Excerpts from “Plain Language”

“When I turned fifty, I stood at the kitchen counter looking out the window at our small backyard in Providence, Rhode Island, studying our one towering tree and old carriage house, and suddenly I saw my mother, alone at her kitchen table in Pennsylvania, looking out at her flower garden, the sloping lawn, the pear tree and woods beyond.  It dawned on me that I was now as old as she had been when she lost her 14-year-old son to suicide.  My mind didn’t flash to my brother Geoff. It saw only the three different faces of my own boys, each so full of life and purpose, and my breath caught. I could not fathom losing one of them. I saw my mother’s face, the kindness of her smile, her attentive eyes, and I felt her spirit swirl through me even though she was now eight years gone. Sadness for her swept over me, into my bones, and I steadied myself against the hard countertop.”

"It dawned on me that I was now as old as she had been when she lost her 14-year-old son to suicide."

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“Because pacifism was a tenet of both our Quaker upbringing and of Bryn Gweled, as children we were unaware that we held a minority point of view in the world at large. Nonviolence was something we thought everyone always wanted, as Geoff wryly noted in “A Christmas Thought,” a poem he wrote in 1963, when he was twelve:

“What do you want for Christmas, Sonny?”
Says old Santa, big and funny.
“A Mighty Moe is nice to have–
Shoot down light bulbs on Christmas morn.
A Tommy is nice, you see
Shoot poor Santa in the Chimney!”
All these war toys to celebrate His birth,
The time when peace was to come to earth.

By Jr. High BG kids were voicing their liberal, Democratic views more publicly, particularly in class discussions of social issues, and occasionally Geoff joined in. But the majority of Bucks County students, like their parents, were white conservative Republicans. In 1964 David Polster’s social studies teacher led the class in discussions about the Johnson/Goldwater campaign.  David was the only student in the room to favor Johnson. He sat in class for the whole period with his arm raised, but the teacher refused to call on him. In the comfort of Bryn Gweled, though, for Halloween David and Geoff created, to great applause, a donkey they sewed from burlap feed bags and crawled into–Geoff wearing a donkey head, David bent over as the rump–and draped with a purple LBJ banner….

…We did think of ourselves as distinct, and our parents encouraged it. They spoke of the Southampton powers who had made it hard for BG to get underground wiring, sewers, or some zoning break because they wanted to dissolve our community. We kids heard such comments without understanding, but we took them to mean somehow that we were better, higher, special, and “they” were the unenlightened masses.”

"...as children we were unaware that we held a minority point of view in the world at large."

***          ***          ***          ***          ***

"Geoff’s understanding of who he was came under increasing attack."

“By October [1965], Betty Polster [a neighbor in Bryn Gweled] was getting death threats.  As president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom she was taking public stands against the war.  Geoff was reading the papers every day.  One afternoon, he brought an editorial to my mother. It argued “The Right to Protest.” He read a sentence aloud: “Those who protest government policies which involve us in war, which one believes to be wrong, are not cowards or anti-American–but are preserving our democracy.”  Geoff looked at my mother. “That’s just the way I feel,” he said.

He was thinking a lot about war and definitions of right action in the face of wrong or adversity.  In an essay for school, he analyzed Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, describing how Dickens depicted different types of characters, and how he developed them in the story.  Geoff was particularly impressed by Sydney Carton–how “he grew as a person from one who lacked motive and purpose in life into one of the most heroic of characters.”  Only later would Geoff’s admiration for Carton’s end seem cruelly haunting:

Through synchronization of the characters and the plot there comes a tremendous apex of suspense which in my opinion, Dickens solved very well, considering the many loose ends he had to tie down. The solution to the climax, Carton’s execution, was not so much tragic as it was glorious as indicated by Carton’s immortal words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever rested before.”

Outside the safe haven of academic assignments, school was becoming complicated. As Geoff entered William Tennent High School that fall, his academically accelerated group of friends, who had been a cohesive group since fourth grade, were split up and mainstreamed among different 10th grade classes.  Instead of being surrounded by 30 kids who knew everything about each other, they now were mixed with kids a year older, whose names and attitudes they didn’t know as well.

Geoff’s understanding of who he was came under increasing attack. In one class, during a discussion of the growing conflict in Vietnam, Geoff’s teacher, whom he liked a lot, expressed a view in support of escalation. “We’re fighting with one hand tied behind our back! The best thing to do is bomb Hanoi and get the war over with. We’re just fiddling around!”  Either in class or after, Geoff apparently voiced his own views against the war, and within days, he was punched in the hallway and harassed into red-faced silence on the school bus for being a “commie pinko coward.”
Geoff’s wounded outrage spilled onto the soccer field. During a scrimmage at school another boy did something–some cheap shot, or kick, or shove–and Geoff just lost it.  He got very angry, and physically went at the boy.  John Fesmire, playing beside him, remembered the incident mostly because it was in such contrast to how Geoff usually was — a very easy-going guy. “That was the only time I saw him that angry,” he said, “and we had known each other since 4th grade.”

Then, on November 2nd, Norman Morrison immolated himself on the steps of the Pentagon — protesting the war, burning his body into the minds of Americans of every persuasion.  Defense Secretary Robert McNamara watched, horrified, from his window above. My brother stared at the photograph in the newspaper.  He heard kids at school say the guy was a loony.  But Geoff knew Norman Morrison was a Quaker.”

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