[In March 1971, an unidentified activist group broke into the Media, Pa., FBI office and took hundreds of documents from its files. The documents were mailed anonymously to reporters at major papers around the country. They showed that the FBI was spying on many legal peace activities and protest groups at area colleges and elsewhere in the Philadelphia area. Today such an exposé would likely be greeted with a disdainful shrug. But in 1971 the disclosures caused a sensation and a scandal. The FBI never did find out who carried out the break-in.
Media, Pa, is next door to Wallingford and Pendle Hill. This story imagines a potential connection between them. The narrator, Irene (pronounced I-REE-ny) Ramsay, was in fact Registrar at Pendle Hill for many years. Author Chuck Fager was her colleague there from 1994 to 1997. She, along with Quincy the cat, and of course Howard Brinton, were real and memorable Pendle Hill characters indeed. The idea that the U.S. public would be shocked to learn our government was spying on its citizens was also real and memorable, once.]
Why, it’s FBI, ducks, dead simple. But that one in the crossword reminds me of something unusual, which I can tell you about before Chuck gets back from the kitchen.
The whole thing started because of them silly wind chimes Chuck bought last fall. He lived next door to me then, and he was so proud of them, too. Five little steel pipes strung around some bits of ceramic to make them ring. "Don’t they make a lovely sound, Irene," says he, tapping one o’ the pipes with a pen. "Just like a bell. Found them at the Swarthmore Meeting jumble sale."
Well, the pipe did make a nice noise, I guess. But as I said to my golf partner that afternoon, said I, I was a wee bit dubious about it. Chuck’s okay with crossword puzzles and the Internet and such as that. But when it comes to a thing like this, dearie, he’s not got good sense.
I mean, I’ve been here at Pendle Hill a long time, don’t you know, and I can tell you it’s little things that make community living hard sometimes, even for Quakers. Maybe especially for them. Little things, like wind chimes that make lovely bell-like sounds.
After all, we’ve got one bell at Pendle Hill already, and if you ask me that’s quite enough. I put up with that one because usually when it rings, it’s time to go eat. But them wind chime things will ring all day, which ain’t so bad ’cause I’m mostly at my office. But then they’ll go all night too, when a body’s tryin’ to sleep. And a body my age needs her sleep, duckie. That ringing could make you go mental.
Before the week was out, though, that’s just how it was, too, ding-dong at all hours of the night. It was almost as bad as the way my second husband used to snore—ah, but that’s another story, now, isn’t it. Them chimes didn’t seem to bother Chuck, but he says he can sleep through hurricanes. Me, though— well, we don’t get many hurricanes in Scotland, eh? Besides, I was keeping my door open a crack them nights anyway, so’s Quincy, the poor thing, could get in and out.
Quincy’s a good cat, even if Chuck says he’s snobby and distant. Really, he’s just independent, the way good cats are supposed to be. And he always comes home to his mum sooner or later. Of course the "later" part can get to be very late sometimes, which is why I leave the door open a crack in fair weather. Pendle Hill’s mostly been safe that way in my time, thank goddykins. I can tell Chuck thinks I’m a bit daft about Quincy, but he’s one to talk—ask him about baseball sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, what does a man know? That cat’s my only family west of Dundee.
And that’s just how it was the night this all happened, ducks. It was a holiday, for one o’ those American heroes or other, I can’t keep ’em straight, and the place was nearly deserted, and right peaceful too.
I’d been watchin’ my program on the telly, it’s BBC y’know, and it was ever so good. But then it ended and Quincy was still out, and some other show comes on, fancy folks carrying on about U.S. politics and the 1996 election in a few weeks, and whatnot. Now these folks were very learned, with degrees from fine universities and all, and they was all worried about this rascal Newt Nonesuch or whatever his name is, and all the dreadful things they say he’s up to down in Washington.
Well, I worry about that too, dear, but to tell the truth it wasn’t like my program at all, and my mind started wandering, and before you know it I dozed off right there in their faces.
