My father was in the US Navy. He was a bubblehead, as I have been told those who serve aboard submarines are called. He also served aboard a destroyer and it is quite possible I was, shall we say, engendered, within that destroyer, when it was in the Charlestown Navy Yard. I have the American flag that draped his coffin, given to me by an honor guard upon his burial, on my bookcase.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, Albert Cohen, English, joined the Canadian Army as an electrical engineer, and saw combat, during WWII – a Jew fighting fascism and hate during the Holocaust.
I had, as a child, thought about the military. But I wasn’t ready even to leave home to go away to college, and my life took a different direction with marriage, children, and a full life. Nothing to look back upon with even a gram of regret.
In the back of my mind, I always thought of my father’s and grandfather’s service. While I knew I wasn’t cut out for the military, for reasons which would become quite a bit more clear as I grew older, I felt there were ways I could contribute to my country. That I could make my country a better place. To that end, I worked on environmental issues, sat vigiles, walked demonstration lines, and spent many years working with Earth First! in defense of the territory, not just the map. I worked to defend what the flag stood for and what my father and grandfather fought for.
For this, I have paid, but have never been paid, though my price has not been as steep as many. Others have been beaten, or paid with their lives – taken by our own countrymen. Sometimes this was due to ideology, sometimes their bodies stood in the way of profit.
I have been told to leave our country. I have been told to get a job, while already working three. I have been hit by eggs thrown from moving cars, held at gunpoint, run off the road, spat on while chained to doors, pushed up against walls to be photographed by men in black jackets with the letters FBI on the back, had my livelihood and income threatened from within and without, and alienated family. And I have seen those beside me pay far more steeply than I.
I did this most of my life, but, there was a time, for a while, I stepped back. During the time I needed to heal, during the great confusion, depression, fracturing, and despondency that was the aftermath of the death of my wife, I could not act. I could not care. But in 2016 I heard a call my conscience could not refuse, and I began to care again. I attended a meeting for Bernie Sanders. While I would have happily voted for Hillary Clinton, and did, and not felt at all as though I had made a “lesser of the two evils” decision, Bernie was my real deal and I went to work.
A month later I was asked if I would take an actual elected position. I was surprised, to say the least. In an area that is not deeply red, but in which Democrats, let alone Greens, Progressives and Democratic Socialists tend to keep a low profile and don’t often win elections, I was asked to take on an official position – Precinct Committeeperson. I was asked by Sanjay Patel who, at that time, I had no idea I’d be voting for happily, working with delightedly, and stumping for constantly, to help elect to US Congress. But, then, I didn’t see myself running for office either. And that wasn’t the only thing I found myself doing that I would not have foreseen.
I had never worked in an official capacity before, but now I was reaching out to voters in my precinct and attending meetings, planning, and working in concert with many others (nearly never easy or enjoyable for me). I began working on registering people to vote. Then I was asked to be the chairman of the Voter Registration Committee. Then worked on the Candidate and Campaign Committee delineating what positions were coming up, qualifications for each, and then working to find people to run for those offices.
Then came the door to door. No, not me. No. Never. Hold a gun on me, ok. Spit on me. Fine. But I’m not knocking on a stranger’s door! But the candidates… I believed in these people. They were my friends. I worked with them. Knew them. So, now, yes, I’ll try it. And so began the canvassing. The canvassing. The never-ending canvassing.
It was frightful. It still is. It twists my stomach. I hate it. And I did it anyway. Many of us did. But many said no. They had anxiety. It made them nervous. They had as many excuses as to why they could not take an active part in defending and improving our country as they had complaints about what was wrong with it. I could easily have claimed the same. I did not.
And running for office? “No. Have you found anyone to run against _____”? No, not yet. “We need someone to run against ____.” Yes, that is why we are asking you. You are qualified and we think you’d be great. Are you willing to do it? “No. Are you going to find someone to run against _____?” They didn’t see the connection between what they were asking others to do but were unwilling to do themselves. And wondered why change did not come.
But, slowly, our slate filled. And did so with people of sterling quality and character that I am proud to work with. People who are worth fighting anxiety and a roaring head and the dread felt before each and every knock. These people are worth that. Our country is worth that. Our grandchildren are worth that.
All positions but one. One open position. One position with no one to run for it. The position with a name that challenged anyone to dare put it on a sign. So befuddling no one knew what or where it was. Sebastian Inlet Tax District Commission. An environmental position and I said sure. Why not?
