Boston Globe - 8/27/81
What do you stand for?
ONE PEACE SEEKER WHO HASN'T GIVEN UP
What are you against?
Insanity, Oppression, Slavery of Human Beings.
For everyone ... And what do you stand for?
I don't know.
Do you think you should know?
I don't know.--Two strangers on Pennsylvania Avenue
By Marguerite Del Giudice
WASHINGTON - The man who asked "What do you stand
for?" was young with curly hair - a scriptwriter for business
firms who had been attracted by a sign in front of the White House
that said WANTED: WISDOM AND HONESTY. It had an eye drawn inside
the "o" in "wisdom." The man who answered
calls himself Thomas - by his own definition a penniless wanderer
and pilgrim who has discarded the trappings of society for the
life of a transient holy man and seeker of peace. William Thomas
is his given name, he says, noting that first names are irrelevant.
Then he produces a front-page article from the Albuquerque
Journal that identifies him as William Thomas Hellanback, a New
Mexico man who was arrested in June of 1979 for entering Israel
illegally after swimming across the Suez Canal and crossing more
than 90 miles of the Sinai desert. He was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
He had no visa.
"They thought at first that I was a spy," he
It is difficult to miss Thomas, sitting cross-legged in
front of the White House, surrounded by pigeons. One-person demonstrations
usually come and go in a matter of days, but Thomas has hung on
since June 2 and pledges to remain "until I can think of
something more constructive to do."
Last week, an elderly woman with one crutch and a sandwich
board alleged that the Attorney General had burned down her house.
Another time, a man lined up 12 signs in front of the White House
to inform the public about electronic magnetic waves he believes
are being used by a Nazi unit within the government to brainwash
Thomas, on the other hand, is entirely coherent. He just
lives in a world of the abstract, as a street-corner philosopher,
engaging curious passersby in Socratic dialogue on freedom, truth
and the meaning of life.
"The main point I'm trying to make," he says,
"is that the earth is a unit, It's a whole thing, it is not
compartmentalized. And what people do is divide this unit up with
imaginary lines, and then they start wars over those imaginary
lines. This is not productive ... They fight wars over land they
do not 'own.' The only thing you actually own is your own life...
"I can clearly see that there are many different concepts
of reality, but a concept of reality doesn't change the actual
reality ... There is a real plane and an imaginary plane, and
when we live in the imaginary plane, it causes chaos" - and
that, he says, is why the world is in the mess it is in: "festering
with war, crime, cruelty, starvation, poverty, oppression and
assorted petty personal problems."
Thomas says there's only one reason he bothers to talk
to other people: to provoke them into thinking about the existence
of God, "because if they believe there is no justice beyond
what we can see in one lifetime, then the rule of the earth will
continue to be Might is Right - and it isn't." To him, God
He said the purpose of his life "is to acquire wisdom
and attain moral perfection."
To that end, he embarked on an odyssey six years ago, leaving
behind a wife and a New Mexico jewelry business, to experience
life and find out what is true and what is not.
At the time, he was studying the Bible, and he found himself
preoccupied with the notion that money is the root of all evil.
" I had a house, three cars, bank accounts, insurance policies
and I thought: I have all these things, these 'rewards,' and yet
the Bible tells me I am not living the right way ... And I thought,
if that was true - if money led to evil, and if you need money
to live - then the syllogism followed that evil is necessary,
which was not palatable to me."
So he set out to see if he could live without money or
jobs, in order to prove that evil was unnecessary. "To tell
the truth," he says, I had some anxieties. I was leaving
my wife behind, I said, 'Is this rational? Are you sane?' But
I had to test this out. And I knew that if I found it to be true,
then the world was living a radically irrational existence."
Thomas' journey took him to New York where he worked for
a week as a carpenter to make enough money for a one-way ticket
to Casablanca. From there he traveled on foot to Cairo. He had
"There were days I went without food," he says,
" and in six months I did sleep outside for about six weeks.
But otherwise food and shelter somehow were just provided. I never
asked anybody for anything. I had a blanket over my shoulder and
the clothes I was wearing: That was all. People would just come
up to me and say. 'Where are you going? That's a long way. Where
are you sleeping? Come with me.' They asked me, they frequently
asked me, what I needed, I never asked."
He returned to the United States for a time, working as
a dispatcher for a cab company and as a stone carver. Then he
resumed his journey. Over several years, he said, he traveled
back and forth across Europe. He found himself last year in London,
where he was jailed for several months after overstaying his visa.
Eventually, the authorities deported him to the United States.
He arrived last October at Kennedy International Airport, where
he had to be forcibly removed from the plane. "I was dragged
into the Customs office," he says, " where I was told
I was now in America and free to go where I pleased."
The seed of that ordeal was a decision he had made in London
Months before: He no longer wished to be an American citizen.
In the course of his wanderings, he had come to the conclusion
that the United States was contributing to the destruction of
the earth and exploiting its inhabitants. Therefore, for him to
advise others not to fight over land and exploit one another,
while he was benefiting from an American passport, seemed hypocritical
to him. Association with a country whose ideals he loved but whose
practices he abhorred was inconsistent with his goal of attaining
So he had taken the waterproof wallet containing his union
cards, his Social Security card, and his passport and had thrown
it into a lake in Hyde Park, England. "I assumed," he
says, "that there was nothing wrong with throwing away my
passport because I knew myself to be a free man ... Then I decided
I would walk back to the Mideast, but when I got to Dover, I was
"I argued that I couldn't have a visa, because I didn't
have a passport, and I didn't have a passport, for reasons I have
already explained. Additionally, visas are designed to control
populations, and since I was leaving the country, I was no threat
to the population ... They had no right to tell me I had to be
an American. It is not for anyone else to decide who I am; It
is for me to decide ..."
Thomas has written down his thoughts and his experiences,
an account that exceeds 300 pages. In March, he telephoned the
Soviet embassy here, saying he had a manuscript dealing with the
conflict between America's ideals and its practices and asking
if the Soviet embassy was interested. He says he has no sympathy
for communism, but thought he'd try to communicate his ideas on
peace through another channel. When he arrived at the embassy,
he met with Victor Doroshenko, the third secretary in the information
According to Thomas, he and Doroshenko exchanged ideas,
and Doroshenko asked if there was anything the embassy could do
for Thomas, who told Doroshenko he was interested in peace. "And
then I told him," Thomas recalled, "that I thought this
mutual buildup of nuclear weapons had to do with a mutual fear
between the two nations. And he said, yes, he thought that was
true. And then I told him that in order to prove that Americans
had nothing to fear of the Russians, I wanted to surrender myself
to the Soviet Union. he said, 'You don't have to do that,' and
I said that nevertheless, I would. He said, 'You cannot.' and
I said, 'I will. I am not leaving.' So they had me removed by
Doroshenko confirmed that the meeting took place and confessed
to having been puzzled by Thomas' calm refusal to abandon the
idea of surrender. "I told him." said Doroshenko, "that
he would have to go to the chancery first if he wanted to go to
the Soviet Union, but he wouldn't move, so what could I do?"
The young scriptwriter with the curly hair who had stopped
hours before to ask Thomas what he stood for had been preceded
by an old man with no hair who was carrying a lot of papers under
his arms. "What is this about?" he asked. The papers
flapped under his arms like wings. Thomas answered: Wisdom and
peace." The old man's mouth fell open. Then he walked away,
shaking his head vigorously, and saying, "You never let up,
Thomas thanked him.