It was those wind chimes woke me up, you see, not once, but twice. The first time I sat up quick and took a few seconds to gather me wits. The learned folks were just finishing up on the telly, and Quincy was nowhere in sight. So I got a can of his favorite food from the fridge, opened it up and went to the door and called.
But there was no sign of him, which was a bother. Of course, I could have just left the food outside and shut the door. But it just feels better when he’s safe inside, you know what I mean? So I settled down again and tried to get interested in the new show, something about hunger in Africa. Very depressing it was.
When I woke up again, the screen was fuzzy and the chimes were clanging and jangling something fierce, like there was maybe a hurricane outside, and my first thought was for Quincy out there in it, the poor wee thing.
But it was just a passing breeze, I guess, ’cause when I opened the door and called it was all dark and quiet-like. I listened for a bit, then figured I’d had about enough of waiting up for the little rascal, and was ready to shut the door tight, when I heard a scream.
I gasped and froze, because it wasn’t a human scream. That would have been bad enough, now, but this—this had been an animal’s cry.
In terror. Or horrible pain. Or both.
"Quincy!" I cried out as soon as I could catch me breath.
And then it came again. Even more awful than the first time.
"Quincy!" I bawled, right panicky now for sure.
I suppose the reasonable thing to do then, especially for a good Quaker pacifist, would have been to say a prayer or two and call somebody for help. But, ducks, much as I love this place, I’m an atheist so I don’t believe in prayer. In fact, I’m not even a Quaker, and being Scotch, what kind of a pacifist d’ya think I’d make anyway? Most everybody was away as it was, so who was I gonna call? Besides, when you get right down to it, is there anything more fierce than a mother protecting her young when they’re in danger? I ask ya.
So I took a breath and the panic passed. Then I glanced over in the corner, and there was my golf bag and clubs. I pulled the putter out, and hefted it in one hand. Yes, it would do. My ancestors kept whole armies of British invaders at bay with not much more than this. And the flashlight, on the closet shelf: it was big enough to be a club as well as a torch.
With this weaponry in hand, I leaned back against the door. My heart was pounding something fierce. Was I really going out there like this, alone and in the dark? Was I?
The scream came again.
"Quincy, darlin’, mummie’s coming!" My highland blood boiling, I threw the door open and rushed out.
Outside it was quiet again. The screams had seemed to come from over toward the Barn, so I turned that way.
And as soon as I came past the big trees and could see it clear, I knew something was afoot. All the building was dark, as it should have been, except for the attic. There, up above my office, a light was showing through the attic window, and flickering, as if somebody was up there.
Maybe, thought I, it’s one o’ them satanic cults you hear about, and the panic started to rise again in my throat. Maybe they’re doing animal sacrifices or other unspeakable things with my baby. But bad as that was, the thought of such a thing happening at Pendle Hill made me even madder, and I picked up my stride.
But then, thinks I, if they’re ready to sacrifice animals, what’ll they be ready to do to the likes of me, come bargin’ in on their little ceremony, eh? And that slowed me down a bit.
In fact, I was about ready to turn back, and give another thought to this saying a prayer business. But then there was one more scream— I was sure it was Quincy—only much fainter this time, and seemed to be coming from right up there.
So how could I give up? Satan wouldn’t get any cat of Irene Ramsay’s unless it was over Irene’s cold dead body. In a minute I was tiptoeing up the steps of the back way fire escape, then down the hall past my office, round the corner to the other end, flashing the torch around, my putter at the ready.
And then there I was, by the attic door. Which was hanging open, don’t you know. I could just make out voices from up the stairs.
It’s a satanic cult for sure, thought I, and even if I don’t believe in Satan, I’ll give ’em hell for what they’ve done to my Quincy. But it sounded like there was too many to tackle all at once, so I figured I better sneak up and have a peek before doing anything rash.
Those stairs are steep, and I went up one slow step at a time. I wasn’t but halfway up when out of the rumble of noises comes a voice loud as a trumpet and seemingly right in my ear.
