To facilitate evacuation of steam and fumes, the cooling tower curved concavely in the middle and swelled out at a gentle angle. As Jennifer approached the “waist”, she realized her backpack would hang backwards for the rest of the climb to the top. Her pack was heavy. It would pull her over. Stan only had a few water bottles and food for the edge sitters in his pack. She was in the upper third of her assent. Going back would take too much time. Why didn’t she think of it before and distribute the load with Stan? But no, she had too much faith in her physical ability. Gritting her teeth, she climbed upward and snaked the taut security line through her arm, twisting it a few times. If she started to topple over it would hold her, possibly break her arm. But ooof, this was going to be a test of her stomach muscles and legs. She muttered a blessing for her ballet training and bike riding.
Jennifer felt the backward pull increase. She looked up and couldn’t see the rim. It would be like this the rest of the way. The wall seriously bowed now. The taunting of her pack was straining her back. She tightened her stomach and clenched her buttocks. Every step on the rungs was a strain. Staring straight into the concrete in front of her and gripping the iron rung with her leather-gloved hands, willing herself to take one more step, then another. God this was grueling. Would there be any permanent body damage? Would she make it?
Thinking about the lies the energy companies told the public and the clever manipulations of lobbyists in congress, her anger fueled her assent. And then Stan’s arm reached over the rim, grabbed the loop at the top of her pack, pulling her up, over, and onto the small platform beyond the edge.
A heavy wire grid platform, four feet wide, ran the circumference of the rim. The wind was a steady breeze but not debilitating. They could sit somewhat comfortably and dangle their legs over the outer edge. The hooks had lots of firm grounding here. The wire must have been a quarter inch thick and welded tightly. Jennifer knew her cloth signs were heavy and would give a great tug at the end as they plummeted down the side with their rebar weighted hems. So first, she and Stan determined where cameras might be and positioned them proportionally.
Making fast the hooks, they let the first sign, NO NUKES unfurl. Laying flat on the wire grid, their gloved fingers laced through the inch wide gap, waiting, poised for the jerk. Jennifer was almost overcome and had to suddenly hook her feet over the inner edge of the platform so she wouldn’t be pulled over and fall past the tower into the containment building hole. They took a break to recover and drank water listening to the tail end of applause from below. They were so high above the crowd it was hard to hear.
Stan enlisted the help of a heavy weighted edge sitter so more pounds balanced the second banner as they let it rip, PLUTONIUM 239 – HALF LIFE 24,110 YEARS. Jennifer was ready and braced hard for the kick. They held. A roar of applause from below broke the tower dwellers into smiles. Stella jerked on the rope to signal more sitters, and twelve more people climbed the rungs to the edge. Each one going through Jennifer’s previous hell, tilting backwards as they climbed the towers last half. It took two hours for all to be situated, equally spaced along the rim. Everyone had four hundred feet of a red, orange, or yellow ribbon to attract attention. With sixteen three-inch wide grosgrain streamers flapping in the wind around the large red lettered and black outlined banners, it made a festive sight.
Jennifer would have to wait until later to see pictures. Putting her leather gloves into her pack she grabbed a pair of thick mittens. It would get colder. She switched her wool beanie for a fur lined leather cap with earflaps she used in deep winter to keep warm.
The overtime construction teams would arrive at seven a.m. They had three more hours to wait. Some thoughtful person nearby passed a thermos of coffee around their section of the rim regularly. Jennifer marveled at the thoroughness of their organization. The four core members, two atop the tower – Stan and her, and two on the ground, Stella and Ralphie, had planned well.
Like settled pigeons on a roost, quiet blanketed the tower group, twinkling lights from the city of Cornell danced in the distance. To the east an occasional farm building light was on early for animal tending and broke the now bluing darkness. The wind had died down. Jennifer shifted constantly in her seat. Exercising her stomach muscles by leaning back for an isometric pull, also rotating her wrists and ankles. Her pack was hooked to the wire and dangled inside the cooling tower maw. Anticipation robbed her of appetite. She was alert in a way she’d rarely felt.
