Driving into Leroy Zerlang’s boatyard in Fairhaven, CA on the spit that encloses Humboldt Bay, you could easily ignore the unremarkable, plywood-clad, open-ended building off on the south side of the yard. In fact, when I drove in yesterday, I did ignore it, proceeding toward the small, more inviting office where Justin, one of the yard hands, was working. When I inquired about the subject of my visit, he pointed me to the plywood shed and invited me to go take a look.
I went out there on that hazy winter day partly to put to rest a silly notion about starting another documentary film. I don’t have time or money or, more importantly, the energy or focus to embark on another multi-year project while several other projects—two films and my house top the list—already put more demands on my time than I can fulfill. I was going to see if maybe I could do some shooting for fun, something to put on my own website or on the Vets For Peace site as promotional footage for them. Besides, this was coming to seem more like a PBS historical doc than the edgy, cinema-verite style subjects that I’m more drawn to and comfortable with.
In the late ’50s, the Cold War was rapidly gaining steam as the U.S. and Soviets tested ever more terrifying and destructive atomic weapons. The United States conducted above-ground bomb blasts in a remote part of the Nevada desert and in the Eniwetok Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. In March of 1958, four men set sail from California for Eniwetok in a 30-foot ketch named Golden Rule. Their intention was to sail into the proving grounds to stop a series of scheduled U.S. atomic tests called “Hardtack” and to raise global awareness of the dangers of nuclear fallout.
Golden Rule’s captain, Albert Bigelow had been arrested for protesting at the gate to the Nevada Test Site the previous August 6th—Hiroshima Day—along with three dozen or so others in what was likely the first such nonviolent peace action there. They were part of an ad hoc group called Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons. Few heard of their principled stand in 1957, but over the next four decades, that gate would become a focus of protest, with arrest numbers climbing into the thousands.
Further bomb tests were scheduled to take place in Eniwetok in April of 1958. With Bigelow’s nautical experience and the force of their convictions that nuclear weapons constituted a grave and immediate threat to all humankind, they began planning for a continuation of their “experiment with truth” on the high seas.
I first went to the Nevada Test Site (NTS) sometime in 1986, to protest at that same gate with a group calling itself American Peace Test. I don’t recall how many people were arrested for symbolically stepping across the cattle guard that marks the Test Site boundary, but I was not one of them. I was there to give moral support and add my body to the crowd outside the line. By then, nuclear testing had been moved into holes drilled thousands of feet underground, but the dangers of nuclear annihilation had grown even greater, with tens of thousands of warheads stockpiled, nuclear-missile-equiped submarines and planes on 24-hour alert and warmongering national leaders making deadly jokes about nuclear holocaust.
In 1987, I returned to the NTS with a group of activists from Earth First! and Greenpeace. Our intention was to stop the “Hazebrook” test, scheduled to take place on February 4th. Hazebrook was significant because the Soviets had announced a unilateral six-month moratorium on testing and promised to refrain from further testing if the U.S. followed suit. The nuclear arms race could have ended right then and there, but in an act of, arrogant disregard for humanity, the U.S. Dept. of Energy under President Ronald Reagan announced the Hazebrook test. If conducted, it would be the moratorium-breaker, setting off a new round of Soviet testing, continuing the deadly spiral toward anihilation.
Our plan was only slightly less ambitious and risky than that of the Golden Rule crew: we were to hike forty miles across the desert, mostly at night, and bicycle-lock our necks to the fiberoptic cables connected to the underground bombs at ground zero.
After returning from the attempt at stopping the tests in Eniwetok, Bigelow wrote a book about the experience. Their journey had caught the attention of the world, not to mention the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and Atomic Energy Commission, the last of whom enacted an arbitrary regulation aimed at stopping the Golden Rule and her crew from sailing into the testing area. The ship was twice intercepted by the Coast Guard and the crew was arrested and jailed in Honolulu until the tests were over.