"How can you do this?" the voice demanded. "This is nothing but stealing!"
At that I jerked around, almost dropped the putter and staggered against the wall of the stairwell to catch my balance. Tears came to my eyes, and inside my head I heard my voice. It was that of a terrified six-year-old me on a Glasgow playground, desperately crying, "No, please, mister, I ain’t stolen nothin’!"
But the voice ignored my pleading. "Larry," says it, "how could you even think of bringing stolen property here, especially stolen property like this?"
Larry? thinks I, coming back to life, now I like that. Irene may not be the wee lass she once was, mister, but nobody else has ever mistaken me for a member of the male species, thank you very much. But I admit, I was wondering whether it might be time to freshen my perm, when somebody, it must have been Larry, answered back.
"Howard," says he, "this property as you call it is not really stolen, it’s liberated. And anyway, it won’t be at Pendle Hill very long. We’ll hold a press conference within a few days, and it will all be released to the public. Free and freely available."
There was a contemptuous snort. "Liberated?" hissed the first voice. "Is that what you call it nowadays? And if that’s not stealing, how did you get it? Did they just give it to you?"
"Of course not," said the other. "I can’t talk about how we got it, and the less you know about that the safer you are. But look at this, and you’ll see why we did it."
Whatever "this" was, thought I, it didn’t sound quite as satanic as I was fearing, and nobody had mentioned cats yet. So I took another step up, and then another, ’til my head just cleared the top of the stairs.
The light blinded me for a second, and I ducked back down, then rose up slow, squinting until my eyes adjusted.
At the other end of the room there were three men, two of them hunched over a table, and an older one between the table and me, leaning on a cane, his back to the stairs. A man behind the table, with a dark beard and long hair, was handing something to the man with the cane.
I squinted again, and sniffed. There was no incense smell, nor odor of blood, and the bearded man was wearing a ragged flannel shirt and jeans, not some satanic getup. I peered around the room for Quincy, but didn’t see him. Then I realized that what the bearded man was holding was a piece of paper.
The man with the cane tried to read it but was having trouble. He turned toward me, holding the sheet up to catch the light from a small lamp on the table. His hair and eyebrows were white and the profile looked right familiar.
And then I gasped, so’s I was afraid they’d all hear me, because I recognized him:
Good goddykins—that man was Howard Brinton!
I eased back down two steps and leaned against the wall again. Irene, asked I, are you going mental, now, really, at last? I knew it was Howard Brinton, you see, because I’d met him when I was first at Pendle Hill for a conference.
But that was almost 30 years ago, and Howard Brinton had been dead since, when was it, ’72 or ’73, more than 20 years.
"I can’t make this out," Brinton said from above me. "You know my eyes are almost gone."
"Then I’ll read it," says the one I figured was Larry. And he starts:
"’Weekly Report To the Media, Pennsylvania Field Office of the FBI, dated January 13, 1971.’" He paused. "The date’s important," says he, "because it shows this isn’t ancient history. That’s only two weeks ago."
Two weeks ago? thinks I. Now I’m certain that someone up here’s lost their marbles. If it ain’t me, it must be them. It’s not 1971, it’s 1996. So I peeked over the stairs again, as Larry read some more.
"’Three Swarthmore professors and five Swarthmore students are known to have taken part in organizing support actions for the planned Mayday civil disobedience demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Washington,’" he read. "’A list of their names is attached.’" He reached for another sheet of paper. "Do you want to hear the list?" asked he.
Brinton sounded angry. "No," he almost shouted, "I don’t want to hear any absurd stolen list. This whole business is entirely outrageous."
Now the other man at the table spoke up. I couldn’t really make out his face, as he was right behind the lamp. But he sounded younger, like a student himself, with some of that cheek too.
"If you don’t want to hear about Swarthmore," says he, "then how about Haverford? That was your college, right, Mr. Brinton?" There was a rustling of paper. "Here’s one," said the lad. "It’s got a list of student and faculty antiwar activists too. It’s from a secretary in the admissions office. She’s spying on Haverford for the FBI, Mr. Brinton. Here’s the names. Maybe you know some of them, or their fathers."
