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Real Contact with Real People

I started a raised-poor support group in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. It started with two people. Now almost forty percent of the Co-Counselors in Madison want to belong. Many people were raised poor and have been hiding.

We are gathering up allies. We are getting back our voices.

The most important thing I am doing (I think) is getting people to go back and love their moms and dads. Almost each person I stand with on this (love) wants to kill me. Almost everyone wants to kill his or her dad. I lead three support groups and belong to three others. When I have a chance, I get lots of crying for fathers and mothers. People are changing. I see it happening right in front of my eyes.

I see some very valuable people left on the sidelines. This happens for many reasons. They are like me; they are ordinary. These people are too fat or not wearing the right clothes or have too little money or too little education.

Their impression of RC is of people sitting for thirty minutes talking and listening. Saying the same RC lingo. The first word I say that sounds "RC" sends them off. I think it looks to them like they are getting a "therapist" and not a loving person they can really cry in front of.

Harvey, I am writing this letter because I love you. You have changed my life with RC. Up until four years ago I sat home each night with my "friend" the beer bottle. I was bitter and angry at everything. I could not even pick up the phone when it rang. Things were only getting worse for me.

Now I can call people on the phone. I call people for workshops, and they come. The leaders in this Area are amazed. I can fill a room or a hall if I get on the phone and call.

I have never written the head of any organization before. All I want to do is be honest with you. You have given me space to go and cry. I watch people die on a daily basis and I watched my friends die in Vietnam. This has been going on since I was eighteen, let alone the things that happened before I was eighteen.

How in the world do we men make it?

My friend in Mexico is one of eighteen kids. I take care of another family that urinates in a five-gallon bucket and lives in one room. Their mother had no teeth. I say had because she has a beautiful smile now. I want raised-poor people to feel like they have a life, too.

We, the men in the Madison (Wisconsin, USA) Fire Department, have been fighting with our fire chiefs for ten years. The problem is that we have as many firefighters as we had in the late 1960's, and the city is three times as large as it was then. We firefighters are worn out. I've gone to countless fires, hurt myself, and not told anyone, fearing for my job.

One night last winter we had a huge apartment complex fire. Thirty people lost their homes that night. The area was solid ice. We strapped a water cannon (1,200 gallons per minute, lots of water capacity) to a beam. Three of us put our weight on the cannon. It was thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero with twenty-mile-per-hour winds at two o'clock in the morning. I thought the skin on my face was going to freeze. It was so cold. All of a sudden the water cannon broke loose. Three of us men went flying. The power these cannons have is awesome. About 500 pounds of water and iron were flying over our heads. It lasted for a full minute; back and forth it flew. We got soaked and turned to ice cubes. When it was over my friend Gary said, "We almost lost our heads." Gary was visibly shaken. He is the best firefighter we have. He does not fear too much. I would go anywhere with Gary. We kept going until the fire was out.

In another fire, two five-year-old boys died due to smoke inhalation. Three firefighters had pulled up to the apartment building. (Three men is what the chiefs allowed us to have. Five is the minimum allowed by firefighting codes.) The three men got the fire hydrant hooked up for water, pulled a hose up, broke in two doors, went through a wall of flames, found the two boys, and got them out of the building. By this time the rescue squad was there and started oxygen and CPR and then raced the boys to the hospital.

The use of manpower in this fire broke down to the following: because we need water to get safely into a burning building, one man got the hose ready with water at the front door, one man set up the pump to get the water to the hose man, and one man was left. He made sure it was safe to break in a door or go through a window-basically figured out a good way to rescue people inside the building. The hose man kicked in the door and broke his foot. That left one man to rescue, put out the fire, and make sure no one died in this process. Amazingly he got through the flames and found the boys. Two firechiefs went to the funeral of the two boys. One of the five-year-olds had been visiting the home of the other five-year-old. The firechiefs told the mothers there was nothing that could have been done any differently.

The situation was over. Things went on like in the past-firefighters fighting firechiefs because we know that we need at least five men to safely fight a fire and rescue people.

