'Let no dog bark': An activist's education

The making of an activist, 1960 (memoir)

9 minute read
Peace demonstration, London, 1958: This was our war.
Peace demonstration, London, 1958: This was our war.
Sirens blasted the air over the rococo Connecticut State House that fine spring day in 1960, sending every citizen underground. Not a bus, not a car moved. The streets were still and as empty as a scene from Neville Shute's novel, On the Beach, that described a nuclear-devastated northern hemisphere. No children played on the green grass of the surrounding park. As Caesar commanded, no dog barked.

But I and two other students from Hartford College for Women barked. We joined half a dozen guys from Wesleyan University who carried signs— "Ban the Bomb" and "Better Red than Dead"— on the sidewalk right in front of the State House.

We were giddy with our daring but certain our cause was just. Every generation has its war, and this was ours: a war against the military-industrial complex, as Ike named it.

But since every single citizen of Hartford had obeyed the well-publicized bomb-attack exercise, no one was on hand to witness our defiance. Talk about the sound of one hand clapping!

The sheriffs arrive

Thank heaven, before long a sheriff's cruiser pulled up and three men in brown uniforms with holsters and shiny badges looked at us with surprise. "What are you doing above ground? You've got to go to the shelters."

Their tone was as firm and pleasant as teachers explaining that recess was over. They'd never seen a protest before. There may not have ever been a Ban the Bomb protest anywhere in the country by June 1960.

More cruisers arrived. The first sheriffs explained to them that we were protesting the bomb. When we told them we knew what we were doing, they shook their heads in disbelief.

"You can't do this," they said. "You must obey the law."

A radical professor

We were hardly the first Americans to stage a protest. Just that February, black students— called "Negroes" in those days— had tried to integrate a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Connecticut sheriffs may not have heard about that, but we had, because we were students in an English class taught by Oliver Butterworth, a Quaker who transformed— no, electrified— us.

During World War II Butterworth had been a Conscientious Objector. Unlike Sloan Wilson's Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, he drove a Volkswagen van. He traveled. He wrote wonderful books like The Enormous Egg.

We inhaled every word he spoke— words that reinforced what we'd learned in Sunday school. What we had learned in high school civics and American history classes. What we'd read of the destruction of innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"'Do your parents know?'

Standing on the sidewalk that bright day, we believed we might change the world. We were ready to go to jail. We wanted to go to jail.

"Do your parents know you are doing this?" one of the deputies asked.

Hell no. We girls had only just heard about the Wesleyan action that day, jumped into my car and headed downtown, a few blocks from our school, without a moment's hesitation. It was spring, and we were almost finished with this two-year college and headed for the wide world of our futures.

"Go ahead, arrest us. We're not leaving."

As the sheriffs conferred among themselves, a newspaper reporter drove up, probably tuned into the police scanner. Ah, the other hand clapping. He seemed very interested in us and took our names and addresses.

By the time the "All Clear" sounded, the sheriffs decided we were just students on a spring prank, shook their fingers at us and drove off. The reporter left. As the city resumed its life and traffic, we returned to school.

Dad's indignation

When my parents read my name in the Hartford Times the following day, they were furious. My father was indignant. What would people think reading about his law-breaking daughter?

A very thin reason to complain, in my opinion. Although Dad had grown up in Hartford, he'd moved away so long ago there was no one left there to recognize his name.

My mother's reaction was oddly priggish. Although I had heard her speak strongly in support of civil rights for Southern Negroes, in support of Eleanor Roosevelt's position on Negro rights, she said I must obey the law. When I snorted at that, she went further and told me that the government knew what it was doing and I did not.

Well, that lit the fuse, and our little family exploded into a huge battle over the bomb, war in general and segregation laws, dragging up all the old family issues about my persistent defiance and disobedience, which would lead to my downfall, all because I hadn't listened to their loving advice.

They knew better. First they washed their hands of me (again) and then they took away the car, (again).

Ticket to freedom

This was an old conflict I'd fought many times, and it was worth it. But this time I was 19 and engaged to marry a Yale engineer who had an actual job, so my parents could just go screw themselves. By fall I'd be married and on my own. Independent in just three months. Ha ha ha, Mom and Dad!

My fiancé, Chauncey Dewey, and I sat close together in a dark jazz bar on Asylum Street a few weeks later. I had achieved my associate B.A. degree. I was going to take a year off before I went on to college, or maybe I'd get a magazine job in New York City and start a career as a writer. I was a free woman then.

Now, knee-to-knee with my beloved— a cute red-headed guy from Philly with a bright future— with a scat singer growling in the background and a dandy diamond ring on my finger, I watched as Chauncey said he had something serious to discuss with me. It had to do with the "Ban the Bomb" protest.

I basked in anticipation. He was going to tell me how proud of me he was. He was going to join me on the next protest.

Security clearance

Not quite. If I continued to exercise my so-called right to protest, he said, he would lose his security clearance. No security clearance, no job. No job, no marriage. I should choose. Him or what he called "activism."

My stomach dropped. Chauncey was my way out of my parents' house. I hadn't built any other bridges into my future, hadn't applied to colleges, hadn't looked for a job. My independence required marrying him.

Now I was screwed. In fact, I had screwed myself.

I rescrambled my plans.

"OK," I said, with a terrible sense of dread. "No more bomb protests." And I thought: No bomb protests now but maybe later, maybe other protests.

I'd have to wait a while. And I'd have to work on Chauncey. Change his mind about civil disobedience. And how difficult could that be? His heart was kind, I knew it. He liked dogs and cuddling by the fire. And he had a job in northern New Jersey with a big control company that engineered some defense gadgets. The main thing was to get to New York, away from my parents, from Middle Haddam, into the world.

And that's what I did. Married him.

A convenient pregnancy

But if I had my agenda, Chauncey had his. To keep his draft deferment up-to-date, he made me pregnant right away. Although I could see the city skyline from our rented house in New Jersey, I could not get to New York. I just hung around making apple pies until the kid was born, and by then we moved a few times to a far suburb of Boston, too far to commute to college. Few institutions of higher learning would take a married day student in those days, even if we could have afforded the tuition and the car.

By then Chauncey was working on Raytheon's submarine missile guidance systems. While the Vietnam War raged, I read Ramparts magazine and anything else I could find. That napalmed girl running down the road will go to the grave with me.

"You don't know what you're talking about," Chauncey said. "I've got security clearance and I know things. But I can't tell you. Besides, they're Buddhists and that culture doesn't value human life."

When I sold my first story for $12, he laughed. Ten cents a word, eh?

Just enough alimony

He left after our second child was born, and although I was scared to death, I let him go. He married his secretary and is still married to her. I headed off into my own life, broke, mother of two, no B.A., no job, just enough alimony to keep us afloat but free at last.

After all the years, bitter and sweet, I know I was right to protest the bomb that day in Hartford. I believed my parents were wrong about the bomb then, and I still do. Chauncey was wrong about the Vietnam war and he's still wrong. The government, or the war-machine that runs it, didn't know best then and it doesn't now, either.

I wasn't wrong because I was young and naÓ¯ve. I screwed up then because I was a chicken. But I'm not a chicken now.♦

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