Stories

These are stories from my life that I’d like to pass on to the grandchildren, or whoever might appreciate and benefit from them.

The Sailboat Everyman

In the 1960’s governments were experimenting with nuclear weapons on land and sea, contaminating vast areas around the test sites with radioactive dust and debris.  Some of this went high into the atmosphere to eventually settle many miles away, entering the food chain through contaminated soil, plants and animals.

As we knew from the experiences of atomic bomb attacks on Japanese cities in world war II, the blasts are a horrific, violent assault on life itself.

As a student of Zen Buddhism, my aim was the protection of all beings, to the best of my ability, and I felt called and obliged to respond to these horrors.

As part of a citizen’s organization, the Committee for Nonviolent Action, I was involved in an effort to protest, resist, and hopefully prevent the detonation of a huge hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island in the mid-Pacific.  We would do this by sailing a sailboat into the test area and intervening nonviolently with our own bodies, a tactic inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other practitioners of nonviolent resistance.

After a first attempt from Hawaii ended in arrests, we began building a sailboat for a second attempt from California.

Plans and construction drawings for a seaworthy 30’ trimaran were distributed to sympathetic woodworkers from San Diego to Marin county, with one shop constructing the mast, another the cabin, another the rudder and tiller, another the box beams that provided the structural strength joining the main central hull with the two outer ones.  The whole would be assembled in a small boat yard in Sausalito.

I worked with other volunteers for weeks, gluing, clamping and nailing the parts together, covering the whole thing with fiberglass cloth and resin, and sanding and painting it.

Sails and rigging were next, then water and provisions for a crew of three to sail the 3500 miles to the test site.

Following the Gandhian principle of declaring our intentions openly, we held a press conference at the dock as the crew prepared to leave.

They never got the chance.

Federal marshals attended the press conference and arrested the three crew members before they could board the boat.  They were taken to the San Francisco Hall of Justice jail.

We decided that, since the boat was ready to go, we would make another attempt with a second crew.

This was more problematic, since all our experienced sailors were in jail.

After discussing it with my wife and fellow activist, Suzanne, I volunteered for the second attempt.  She was often at the boat yard with our infant son, Allan, during the construction.  There was obviously some danger in attempting to cross the Pacific upwind with our meager experience, but we felt that life in a world of nation states willing to detonate nuclear explosions was inherently unsafe for everyone, and we might as well take our chances trying to do something about it.

A US Navy vessel arrived and docked not far away from the Everyman.

A few days later we were as prepared as we could be in the time we had.  We didn’t feel that any further notification of the authorities was needed, so we said our goodbyes, boarded the boat and waited for the out-going tide, which came around midnight.

There was no auxiliary motor on the 30’ boat, but after casting off and drifting out toward the deeper water, we were soon being carried smoothly and silently with the dark water, past the looming Naval vessel.

We held our breaths, expecting to be pinned by searchlights and bullhorns at any moment.

It didn’t happen.  We were free!  Elated, we put up some sail to catch the slight breeze blowing across the bay and experimented making short tacks toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

The closer we got to the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge, the faster the current of outgoing tide carried us, and soon we were passing beneath the immense structure.  It was indeed like passing through a gateway from our familiar lives in the city lights to the dark and unknown world of the open sea beyond.

The surface of the water became increasingly choppy as we came into the area known as the Potato Patch, and the wind increased as well.

Soon we were all feeling seasick from the constant tossing back and forth as the boat pitched on the rough water.

Gradually the waves changed from choppy, jarring ones, to long troughs and crests, with the wind blowing spray off the tops.

We were alarmed when the force of the wind violently whipped and fluttered the sails, and we had to keep the boat facing into the wind and square to the waves.  Trimarans had a reputation of losing their masts because their outer hulls prevented them from rolling and spilling the wind when it was too high.

We had to take in the sails.  John, the only one of the three of us who had any sailing experience, was too sick to help.  He stayed below and groaned in misery.  Barry took the tiller and I managed to drop and stow the jib from the front of the boat, then tried to roll up the mainsail on its boom.

