From Ike to Mao and Beyond,
My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist
From “Chapter One: Mom and Dad” and “Chapter Two: One Nation Under God—A '50s Boyhood”
Revolution #044, April 23, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Revolution is publishing a series of excerpts from Bob Avakian's memoir — as audio recordings of Bob Avakian reading from the book are made available online. (See announcement) This week we feature sections from Chapter One and Chaper Two.
From Chapter One
Mom and Dad
Now, my parents weren’t just together for over sixty years, they were extremely fond of each other the whole time. This was something that I always recognized and appreciated, and in particular with my mom I always recognized and appreciated her compassion and generosity and self-sacrificing qualities. But growing up as a boy in the ’40s and ’50s, in the more middle class stratum that I was from, in a lot of ways I kind of took my mother for granted. You know, she was always there, she was always supportive, she was always helpful, she was always so compassionate and sympathetic, and she was always sacrificing for other people in the family or for other people beyond the family. But as an adult I actually learned a lot of things about my mother, and learned to appreciate her much more fully, than I did as a kid. For instance, when she was still pretty young, back in the 1930s, she drove her family across the country at one point, which was not that common for a woman to do then. Another time, when she was teaching high school, there was one student there who needed to get certain credits for college—in particular she needed to take Latin, but there was no Latin class there. So, just for this girl’s benefit, my mom arranged to teach Latin. But even more than those incidents, I’ve come to see how I’ve taken many of her values and made them my own.
Also, my mother had a great love of the outdoors that she’d gotten from her family, in particular her father. She liked taking us to the mountains and out into nature, to all these beautiful places that I learned to love. One time, my younger sister Mary-Lou and myself and my parents had gone up into the mountains and on our way back home, we had to go through the little, dreary town of Merced, just a little ways from Fresno. It was getting to be about lunchtime, and Merced was about an hour away, and my mother was very determined that we were going to eat in the beautiful setting of the mountains. But the rest of us wanted to have ice cream or something, down in Merced. Finally after a long discussion we decided to have a vote, and my father ended up voting with us two kids to eat in Merced. This infuriated my mom and, looking back on it, with good reason. Of course, she had the right stand, yet she -didn’t win out. But in order to try to win, at one point, when we said we were ready to vote on it, she said: “Okay, let’s have a vote now—who wants to eat lunch up in the mountains by a beautiful rippling stream”—she said this in a very lilting and appealing voice—“and,” she continued, “who wants to eat in hot old Merced!” She said the latter with such disdain that you would’ve thought we were going to be eating in a garbage dump.
Unfortunately, even her way of stacking the argument didn’t lead to her winning out in that case—although it did become a sort of family metaphor for indicating a strong preference while posing as neutral. She was completely right, of course, and now I would have no hesitation to side with her if she were here. But, that was my mom. It shows both her determination and her love for nature.
I took that in from her and it’s been with me ever since. My dad grew up on a farm, and later on he very much loved a home that my parents had in the Santa Cruz mountains, but as far as roughing it, that wasn’t really his thing so much. As I said, my dad grew up in very modest circumstances, so it wasn’t that he was spoiled. But “roughing it in nature” wasn’t his idea of an ideal vacation the way it was for my mom. She often prevailed in that, for which I was very glad.
My parents met in Berkeley. My mom was a student at Cal, which was also somewhat unusual for a woman at that time, and then because of the Depression and because my dad was still in law school, they couldn’t afford to get married. So they were engaged for three years before they got married. And during that time, after she graduated from Cal and after a year of looking for work, my mom got a job teaching school in a small town a couple of hours from Berkeley—she taught high school there for two years. She could not say that she was engaged while she was teaching, because then they would think she would leave once she was married and would fire her. So she had to hide the fact that she was engaged, and a number of the guys who were teaching at the school were trying to ask her out. It was a very awkward thing. But after a couple of years, when my dad finished law school, my mom and dad got married.
