Evil Empire

Dear Fellow Reader,

In the fall of 2017 the Museum of history in Tacoma will open an exhibit about Citizen Diplomacy in the Pacific Northwest. The timing marks the 25th anniversary of the Goodwill Games held in Seattle. Many Russian athletes competed in 1990.

My own part in the effort to de-escalate nuclear build up and Mutual Assured Destruction was two-fold. My husband Aldon Duane Bell was the chair of a series of educational events and community discussions about this nuclear threat called Target Seattle. I provided emotional and physical support to his and the large committee’s efforts leading up to and during those events in 1982-84.

The catalyst to my own leadership was the trip to the USSR in the spring of 1983 to deliver 10,000 letters with 30,000 signatures to their recipients in our sister city, Tashkent in Uzbekistan. My story is written as a piece of literary non-fiction. I hope it will be part of a collection of personal essays and stories by other individuals whose lives were changed through their stepping into leadership roles to shape our collective futures. As Margaret Meade said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Here’s is the opening segment:

Before you is a piece of literary non-fiction. Thirty-two other fellow travelers would have their own version of the story of the City to City, People to People trip to Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand and Leningrad in the spring of 1983. Each of us chose for personal reasons to enter the “Evil Empire” against our government’s wishes.
    I will presume to speak for all of us when I say we were united in a belief that behind the Iron Curtain lived good people who loved and lived with passion and hope for their futures. We wanted to get to know them and invite them to know us.
    I will tell you how it was for me, a forty-four-year-old wife of a university history professor and mother of four daughters aged 15 – 20. I was working as director of adult education at Saint Mark’s Episcopal cathedral.
    I was terrified for our future and the future of our planet. What happened in the spring of 1983 turned my terror into action. My story begins in the middle of an awakening in Seattle. The nuclear arms build up between the USSR and the USA followed a path to total mutual destruction. Some people refused to be cowed by their fear. They began wondering together how ordinary citizens might change this destructive course of events.
    Target Seattle: Preventing Nuclear War was Seattle’s answer. This ten-day long series of teaching events and discussions intended to explore the truth behind the official bombast hurled from both sides of the ocean. The organizers wanted to discover what tools were available to us in our remote corner of the North American continent. What paths could we take toward de-escalation? In the fall of 1983, a second ten-day series of teaching events and discussions took place, this time exploring the reality of the Soviet intentions and actions. Target Seattle: What about the Russians involved even more people, all hungry to learn all they could and to find a place for themselves in the effort to turn the tide of self-destruction. The story of Target Seattle has been told by others.
    My husband, Aldon Duane Bell—we called him Don—, was the chair of these events. That first year, I quietly kept the household functioning in the wake of hours and days of planning, organizing, phone calls, letter writing and meetings. My task was to support the many events that took place in our home including feeding large groups of traveling Russians, visiting Uzbeks and guests from around the country. Nothing more.
  

For me, the letters  changed everything.

        I watched Don from across Kay Bullitt’s living room, its simple furnishings and folding chairs holding upwards of fifteen to eighteen people. I watched the others eying the papers stacked on a low round coffee table in the middle of the room. The meeting was called after the events of Target Seattle. Don often attended these meetings without me. I went that night with a sense of dread and excitement.
The task that October evening was to decide what to do with the letters, several hundred 8 1/2 x 14 sheets of paper printed in two colors, many rumpled and smoothed by hand. Each contained a single message of hope and longing to the citizens of Tashkent, Seattle’s sister city in Uzbekistan.  The letter was printed in English and Russian, the Cyrillic in a bold and slightly smaller font ran beneath the English words. The early damp of Seattle’s autumn put a chill in the room. These letters, spread out in the hundreds gave off heat which nothing could cool. I picked up the fervor.
Target Seattle events and dramas like 4 Minutes to Midnight impassioned many people to use their particular skills and take action. They created groups like the Peace chorus, Peace Table (chefs here and in the USSR), Amputee Soccer tournaments, the creation of a Peace Park and ultimately the Goodwill Games in 1990. But no one reckoned with these letters sitting here begging to be read by their intended recipients. These letters with so many signature—30,000 in all—had to reach the people to whom they were written. The signators were terrified Seattlites who feared our planet would be blown to smithereens by the Soviets or the Americans; children who watched the news with their parents and practiced bomb drills, crawling under their desks together; teachers, businessmen, lawyers, former Peace Corps volunteers, labor union members and aging folk who’d lived through WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Each person had read the letter at the events, in their schools and churches and signed their names. With their signature, they pinned their hopes on reaching a person, someone like themselves with the same fears, the same hopes. Anne, one of the authors of the letter, took the lead saying it was our obligation as organizers of the Target Seattle events to get these letters to real people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