“I wish I could vote for you, but I don’t live in Sebastian.” You don’t need to.
“I didn’t know you lived in Sebastian.” I don’t.
“I wish I could vote for you.” You can.
Lee had always wanted me to run for office. School board. But I have seen what happens to teachers who run for school board and lose. And their spouses if they happen to teach as well. No. But, here – this was a position few had heard of, low profile, and science-oriented. I could do this. All I needed to do was learn about coastal engineering, fluid and colloidal dynamics, biosolids, environmental policy and a few other things.
Besides, I wanted to be the first autistic person to win a public office. I filled out the forms.
And I was too late. A year too late. Sarah Hernandez or Enfield, Connecticut. Fine. I was doing it anyway!
Then came the fundraising. The asking for money. The accounting and webforms. The letters from the Florida Division of Elections, Office of Campaign Finance telling me I had done this wrong, that wrong, the other things wrong, and my needing to ask for help, though no one would step up to be the campaign treasurer.
Public speaking was not a problem. But, more and more, the dealing with people, though I should have been just discussing science they wanted to concentrate on anything but, became harder and harder. It was my thought canvassing would become easier the more I did it, but some months in it began to twist my stomach even more. The more I did it, the worse it got. Walking up to a house, I would feel ill. I’d wish no one was home. Beg the deities that no one would answer the door. But they were. They did. And I kept going.
Press conferences were ok, but “meet and greets” would leave me sitting in a corner with my head roaring and my body rocking. During a fundraiser, Arlene found me sitting in a corner rocking back and forth. During a pre-Pride event, Marge found me on the floor, in a corner, singing to myself, holding my head. Even at the election watch party, even with benefit of Cruzian and Coke, I lasted less than an hour and Lisa and I left to bring home Chinese food and watch at home.
Seeing myself spoken about in third person was strange. Even, as so much of it was, positively glowingly. But the attacks. Public attacks on me as a teacher. Attacks that followed me to school. Complaints and allegations out of nowhere two weeks before the election followed by parents writing publicly about me being a “piece of shit” and a “horrible human being.” Nothing I had ever experienced in nearly two decades of education. And these coming from not just locally, but far away as Washington state.
Why did I keep going? Service. To make the world better, in large part. To do my share, as I had done before, but in a new and different way, as it seemed needed at the time. Certainly I am not the first person one thinks of when running for office. A person with great difficulty reading, and misreading, faces or tone, won’t talk to people he doesn’t know, won’t engage in anything that doesn’t have clear rules of parameters, and won’t engage in small-talk or banter but will simply dive into didactic, cannot stand crowds, bright lights, and noise, is not who one looks for as a candidate. I am not well-suited for it. It made Earth First! feel easy.
One of the candidates I grew to know is Mel Martin, who ran for Florida State Senate. She is a Marine Corp veteran and I won’t say anything more about her as a person because if I write one compliment, I will feel compelled, and am quite capable, of filling the next five minutes with her virtues. She is one of the few people who knew what challenges I was running with. Instead, I will simply give her space to speak on her own. She has this to say.
“After serving with the marines – some of the finest people on Earth – and retiring four years ago, I honestly did not believe I’d be in the company of true, selfless warriors again. But I was absolutely wrong. While marines fight for each other to accomplish the mission, with the backdrop of patriotic duty, YOU are directly fighting in the spirit of patriotism – for the very pillars of society we inherited and intend to pass to the following generations. We’re not fighting simply as Americans, we’re fighting FOR America.”
And there was what I had often wanted to say, thought for years to say, but could not as I had not the experience of both kinds of service. And, so spoken by an actual member of the armed forces, a veteran, this was more appreciated than I could, at the time, express. Service comes in different types. And those on the street don’t get paid, and, sometimes, meet the same ends, at the hands, however, of their own countrymen. Bombed, burned, jailed. Lose our jobs, homes, families. In service to that which is greater than ourselves. Without benefit of remuneration of any sort, we serve.
Different, yes. And I do not pretend to know what it is like to be in a firefight. My hat’s off to members of the armed forces, always. Respect and appreciation. Often amazement. But I also respect those who have given so much to fight at home to make this home better for us all. Those who worked far past their comfort and risked themselves when they could have stayed at home, and often lost so much.
To them, I say, also, thank you for your service.