Tom Foley


Friday Evening / Saturday Morning

 

Editor's note: Photographer Tom Foley has spent the last couple of years capturing the majesty and myth of the Mississippi River with his camera. His reason for doing this was to explore one of the most potent symbols of America and his own life as the child of American communists in a time of McCarthyism and hate. The following photos and essay are excerpted from his recently completed book on these subjects.

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A Friday evening, January, 1950--it's a bitterly cold night in an even colder time. We've been to a warm place, though: To a meeting of friends my mother refers to--almost as if in code--as "our people."

But now we're leaving the meeting, and our car is lurching along on tires frozen into imperfect circles. I ask my father to hurry up and turn on the heater.

"Just be patient," he says. "Everything'll be all right."

I'm straddling the center arm rest, and I start to bounce up and down, keeping time with the lug of the car's frozen tires. Ga-bump, ga-bump. I pretend I'm on a wild stallion. It's part play--"Giddyap," I cry, ga-bump, ga-bump--and partly an attempt to keep warm. My father chuckles easily, saying "whoa" through his chattering teeth as we approach a red light, and I pull my steed to a snorting stop. The light turns green, and the car lugs forward, and I spur my stallion on. "Giddyap!" We begin to cross the old 10th Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River, heading towards home, some twenty miles north of Minneapolis. He turns on the heater fan, and puts his hand beneath the dash to see if it's blowing out warm air, says something gently profane, and turns the fan off. It's heading towards thirty below tonight.

My mother is on my right, quiet, and lost in thought, and my two older sisters are in the rear. Rachel is jabbering away about fascists, while Mickey stares distantly out the frost covered window. We're all shivering. Our teeth are chattering.

The meeting had been a typical one. My parents had listened to a couple of short speeches and announcements before hearing the featured out-of-town speaker. Mickey and Rachel had gone off and found friends their own age, and I had gone off and found my friends. We passed the time by playing some games we had made up. Later had come the part of the meeting I liked best, when everyone got together and we were led in song by the Paloma Singers: Die Gedanken sind frei, Down by the Riverside, I'm Stickin' to the Union, and lots of other songs. I knew them all by heart. The gathering then broke up with the usual excited talk, some of it political--Taft-Hartley, Truman and the steel strike, McCarren-Walter legislation, or the local deportation cases of Charlie Rowaldt and Knute Haikennen. More ominously, there was some hushed talk about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and their two little boys, Michael and Robby, who were my secret pals. But most of the talk was social--about a coming dance, or a party to be held in someone's home, or simply how good it was to see someone again.

Some of the talk was about me. The giant men looked down from their height, and told one-another in gruff voices how big I was getting to be, and "before you know it, he's gonna have hair on his chest, just like big Tom." Then they winked at one another, or cuffed each other on the arm, and reached down and scruffed up my hair. And the women had flirted with me, fussing over me, combing the hair that the men had just scruffed up, and telling each other how handsome I was getting to be, and then kissing me full on the mouth. I screwed up my face pretending I didn't like it. They all laughed, and I laughed back, and I felt like there was no one in the world I would rather be than me.

I love these occasions, and I love these people. They are "our people," and I feel connected and loved when I am with them. I also feel a passionate loyalty to them. I would do anything for them. I would walk over coals before I would betray them. I would die for them. The loyalty is so strong, that I would even choose to be orphaned, to have my parents die, or be tortured and murdered, rather than have them betray this group of people. I'm much older than my six years, and I have confronted myself with these possibilities, and I know with certainty these things about myself.

As our frozen car lugs across the river, I'm vaguely aware of a black car that has smoothly pulled up beside us on the bridge, when suddenly, something is thrown at us, cracking the window beside my father. He starts, and momentarily loses control. Someone shouts. The black Buick pulls sharply in front of us, forcing us to a crawl, and a blinding spotlight is turned upon us. It's like being photographed.

For a moment I sense a scrutinizing presence behind the glare. Then I cover my eyes, trying not to imagine what my family looks like to whomever is behind the spotlight. But I can't tame my imagination, nor my fear, and a WeeGee style, tabloid photograph materializes in the liquid between my eyelids and my eyes--shot with a glaring flash through the frosted windshield-- exposing five terrified people, the little boy in the center covering his eyes, Ostrich like, so that he can't see, nor can he be seen. Then the light is gone. I uncover my eyes only to see the spots in my vision intermingling with the red tail lights of the car disappearing across the river. I bet it's the same Buick.