The sail was about half way down the mast and then I lost the halyard, the rope attached to the top of the mainsail that is used to pull it up the mast.  It just slipped out of my hands.  I saw it whip away in the wind and tangle high in the rigging of the mast, preventing me from lowering the sail any further.  I had managed to roll all but about a third of the mainsail onto the boom.

I was miserable and scared, but as the least seasick of the three of us, I took the tiller and Barry joined John below, out of the wind and cold spray.

I was relieved at least to be able to focus on the simpler task of keeping the Everyman headed into the waves, which seemed ever deeper and farther apart.

It also gave me some space to reflect on our situation.

Nothing but roiling water in every direction.  The boat seemed so small and vulnerable to the wind and waves.  How could we possibly accomplish and survive a trans-pacific voyage?  If we couldn’t, what was the point?  And, if we could, would it be only to die in the bomb blast rather than in the churning ocean?  And that was just what we had signed up for.

Thankfully, as I guided the boat and watched the water, the churning in my belly settled somewhat, and though I still thought I was going to die, it no longer seemed it would necessarily happen tonight.

I noticed a phosphorescent sparkle in water that made a green translucence, especially around the wake of the trimaran’s hulls.

As we crested the top of a tall wave, we slid down the other side with exhilarating speed.  I had never surfed, but I imagined it would feel like that, smoothly skimming the surface of the water.  It was beautiful, trailing streams of green light and it seemed we were making good progress westward toward our terrible destination.

I can’t remember the passage of time, but suddenly a clear day was dawning, and the waves had diminished considerably.  There was no wind, and we bobbed gently in the sunshine.

What a relief, the warmth of the sun drying our wet clothes, comforting our stiff muscles!

Barry and John came up on deck and we assessed our situation.  They were still seasick and miserable.  The halyard was still tangled in the stays.  There was a six inch rip in the part of the mainsail that we had not been able to bring in from the storm.  We all longed for solid ground.

We went over the possibilities.  We had a repair kit for the sails if we decided to continue toward Christmas Island.  Should we honor our original intention to make every effort to interfere with the bomb test?

Or had we done enough to make our point and should we head back to San Francisco to recover and plan our next move?

The fact is, we weren’t moving anywhere.  There was no wind and our movement was mostly up and down.

We decided the first priority was to free the halyard, so that we could put up some sail if the wind came up.

I started climbing the mast.  As I advanced slowly from one foothold to the next, the swaying of the mast felt more severe.   The higher I climbed, the greater the arc of my movement back and forth.  I was afraid and could barely move my hands and feet.

At last, I was able to reach the end of the rope dangling above me and, holding on for dear life with one arm, managed to shake the tangled rope free of the cables it was caught on with the other.

I carefully descended the mast and was greatly relieved to be back on the relatively still deck of the boat.

Where were we?  We had a compass and some maps of the Pacific, but realized that we were totally unprepared to navigate the ocean with any accuracy.

We decided we had to go back and learn how to navigate by the stars, and also there was the mainsail that needed repair.

Grateful to still be alive and thinking about heading for home rather than for open ocean, we put up both our sails and waited for a breeze to push us back toward the Golden Gate.

A couple of hours later, a small plane appeared, circled us once, then disappeared back the way it had come.  We felt helpless,  no way to move, no way to hide even if we had wanted to.

After another hour, we saw a Coast Guard boat coming toward us.  A crewman tossed a rope to us.  We tied on to it and they towed us back to San Francisco.

We were met by Federal Marshalls at the dock and informed that we were under arrest for violating a court order.  We were taken to jail and this time the Everyman was impounded for the duration of the test series.

At the trial we tried to focus the attention on the bomb tests and their resulting death and destruction, but the judge would not allow any testimony except about the court order.  The district attorney offered us a deal.  We could spend a few days in jail, and then would be released if we promised not to try it again.

