I was sitting in a colourful collective flat in Dunoon. Despite the wailing wind and the rain thundering down like a shower of stones we were all totally focused on our intended goal. The weather wasn’t going to put six determined women off from their task. We were going to shake this town out of their slumber with our consciousness awareness event for peace and social justice.
The sky no longer teased the waters of the Holy Loch. It had become disgruntled. It ached as it looked down upon the Polaris monstrosity – the American Naval Base. It was incongruently situated in the heart of beautiful landscape and it reminded every resident of the reality of The Cold War Although Dunoon is a Scottish town it had morphed into a cosmopolitan American town. It weaved a type of magic which can only be appreciated by a restless eighteen year old girl. I had grown wary of my conservative roots which choked the life out of me. In contrast Dunoon lifted me into a new awareness. Moreover, it was in Dunoon that I tossed away the regimented style of dance that I had trained in and welcomed the new street dances of the Black American sea cadets.
Our peace group had managed to get together an assortment of musicians and storytellers and we were elated because we had succeeded in getting a guest speaker. Robert McKenzie, a twenty eight year old Vietnam veteran from Missouri had agreed to give a talk about his experience. Excitement hung in the air and our hearts bounced with realisation that it had been yet another fruitful gathering.
Alice pulled out her drum and began with a simple rhythm, and an easy wordless chant. We all began to sing. The meeting was drifting to closure.
I had arranged to stay with Alice that night. Alice was one of my first real life heroines. Of course I had previous heroines before her but I only had got to know them through the pages of a book. She was so unconventional and stood out from the general populace with her mass of untamed silver grey hair. She prided herself that she was gatekeeper of stories and she would often tell the stories of Indigenous peoples reminding me that I was a Celt and we also suffered at the hands of exploitation. Though she appeared fragile Alice had a fierceness which manifested in her being at the forefront of the peace movement. My jaw dropped in amazement when she told me all about her escapades as a Raging Granny. It was hard to imagine that Alice who had that look of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother had spent time inside an American Detention Centre for blocking the gateways of nuclear installations.
Alice stoked the fire as I curled up in her sofa. She threw off her combat green docs and settled back into an armchair. I knew our conversation would dance well into the morning.
I embraced the moment and felt at one with the rain that thudded onto the pavement outside. Alice gave a long silent yawn and then turned towards me and asked how I got involved with the peace movement.
I took a slow intake of breath and my mind wandered back to the year famed for the Summer of Love. I was about nine years old. Though the sunshine warmed the manicured gardens the shadow of The Cold War cast its frosty presence. It was also evident in the sombre tones of the BBC News which carried yet another story on Vietnam. I can remember watching the TV my eyes taking in the sit-in demonstrations and withdrawing my eyes from the scenes of bloodiness. My questions on Vietnam were always sidestepped and confusion set as I got responses that somehow seemed to make no sense.
My ears caught the sound of the logs sparking and it broke my concentration. Alice smiled, from the comfort of her armchair and gestured for me to carry on.
One day, I continued I came home from school to find a leaflet detailing what to do when the bomb fell. My eyes popped. It was certainly not a blessing to be a nine year old with a good understanding of vocabulary and a good imagination. I stared in total disbelief as I read the method suggested for surviving a nuclear blast. It was incredulous that anyone could possibly think that anyone could survive a near hit with a nuclear bomb blast by constructing a shelter using a door and aluminium foil. My eyes widened with every word I read, it suggested that each household should take a door off its hinges and store it safely. When the alarm sounded someone should fetch the door and angle it from the wall to the floor and cover the top of it with aluminium foil. I imagined my father shouting to my mother – “hurry get the aluminium foil we have four minutes”. Somehow I couldn’t quite see my family building a shelter without panic or us getting in the way of each other. I placed the leaflet back on the dining room table. However, as it is the way of nine years I carried on with my life of climbing trees, getting into scrapes, reading and my continual quest for fairies but somehow the image of aluminium covered door as a means to survive nuclear attack stayed with me.
“Would you like a fresh cup of tea” Alice interjected. “Regular or do you want to try one of my herbal teas”
I picked up my cup and shuffled towards the dining table. “Thank you, I’d love a regular tea” I responded.
“I don’t think folk believed that such a shelter would save them” Alice laughed. “Perhaps, a form of disbelief. Maybe we just need to feel that we can do something even if it seems pointless.” Alice poured the brown steamy liquid into my cup and made my way back to the sofa.
”I remember the Cuban missile crisis well. Alice continued. Yes there was panic but equally a sense of resigned helplessness. I firmly believe that the hippy movement stemmed from the backdrop of the stress of waiting for a bomb to drop. Fortunately I am still alive to tell the tale.” I empathised with that sense of helplessness when daily life casts a deathly shadow over one. I nodded in affirmation and then I recalled the time when the cracked silence of fear came upon me.
In a drab clinical classroom a few weeks after I found the leaflet I was awakened by the continual shrill of an alarm. I was in my usual mind wandering state but the loud peels of the alarm caused me to jump to my feet. A sense of joy came upon me as I reckoned that the school was having a fire drill. I was always pleased when there was a fire drill as it was a good opportunity to escape from the monotony of class . However, soon my joy quelled as I became aware that we were going down to the basement. This was no fire drill. Fear gripped me as I thought the inevitable had happened, a missile was on its way either to the Holy Loch or the British Nuclear Base at Loch Long and it was my misfortune to live between both of them. To this day the scene of walking down those stairs is firmly etched in my mind. In spite of the overarching panic there was a fractured silence within my whole being. I could not speak; I could not cry; I could not scream, I could do nothing but take one step after another down to that basement. When it was announced that it was only a drill, there was no sense of relief. I stood ashen faced and silent. Fragments of blurred faces each and every one of them moving quietly back up those stairs back into the classroom. I have never since felt a silence like it.
Alice rose and wrapped her arms around me.
“I suppose it has never left me and that’s why I joined”. I said.
I picked up my tea and slowly sip, it has gone tepid. I am reminded about the millions of children who for them war is an actual part of their narrative, day in and day out.
Alice went back to Michigan two days after or successful peace awareness concert and I never saw her again. I am grateful that for but a brief season our paths crossed. Alice inspired me and she tossed me visionary ropes of an alternative way and it was always her hope that I would catch them and run with them.
At 9.20 am on the morning of 15th April I strolled past Bandon Books and caught sight of the headline about our current situation between the U.S.A and North Korea.
That silence that I experienced nearly fifty years ago in that classroom hits me again. It causes me to wonder whether there something inherent in the human condition that causes us to tear ourselves apart through conflict.
Lines may span my face but I can rejoice in a life which has given me opportunities to critical think and of course has allowed me to garner endless stories. I was hoping that the remainder of my time here on Earth would be spent writing stories. Maybe I will have to once again catch those visionary ropes and swing out of peace activism retirement and signpost to others that there are better ways. In that we need not enslave ourselves in the webs of illusory abundance which really only creates wealth for the few. As I scan the shopping centre, I ponder on whether there will be a new movement that will rise to the challenge or whether we will carry on with our consumer endeavours