For more than 80 years, Abe Zwickel
lived peacefully in an unpeaceful world.
Abe had absolutely no tolerance for violence, war, hatred, injustice,
pollution, waste. Whenever he saw these evils, he felt compelled to do
something about them.
Abe walked thousands
of miles in protests and demonstrations. He spent time in jail because
of his pacifist beliefs. He stood for hours in the blazing sun and the
pouring rain in the name of people he never met.
Through the blisters and sunburns, scrapes and bruises, he never
once had a moment's regret, says his son, Daniel Zwickel.
Abe was a frequent and sometimes startling sight at protests outside
the Concord Naval Weapons Station and Lawrence Livermore Lab. Rhythmically
beating his "peace drum," Abe, with his flowing white hair, frail frame
and weathered smile, contrasted with the youthful faces that often surrounded
"He was sort of the grand patriarch of protesters," says Janess
Hanson, a longtime friend who admired Abe's dedication and fearlessness.
Abe's pacifism was born in the glowering shadow of World War I,
when Abe was a 14-year-old telegram messenger in New York. With growing
horror, Abe began to realize that among the wires announcing impending
visits, safe arrivals, and births and weddings, were condolences from the
Abe's humble neighborhood was a long way from a French battlefield,
but to teen-age Abe, the telegrams brought the inglorious realities of
war to his doorstep. The deaths, and the pain they caused, made the introspective
boy look even deeper inside, and strengthen his desire to find other ways
to resolve conflict.
Several years later, when Abe received his draft notice, he chose
an alternative to military service, joining a Quaker fire camp and fighting
forest fires around the country.
But on the way to a California fire, Abe heard a speech by a Chinese
pacifist. His words provided context for Abe's own jumbled feelings. He
realized, Daniel says, that while he was willing to dedicate his life to
his country, he could not in good conscience serve in the military. Peace,
not violence, was the path he walked.
Abe left the fire camp and turned himself in to authorities in Sacramento,
where he was charged with draft evasion and convicted. He was sentenced
to two years in prison.
"My father devoted his entire life in service to his country,"
Daniel says. "People seem to only recognize those who serve militarily.
"It may well be the job of soldiers to defend our country's shores,
but it is the job of the pacifists to see that those conflicts never occur."
After being jailed for his beliefs, Abe said in interviews, it
became easier for him to stand up for causes. He protested the draft and
beseeched world leaders to settle differences without war. He objected
to celebrations honoring Columbus, pointing out the explorer's "discovery"
of America resulted in the mass destruction and subjugation of American
He marched 300 miles across Japan with Buddhist monks, protesting
the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He stood outside the naval weapons
station to protest the war in Central America. He played his peace drum
outside San Quentin as officials prepared to execute a prisoner. He called
for reasonable people to behave as such and to treat neighbors with compassion
Michael Kerr, who met Abe and his wife, Jean Zwickel, at a Concord
weapons station protest, says he admired Abe's dedication. Abe was well
into his 80s when they met, but Abe stood shoulder to shoulder with the
"We went a number of times at San Quentin," Michael says, "for
execution vigils. Sometimes it would be real cold out and rainy. We'd be
out there five or six hours and he'd be there the whole time, beating his
drum, his whole body shaking, his white hair flowing."
A fateful day
The protests outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station had occurred
intermittently since the Vietnam War. Wars in Central America brought renewed
protest outside the station, where military weapons were stored for transfer
In 1987, a group of protesters led by Brian Willson staged one
demonstration that included a plan to block a munitions train with their
bodies. Something went wrong. The train engineer was told the tracks had
been cleared. He pushed the throttle and started across the road. Willson
tried to get out of the way. He fell toward the oncoming train and was
pulled beneath the iron wheels. One leg was severed by the train, the other
was beyond saving and was amputated at a hospital.
Outraged by what they believed was a deliberate act, the protesters
began a continual vigil at the station, blocking the tracks, standing in
front of trucks, defying commands to disperse. Abe, who had witnessed Willson's
near-death, became one of the regulars at the tracks. He was arrested so
often that police began referring to him, with some affection, as "Old
The protest continued for several years, Michael says. Eventually,
protesters found other causes and drifted away from the tracks. But Abe
kept coming. Six or seven years after everyone left, Abe would still show
up and stand in front of the gates. His protest was more symbolic than
substantive, but Abe believed, friends say, that nothing peacefully done
in the name of peace is wasted energy.
Abe often seemed a lone man, railing against the darkness. But
in truth, Abe was never alone. For 55 years, Jean was by his side, marching
along with her husband, speaking out for the causes they both believed
A journey of love
They had met, as might be expected, at a protest. Abe was living in
Baltimore and Jean was living in an interracial, pacifist Christian commune
in New York called the Harlam Ashram. Abe and Jean met as they marched
with a small group from New York to Washington, D.C., protesting the Jim
Crow laws legitimizing segregation. Love blossomed on their journey.
"We met on the lowest common denominator," Abe often said. "Our
feet. We were walking for peace."
Friends joked at their wedding that Abe, a Jew, and Jean, a Unitarian,
were forming a new religion: Jewnitarian.
Daniel says Abe and Jean's marriage went beyond a simple union.
Their commitment to each other was enriched by their commitment to their
"Father was the one who always leaped to the front lines," Daniel
says, "while Mother, quietly supportive, provided the necessary reality
check and kept the rest of their life running in an orderly fashion."
It wasn't easy, juggling civic concerns with job and family. Daniel
says some of his earliest childhood memories are of demonstrations. He
followed his parents' footsteps, becoming a vegetarian and a pacifist.
The past year, age seemed to catch up with Abe, who grew increasingly
frail and ill. He finally decided it was time for his grand exit. He stopped
eating, then stopped drinking. But the spirit that had stood so firm and
strong in the face of impossible odds, held him a bit longer.
Abe died at home, with his family close by. He was 96.
Joan Morris writes story obituaries. Call her at 925-977-8479, write
her at P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or e-mail her at email@example.com.