Category Archives: Stories – From Life & Elsewhere

Two Post-Valentine Quaker Stories: One True, One (Maybe) Fiction

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2020, the Washington Post ran an engaging story of two independent-minded women who faced down the CIA and won. That’s our first story:

The two women were Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood.

The Post: Five thousand square feet, wide windows, a grand staircase, a front porch with a panoramic view of nature. The year was 1933, and Northern Virginia was still the countryside, even with Washington just across the Potomac. So it was the ideal retreat for Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood, two pioneers of the American labor movement who defied the gender expectations of their time.

“Florence said, ‘Of all the houses we looked at, this is the only one I would care to live in,’“ Scattergood recalled years later. “That was pretty final.”

Were they a couple? No one knows. But they lived there the rest of their lives, Thorne til 1974, and Scattergood until her last illness in 1986. They worked for the American Federation of Labor in Washington, in the days when unions had clout in the capital.

So when the feds came looking to take their property in the 1940s, to fold into the site for some expanding federal agency, they mobilized their friends in high places and drove a bargain: the government could take the land, but they got to stay in the house for life.

Scattergood was a Quaker, who joined the new Langley Hill Meeting when it took over a former Methodist chapel nearby. I knew her there in her latter years, as a diligent meeting archivist, and a quietly persistent advocate for many social causes.

By then one of her targets was the agency which had won the scramble for the surrounding property,  and built a sprawling but tree-concealed headquarters: the CIA

To [Scattergood], the agency was an affront to her values. After retiring from the AFL, Scattergood dedicated herself to civil rights. She’d written to Martin Luther King Jr., funded affordable housing efforts in the District and fought swimming pool segregation in Virginia. She was also a staunch pacifist, and as the CIA grew, she lobbied Congress to reduce the budget of the U.S. military and intelligence operations.

“I remember her saying the one thing she’d like to do is stop World War III. She had small aspirations, you know,” said Sylvia Blanchet [a] great-great grandniece. . . .

With their aunt, they attended the Langley Hill Quakers meeting just down the street. When the group got involved in the sanctuary movement, which helped Central American refugees flee into the United States in the 1980s, their family did, too.

Soon, Scattergood was having the refugees over for dinner. Some stayed in her guest room.

Blanchet remembers them as students, families and “just ordinary people who had really suffered because of the war,” mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala.

The CIA believed the visitors were Sandinistas, a leftist resistance group the CIA was working against in Nicaragua. Sometimes, they ended up at the gate of the CIA when they were looking for Scattergood’s house. Officials now say they are not sure whether the visitors were indeed rebels.

After her death at 92, after a long decline, the CIA took the house, and used it successively to train  K-9 units, a bicycle repair shop, and then left it to fall down. But it was saved and renovated into its current use as a CIA conference center. The CIA now even has a feature about Scattergood, Thorne, and the house on their public website.

Calvert, in its current incarnation. In the time of Margaret Scattergood, the long verandah was open. (CIA press phot)

The CIA article, however, does not point out that almost on the day of her passing in November of 1986, after a time in a coma, what is called the “Iran-Contra Scandal” was made public. That affair, referred to by high officials by a code name, “The Enterprise,” centered on secret, illegal sales of weapons to armed opponents of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The unlawful operation was handled by the CIA. Public accounts of the scandal say its cover was blown by a report in a Lebanese news magazine.

As one of many members of Langley Hill Meeting who benefited much from Margaret’s presence and ministry, particularly in her final year, I often thought of her, and wrote a tribute published in Friends Journal in April 1987.

And as time passed, I became aware, via sources which I am not at liberty to disclose, of what may have been another part of this closing chapter. That account is below, and some think it is fiction; but I am not so sure. . . .


Margaret and “The Enterprise”

McLean (aka Langley), Virginia – Fall 1986

I – Unauthorized Entry

The walkie talkie in Phillips’s right hand crackled. “I’ve got something on my scanner, Fred,” Hammerman’s voice buzzed through the tiny speaker. “You picking up anything?”

He looked. The thin blue lines were still making their wavelike pattern on the small handheld screen, up an inch and then down, up and down, just as they were supposed to.

“Nothing,” Phillips muttered into the mike. “You sure you’re not just imagining things, Mike?”

“Yeah, right,” Hammerman bantered. “I’m making it up, to pass the time as we hide in the bushes on this chilly Friday night in October. To keep from losing my marbles.”

Fred Phillips chuckled quietly. It did feel a bit loony, crouching in the shrubbery outside a stately, empty old house in the woods of northern Virginia. At least, the house was supposed to be empty, since the Special Operations staff had left at 5:00. Funny how you could run the world for the CIA on a nine to five schedule.

But they said the house wasn’t staying empty at night. Someone had to be getting in, as impossible as that sounded. Three after hours intrusions in two weeks, they said. What are you security guys doing out there, playing games? Sleeping?

Not a chance. The CIA never lets down its guard on security. So here they sat, in the bushes in the dark, feeling ridiculous, but with their reputation on the line.

Something caught his eye, and Phillips glanced down. Holy mackerel–The scanner’s red alert light was blinking a rapid warning.

Next to it, the blue lines were racing wildly across the screen. Their regular pattern was replaced by frantic, narrow swings.

“Mike!” he hissed at the walkie talkie. “I’m showing it now too. Someone’s in there for sure.”

“What sector?” came Hammerman’s tense reply.

Phillips checked the readout. “A-13,” he whispered. “The front office, just like the Special Ops guys said.”

“OK, mine says it too,” Hammerman’s voice was grim. He was backup. “That’s your side, boss. Gimme a minute to get in position so I can cover you. And keep your head down.”

Phillips unsnapped his holster. “I’m on my way,” he said, rising up from the bushes. “For Pete’s sake don’t shoot unless you have to, I’m too easy a target in the dark.” He took a deep breath. “Cowabunga, dude, here goes!”

Head down, he sprinted around a tree and hit the wide sidewalk running, his sneakers making almost no sound. Halfway up the broad front steps of the house he could hear swishing thuds behind him as Hammerman moved into position.

The big oak door was solid, but it had been jimmied for them, with scotch tape on the latch and paper stuck in the jamb so it only looked closed. A real high-tech setup, Phillips thought as he leaned to his left to hit the door, full tilt, shoulder first.

The big door crashed open, and Phillips had to veer to miss the tall, solid post of the banister by the staircase. The front office was to the right, behind a partition wall that had been set up in the front half of the elegant old dining room.

