A Puppeteer’s Perspective on the Origins of the Clamshell Alliance by Eric Wolfe


A Puppeteer’s Perspective on the Origins of the Clamshell Alliance

By Eric Wolfe

 I landed a job as a puppeteer fresh out of college because I could talk like a duck. “You see, an anthropology degree did prepare me for the real world,” I explained to my mother. She cried for joy. Well, anyway, she cried.

 The duck voice came in handy when the People’s Energy Project, a Kansas group opposing construction of the Wolf Creek plant, asked me to write a show about nuclear power for a 1975 rally in Topeka. I had just seen “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War” and decided I’d like a piece of that action. From an oversized can of frozen orange juice concentrate I constructed Nuke, the Monster with Poisonous Breath. In the midst of this threat I positioned a cast of characters that included Doctor Corporate von Profit, Leon the Solar Lion, and a duck whose response to every alarming piece of news was: “I don’t give a quack.” I called the show “Burnt Toast: Trouble in the Nation’s Breadbasket.”

 I soon packed up the show and moved to Boston, then crammed my puppets and stage into a backpack and took Amtrak down to Washington for the Critical Mass conference, where I found people wearing suits and frowning and standing at podiums and saying very smart things to large audiences. I thought, “These people are not going to talk to a duck.” I was invisible, a kid from Kansas with long hair, a backpack and no invitation to speak.

 Anna Gyorgy, an activist from a collective farm in western Massachusetts, picked me out of that Critical Mass crowd, found out what I was there for, rounded up a small audience in an unused room and said, “Go.” After hours of frowning and listening to very smart things, this little rump caucus was happy to laugh at a very dumb duck.

 In January of 1976 I saw in the Boston Globe that Ron Rieck had climbed a weather tower in Seabrook, New Hampshire, to protest a proposed nuclear plant. It was very cold. The police chief urged Ron to come down, saying he was concerned about his health. Ron said he had to stay up there because he was concerned about the policeman’s health if the nuke got built.

 A few weeks later while I was performing Burnt Toast at a lefty book store in Cambridge, the guy laughing loudest turned out to be Ron Rieck. Afterward he talked to me about pole sitting, covered wagons, spinning wool for his own clothes and a charitable apple-picking collective called Greenleaf Harvesters.

 I joined Ron’s covered wagon expedition scheduled for late July. We started at the western border of New Hampshire, near the Yankee nuke across the Connecticut River in Vermont. We stopped in a different town each night, performed Burnt Toast, and talked to folks about an upcoming demonstration at the Seabrook nuke. Our transport was a covered wagon drawn by Dick, a draft horse with a prodigious digestive system. Our advance person was Cia Iselin. One person rode, holding the reins, while the others walked—carrying big sticks. Going downhill, we wedged the sticks against the wheels to keep the wagon from gaining speed. We didn’t want it rolling into Dick and clipping his hind legs. Going uphill, we had to push. And as we pushed, we sang fortifying standards like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which we equipped with new lyrics.

 Our entourage consisted of Ron, myself, a woman from Georgia previously active in housing issues, Cia’s son George, 13-year-old Tammy Adams, and Roddy Welch. Towering over everyone was Paul Gunter, a welcome shoulder behind the wagon and a mighty voice when raised in song.

 There are times in this world when you know you are really alone. But there are other times, if you’re lucky, when you realize you are not. On this rural highway, maybe a hundred bucks to my name, unemployed, dumped by my girlfriend, far from my native Kansas, dodging horse crap while pushing a covered wagon up steep hills in 90-degree heat—I never had it so good. Singing with people who give a damn about the world can do that for you.

 It’s a long walk across New Hampshire, a little over a week. Many times a day we’d stop to speak with citizens standing in front of their rural homes. The covered wagon, with its “Seabrook or Bust” banner, was a good conversation starter. Time after time we laid out the case against nuclear power. The plants are dangerous. They’re expensive. There’s no place to store the waste. The sun and the wind are safer and virtually limitless.

 Paul tells about an encounter he had the first morning of our journey, when the nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont, just across the river from Hinsdale, accidentally dumped 80,000 gallons of radioactive water contaminated with tritium into the Connecticut River. He said, “We took time to canvass the neighborhood. I knocked on a door of one home to explain our mission opposing the construction of the New Hampshire nuke. A woman opened the door and stood between all 6’ 7” of me ardently explaining the hazards of nuclear power and her television set blaring a live broadcast warning not to swim or fish in the river because of the radioactive spill. She looked at me, then at her TV, and slammed the door in my face.” 

 I remember one man who just stood there by the side of the road, looking at me curiously as I rattled on. I could tell he was just biding his time; my words began turning to dust in my mouth,                                                                                                                          

exhausted from overuse. When I finally stopped for breath, he looked at me a little closer and said,

“Did you ever see a dog climb a tree?” He hooked his thumb over his shoulder and led me to a nearby tree, whistling for his dog. It was a good-sized pine tree, and that dog jumped up and began to methodically climb his way up, hanging onto the branches just like a kid might.

Several days into our journey, when we stopped on some town’s common to meet with a bunch of folks, I first heard the name Clamshell Alliance. It became clear to me there genuinely was going to be an organized effort to occupy the Seabrook nuclear site on August 1st. My role would be to perform a puppet show in nearby Hampton Falls for a public rally in support of the occupiers.

 At the end of our journey there was food and a place to camp and Quakers talking about “affinity groups.” Elizabeth Boardman or Suki Rice of the American Friends Service Committee—they were both on the scene a lot in Clam’s early days, traveling up from Cambridge—explained the concept of active nonviolence. Which basically means maintaining your civility while getting totally in the face of power. And I began to understand that going to jail didn’t have anything to do with courage. Conviction doesn’t need courage to act. It just needs company. Whether you want to call it that or not, when you have company for your convictions you have an affinity group.

 On August 1, I unloaded the stage and puppets from my backpack and set up on Hampton Falls Common. Somewhere, a few miles away, Ron and Paul and Tammy’s dad, Jay Adams, and other people I had just met were walking onto the nuclear site, armed with seedlings and an intention to help the earth be fruitful. While I was behind my curtain talking like a duck—warning adults and children alike about Nuke, the Monster with Poisonous Breath—a couple of police wagons drove by. From the windows I could glimpse my fellow travelers holding up their fingers in the peace sign or their fists or just waving as they were carted off to jail. With the rhythm of the covered wagon journey still in my bones, I felt suddenly alone. I knew then, as much as I’ve ever known anything, that I would not let these Clams go to jail without me again.

 I finished the show on the commons. People said they liked it. But I was one sad duck. Didn’t even have a ride back to Boston. Suki Rice walked up as I was stuffing the puppets back in their pack. She offered me a ride. I accepted. In the car, she turned to me and said, “You know we’re going to have to organize a Boston affinity group.”

 Eric Wolfe is a writer and labor activist working in San Francisco.

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