Richard Johnson is a bespectacled man, with white, downy hair. He is often clad in plaid shirts and rests in an easy-chair nestled in the corner of his mobile home that nearly envelops his slight frame. He will be 99 years-old on October 19, which seems to impress everybody but him. Foremost on his mind are unifying the peoples of the world under a single federalist government — and ice cream.
The sweet-toothed Johnson is an inveterate inventor and big-picture thinker. In many ways he’s a latter day daVinci, who, like his forebear has drafted plans for dozens of innovations that are ahead of their time. Many of his inventions — from a circular winged air plane called the Uniplane (a prototype was actually built, tested and crashed) to his continuing passion for the World Federalist Party — reflect a theme of “unity,” which suggests itself in, mandala-like images, or specifically circles, that effervesce like a leit-motif throughout his life’s work.
Johnson speaks slowly, perhaps a bit from his advanced age, though it’s more likely he is choosing his words carefully. Such deliberation comes from a lifetime of trying to make his occasionally arcane conceptualizations graspable by the lay-people in his midst. It is also clear that Johnson understands the power of words — two in particular had significant impact on his life during World War II: “conscientious objector.”
These days the loaded phrase is printed on draft registration cards that require little more than checking a box to make a stand. In Johnson’s day he had to literally take the stand, in a court of law, which eventually led to imprisonment in Seattle for his pacifistic views. At the time, Johnson was actively germinating his World Federalist Party, a world government movement that by 1942 he organized into 90 members representing 17 different nations. Given the political climate of the early 40s, it’s likely Johnson’s intentions were misconstrued by skittish US authorities as something more akin to world domination than the world peace for which he strove.
“My stand was so complete that anybody would come to that conclusion because it was all pacifistic. In fact, I organized it our of the Seattle group that was for interracial and peace organization,” Johnson said in an interview with his friend and neighbor Linda Tomback, the “Roving Reporter” of a neighborhood newsletter dubbed “Whisperings.”
After his two-year incarceration, Johnson eventually settled in Sonoma in the 1950s where he operated a Richfield gas station on Broadway across from the old police station. On his ranch on Hyde road, however, he continued to labor on the World Federalist Party through his publication “Sphere,” (note the circle reference) which he began circulating in the latter part of the decade. According to the back matter on at least one of the polemical chapbooks, “Sphere” was an “independent bi-monthly federalist publication,” with the intent of “fostering [a] Universal Democracy through the development of a World Federalist political party.” The budget was tight for the nascent political publication; as one edition parenthetically explained on its cover, “this issue is necessarily a ‘tri-monthly’ because the ‘shoestring broke!’”
By the 1980s, Johnson moved to the DeAnza Moon Valley Mobile Home Park where he now lives alone. His daily routine involves typing his thoughts, inventions and general inquiries into a computer. A peak over his shoulder any particular day could reveal a means of tapping the “endless amounts of energy under the surface of the earth” or chiding automakers to affix solar panels on the surfaces vehicles. He has also been drafting a letter to Fani Palli-Petralia, Greece’s minister of culture, to request that the World Federalist Party constitutional convention be hosted at an unused Olympic Games building complex.
Whether Palli-Petralia writes back or not is anyone’s guess. But Johnson surely is no slouch when corresponding with the denizens of the world. When the phone rings during the course of our interview he is quick to answer. In this case, it’s a telemarketer that intends to help him refinance his home. At first it seems that Johnson is too polite to hang-up and Tomback and pal Robert Potter, frequent visitors, encourage him to do so. After a moment, however, it becomes clear that Johnson is taunting the telemarketer with his snappy rhetorical observations. “Why would you want to help me?” he asks. The telemarketer is apparently stumped and the conversation ends.
The moment belies much of what Johnson sees wrong with contemporary society — chiefly an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things, telemarketers and latter-day daVinci’s included. Ideas, for Johnson, work on the same principle.
“They just come. Something I see may suggest an idea because ideas are close to each other,” he says. He can tell when an idea is “good” by “how well it fits in with other ideas that haven’t been exploited.”
Some of Johnson’s inventions are patented, others sit moldering in the copious archives stowed throughout his home. As Potter has diligently sifted the contents of dozens of boxes and perused hundreds of index cards jotted with the results of various experiments (for reasons yet known Johnson recorded the melting points of various fats) he has discovered both the farsighted and the far out. Among them are blueprints from 1946 for the UniHome, a domelike domestic structure intended to provide affordable housing for the peoples of the world. An aerial view of the home reveals that it too is in the shape of a circle.
“These are ideas that I hope will get out to the public so they can make the most of them. That’s what I hope the most,” he confides. “I’ve delayed publishing about them because I want to improve on them. I don’t want to have wrong information get out.”
Johnson admits to being a perfectionist, but adds that it makes his work “more pleasurable.” And throughout, the concept of unity — whether represented as circular, cyclical, spherical or otherwise — recurs as a theme.
“It’s unity that makes things work the best. Even a car is properly unified. And people are properly unified, this mobile home is properly unified. Teachers and professors are constantly studying how to unify the subjects they teach. That’s why I pushed the World Federalist Party, because how would we have a United States of American if we didn’t have a constitution that made us one.”
Tomback attempts to clarify Johnson’s remarks when she asks, “We don’t all have to think alike, we can all be individuals, right?”
“We’re limited in thinking alike,” Johnson replies sagely.
Indeed, Johnson doesn’t think like most people and certainly doesn’t limit himself, despite the occasionally quixotic aspect of his endeavors, or frankly, the time he has to pursue them. He believes he can improve the world and intends on bringing his conviction full circle.