Reading Bigelow’s thought’s early on in the voyage to Eniwetok, there is a tragic and heartbreaking pall over their hopeful and spirited intentions. Tragic because I know, as a reader half a century later, what they could not know at the time: that neither they nor millions of global protesters who came after them would stop nuclear testing; that people would be dying of cancers downwind of testing areas in the Pacific and the United States for decades; that vast areas of land and water would be forever contaminated by the wastes of the arms race; that more land would be stolen from Native peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere to mine for uranium; that nuclear weapons anti-proliferation treaties would not prevent the spread of these deadly devices around the world; that nations would bankrupt their economies to produce bombs while their citizens lacked basic necessities; and that fifty years later, long after the fall of communism, generals and politicians would be finding new reasons to continue to maintain nuclear stockpiles.
In 1987, we didn’t have cell phone communications or smartphone GPS units. We relied for communication on hand-held radios and found our way by map and compass or by scouting terrain from high points in daylight and following stars at night across the trackless desert. Feeling a time crunch as the February 4th Hazebrook test date drew nearer, we left our Las Vegas base for the Nevada Test Site backcountry with inferior radios. The good ones Greenpeace had shipped did not arrive until the next day. This would prove to have deal-breaking consequences.
After three nights of travel, sleeping in what little shelter we could find in that sparse landscape during the day, we were within striking distance of the Hazebrook site in Area 10. We were behind a small ridge, planning to move in before dawn on test day. We had split up before dawn into two separate, four-person tactical teams: one would go in at dusk the night before and get photos of the protest banner; the other four of us would chain ourselves to the cables and set off smoke devices and flares to alert the test monitors to our presence. I was with the latter team. The photo team would split up and each would take a roll of film out a different direction, including the two women with the banner who would get arrested at ground zero. The idea was that as news of the blockade and test shut-down reached the media, there would be photos of Greenpeace anti-nuke activists at ground zero to go with the story.
Unbeknownst to us during our journey across the desert, the Greenpeace coordinating team back in Vegas had received an anonymous tip that the Dept. Of Energy had moved the test up one day—to February 3rd—to thwart protests. And there we were, the evening of February 2nd, already in striking range! We had made better time than anticipated.
To prevent the military from locating us by triangulating our radio signals, we kept traffic to a minimum. At designated times, we turned the radios briefly on and tried to contact Las Vegas base, but to no avail. The radios didn’t have enough range. We decided to keep to the February 3rd, dawn action plan, monitor the scanners and when the countdown started, move in and lock down.
Unable to receive this new test date information, we only learned of the test when, on the morning of February 3rd, we tuned in and heard the announcement that the test had been carried out successfully. At a mere 25 kilotons, thousands of feet underground, we hadn’t even felt it. The first tactical team had been arrested the day before, when low-flying helicopters spotted them. We remained hidden in foxholes, dressed in full desert camouflage, all day while helicopters continued searching for us. After a brief discussion and evaluation of water supplies, we decided that there was no purpose in getting arrested at this point. At dusk, we began the two-night, forty-mile trek back to the highway and our designated pickup point, ducking our tireless helicopter pursuers the entire time.
Crossing off the last item on my Eureka to-do list, I headed westward over the Samoa bridge, turned south past the shuttered pulp mill, passed by the steaming cooling towers of the wood-chip-fired power plant and followed the directions I’d written on the scrap of paper to the boat yard. I had just finished reading Bigelow’s book, The Voyage Of The Golden Rule, that very morning, so my thoughts were with the boat and crew, their pioneering adventure in peace and all that had followed in their wake.
Approaching the open gable-end of the plywood building, the first thing I saw were the newly-replaced and lacquered planks of the Golden Rule’s transom. Stepping inside, the full sweep and elegant lines of the hull and keel became visible. The boat rests on her keel, held upright by blocks and posts. Her bowsprit is the only part that protrudes beyond the building, facing proudly into the weather, looking toward the water in yearning.
Planks are still missing on the port side, having been removed due to deterioration. Other rotted or damaged planking has already been repaired with new ones fashioned of a gorgeous, strong and rot-resistant tropical hardwood known as purpleheart. Those planks stand out against the vessel’s remaining paint-covered original components, forming interesting patterns of color and line.
