“GET OUT OF THE DAMN ROAD!” screamed a female in a passing SUV. We were taking up only one of the four lanes running through the commercial district in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Perhaps she was impatient to reach one of the corporate franchises lining both sides of the highway.
I, too, felt some impatience with the slow-moving mass making the mile-and-a-half trek from the Alvin K. Bissell Park to the Y-12 National Security Complex. It was hot. Perspiration ran down the middle of my back. I looked at the line of walkers stretching out ahead of me and wondered what it would take to speed things up. I could have picked up my pace and plowed through the crowd; however, I felt compelled to maintain the slow but steady rhythm of the 1,000 or so walkers around me, much as I’d been moved to join them in the first place.
The decision had come from my heart rather than my head. My rational side feared that the odds of stopping the momentum of the current administration’s nuclear-weapons program were right up there with the chances that the lottery ticket stuck in my pocket would turn out to be a winner. Why, then, was I walking?
Why had I boarded a bus that left Asheville at 7 a.m. when I would have preferred to stay curled up on my pillowtop mattress? What was to be gained from spending the day listening to speeches and reading placards? And why wasn’t I where I wanted to be: tubing down a clear mountain stream, with the promise of a cookout and a cold drink at the end of a hot summer day?
Like many other Asheville-area residents, I had come to mark Hiroshima Day — the 60th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear bomb. The uranium in that warhead was enriched in Oak Ridge. That same facility is now in the process of completing life-extension upgrades on U.S. nuclear weapons that will ensure their viability for the next 100 years. The march was organized by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which wants to see the nuclear weapons dismantled and the Y-12 complex closed.
I followed the walkers through the intersection and onto Scarborough Drive, where the strip malls gave way to a grassy area leading up to a narrow creek that flowed in front of a small wood lot. In between the walkers and the water, a barbed-wire fence flaunted “No Trespassing” signs at frequent intervals. “No Fishing No Swimming,” they commanded — in other words, no access to nature. And as I watched the cascading ripples of what apparently was not cool water, I thought how benign it seemed in the sunlight. If not for the wire fence and the Department of Energy’s warning, would one even suspect that the earth there has been made toxic?
And for that matter, what can any one person know about the cumulative effects of the poisons the nuclear industry has unleashed upon the world? Depleted-uranium shells exploded in Iraq have released tiny particles of radioactive dust, infecting the air, water and surface of the earth and perhaps finding their way into the bodies of human beings — including America’s own troops.
Back at the march, a stranger stuck a camera in my face and clicked, interrupting my musings on the insanity of actions intended to destroy human life. Surprised by having someone with unfriendly eyes make images of me without my permission, I thought about what makes someone behave in ways clearly intended to intimidate.
Before beginning the walk, we marchers had been told to keep to the right of the white lines dividing the highway. Anyone crossing into the adjacent lane of traffic would be subject to arrest. And as the police cars and dozens of officers gathered at the facility’s barricaded entrance came into view, it was obvious that crossing certain lines would have consequences.
I made my way past the gatehouse and followed the crowd into a field adjacent to the Y-12 complex. Anxious to reach the shade of the tents, I found a place among some hikers sprawled on the lawn. The march over, it was time to listen to music and join in on songs sung for decades — which I did until I felt too hemmed in by the crowd huddling there to avoid the sun’s blaze.
Our bus offered air-conditioned relief from the elements’ assault. Through its wide window, I watched the demonstrators walk along the fence surrounding the plant. Beyond the wire mesh, security guards struck an “at ease” stance; but their sheer numbers and the constant movement of their vehicles sent a different message.
Seeing those men in blue, with their dark clothing and long sleeves in the intense sunlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t rather be home knocking back a cold one while watching their kids run through the sprinkler.
A month later, I’m still wondering. And I can’t ignore the sharp contrast between those mental images of the good life in America and the current activities of my government — which threaten the lives we all want to live.
The road to Washington
Local peace activists have chartered a bus for the Sept. 24 march in Washington, D.C. The bus leaves Westgate Shopping Center Friday, Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. and returns to Asheville between 4 and 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $75. To reserve a seat or arrange car-pooling, call Lena at 253-4673.
[A native of Chicago, Kathleen Buerer writes from north Asheville. To learn more about the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, check their Web site (www.stopthebombs.org).]