He banged the office door open with one expert karate kick, and hunched down, minimizing his target profile, pistol at the ready, and shouted. “Hold it! Security! Put your hands up and don’t move!”

The first thing he heard was a thump from the hallway followed by a moan and a muffled curse.

Hammerman had not missed the banister post. But he recovered quickly and was in backup position in less than a second, his weapon likewise trained on the dark space where the office door had opened.

The office was silent. Phillips’s hearing was keen, and he didn’t pick up any rustling, or even the faint wheeze of tense breathing, other than his own. He held his breath, waited another few seconds, then muttered, “Hit the lights, Mike,” without turning his head.

Hammerman edged over to the door, keeping his pistol trained, swept his free arm up the wall, and the room lit up. Phillips blinked in the brightness, keeping the office covered, and then warily stepped through the door.

No one was there. Filing cabinets, a multiline secure phone hookup, and a couple of desks strewn with papers, that was all.

It was enough, though. No desk in the Langley complex was supposed to have classified papers left on it after hours; that was basic security. And for sure the Special Ops boys hadn’t been that stupid, not with the stakeout planned.

“Somebody’s been here and no mistake,” Hammerman whispered, coming in behind him. He pointed: “There.”

Phillips followed his finger. Against the wall stood a filing cabinet, the kind with a steel bar running down the front and a big combination lock at the top to hold everything shut. But the lock was open, and so was the top drawer. A file folder poked up over the edge.

“Christ,” Phillips muttered, “how did we miss him?” Every door and window in the place was covered by electronic monitors, with backup security cars on all the perimeter roads keeping careful watch. What the heck was going on?

Hammerman broke into his thoughts. “Look at this, Fred.” On the bigger of the two desks, the top sheet of an open file folder was headed “Update–The Enterprise, 10/1985.”

But that was not what had caught Hammerman’s attention. Under it, in thick, red magic marker, someone had scribbled, in a large, bold hand: “THIS IS AN OUTRAGE. STOP IT AT ONCE!”

“What the–” Phillips started, but then his security reflexes clicked into gear. “All right,” he ordered, “impound these documents, and send that top sheet to handwriting for analysis and ID. This has to be an inside game, and whoever’s being cute just went a bit too far. Call in the backup team to search the area, just in case, but I doubt they’ll find anything.”

Hammerman left, returning with a camera and a big plastic evidence bag. He snapped photos, then began putting the violated files into it. When it was closed up and the seal crimped, he gave it to Phillips with a flourish. “This one’s got me stumped, Fred. I think it’s one that’ll have to go to the Chief. But I don’t know what you’re gonna tell him.

Phillips shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell him either,” he said

II -Some Kind of Inside Job

“Now let’s go over this one more time,” the Chief said gruffly. He was standing, gazing intently out the big window of his large office, and sipping coffee from the big mug that was always kept full and within his reach.

Must we? Phillips thought, looking at the trophies on the wall behind the Chief’s big, neat desk, on which the unsealed plastic evidence bag seemed totally incongruous. There was a picture of the Chief with president Reagan, both grinning. A framed medal from some operation in Vietnam. Two small maps, one of the Middle East, the other of Central America, with pink and blue pins stuck into them at various points.

Phillips realized his mind had wandered when the Chief growled, “Is that right?”

“Excuse me?” Phillips stumbled, looking away from the wall maps at the Chief.

“I said, you executed the entry into the house without a hitch, after getting positive signs of entry on your surveillance equipment, but found no one?”

“Uh, yes sir,” he agreed. “But we’re still searching the area for footprints and other evidence of unauthorized entry and egress.”

Not that he expected to find anything. This was, he was more and more sure, an inside job. Probably one of the Special Ops guys had jumped the track. Or maybe even gone over to the other side. No one liked to mention it, but it had happened before. The Eighties had turned out to be a big decade for spies, and they were barely half over.

“And handwriting drew a blank with that defaced file cover sheet,” the Chief continued.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said again. Nobody in the Agency’s current files wrote that indignant rebuke on the file. Or so it seemed, at any rate. Phillips wasn’t sure that handwriting analysis was such an exact science.

“So, what are we going to do about these intrusions, Phillips?” the Chief barked. “This is very sensitive material. We can’t afford to have it compromised.”

He paused, sipped his coffee, and chewed his bulging lower lip. “Have you searched the house?”

“Twice, sir. Nothing.”

“I can’t accept that,” the Chief said, shaking his big head, his thin white hair quivering. “There has got to be something.”

He paused again, thinking and chewing his lip. “What do we know about that house?” he asked finally. “How did it get there on Company land?”

“It was here first, sir,” Phillips answered. “An old lady built it with a partner, and lived there til she died, just this year. Now it’s reverted to us.”

“Who was she?” the Chief asked. “Maybe she has some disgruntled relatives, playing tricks.”

It seemed to Phillips like a very unlikely line of inquiry. “Sir,” he protested tentatively, “I’m not sure there’s really any point–”

“Maybe not,” the Chief cut off him. “You got anything better? Check it out. And keep me posted.”

He turned away from the window to the desk, picked up the plastic evidence bag and thrust it toward the security officer.

“Yes sir,” said Phillips, standing up. It was time to go. He didn’t like this. His own inclination would be to have Counterintelligence going over the records of all the Special Ops Unit’s personnel files, maybe even tailing them. It had to be an inside job.

“Oh, and Phillips,” called the Chief as he was passing out the doorway.

“Yes sir.” He stopped and turned back. The Chief was behind the desk, sticking a pink pin into the map of Central America.

“Keep the house under your personal surveillance tonight, and every night, until we get this cleared up.” He picked up the coffee mug.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said wearily. His wife wouldn’t like this, and neither did he. But you didn’t argue with the Chief. Not unless you wanted a transfer to the Antarctica field station. And he didn’t, even if there was no trouble with inside security breaches in Antarctica.

III – Final Contingencies

“So, what did you find out?” Hammerman asked over the walkie talkie. The house was again dark, and they were back in the bushes, passing time.

“Just what I told the Chief,” Phillips answered, a trace of irritation in his tone. “The house was bought in the 1930s by a lady named Scattergood. She called it Calvert, after a place in Maryland where she used to go as a kid. From Philadelphia originally.”

He checked his scanner. The lines on the screen were oscillating normally. “She worked for the labor unions in D.C.,” he said. “Never married, but had a housemate, who died in the ‘70s. When the Agency took the land, it agreed to let them stay here as long as she wanted to.”

“That was big of them,” Hammerman commented.