Brinton raised a trembling hand to stop him. "You’ve made your point, young man," says he. "This is like an old nightmare come to life. When I was a student, my professor Henry Cadbury was fired from the Haverford faculty for protesting World War One as a Quaker pacifist. But that was because of pressure from alumni. I can’t believe the government itself . . ."
The lad interrupted him, rather rudely, thought I. "Oh they’re doing it all right," says he. "We’ve got stuff here about their spies at Bryn Mawr, Penn, Temple, and lots of others. They’ve been paying college staff people to spy on other staff and students. And to talk up the idea of violent actions."
He waved a paper. "Yes, it’s true," says he. "They’ve got a bunch of agents and spies reporting to their office in Media. Would you like to see that FBI office, Mr. Brinton? It’s less than a mile from this room. And we didn’t destroy anything there. Well, except a couple of locks."
"Howard," says Larry, "think of it this way. Here’s a busy FBI office, right near Philadelphia. And what are they after? Is it the mafia? Is it drug dealers? Even crooked politicians?"
He laughed, kinda harsh-like. "No! Their main targets are students and professors and other American citizens. People who want to stop the lousy war in Vietnam, mostly by legal means. Meetings and protests that are perfectly constitutional are being infiltrated and spied on and reported like terrorist plots. Phones are being tapped. Mail opened." He grinned a bit. "Even offices broken into."
Brinton was shaking his head, which was a dark silhouette trailing wisps of white cloud where the light showed through his hair. "But what you’ve done wasn’t legal," he protested. "It was truly a criminal conspiracy. If the FBI had showed up, you’d be in jail. You may be yet. And now you want to drag Pendle Hill into this—this plot of yours?"
Larry seemed to be listening patiently. "Howard, we don’t want to drag Pendle Hill into anything. But this spying on citizens is illegal too. Somebody’s got to blow the whistle on it, and now we’ve got the chance." He ran one hand through his long beard. "We’re just going to call a press conference to release these papers, and we need a place to have it."
Brinton was shaking his head again. "But you won’t have it here," says he. "Once Pendle Hill got caught up in this web of deceit and burglary, it would never get out. One big lawsuit for aiding your conspiracy could wipe us out."
He turned and took a few halting steps toward the far wall, his long shadow stretching before him. Then he spoke again, and his voice was quietlike, and tired.
"Pendle Hill may not have done half of what it should have about this awful war," said he, not looking at the others. "Or the many wars before that." He sighed. "There’s been so many of them, you know, just since 1930 when we started. It’s hard to keep up."
He lifted his cane and turned to face them. "But we’ve done a lot here," said he, raising one hand again, "and with God’s help we’ll do more." His free hand closed into a fist, the index finger aimed at the table. "But we’re not going to do it that way," and his voice was strong again. "I can’t let you release those papers here and implicate us in your burglary. I won’t do it."
The lad behind the table, I could see him a wee bit better now, listened to this, then looked down at a sheet of paper in his hand. After a moment, he let the paper drop to the table, and rubbed his chin.
"Mr. Brinton," says he after a bit, "you’re a native of this area, right?"
"Yes," says Brinton.
"And your family were Friends too?"
Brinton seemed to straighten a little. "Nine generations of Quaker Brintons," says he, "most of them in Chester County."
The young lad took this in, still rubbing his chin, and he reminded me of a lawyer in one of them telly court programs, getting ready to spring his killer question. And then he says, "Mr. Brinton, how many of your ancestors worked for the Underground Railroad?"
And now he had ‘im, I could see it. ‘Cause Howard Brinton knew his family tree, and I bet there were lots of Brintons in the Underground in those old days. Just standing there I could figure that, because this part of Pennsylvania was chockablock with Quakers helping slaves escape. Against the law and everything it was too. Even dangerous; I’ve heard them talk about it on the telly.
