On June 20, a gray afternoon, a crowd gathered on the bank of Zerlang and Zerlang Boat Yard in Samoa to witness the launching of the Golden Rule. Out on Humboldt Bay, kayaks and yachts drifted around, waiting to accompany her across the water.
The mood was excited but somber. Most present were old enough to have life experiences entangled with the history being commemorated. And this event was starkly allegorical, beginning with the very name, Golden Rule, foundation of practically all the philosophies of the world, gleaming on the boat's stern. Its premiere performance, 57 years ago, had been an attempt to save the earth by sailing into the U.S. atomic bomb testing grounds. The U.S. Coast Guard caught them almost immediately, but its aspiration caught the public's imagination and resulted in a miracle, almost like the Butterfly That Stamped of the Kipling tale. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, ending atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, was signed in 1963.
The boat then disappeared from history for a mysterious interval, but its crew most certainly did not. They wended their way through the topography of the century, samurais for social justice. James Peck began his life of protest by getting beaten up during the labor movements of the 1930s. He spent three years incarcerated for antiwar protests during World War II (and desegregated the jail mess hall). He demonstrated tirelessly for the antinuclear movement after the war.
Peck was on the first Freedom Ride, the Journey of Reconciliation, in 1947, with Bayard Rustin. He was beaten to a pulp during the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, then brought a successful lawsuit against the FBI for colluding with the KKK in their vicious attacks on the riders.
He protested the Vietnam War. He was gassed at Columbia University and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He set up tiger cages in front of the United Nations protesting the treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners. He supported draft card burners. He sang Japanese protest songs at the gates of nuclear power plants, and was arrested in an action on Wall Street against the financiers of the nuclear industry.
In the words of William Huntington, another member of the crew, at the 50th reunion of his Harvard class: "We have had a lifespan laid out in the heart of the 20th century. Before we were born, the Hague conferences promised an end to war. After World War I, which dominated our youth, we were told that was the last war. At the close of World War II, which interrupted our prime years, we joined in the resolve that this should never happen again ... And now, as I take my seat for the final act, I cannot imagine how it will end ... what will make it come out right. But in my heart I know it must. The grandchildren will live! Harvard and the world will go on. But, in today's reality, we cannot just be audience ..."
Back on the edge of Humboldt Bay, Shigeko Sasamori, who had been burned almost past recognition at Hiroshima, rechristened the Golden Rule before the boat slipped back into her element. Sasamori described her experience, in strong, eloquent broken English. She was a 13-year-old wearing two pairs of pants — which saved her from fatal burns — when she pointed out the Enola Gay to a friend as it floated into the blue sky over Hiroshima.
Leroy Zerlang, owner of the boat yard, told of the Golden Rule's 50-year plunge into obscurity, much of it under water, and its mysterious return. He and the others, who worked doggedly for five years to recall this boat to life, have conferred honor upon Humboldt County. They have in fact achieved a sort of saintly status. They would, I am sure, scoff at this reflection. Indeed, Zerlang, in telling how a crew raised the Golden Rule's rotting hulk from the bay, cloaked his story in the patois of self-interest, declaring that he "knew it was famous and he could sell it," though he finally gave it to "those clowns that stand in front of the courthouse on Fridays in the rain" (the Veterans for Peace).
Orion Sherwood, the only surviving member of the original crew, sat in the bow of the Golden Rule as she moved out into the water, his silver hair lifting gently in the breeze. What was he thinking? Of the crew dancing on the deck in mischievous delight as they stole away from the Coast Guard 57 years ago? Or was he thinking of the afore-mentioned grandchildren of William Huntington's musings?
The instinct for survival, demonstrated by U.S. citizens' response to the 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule, has languished in today's world. If the public is aware at all that the U.S. and Russia each have 2,500 nuclear warheads aimed at each other's cities, on hair-trigger alert, it does not seem to feel the targets burning into their backs. Somehow the outrage natural to being held eternally hostage has been stifled, a sacrifice to financial and political leaders who do not share a single one of the public's interests.
Contemptuously and imperiously, the U.S. defies its obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to decrease its nuclear stockpiles. We make 80 new H-bombs a year. We are going to spend $341 billion upgrading nuclear weapons over the next decade.
People do not want to cooperate in their own suicide. They hate the sickening militarism with which the media infects us. But the mechanisms of democracy have been usurped by money, and resistance is less possible every day.
At the Mattole Grange barbecue this Fourth of July, as I listened once more to the lovely voice of Claire Trower singing our national anthem, I had a vision of what the song really meant. It is not a war song. Francis Scott Key, also on a boat, is staring through the blackness and destruction with which the British Empire is smashing Fort Henry, searching for a glimmer of hope.
Today's empire is not the British, but, alas, we ourselves. Imperialism is the enemy, and this time it is our own. With manic savagery we are bombing and shelling the shreds that remain of the inspiration for which our flag might have stood. Then, like Key, we peer desperately though the blackness of our own moral monstrosity, many times more malignant than the simple blade of an ISIS fanatic, hoping to see a flash of what the flag once aspired to.
The Golden Rule sailed into San Diego Bay on Aug. 1, in time for the Veterans For Peace conference. She's now making her return voyage. May the miracle of her resurrection restore our stamina to insist on the survival of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren on all the waterfronts of the world.
Ellen Taylor, a 40-year Humboldt County resident and long-time admirer of Veterans for Peace, lives in Petrolia.
Have something you want to get off your chest? Think you can help guide and inform public discourse? Then the North Coast Journal wants to hear from you. Contact the Journal at email@example.com to pitch your column ideas.