While my parents were from different backgrounds, neither of their families resisted their marriage. Despite a lot of insularity among the Armenian relatives, my father’s parents felt the important thing was what kind of person you marry, not whether they were an Armenian. My mother was pretty readily accepted both because of the attitude of my father’s parents, but also because she was a very likeable person. And my mother learned how to cook some of the Armenian foods, and picked up some of the other cultural things. Beyond that, my father would not have put up with any crap! So the combination of all that meant that she got accepted pretty quickly. I’m not aware of friction from my mother’s parents toward my dad. They were nice people generally, although they too were pretty conservative in a lot of ways, and also, to be honest, my father, having graduated from law school, was someone who had a certain amount of stature when my parents got married.
Despite the fairly conservative atmosphere in which she was raised, my mother was very far from being narrow and exclusive in how she related to people. If she came in contact with you, unless you did something to really turn her off or make her think that you were a bad person, she would welcome and embrace you. And that would last through a lifetime. Besides things like the Sunday “sacrifice night” meal, my parents, mostly on my mother’s initiative, would do other “Christian charity” things, like in that Jack Nicholson movie, About Schmidt, where he “adopts” a kid from Africa and sends money. But they not only paid a certain amount of money, they took an active interest—they corresponded, they actually tried to go and visit some of the kids or even the people as grown-ups with whom they had had this kind of relationship. My mother had a very big heart and very big arms, if you want to put it that way. She embraced a lot of people in her lifetime. You really had to do something to get her not to like you. She was not the kind of person who would reject people out of hand or for superficial reasons.
I remember when I was about four or five years old and somehow from the kids that I was playing with, I’d picked up this racist variation on a nursery rhyme, so I was saying, “eeny, meeny, miny moe, catch a nigger by the toe.” I didn’t even know what “nigger” meant, I’d just heard other kids saying this. And she stopped me and said, “You know, that’s not very nice, that’s not a nice word.” And she explained to me further, the way you could to a four- or five-year-old, why that wasn’t a good thing to say. That’s one of those things that stayed with me. I’m not sure exactly what the influences on my mom were in that way. But I do remember that very dramatically. It’s one of those things that even as a kid makes you stop in your tracks. She didn’t come down on me in a heavy way, she just calmly explained to me that this was not a nice thing to say, and why it wasn’t a good thing to say. That was very typical of my mother and it obviously made a lasting impression on me.
One thing I learned from my mother is to look at people all-sidedly, to see their different qualities and not just dismiss them because of certain negative or superficial qualities. And I also learned from my -mother what kind of person to be yourself—to try to be giving and outgoing and compassionate and generous, and not narrow and petty. I think that’s one of the main influences my mother had on me.
From Chapter Two
One Nation Under God –A ’50s Boyhood
I had a sort of typical American boyhood for the 1950s—a lot of sports, a lot of good times (and bad) with my sisters, and a lot of cutting up in school. But that doesn’t mean it was idyllic or somehow cut off from the world: there was the pervasive gender conditioning and there were ways in which the big issues of the “grownup world”—segregation, McCarthyism and conformism—were expressing themselves even in my boyhood.
We moved to Berkeley when I was three, and I have a few very sharp memories and some impressions from those days. I remember when I was told there was no Santa Claus, when I was five years old. We used to have Christmas presents on Christmas eve, and my father or one of my uncles would dress up as Santa Claus. After you get to be a little bit more of a thinking person, you realize that there’s always someone missing every Christmas eve when you’re passing out presents. So this Christmas eve, after “Santa” came and we passed around and opened up our presents, as I was going to bed my parents came into my room and told me, “I guess you’ve already figured this out, but you know there isn’t really a Santa Claus.” And I said, “yeah, I kind of figured that out.” I remember that this led to some tension with some of the other kids in kindergarten because, of course, when you’re a kid that age, you may not have that much awareness of or respect for how other kids’ families are handling this. So you just start saying, “oh there’s no Santa Claus,” but some of the kids still believed there was.
