Article 25

A Life in the Resistance

In Uncategorized on 08/10/2013 at 10:52 am

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Gordon Maham of Cincinnati, lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons, died last month. Photo by Connie Springer.

Gordon Maham and the joy of saying ‘no’

By Corey Gibson

 

Gordon Maham was 96 years old when he passed away July 9 on his farm in Colerain Township. He has been called one of the last great radicals, a fitting description for someone who was arrested at least 25 times for protesting. Maham once slept on a nuclear testing site in Arizona for five days, protesting nuclear armaments; and once helped hoist the late Rev. Maurice McCracken over the White House fence so he could pour fake blood into the fountain.

A man who put himself on the line for what he believed in until the last days of his life, Maham died with active warrants still seeking his arrest.

Maham grew up in Hamilton Country and put himself through college at the University of Cincinnati, working nights at Freckling Dairy, earning a degree in civil engineering. He used the degree to help built a third set of channels on the Panama Canal and then later to built barracks in Oak Ridge, Tenn., at the top-secret Y-12 weapons plant, where he was offered deferment from service in World War II because of  his expertise. But after finding out he was contributing to the building of atomic weapons, Maham quit his job, lost his deferment and was arrested for not refusing military service. He spent three years in a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Ky.

‘I’m not going to’

From then until the end of his days, Maham protested the building of atomic weapons, along with other issues, including the prison system, arrested countless times along the way.

A dear friend of Maham, Ralph Hutchinson of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), remembers a time when Maham was arrested in Oak Ridge for protesting outside one of the plants where nuclear weapons were manufactured and where nuclear research continues today.

A judge sentenced Maham to perform community service. While working, Maham was ordered to spray the weeds on a side of the road. He refused. He told the person supervising him he didn’t want kill the bugs on the weeds.

“I’m not going to do it. It will kill the bugs,” Hutchinson quotes Maham. The supervisor insisted the weed killer wouldn’t harm the insects. Maham reluctantly sprayed a few weeds and moments later called the supervisor to look at a cricket dying from the weed killer.

“You don’t tell the guy running the chain gang what to do,” Hutchinson says. “But after the supervisor saw the bug dying, he took the hose and said, ‘Fine, you don’t have to spray.’ Everyone else in the world would assume that you do as you are told to do in that situation. Gordon assumed his first priority was his principle to do no harm.”

During another court appearance, standing before a judge who was about to hand down a $35 fine for blocking the road into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, pulled from his pocket an article about mental illness and homelessness and showed it to the judge.

“I think these people need my money a lot more than you do, Judge,” Maham said. “This is what I do with my money.”

The judge decided to drop the fine and instead sentenced Maham to community service.

Hutchinson says he was particularly struck by this moment in the courtroom because he had never witnessed anyone try to teach a judge something while being fined for a crime.

“Gordon related like that to everyone,” Hutchinson says.

Maham always used any opportunity he had to teach, Hutchinson says.

The Oak Ridge judges were not always so accommodating, however. After he had been in front of the court several times, one judge decided to hand down a harsher punishment, sentencing Maham to three days in county lockup and two days of community service. After leaving jail, Hutchinson says, Maham told him, “On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am such a dangerous criminal I have to be locked up. On Thursday and Friday I am playing chess with the kids at Briceville Elementary School for my community service.”

Activist flowers

When he turned 90 years old, Maham had to pass on a few protests at Oak Ridge. He said his daughter made him promise that, when he turned 90, he would “stay out of trouble.”

“There are hundreds of people who come to the protests, but you don’t get to meet them all,” Hutchinson says. “The ones that get arrested, though, you get to know them quite well.”

Maham was arrested about 10 times in Oak Ridge, and each time he was planting flowers as he was being arrested. Anytime he had the chance, Maham would take a potted flower with him to plant at the site of the protest – or on the other side of the fence that he wasn’t suppose to jump over.

“All he wanted to do was to go inside and sort of reclaim the earth by bringing some beauty to the place and planting the flower,” says Hutchinson, who protested alongside Maham many times.

For all his experience at protesting, people say Maham seems to have always been the least involved in the preparation for an event. He was never worried about whether he would be arrested, where he would be taken or how he should handle the situation. He didn’t worry about getting to the protest or how he would get back home.

“He had little concern for the things that worry a lot of people, like, ‘Where will I be taken?’ and ‘What’s going to happen?’ Those things were going to happen and whatever they were, he was going to survive them,” Hutchinson says.

Hutchinson says it became clear to him over time that Maham didn’t ignore the possible outcome, but simply knew he could ride it out.

Maham was also an author. He wrote the book, Let’s Simplify More, his own take on Henry David Thoreau’s exhortation, “Simplify, simplify.” The book details Maham’s philosophy that people should live without violence, alongside nature –not against it – and becoming more spiritual along the way.

Maham was inspirational, according to his close friend, Brian Garry, an activist against racism and war and a former candidate for Cincinnati City Council.

“The spiritual people are the most giving, and they would give you the shirt off their back,” Garry says. “They are the most trusting. They will be taken care of even if they give you everything, which is how Gordon was. Gordon gave me everything and anything, both spiritually and physically. He wanted to put things very simply. That was his goal.”

The joyful protester

Many who knew Maham talk about how unselfish he was and how he encouraged others to be the same way. He often said, “We are not only doing this work for God but we are doing this work for people.”

Garry says Maham was the person who taught him how to give. Maham taught him how to sacrifice even when you don’t think you have time. When there was a protest Maham truly believed in, no matter how far away, no matter what he had to do that week, he would find a way to get there.

“He wanted people to sacrifice their lives, their time, their energy to save the world because his life was about saving the earth in a real way,” Garry says.

Garry says one of the most intense moments in his friendship with Maham was sitting alongside him in the middle of a highway, protesting nuclear weapons. Local and state police surrounded Garry, Maham and the other protesters.

What did Maham want everyone to take away from the protests? He had a clear message he wanted to spread, according to Garry: “Resist violence and assist peace.”

“He lived very joyously,” Garry says. “He was always laughing, and he made you feel so at home, no matter where you were. Gordon always managed to make you feel like you belonged in the world.”

Maham wanted people to start thinking more about their relationship with the world and with nature.

“He wanted people to be aware that everything we do has an impact on the planet and other people, and we have choices about how we do things,” Hutchinson says.

Most people are not encouraged to think about their lifestyle choices. We are encouraged to consume and be part of the prevailing culture. Most conform to the norms of society but Maham constantly challenged people to think about what they are doing. He wanted people to learn and to think, not to judge others. He never pushed his beliefs on others but instead led by example, hoping others would follow in his footsteps toward a better world for everyone.

“Things would fall into place all the time,” Garry says. “Some people would call that God acting anonymously, but Gordon called it serendipity.”

Hutchinson also recalls Maham’s humor. Every time you were around him, Hutchinson says, said you would be laughing with Maham. He would tell stories and jokes about himself because he wanted everyone else to feel comfortable.

“For a person who took so much of life seriously, to make decisions about your lifestyle and to protest nuclear weapons and go to jail, all of those things he really took seriously, and yet he lived with a great deal of joy and humor,” Hutchinson says.

 

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