“She got the laugh on ‘em too,” Phillips went on. “That was in ‘51, and she was about that old. Nobody figured she’d last another thirty-some years, but she did, til ‘86. That’s it; end of story.”

“You sure?” Hammerman wondered. “Maybe she had some private vices. Or was a secret commie, infiltrating the labor unions.”

“Naaah,” Phillips demurred. “She was with the old AF of L, and they didn’t come any more patriotic than that. And after she retired she spent most of her time gardening and going to church.

“What church?” Hammerman asked, only half-interested

“Quaker meeting, down the road,” Phillips said.

“Maybe we should check it out,” Hammerman said teasingly. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Get outta here,” Phillips snapped. “Tomorrow morning I’m sleeping in. This late night surveillance wears me out.”

“Come on,” Hammerman coaxed. “You could use a little church.”

“Speak for yourself,” Phillips bantered, and was about to say something sarcastic about Hammerman’s single lifestyle, when his scanner’s red alert light started blinking.

“Mike! I got a signal.”

“Right. Me too.” Hammerman was all business again. “You check the window. I’ll slide around back.”

Following their revised tactical plan, Phillips slipped away from his base behind a large oak tree and padded quietly across the lawn, up to the window at the end of the dining room, where the Special Ops office was. The sill was just above his head, but under one arm he carried a small folded aluminum step stool. The legs straightened and clicked silently into place. He set it firmly in the dirt, and stepped silently onto it.

Peering over the sill, he could see a faint blue light in the room. He couldn’t make out any details, but  saw it move, in the direction of the desk.

Phillips let himself down silently from the stool, took a few silent paces away from the window, then crouched down and brought the walkie talkie to his lips. “Mike. He’s in there. Are you in position?”

“Ten-four, boss” came the reply. “We’re ready for the punk this time.”

Rather than a wild rush, tonight they would sneak up on their intruder, get him coming out. Hammerman was at the back door; Phillips covering the front. This was no time for heroics. Just wait; he had to come out of there.

But he didn’t. After ten minutes, Phillips checked his scanner. The blue lines were normal again; the alert light was off. He began moving back toward the stool, then eased up on it. The blue light was gone.

“Fred,” the walkie talkie spoke. “You still picking him up? My scanner’s gone blank.”

Phillips cursed under his breath. “Mine too,” he answered. “We better go in.”

They didn’t rush; they could sense there was no need for SWAT team heroics. And inside the scene in the office was almost identical to the night before. The files unlocked, a drawer open, papers on the desk.

“Now I’m sure this is an inside thing,” Phillips said, surveying the room. “Special Ops changed all the locks this morning. Only they knew the combinations. It has to be one of them.”

“Maybe,” Hammerman said, “but then how’d they get in and out of here. This is like chasing a ghost.” He stooped to pick up some papers that had fallen to the floor. “Uh-Oh!” he exclaimed. “Here’s our wiseguy again.” He handed a sheet to Fred.

“Oh no,” Phillips said.

The paper was stamped TOP SECRET, and headed “The Enterprise: Final contingencies.” Across it was written, “THIS MUST NOT GO ON ANY LONGER! IF YOU WON’T TELL THE AUTHORITIES ABOUT IT, I SHALL!” The words were in the same red magic marker, in the same strong, large hand.

“The Chief won’t like it,” Phillips said. “Another breach of a secure office, and I look more and more stupid reporting them to him without any explanations or perpetrators. You got any ideas?” he asked Hammerman.

“Just one,” Hammerman said. “And you already don’t like it. But it’s all we got. Let’s check out the old lady’s Quaker meeting tomorrow.”

He saw Phillips rolling his eyes, and put up his hands. “Look. I’ll pick you up about 9:45. If you’ve got a better idea by then, we’ll skip it. OK?”

“OK,” Phillips answered with a sigh. “I better come up with something.”

IV – A Better Idea?
Photo borrowed from Facebook.

But he didn’t. At ten AM, Hammerman’s Toyota turned off Georgetown Pike, a half mile beyond the huge, tree-hidden CIA headquarters, into the driveway of a white clapboard church. The peeling wooden sign in its postage stamp front yard read “Langley Hill Friends Meeting.”

“That’s weird,” Hammerman said, looking up at the building. “A steeple. Quakers aren’t supposed to go for steeples.”

“Oh yeah?” Phillips wasn’t really interested. He yawned. “What do they believe?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” Hammerman said. But I seem to recall it doesn’t include steeples. They’re plain, you know; like the guy on the oatmeal box.”

Now Phillips was getting uncomfortable. “You mean funny clothes? You taking me to some cult group, Hammerman?”

The driver grinned. “We’ll see. But hey, you’re a combat veteran, black belt in karate, an expert pistol shot; you can handle them.”

“Maybe,” Phillips said. “But I forgot my gun.”

As it turned out, the people in the meetinghouse weren’t dressed oddly, except that some of them weren’t dressed in what Phillips thought of as Sunday clothes. And the biggest challenge he faced was staying awake on the wooden bench waiting for the service to start.

When nothing had happened after about fifteen minutes, he plucked a small white leaflet from a rack on the next bench where it leaned against a battered-looking hymnbook. It explained that the waiting was the service. This made it even harder for Phillips to keep his eyes open.

Just as he started to snore, Hammerman nudged him awake. A white-haired woman was standing and saying something about peace, and how awful the Contra war in Nicaragua was, and how they had to get the White House to stop the CIA supporting the contra rebels

Great, Phillips thought. Peaceniks. Just what he needed to hear on too little sleep from a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were talking about.

The woman sat down, and Phillips started to drift again.

But then someone was pulling at his sleeve and shaking his hand. He pulled away nervously, then turned to see Hammerman with his hand out.

Hammerman gripped his hand and leaned toward this ear. “It’s their custom,” he murmured. “It means it’s over.”

Well, not quite. They were then subjected to about fifteen minutes of announcements, half of which, Phillips noticed, seemed to be about protests of one sort or another against American policy in Central America. This made him even more uneasy. Was this really a church, or some political front group? What did they believe, anyway?

They were also asked to stand and give their names and where they were from, which Phillips wasn’t about to do. But Hammerman covered for him, speaking for them both and saying vaguely that they lived in the neighborhood.

Then everyone got up and started milling around. Phillips noticed a large coffee urn on a back table, and headed for it; he’d feel more at ease with a cup of coffee in his hand.