To give you a sense of the kind of little kid I was, one time I got the idea that instead of going to school it would be fun to go off and do something else, and another kid and I just completely disappeared and never showed up for school. My parents were panicking, and in particular my mom was trying to find me, and eventually they found us somewhere—we just thought it would be fun to go off and do something else that day. Another time, some teenager in the area was trying to get me to jump out of a second-story window, promising to catch me. I was just about ready to do it, but my mother came along and just caught it in the nick of time—she stopped me just as I was swinging my legs over the window sill. She was furious. I remember little things like that, crazy things that happen but you somehow survive—or usually people survive them.
Sports has been a big part of my life since I was very, very young. I think I started playing football and basketball and baseball when I was about five. True to his word when he had polio, my dad took me out and taught me how to play all these things. It was a very important part of his life: he loved sports, and he wanted me in particular to take this up—there was a whole thing about being the boy in the family at that time, frankly. It’s not like my sisters were explicitly excluded from this, but this was more of a thing with me, being the boy.
My dad started taking me to Cal football games and basketball games from the time I was about four or five years old. I remember every year there’d be a parade through downtown Berkeley before the start of the football season, and this was one of the highlights of my year. The parade made it almost tolerable to have to go back to school. Our elementary school was small, but we did have organized teams in baseball, basketball and football. We played other schools and had city champion-ships; we even had a young kids’ team for first and second graders, and I played on that when I was six and seven.
Whenever he could take off from work, my dad would always come to my games from the time I was really little. You’d always see him with his little eight-millimeter camera taking pictures on the sidelines. When I got a little older and I’d throw a pass that was a pretty long pass for a fifth or sixth grader, you’d see my dad pacing down the sidelines trying to measure how many yards long the pass was. He’d say, “33 yards, that was a 33 yard pass for a touchdown.” So he gave me a lot of encouragement. My dad had this friend—I think he was a lawyer who worked with him as a government lawyer when we were back in D.C.—and my dad used to write to him all the time in these deliberately exaggerated terms, bragging about my sports exploits. He’d write about it as though it were professional teams playing, sort of in a self-consciously exaggerated way, and then his friend would write back.
In her own way, my mom also shared in my enthusiasm for sports, but my dad in particular was just full of passion for it, and he had a lot of pride in whatever I was doing. But it wasn’t that sort of disgusting thing where you put pressure on your kid and you have no appreciation for other kids. He wouldn’t yell at me when things didn’t go well, and when we lost the city elementary school championship game in football, my parents consoled me, they didn’t act like I’d let them down. It was never that kind of thing.
I just loved sports, and whenever I got a chance I tried to play—I didn’t care if the other kids playing were a lot older than me. So, from a very early age, around five or so, I started hanging around kids who were older, playing sports—even young teenagers, or ten- or eleven-year-old guys. And, of course, one of the big things when you get into sports, in this kind of society, is that there’s this whole macho element to it, and one part of that is you swear a lot. So, one day, we were just playing catch with the family, and I think I dropped a ball or something, and I said “Oh, shit.” Now my parents came from the kind of a background where you didn’t say things like that, especially in public. They didn’t get too angry, but they told me that what I had said wasn’t a very good thing to say and I shouldn’t do that. So after a little while I looked up at them and said, “Well, okay then, but is it all right to say ‘hubba hubba’?”—which was another thing I’d heard hanging around the older kids playing sports.
So, as a young boy, I was just football, basketball, baseball all year around: from September until the end of November it was football; then from December until the spring it was basketball; then in the spring and through the summer it was baseball. My life was kind of seasonal in that way, and I loved all those sports in their turn, in their season.
When I was six we moved into a new house and it was about equidistant between two schools that were in the Berkeley hills. One of them was called Cragmont and the other one was called Oxford. I remember my parents telling me: “You can go to either school you want. We’ll let you choose.” I said “Okay, but I want to look at them.” So, my dad drove me around and we looked at both schools, and I picked Oxford because, when we drove by it, I could see the basketball courts on the playground.