The lieutenant at the fire who found the two boys is a Chicano named P-, and the two firechiefs went after his head. P- was a scapegoat. The firechiefs did not know how much respect P- and I have for each other. They didn't think that anyone would stick up for a man who was being castrated by them. When they castrate, they use all the power a city can muster. I would not have wanted to be P-! I needed to think! I needed to cry because I know P- put his life on the line. He was sick for the two boys. P- has saved lives time and time again. I know. I've known P- for twenty-two years. Reading this over makes me cry and shake. (The reason I cannot use P-'s real name is that I am still terrified of the chiefs' power.)

One week passed. The situation was getting worse for P-. He was going to lose his job. I was just plain sick. The two mothers were poor. P- was Chicano and raised-poor. I talked to the paramedics who took the boys to the hospital. They said that five minutes sooner and the boys would have made it.

I went right to the phone book. I called the best attorney I could think of. I told him that if the mothers were rich they would have at least a twenty million dollar suit going. More men would have allowed us to go into that fire with power. The boys were in the bathroom and died from smoke, not fire. Extra men would have allowed us to get in faster and rescue them. I explained all kinds of things to the lawyer. I called the local newspaper, too. I used both of these forces to make sure something was going to happen. Within two weeks we had four men on a fire pumper, not three.

For fifteen years we had three men on a pumper. For fifteen years we could not make the chiefs believe that this was a danger. For fifteen years they called the firefighters whiners and crybabies because we wanted more manpower. We were in dangerous situations at fires, but no one would listen. The chiefs were saving the city tax money and that made them very powerful. Two five-year-olds had to die. P- and I and the other men knew this. The chiefs have not said anything to P-. They still want him out. They are vindictive. P- is still real hurt. I just let him talk. He is so much better after he talks.

I had a session with a raised-poor teacher/leader. She said she feels "crazy." She is the only one crying. I said, "Only the real leaders cry." She started crying again, like she knew she must do for real liberation and freedom.

Only our shame keeps us from really telling the truth. After all, we live in a society that doesn't want to hear. We are holding ourselves back by not making a safe place to open up. And this is really holding RC back. The ones that have the most to say and the most to move don't quite have the safety to tell their stories for discharge. Some raised-poor people get frustrated and drop out one more time. We must support each other. It is difficult for us to be effectively supported by middle-class teachers. Some people discharge about not winning a football game, or their dad breaking a toy. It makes me feel like I can't say what really hurt me. Sometimes when I discharge in front of a group I feel like a zoo animal. I cry about people dying or my mom going without food when I was young.

I've been writing to other leaders (raised without money) who are having a hard time getting support. A session on paper opens up our minds and gets rid of the secrets. I have seen real progress in this writing project. I am trading letters with who want to open up but can't yet find the support locally.

I see RC as ours-those of us raised-poor and working-class. We must not blame the other classes; it only holds us back and wastes our time. It is up to us to build support around ourselves for discharge. Only we can do this. We can't wait; life is too short. With our help, RC will become richer and more fearless. Leaders will come popping out all over the place!

I met a sharecropper's daughter at a workshop. Both our dads were in World War II. Then our dads sent their sons to war. I really feel for these dads. Their sons were so vulnerable. Their sons came back men in a way that men do not want to be: angry and bitter. I did not know where I picked up my anger. Now I do. I have been crying at every chance, trying to make up for lost time. The insights coming out of my mind are tremendous. You can't believe how my life has changed. Everyone around me wants to meet me. I want dads never to send their sons off to war.

Since my Navy days, I have seen how working-class men have been and still are pitted against one another for promotions. In the fire department, twice a year there are written and oral exams for promotions. Every firefighter on the job feels bad at these times. Most women and men would do anything to their fellow workers for this promotion. In most cases the promoted person goes into a higher rank feeling superior to everyone else. From the first day on the job, I refused promotions. I did not want to lose the dignity I grew up with. A supervisor talked to me, in a downgrading way, about me never getting promoted. I told him, "I have been promoted a long time ago in my way of life. I wish for my co-workers to get this raise."

A firefighter friend of mine (who just started RC) and I were talking. I said, "Bill, how would you like to be able to look into the eyes of your firefighter friends and take a deep easy breath?" In twenty-seven years in the fire department he has never been able to do that. The oppression of firefighters is so bad that most of us can't even breathe right.

