Two weeks that changed my world

It was the first Earth Day — it was time to make a statement.

Whit Griswold and his beloved Army surplus ¾-ton pickup truck. Courtesy Whit Griswold.

I was rolling high in the spring of 1970. I’d just made it through my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard, living in my family’s summer house in Lambert’s Cove, a lovely site in season but a liability in winter, especially when wind howled out of the northwest. I had never lived in the country before, and I had never lived alone. I fished obsessively through October, then shot all the geese and ducks I could, not many, on James Pond, Chilmark Pond, Poucha Pond, through the holidays. When winter really dug in, I hunkered down and hung on. I learned how to cook for myself, keep house, and not drink too much. It was a solitary existence but exciting. I was 26.

In a couple of years, I would come up hard against all that I didn’t know about myself, but for the moment I took on roles that should have been played by those with far more experience. With Don Lyons, an Episcopal minister, I organized a teach-in about the peace movement at the high school. I emceed events at fancy summer houses up-Island and down to introduce Gerry Studds to Island voters and check-writing summer residents. When I heard about the inaugural Earth Day coming up on April 22, 1970, I decided to pitch in. Action was in the air at the time, and I inhaled it. Idealism was in the air, too: The world was ours for the changing.

On the Island, the focus of Earth Day was the Clean Earth Walk, organized jointly by the Vineyard Conservation Society, which Bob Woodruff ran at the time, and Vineyard Environmental Action, led by the late Tom Britt. Spreading out across the Island, participants would pick up litter along various roadways. We would meet at the end of the day to amass and photograph our haul at the West Tisbury dump, where there was a primitive recycling setup. And then we’d go home — feeling virtuous, I suppose, if we tended that way.

Mal Jones, Prudy Whiting, Candy Kasner, and I were assigned to Old County Road, using my Army surplus ¾-ton pickup truck to collect whatever litter we found along the road. Mal, an inventor and activist with a creative approach to improving mankind, had lived on Deep Bottom Cove on the east side of Tisbury Great Pond for 20-plus years. Candy had come east from Oregon to visit Soo Whiting at her family’s place on the Chilmark side of the pond. Prudy was the youngest of the Whiting clan, which had practically invented West Tisbury, it seemed to me, and definitely personified it.

My sidekick for the day was my nephew, Jamie Baker, who was here with his mom, my sister Molly, and his two sisters from Cambridge for school vacation. “As far as I knew, this is what younger boys did with their uncles,” Jamie recollected last year. “I set out to set the record for the most garbage picked up by a 9-year-old boy on a state road in history. It was fun.”

‘Abject fragments of cardboard’

I think we were all surprised by the amount of trash we found among the tall grass that had begun to perk up for another season, the briars that tugged at our pant legs and scratched our exposed wrists, and the low branches of encroaching puckerbrush. Most of the loot was bottles and cans and crumpled cigarette packs, but there were also “abject fragments of cardboard,” as Henry Beetle Hough, the timeless editor of the Vineyard Gazette, wrote with his typical poetic sensibility on the front page two days later.

It didn’t take long — maybe a couple of hours — to become disgusted by the amount of crap we found, and we began to question the script for the day. Would a cute account and a photo in the Gazette persuade anyone to stop using public property and the great outdoors as a dump? Sure, we’d get kudos from the good ladies at the Garden Club, but that wasn’t good enough for Mal Jones, who started to agitate for a statement.

Candy jumped onto Mal’s bandwagon right away, but she was something of old hand at this sort of thing. “I had lead a similar litter pick-up at home in Oregon with my 4-H,” she recalled when I tracked her down in 2015. After another half-mile of tossing rusty, grimy junk into my truck, Prudy and I came around, if a bit apprehensively.