The interior has been gutted to the ribs, the cabin has been torn off and almost all of the decking is gone, save for the area around the cockpit. Replacement masts from another old boat are lying on blocks outside. I don’t know what happened to the original masts.
After being released from jail in Honolulu, Golden Rule’s crew flew home and the boat was eventually sold. Between the end of the book and this plywood shack, there is a story to fill in. What I know so far is that it ended up neglected and in need of significant work in Humboldt Bay and was taken in as a project by the boatyard’s owner, Captain Leroy Zerlang, who apparently has a soft spot for wooden boats. Only later did he learn of the vessel’s history and got word to the local Vets For Peace chapter.
They are now funding its restoration as a peace and protest boat, with plans to launch sometime in 2013. What sort of trouble the boat takes her crew into is a story yet to be written.
Reading the tale of Golden Rule, I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship across time. While our philosophies and approaches differed a bit, we still had the same basic revulsion to nuclear weapons testing and were willing to undertake great journeys and put everything on the line for our convictions. Neither of our groups stopped any tests, but both gave it everything in the process of trying.
Climbing up on the decking around the cockpit, I was hit with an unexpected wave of emotion, tears beginning to well up. Here it was, for real, this craft that I’d only seen in my mind’s eye, in Bigelow’s sketches which pepper the book and in the one photograph on the dust cover. It was as if the crew and the energy of their journey were somehow present there in that shed. The original crew members are all dead now. But I wonder, when they looked back on their adventure throughout their lives, if they were ever curious about the boat’s fate. Bigelow’s writing conveys an affection for the vessel and it would be hard to not get attached to a craft that you are so bound to for survival out on high seas.
I first heard about Golden Rule when I sold a water tank to one of the Vets For Peace members last summer. I became intrigued, wondering immediately about the possibility of a documentary. I ordered a copy of The Voyage Of The Golden Rule, but my hectic schedule and the group’s internal process kept me from seriously pursuing anything for the last five months. I had only just finished the book the morning before my visit to the boatyard.
While I had been intent on letting go of the idea of a film, or maybe at most shooting a little promotional video for the group’s website, members of the VFP with whom I’d spoken apparently were still excited about the idea of a documentary and hadn’t forgotten. Needing to go to Eureka anyway that day (70 miles from where I live), I planned a visit to Golden Rule as my last stop. I brought my video camera and tripod to shoot some test footage in case the shipwright happened to be there.
As I said, my plan had been to convince myself that it was not my kind of project and that I was already over-committed. I was also under the impression that most of the restoration work had been completed, providing another reason to not take it on as a film. I prefer verite-style documentaries, where events unfold unpredictably in front of the camera. I’d originally envisioned this as two parallel and interwoven stories: the backstory of 1958 on the one hand and the restoration process and relaunching as a new protest boat on the other. If there were not much of a current-day story, then it would be a PBS-ish historical documentary. However worthwhile, that would be something for someone else to take on.
But all of my best intentions, not to mention common sense, walked the plank when I saw the boat. When something feels right and calls to me, it is hard to let it go. There is considerable restoration work left to do on Golden Rule herself—plenty to carry a story—and the energy of the boat itself seems brimming with potential. Within minutes, I was mentally setting up camera angles, overhead dolly shots and working out lighting in the cramped, dreary shed.
Apparently some of the original sailors continued on as activists after leaving Hawaii. Albert Bigelow, for example, was one the original Freedom Riders, risking life and limb to protest segregated buses in the South. Part of the research for the film will be tracing their journeys through life after the book’s last page. I’ll likewise try to fill in the missing history of the Golden Rule herself, how she went from being sold in Honolulu in 1958 a derelict washed up on the shores of Humboldt Bay in 2011.
And in the end, these story threads will weave together into the fabric of Golden Rule’s next chapter as she sets sail anew in waters no less troubled now than on that first audacious voyage.