Some History on Karen Silkwood Drive by Grace Paley

Some History on Karen Silkwood Drive

Grace Paley


“What the hell are we doing here?” asks an old friend, who was young in years not so long ago, when I was only slightly middle-aged. “For Christ’s sake, we cut right through the fences at the Pentagon.” We were in Seabrook, New Hampshire, sitting in a parking lot outside the site of a proposed nuclear power plant along with 2,000 other protesters organized by the Clamshell Alliance.

            “No! No!” says a young listener, full of the joy of common discipline.

            “But look, it’s a goddamn parking lot!”

            “Things don’t have to go the same,” I say. I am very tearful. “We don’t have to defend our lives by repeating them. Anyhow, the parking lot is the heart of America. You close down the parking lots and industry is wrecked. A decent car wouldn’t have any place to go. Of course, those bubbling asphalt lots will be hard to occupy in summer.”

            The young listener says the simplest true fact. “Look brother, it took a lot of work to get two thousand people here. If we were only two hundred, we wouldn’t have gotten to this lot. We’d be outside the access road at the Stop & Shop, eating cheeseburgers.”

            “Not me,” said a young woman. “I would never eat that stuff.” She is carrying a four-day supply of healthy groceries and offers us her family granola.

            I have my own kitchen concoction of grains, fruits, and nuts. “Yours is very good,” I tell her, “but you use more nuts than I do. Try some of mine.”

            “How long are you staying here?”

            “Well, no longer than Monday morning. We can’t stay any longer,” I apologize.

She puts her kind hand on mine. “Oh, don’t feel bad. You’ve done your best. You can only do your best.”

            I know what my best is, and I have to admit to her that this is my second best. But: “How long are you staying, honey?”

            “Oh,” she say, “a week, anything, as long as I can.”

            “What if we’re all arrested tomorrow morning?”

            “Well, as soon as we get out, we’ll return, we really will. Our affinity group is solidly committed to return.”

            Within the comfort of our affinity group, we place our sleeping bags on oak leaves over sand and stone. We have named our street Karen Silkwood Drive, and our new tent city is called Seabrook. It’s quite beautiful—the American-Russian moon shines on the green, blue, yellow, orange plastic and nylon tents.

            Late in the morning (9a.m.) my husband goes off to listen to the almost continuous parliament of spokespersons sent from every affinity group to bring views and initiatives to the Decision Making Body—the DMB. A new democratic process is being created.

“They never stop talking,” someone says.

            “Everyone has something to say,” someone answers.

            I decide to attend a Friends meeting on the northeast corner near the helicopter gate, the National Guardsmen, and now and then the dogs. We sit on the stony landfill, the dust blowing. I say to myself, Why, this must be what Quang Tri looked like—the bulldozed, flattened, “pacified” countryside. I can’t help those connections. They stand up among the thoughts in my head, again and again.

            Anyway, I’m not very good at Friends meeting. My mind refuses to prevent my eyes from looking at the folks around me, and I’m often annoyed because I can’t get the drift of the murmur of private witness. I did hear one young man near me say, “May Your intercession here today be the fruit of our action.” I think this means “God helps those that help themselves,” a proverb that sounds meaner than it is.

            Finally, a woman as gray as I am spoke up loud and clear. She intended to be heard. She told about the Westover Army Base witness during the Vietnam War. She had met a soldier later, she said, who told her it was the persistence and sagacity of the Quaker witness at Westover that helped those draftees understand the war and turn in action against it.

            The arrests begin at 3:30 and continue for thirteen hours. People are moved in buses and trucks. There is lots of time for argument—no, discussion—to go limp, to go rigid. In the end, many give up the luxury of individual torture for the security of arrest by affinity. So we are picked up and dumped into an army truck at 7:30. Twenty-seven of us remain sitting or organized into sardines, we sleep on the floor until morning. One of our clan stands talking to the state troopers and Guardsmen, some of whom haven’t slept in forty-six hours. He talks and listens all night long, about the war, about Phu Bai, where he was stationed, about the Navy, the Marines, horses, actions, guard duty, guns. A man’s life, I think. I had forgotten the old interests and disgusts.

            In the morning, Steve, the Clamshell staff man, who is twenty years old, types out our first news release. He tapes it to a Frisbee, and David, his brother Clam, with a great swing flips it out over the army snow fence into the hands of the UPI photographer. The National Guardsmen watch, then bring us Cokes and orange soda.

            I write this on the sixth day. Fourteen hundred people have remained in bail solidarity inside the detention centers of New Hampshire. There is no peaceful atom, and in our time war has been declared across the years against the future, which was once the holding place for hope.

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            One more story:

            In another time, my friend and I vigiled every Saturday afternoon for eight years on Eighth Street in Manhattan. We offered information and support for resistance to war—legal and illegal, civilian and military. We were mostly mothers and father. The faces on our posters were American and Vietnamese. On our square in the middle of traffic, we were attacked for years with spit, curses, and scary driving tactics. Then, in the last two years, to our surprise people began to shout, “Right on! Stick with it!”

            One day an old lady stopped me as I was giving out leaflets. I loved her at once, because she reminded me of my own mother and several aunts, who seemed in their construction to have only good posture to offer in the fight against gravity.

            “They’re wonderful boys,” she said.

            “Oh yes,” I said.

            “We have to do everything we can for them,” she said.

            “We do,” I said.

            “Because what’s going on, what they’re trying to do to them, is terrible, especially to the Vietnamese people, how they suffer without end,” she said.

            “Yes,” I said.

            “So you have to keep it up, the support. The boys sit in jail, I know what it’s like. They don’t want to kill people, they give up everything, they’re brave, they’re the hope.”

            I remembered my job. “Can you join us? To stand with our big sign over there, or give out leaflets in case you hate to stand?’

            “no, no, I can’t do it right now. Sometime maybe.”

            Could you give me your name? We’re a local group.”

            “Yes, certainly,” she said. “My name is Sobell, I’m Morton Sobell’s mother.”

            I said, “Oh, Morton Sobell. Oh…”

            Then without a thought, we fell into each other’s arms and began to cry, because her son was still at that time hopelessly in jail and had been there for years, all through his young manhood. And the sons and daughters of my friends were caught in a time of war that would use them painfully, no matter what their decisions.

            Then we were embarrassed. We kissed each other, we nodded, we laughed at ourselves, we said “Enough!” She crossed the street and I continued to give out leaflets.

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