This is the second installment of “The Stories of Joseph Howell,” and some may have read it before. Hope you will take a second look….
This week Trump is going to make a decision on the Iran nuclear deal, and the negotiations with South Korea loom in the future. The threat of nuclear war is probably greater now than it has been since the ending of the Cold War. But let’s not forget that it has always been lurking in the shadows, which recalls my experience with an organization called Search For Common Ground as told below:
The nuclear threat is the reason when I got a call in the mid 80s, I responded the way I did. The call came from a guy who worked for one of the housing clients I was serving at the time (another reason to take the call seriously). The call went something like this:
“Joe, great to talk to you and hear your voice. I am calling to see how you feel about nuclear war.”
“Well, actually I am against it.”
“You know, I thought that you would feel this way and are one of us. I am part of a small but growing group whose sole purpose is to prevent nuclear war. We would be honored if you would consider joining us.”
He went on to say that his group–“Search for Common Ground”– would be meeting next week and that both I and my wife were invited. In fact it was really important that she come along as well, provided, of course, that she too was against nuclear war. I told him that we had not discussed the topic lately, but I was pretty sure that she also was “one of us.” The meeting would be more like a reception, and there would be plenty of food and a chance to get to know others in the group. Most of the people would be new people, just like us.
It turned out that we could not make it that meeting, but he came back with a bunch of other dates, and one of them worked. Boy, I thought, these guys meet a lot. They must be really dedicated. He then gave me very explicit directions to get to the location of the meeting, which would start at seven. We should not be late. With some reluctance and skepticism, Embry agreed to join me, and we headed off to the meeting in plenty of time to get there by seven. In fact the meeting was in our neighborhood, less than a mile away.
For a couple of blocks we drove up Connecticut Avenue—the main drag—took a right and went down a steep hill, toward the direction of Rock Creek Park. His directions were very explicit that we should make a left turn on the dirt road just before the bottom of the hill. Dirt road in the middle of Washington? I certainly could not remember seeing any dirt road at that spot, which I passed all the time; but sure enough as we approached the bottom of the hill, there was a small, practically hidden dirt road. We made the turn.
The road lead directly into Rock Creek Park. But for all we knew we could have been in a primeval forest. It was now twilight, and the huge trees cast shadows across our path as our car lurched forward up a hill. “Where on earth are we going?” asked Embry. “It seems like we are in the wilderness.” I had to agree. There was an eerie feeling about the whole place, almost like we were characters in a Harry Potter movie. We drove along for what seemed like hours, but actually was probably more like ten minutes, when the road suddenly turned sharply down a hill where we could see a meadow in the dim light.
We emerged from the dark forest into the meadow and saw before us a giant, stone mansion, four storey’s high with turrets, surrounded by luxuriant gardens. Were we in England, surely it would have been one of the estates of the Royal Family. We approached the house from the back where there was a parking lot full of cars, many of them late model BMWs and Mercedes. Beside the parking area was a large swimming pool and fountain. Could we possibly be in the right place? My friend said nothing about meeting in a castle. Parking our beat-up car beside a sparkling Cadillac, we wandered around to the front of the house. I checked the address with my instructions. We were in the right place. A huge plaque beside the front door read simply “Grey Stone.”
The front door was open, and we timidly walked into a completely empty, grand hallway with twenty or thirty foot ceilings and medieval tapestries on the wall and huge portraits of people who looked like they were dukes or counts. The dark wood floor was adorned with oriental rugs, and in the middle was a huge table with trays of cheese, various kinds of fruit, cookies, Perrier water and cokes. But not a soul was present. We looked at each other with puzzled expressions.
Suddenly out of nowhere a thin, white-haired woman, probably in her seventies, appeared. “You must be the Howells,” she said, smiling, and extended a hand. “Welcome to Grey Stone.”
I apologized that we must be early since no one else was here. “Oh no,” she replied you are right on time. The others will be here shortly. Have some cheese and fruit.”
As we munched away, the room slowly began to fill up. People—mostly in their 30s or 40s and dressed “business casual”—seemed to emerge out of nowhere just like our hostess. Within fifteen minutes the room was practically full with at least forty or fifty guests, all chatting away. This went on for at least forty-five minutes during which time we were never alone. I had never been with a friendlier group. One by one, almost every person in the room came over, extended a hand and said something to the effect, “You must be the Howells, I’ve heard so much about you, a true honor to meet you.” My spirits brightened immediately. Having emerged from the dark, primeval forest into a warm atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie was a welcomed relief and was just the kind of group I had always wanted to belong to. And they were all against nuclear war. What more could you ask for? I glanced at Embry, who was chatting quietly with one of her many new friends and admirers. She gave me one of her skeptical looks. But before I could think about it, I felt a pat on my back, “Joe Howell, right? How great to have you here….” How could all these people know about me? It was the best reception I had ever attended. Nothing else had come close.
Just as I was beginning to wonder when the meeting was actually going to start, someone jingled a bell. It was our hostess. Suddenly the room became stone silent. All eyes turned to her.
“I want to welcome you all to my home,” she said, “and I am so happy to have you here, most of you for the first time. I hope you are having a grand time and getting to meet each other. But it is now time for business, and we should move to the parlor.”
The “parlor” was another huge room but not as vast as the grand hall. The room had a nine or ten foot ceiling, was beautifully decorated with antiques and what I resumed was priceless artwork on the wall, some of it modern. As we gathered around a huge fireplace with the portrait of a baron above it, our hostess moved to the center of the room.