In our last men's group and raised-poor group I wanted to deal with giving up. I said, "We were all raised poorly whether we were rich or poor. Our moms and dads had it harder than we did, with depressions and wars and terror. They had to work too hard. Then we came along. There was not enough attention for us. Our parents were scared. There was not enough. Our parents did not realize that all we wanted was them. All we wanted was to be close. All we wanted was to be held and talked to and loved. Our hearts were broken. There is a place in us where we gave up-gave up on getting love, on asking for help. Things were so bad that we gave up. That is why this group is so important. We know our hearts were broken, and now we know that only love and discharge will mend our hearts again."

It is so simple-we must look past people's hurts to see the real person. When we can do this, then we are truly liberated.

I want to teach an RC class. Even last year I would have shot anyone for saying that Tom Washa would teach an RC class.

I love you, Harvey. Know that you have changed my life forever. My letters to you are love letters from working men, veterans, Pepsi drivers, carpenters, fathers, and firefighters from this part of Wisconsin, USA. We are going to become all colors, too, if I have anything to do with it.

I have connected with people (raised poor/targeted) from other midwest USA towns. These people had no raised-poor support groups. Lots of targeted people were blowing in the wind, including me. Raised-poor/targeted support groups are springing up now. I am all the time writing letters, listening to people, and loving people. I have been changing from workshop to workshop. From week to week.

I want Madison and the midwest to look completely different a year from now-with more raised-poor/targeted leaders. They all are moving so fast. They will pass me up a thousand times.

Madison has had RC for over twenty years. We are circled by farms. I am the only person in the Madison RC Community raised on a farm. I will not settle for this any longer. I will keep discharging and I will keep writing.

I am really hurting right now. It is easy for me to get lost. We had another men's leaders' night. We started out giving each other compliments on how well we see each other doing. This ended up being good. The leader got in some good crying. Then I was chosen to be part of a demonstration of coached counseling. I was terrified; my brain went for a vacation. I turned back into a five-year-old. I could barely cry. The classism was all around me. I forgot why I was even there. A middle-class performance test? I want to be real. I do not want to pretend. I am tired of pretending.

When I got into RC only people in the fast track were allowed in. People who slowed down the process or the teachers were not allowed. Well, I was not allowed either then. I am slow. I am in from the cold.

I need a safe place. This is not it. It is a waste of my time. It is not even safe enough to discharge. I am lost for a week after one of those meetings. I have other things to do. I do not want to spend all of my time learning how to counsel the middle class.

I was at a workshop for Gays, Lesbians, and allies. The leader talked about people who walk on the other side of the street, people targeted-Gays, Lesbians, hookers, drug addicts, veterans, raised-poor people, and anyone who has had it really rough in their lives. There is something about knowing that we are in this together, we can claim it together. We can discharge on it together and we can move together. We had a table for people targeted for destruction. I had the privilege of leading it. It really opened my eyes to the deep hurts that targeted people have. We think we are going to die if we tell anyone our secrets. So the place has to be safe. We will hide no more from what happened to us. We are alive to tell our stories and our friends' stories. We do need a safe place to first get the stories out, a safe place to really collapse and cry our heads off.

When I attend leaders' groups, especially of men leaders, I feel like I am in the middle of a college course and my thinking just stops. I feel like the little bit I know about humans will get stolen from me, and then I will not be needed and will be thrown away again. Life with a six-pack and a porno book is not the way I want to spend the rest of my life. This is the first time I have been able to think and write and love. I have seen friends die in Vietnam and now from AIDS and drugs. Targeted people are crying. Middle-class people must take the lid off, too. RC cannot become another university course. Targeted people will not sit through it. I will not sit through it.

I always was a remodeler. I can fix anything. At this point I have some helpers with this RC tool. We have all been targeted, we have survived near-death. We are tearing apart RC, making a space for ourselves. In that space we are building in trust, tons of love, complete honesty, respect, and total openness. We are living for the day when we can show you the fruits of our labor. We are Harvey's angels.

Tom Washa
Wisconsin, USA

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00