So I was hardly surprised, was I, when Brinton says, "All right, young man, you’ve made your point again. I guess I may not be the bravest Brinton in my line."
He gripped his cane and leaned on it for a moment. "But there’s still one more thing to point out," says he. "Pendle Hill isn’t mine to risk, the way my great grandparents risked their own farms in the 1850s. And even as they did that, their strongest weapon was anonymity, being and staying unknown."
He eyed them for a moment. "But anonymity was more than a tactic for them," says he. "It was also a spiritual discipline. A way to help keep down the creaturely desire for worldly glory as they did what they thought was right."
He stopped again, and the quiet in the attic seemed like you could almost touch it. Then, "This discipline worked for them and many others, in the world and out of the world both, you might say. I wonder if you and your friends are ready to use that weapon."
"What do you mean?" says Larry.
Brinton contemplated the spot where the point of his cane touched the floor. "You’re all so insistent on having a press conference to announce your ‘liberation,’" says he. "And when you do, you’ll probably end up arrested, and then on trial. I suppose you’ll be in the news awhile, and maybe you’ll go to jail, maybe not, depending on your lawyers."
He hunched forward. "But in the meantime, in all that time, what’s everyone talking about? You and jail? Or these papers, and what you say is in them?"
Now the lad was looking cornered. "What are you getting at?" says he.
"This," says Brinton. "I think I know the way you can keep the attention on the papers, which is what you say you want most."
The lad was interested now, I could see it. "And," says he, "that way is . . . ?"
"Simple," says Brinton. "Make many copies of them, with names and addresses and all, and send them out in the mail to whoever you want to see them. Newspapers. TV. Magazines. Your friends. Whoever. But leave yourselves out of it. Oh, you can put in a little letter that tells something about how you got them, and sign it with some invented name. Something romantic."
He ruminated. "Hmmmm," says he, "I suppose you’ll be wanting to call yourselves a ‘collective.’ That seems to be the title for everything activist these days; though I can’t say as I know how to make anything romantic-sounding with it."
Then he was quiet again, and behind the table I could see Larry and the lad looking at each other and the papers. Finally Larry says, "Do you know where we could find a copying machine that isn’t being watched too closely?"
Brinton tapped his fingers on the table. "There are a lot of schools and offices around here with copiers," says he rather vaguely. "We have one downstairs. I expect you could find one that isn’t being monitored by the FBI, at least at night."
Now ducks, my legs were getting right tired from standing there so long, you know. But I never even noticed it until just then, when I heard a little scrambling noise behind me, like maybe mice in the wall or something. So I turns round and leans against the wall just to rest for a bit, and looked down to where the noise come from. And wouldn’t you know there was a long black cat’s tail slipping round the doorway, and I knew it had to be my Quincy.
Oh, goddykins, he was safe, not even sacrificed by the satanists or anything! In a second I forgot completely about Howard Brinton and Larry and the lad and the FBI in 1971 and all that lot. I tiptoed rather quickly back down and saw him rounding the corner by my office. And time I got there, he was sitting on my chair, cleaning himself like nothing in the world had happened. I dropped the putter on my desk and he hopped into my arms, and we were both as happy as clams.
And what else, you ask?
Why, nothing else; that was that, don’t you know.
Oooh, now, here comes Chuck back from the kitchen, and the only other thing you need to know, ducks, is that he still wonders whatever happened to his ruddy wind chimes.
But it’s dead simple, really, they’re in the bushes behind our apartments, which is where I put ’em on the way home that night. When he asked, I just scratched my old head and said it must’ve been the ghost of Howard Brinton or something.
Sometimes when we’re doing the crossie after din-din he looks like he wants to ask me more about that. But I just distract him by waiting ’til he reaches across to fill in a square the way he likes to do, and then I shout, "Oh, Chuck, you’re so rude, you’re so rude, so rude!"
Works every time, dearie.
©2003 Chuck Fager; reprinted with permission.