the video was of Joan Baez singing “This Land is Your Land…” I’m not sure whether to consider that a small victory or an example of cooptation.

It was pure luck that the first job I found when I decided I did not want to be married was with the American Friends Service Committee in Baltimore.

 

There I met Phil and Dan Berrigan and went on to join the ever-growing ranks of those raiding draft boards and other federal and corporate institutions. It was then, too, that I met Joanie and Charlie.  On November 7-8, the Boston 8 liberated and destroyed 100,000 Selective Service records from six boards in four locations.  To my knowledge no one from the area was drafted for the duration of the war. The next week the Boston 8 “surfaced” (took public responsibility for an act of non-violent direct action) on the Washington Mall just as another antiwar march was gathering. No arrests were ever made.

 

In 1970 RESIST offered me a job in Cambridge and a seat on the Board of Directors; working at the Free Press followed naturally. I loved the banter as well as the substantive conversations around the packing table. I loved getting and filling orders, especially from podunk places like where I’d grown up. Most of all, I really liked everything about a print shop, about the skills and knowledge and literacy I was picking up every day. (I even grew to like the solvent smell.) I felt accomplished and productive and like we were making the world a better place—maybe even changing it.

I'm tossing draft files into the air at a rally where several of us claimed responsibility for raiding the draft boards in Boston.This photograph was included in the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, page 22.

I confess some of the first memories of the Press that jump to my mind are of injuries. (If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.) A woman whose name I don’t remember, but who may have been Allison Berry, caught her cleaning rag and arm in the Chief 20 one evening. I took her to the emergency room in Roxbury (the closest hospital); her arm was a mess because her hand had been pulled into the rollers up to her wrist. Skin, muscles and tendons were sm­­ashed, and maybe some finger bones were broken. She was in total shock. So was I. She got weeks (months?) of rehab and workman’s comp, and I don’t know if she ever came back to work for the Press.

 

I also remember a man, probably Dan Kiefer, who stapled his own finger in the stitcher. As I recall, it was a weekend night, kind of late, and knowing the Roxbury ER would be busy with more serious cases, I drove him to Harvard Community Health Center in Cambridge. Jim O’Brien has confirmed my dim memory that NEFP paid for medical insurance with them.

 

The machines we used lacked pretty basic safety equipment. I remember learning of a woman who caught her hair in the folder. Thankfully, someone was close enough to shut down the machine before she was scalped. Jill Goldstein told me the story when we worked together at Abt Associates, and I long envisioned the victim being Jill, but it may have been Meg Costello who, according to Annie Butler, caught her hair in a press at Union Square and was saved by Dickie Williams.

 

A happier memory: On an oppressively hot day in August, the clouds suddenly opened and rain poured down. Spontaneously we all looked at each other, in our heads the unspoken, joyful thought: Hey, we own this place! We can do what we want! Someone pointed a thumb upstairs, someone else grabbed a bar of soap, and in unison we shut down our machines and ran to the roof, shucked all our clothes, and showered in the cooling rain. In retrospect, this story is a metaphor for success in a worker-owned cooperative. We worked really hard for subsistence wages, never (that I recall) missing a deadline. We did it because the work was our contribution to building a movement. And our reward was the occasional welcome rain when we didn’t have to answer to any boss.

 

For better or worse, something else that comes to mind about the Press is the cockroaches. They were rampant. Forget to dump out a coffee mug at night and the next morning you’d find it crammed to the top with drowned roaches. Once, I decided to clean out behind the fridge and water cooler, and when I pulled the water cooler out, the back was wallpapered with roaches that immediately streamed every which way in the hundreds, maybe thousands. I was so shocked I literally jumped back, almost falling on the folder.

 

The Press put a “bug” on everything we distributed. I knew almost nothing about unions, and for a long time I thought our Movement Labor bug was a logo designed in honor of the resident cockroaches. Later I learned it was the logo used by subsistence-wage movement shops to proclaim affinity with union organizing (despite the fact that we were then too poor to join one). The NEFP officially joined the IWW after it moved to Union Square.

One final folder memory: on April 15, 1971, the FBI came to the Press to serve me a subpoena to testify before the Federal Grand Jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been warned that nine men in three cars had been to my house earlier that morning, and I decided to put them off a bit longer so I crawled under the folder to hide. I wrote a press release and later that afternoon accepted the subpoena from three huge, scary-looking men at the RESIST office; six more agents waited outside. I took the subpoena and just laughed at them for needing nine agents to deliver one piece of paper to one small woman.

 

One really notable thing about the Press was how many of us, particularly the women, stayed on in the trades or moved on to other traditionally “male” jobs. I left in 1972 to become a “real worker” in the in-house print shop at Boston Children’s Hospital Medical Center; later, as a single parent who needed a better salary, I set up and managed the shop at Abt Associates. Jill Goldstein worked there for several years, too, and then got a job with USPS. Hester worked in a carton-making factory after she left the Press. Susanna Cobb was a cameraman (she was proud of the title!) and stripper at printshop in Watertown, MA and Berkeley, CA. When Karen Geise left Union Square, her next job was in an auto repair shop. Meg Costello became a Master Electrician. And Karen Townsend/Mae became the first woman to become a member of the California Printers’ Union.

Photo by Jack Eisenberg

I didn’t think of myself as a feminist, but I was in a jam-packed tent at the start of a march to oppose Nixon’s 1969 inauguration. When Marilyn Webb, the first token woman speaker, opened her mouth, many men in the crowd jeered. I was standing between two men who chuckled after one said, “What she needs is to get laid.” (The film She's Beautiful When She's Angry shows a bit of that rally.) These two guys were good friends, but they really pissed me off that day.

 

As we started the march, a woman from Bread and Roses handed out an armful of these banners, and I eagerly pinned one to my parka as I fell into line close to the front of an almost entirely male contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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