Most likely it was Mal who suggested the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown as a substitute dumpsite, given his penchant for unorthodox tactics, like heading to Nomans Land in his homemade submarine to protest the Navy’s continued bombardment of that seaward poison ivy patch. But off to Edgartown we trundled in my truck, distinctive enough on its own with its olive-drab paint job and huge white stars, but the more so since I’d painted my name, WHIT GRISWOLD, in six-inch capitals on both doors to comply with a goofy new state law aimed at protecting the commonwealth’s good citizens from counterculture types who were said to be slinking around in unmarked trucks, “liberating” whatever they fancied from unoccupied vacation homes.

Before I’d tallied the risks and rewards of our new plan, I was backing the truck up onto the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. We hopped out and started to shovel and sweep our grubby cargo onto the short brick pathway that leads to the building’s front door. “I wasn’t sure we were supposed to be doing that,” recalled Jamie, who, despite my iffy example, grew up to be special assistant to the president [Clinton] and legal advisor to the National Security Council before serving a 15-year term, five of them as chief judge, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. I was a nervous wreck, but I kept my head down, trying to act as if I were just going about my business, hoping that someone would snap a picture of us and our not very imposing pile, and we’d be on our way.

Not so fast, it turned out. First to raise the alarm was a teller at the Dukes County Savings Bank, directly across the street. While we were still unloading, I noticed a tall policeman approaching slowly — time enough for me to mutter a warning to the rest of the gang. It was Jim Arena, chief of the Edgartown Police Department, known far and worldwide as Chief Dominick J. Arena, thanks to his role in the investigation of Teddy Kennedy’s tragic accident on Chappaquiddick eight months earlier. I braced myself for who knew what.

“What are you up to?” he said calmly. I told him that we were dumping our collection of litter there to show how much litter there was alongside our roads — and, or, I mean, something like that — and that we’d make this point with the help of the Gazette, hopefully with a photograph, and then we’d remove it.

“OK,” the chief said, turning to go. “Just make sure you clean up after you’re done.”

‘This was no pig’

I was stunned: This was no pig, as police were called by many of my contemporaries in those days, when established systems and values were being challenged right and left. Some of the challenges were thoughtful, deliberate, while others were spontaneous reactions by excitable converts to “the movement,” the disorganized mass of young people who didn’t trust anyone over 30.

It was a volatile time. The bloom was well off the post-WWII boom, what with recent assassinations and riots in the cities, and a rotten, misbegotten war dragging on disastrously. It wasn’t much of a leap from natural adolescent skepticism to active disaffection, and some turned to drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll — to express themselves, as they would have it. Others hit the road, in fact or fancy, looking for a new start, a new way forward. Many of them landed on the Vineyard.

Today it all sounds quaintly alarmist, but the Vineyard was a quiet, conservative backwater back then, and not many of the 5,500 year-round residents appreciated the stream of scraggly young people who straggled off the Islander with stars in their eyes, seeking peace and freedom and meaning. Resistance to the swarm was often explicit and profane.

In a more measured tone, Henry Hough put it this way in an editorial on June 26, 1970: “It does society good to be upset now and then, but the Vineyard isn’t large enough to accommodate the spirit of invasion.” Eleven days later, he reminded readers, “Here is no edge of wildness free for the mere adventure of it.” (When it came to words, old Henry could pick ’em and lay ’em down, couldn’t he?)

For many of the newcomers it was a passing, if passionate, affair that they quickly abandoned when they met some resistance — like winter on the Island. Others took root here, of course, and are now grandparents of second-generation Islanders. Those responsible for local law and order were often the first Islanders to interact with the new immigrants, and many arrests — for trespassing, for nudity — followed. Relations between the two factions were fractious, you might say.

So it shouldn’t have surprised us when we heard approaching sirens just after Chief Arena returned to his office in the town hall. First on the scene was State Police Trooper Richard DeRoche, also tall and slender, who hopped out of a cruiser with blue lights flashing. Hard on his heels was the jailkeeper, William F. Perry Jr., and Henry Burt, a deputy sheriff from Vineyard Haven, in full uniform — including a gun on his belt. “And then the sheriff himself, John E. Palmeira, drove up with an air of urgency,” Mr. Hough wrote. We were about to discover “that, first, town and county officialdom could be fairly obdurate when confronted with such dramatics and, second, that this was one occasion when an anti-litter law would be enforced.”

