For the Common Good
‘It looks… dull’.
Signposts direct visitors to ‘New Greenham Park’, the once infamous name sanitised. Nature had reclaimed the common now, just an un-fenced openness with few traces of the ugliness that used to occupy the terrain. The derelict control tower looks smaller than Jenna remembers.
‘The missiles left in ’93 but the camps hung on for a few more years’ Jenna explains though she can see her teenage daughter is bored.
Jenna followed Maeve to Greenham Common women’s peace camp, but Maeve was interested in nonviolent protest and not her. Jenna, like the hundreds of women who set up the peace camps around the US military base, was angered by NATO’s decision to site American cruise missiles in England. In truth though Maeve was her reason for being there, though her adoration was unreciprocated, and she hated the primitive conditions of the camp. Her allocated home, a ‘bender’, was a dwelling made of tarpaulin draped over bent saplings. It was cold and damp. She loathed the mud, shitting in the woods, communally cooked lentil slop and the relentless preternatural ululating of the keening women. It annoyed Jenna as much as it unnerved the soldiers.
Walking back from a night out in Newbury, soldiers urinated on tents until it became a childish, irritating norm whilst verbal aggression became a game neither side took seriously. The Americanism ‘asshole’ had been adopted by some women. ‘Motherfucker’ had not.
When Jenna heard the ‘Yo! Bitches’ she sleepily tugged up her sleeping bag. It was the smell that fully woke her. Wood smoke was the scent of the camp – the acrid chemical of burning nylon was not. Jenna was on high alert before she fully understood why.
Two soldiers where throwing the djembe’s on the campfire. Drum stands and kit were strewn around. Hot embers were kicked into a tent and it caught fire.
‘Guys, guys – come on, let’s go!’ A third soldier pleaded with his rampaging comrades.
Jenna knew that most of the tents and benders were empty. A peace vigil was being held on a missile silo inside the base. She had not gone; avoiding arrest the night before she left camp. The distant sound of protest songs carried on the night air whilst the women’s homes – tarpaulin, nylon, plastic sheets, like falling dominos, caught alight.
‘Get her!’ was all Jenna needed to hear before she ran feeling the pursuing combustive pops as another camp dwelling imploded in hot flame.
Instinctively Jenna knew she was in danger. Not the potential danger of the nuclear missiles but real and imminent peril. The soldiers were drunk, mean and feral – and they were closing in on her.
When he grabbed her hair, yanking her painfully, Jenna was terrified. He misjudged and pulled too hard, and as she flew backwards, he lost his footing. Jenna landed on him, leapt up, and jumped hard on his knee. She heard the crack of broken bone and the screams of the soldier on the ground. She ran into the camp latrine area and crouched in the ferns trying to still her ragged breathing, so loud she was sure it would be heard above the flames.
‘Earl, get over here – we have her!’
Jenna recognised the cowboy drawl. He was the soldier who kicked the burning log into the tent, the ringleader.
‘Come out you fucking dyke’.
Jenna heard the rustle of the dried ferns as he stalked her. Committed to protecting the environment, a forested patch close to camp had been created. Troughs, known as ‘shit pits’, dug with sand buckets in place for those less able to squat. Later, when recalling the moment, Jenna could not explain how the idea came to her, but she crouched over a bucket.
‘Do you MIND?!” she loudly exclaimed.
Reflexively the soldier hesitated.
Jenna seized the moment, grasped the bucket handle and swung it with all her might at the head of the soldier. The soldier fell unconscious to the ground, the contents of the fetid bucket soiling his pristine uniform.
‘Hey, hey, you…stop. I don’t want to hurt you’.
The boyish face of the third soldier called, and Jenna ran towards the hole in the perimeter fence, cut earlier that evening to get access for the base invasion. She could hear women keening in the near distance and hoped she could get to them before he got to her.
Sentry patrols had eventually been reduced because the soldiers became over friendly, or over aggressive, with the women who asked them ‘why do you want to kill our children?’ Military training had not prepared soldiers for peaceful direct action by women. Rolls of barbed wire littered the base landscape, but they too were never enough to keep the women out.
Jenna felt arms circle her waist and tackle her to the ground. Fighting like a dervish her elbow connected with his nose and a well-placed heel dragged down his shin. He placed his hand over her mouth. She bit into his palm tasting blood. He yelped in pain.
‘Please, please…. Be quiet. I have something I need to give you’.
Something in his tone ended the fight. Despite the uniform and the actions of his comrades Jenna instinctively understood he was not her enemy. He reached into the pocket of his fatigues, thrust folded papers at her and ran away as women began to arrive back to the carnage of the burned out camp.
The papers, stapled together had ‘top secret’ stamped on the front.
Claudia rolls her eyes when the story was told.
‘Seriously mum, you think you closed the base? Ego – much? What even is a nuclear code book anyway?’
Jenna remembers seeing the news report of the last convoy ever leaving the base. She remembers handing the papers over to one of the camp activists and seeing the story of the leaked documents hit the news a couple of weeks after she left. She wonders what happened to the scared young soldier. Sometimes, she wonders what happened to beautiful Maeve.