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Lewes, Delaware
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April 21, 1995     Cape Gazette
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April 21, 1995
 

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12 CAPE GAZETTE, Friday, April 21 - April 27, 1995 Stenger remembers Earth DayNo. 1 By John R. Stenger Earth Day Minus One We lived on Gills Neck Road along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. The family was eating dinner. Nancy, Cathy and Bob were still at home. Johnny was at Swarth- more (not a girls schools, as I had always thought). Charles Horn phoned from Re- hoboth. He'd been a radio opera- tor at Fort Miles, as I recall. Charles had a keen interest in the Warner Trust Lands of Cape Hen- lopen. He was distraught. "The army is bulldozing the old lighthouse sand dunes away." Charles had an appreciation of the area and I couldn't dismiss his dismay over dunes. I left dinner and checked out his story. At the time, I was the naturalist (whatever that is) at the state park, trying to educate (whatever that is) the public as to their ownership of a public charitable trust known as the Warner Grant of 1680s, which had left the Cape Henlopen area to the inhabitants of Sussex County forever, to fish, hunt, pick beach plums, etc. We'd participated with Boy Scouts and the Rehoboth Garden Club in laying out the Pinelands Nature Trail that's in the vicinity, along with state naturalist Charles E. Mohr (now deceased). Charles hired me and I got paid for doing what I'd done pro bono for several years - giving "nature walks". But I'd guide people to the Lewes dump in the area portrayed by Bill Amos in the June 1965 National Geographic article "The Living Sand", as a showcase of natural history. Lee Sterling, a fellow teacher, told me he'd moonlighted as a Fort Miles guard and people would drive up and ask directions to the Living Dune and he didn't know it was under the city dump. As the first state park naturalist, I got paid for showing off the "Lewes Dumpy Dunes", as Dr. J. C. Kraft, University of Delaware geology department chairman, called it. Charles Horn was right, i saw it with my own eyes: One helluva hole in the dunes, trucks, bulldoz- ers and the works. We'd stopped an industrial park, moved the dumpy dunes, developed a state park, and now the friggin' Army digs a hole in the middle of it[ be 00ornlng New00 Imt/llllqU, IIwaglk t,tf,   tgn Iqt IWII -r-. - h .--- Cease-bulldoze prevails I in the Battle of Dunes I The students' protest in 1970 made the front page of the Wilmington Morning Newa I drove back home and called the governor's office. Russell Pe- terson, later to become president of the National Audubon Society, was governor then. "He's in conference? WHAT THE HELL DO YOU GUYS WANT ME TO DO, LAY DOWN IN FRONT OF THE BULLDOZERS? The goddam Army is moving dunes!" I told the secretary. I did my job, I thought. The sec- retary indicated he'd notify the governor. Let Peterson move in the National Guard to halt the dozing, if needed, I rationalized. When I hung up the phone, my daughter Cathy said "Are you go- ing to do it?" "Do what?" "Lay down in front of the bull- dozers," she replied. "Why should I do it? I'm not the only teacher in the state. Let the other teachers who use the area for outdoor classrooms do it. Every teacher in the state should be down there in the morning to protest." Cathy said that I should take my classes over the next day (Earth Day) to stop the army from doz- ing. I suggested that if I were to do that I'd be fired the next day and I had four kids to feed. (I had an understanding Board of Education and Superintendent Frank Mercer, but the camel's back only holds so many straws, I very well know.) "You don't have the courage of your convictions," Cathy retorted. She got on the phone and orga- nized a group of teenagers to con- front the engineers the next morn- ing. I remember the names Carol Schroeder and Susan Westover and Rob Perciful (who are now all teachers) who Cathy contacted. The chain of phone calls snow- balled that evening without en- couragement from me. I'd gone to work with an ecology class taught by Prof. Sewald from Kutz- town State College at Cape Hen- lopen that evening. I knew I could not represent myself in any way as a Lewes school teacher. ! phoned Rev. Earth Day Continued from page 1 efforts - for bringing an end to the bulldozing through confrontation, appears in this edition of the Cape Gazette on page 12. "The Army was bulldozing for more trailers in a recreation area," said Stenger. "Charles Horn called me, I guess because he knew I was a naturalist, and he was concerned. He appreciated the area and I owed it to him to do something. I called the Gover- nor's office and felt like that's all I should do, but the kids wouldn't let it stop there. I followed the kids. I wasn't any kind of Pied Piper or anything. Looking back, I realize the next step should have been seeking an injunction. That's what I've learned in the years since then. But was there time? I don't know. I do know that civil disobedience is what made this country and the free press is one