Betsy

A fishing resort on the Orange River

Grace, Priscilla, Eleanor and Ruth in their Victoria School for Girls uniforms.

In 1975-76, my husband, Don Bell, and our four daughters aged 8 – 14 spent spring and winter terms in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa.  Our children went to the Victoria School for girls; Don taught Southern African history at Rhodes University and I watched the birds flit through the protea along our drive, binoculars in hand. 

I took the girls out of school during their Afrikaans lessons and provided a French tutor. Together, the five of us took horseback riding lessons with an Afrikaner who trained in Boston as a farrier. He was generous with his knowledge of the veld’s flora and fauna. I absorbed his teachings like a sponge. Amazing adventures happened to us, the most dramatic of which was an end-of-term Christmas/New Year’s vacation to Lesotho.  Our destination was a fishing lodge at the far end of the only road, then unpaved, from Maseru to the Orange River.

map_of_lesotho

Amazing adventures happened to us, the most dramatic of which was an end-of-term Christmas/New Year’s vacation to Lesotho.  Our destination was a fishing lodge at the far end of the only road, then unpaved, from Maseru to the Orange River. This trip provided the material for a short story about a racially naive white woman from Kansas and Oklahoma who is terrified of black people in general and of the black South Africas living under apartheid. She also longs to know a person of color and thinks it might be possible in Lesotho which does not have rules separating the races.  I set the story a few years ahead, 1980, when racial tension was much increased from the relatively quiet time when we lived there.

The American couple are  the McLanahans, Al and Libby and their daughter Alison. Their South African friends with whom they travel are Ian and Helen Coetzee and their 14 year old son Henry.

I enjoyed the effort of creating a sense of increased risk, of portraying opposing desires in the protagonist and of creating a transformation that seemed plausible. I still have an awful lot to learn and could probably spend another twenty hours re-writing.

Smith and Bell family1975

Here is the Bell/Smith group on our adventure in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.

Here’s a dramatic scene from the families’ brief afternoon as non-paying guests at the luxury hotel in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho:

They pulled into the Victoria Hotel at the edge of Maseru, the Kingdom’s capital. Helen and Libby had agreed they would act like guests. The mud-spattered Volkswagen van was conspicuous amongst the Dodge pickups and Colt Galants of vacationing Afrikaners. Free State visitors, mostly men, were at the Victoria Hotel for gambling, drink and sex. The strict rules governing interracial contact and the Dutch moral code dissolved outside South Africa.

The six of them slipped into the changing rooms before luxuriating in the crystal clear pool. “How glorious,” Libby admitted to Helen as they sipped lemonade and watched their husbands and children cavorting in the water. Libby couldn’t take her eyes off a tall muscular black man playfully cradling a blond woman. How disgusting, she thought as the couple kissed. Her own rising heat embarrassed her.

Helen and Libby joined their husbands at a patio table and ordered lunch and beers. A crackling announcement from a nearby transistor radio broke the holiday mood.

South Africa Police are rumored to have uncovered a Lesotho Liberation Army training camp in the high valley near Roma.

“Isn’t that where we are headed?” Libby asked.

The radio announcer crackled on. The Lesotho government has requested an investigation by the South African Police.

Silence followed the news bulletin and then a cacophony of commentary erupted from every table.

“Damn kaffirs.  What are they doing?”

“This will ruin everyone’s summer holiday.”

“They need the bloody tourist money so what are they doing to themselves.”

