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A Remarkable Journey

Doris Haddock (with Dennis Burke), Granny D: Walking Across America in My 90th Year(New York: Villard Books, 2001), 285 pages, $21.95, hardcover.

PETE SEEGER has woven together his love of music and his passion for social justice for more than six decades as a musician, songwriter, folklorist, and activist for labor, civil rights, the environment, and peace.

Doris Haddock is a retired shoe factory worker and a member of the Episcopal Church in Dublin, New Hampshire, where her grandmother came in the nineteenth century to work in a textile mill. Doris married young, raised a family, and has twelve great-grandchildren.

In the mid-1990s, her husband of sixty-two years died; a few years later her best friend died. At age eighty-eight she got her son to drive her to Los Angeles where she announced to the world that she planned to walk at the rate of ten miles a day to Washington, D.C. to publicize the need for election campaign finance reform. This book tells the story of that trip. The hardest part was not the desert, but thirteen months later in the mountains of West Virginia in January 2000, where she also celebrated her ninetieth birthday. A big blizzard hit on the border of Maryland and her son rushed her cross-country skis to her so she was able to ski the next hundred miles down the towpath of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, now a national park.

On her laptop she was able to notify several thousand people who had helped her in the previous fourteen months, so on February 29, 2000 at 9:00 a.m., 2,200 people joined her at Arlington Cemetery where they listened to a short speech. Then they walked together across Memorial Bridge to Lincoln Memorial where she gave another short speech. They then walked to the Capitol. They walked around it and she gave one last speech on the east steps. “These houses of Congress are being turned into houses of prostitution!”

Denis Burke is a fifty-year-old Arizona activist who asked if he could read some of the diary she wrote in every day. He said,“Doris, this would make a great book!” He did a good job of selecting which parts for which chapter. One gets glimpses of her life as a child, her teenage marriage, and how in her middle age she gets a great lesson in how national policy can be affected by citizen activism. The following three pages are near the end of her book.*

…[I]n…1960…My husband and I, along with five other people and a dog, drove a very cramped Volkswagen minibus to Alaska from New Hampshire sleeping and driving in continuous shifts. I will tell you a little about it, just for a change of scenery.

Our mission was to stop Edward Teller from exploding six thermonuclear bombs near an Eskimo fishing village. He wanted to demonstrate how America might build a new canal in Central America, and the only place defenseless enough for a test of his idea was the far, northwest coast of Alaska.

In 1958, Operation Plowshare, under Teller’s direction, was created to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosions. Within that program, the Atomic Energy Commission launched Project Chariot, which was a plan to create a new harbor on the unsuspecting northwest coast of Alaska using hydrogen bombs. They picked the mouth of the Ogotoruk Creek near Cape Thompson, about thirty miles down the coast from Point Hope. I doubt that the gulls and seals and corals would have considered it a peaceful use, nor did the villagers of Point Hope.

The questions asked of the government by the panicked villagers went unanswered for two years. In March 1960, Teller and officials of the Atomic Energy Commission went to the village to tell some great lies. They said the fish around the blasted area would not become radioactive and would be fine to eat. They said that nuclear weapons testing never injured any people, anywhere. They said that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, once they recovered from radiation sickness, suffered no side effects. They said that the villagers would feel no seismic shock—after all, it was only 600 times more powerful than Hiroshima, and they were all living well within the shock-wave zone! I speak with confidence about the meeting because the Eskimo people wisely taped the meeting, and I have listened to the tapes.…

At our church in New Hampshire, sometime in 1960, Jim and I met a minister from the Point Hope Eskimo village. He was swapping summer congregations with our minister, Bradford Young, who was always getting into political trouble and needed to cool off for a while—and where better than Alaska? The Point Hope minister was not just looking for a vacation. He wanted to get to the East Coast to see what he could do to stir up opposition to Teller’s tests.

We thereby learned about Point Hope and how the Eskimos, two of whom had come along to New England, were desperate to save their village. Alone, they had no way to stop the insanely discourteous plan. Jim and I were outraged and ready to help.

When the Alaskan minister, Keith Lawton, was ready to return to the village, and our Bradford was ready to be fetched back, Jim and I, and Pete Foster (a recent Yale graduate and the son of our best friends, Max and Elizabeth Foster) went with him. Jim and Pete and I traveled in an old VW minibus—already with 100,000 miles on it! Also in the van were the minister, a woman church worker, the two returning Eskimos, and a huge Samoyed dog to be taken to Alaska by the minister to improve the strain of dogs in the little village. Samoyeds are very smart and therefore very disobedient.…

Taking four-hour turns at the wheel, we drove continuously across Canada, eating the most gawdawful health food the church worker had purchased for the trip, instead of the hearty food Jim and I, avid campers, had recommended and funded for the journey.

We took turns sleeping and driving all the way to Fairbanks, so that we never stopped except for ghastly cooking, gasoline, rest rooms, and dog romping. Jim taught Narkook how to drive, which was a thrill for us all.

From Fairbanks we flew to Nome. Then we squeezed into a series of ever smaller airplanes, to Kotzebue, then to the little villages of Tigara at Point Hope. Our plane skidded up to the village on the snowpacked runway. Point Hope sticks out toward Russia on the far northern stretch of Alaska’s western coastline, 1,600 miles up Alkan Highway and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We were greeted with the enthusiasm you might expect in such a remote place.…

Because Jim worked for a big utility in New Hampshire, the villagers thought we could fight the Atomic Energy Commission. It was the energy business, after all. We tried to downplay our value to them, but we were all they had. Before we returned to New Hampshire, Narkook said to us, “You will stop these bombs, won’t you?” Jim shook his hand and said, by God, we would try.…

Back home, Jim, Pete, and I organized ourselves to stop Project Chariot. That sort of thing was not done back then. The government was trusted, and the environment was not a major concern. We enlisted Pete’s politically connected father, my dear friend Max Foster, to open doors in the Kennedy White House and in the Senate. Max was an old Yale man who knew half of the Kennedy administration and was related to the other half, including cousin Robert McNamara—then secretary of defense. He also contacted a researcher named Barry Commoner at Washington University in St. Louis who was practically inventing the field of environmental science. Barry sent investigators to Alaska. Their report proved decisive in the battle, as was the courageous testimony of two University of Alaska scientists, who were fired for telling the truth.…

Officials at the Atomic Energy Commission, until that moment unchallenged in their godlike power and wisdom, found themselves in defensive territory for the first time. I spoke at more teas and put out more mailings, and Jim organized more scientists and political operatives.…

All we needed to do was delay the project. There was a great effort being led by Linus Pauling and others to stop all atmospheric nuclear blasts because they caused cancer worldwide. Their efforts proved successful in 1962, when President John Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Test Ban Treaty. Project Chariot was promptly canceled.…

Never a day went by during my walk across America, that I did not think of the old gang stuffed into that minibus, driving endlessly across the continent for a good and urgent cause. I know that was the memory that had called me back to the road.

If within the next few years, Congress passes some kind of election reform bill, much credit goes to Granny D’s 3,200 mile walk, and this book. It will only be one step forward, because we have a huge worldwide money system controlling the world. But we can learn from all these many attempts to limit it. If there is a human race still here in a hundred years, I think Granny D’s book will rank alongside Thoreau’s Walden, inspiring people to think more deeply about the future, and be more active in the present.

2002, Volume 54, Issue 03 (July-August)
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