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Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Consumer Affairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the books FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Remembering Eric Hoffer / November 2016

LEJ's Louisiana
Yours Truly in a Swamp

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Remembering Eric Hoffer

by Leonard Earl Johnson
November 2016

© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.

Empty Minature Porcelain Rocking Chair
 JFK-Assassination Momento  /  LEJ.org 

I met Eric Hoffer in San Francisco a few years after the November 22 murder in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy by the fleeting kiss of Oswald's Magic Bullets. That was 1963. The century was still young, but starting its slide down the ageing side. 

I was in college in Illinois, and the generation teaching us hailed itself as the proud victors of World Wars One and Two ~ and anything else daring to cross the waves. They had fallen deeply and tragically in love with war, and eagerly policed the World for the greater good of things and reasons unclear to us, the young being asked to die for their causes. 

By the time I left Illinois for California, America was up to its eyeballs in the Vietnam War. Much of America's youth was in open defiance of our elders ~ who were, after all, trying to kill us. And San Francisco had become the sex, drugs and rock'n roll magnet of that tune-in, turn-on, dropout era.

The Fabled Sixties!
They were a time of fables. Eric Hoffer was a living one. He was the son of German immigrants, and lived his adult years in California as a working longshoreman who wrote books. Not much was known then or now of his early years. His friends from before California never spoke with those after. At least none that I knew.

In the Sixties, philosopher poets walked freely among us bearing ideas as cargo from far away places with strange sounding names. When I knew Hoffer he was at the top of this heap looking for the gangway. 

He had no paper birth records, but he told us he was born and raised in the Bronx. His strong German/Yiddish (he spoke both fluently) accent made that believable. Whatever the truth of origin, Hoffer was an outsider ~ the best thing a writer/artist can be. 

He was a self-educated, hard-headed realist who read and wrote, he said, as a way of experiencing Life. More than once I found him sitting on the waterfront at the foot of Market Street, talking about Schopenhauer and America's China trade with an audience of other longshoremen and beguiled tourists.

His first book was True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements, published in 1951. It grew enormously popular through the following decade, and was widely read and praised by our college professors ~ whom increasingly we suspected of being in the conspiracy to kill us.

True Believer was promoted by no lesser true believers than Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike passed out copies of the book to his war buddies, and when Hoffer heard about this, he remarked with a grin, "It proved to me that this is the kind of book any child can read." 

Hoffer, a noted practitioner of extrapolation, was already a minor celebrity in literary circles when L. B. J. heard of him. The gentlemanly Eric Sevareid, one of television's first talking heads, had him on several specials airing on C. B. S. and repeated later on P. B. S., in prime time for an amazing number of hours of intelligent television. 

Eric Hoffer sitting by the dock of the San Francisco Bay

They talked of great ideas, without dancing contests or blood curdling crime stories. They talked about work, war and hardhat politics. 

During those conversations Hoffer commented that he thought well of Lyndon Johnson and his escalating war in Vietnam. 

Lyndon Johnson ~ smarting inside the White House over draft-age youths dancing in opposition not only in San Francisco but right under his own White House windows ~ did not let his tv-set cool off before he booked Hoffer for a five-minute photo shoot that stretched into an hour-long, jaw-and-gum-flap session.

Hoffer  with  L.  B.  J.  at  the  White  House,  1967
 Reporters leaned in close to hear longshoreman Eric Hoffer, the  New York born German-American nonbeliever Jew, and the  Texas-American vasalating member of the Disciples of Christ, Lyndon B. Johnson, finding they shared a ten-gallon hat full of good ideas. 

 Alas, the World came to see those ideas differently ~ as  delusional at best, self-serving at worst, and in both cases very  costly in lives and treasure. Empire wars eventually suck the  homeland dry. (Military strategists call this "attrition.")

My college friends and I saw the early part of those Vietnam days on television sets in Carbondale, Illinois. The vertical hold button on ours was tricky. 

After an academically questionable eight 
or nine freshman years, 
Southern Illinois University president, Delyte W. Morris, 
personally booted me out, 
and San Francisco welcomed me in. 

* *

In San Francisco, Hoffer ate his breakfast at Ben's Epicure, a Polk Street cafe where I came to work as a cook. Our ages were roughly 70 and 26.

Hoffer mused that his visit with "the man," L. B. J., in "the house," the White House, might have put his soul in exploitation. 

Probably it had, I reckoned. It was a time of exploitation. 

"Dance lithely," he told me, "they all are." 

Hoffer visited the White House a second time in 1982, when Ronald Reagan (a Johnny-com-late foe of youthful dancing) presented Hoffer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. No small achievement for two elderly would-be Union men sitting inside the White House. Hoffer died the next year, at 80.

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To my knowledge, Hoffer never retracted his support for the Vietnam War ~ even after it had clearly failed. The hard fact remained the war was good for shipping, sailors and longshoremen, Hoffer's people. 

From its early days there were Union members against Vietnam, of course, and this number increased as the war's failures grew ever more painfully obvious. Hoffer suffered the loss of intellectual followers who had catapulted him to fame, and at one point he "dropped out," oddly arguing that he had not wanted to be a spokesman. (The troubadour Bob Dylan had recently said the same thing.) The Fabled Sixties were complicated.

He told me at the time of his publicly announced retirement from first the wharf, then lecturing at the University of  California, Berkeley; and then writing his newspaper column, "I knew when to catch the train, but it is harder to know when to get off."

These days, I am Hoffer's age then; and I get on and off the train in Louisiana. It is what my ticket says to do. 

Hey, Eric, you self-reliant old cuss, you were spot on right. It has been quite a tricky dance. And one I want to take once more round the floor.
Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments

Copyright, 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

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Lagniappe du Jour:

* *

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

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True Believer:
Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements 
by Eric Hoffer 
Wikipedia ~

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Little Boxes / Malvina Reynolds

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Longshoreman and Author Eric Hoffer and President Lyndon B. Johnson
White House, 1967

Neil Young

© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.