Boston Globe - 8/27/81

What do you stand for?
What are you against?
Insanity, Oppression, Slavery of Human Beings.
For yourself?
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 says.

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 American citizens.

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 is reason.

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 no money.

"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 moral perfection.

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 arrested ...

"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 department.

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 the police."

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, do you?"

Thomas thanked him.