But the urn, he found, held some kind of sweet-smelling but watery-tasting herb tea. When he asked, a young woman standing by the urn explained sweetly that they never served coffee, because of the caffeine. That was also why there was no sugar, and no styrofoam cups.

Maybe that’s what these people believed, Phillips thought: caffeine, sugar and styrofoam are the work of the devil, or at least behind the trouble in Nicaragua. One sip of the tea was enough for him to know this wasn’t his kind of church.

Phillips sidled out the door of the meeting room into the vestibule, figuring he’d wander back to the car. Then he saw Hammerman, down a hallway in another room, talking to the white-haired woman.

Hammerman gestured for him to come over.

The room was a small, cramped library. The white-haired woman was smiling and saying something about a book of faith statements by members. She was sure it was right here somewhere–now she was scanning the bookshelves–and it would answer all his questions about Quaker beliefs. She was about to give up when the notebook suddenly turned up, wedged between a dictionary and an old Bible.

“Aha, here we are,” The white-haired woman said, and handed the notebook, not to Hammerman but to Phillips. “He says you wanted to know why we have a steeple if we don’t believe in steeples,” she said, grinning broadly. “It’s quite simple, really. The steeple came with the building when we bought it, and we didn’t have the money to take it down. Then they made  the whole corner into a historic area, and it would probably take an act of Congress to remove it. But we did take out all the stained glass windows, except the one with the mandala pattern up front.”

She smiled up at the window, which had an abstract, four-cornered pattern. “It’s wonderfully archetypal, don’t you think? Joseph Campbell would have loved it.”

Joseph Campbell, 1904-1987. Not a Quaker. Very devoted to theories of Carl Jung about archetypes and mandalas.

“Er, I’m sure,” Phillips mumbled, wondering what sort of pinko this Campbell person was. He was relieved when she turned to Hammerman.

“Now you said you might be distantly related to Margaret Scattergood, didn’t you? I think she has a faith statement in the book there, and I believe there’s a picture of her in here somewhere….”

She trailed off and began searching through the crowded bookshelves again. Hammerman took the notebook, and Phillips followed her movement along the shelves, noting uneasily how many of the books had the word Peace in their titles.

No war, no steeples, no sugar, styrofoam or caffeine; that seemed to about sum up Quakerism, at least as it had been explained so far.

“Uh, Mike,” he said after a long moment, “don’t we have to be getting back for lunch?”

Hammerman looked up from the notebook distractedly. “In a minute,” he said. “This is interesting.”

Just then the white-haired woman was back before him, smiling that toothy smile again. “Here she is,” she said triumphantly. “That’s her at her house, down the road.”

Hammerman looked at the black and white snapshot. A thin, plain woman in tweed, wearing sensible shoes and gardener’s gloves and holding a pair of long hedge clippers. Though slight, there was a sturdy look about her.

“Yes,” Hammerman agreed, “she certainly has the face of one of my old cousins. They could fool you, though: look as meek as church mice, but fighters when they were riled.”

“Oh I don’t think Margaret was like that,” the white-haired woman demurred. “She was always quiet here. But of course we mostly agreed on things. Hmmmm – but now that you mention it, there was that one time back in the forties, when they tried to take her land.”

“Who?” Hammerman asked innocently.

“Why, the CIA,” said the white-haired woman vehemently. “Came along back in ‘47 and decided they wanted her land and her house, just like that. Wham, bam, thank thee ma’am.”

She sniffed with indignation that was genteel but not diluted by the passage of nearly forty years.

“And Margaret did get riled about that. Gave ‘em quite a fight, too. Took it to Congress and everything.” She ran a finger down a page in the notebook, then showed it to him.

“She worked for the unions then, and Harry Truman had to pay attention. Made them leave her be, too. In the end a special act of Congress said she could stay there as long as she lived. I don’t think many people could have fought the CIA to a draw like that, do you?”

Phillips shook his head solemnly; no he didn’t think so either.

“But mostly she was a quiet person, worked on committees for desegregating schools and things like that. And she was corresponding secretary for our meeting for the longest time, til her health gave out. She kept very good track of all our records. In fact they’ve been something of a jumble ever since.”

Hammerman closed the notebook and gave it back to her. “This has been very informative, ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate all this information. You’ve filled in a lot of blanks for me. I’ll have to come back sometime and hear more.”

“Well, if you come next Sunday, we’re having a potluck lunch and a used book sale,” said the white-haired woman. “And you’re certainly welcome.”

Back in the car, Phillips said, “You can come back if you want to, Mike, but once is enough for me. Can you imagine what their potlucks must be like, with no caffeine, sugar or styrofoam? Did you ever figure out what they believe here, or is that it?”

“What’s the matter,” Hammerman grinned, “you got something against macaroni? Hey, I had fun. Besides, I found something better than whatever they believe.”

“Yeah?” Phillips asked expectantly.

“This,” Hammerman said with a smirk, reaching into his jacket and producing a folded sheet of paper. “Take a look.”

Phillips unfolded the typed sheet. “My Personal Faith,” read the heading, “By Margaret Scattergood.”

“Okay so you’re a good spy,” Phillips said sarcastically, “but pinching an old piece of paper from a church is hardly high-quality tradecraft. Why do I want to know about this old lady’s personal faith?”

“Maybe you don’t,” Hammerman retorted. “But it might not hurt to check out her handwriting.”

Phillips glanced at the paper again. At the bottom it was inscribed with her signature the date, and “Calvert, Langley, Virginia.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

Hammerman shrugged. “It can’t hurt,” he said. “Besides which, we got nothing else, and not least, I think the writing looks familiar.”

“All right,” Phillips shrugged in turn. “But do me a favor: I’ll sign the request, but you take it to handwriting.”

“No problem,” Hammerman grinned. “Consider it done.”

“And one more thing,” Phillips said

“Shoot.”

“If you’re right, what am I supposed to tell the Chief?”

V – Need to Know

Nothing unusual happened at the Scattergood house for several days thereafter. But Phillips saw a stream of Special Ops people coming and going from there with unusual haste, many carrying striped plastic trash bags, the kind he knew were full of documents meant for the Agency’s own special shredders and incinerators.

While he was not supposed to notice this, since he had no need to know, it was still obvious what was happening: The Special Ops project known as the Enterprise, whatever that was, had been compromised, and everybody was busily covering the Agency’s tracks. He had seen it before; Watergate had kept the incinerators smoking for weeks.

Hammerman had also noticed the procession, and drawn his own conclusions. But when Phillips asked him about the handwriting check of the Scattergood letter, he just shrugged.