“If they lose the season, serves the bastards right.”

Libby thought about the village they left that morning and longed to return. “Why don’t we just avoid all this?” she urged, looking at Helen. Helen laid a soothing hand on her arm. Ian was about to speak when the Afrikaner with the transistor leaned in and told them not to worry. Only seventy or so disgruntled workers from Thaba Nchu, the overcrowded township near Bloemfontein. Nothing the South African Police couldn’t put down. Other beefy-faced men, fresh sunburns coloring pale office-job faces, nodded in agreement. The girlfriend of one of them put her hand on her man’s arm and eyed Helen and Libby. She retorted in such a thick Afrikaans accent Libby couldn’t understand her, “I’m not so sure it’s all that safe around here.”

“Ag, man, don’t worry. Order yourselves another beer,” her partner said, ignoring her.

From another table where a mother was drying off a couple of small children, the father chimed in, “Going to Roma? No problem. Less than an hour. The road is paved to Blue Mountain pass. The turn off is right after that.”

Libby whispered to Al, “Why are we listening to crazy drunks? We need to go back to Rhodes.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Ian calmed her down. “This little uprising is just a reaction to the economy.”

He spoke quietly so as to not attract attention. Assuming a professorial tone, he continued. “You have to understand that Chief Jonathan just threw out the constitutional rule of law to keep his power. Foreign investors don’t appreciate instability, so the economy is in the tank. All they have left is a few old white farmers, some winter skiing and the gambling and whoring that happens in Maseru. And of course the fishing where we are headed.”

“Don’t lecture me, Ian.” Libby hissed at him. “It doesn’t make it any better.”

The pool-side crowd thinned. It was well-passed lunch time. They seemed unperturbed by the news. Looking around at the emptying tables, Ian added that they would be safer going to the fishing lodge than going back. The kaffirs were interested in fighting the police. They wouldn’t hurt tourists.

Al agreed. He gave Libby a reassuring kiss on the cheek. She looked at Helen and could see she was unwavering in her belief that all would be well. Henry and Alison stood dripping in their towels. They’d heard most of the exchange. Henry piped up, “I say, let’s keep going!”

Libby felt a chill as rain clouds billowed over the pass where they were heading.

Everyone else chorused “Let’s go before it starts raining again,” and headed for the dressing rooms. I just want to get us back to Lawrence in one piece, thought Libby as she gathered up their things. No one listens to me anyway, so why bother suggesting a retreat from potential catastrophe?

I’ve sent the whole 6000+ words out to a couple presses. We’ll see what happens. Now, on to the next story!

Betsy

Journals, journals, journals

Gentle Reader,

A few years ago I unpacked a box I’d been carrying around from house to house as my life changed from marriage to widow to marriage to widow again. That box contained the letters and journals from my courtship and early years with Aldon Duane Bell, the father of my four daughters. I had always imagined I would write a memoir about those courtship days in the mid-50s when the dashing young man recently back from Oxford turned up in my American History classroom in Muskogee Central High School Oklahoma as my history teacher.

Betsy Johnson and Don Bell 1955

Betsy Johnson and Don Bell 1955

I have written over 100,000 words of memoir. None of those words suit me. So I decided to learn the craft of writing fiction. The difference between memoir and fiction is the topic for another post. My intention was to create the kind of page-turning story from my life material anyone would enjoy.

Scott Driscoll at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education Dept. is an exacting teacher of Fiction Writing. I have learned about character, desire, quest, inciting incident, increased risk, crisis moment and transformation. I’ve tried my hand at creating a good short story.

Every story I’ve written springs from the well of my own experiences and has required research to flesh out the details where memory is limited or non-existent. To make the stories follow a dramatic arc with increased risk, I have turned them into fiction. story-arc-for-planning-your-video-production

My friends and family have been tolerant of my pre-occupation with writing, have forgiven my absence at events and have been waiting for something to read from all this effort.

These pages will contain snippets of research to tantalize you and, once I am done polishing and polishing some more, a paragraph or two from the stories themselves.

It will be my pleasure. I hope it will please you, as well.

Betsy