MEAN MISTER MUSTER

After a bellyful of paid informant Ron Frazier and undercover FBI agent Michael Fain, it's possible to lose sight of what a great country America is.

Defendant Dave Foreman, though, has managed to keep his grip on reality. Over lunch one day he explained his sense of patriotism: "Ronald Reagan and George Bush are Tories. I'm not trying to take down the symbols or icons of America--I'm trying to take them back."

Finding the flag behind the likes of Frazier and Fain is disheartening. The shame of it makes you want to look away. So as the trial broke for a two-week hiatus, I left for the annual muster in Marblehead, Massachusetts. After seven weeks of legal theatrics, I felt like I was up to my hip boots in sewage. Yes, I went looking for some action that would restore my faith in America. What I found was a fireman's dream--and a cop who underscored everything that was wrong with the Earth First! prosecution.

Since the Civil War, firefighters have gathered in the fields of New England to test their skills against teams from neighboring communities.

The center of the competition is the hand tub, an ancient machine meant to be drawn to a fire by hand or horse. Once on the scene, a hose was extended to the nearest source of water, a pond or a trough. Teams of as many as sixty people pumped up and down on two long bars on either side of the tub, sending an arc of water into the flames.

Today local groups uphold the ancient ritual.
My friend has restored a more or less defunct tub, the Okommakamesit, built in 1861.

The musters, where teams fight to see who can pump a stream of water the farthest, are a slice of National Geographic Americana.

There are honest-to-goodness people in the photographs of the National Geographic who always inspire questions: "Look at that grizzled old puss chewing tobacco; I wonder if the mule resents pulling her plow?" or, "Doesn't anyone in Milwaukee have a neck?" In this particular print from the muster edition of the National Geographic, the characters have names such as Larry "Earl" Doliber, Rita Goodwin, and Danny "Big Bopper" Loomis.

Come, step inside this Yankee Doodle tintype of tradition, take a look at how disturbing Americana is behind the scenes, and observe the benign role of law enforcement.

The muster competition in Marblehead was preceded by a parade down Main Street accompanied by fife and drum corps, antique cars, howling fire trucks and teams of rowdies pulling their tubs. Though Marblehead claims it is the birthplace of the American Navy, today it is overrun by the effete yacht set, which contests space with more indigenous lobster fishermen.

As the parade wound past the Rip Tide Lounge at about 11 a.m., the locals tying on their morning package stepped outside. The men with massive beer guts, referred to by townies as "Schlitz tumors," cheered the hometown boys from the "Oko's."

The tubs are inscribed with nineteenth-century mottos of civic commitment such as "We Will Try" and "Fear Not--We Come." Yes, the slogans land a bit muffled upon the ear 140 years after they were first printed on the side of the tubs, but in the wake of the morning sickness induced by the government's star witnesses in Prescott, these sentiments of community resolve were soothing, even uplifting, in the corniest and best sense of patriotism. I pictured the Earth First! picnic in the Arizona park shortly after the conspiracy trial began. That was the picnic where the FBI openly videotaped friends and families passing covered dishes back and forth. I tried to imagine the government's van stenciled with the legend, "Fear Not--We Come."

At the head of the "Oko's" gang was Doliber. Not far from where he paraded, an old cove carries his family's name.

People have the wrong idea about New England.
Popular mythology paints New Englanders as stoics where tradition, Cabot and Lodge prevailed.

Well . . . , yes, tradition is everything in New England, but the only reason Cabot and Lodge got the reputation for talking only to each other was that they were appalled by the behavior of the people living in the rest of New England.

People in the Northeast are every bit as eccentric as anyone Faulkner ever created.

It is true that the Dolibers were the first whites to settle in Marblehead. It is also true that they settled there after being exiled from Salem for rude conduct. No one in the clan is stuffy about lineage; instead the descendants prefer to remember the great-grandmother who marched about her home stark naked well into her eighties, a habit that routinely scandalized the area mailmen who were accustomed to opening the front door and putting the old girl's mail on the hall table only to glance up and see her bent over, scrubbing the floor, without a stitch.

Since he came from such hardworking stock--his father ran the town gas station--it was only natural that Doliber would volunteer to restore the "Oko's" when danger threatened.

Unlike many of the other clubs that maintain tubs, the group behind the "Oko's" was democratic in the sense that anyone could join. Soon there were two factions attempting to rebuild the "Oko's" and strangle each other if time permitted.