The next Monday, Phillips was summoned to the Chief’s office. As soon as he came in, he noticed that the maps had been replaced on the wall behind the desk. In their place was a large, full color photo of president Reagan, the official one where he wasn’t smiling.

“Phillips,” the Chief began, as soon as he had shut the door, “those intrusions over at Calvert seem to have stopped. Good work.”

“Thank you sir,” Phillips said cautiously. He wondered why the Chief thought they had stopped, and what he had to do with it. Or did he, old spymaster that he was, know more than he let on.

Of course he did. There was a file folder on the Chief’s desk. He opened it, and gazed at it thoughtfully as he sipped from his coffee mug. “That was very shrewd,” the Chief said, “your idea of checking the handwriting on the intruder’s notes with the Scattergood woman’s letter. Very shrewd.”

“Uh, thank you, sir,” Phillips began, “but actually it was–”

The Chief interrupted him. “I know, I know, it was only a wild guess. But Handwriting says they matched perfectly. I have their report right here.”

He lifted a sheet from the file; all Phillips could read was the TOP SECRET stamped across the heading.

“Very shrewd,” the Chief said again, but more thoughtfully. Then he added slowly, “there’s only one slight problem with it. He paused and looked out the big window, and chewed the large lower lip.

Finally he glanced back at his visitor and said, more loudly, “What do you think, Phillips? How do I explain to the president that one of the most sensitive intelligence operations of my term has just been blown?”

He was suddenly vehement. “And above all, how do I tell him it was compromised by the ghost of an old Quaker lady?”

The fierceness of his tone took Phillips aback.

“Sir,” he stumbled, “Sir, I never said–”

“Of course not,” roared the Chief. “I wouldn’t have said it either, anywhere else but in this room. But that’s the fact.”

He looked out the window again. “Phillips,” he said more quietly but grimly, “can you imagine what would happen if this gets out? I can see the headline in the National Enquirer now: ‘Spooks spooked by old lady spook.’ We’d be the laughingstocks of the intelligence world. The Soviets would lose all respect for us. The Chinese. Not to mention the president.”

The Chief swiveled his chair around and faced him.

“So, Phillips, I am not going to explain this to the president. We’ve made arrangements for this operation to be exposed in a different, more understandable way; an obscure magazine in the Middle East will publish something, which will be picked up and broadcast more widely. I think we can keep the lid on after that, but it won’t be easy.”

“Sir,” Phillips put in, “I’m not sure I really have a need to know all this, do I?”

“Good point, son,” the Chief said approvingly, “but it can’t be helped. The cover story will be all over the place in a few days anyway. In the meantime, you know what really happened, whether you need to or not. But you also need to know that if the real facts are ever disclosed outside this room, there are only two of us who could be the source, and one of us will be getting an immediate transfer to the Antarctica field station. And it won’t be me.”

An image said to be of the CIA facility in Antarctica. There are those who believe the penguin statue at right is cover for surveillance equipment.

Another sip from the big cup “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir,” Phillips said with emphasis.  He felt like he should salute. “You can count on me, sir.”

“I thought so,” said the Chief. “But there’s one more thing. Maybe you don’t really need to know this either, but you deserve to know it just the same.”

He lifted another sheet of paper from the file. “This is the only copy of my order canceling Agency support for the Enterprise, and telling our agents to get clear of it. It never left this room; the Special Ops people read it here, and it’s going into the burn bag before this day is over.”

Phillips started to say “Very good, sir.” But the Chief cut him off with another near-shout:

“–Then this morning when I came in, I found this on it–” He handed the sheet to Phillips.

There, across the paper, was the familiar red magic marker. “IT’S ABOUT TIME THIS WAS STOPPED,” the script declared. “NOW I CAN BE MORE AT EASE IN MY OWN HOUSE, AND IN MY OWN COUNTRY.”

Phillips’s eyebrows rose, and he handed it back. “What do you make of it, sir?”

“I hope it means she’ll leave us alone for awhile,” the Chief answered. “God knows there are enough spooks in this place already. She must not like intelligence agencies. Maybe they were against her religion.”

Phillips shrugged. “I wouldn’t let it bother you, sir,” he said. “I don’t think she liked coffee either.”

 


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and on  and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

 

Ken Bradstock, Edward Hicks & Me

Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.

I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.

If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker,  a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and  hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

Ken Bradstock

But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded  many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here)  I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”

He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.

Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.

A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.

The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.

Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:

From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper

I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.

One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use is considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.

Edward Hicks was deeply affected by the Orthodox-Hicksite schism in 1827. He painted more than sixty versions of this biblically-based image of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” presumably to visualize his hopes for its repair. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the paintings became celebrated favorites of devotees of folk art.

I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explain why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.

He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.

Edward Hicks, a self-portrait

Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.

This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity.  . . .

No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”

A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:

As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.

They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.

I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.

I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.

Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.

That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.

Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.

I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .

(Full text of the essay is here.)

 

 

 

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, You Old Anti-Imperialist!

Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens November 30, 1835

Hat tip today to Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac reminded me that today (November 30) is the birthday of Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain (born 1835).

Garrison sent me in search of some Mark Twain quotes, of which there are of course many. Here are a few, mostly new to me, followed by a brief discussion of his views on imperialism, which are another reason I admire him.

A Few Mark Twain quotes:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

God created war so that Americans would learn geography

The absence of money is the root of all evil

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect

(To a missionary): You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?

In his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those.”

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man

And for special attention:
I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Twain’s anti-imperialist attitudes developed and took up much of his writing in the last decade of his  life, which overlapped with the U.S. government’s decision to join the club of imperial nations which was carving up the globe. The brief sketch of this period is taken from an article by a left-wing periodical, The Internationalist: “Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period Imperialist Period’ (full text here):

Excerpts:

“Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?—the “white race” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. . . .

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers.

The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February[1898].

The ill-fated U.S.S. Maine

Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.

The U.S. now had an empire—almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared:

“The Philippines are ours forever…. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.”
— quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992)

. . . Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
New York Herald, 15 October 1900

The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie.

The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.

The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. . . .

In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world. The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”—concentration camps–for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.)

A concentration camp, invented and run by the British, in South Africa during the Boer Wars.

At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion–the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet—it had the widest circulation of any League publication—League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. . . .

Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life [he died in 1910], raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 –the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg — the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. . . .

Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed— he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States.”

So Happy 184th birthday, Mark Twain, wherever you are (another of his quips: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company . . . .”) We need more such voices of such clarity and wit today.

The essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain, 1901 is online as a Full text FREE download from: Internet Archive, here.

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing The Torch” – “Pray for Segregation!” The Authors Speak (First in a series)

Barbara Berntsen, left, with her siblings.

I went looking for interesting Quakers with interesting lives and stories for the new book Passing the Torch, which is now out.

Barbara Bernsten certainly qualifies. She has lived in Norway for many years. But she’s American born, and I first heard of and from her more than ten years ago, in an email to Quaker House, where I was then Director:

Subject: Quaker House alumni checking in

I was only 18 years old when I married a young GI stationed at Fort Bragg and we spent a lot of time at Quaker House back in the day! Quaker House changed the course of both of our lives. . . .

. . . In about May of 1972 we were living at Quaker House. I think Kenn and Ellen [Arning], a young Quaker couple from New Jersey, were running the place then. I was about as sick as I ever have been in my life with genuine influensa, in bed in the back bedroom.

In the middle of the night, there were literally rifle butts thumping at the front door. My husband answered the door and there were armed, masked men there, asking questions about me. I had heard about the bodies [of dead U.S. soldiers in Vietnam] being stuffed with heroin [before being shipped back to Bragg] from a GI and had said so right in the middle of my on-base Psychology Class at Bragg only days before. The masked men told my husband to get control over his wife’s mouth.

Denzel Washington starring as Harlem crime boss and Vietnam-based heroin smuggler Frank Lucas.

(NOTE: Although disputed and unproven, the heroin-smuggled-in-dead-solders’ bodies story has had a long life around Fayetteville, and even figured in the plot of the 2007 feature film, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. What is beyond doubt is that the illicit drug trade thrived in those years and has not disappeared since.)

Barbara: I am now 55 years old, with streaks of white in my hair and my three kids are all grown ups. I have lived in Norway for more than 30 years. I am a historian at The National Archives of Norway and have taught archival science at the University of Oslo .

I was in Palestine during the 2006 war, and returned from Cairo 10 days ago, where people are being murdered in bread lines and most of the candidates and their lawyers were in jail for the recent elections.

No doubt about it, Quaker House alumni most definitely had the course of their lives changed! If the garage is still there, you will find my PX ID tucked under one of the shingles. My name back then was Barbara Black. Bet I look a LOT younger on the picture!

(NOTE alas, no such ID has turned up.)

But as soon as I read this email, I wanted to know more. Passing the Torch was finally the chance.

In the book, Barbara added: I had never been inside homes like those Quakers lived in. Bookcases full, grandfather clocks, four-post beds, inherited furniture, hardwood floors and Chinese rugs seemed like out of this world — desirable, but unattainable, unless there was some secret to it. I decided I ought to look into that.

She got to Fort Bragg (and then eventually to Norway) from Montana, where she was raised in, to put it mildly, spartan conditions:

When I was eight months old my parents sold all their furniture and bought an eight-by-ten camping trailer. I don’t think they thought they’d live in trailers for the next twenty years. In 1953 not many people lived with a baby in a camping trailer with no running water and no bathroom.

My father got sent to the Korean war, and Mom and I tried to live by ourselves in that trailer, across the alley from newly widowed grandpa Ben and the not yet grown uncles. Nobody told her she could shop at the base PX or go to the doctor at the nearest military base, even if that was forty miles away. It wasn’t like she could legally drive or anything like that, of course.

My first memories are of moving out of that trailer into a bigger one after my father came home from Korea in August of 1955, when I was almost three. Until that khaki-dressed stranger that smelled like cinnamon bears turned up, I had ruled the roost. I could hold my breath until I fainted and Mom, Grandpa and the uncles all fell in line. My father was not impressed and told Mom she had a brat. The next time I held my breath I got whacked good. When I recovered my dignity, I told him to go back to Korea.

My mother’s people were of the religious sort, having come to Puritan America in 1632. The Puritan streak — or at least the tendency to go for the extreme — seemed to have survived right up to my Grandmother’s generation. From my observation post under the kitchen table I would hear stories of how Grandma’s Christian Science sisters — who wouldn’t take medicines — had died horrible screaming deaths, firmly believing their faith would eventually alleviate the pains and heal them.

I was pretty sure that kind of faith had died with them, but in 2013 I learned from the then grown grandchildren themselves that there had been several children in the extended family that were denied antibiotics when they had rheumatic fever, due to the religious convictions of their mothers.

In the 1950s Mom was of a mind to find a suitable church to attend, so the little family went church-shopping. It didn’t go well at the Lutheran Sunday school when I cussed like my father always did and got sent to the naughty corner. I did much better at the Baptist Sunday school, and we were settling in nicely, when one Sunday the Baptist preacher yelled out loud, “Pray for segregation!”

I was napping nicely on the floor under Mom’s chair when she just got up, told me to get out from under that chair right now and then with baby David in her arms, grabbed my little sister Nancy by the hand and walked out right in the middle of services.

Strange as it may seem, little kids in Montana might never have actually seen a Black person in those days. Grandpa Ben had a TV but that was only for watching ‘Fight of the Week’ on Friday night. I knew very well what Indians and Hutterites were, but wondered to myself ‘What is this segregation?’

When we got home the shit hit the fan. Something really serious was obviously happening. Mom called Dad a hillbilly, and she didn’t mean it nice. They both grew up in Montana, but in different worlds. After the mines stopped paying their workers during the great depression, Mom’s family had to survive as best they could, and Grandpa took work with The Bureau of Indian Affairs. So, Mom had actually sat in the back seat of her Dad’s car with an Elder with braids and stuff that had calmly reassured her by saying, ‘Little girl, don’t be afraid. I am not going to hurt you. We don’t scalp people anymore.’

She had visited many homes out on “the Res”, and she had eaten puppy stew, so I figured Mom was the one to trust on these issues . . . .

How did Barbara Berntsen get from a trailer in Montana, through Fort Bragg, to Norway and Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Peg Champney: Tribute to a quietly powerful Friend

Peg Champney, center, working/playing at Olney, with Friends Music Campers, 2008.

 

I owe a lot to Peg Champney, who died November 5, at 87. But I did not know her that warm day in the late 1980s when I turned off Sandy Ridge Road in the small eastern Ohio town of Barnesville, onto the campus of the Olney Friends School, where she was.

The grassy, nearly flat crest of the ridge was covered with luxuriously green grass, lined with tall, venerable trees, weathered into sturdy magnificence by decades of hard Ohio winters.