Stan rumbled on her left, ”HO! Look sharp!”
Jennifer sat upright and craned her neck towards the road.
The first cars and trucks were pulling in, parking in the lot to the west of the site. The people Jennifer could see on the ground were getting to their feet, raising their signs. There were hundreds inside the compound. What would happen now?
As the first employees entered through the gates, she could see the occupier’s part like the Red Sea for Moses. People nodded hello and waved at the entering workers. Jennifer couldn’t discern much talk, but watched the crowd movement. Then a cluster of people at the entrance gate began milling around. Stan had a walkie-talkie for connection to Stella and Ralphie, he let the rim people know a supervisor had entered and was going to call the Sheriff. An agitation of sound erupted. Jennifer figured she might as well eat, even if she was too excited.
Hoisting her pack up onto the rim, she set it beside her. Unzipping a pocket, feeling for the plastic bag with one of her tuna fish sandwiches in it. She tried to eat slowly, methodically. Then she went for the oatmeal raisin cookies, three, and an apple. After swigging her water a few times she began to pay attention to what was happening around her. Looking west she saw a short line of vehicles with flashing lights.
“ All individuals in this compound are breaking the law. You are trespassing on a nuclear power site. You will be charged with a felony,” the Geneseo County Sheriff’s bullhorn bleated.
The Sheriff stood at the front gate. Workers continuing onto the site were turned back to their cars. Four deputies were trying, unsuccessfully, to get the people on the ground to move. All the protesters had sat down where they had been standing. Some people were chanting a litany of all the radioactive materials used in nuclear power generation, one chemical, and it’s half-life at a time.
The deputies tugged at the people on the ground, but they immediately went limp in their grasp. They started to target the slimmer female protesters and succeeded in picking them up and carrying them out the gate to the herd of police cars. Jennifer was grateful she was up on her perch. She would have been one of the first to be carted off at one hundred and twenty-five pounds. A few of the rim sitters had binoculars, including Stan. She signaled to him and he passed them to her. As she watched more closely she could see the deputies were getting tired, their faces grimaced every time they carted away another member of the group. They couldn’t do this to all the three hundred plus people?
A deputy grabbed a woman of larger girth. She kicked him and sent him sprawling. The Sheriff stopped what he was doing, marched over and ratcheted handcuffs on her. She kicked and resisted until two deputies lumbered over and pushed her to her feet.
She screamed, “NO NUKES! NO NUKES!,” all the way to the police car as they pushed her inside.
Jennifer wondered how many handcuffs the deputies had brought.
“Stan? There are military vehicles heading our way.”
“Must be the National Guard. Sheriff probably figured it would take a week to get us out at this rate.”
“They’ve got a whole load of busses in their entourage. What jail is big enough to hold us? Uh, oh, I see “Buffalo 6” and their broadcasting trucks.”
Channel 6 in Buffalo, New York was the closest T.V. news to their location. They vied with Rochester’s Channel 3 for the local scoops. But Albany Channel 5 was sure to show even though they were one hundred and fifty miles away. Soon more white vans with large logos on the side could be seen following. Within fifteen minutes the distinctive sound of a helicopter was overhead. The rim sitters looked skywards to watch where the white news aviator would land. Quickly, they realized the film crew were focusing on them. Some people offered the peace sign with their fingers. Other people waved.
The soldiers in their green uniforms were streaming into the compound and lining themselves up along the inside of the fence. Jennifer could see they were trying to make a human funnel. They would walk as a body squeezing the group together and then load them on to the bus. Ralphie was communicating to Stan the whole time, giving stats on people, supplies, and timing. Jennifer knew her car would be O.K. at the truck stop. Sometimes people got drunk in their bar and took a taxi home. Cars could stay there for days.