Robert Creston Aldridge, recipient of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in 1981, was born at his home in Watsonville, California, on April 15, 1926, at a time when home births were a common part of life. He died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, on April 29, 2022, at his home in Santa Clara, California, his wish fulfilled.
Robert is survived by Janet, his wife and partner of nearly 75 years, a Fellowship of Reconciliation member who served on FOR-USA’s National Council in the mid-1980s. He is also survived by his brother, Skip Reaves (Donna) and his sister-in-law, Gayle Oksen. Robert’s legacy lives on – 10 children, Cres (Vicki), Jane, Jim (Colette), Dan (Rita), Kathy (Ray), Teri, Mary, Diane (Gary), Nancy and Mark (Robin), along with 32 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great-grandchildren. There are nephews, nieces and cousins too numerous to mention.
Robert’s life can be described as a triple stranded DNA helix – intertwining strands in delicate and intricate patterns, each strand supporting and strengthening every aspect of his life, pulsing outward, showering love and enlightenment on so many souls. He can easily be perceived as larger than life and, in many ways, he was.
The first strand of the helix is his family. Robert lost his father when he was two years old. Pappy came into his and his mother’s lives. Skip was born. Cousins were taken in. There was only family.
Robert led by example. Family was there for family. He passed his skills to his children, his grandchildren and to his great-grandchildren. There were so many common talents complementing so many unique geniuses for each member of the extended family. When the individuals pooled their talents and resources together in groups ranging from one-on-ones to large work parties, there was no intention other than helping brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin.
Step-grandchildren came into the picture. They were immersed and known only as family. The highlights of Robert’s life were the large, extended-family gatherings for camping, holidays and celebrations.
Of course, without Janet there would be no Bob, no Mom, no Dad. The world is blessed they found each other.
The second strand of the helix is Robert’s career and life work. He was a WWII veteran, worked 16 years as an aeronautical engineer at Lockheed, then had a change of consciousness. Robert blossomed into an anti-nuclear activist and an expert witness before Congress and many courts throughout the world. He was a peace activist, a writer, a lecturer, a veteran for peace. For over three decades he researched federal activities to reveal clandestine government capabilities and ambitions. He is credited with being first to warn in the 1970s that the Pentagon was seeking a disarming of a foreign nuclear power’s first strike capability. For this he received the third Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA (the award was initiated in 1979).
Robert was an advisor/ consultant/ sponsor/ activist in many groups and organizations including Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, British-American Security Information Council, Institute for Law and Peace, Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Pacific Life Community, IF (Bill Cane), Veterans for Peace, Nonviolent Peaceforce, to name but a few. His essay, “The Courage to Start,” published in the April 1976 issue of FOR’s national magazine, Fellowship, appears below.
His latest book, The Goodness Field, is a culmination of his lifetime work and offers direction to achieve peace and nonviolence through a proactive Global Satyagraha Movement (pressure for social and political reform through friendly passive resistance practiced by M. K. Gandhi and his followers), guided by a global constructive program for the 21st century.
The third strand of the DNA helix is self-sufficiency. Robert was accomplished and an artisan as an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, a welder, a draftsman and designer, a metallurgist. He was practiced in all phases of construction, and a tinkerer.
He sought a simpler lifestyle that was less demanding of natural and human resources, “living simply that others may simply live”.
Robert saw God’s love throughout nature, being an avid backpacker into his 70’s, and a tent camper into his 80’s.
Robert taught these skills to his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. It was not just the skills he taught, but the attitude as well, the flexibility needed in life and the creativity in finding solutions where none seemed to be.
Throughout Robert’s life these strands of DNA bonded his body, mind and soul into his passion. His life blood depended on the three thriving together.
In lieu of flowers please continue Robert’s dedication in caring for Janet by occasionally snail-mailing cards or brief notes expressing joy and happiness of life.
The memorial services for Robert will be celebrated in Corralitos, California, on Sunday, June 12, 2022. A pot luck reception, Robert’s wish, will follow the memorial. For details on the memorial and to RSVP, follow this link: https://pp.events/aj03P4rY
This obituary, circulated by the Aldridge family, has been lightly adapted for publication by FOR.
THE COURAGE TO START
by Robert C. Aldridge
Conversion—from being “thing-related” to being “people-centered”— seldom occurs in one cataclysmic flash of enlightenment but rather through a chain reaction of career-shocking, security-threatening experiences: experiences in love of others rather than the abstract morality that has corrupted this country since the first slave was sold.
To those of us of the World War II era, this transformation may be more painful; we have become further embedded in the mire of competition and personal gain. But it’s no easy job for the youth of our nation either—many of whom are bathed in relative affluence.