Olney, on a peak sky day.

Fortunately I was never there in winter; so my memories of Olney are of the green ridge, sloping to a soccer field on the west, and to a large manmade pond on the east. Turtles sunned there, small fish leaped to snap flies, and occasional anglers swung lines like sultry lassos to drop hooks in the dark water after them.

A wide wooden porch swing was perched on the ridge crest facing the pond. In later summers I spent many hours rocking slowly on it. I rose early to watch the sun climb through the mists slowly unfurling from the reflective pond surface; or as the day’s heat receded, bask in the steel purple dusk spreading over the red barn of the farm beyond it.

One of Olney’s ghosts? I always thought so. In daylight, though, it’s four of many student handmade ceramic tiles in the boy’s dorm bathroom.

Behind me were Olney’s school buildings, the “new” girls’ dorm, the older Boys’ dorm, both satellites of the larger, even older main building between them. The place looked hand-built, and much of it likely was, in a style of plain frugality and self-reliance. It embodied the Conservative Quaker ethos that created and long sustained Olney. From this small outpost, the school and its sponsors doggedly resisted the encroachments of the 20th century decade by decade, ultimately yielding almost every time, not always with good grace. Olney has ghosts too, the ones I’ve encountered were mostly friendly.

A dark red sidewalk of bricks, laid in a herringbone pattern and sometimes almost covered by the grass, stretched from the school building north across the long green, flanked by a motley handful of staff houses, to the doors of the cavernous Stillwater Meetinghouse. Stillwater could (and for years did) hold up to 2000 plain-dressed Friends for the summer sessions of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. How they coped with the heat in their stiff plain suits, or heavy dresses and bonnets, I can scarcely imagine.

From a local paper’s report on Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. No date, but it was likely long remembered as the year when Eliza Varney preached for an hour. Not that such extensive effusions of the Spirit were unheard of in those days.

Only a relative, mostly aging handful of them were left when I arrived in the late 1980s. And on the day I’m recalling, yearly meeting was still six weeks or more away.

Some of the downstairs benches of Stillwater Meetinghouse.

It was a Thursday, and with me was my son Asa, who must have been seven. I wanted him to spend the weekend there with me, just soaking up the vibes of the place. Quaker education by atmospheric osmosis? Worth a try.

Barnesville is the main crossroads of Conservative, or Wilburite Quakerism. They split from the Orthodox branch in the 1850s when that group began imbibing a new message preached by elite Quaker ministers from the home country, England. They came bearing exports of their recently-acquired evangelical theology.

They and their alien gospel were denounced by John Wilbur, an obscure, non-elite Rhode Island Friend. (I’ve found no photo or silhouette of him; likely he would not  have stood for such worldly foolishness.) He followed the  Anglos around, arguing their message would wreck traditional Quakerism, and lead to rule by bishops and even popery.

Wilbur was disowned for his trouble. Yet while the insurgent reformers stopped short of Rome, Wilbur’s warning was prescient: they did bring drastic changes to most American Quaker meetings: “programmed” revivalist services, fundamentalist theology, paid preachers and pastors, rule by clerical cliques and superintendents who were bishops in all but name.

Olney’s founders repudiated all that, but they no liberals. They aimed to conserve the old plain ways, in unpastored worship, silence-based but with plenty of preaching, amid a plain, mostly rural life.

But the farm towns where their yearly meeting at first flourished were soon sucked dry of the younger generations, drawn to bigger towns & cities for school, work, and more fun than was allowed at home.

With them also went much of the student base for the Olney Friends School. Financial stress ultimately obliged school officials to do what a previous generation would have abhorred: turn to outsiders, even to the infidel Liberal Quakers, renting out school space in summer.

This is where Peg Champney came in. She was from three hours and a couple light years west, the village of Yellow Springs. It was a tiny island of progressive politics and culture in Ohio’s mostly conservative sea. Part of the very liberal Yellow Springs Friends Meeting, Peg and her friend Jean Putnam had a dream of starting a summer Friends Music Camp, and renting Olney as its base.

Of course, music was one of the diabolical innovations that had provoked the Conservative Quaker schisms. But all that was in another century. Olney needed money, and had no summer program. Peg was winsome, personally respectable, and if her head was stuffed with dangerously progressive notions, her pocketbook was stocked with 100% American cash. In 1980, Friends Music Camp opened.

Its session was underway when I arrived with Asa. I had no real agenda other than for the two of us to soak up the Conservative ambiance; and no place to stay. Frankly, short on cash, I hoped to cadge a couple of spare beds.

I was directed to Peg to negotiate this. She was friendly, but with ten years of herding frisky musical Quaker cats under her belt, she also had a quiet air of command.

I explained myself, and added that I had hoped to barter for our two nights’ lodging.

“What have you got to trade?” she asked.

This was the crucial moment. In today’s paranoid world, she would have had no truck with wandering strangers, especially males. Insurance regulations alone now demand criminal background checks on anyone coming within reach of children; then there’s the proliferating scars of fear on the collective psyche left by our mass murder culture.

But Peg had had her own pre-digital career as a communitarian and camper: she had sized up hundreds of people, as she sized me up that day, and her intuition (what Quakers prefer to call discernment) had been well-honed.

Plus I had, it turned out, an ace in the hole. Besides offering to do physical work, dishes, cleaning or suchlike, I also said I had some stories, original stories I had written and read to my children, which I could share with the campers, if way opened.

Peg’s eyes brightened. “We may be in luck,” she said. The next evening ‘s program had just fallen through. A slot was vacant; storytelling could fill the bill. The deal was made.

Long story short: it wasn’t storytelling, but story reading; My tales were composed, but not memorized. And full disclosure: I was greatly relieved to escape dishwashing or floor-scrubbing.

And the next night, the campers liked my stories. A lot, it seemed; they laughed, held their breath, and applauded. For ninety minutes, I was treated like a famous writer.

Reading at FMC, 2007: it wasn’t my razzle dazzle stage presence; it was the words, the stories that held them.

Asa and I headed home well-marinated in the heirloom broth of Wilburism. And even then I understood it was a spiritual tonic best savored in small, well-spaced doses. They didn’t like talking about it with outsiders, but one of the Wilburites’ main preoccupations was turning personal grievances into theological crises & mini-schisms, which was another reason there were so few left.

But never mind that. The memory of Friends Music Camp, or FMC, stayed warm and vivid, and the next summer I sent a note to Peg — written, I believe, by hand and sent in an envelope with a stamp — offering to do it again if way opened.