I was lucky enough to have a good coach when I was coming up. He was a student at Cal and took care of the playground in summer and on the weekends and after school. But he was also the coach of our teams. I remember him fairly fondly—he was a nice guy, not like a military drill sergeant. To give you the contrast between him and some of what you often see, we had an incident when I was in fourth grade where we were behind by a couple of points in a football game, and on the last play of the game, I threw a pass for a touchdown and we won the game. Or so we thought. Nobody had showed up to referee the game, so the coach of the other team was refereeing, and his own team was offsides on this play. He called offside on them, and then he came running up to the kid who was the captain of our team for that day, and said, “They were offside, you wanna take it? you wanna take it?” And the poor kid got confused, not knowing what “it” was. He was thinking this coach/ref was talking about the touchdown, so he said “Okay, we’ll take it,” and then this coach/ref insisted that “it” meant the offside penalty, so we were forced to run the play over again. We ran the play again, I threw the pass again, but this time it was incomplete and we lost the game. That coach/referee should not have put that kind of pressure on an eleven-year-old kid, he should not have tricked him in that way. There should not have been that kind of atmosphere, where winning was that important.
Our coach was not like that—he was actually a fairly decent guy as I remember, and he didn’t make us feel like we’d failed the universe, or him, if we didn’t win a game, or even a championship game.
But from the time I was nine or ten I was pretty regularly playing sports with teenage kids, and they inculcated in me the idea that you had to win, you had to win, you had to win—and that losing was a disgrace. They had had this drummed into them, and it’s not so much that they sat me down and said, “this is the way it is,” but it just kind of rubbed off on me, along with a lot of macho stuff and the bullshit that boys in general absorb in this kind of culture. It was generally very pronounced in the ’50s, but especially boys who were deeply into sports got a heavy dose of this. Those are the kinds of things that more came from hanging around with older kids playing sports—that was kind of the negative side of it. There were a lot of positive things that came out of it because of the particular times and because of the opportunities that it presented to have a lot of experience with kids from completely different backgrounds and situations, particularly Black kids. That was very positive. At the same time, there was the negative side—the sort of macho, militaristic, win-at-any-cost kind of stuff. But I didn’t get that from my own coach in grammar school, and I didn’t get it from my parents.
Overall I got along well with both of my sisters. But, it was kind of a classical situation where my sisters had to do things like iron clothes—they even had to iron my clothes. When I got into high school I had friends who were from poorer backgrounds who ironed their own clothes. But my sisters had to do all the stuff like ironing the clothes, even my clothes—there were all those “domestic” things they had to do, while I didn’t have to do much of that—and generally I didn’t have to do as many “chores” as they did.
I can even remember—at one time I had forgotten this, but my younger sister reminded me of it—that when I got to be driving age and got my license, my parents would let me use one of their two cars, and I would drive all over, but when Mary-Lou came along later and wanted to use the car, my attitude at that time was: “What do you need the car for? You’re a girl, I need the car.” So there was tension that resulted not just from being siblings, but also from the sort of gender socialization and male domination which I just grew up with—even though I loved my sister, I just assumed that driving the car is what a guy does. A girl gets a guy to drive her around in a car, girls don’t drive cars. That’s how I saw it then.
But even earlier, there was tension just because I was always kind of a prankster. For example, my father would quite often at dinnertime say, “okay gang” and then start telling us about the latest case he was involved in as a lawyer. And so we got a lot of that training. All of us got it, but one of the ways in which I used it—because, again, I was always sort of a prankster—was, just for the nasty fun of it, I’d get Mary-Lou, who had her favorite toys, to sign contracts that would turn over these toys and the ownership of these toys to me. Not because I wanted them, but just to trick her. She would naively sign these contracts, trusting me, and then I would say, “okay now, give me this toy or that toy.” She’d say, “no, that’s my toy”; and I’d reply, “yeah, but you just signed it over to me.” Then she’d go running, crying to my dad who would then come down and look at the contract and invalidate it as having been achieved under fraudulent circumstances! Now Mary-Lou and I were very close in a lot of ways, so I don’t want to give a one-sided impression, but these were pranks I liked to play, and then my dad would have to come down and invalidate them. And all my hard-earned trickery would be undone.