My own questioning started one night several years ago. My oldest daughter and I were discussing campus activities against Dow Chemical, a company producing napalm for use in Vietnam. Our conversation then swung to my work at Lockheed: designing the Poseidon missile with its cluster of individually targeted re-entry vehicles, each carrying a nuclear warhead.
Showing real concern, she explained, “I’m worried, Dad. Pretty soon the demonstrations will be against your work.”
That moved me because I saw her real worry was tied to a possible split between us over basic values—a split that might put us on opposite sides of the picket line. Of course, I defended my position (which I truly believed at that time) that building deterrent weapons was holding off a hot war until cold-war differences were negotiated. I posed the problem of stopping our production when the Russians have engaged us in an arms race. Her contention was that someone must have the courage to start.
“Someone must have the courage to start.” I could not shake that thought, and it troubled me. A good friend of mine once remarked that when a person made him uncomfortable, he found it advantageous to listen. I was more than uncomfortable—I was trapped. To complete my engineering studies, I had worked full time while attending college for five years. Since getting a degree, my advancement had been good—I was at that time leader of a design group for an advanced re-entry system. All my career preparations had been in this field, and I had worked hard. How could Janet, my wife, and I, with ten children, start over? Where do you get that kind of courage?
In spite of the seemingly formidable obstacles, a new consciousness had dawned on me. I became more aware of things happening at work. I noticed that most people did not really exhibit convictions of pursuing humanitarian projects to prevent war. That myth tinged our environment but was neither accepted nor rejected. It just hung there, unchallenged. Patriotic philosophies of defending our country were subordinated to concern for winning contracts or working more overtime.
I observed very little joy within the guarded gates of Lockheed. Only the intellectual side surfaced, and that was strictly along the lines of “me and my project.” That attitude, along with tough-line competition for more responsibility, was the general rule. Motivation of people to gather more and more work under their wing amazed me. I finally diagnosed this “empire building” as groping for security—a need to become indispensable. But I knew of very few who actually achieved permanency: a budget cut or administrative reorganization could result in being declared “surplus” or squeezed out of line in the pecking order.
Potential insecurity and ruthless competition, coupled with the lack of personal satisfaction associated with pursuing wholesome tasks, are underlying reasons for the gloomy atmosphere. Constantly hanging over one’s head is the negative force of fear. Lacking is the positive reward of seeing one’s labor benefit humanity. I did not realize it at the time, but my interior self was changing from the “I-it” to the “I-Thou” attitude—the death knell of an engineering career in the defense industry.
Had I been more alert, I would have recognized harbingers of this human concern shining through my mechanized mentality sooner. A conversation many years ago, shortly after I started work at Lockheed, still lurks in my memory—probably because I realized in my subconscious that it was never completed.
I had engaged one of my colleagues in a philosophical discussion of religion and its meaning in daily life. He asked, “What do you think God wants you to do most of all?” “Just what I am doing,” I responded spontaneously, “to help build this missile to protect our country.” He commented that I was fortunate in my conviction and the conversation died. But that dialogue continued to make me think. Was he beginning to struggle within himself? Or was it just a casual question with an offhand response? Whatever, it disturbed me. But I had not yet learned to listen when disturbed.
Gradually, my awareness of surroundings developed into curiosity as patterns unfolded before me. I saw behind-the-scenes activity associated with the daily newscast. I witnessed a task force set up to circumvent what good might come from negotiations to stop the arms race. I saw numerous violations of the test ban treaty when underground nuclear explosions vented into the Nevada atmosphere. Reports I read indicated we couldn’t safely negotiate an anti-ballistic-missile freeze because, in addition to being ineffective, our Safeguard system was too expensive and too controversial to be deployed. Finally, when I saw the trend toward greater accuracy and greater warhead yield—a potential shift from the retaliatory deterrent to a first-strike weapon—I became really uneasy. All this undermining of sincerity at the negotiating table was being kept secret from the American people, and the reasons were obvious: bureaucracy and profits. With access to inside knowledge, it was not difficult for me to deduce that we had already reached the saturation point of deterrent capability.
A temporary outlet was involvement in the peace movement. As peace information coordinator for the National Association of Laity (NAL), I was exposed to more study and research, and this time it reached international dimensions. I avidly pursued investigation on how American institutions affect underdeveloped countries. New knowledge of how the corporate pattern (in which I had become so deeply enmeshed) was repressing poor people at home and abroad made my complicity more untenable.
So I built bombs as a profession and worked for peace as a hobby—an existence I pursued openly by taking part in all public peace activities. There was a dormant desire that the FBI would find me out and cancel my security clearance. That would make the decision for me, but they never tumbled. During the NAL convention on peace at New York’s Fordham University, I was introduced to the assembly as a Lockheed defense worker. Several men approached me afterward to ask questions regarding my conflict of interest, but apparently, they weren’t Hoover’s men as nothing further came of it. My decision of conscience would not be made by default.
