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Chapter 5: Washington, D.C.
A project of the Schumacher Center for New Economics | The Autobiography of Bob Swann
I was released from prison in September 1944, having served two years of my five year sentence. At least two factors entered into the decision to release virtually all 2000 of the COs in the United States at that time. First, they were creating continuous problems for the officials within the prison system with their general non-cooperation. Second was the fact that the war was winding down and there was more pressure from the outside to release us . For example, at Ashland there was dramatic support from Reverend Ashton Jones, a Southern Baptist. Like most Southern Baptists he had strong feelings and beliefs. Ashton was so incensed that the Federal government was putting COs, with whom he identified, in prison that he set up a permanent vigil outside Ashland's prison walls demanding the release of all COs. As a minister he was permitted inside once a week on visitors day to talk with us, but when guards asked him to leave, he refused and had to be carried out. This went on intermittently for several months. I'm sure the guards were happy to see him and all the COs leave so that their life could return to normal. Ashton's vigil was only a fraction of the national pressure the prison authorities were made to feel, though. Peace organizations like War Resisters League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and half a dozen others kept organizing vigils and writing campaigns to Congress as well as demonstrating.
With $20 and a new suit of clothes I was put on the train to Washington, D. C., where I was to check in at the office of the American Civil Liberties Union to give a report on conditions at Ashland. The ACLU had set up a special office to keep track of COs all over the country. There, directing the ACLU office with only an occasional volunteer, was my future wife, Marjorie Schaefer. Marj was definitely an activist—an antiwar activist. She often described how painful her early life had been. Her father, who was "shell shocked" during World War I, once threatened to shoot Marj, her mother, brother, and sister. This experience was the driving force behind her antiwar activism.
From the ACLU office I was to go straight to the Child Study Center, where the prison office had arranged a job for me (without my consent, of course) as a house father to "predelinquent" (a term used by the staff) children. Most of the kids were from wealthy families where they were left to run wild. Their parents felt they had no choice but to send them away. There were a few poor kids among them sent by social service agencies. I found the Center to be nothing more than a prison for young children, who were subjected to violence on a daily basis.
During the four months I was there I shuttled back and forth between Washington and Baltimore in order to spend as much time as I could with Marj. Finally, the positive attraction of Washington and the negative aspects of the Child Study Center led me to violate my parole (I did call my parole officer to let him know what I was doing) and move to Washington. It was still war time, with housing in short supply. I moved in with two other COs who had recently been released from prison and three women, including Marj. The other two women worked at one of the many nonprofit peace organizations in Washington.
Tim LeFever, another CO recently released from Ashland, helped me get a job at St. Elizabeth's Hospital working with him on the maintenance crew. I didn't know it, but the poet Ezra Pound, who had supported Mussolini, was being kept a virtual prisoner there at the same time. Tim, a graduate of MIT, had been raised in the Brethren Church and could have qualified for CO status under Selective Service, but he too refused to cooperate. It was Tim who introduced me to Ralph Borsodi's work while we were in prison. Tim was released before I was, and his parole officer assigned him to work at St. Elizabeth's. When his parole ended, he returned with his wife to his Brethren community and created a homestead, which resembled that of Helen and Scott Nearing. Years later I helped Tim build one of the first solar-heated homes in the United States.
My stay in Washington was short. I was not happy working at St. Elizabeth's and decided to go to Philadelphia. Marj did not accompany me initially because she had a good job. When we got married, she joined me there. We spent the next two years in Philadelphia. My first job, which I got through my parole officer, was taking care of and feeding research rats for a college laboratory—one of the strangest jobs I've ever had. Later I worked for the Friends Neighborhood Guild providing games and activities for eight to ten year olds after school. They kept me busy! And I enjoyed it, unlike my work in Baltimore.
We had our first child shortly thereafter. Barbara was born in the homeopathic hospital next door to our house—Hahnemann Hospital. She was one of the first babies to be born in this country by the natural childbirth method endorsed by medical authorities and outlined in Dr. Grantly Dick Read's book Child Birth Without Fear. The technique, which came from Britain, was first introduced here in 1947. Our doctor, although a homeopath, was skeptical almost to the end, but Barbara came so fast that there wasn't time to reconsider. Eventually we had three more children (Carol, Judy, and Scott), all born using the natural childbirth method.
After leaving home at eighteen for Ohio State University I had very little contact with my family except for occasional visits. My father died a couple of years after the end of the war. Because he opposed my position as a CO we had very little correspondence while I was in prison. Before he died, however, our relationship, although not close, became friendly and forgiving. My mother never understood my position, but it didn't really matter to her—she remained a loyal mother until she died, twenty years after my father. During those years Marj and I lived in many different locations, and we didn't see my mother often. After my father's death she moved to Ashland, Ohio, where she spent the rest of her life among relations and friends.
©2001 Robert Swann