Saturday, May 30, 2009
This past week I had the opportunity to visit an old friend in Western South Dakota. His name is Marvin Kammerer. He's a third generation rancher with land located just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, on the edge of Ellsworth Air Force Base. I first saw Marv from a distance at a peace event at the Rapid City Civic Center back in 1980. He was one of the main speakers, and in his cowboy boots and cowboy hat, with his progressive perspective on issues of peace and justice, he was a most surprising presence. At the time, he was hosting a "Survival Gathering" on his ranch. It brought hundreds of people together from all over the planet to look at those concerns that were threatening our very survival as a species and to share ideas about how to combat those threats.
In those days, Marv seldom made his neighbors happy. The "Survival Gathering" was no exception. All of those outsiders camping together and supposedly planning all kinds of mischief drew harassment from the sheriff, other ranchers and the military base. Many conversations had to cease because of the deafening noise of bombers taking off overhead. Still, Marv persisted. A National Nonviolence Conference came to his ranch a few years later, to construct a peace sign, an ecology symbol and a medicine wheel at the base of the Ellsworth runway. Any plane taking off or landing had to observe them. In ways large and small, Marv has consistently resisted this nuclear weapons facility. Here was the grandson of a South Dakota homesteader, struggling against a nuclear dinosaur, at one time the largest nuclear facility in the world.
One year, several of us crawled under the fence separating the base from Marv's, pasture, to be arrested on Easter Sunday morning trying to place Easter lilies on the base runway. Another time a group of peace minded people planted a peace pole in a pasture near the base and declared the ranch a nuclear free zone. Several groups used the ranch as their home while touring the base and raising the provocative questions tour guides and military personnel don't want to hear. One peace activist climbed over a fence that abutted Marv's property and was meant to secure extensive nuclear ordnance, and landed a lengthy prison sentence.
As always, on this most recent visit, Marv's complaints were forceful and studied. Many of the bombers are not airworthy, a proven waste of precious resources. The base is a cesspool of toxic substances. Power brokers continue their efforts to keep the base from being closed, though it has outlived its cold war usefulness. Always, there are threats to the land from developers and the base itself.
At 72 years of age, this self reliant rancher has turned most of the ranching operation over to the next generation. Working with cattle is a precarious proposition, particularly when you have unexpected blizzards during calving as ranchers experienced this spring. You can lose your future overnight.
Still, still, even in the face of family hardship and uncertainty, I'm confident the native grasses will still be growing on this piece of the good earth when those Ellsworth bombers have rusted into oblivion and swords have been turned into plowshares. I believe this because of the passionate persistence of this prairie rancher. May we all have the tenacity of Marvin in the struggles we face with the tyranny of militarism.