It Wasn’t All Roses

My daughter Holly says that she found there were benefits derived from having four parents from the time she was eight years old. One aspect she considered an advantage was having what she called “Rainbow Diversity” in the areas of religion and politics.

Her stepmother Verna was a hard right Republican who was a Southern Baptist Christian. Larry, her father, was a moderate Republican who rejected the strong Lutheran stance of his mother and her family in favor of his deep beliefs in the sciences. From the time he was twelve he went with the idea that if you could not see, touch, or measure something it did not exist. I, her mother, was a liberal Democrat who was a strong “union maid” and was brought up with the idea that I must form my own religious conviction, and settled on the Unitarian philosophy to use in bringing up my children. Bob, her stepfather, was a Socialist when he was attending the University of California in the ’30s, and also found the Unitarian Church a good place to raise his children, even though he had strong leanings toward Humanism and described himself as “agnostic.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, American society was still reeling from the eras of deep depression, World War II, and McCarthyism. The John Birch Society was strong in our community and the House Un-American Activities Committee made the news regularly. The Drug Culture was evolving into the Hippy movement wherein the young people were rebelling against the structures of society and parental control. There were widespread protests against the United States’ involvement in the Viet Nam war and we had four boys of draft age.

In 1957, ex-husband Larry Sr. was working as an electrical engineer at Hughes Aircraft, his new wife Verna worked as a nurse, my new husband Bob was teaching electric shop at the local junior high school, and I was teaching fifth grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

One day, out of the blue, the House Un-American Activities Committee came to visit Los Angeles and, to our amazement, subpoenaed Bob to testify the names of the people he associated with in Berkeley in the 1930s, more than thirty years earlier. Their contention was that some of those people had Communist leanings, and although belonging to a Communist organization never was illegal, nor did Bob ever join the Communist Party, they wanted him to name the people he associated with at that time. He decided that the harassment this Committee exerted upon good citizens was immoral, and he would not be a part of cooperating with them.

On the advice of the American Civil Liberty Union’s attorney, Bob “took the fifth.” That is, he refused to testify on the grounds that he could not be forced to testify against himself, which was the basis of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The day after Bob was subpoenaed, his picture, name, address, and background were featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

That same day my school was having an Open House. My classroom had to be immaculate, ready for show time, and the parents came in the evening to hear me explain the curriculum, answer questions, and be impressed with what a wonderful education their children were getting. That night I got home after 8:30, took care of food and children, and we all fell into bed exhausted, and went right to sleep.

At midnight I was awakened by the phone ringing. I rolled out of bed to answer it. A man’s voice growled, “Tell that husband of yours that we will get him.” I was bewildered. “Who is this? What are you saying.” I thought it was a crank call. There was no other response on the phone but the line was still open. I hung up the phone and got back into bed. Bob asked, “What was that?” I told him, still bewildered.

At that point the phone rang again. Bob was up instantly. “I”ll get it.” He answered the phone, and then came back to bed. “What was it? I asked. “I won’t tell you, “ he said. When the phone rang again he lifted the receiver off the hook and left it off the rest of the night.

Years later he told me that the voice had said, “You bastard, we’re going to kill your wife.”

The House Un-American Activities Committee in action in the 1950s. Bob Brent refused to provide them information.
The House Un-American Activities Committee in action in the 1950s. Bob Brent refused to provide them information.

From that night on, every night at midnight the phone rang, and there would be no response on the other end. If we were out after midnight the phone would ring as soon as we walked into the house. This went on for two years.

Bob lost his teaching job because of the publicity. We got crazy hate mail, several items every day for a while, and then it tapered to occasional pamphlets and weird messages. One of the effects it had on our kids was that they always had to be home before midnight, because there was no way for them to contact us for help or changes in plans after twelve o’clock.

After two years Bob and I moved to another neighborhood about ten miles away. We got some of the crazy mail on which was hand printed, “We know where you are. You can’t get away from us.” After a couple of weeks the mailings stopped. There were no more plaguing phone calls.

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It takes all kinds to make a world. How do we find it in our hearts to love our neighbors when we are harassed?

Even today, forty years later, I shake with fear when my political or religious philosophy differs from my surrounding community. This is the time of my life I would like to be strong and outspoken in my convictions, and make inroads of change in what I consider to be ignorant attitudes or unjust behavior. I still shake with fear inside.

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The House Un-American Activities Committee in action in the 1950s. Bob Brent refused to provide them information.
The House Un-American Activities Committee in action in the 1950s. Bob Brent refused to provide them information.

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