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The Voyage of the Golden Rule

On June 20th 2015 a crowd gathered on the bank of Zerlang & Zerlang Boat Yard in Samoa, California, to witness the launching of the Golden Rule. It was a bright grey afternoon. The Veterans for Peace were still raising money for their voyage to the San Diego annual convention, so they had piles of T-shirts out and everybody was buying commemorative glasses of champagne. Out on Humboldt Bay kayaks and yachts drifted around, waiting for the splash-down.

Although the excitement was congratulatory, a somber note hummed in the air. Most of the people present were old enough to have life experiences entangled with the history about to be commemorated. And this event was starkly allegorical, beginning with the very name, Golden Rule, foundation of practically all the philosophies and religions of the world, gleaming on the boat’s stern. Its successful premiere performance, almost 60 years ago, had been the publicized attempt to save the earth by sailing 2000 miles across the Pacific into the US atomic bomb testing grounds. The Coast Guard caught them almost immediately. But the aspiration of the frail boat 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, which ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, was signed in 1963.

The boat then disappeared from history for a long, mysterious interval, but its crew most certainly did not. They were not young men. They wended their way through the topography of the century, samurais for social justice. Take James Peck. He began his protests getting beaten up during the 30’s Labor Movements. He spent 3 years in jail for antiwar protests during WWII during which time he succeeded in desegregating the prison mess hall. He demonstrated tirelessly during the antinuclear movement after the war, and participated in delegations to Russia and China.

He 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 sixties. He brought a successful lawsuit against the FBI for colluding with the KKK in their vicious attacks on the Riders.

He demonstrated steadily against the Viet Nam war. He was gassed and arrested at the Columbia demonstrations and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He set up tiger cages in front of the UN protesting the treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners. He demonstrated in support of draft card burners. He organized die-ins, sang Japanese protest songs at the gates of nuclear power plants, and was arrested   in a giant demonstration on Wall Street against the financiers of the nuclear industry.

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The Golden Rule sets sail in Humboldt Bay. Photo: Veterans for Peace.

In the words of William Huntington, another member of the crew, spoken in 1978 at the 50th reunion of his Harvard class, “ We have had a lifespan laid out in the heart of the twentieth century. Before we were born, the Hague Conferences promised an end to war. After WWI, which dominated our youth, we were told that was the last war. At the close of WWII, which dominated 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. Somehow something or somebody will turn the tide. But in today’s reality we cannot not just be audience…”

Orion Sherwood, the only surviving crew member, was present at the launching. So were children of Captain Albert Bigelow and George Willoughby. Shigeko Sasamori, who had been burned almost past recognition at Hiroshima, rechristened the Golden Rule before the boat slipped back into her element. She described her experience, in strong, eloquent broken English when, as a thirteen-year-old girl in 1945, exhausted from sprints to the air raid shelter and, just in case her house was hit by fire bombs, wearing the two pairs of pants, which wound up saving her from fatal burns, she pointed out the Enola Gay to a friend as it floated into the peerless blue sky over Hiroshima…and instantly lost consciousness.

Jessica Reynolds read from her father’s diary. Earle Reynolds was one of the world’s experts on the effects of radiation. She was ten when he piloted the Phoenix of Hiroshima into the nuclear testing grounds around Bikini Island. Earle had been present in Honolulu at the trial of the Golden Rule’s crew for criminal contempt, and was deeply impressed. In his beautifully written diary he ruminated on the challenge of continuing the mission. Although instinctively law-abiding, he recognized the US ban on travel in the 380,000 square miles around the Marshalls as illegal. He had worked on Hiroshima, and had on board a young man whose mother had crawled through heaps of burned corpses looking for her family. He recorded the spectacle as they approached Bikini Island: the giant flashes and the dirty orange light in the western sky of what would ultimately amount to 67 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests.

Leroy Zerlang, owner of the boat yard, told of the Golden Rule’s fifty-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, and set free upon the sea a little hope for the entire country. They have in fact achieved a sort of saintly status. They would, I am sure, scoff at this reflection. Indeed, Leroy Zerlang, in telling how they raised the Golden Rule’s rotting hulk from the bay, cloaked his story in the common 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). They, if anybody, have the fortitude to be heirs to the illustrious crew of 1958.

Orion Sherwood 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 US citizens in their response to the 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule, has languished in today’s world. If they are aware at all that the US and Russia each have 2500 nuclear warheads aimed at each other’s cities, on hair-trigger alert, they do not seem to feel the targets burning into their backs. Somehow they have stifled the outrage natural to being held eternally hostage, a sacrifice to financial and political leaders who do not share a single one of their own interests.

Contemptuously and imperiously the US defies its obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to decrease its nuclear stockpiles. We make 80 new H bombs a year and are perfecting the B61-12 bomb, a tactical nuclear weapon which is designed to be used, not merely held as a deterrent. We are going to spend $341 billion on nuclear weapons over the next ten years.

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 every day less possible.

At the Mattole Grange barbecue this Fourth of July, as I listened once more to the beautiful voice of Claire Trower singing our national anthem, I suddenly 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 desperately for a glimmer of hope.

Today’s empire is not the British, but, alas, we ourselves. It is imperialism which is the enemy, our own imperialism. 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 evil than the simple blade of an ISIS fanatic, hoping to see a flash of what the flag once aspired to.

The Golden Rule was sited last week off the coast of Mendocino. May the miracle of its resurrection restore hope to the people in all harbors it graces, and the stamina to insist on the survival of our grandchildren and great-grand children on all the waterfronts of the world.

Support the Golden Rule Project.

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Ellen Taylor can be reached at ellenetaylor@yahoo.com.

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