One group was composed entirely of lesbians.
This is not a New England tradition when it comes to hand tubs.
The women were led by Rita Goodwin, an alias suggested by the tender feelings engendered in the tub wars. A person of no small stature, with the sort of biceps steroid jockeys would envy, Ms. Goodwin refused to be stereotyped into the hardy role of mere pumper. She and her friends, many of whom worked for Goodwin's lawn-care business, had spent the previous year pumping their hearts out at muster, and now, in '91, Rita was prepared to lead. She was elected as the "Oko's" foreman.

The other group was led by Danny "Big Bopper" Loomis, whose actual name has a better ring. Bearded and graying, Loomis often sports Marblehead khakis because he works for the town, cleaning storm drains in the summer and plowing snow off the roads the rest of the year.

The Big Bopper defied tradition and married his first cousin. The doctors asked the newlyweds to give up procreation in favor of the mere physical pleasures of straight rutting after their first child arrived in the world with a host of problems. But the Big Bopper and his bride believed in the sanctity of life and went on to have six children, each one more special than the last.

For twenty years, Loomis raised his family and kept the "Oko's" together. When it came time to rebuild the machine, he was pleasantly surprised to see all the new women in the club. One evening, something short of a light bulb, let's say a birthday candle, lighted in the Big Bopper's head: "By God, these weren't ladies, these were . . . ."

Because Loomis and his family always traveled together, they constituted New England's unique quorum; as such, they usually had enough votes to engage various lesbians in parliamentary discussions regarding the future of the "Oko's." Soon voices were raised. One row culminated when Big Daddy told Rita that all she needed was a . . . and by the way, he was just the city sanitation worker to do it.

The women turned to the club's rules, a move so unprecedented that the tactic was widely regarded as the social equivalent of the sneak attack on Kuwait by Saddam. The lesbians discussed impeaching the Big Bopper for sexism.

This was not traditional.
Both sides called Doliber. He understood the tradition of the Loomis clan, but at the same time, Doliber, despite his male-gender callousness, would not tolerate hairy-knuckle behavior from the louts directed at the lesbians.

As the only candidate acceptable to both factions, Doliber was press-ganged into rebuilding the "Oko's." Talk of impeachment dimmed, an icy civility ensued, and everyone quietly walked away from the restoration project leaving Doliber holding the bag.

When he agreed to help save the "Oko's," Doliber had just begun to remodel the bathrooms on the first and second floors of his home. He'd gotten to the point where he'd torn down all of the walls and ripped the fixtures apart when the telephone began ringing.

Seven months later, in July, I and Elvis, another friend of Doliber's, arrived in Marblehead. The "Oko's" was a rejuvenated, freshly painted thing of beauty. And Doliber was at critical mass regarding the upcoming muster. He could taste the victory in front of the hometown throng.

Earl's wife, by contrast, had little to say in these discussions. She would not be attending the muster. Neither of the bathrooms in the Doliber residence was back together; in fact, both were a maze of plastic staple-gunned to studs and lead-sweated copper joints waiting to be sheeted in dry wall. Upstairs, a massive tub, the kind used to fight dirt instead of fires, rested unconnected to water pipes. Downstairs, Earl's wife put a good face upon a marriage in which a husband would invite not one but two houseguests into such domestic pandemonium.

This, then, was the story behind the National Geographic pictorial that unfolded at the end of July in Marblehead. Perhaps you think a knockdown-dragout brawl among lesbians, the developmentally disabled and a tradition-obsessed Puritan, all of it sauced by bathroom anxiety, is not pure Americana.

Are you kidding me? What are you, one of those knotheads who wants to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?

Of course, this tag-team free-for-all is what made America great. This is a country rich in the tradition of hair-pulling, thumbing the eye and the knee-drop delivered to soft tissue. Democracies shake it up, baby; they twist and shout.

Every tub at the muster had a tale of intrigue similar to the "Oko's." The ligaments that hold every political campaign together are the connective gristle of incessant feuds and backbiting. Our neighborhoods are collections of spite fences. The water cooler is where we gather to argue over which boss is the biggest jerk.

And when the rolling dust cloud of combatants gets out of hand, we depend upon law enforcement to blow the whistle. We don't expect the police to put the various factions against a wall and pull the trigger--as they have in Prescott--just to restore law and order. We expect an officer to reach in, extract the primary knucklehead and say in an authoritative voice, "We think it's time you had a cup of tea."

Which is exactly what finally happened in Marblehead.
Following the parade, seventeen teams gathered in an Elks Club field. Rock bands performed on a stage off to the side, families spread blankets, vendors grilled Italian sausage, kids made themselves sick on hot dogs and hamburgers, while adults caused the price of beer stocks on Wall Street to rise dramatically.

