The Summer of Freedom — A Preppy Girl and the Sign that Changed her Thinking
A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom. — Bob Dylan
In the summer of 1983 I had just finished my junior year of high school. Life was good. I would be a senior next year. I was confident about my college applications. I had my driver’s license and I had just met some new friends at a brief summer camp I attended. These friends lived several towns over in the small upstate New York town of Romulus. Together, Sarah, Tom, Rob and I planned long lazy weekends on Seneca Lake.
The summer of 1983 was an uncharacteristically turbulent one for the town of Romulus. Home to the Seneca Army Depot, this quiet rural farming community became the epicenter of a wave of protests that season, as the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice took up residence in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of town.
The small depot served as a munitions storage and disposal location with a well-known, but officially unconfirmed, history of ties to the Manhattan Project and cold war nuclear stockpiling. Residents of the small town were largely supportive of the military and smugly proud of their mostly hidden contribution to national defense.
Fueled by rumors of an impending deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles from the depot to various locations in Europe, members of the Encampment staged repeated protests outside the heavily barricaded gates of the Army facility. Women weaved yarn through the razor wire topped fences, shouted slogans and carried homemade posters. Some even tried to scale the perimeter fence, while stoic men in Military Police uniforms stopped their progress and shielded themselves from their insults and other projectiles.
For the most part the locals were not supportive of the Encampment. From their perspective, it disturbed their peaceful existence, clogged their roads, turned the farmhouse into an eyesore and cost them taxpayer dollars to police the melee. Each protest was met with a counter-protest of locals who wanted the Encampment shut down.
In all my teenage self-preoccupation, I had not even been aware that an Army depot existed so close to my home, let alone that it was an alleged storage facility for nuclear weapons.
At most, for our gang of four that summer, the community unrest was a curiosity and a distraction. We were not all that civic minded and we didn’t feel compelled to join either side of the debate. Clad in our preppy attire, we didn’t fit in with the bohemian hippie style of the ultra-feminist protestors. But nor did we feel compelled to stand with the locals. Mostly, we were indifferent. We had better things to do with our prized Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.
But usually, on the way a movie or the mall, we took the long route to slowly drive past the protests. We were captivated by the level of emotion and fervor that ensued, and like hockey fans, we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the scattered instances of uproar that occasionally broke out.
One particular Saturday on the way to a party at the lake, we drove by a large protest and its accompanying counter-protest. From the backseat of Sarah’s car I noticed an older man holding a hand-lettered sign.
“Tom!” I exclaimed, “Isn’t that your Dad?”
“Yes, yes it is” he said solemnly.
Tom’s parents were the proverbial salt-of-the-Earth people. His Dad was a traditional hard-working farmer. His mother, a traditional farmer’s wife. They were warm and friendly, but serious people. Picture the couple in the famous painting American Gothic. His Dad was the last person I would have expected to see at a protest.
The sign he was holding read, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
While I have heard this quote repeated many times since, in that summer of 1983, it was my first time exposed to such sentiment.
I thought about it all during our BBQ at the lake. I thought about Tom’s Dad taking the time to support a deeper cause — not the ideology of the protestors, but the fabric of the freedoms of America. I thought about the irony that the military that the Encampment members were protesting were actually defending their very right to protest, despite being harassed and spit upon.
I had always respected Tom’s Dad as a benevolent authority figure. But that afternoon I saw him in a different light. I saw him as a man deeply committed to values deeper than his own individual concerns.
And as I sat on the shore of the lake roasting marshmallows I realized the true meaning of freedom and the fact that people, in all their dissimilarities and disagreements, were willing to defend the comfortable life to which I had become accustomed.
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