I spoke to Dick DeRoche in early March 2015. “The courthouse steps,” he said immediately. “Sure, I remember. I was in the barracks, over there in Oak Bluffs, where we lived. And we got a call, so I headed over there, and there’s Malcolm Jones with his shit-eating grin, and I told him to clean it up and get the stuff out of there.” That made two reasoned, rational reactions to our action, though the first one, from Jim Arena, would have sufficed.

“Johnny Palmeira, you remember him,” Dick DeRoche continued, “he was beside himself, saying ‘Arrest them, arrest them.’” Which none of them knew exactly how to do, or what for, apparently, so they just heckled us.

A crowd — relatively speaking: It was April 1970, after all — materialized around us, among them a few sympathizers. But most of the onlookers were hostile, foremost among them Deputy Burt, who kept one hand on his belt, alarmingly close to the butt of his pistol.

Again, Mr. Hough, in his inimitable prose: “The cleanup proceeded in an atmosphere of flinty remarks, indicating clearly — if the firm line of their jaws had not already — that the officers were not inclined to be metaphysical about man’s penchant for despoiling his landscape, or sympathetic to the way the splinter group sought to illustrate it.”

It was the lawmen’s hostility that sparked the kindling that Mal had stacked around me earlier in the day. I was stunned and unnerved by the vitriol coming from Deputy Burt, whose father, Erford, had special standing in my family’s pantheon of colorful, skilled, hardworking Islanders. A revered boatbuilder whose shop at the head of the Lagoon in Vineyard Haven was suffused by a tangy, romantic aroma of wood shavings and marline caulking, he had built the classic, seakindly bass boat that my dad tied up in the basin behind his shop in the late 1950s.

Flinty, or nasty, as it was, the heckling seemed comical at first, though my hackles were activated, but I kept my head down and kept cleaning up. When a young woman tried to hand Mr. Burt a daffodil she’d picked, the absurdity of the situation put a smile back on my face. Stonefaced, he didn’t accept it.

I drove off feeling a blend of exhilaration, relief, and apprehension. Still not sure what I’d gotten myself into, I wondered if our little civil disobedience would amount to anything, hoping that even a few people might get our message — that we needed to start paying attention to the environment around us, that we could no longer take the health of our planet for granted. I also felt a surge of determination, thanks to the wacky reactions of Sheriff Palmeira and Deputy Burt, that we’d done something worthwhile. Finally, I felt the heady sensation of being engaged, of being part of something larger than me and my worries and preoccupations.

A couple of hours later, at dinnertime, Dick DeRoche showed up at our place in Lambert’s Cove to present me with a summons. The way I tell the story — the way I’ve chosen to remember it — I invited the trooper in, probably because I didn’t know what else to do in an awkward spot. I may also have wanted him to see that I was no crazed hippie living in a hovel, not with Molly and her three kids spread around a candlelit dinner table with a standing rib roast on a platter.

According to a handwritten record in the 1970 docket book of the Dukes County District Court (the only extant official record of our arrest and its disposition), our offence (sic) was “270:16 Disp. rubbish.”

In 1970, M.G.L. 270:16 read, “Whoever, in disposing of garbage, refuse, bottles, cans or rubbish on a public highway or within twenty yards thereof, or in coastal or inland waters, whether salt water or fresh water, or within twenty yards of such waters, or on private property, without permission, commits a nuisance thereby and shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars.”

Further, Section 16 continued: “If a motor vehicle is used in committing such an offense …, the officer may seize the vehicle and remove and store it or otherwise immobilize it by a mechanical device …” Fifty bucks I could tolerate, but my truck meant as much to me as my reputation at the time, and the thought of losing it definitely got my attention.