Doliber was crazed with anticipation.
When it was time for his tub to pump, a cheer went up. "Here we go `Oko's,' here we go." Suddenly there were dozens of loyalists in the tub's red tee shirts fighting for a grip on the bar. Things quickly got out of control. Doliber was on top of the tub trying to yell encouragement and directions, but there was too much noise.

Then the Big Bopper himself joined Doliber astride the "Oko's" and two sets of directions rang out.

It was a sad day for the Okommakamesit. The machine's stream was barely that of an ancient mariner with prostate troubles.

Doliber was beside himself before he climbed down from the "Oko's." Immediately, everyone turned on him and blamed Doliber for the tub's miserable showing. The comments were not subtle asides.

Rita Goodwin approached and told Doliber that the gorillas had elbowed the lesbians away from the "Oko's," refusing to allow the women to pump. What did he intend to do about the situation?

Doliber slowly edged away from the mob, never turning his back. By the time he sat down next to Elvis and me, he was apoplectic, disgraced in front of the hometown crowd.

At that precise moment, Danny Jr., the youngest of the Big Bopper's kids, approached us. Approximately twenty years old, Danny Jr. favors the type of shaved-head haircut worn by those about to be electrocuted. Despite the appearance created by eyelids that are at constant half-mast, Danny Jr. is actually pretty fair companionship until he takes out his plate to eat, at which point most folks abandon their bowls of chowder.

Danny Jr. started to address Doliber but was cut off.
Forgetting every single lesson his mother had taught him, Doliber bellowed, "I don't want to hear it from you, you moron, unless you've got something constructive to say!"

While Elvis and I were shocked at this breach in etiquette, Danny Jr. was nonplused. He simply turned on his heel and walked out.

As he went through the door, he called back, "Thanks to you, Larry, we only got third. Thanks to you, Larry."

Of course, the "Oko's" didn't finish anywhere near third; in fact, it ended up two slots from the bottom. But that wasn't the point. With his Shavian rejoinder, Danny Jr. demonstrated that at the Marblehead muster, he was one of the few people who was not as dumb as he looked.

Being topped by the final, rambling issue of the Big Bopper put Doliber beyond the fringe. I thought he would come out of his skin. Elvis and I attempted to comfort our friend and promised never to discuss the embarrassing moment in public. Our pledge did not help. Clearly, Doliber intended to bury a marlin spike in the young man's chimneylike forehead.

Calmer words intervened.
A Marblehead police officer stopped by and informed Doliber that he'd been keeping his eye on Larry.

"I watched you up on that tub, Mr. Doliber. My advice to you is to relax. It's only a muster."

The spell was broken.
Every time Doliber replayed in his mind the slurred comeback that began "Thanks to you, Larry . . . " his mind also heard the police officer's caution, "It's only a muster."

What does all of this have to do with the Earth First! trial in Prescott, you ask?

If you've read this far, you've no doubt forgotten that the environmental prosecution was the initial subject of this column, and there is a connection.

The FBI has, in Prescott, completely abandoned the street-level wisdom of the Marblehead police officer who avoided trouble with a few well-chosen words.

On January 11, 1988, when Ron Frazier contacted the FBI, the Bureau was on to Mark Davis.

The FBI should have relayed its information to the Sheriff's Office. A deputy could have visited Davis very early on and avoided this horror show.

"Listen, Mark, we know about your night work. You've got two lovely daughters and if you want to stay around long enough to watch them grow up, knock it off. It's only a ski resort."

Instead, the FBI paid more than $50,000 to an informant, sent in a full-time agent undercover, provoked the already agitated and turned vandalism into a federal case. Even with that, defense lawyers will tell you, off the record, that if the government had charged some of the defendants with simple malicious damage, convictions would have flowed like water. But the prosecutor went nuts and alleged a conspiracy to sabotage nuclear-power plants and to cause meltdowns.

You have to wonder what Earth First! espoused that was so threatening to the government of the United States. You have to ask what Earth First! accomplished that made it such a target.

Like Doliber, the environmentalists stepped forward to fix something in pretty sad shape, and what they got for their trouble was an even more malicious "Thanks to you, Larry . . . ."

To be continued

The tubs are inscribed with nineteenth-century mottos of civic commitment such as "We Will Try" and "Fear Not--We Come."

Perhaps you think a brawl among lesbians, the developmentally disabled and a tradition-obsessed Puritan is not pure Americana.

When the rolling dust cloud of combatants gets out of hand, we depend upon law enforcement to blow the whistle.

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