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I guess if you stay at one project or another long enough, you’re going to have some laughs. Personally I think they are what makes the world go ‘round, not money, but I may be in the minority. My old man worked for the same local TV station for 40 years, and toward the end of his career there all he would say about the place came in the form of jokes. He’d start out with, “Your problem is you don’t know how to drink,” then launch in to the one, speaking of drinking, about wrestling a gun out of S.G.’s hand so he wouldn’t commit suicide; or how the off-camera crew would “moon” the on-air celeb’s (TV used to be live) to try and break them up; or how, upon retiring from 25 years as “the weatherman,” E.H. was stopped on Superior Street and asked, “Hey, didn’t you used to be somebody?”
Now the old man’s been gone for 17 years and it’s me that’s been working in the same milieu -- down with the war, ban the bomb, no nukes -- for 40 years. In 1976, only two years after the US war in Vietnam ended, a group of students I was part of tried to keep the Reserve Officer Training Corps from expanding at Bemidji State. In what might be my first joke in four long decades of dark humor, we lost that battle, and the Army got its extra space by relocating -- believe it or not -- the Indian Studies Department!
For 15 years dozens of us campaigned to shut down the Navy submarine transmitter system “Project Extremely Low Frequency,” or ELF, that operated near Clam Lake, Wis. Over 100 people went to jail for trespassing at the place, or blockading it, or shutting it up with “condemned” signs and bicycle locks, etc. About the Ashland County Jail, my favorite joke is from the old lockup that had tightly crowded, old-fashioned double-bunked cells with the toilet right in the middle, at the head of the bunks, something like the centerpiece. Upper bunk guys would use it for a step-up. Private and ventilated it was not, so scratched permanently into the cinder block over the thrown was this timeless twist on card playing: “In this place, a flush beats a full house every day.”
Also in Ashland, on a bitterly cold January morning of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, Barb Katt & I were driving through town en route to a nonviolence training. BK was saying, “You have to get up early to stop the arms race,” when a squad car rolled up alongside us, the deputy jabbing the air vigorously for me to pull over. We jumped into a mild panic since we both had active arrest warrants for nonpayment of ELF protest fines. As I slowed down, we hastily ran through details about money, IDs, phone numbers, parents and friends to call. When we stopped and rolled down the window, the deputy yelled, “You have a coffee cup on your car,” and drove off.
In Missouri, where the Air Force used to have 150 Minuteman missiles, a group of peaceniks climbed into one of the missile sites and occupied the 100-ton concrete lid. Singing peace songs until the military police arrived, the group only increased its volume when the patrol holding M16s surrounded the protest and began shouting orders. “You must leave the resource,” the Lieutenant commanded, referring to the ICBM with two or three nuclear warheads. When the group ignored his order and only sang louder, the Lt. pointed to Frank Cordaro, who’s no Sinatra, and yelled, “Arrest him first; he sounds terrible.”
Frank & I were in Leavenworth Federal Prison Camp together in 1983 when I was sent off to solitary confinement for refusing to take an X-ray. Considering the history of human radiation experiments conducted by the US government against 16,000 unsuspecting citizens, I was not signing up. Those seven weeks alone produced one memorable sleeping dream in which I was a stand-up comic. These three jokes -- again you can believe it or not -- came to me in the dream. 1) Why is natural hair color never seen again after nuclear war? Because everyone dyes. 2) What prevents tooth decay but causes cancer in laboratory animals? Trident sugarless submarines. and 3) How do you get plutonium off your face? You can’t!
On the off chance you get to defend yourself in court in a politically charged protest case, it’s pretty likely that you’ll be with a group of high-strung, self-motivated and sometimes agitated anti-war types. In 1991, I was in such a group with the late Samuel H. Day, Jr. -- the founder and principle mastermind of Nukewatch -- along with a fellow trustee of the Plowshares Land Trust Mike Miles and several others, charged with trespass at Ft. McCoy over a Gulf War leafletting action. After a long and tense pre-trial meeting of co-defendants inside the jail, Sam became distraught over failing to reach agreement on strategy. He finally yelled, “I want a lawyer! To protect me from Mike Miles!”
Preparing for trial is always complicated and interesting. After five of us climbed a chain-link fence and walked onto the top of a missile silo outside Fargo, North Dakota, we “named it” by pouring blood all over the heavy lid and waited for the cops. We were charged only with misdemeanor trespass, perhaps because the state prosecutor didn’t relish the thought of using the word “blood” with speaking to the jury, especially since his job was to keep the underground weapon of mass destruction from being discussed at trial. After days of logistical and legal preparation, the charges were dropped the day before trial. News reporters crowded around the international star of our group, Jason Loughead of Winnipeg, Manitoba. At 18, Jason already had a good sense of humor. When asked what he thought of the charges being dropped, he said, “I just hope the Air Force has learned its lesson.”