We could not in good conscience make such a promise, so were sentenced to a year and a day, and were whisked across the bay to Santa Rita Prison Farm in Pleasanton, a county facility that was under contract to house federal prisoners.

The worst part of being at Santa Rita was being separated from my wife, Suzanne, and our infant son, Allan, not yet a year old.

Five of us had been arrested that day, the three crew members, the office manager, and the chief fund raiser.  When we were booked in we were asked to sign a form permitting prison officials to read and restrict our mail, incoming and outgoing.  The office manager and I signed, as we were very interested in correspondence with our families.  The two of us were assigned to the barracks, a row of long rectangular wooden buildings lined with bunks on each side and with a bathroom and shower at one end.

The other three, because they refused to allow their mail to be opened, were sent to Graystone, a large concrete building housing maximum security prisoners in barred cells.

Alex and I were oriented by a warden and shown to our bunks in one of the barracks where we put away the change of clothes we were issued, and the few personal items we were allowed into a cupboard and made up our bunks with prison-supplied bedding.

In the next few days I found that, despite some apprehension at first, the people on the inside were just like the people on the outside, no better, no worse.  We were diverse, about half black, the rest white, Hispanic and other, young and old.  Jim and I were the only people we met inside who were arrested for overt political reasons.  Most of the other prisoners were there for substance violations, DUI violations, marijuana possession, public drunkenness, also for writing bad checks, and not paying court ordered alimony or child support.  We were a minor curiosity, but not a big deal.

I had expected days of boredom, but looking back, don’t remember any.  There was a strict daily schedule of getting up, standing by our bunks to be counted, getting ready for breakfast, walking single file to the dining hall for oatmeal, toast and bad coffee, returning to the barracks to get ready for work, standing at our bunks to be counted, walking single file to the busses to be driven to the beet fields, weeding sugar beets for a couple hours, returning to the barracks to get ready for lunch, standing at our bunks to be counted, and so forth until lights out about 9 pm.

So much time was spent on security that our work schedule was light and we had plenty of time to socialize or be by ourselves in the barracks.

Still, the day was quite structured and we were not allowed to deviate from schedule.  It occurred to me that it could have been a monastery if we all had had the same spiritual practice.  I looked for ways to incorporate zazen into my daily routine. Unfortunately, though there was free time, there was no opportunity to be alone.  The bathroom had no toilet or shower stalls.

One night I found myself awake while everyone else was asleep, so I bunched up my pillow like a zafu and sat up crosslegged on my bunk.  Soon I felt that familiar feeling of flowing mind within the still posture of zazen and time passed.

I heard footsteps on the outside wooden deck.  The door opened and through my half-closed eyes I saw a flashlight beam go from bunk to bunk down the other side of the barracks, counting.  When it came to my side it swung to me, paused on me for a moment, then the door opened, closed and the footsteps left.  I focused back on my sitting.

Soon I heard the clatter of many footsteps outside, the door flew open and several guards rushed to me, shining flashlight beams at me from all sides.  I didn’t move.

After a tense and silent pause, a voice said “Whatcha doin’, son?”

“Meditating,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, and they quietly left the barracks together.

Our main work in the summer was to weed the sheriff’s sugar beet fields.

The busses parked at the end of long rows of sugar beets surrounded by other plants designated as weeds.  Our job was to take the short handled hoes we were issued and proceed down the rows of beets, hoeing weeds and cultivating around the beet plants.

By mid-summer the weeds were dense, and 5 or 6 feet high.  We would sometimes hoe down the row to an especially dense patch of weeds in the middle of the field, crawl across a few rows into the weed patch, and then hoe out a circular clearing in the middle of it.  There we could lay back, relax and tell stories out of sight of the guards, who never left the busses way back at the end of the rows.

Young black men were the main story tellers, and their stories were mostly bragging about fights, and criminal or sexual exploits.

One of them once caught a rabbit in the field, killed and skinned it using the sharp blade of his hoe, made a fire, roasted and ate it there, sharing with all who wanted.  The hero of the day.

To be continued.