My sister, Rachel, is outraged, ready to fight. She's frothing from her mouth as she pounds her fists into the seat beside her. "Stinking fascists," she spits. Mickey retreats further into her corner of the car, and stares even more distantly through the frosted window . My mother says nothing. My father examines the cracked window, and starts to drive on.

He says, "Things'll be all right, you'll see."

I climb off my stallion, now suddenly an arm rest, and fold it back into the seat. I'm silent for a while. I start to sing one of my favorite songs hoping my family will join in. We're a singing family, and we always sing rounds, or harmonize, especially when we drive. But they're not in the mood. It's too cold. It's hard to sing through chattering teeth. Maybe later when the car warms up. I begin to seek warmth by snuggling down into the space on the car seat between my parents. I rest my head against my father's leg, bend my knees, and place my feet in my mother's lap.

From this vantage point, I study her now through my memory: Her face is determined, and I can see her jaw muscles work in the passing lights of oncoming cars as she takes my feet in her mittened hands and places them inside her coat. She's a pragmatist, and knows what she's about. She never did anything with her eyes closed, and I know that she didn't shield her eyes when the spotlight was shining on us, not even for an instant, but looked right back at it without so much as blinking. She sized up the situation rationally, factually. I can even read her thoughts in my memory: "It could be the car was full of feebees. Then again, maybe it was just a bunch of high-school kids with a six-pack." I can even hear her think in my memory:

"You never know," she thinks.

She has the ultimate quality usually missing in people who define themselves as intellects or rationalists: She admits her lack of knowledge, and recognizes speculation as just that.

I look back and up towards my father. He's steering with his left hand, and has put his right forearm across my chest. He is unconsciously working his fingers deep into the frozen muscles of my arm.

From this vantage point, I observe him now in my memory: He is looking in the rear view mirror for cars that might be following us. He sharply sucks in his breath every time the headlights of an oncoming car light his face, suspecting it to be full of feebees. He never really knew what he was getting into when he joined the movement shortly after marching for Sacco and Vanzetti in Philadelphia. He's not a true intellect, or rationalist. He loves. He loves thought and knowledge too much for that. He's a romantic intellect, blinded by the beauty and eloquence of his own thoughts as they mingle with those of Karl Marx.

Before long warmth wells up from beneath the dashboard, and as I drift into sleep, another photograph materializes in the tears between my eyes and my eyelids.

It is of a scene deep in a cold and damp cave.

Hordes of feebees are swarming through the air, thousands of them. Thousands more are clinging together in a herd, forming a pulsing gray membrane on the wall of the cave. Other feebees are hanging in clots, their pale yellow bird-like toes clinging to the cave wall.

I enter through the frame of the photograph. I'm not afraid of this frame or any frame. Ethel and Julius weren't afraid of the frame, and I'm prepared to die rather than betray those I love. Why should I be afraid of a frame? So I brazenly look right at the mass of gray trembling membrane, as other feebees swarm about my head. I beat some of them off, and sharply knock one to the ground. It feels good. I stamp on it with my foot, and gray blood pukes out of its mouth. I kneel down and examine it closely. I like to see my enemies dead. But it isn't quite. It opens its rabid mouth in a wide-angle view, hisses at me through tiny canine teeth, and looks back at me through small dead pupiless eyes. The eyes of Ray Cohn. Thousands now attack me with rabid canine teeth, too many to beat off. I'm forced to flee. But I can't break through the frame of the photograph I'm in, so I run more deeply into it, and into the cave . They follow. I run as fast as I can. I run until I can run no more, and turn and face them, heaving asthmatically, my shoulders raised high against my neck.

They stop, as if on command. I recognize them as my teachers at school, the parents of my schoolmates, the barber, the Baptist minister who lives down the street. I recognize them as all the adults I've ever known other than our people, and they are all horrible. Their commander steps forward, and speaks at me in a wretched, creaky voice. He has tiny, jaundiced eyes, over which he places a shiny circle of metal with a hole in it. He asks me questions, thousands of questions. "How are things at home?" he whispers confidentially placing the stethoscope on my heaving asthmatic chest. Are mommy and daddy getting along?" "What do they do at night? Do they read books?" I knew it. He wants me to tell. He wants me to tell all I know . . . and I know nothing. "Asthma can be caused by a difficult home life?" he says as he examines my nostrils with an ice cold implement. "If you tell, if you trust me, if you tell all you know, maybe we can make the Asthma go away." I couldn't satisfy him even if I knew what he wanted to know. And I wouldn't tell him anything anyway. I hate him. I hate his fucking guts. I defy him and his kind. I loathe them all, every putrid, stinking, shitty one of them. I'd rather die before I'd tell them even my name. I'll never betray those I love.

