Not much these days can leave me crying without being able to stop for a long time, but news of Sam's death did.
I moved from Madison to the Bay Area a couple years ago--following my Cheezer beloved out here--and had worked in organic and sustainable ag at the UW and in Wisconsin's public schools during my 13 years between the lakes. I would run into Sam there, in various places, though less so after the Gulf War prison term. I loved him even before moving to Wisconsin, because he was one of the people who was living witness to things that I could only catch glimpses of as a teenager and youngster. He embodied the promise.
I grew up in a refinery/factory/shipyard town downriver from Philly. My dad's ancestors had come to that valley in the 1640s, farmed it in peace, lost their land in the 1780s to an upstart family named DuPont that illegally claimed thousands of acres of farmland because they wanted the waterways for their gunpowder mills, moved in diaspora to the cities...and went into the saloon and war business. A long line of Army heroes, then they became shipbuilders. My father was Navy, also a shipbuilder. But he taught me to question authority and treasure memory, and he spoke of his war experience in a way that was unusual for a man of his generation. He was proud of his service as citizen soldier...but he made clear to whoever asked that he was no hero, that war was not the work of heroes. He backed that up with people's history--things he'd seen, read, and heard about from those who had been there. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. Bataan. Nanking. Dresden. He spoke of things that didn't become "official" history for decades more.
My father spoke frankly, and with pain and confusion, about the painful, confusing experiences of all that. He died at the age of 59, weighing 67 pounds, one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the asbestos plague. As I grew into a kid wanting to be a reporter (I'd come of political consciousness with La Huelga, with My Lai, with Watergate, and with the young antinuclear movement), it was the activities of people like Sam, and Erwin Knoll, and Nukewatch, and The Progressive, and In These Times that formed my nourishment in the late 70s. There among the drums of waste and smoke stacks and corruption and hopelessness. There, "home" meant the place you tried desperately to survive, and with enough luck and a shred of good fortune, managed to escape.
I didn't last long as a journalist, for many reasons, and became instead an educational communicator. I ended up in Madison in '87 by serendipity, in part thanks to losing my career, a child, and my health to a pesticide spraying. I found wise people who helped me figure all that out and heal, I found opportunities to do thanks-work in return, and Wisconsin is now my home, the place that runs in my veins like tide and season.
Who I am today, who I have been in all my adulthood--including nine years of fighting the asbestos companies in my father's memory to my past and current work in sustainable and organic agriculture--comes in some part from the consistent example of Sam. I'm not big on heroes, but I do believe that people of courage, commitment, and integrity, witnessing to each other in community, can remove the taint from the Waste Land, and let the soil's seedbank bloom. Living examples of that can mean a lot. There have been many times when I've become discouraged or exhausted in my own work, or in the effects that pesticides and petrochemicals have left in my body and spirit, and I've pulled out my battered copy of Nuclear Heartland, and re-read the introduction, and paged through, to see this most concrete example of how citizens can bring air to suffocating darkness...and sweet gentle darkness to glaring, searing fear.
I think of Sam smiling among the racks of the old Medler's bookstore on State, winter of '89, I think it was, stands out...of him at WORT's studios (which is also where my boyfriend, a long-time active WORT person, met him)...and at the Gulf War actions in '91. One of my dear Wisconsin farmer friends recently mentioned meeting Sam in connection with one of the Nader events, and I was so glad he'd made that connection. On J20 my boyfriend and I walked thru San Francisco with 15,000 other people witnessing that we noticed there was a coup, and I said, I wonder what's happening in Madison, and I wonder who's there. He said, "Sam Day."
For the big Sam-shaped hole in your daily life, I grieve with you and for you.