We used to play around the house together a lot. From the time I was about nine until into high school, I had this recurring “Sunday-night sickness.” That is, when Sunday nights came around, I would not want to go to school the next day, so I would start calculatingly coughing about eight o’clock at night on Sunday; and after I went to bed, I’d wake myself up and have these “coughing spells” in the middle of the night. Then I’d wake up again at five or six in the morning and really start coughing, and after a little while my mother or my father would come and say, “Oh, you’ve been coughing all night,” and I’d answer, “Yeah, I really don’t feel well, I think I’m sick.” Then there would be this little dialogue: “Well, do you think you’re well enough to go to school?” “All you care about is whether I go to school or not—you don’t care about whether I’m sick.” So then I would get to stay home.
When my younger sister got a little older, I’d try to get her to do the same thing, and sometimes she would, and we had all kinds of games. We had a rollaway bed on wheels, and I used to tie a rope to the rollaway bed and tie the other end to a door handle, and we could pull ourselves around, and get rides on it and things like that. Or we’d make a fort, using blankets, bed covers. I also remember when I was about six, I guess, the big star football player at Cal was a guy named Jackie Jensen, so my dad and I were always playing catch and talking about Jackie Jensen. I remember Mary-Lou, she was just three, picked up a football and ran around the backyard saying “me Jackie Jensen, me Jackie Jensen,” because she was trying to get in on things too, she didn’t want to be left out.
My older sister Marjorie would be in charge of us when my parents would go out sometimes. So then there would be conflict between my older sister and the two others of us, and we’d get into a lot of fracases. But, while I’m talking about a lot of the conflicts we had, we were also really good friends. We would confide in each other a lot, the way kids do, and conspire against our parents, or complain about our parents, about what they wouldn’t let us do, or what they made us do. I remember one time my parents went on a trip for a week and they left us in the charge of this college student who was a friend of the family’s. He, of course, didn’t know anything about how to raise kids anyway, and he particularly didn’t know how to deal with us. And so we had all these grievances that had accumulated against this guy, who we thought was a tyrant. We would get together and conspire against him, and try to give him a hard time because we thought he was just absolutely unbearable. Of course, he was actually in an impossible position. But I remember we’d do a lot of conspiring together like that, or just getting together and talking about things, the way kids do.
So I was actually very close to my sisters. There was the usual tension between siblings, and then there was the tension that came from the larger societal roles that expressed themselves within our family. But within all that, we were still very good friends and very close.
Still, the gender conditioning went on from an early age and was pervasive. I would interact with girls in school—sometimes maybe we’d work on projects together—but as far as things you would do outside of school, at recess, or during your “own time,” the girls pretty much played with the girls and the boys with the boys. There were the usual grammar school flirtations that went on, but friendships were not really developed that much across gender lines.
With my sisters, it was again a contradictory thing—I really loved my sisters a lot, we were very close in a lot of ways, and I did some things with them. In some ways, I was the good big brother, and in some ways I was the jerk big brother—or little brother, depending on which sister it was. But they would go to dance rather than sports, or they were Girl Scouts, or Campfire Girls, when I was in the Cub Scouts (I didn’t go on to join the Boy Scouts—because it took too much time away from sports!). We were in different worlds a lot. When we got older, when we started really getting interested in the opposite sex, we’d talk about that with each other and get advice. So it was kind of contradictory like that. Our worlds overlapped, especially in the family context, but they were also very different.
And, again, this took place in a whole societal context. For instance, there were all kinds of ads on TV at that point and, in retrospect, you see that in addition to the products, they were selling ideology, too. You had Lorraine Day, for instance, who was a spokesperson for Amana, which is a religious group that financed themselves through making household appliances. Lorraine Day was like an institution herself. She’d demonstrate a refrigerator and show you what a great freezer compartment it had, and so on. The Lorraine Day thing was directed toward women as housewives, all the latest appliances that they needed to have.
Although my mother was cast somewhat in the role of the classical wife and mother at that time, there was a lot more to her than that. She went back to teaching when we kids got a little older. She did a lot of substitute teaching, and sometimes her assignments turned into long term substitute teaching. A lot of the dinner table conversation was dominated by my father talking about his legal cases, but she would join in that and she would also talk about other things, and not just “waxy build-up on the floor.”