My spot on the FMC calendar, always came after the canoe trip.

Way did open; Peg said yes. I again brought Asa, who had leaped headlong into the camp’s ethos as if it were the pond on the hottest day of the year. He railed against the systemic grownup oppression that kept him from being a full-fledged camper til he was ten.

And two years led to another. I was also familiar enough with liberal Quaker culture to know that an event repeated three times at their gatherings automatically becomes a tradition. Many of the campers came back to FMC yearly til they aged out, and my stories found a place in their young memories and camp talk.

And so it has been for thirty-plus summers. Asa finally became a real camper, returned for six summers, and Peg’s mild-mannered magic did him a world of good. (Word is it did worlds of good for many campers.) It was also a welcome spur to my imagination, because while there were tales the campers wanted to hear again, they also were eager for new material. Fiction is not my main medium as a writer; but I soon set a goal of bringing a new story each year, each grandly announced as a World Premiere. So far, I’ve managed to meet it.

So far.

Olney never lost its appeal for me. Whenever I could, I’d arrange to get there a day or two early. Then I’d spend as many hours as possible on the slow swing, facing the pond and the rolling hills beyond. The whole scene became my private retreat center, quiet except for the spasms of dissonant background music from the practice rooms, or the occasional thunderstorm’s fury. All that was welcome too. After Asa’s summers there, FMC gave me modest honoraria for the visits. But I would have paid to do it.

On retreat: the view from the Olney swing, on an evening when the pond was a mirror.

Thirty years is a long time, though, and time brings change.

Peg was not young when FMC began: she had already raised a family with husband Ken in Yellow Springs, and they were grown and flown. More grey appeared in her black hair as the summers progressed, as it did in mine. She understood the process, and did a good job of training counselors and junior staff. And when she retired, several years ago now, the transition seemed smooth enough.

For some years she came to visit the sessions, and was dubious about her status as Honored Founder. Maybe that’s why the visits became shorter. Also, Ken Champney died in 2011.

Then the new staff heard other voices of change: Olney Friends School still needed money, and proposed to raise the camp’s rent. And Earlham College came calling.

Earlham, Quaker-founded and an hour west of Yellow Springs just over the Indiana line, needed money also. One reason was that they were finishing a new, $22 million dollar arts building, with many practice rooms and an elegant compact concert hall. Summer rentals would help pay for it.

It’s easy enough to sense the appeal to the new FMC staff. I said that the Wilburite Quaker tonic was best in small doses. The senior FMC staff had had enough of them that the charm of Olney’s picturesque plainness had mostly worn off. For some veterans, the buildings were no longer venerable and quaint, just old. The food was Midwestern bland (“Groundhog gravy” was a staple, though I liked it). And as summers got hotter, the lack of air conditioning was more onerous.

The camp moved to Earlham in 2016. I was not the only one who wept over its departure, but loyally followed it west. At that point, my stories and I were more than tradition: they became a link to lost origins.

This collection of nineteen original stories is n Amazon at: “Posies for Peg”: https://tinyurl.com/y64reypk

And I needed a memento. From the swing and at other spots, I had taken many photos, trying to capture Olney’s spirit — even hoping one frame might capture a glimpse of one of its ghosts. I put a few favorites on the cover of a collection of nineteen of my FMC stories, and published it as Posies for Peg. (There was never any comment on it from Peg; no surprise. Even her liberal Quakerism retained enough traces of Wilburite plainness that it didn’t hold much with such tributes.)

A sign at Earlham

I still grieve about the move. I expect Peg was heartbroken too, if resigned. I don’t think she visited FMC in its new digs.

Earlham is, it seems, everything it promised: gleaming new dorms, all climate-controlled; veggie, vegan & gluten free options every meal. Its Quaker connection is an upscale one, albeit with a life-size sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr hanged in Boston in 1660, to brood over it all, mostly unnoticed, from an inconspicuous concrete bench. No ghosts wander its modern halls.

A fracking sign, one of any around Barnesville in a recent summer. The buyers found many takers.

Yes, I understand. But you ask me, historic colleges are a dime a dozen. There’s only one Barnesville, and one Olney, even if they now exist mainly in my mind. And of course, change has come there too: the fracking boom has surrounded and invaded the town like a foreign army, cursed by some, welcomed by many. Olney has said no to the frackers’ money, but has been taking in affluent foreign students to keep its doors open. I’m not sure I want to know much more.

Now Peg is gone, and I owe so much to her. May her memory be for a blessing. My run at FMC will also no doubt be reaching its end before long. I’m looking for a successor storyteller to recommend. This fall, for health reasons, travel to places like Earlham abruptly became more problematic. But if it weren’t that, it would soon be something else; mortality is a shapeshifter, coming in many different guises, and on its own schedule; yet amid all the change, its arrival is still a certainty.

Mary Dyer, at Earlham. (Is she brooding, or only musing . . .?)

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

“White Lies,” Selma, Two Murders, & A Cameo

One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.

It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.

Mr Waffle, keeping up standards.

Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”

In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.

As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”  I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.

The Reeb Memorial, on the corner where the Silver Moon Cafe stood, outside which he and two other ministers were attacked. The others survived.

That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.

But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.

Wilson Baker.

I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.

Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.

As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.

The Boynton House, where I lived in 1965, empty in 2015. The museum project fizzled, and by 2018 the house was in even more dilapidated condition.

History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.

Old live oaks, in New Live Oak.

The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.

The grave of General Edmund Pettus. After the Civil War, he was later elected a U.S, Senator, and reputedly once was head of the Alabama KKK.

New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.

Neo-Confederate activists Todd Kiscaden, left and Pat Godwin, being interviewed, March 2015. Godwin was the spearhead of the Nathan Bedford Forest memorial in the New Live Oak Cemetery.

Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome  fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.

The new Forrest monument, looking toward the Pettus bridge.

There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.

Radio guys Andy Grace (left, with hair) and Chip Brantley (right, with headphones), getting familiar with the Forrest monument at New Live Oak.

But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”

From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.

The Heard Cemetery, near Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s marker is next to the red wreath.

This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.

Jimmie Lee’s headstone. The orange spots and notch at the top are among the bullet damage. There are several more, visible from closer up.

That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.

I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. His killer, James Fowler, right.

I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)

From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.

But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .

An abandoned house, one of many, near the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the gathering place for the Selma voting rights movement.
A collage of bumperstickers from a van belonging to one of the Neo-Confederate activists.

 

 

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update