She started off by saying, “How many of you attended the lecture last week on ‘endophormorphic resonance’?” Almost everyone raised their hand. I had no idea what she was talking about or even if I heard her correctly; but from the conversation that followed I gathered it was the concept that ideas and thoughts can sort of float around the planet, which explains why two people separated by thousands of miles can come up with the same idea at more or less the same time. Think of inventing the wheel or using fire for cooking. In any event it was apparent that this crowd of anti nuclear activists was really into endophormorphic resonance.
At last the time came to focus on nuclear war, the prime reason we were there and the common bond that brought us together. It was somewhat odd, I thought, that at the reception not one person had said a word to us about nuclear war. But now the time had come to confront it head on. I was ready.
Our elderly hostess was replaced by a thirty-something man with a crop of black hair. He described the mission of the group known as Search for Common Ground: to eliminate the threat of nuclear war. When asked how many in the group were against nuclear war, everyone raised their hands but no one with more vigor than me. The next exercise was to go around the room and for everyone to stand up and say two things—first, what they really thought about nuclear war and second what they were going to do to stop it.
Well, you have never heard such moving speeches. Even Billy Graham would have been impressed. It was like an old fashioned revival. People poured out their soul as to why they did not think nuclear war was a good idea and then pledged lots of money to this organization, The Search for Common Ground. Several pledged several thousand dollars each, somebody else 10% of all future profits in his successful, hairstyling business. Some were more modest but promised every penny they could come up with. People were reaching deep.
Of the forty plus attendees I was probably around the thirty-fifth to speak. Embry actually was seated ahead of me in the speaking order but refused to say a word. Most of the speeches had been followed by applause. In some cases people were embracing. I could have sworn I saw some people crying. When Embry refused to stand up, there was a quiet, uneasy murmur from the group.
I was next. I stood up, beaming. “I too am against nuclear war.” I said proudly, “In fact I have been against it for some time.” Applause from the group followed immediately. “I have heard all the stories about how nuclear war is not good and am deeply moved. It is true that I do not have a lot of money, but I pledge to give $500 to this worthy cause and join your group. I am proud and honored to be part of Search for Common Ground.” The applause was deafening. Someone patted me on my back. Someone else embraced me. What a great thrill to be part of such a wonderful group of sincere, generous people.
I glanced at Embry who was now slouched over in her seat with her head in her hands. The speeches continued.
Embry then sat up and whispered in my ear, “ We can’t even pay our utility bills, and you pledged $500 to this group that you know absolutely nothing about? Have you lost your mind?”
“Listen, there is nothing more important than stopping nuclear war, and I am going to do my part. We will figure out some way to come up with the money.”
Then it was all over. The speeches had all been made. I filled out my pledge card, signed up as a member and was ready to talk to my new friends, who were cheerfully chatting away. Embry grabbed my hand and said, “Come on, we are getting out of this place right now.” She practically yanked me out the door as my new friends waved good bye and thanked me again.
On the way to our car a young woman raced up behind us, panting.
“Stop,” she said, “I need to talk to you.” She went on to say that she was a reporter from the Baltimore Sun and was doing a story on Search for Common Ground.
“You are new, right? I have two questions for you. First question—do you know how often this reception happens?” Before I could say anything, she said that it happens three, sometimes four days a week and that it has been going on for months.
The second question was if I knew how many people other than ourselves were “new” to the group. She said that tonight there were actually six of us, three couples. All three couples had pledged money, but I was the most generous. All the other people there were part of the organization. This was a scam. People like us were referred to as “pigeons”; and their hit rate on pigeons was pretty good, often as much as several thousand dollars a night. All the other pledges were bogus.
“But they said it was about stopping nuclear war.”
“Stopping nuclear war, my ass,” she shot back. “These people are all part of Est, and the money they raise goes straight into the coffers of Est. It does not have anything to do with nuclear war.”
Est was one of the New Age, feel-good, self-actualization groups, popular at the time. They were known for having weekend retreats where they locked up everyone in a large room, would not let them out even to go to the bathroom, broke down their defenses, and if time permitted, rebuilt them to be happy members of the Est cult. Several of our friends had told us Est horror stories.
“But what about the nuclear war stuff?”
“That is how Est now raises money. It has become obvious to most people that Est is a fraud, and members are dropping out like flies. They are desperate for cash. This is a cover.”
“But why the nuclear war angle?”
“You idiot! Have you ever known anyone who is for nuclear war?”
“Oh,” I replied. Embry just laughed and shook her head with that “I told you so” look.
If you are seeing a pattern between this story and the Amway story, you are correct. I originally called these stories—and there are several more to follow—“Gullible’s Travels.” This is the story of my life. Well, part of the story. But rest assured: I did not give them a penny, and after several threatening letters to pay up or else, they left me alone. I never saw my friend again or heard anything more about the organization.
But, sadly, the threat of nuclear war is more real today than it was at the time of the story. More countries now have these weapons. Some like North Korea are borderline rogue. How long will it be before some nuclear weapons find there way into the hands of terrorists? And we have a volatile and unpredictable president, who appears to be on the verge of pushing the nuclear countdown clock a few more seconds closer to midnight. It is a frightening time. Yet most of us are lulled into a fog of belief that the unthinkable can’t happen. But it could. And no one knows what would happen after that.