Eventually my peace-seeking activities turned in on me. One can only go so far in quest of justice without coming to terms with his own living pattern. In early 1972, Janet and I started planning for the transition. We itemized objectives, areas to investigate, library research, and people with whom we should discuss our plans. These were all outlined as short-term goals—we would schedule ongoing activity after the investigation phase. Our plan proceeded well until events accelerated our decision.
In August of that same year, Janet and I were sent to Honolulu to offer NAL support during the “Hickam Three’’ trial. The defendants were members of the Catholic Action of Hawaii, an NAL chapter. Attempting to spark consciousness in the people, the accused poured their own blood over top-secret electronic warfare files at Hickam Air Base, intelligence and targeting center for the Indochina air war. Their words during the pouring illustrate their intense motivation:
We pour our blood in the name of the God of Love, who lives now in the world in the maimed flesh of suffering people… We pour our blood to signify the responsibility of American citizens for the most terrible atrocities since Nazi Germany’s gas chambers… We pour our blood, finally, in the name of the human family under God, a global community created to live in peace, in brotherhood and sisterhood—a community of love which can become fully real only when we are willing to resist the shedding of others’ blood by the giving of our own.
Firsthand contact with people who jeopardized their liberty for the suffering in the world caused me to quickly single out the double standard in my own life. It was then I realized the date for ending my complicity in a program of destruction must be set, and that date must be soon. Prolonging this decision was compromising my human integrity. “Someone must have the courage to start.”
The Honolulu experience filled another need I felt necessary at that time. Up until then, all those I knew who had uprooted their lives resisting immorality did not have families. With six children still living at home I could not completely relate to their actions. Now I met a person who furnished a precedent. James W. Douglass—theologian, adviser to bishops during Vatican II, author, university professor, and “Hickam Three” defendant—is a husband and father of a family. Later, while reading Jim’s book Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation, I could see where he had also struggled with a concern for his family and solved it. Part of his dialogue with Jesus goes like this:
I fear what they can do to me. It is a fear which runs from my seeing it directly, but a fear which I feel identifying itself with all that I have now and would lose—if my fear should be realized, and they should take it all away. Take what away? Everything I have. Like what, for example? Well, if you want an inventory: job, home, friends, reputation, a way of life which adds up to a secure existence for my family and myself. I fear much more for my wife and family than I do for myself. I have no right to neglect their needs because of my own feelings of conscience. My first duty is to my wife and family.
Your wife is as capable as you are of resistance. Women and men resist together in Indochina. It is in America that men feel such unique obligations toward women: pots and pans for the American woman, napalm for the Vietnamese. Let your family—wife, husband and children together—be a family of resistance. Grant them all the dignity of entering the real world, where most families suffer while yours prospers.
Jim’s dialogue with Jesus made me ashamed. I had voiced those same fears and asked those same questions, but I hadn’t listened well enough to the answers. I had to see someone actually try the road before I could venture on it. We Christians lean too much on precedents that are merely crutches to bolster our weak determination. We must learn to have confidence in our own convictions. Our subjective morality must yield to a contemporary pattern of spiritual activity.
We set the date for January 1973. Immediately after Christmas vacation I would give notice of my resignation. We would start the new year with a new life.
The four days following Christmas were set aside as a period of family contemplation to unify and crystallize our intentions as a family of resistance. We rented a mountain cabin and retired in wilderness seclusion to read and talk. We were trying to center moral teachings and biblical lessons on our family and how we should face the future. We were building spiritual strength to weather the trying times ahead.
On January 2, 1973, I tendered my resignation. We were now past the point of no return. During that last month I discussed my actions with my co-workers. Some agreed with me and would have liked to do the same, but the needs for security were too strong. That singular fear is the main obstacle to moral action. Theologians have developed theologies of liberation and theologies of civil disobedience, but we still need a theology of courage. It must tangibly relate to the working person with a family and be something more than general rules and abstract teaching; it must be brought alive in shops and offices.
So now I am liberated from the military-industrial complex. Our family is still going through the pain of adjustment. After 25 years of homemaking, Janet now works part-time helping children. I am motivated to do freelance writing because I feel there are things I must say. The kids have taken on more responsibility at home and are growing in self-reliance.
The way ahead is still foggy but, as I told my colleague many years ago, I am doing what I think God wants me to do. We are relying on faith—a faith in ourselves and what we believe and a faith that a force is moving us as long as we, in our free will, respond. Life is scary now. I’m beginning to understand what Daniel Berrigan called “the dark night of resistance” and what Thomas Merton meant when he wrote, “Divine light of faith is thick darkness to the soul.”
Well, someone must have the courage.
(Reprinted from Fellowship, April 1976. This article can also be found in the new edition of The Risk of the Cross: Living Gospel Nonviolence in the Nuclear Age, by Art Laffin.)