Here, the trail gets murky. Mr. Hough wrote in “On Courthouse Walk” that we were to be arraigned on April 30. But the docket book records that our nolo plea was accepted and $10 in court costs were paid on April 30. But we all remember going to court well after the incident took place, so the docket book record is either incorrect or incomplete.

The West Tisbury Four

Instead of simply paying the court costs and putting the incident behind us, we decided to play out our dramatization. We started calling ourselves the West Tisbury Four, with tongues lightly in cheek, but we also “retained” a lawyer, David Lamson, who was 31 at the time. The irony of being charged with, essentially, littering had steeled us as much as it amused us. Needling the establishment would add a little spice to our caper, but when I asked David if he took our case on as something of a lark, he dismissed the idea outright. “I never take any case as a lark,” he wrote in February 2015. “You all did hire me although I never billed you. I considered the case serious because of the police overreach and the protest value of what you were doing. The case got to court because you were charged with a crime which carried [a] fine and possibly a jail term. The D.A. offered to continue the case without a finding, which is kind of a way of pushing the case under the table, but it is not a clear finding of innocence. We rejected the deal and went to trial.”

Of course he didn’t take the case lightly. For anyone with a conscience, or a spine, the world changed forever on Monday, May 4, 1970, — just 12 days after our anti-littering protest — when four students were killed and one paralyzed when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students at Kent State University who were protesting Nixon’s decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia. From then on, any interaction with the powers that were was serious business.

Describing his defense, David wrote, “This was not littering in the traditional sense; littering requires an affirmative act of discarding and an intent to abandon the litter. There was never an intent to abandon the litter and no act of discarding. Littering requires relinquishing control of the litter. You picked up the litter, put it in a truck, and transported it to the courthouse, and piled it neatly on the steps. A defendant always was in close proximity to the litter pile at all times … [and there was] further testimony of defendants that the litter was going to be picked up by defendants.

“The actions of the defendants were protected by the First Amendment as legitimate free speech protest and thus shielded from local littering laws.

“The court found you all not guilty. When asked if he had any further statement after I summed up, the state policeman said, no, ‘I just want to get out of here.’ I don’t think he had any idea that this was going to be a full-blown trial with extensive argument and cross-examination and multiple defendant testimony and constitutional arguments.

“It was a win for the good guys.”

Candy recalled our day in court a bit more prosaically. “After we entered our pleas, I was sworn in and answered questions from the judge. I remember two things he asked me — to define ‘ecology’ for him (I believe I had said we had been trying to protect our environment and ecology by educating the public), and then he quoted a few lines of a poem, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard,’ by Thomas Gray, and asked if I recognized it. That was in response to my telling him I was an English major. Anyway, he said our intentions were good, our actions were wrong, we shouldn’t do anything like that again, and he levied a small fine on each of us.”

My memory of our court appearance differs, another example of the way memory can weave and wobble after several decades. I recall the judge asking David Lamson to approach the bench to confer with him. After they whispered for a minute or two, David came to tell us that the judge would accept a nolo plea, if we agreed to it. Of course not, I thought. Nolo contendere, as I understood it, was an admission of guilt but the charge against us would be dropped and there would be nothing on our “record.”

But wouldn’t that undermine our whole purpose, to point out to the judge, and the world if it would pay attention, the ineffectiveness of the anti-littering laws? That we had been charged with littering (Disp. Rubbish) in the first place was not only ironic, it was absurd. Yes, we placed the rubbish on the courthouse steps, but no, we did not discard it. Our intention all along was to remove it, which we did.

While I was trying to track the unexpected curveball coming at me, Mal, Prudy, and Candy decided they would accept the judge’s offer. I was startled by their decision, but I quickly closed ranks: We were The West Tisbury Four, after all. We’d started out to rock the boat, which we’d done, and then made the biggest splash we could muster. From Earth Day to court day, it had felt important, as if we might actually make a difference. In the mind of at least one of us, me, it did. To this day I get a chuckle and a twinge of pride whenever I pull onto the top of Main Street in Edgartown and start wondering where to park.