of the most valuable things this nation has." Stenger said that one role he did play in the protest that Friday be- fore Earth Day was alerting the press. "Reporters at the time were definitely biased in favor Of the environment. The News Journal editor back then had been raised in Sussex and he had a feeling for the dunes so there was no problem getting reporters and photogra- phers to report on what the stu- dents were doing." Stenger said the Army wasn't "long in ending the bulldozing " "The Army didn't want the bad press. They didn't need bad pub- licity over a pile of sand." In the years since then, the Army, under pressure from Sen. Joe Biden, abandoned its former recreation area at the top of the great dune where Cape Henlopen lighthouse once stood. The dunes where the bulldozers were stopped 25 years ago are now pro- tected by off-limits signs asking all, including pedestrians, to keep off. The state continues to con- sider how it can best makeuse of the area once reserved for the Army. And John Stenger, now re- tired from teaching, raises cattle and paints watercolors, of dunes and woods and seashore scenes, on a wide open sprea d west of Milton: ................ - ......... Dennis Forney photo John Stenger of Milton is shown with the cows he raises. Frank Moon to ask if he'd substi- tute for me the next day. He'd quit substitute teaching. I phoned Ann Melvin, a school secretary, and asked her to find a substitute for me as I was taking a personal day to which teachers were enti- tled. She did. Thus, I was there as a private citizen, not a teacher, when I went with my kids to the dozed area early the next foggy morning. I went to sleep wondering how I could let the kids do their thing without harm. I felt like I was going into battle, I'd told Father Moon, but my fear was for my children and their friends, none at all for myself. Earth Day I had no doubts that I would ac- company my children. Cathy had questioned my convictions (guts to me) and there was no way out for me. There were about a half dozen of us who met the Army Lt. Sard- off (I still recall his name) in charge of the operation. Hand- some and sharp, Sardoff indicated that it was Army property. (It wasn't fenced in in any way.) I told him that I'd try not to cause any more disruption than necessary, but the kids wanted to see how the Army can destroy a natural resource. He didn't know what the hell I was talking about and I didn't either. Probably the kids knew. Sardoff walked off to meet his troopers for the day's detail - dune busting. I asked Cathy if she'd called the press. She hadn't. I suggested that when the kids start their display of protest signs, they'd be thrown in jail and the news media would not have cov- ered their story. If you're going to go to jail, I explained, you should call A1 Polland, of the News Jour- nal, and the State News. They'd seen enough civil rights protests on television to get the picture. They phoned Polland. Poltand arrived. The protest signs went up. Sardoff objected, instructing us to keep on the road, which we did. A carload of high school stu- dents from the first Cape Hen- lopen High School class arrived. I inquired as to how they had been excused from class. They were told by the principal and school secretary (John Kinnikin and Ver- na Byre) that if they had parental permission, they could go over to the dunes for the environmental teach in. The school Office, I'm told, was flooded with kids wanting to call home to get permission. I couldn't understand how the students were getting out of school without ad- vance notice and on so short of time to get notes from their par- ents. I was overwhelmed by the showing. I hadn't realized the en- vironmental message was reach- ing the students. Other teachers (Dot Vessels and Warren Schneller) were doing their thing too, but more conven- tionally, without rabble rousing. I don't recall the names of the stu- dents, but I loved each and every one of those kids and still do. As the day, wore on, an Army sedan pulled up and out came three captains, with arm patches that I'd worn 25 years ago in World War II - a yellow, horse- head with a diagonal black stripe across it. The First Calvary Divi- sion. I'd been a buck sergeant with the First Cav's headquarters com- pany, the Seventh Cavalry, after they fought up the Pacific Islands to the Philippines and then to Tokyo, where I was assigned dur- ing the Japanese occupation. The Seventh was one of McArthur's "pet" outfits, I'd heard. It was the outfit that was wiped out by the Indians when Custer was led into the Indian massacre. (Now I know the Indi- ans were right. It was their land.) So, I at least had that "bond" be- tween the Army on the dunes and the dunes. Sardoff had called Fort Meade to tell them he had a mess over at Cape Henlopen and needed some "brass". The officers asked if I was in charge of the kids. I said I might be the one adult they'd lis- ten to. The Army would not bulldoze any more dunes, they were told. The skirmish ended. Some of those kids had spunk, standing nose to nose with Sardoff at one time. I was portrayed by the press as some kind of Pied Piper. Continued on page i5:"