“So you can’t ride to Hornell with us this weekend?” asked an incredulous Peter and Petra at the same time.
Jennifer had ridden regularly with the group for the last year, even through summer jobs. No one had missed. It felt like a travesty. Soon it would snow and riding would be over except for the exercycles in the weight room or on Peter’s back porch training stand.
“No, I have a previously scheduled engagement,” spoke Jennifer primly.
“Jesus, you sound like one of those Brit’s on PBS,” spat Petra.
“I told everybody about it a month ago,” Jennifer insisted.
“Well I guess it never registered on our radar,” replied Peter sadly. “How long will you be gone?”
“Just a couple of days. Old friends.”
“Old flames?” angrily articulated Petra.
“Noooo, architecture folks from my first college. I want to show them Corning glassworks.”
Peter snorted a laugh, ”You like to tour factories! I had no idea!”
Jennifer blushed. It was a white lie, but Corning was close to the Mirion Tech Nuclear Plant construction site on the Chemung River. It was a Division of Western New York Power, WNYPS – “winys” for short, among her friends. Everything was set. Her Karmen Ghia was loaded with all they’d need. She’d be back by Monday in time for Art History.
Peter came over to her, gave her a hug, and kissed her on the cheek. By now she realized he was a private person and didn’t feel comfortable demonstrating his feelings in public. Petra frowned. She lived for her rides with the three women bicyclists. Teaching freshman chemistry classes didn’t rock her boat, but it was how she was paying her way through her Masters in Glass Science. And lately, there was some personal chemistry percolating between them, Jennifer couldn’t decode.
Back home in the driveway the beige Ghia roared to life. Jennifer didn’t look forward to the hard butted ride for two hours to the motel in Corning. Her car looked sleek but was not a long haul traveler. She put her tape deck in gear and tooled down Rt. 17J humming to Dire Straights. Thinking about the logistics ahead, she went down her list of supplies; climbing gear and boots, cold weather clothing, portable snacks, and water. The signs were rolled and grommeted on top for easy quick hanging with heavy duty “S” hooks for the six-inch thick wall at the top of the cooling tower. She’d even thought of weights for the bottom. Steel re-bar rods she’d slide into the pocket of the hem before dropping the banner over the side. Peter had seen her buy them at Mason’s Supply. She hoped he thought it was for her kiln building project in the ceramic school courtyard.
The Chemung Riverview Motel sat on pilings over the water’s edge. Attractive to fisherman, it’s simple rooms and fish cleaning station filled the bill, an appropriate cover for what they were about to do. Two other lodgings were in use so not all of the demonstrators were staying in the same place. A few campgrounds had folks in them as well. Jennifer didn’t know how many people would show from Clamshell, the anti-nuclear group. The main organizing committee would meet at nine p.m. at the truck stop parking lot a mile from the power station.
The Mirion Tech site was downstream from Corning on a bend of the river half forested with oak and maple. Cossetted in this glade was a construction site for one of the newest nuclear power generation units of WNYPS. It would be an example. They would make it one.
After eating an early evening meal in the dining room of the motel, Jennifer went to her single room to take a nap until eight p.m. Her backpack was loaded. She had both leather gloves and warm mittens. She’d wear a full suit of silk underwear under flannel-lined jeans and two pairs of socks for the gathering cool of the evening. A down jacket topped a thermal, long sleeved T-shirt under a wool turtleneck sweater. She didn’t know how long they’d be up on top of the cooling tower.
Vans and cars steadily filled the campsites and motels around the eastern area of Corning as Jennifer slept. In the autumn early darkness some people hoisted backpacks and started walking through the woods behind the power station site. They spread out along the chain link fence topped with razor wire. A heavy steel chain with a serious lock secured a single gate in the middle of its expanse.
WNYPS was in trouble, but the activists participating in this protest didn’t pay attention to the bond markets. The utility shares issued to support the development of the nuclear power grid had slipped from A to A- with the delays in construction. In two months it would slip to B. The folks waiting for their chance by the fence had no idea of the future. They were committed to there BEING a future. Nuclear power was not a safe or sustainable way to generate electricity. Raised on the Walt Disney book, Your Friend the Atom, was not what this tail end of the baby boomers believed anymore. The experimental reactor meltdown in Detroit, the leakage into the Columbia River from Hanford in Washington State, and various other accidents had shown the world its shortcomings. Besides, securing the enormous amounts of nuclear waste from polluting the environment was still a problem after forty years.
The four organizers of the protest drove to the truck stop and parked behind it. Jennifer hoisted her pack, checked the laces of her climbing boots, and pulled a baseball cap over her bouncy curls. They hiked the path past the back parking lot and heard the rush of the river in the distance. After half an hour the occasional voice broke through the trees. Soon the lights of the plant were visible. On arrival, Jennifer and Stan, her partner on top of the tower, stared. Hundreds of people were quietly lined against the fence as far as they could see. The compound was at least seventeen hundred feet long on their side and people were sitting or standing two and three deep. Jennifer swallowed, but her throat was dry. She took a swig of water from the bottle at her hip.
“Come on, let’s get to the gate” whispered Stan.
Jennifer looked at her watch, ten o’clock. Their janitor should be there. As the foursome approached they noticed a couple men with a six-pack. One of them stared at Jennifer. Inside she squirmed.
“Can we get this open?” Stan asked.
The janitor named Carl walked over, “ If I could be introduced to the two ladies in the group.”
It was obvious that he’d had a couple of beers already.
Stella who would spot Jennifer and Stan as they climbed the tower cleared her throat, “ Howdy, my name is Stella.”
She walked closer, put out her hand out for him to shake. Stan was a little taken-a-back, but secretly grateful. It had started to get tense. Stella’s kind brown eyes regarded Carl, who looked at her outstretched hand in space, and then dove unsteadily forward to shake it.
“Pleased to meet you Carl.”
“Uh, nice to meet you too.” Her stared at her round face, upturned nose, and plush lips.
“Would you be so good as to open the gate for us?” asked Stella sweetly.
Carl blankly looked at Jennifer behind her, then at Stan. Without a word he turned and lumbered over, keys clanking. The rustle and sound of hundreds of bodies coming to attention at the edge of the forest generated an unseen energy. Stan, Stella, Jennifer, and Ralphie walked through to the site.
As he passed Carl, Stan mentioned, “You might want to get out of here before the action happens. I wouldn’t want you to loose your job for helping us.”
Carl nodded and turned to his friend holding the beer. He looked longingly at Stella who, by now, was on the other side of the fence, turned, and disappeared into the forest darkness.
Ralphie pealed off to keep watch on the perimeter and corral the people in as orderly a fashion as he could. He was a Pennsylvania State Park Assistant Ranger in the summer and could handle crowds. Stella stood at the base of the tower’s foot-wide rungs reaching up to the top. It was one of the few completed parts of the plant. The containment building next to it was a huge hole in the ground rimmed with a yard thick concrete footing. Stan mounted the rungs first, trailing the security rope. He climbed and they watched his ski pants clad butt disappear into the night above. Once the rope was taut in Stella’s hand, Jennifer ascended.