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It Runs in the Family

It has five sides, five floors and two basement levels , and Boston Globe Columnist James Carroll vividly described it in his appropriately monumental book, House of War , as he experienced it in his s childhood. His father, an Air Force general, was the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and as a boy the Pentagon was his playground.

There were six hundred drinking fountains, and I sipped from most of them. A clock room had the right time for every place right down to Moscow, Russia. Grown-up men rode three-wheeled bikes with baskets, messengers with their bells blasting -- make way for secrets! In corners stood faded battle flags attached to spears, with streamers flowing from the blades. On the walls hung paintings of warplanes and horses, tanks and dead-eyed men.

Call it Paradise. It was not so much to want for a lad of ten. And yet, except at rare moments, few of us know that it has been the target of, and site of, almost continual protest since the s. Frida Berrigan grew up in the heart of that ongoing protest and in a modest community of mainly religious radicals who, in and out of prison, kept it alive and to this day continue their unending protests against our state of war. Berrigan has written a striking memoir of that world, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood , and today, in a particularly vivid fashion, she plunges us into her childhood as a witness to war, American-style.


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The Pentagon loomed so large in my childhood that it could have been another member of my family. Maybe a menacing uncle who doled out put-downs and whacks to teach us lessons or a rich, dismissive great-aunt intent on propriety and good manners. When we were little, my brother and sister and I would cry with terror and dread as we first glimpsed the building from the bridge across the Potomac River. To us, it pulsated with malice as if it came with an ominous, beat-driven soundtrack out of Star Wars.

I grew up in Baltimore at Jonah House, a radical Christian community of people committed to nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear culture. They gained international renown as pacifist peace activists not afraid to damage property or face long prison terms. The Baltimore Four , the Catonsville Nine , the Plowshares Eight , the Griffiss Seven : these were anti-Vietnam War or antinuclear actions they helped plan, took part in, and often enough went to jail for. These were also creative conspiracies meant to raise large questions about our personal responsibility for, and the role of conscience in, our world.

In addition, they were explorations of how to be effective and nonviolent in opposition to the war state.

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These actions drew plenty of media attention and crowds of supporters, but in between we always went back to the Pentagon. As kids, horrific images of war were seared into our brains from old documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and newer dispatches from Vietnam, and later El Salvador and Guatemala. And all of them seemed traceable to that one place, that imposing five-sided building overlooking the Potomac and surrounded by parking lots and sylvan acres of lawns and paths.

In many ways, I grew up at the Pentagon. Our family never sat for a formal portrait. But what we do have is photo albums stuffed with pictures taken at the Pentagon as we protested there year after year after year. The pillars of the River Entrance are behind me. My brother Jerry relaxes in a stroller in the background. My mom and other friends are standing nearby.

Click here to see a larger version Frida at about two and Rosemary Maguire at the River Entrance to the Pentagon in Frida's mom, Liz McAlister, and brother Jerry in the stroller can be seen in the background. American nuclear capabilities, already vast, were to be built up yet more, while conventional non-nuclear forces were to be expanded, too. After debate on the Hill, however, Congress cut his increase in half. These were overwhelming sums to the adults protesting back then.

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It Runs In the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals by Frida Berrigan – Agape Community

And yet, even after adjusting for inflation, they seem almost modest today. A snapshot eight or nine years later shows me crouched behind my little sister, then an irresistibly cute toddler of two or three. Our house was full of such banners, painted in block letters on sheets. The year might have been and the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists then stood at three minutes to nuclear midnight.

The Pentagon workers would undoubtedly have refused flyers from me, but they took them with a smile from my little sister. When I was eight, 75 people from our community were arrested blockading the entrances to the Pentagon. In another photo, taken in April , I walk down the River Entrance steps.


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I am 11 and soaking wet and grimacing. I still remember the moment. They could and did wash the blood away. Their hoses are visible in the background and the pillars are clean. Drawn from the veins of my parents and their friends, the dark red liquid was a potent symbol meant to mark that building with the end result of war.

Frida Berrigan on the joys of parenting and activism

My parents hoped that it would remind those entering of the reality of their work, of what lay behind or beyond the clean offices they labored in and the spiffy suits or uniforms they wore. At the time, the Pentagon was locked in a fierce fight with the CIA and the White House over the wisdom of trading weapons for hostages with Iran and giving the money to U. Click here to see a larger version Frida and a friend in front of the River Entrance in April , wet from the hoses used to clean off the blood. Thrown from baby bottles, splattered high onto porous white marble, the blood was hard to wash off.

The maintenance guys worked around us as much as possible. They tried not to get us wet. Occasionally, the police would move us out of the way, only to watch us scamper back through the suds and pools of pinkish water.

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Sandblasting, power-washing, scraping: it was all tried to get those stains out. Over the years, the columns wore away perceptibly and by that modest measure we marked our success. We were changing the Pentagon, molecule by molecule. Ah yes, you again, it must be Hiroshima Day.

We were the reminder, the tweak of conscience, the minor cost of doing business. I need to learn how. My kids need to learn how. Enough at least to do our best to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. And on that score, I do have cause for alarm.


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My front-yard garden is modest and haphazard at best, but working on it does make me notice and admire the other front-yard gardeners in my neighborhood. A woman up the street has an amazingly impressive crop of tomatoes and string beans coming in. Back then as a practical response to war-induced scarcities and to a massive and sophisticated propaganda campaign, Americans dug up their lawns in staggering numbers and put in gardens, turning the clock back briefly on rapidly suburbanizing communities and industrializing lives. For a few years, neighborhood farmers genuinely helped feed America.

Victory Gardens have their spot in the history of the home front in World War II, but I was surprised to learn recently that they actually date back to the First World War. In those war years, many farmers were drafted and food and fuel were rationed. Everyone had a role. The city fathers of San Francisco turned over the lawn at City Hall to local farmers; the Boston Commons was quilted with gardens; and public land nationwide was hoed and rowed and made to produce. Now, I dislike rank propaganda as much as the next person, but face it, Victory Gardens were cool! And the posters appeal to so many traits we think of as inherently American: can-do-it-ness, self-sufficiency, hard work.

Not too long ago and a million years before the advent of the Internet, we did that. No Victory or in this era, possibly, Defeat Gardens for us. Few of course could even name all the countries in which the U. Our eyes tend to glaze over when we stumble on a war news story. All our government has wanted from us in its war effort and this has been totally bipartisan is our complacency, our inattention, our distracted and ill-informed consent or at least passivity.

We are, that is, to be prepared for nothing. President Trump has put a new twist on this American compact. The kids want to have a corn party with our neighbors. Still, our fleeting and delicious ability to feed one another might help us grow a bigger patch next year and face with a greater sense of self-assurance whatever zombies Washington sends our way.

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