They begin to crowd in on me, inching closer and closer. One touches me, and my flesh trembles. They start to scratch me with their bird-like toe nails, and bite me with their infected, yellow rabid teeth. Thousands of them are swarming all over my body, biting, scratching, tearing my flesh until I'm bleeding red blood all over my body--I'm red all over. I fall to the ground exhausted, heaving for breath. Thousands get underneath me and carry my blood purged body further into the cave. I'm carried past three whitiker chambers in the cave wall, each with bars over it. There is a rush of bone chilling wind as thousands of flying feebees pass over. In each whitiker chamber, huge, hulking, man-like feebees are asking questions of people I know and love: Bob and Lucy, Carl, Sam and Adele, Edith, Toini, Meridel, Charlie, Betsy and Justine.

Michael and Robby aren't with them, though. I frantically strain my eyes to find them. I scream out: "Michael, Robby." Suddenly they're beside me, and together we watch our people defiantly answering the feebee's questions: some with taunting retorts; some with screams of pain; some with bitterly hanging heads. They're all bleeding. They're all red.

The feebees prod us deeper into the cave to a magnificent bridge crossing over a frozen river. I tell Michael and Robby that if we can only get to the other side, we'll be safe again. The feebees leave me at the foot of the bridge, and we begin to pull our tortured bodies over. Half way, we look over the side of the bridge to the ice and snow below, which co-mingles with our red blood, and makes serpentine, seductive shapes. The blood from our bodies flows in torrents over the side of the bridge into the frozen river, melting the ice, and turning the water blood red. Our life-blood is in the river. We crawl on. If we can only get to the other side.

But the bridge doesn't lead to the other side as before. It was a trick of the feebees. The bridge leads to an altar, and at the pinnacle of the altar is a huge throne. I know I'm in an earthly Hell, and this must be where the king of the feebees sits, the devil himself.

My father is being led to the devil's throne by gray robed feebees in a coronation processional. He is robed in rich blood red. Just before he sits in the throne, he faces the assembled coronation guests, and begins to sing. "E Lucevan Le Stelle." His voice is beautiful and alive: operatic, threatening in its beauty. "E Luce van Le Stelle," he intones again, but Scarpia has had enough of Mario Cavaradossi, and gives the signal. My father looks at me.

"Everything'll work out all right, you'll see."

Then he sits in the throne. They anoint his shaven head in oil, and crown him with a black helmet, and bind him in leather. He looks at me, and smiles gently and serenely.

His body jerks and stiffens, straining against the leather bindings. There is a sustained, terrible, unnatural sound. His eyes are strained and open. They pop out of his head. Blood shoots from his ears, snot from his nose. His face is grotesque. I can smell his frying excrement. The noise stops, and his body falls limp in the chair. His eyeballs are hanging on his cheeks from tiny, still quivering slivers of flesh.

I begin screaming. I scream and scream, and scream some more.

"Everything is OK," he says again and again.

I scream and scream as my father holds my flailing arms.

"Everything is all right. Be still. Be still. It's OK."

I look around, and find that I'm between my parents in a warm bed. Soon we'll have breakfast. My father will have a cup of hot coffee, and I'll pretend to drink coffee as I sip my cocoa--just like him. He must have carried me in from the car last night.

It's a Saturday morning, January, 1950. It's bitterly cold outside.

* * *

end note: feebees is a nickname for the FBI

Tom Foley grew up the son of american communists--an authentic "red diaper baby"--and was deeply affected by the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Growing up, he loved to sing, and that led to a degree in music and theater from the University of Minnesota. Shortly after graduation, he purchased an Argus C3 and some outdated film at a garage sale for $10, and realized that he liked taking pictures better than singing and dancing. He's been a professional photographer ever since--nearly thirty years. He makes his home in the town of his birth, Minneapolis. For more about his photography, go to http://www.fotogod.com.