Lessons from Nolan

Member Spotlight

Be their Voice

by Louise Coleman

The nuclear disarmament movement first called out to me in the early 1980s when I joined Mass Peace Action. In those early days we had to make do with whatever we had to get the message across. Once, when we were showing a film on the Cambridge Common, we didn’t have a screen. Undaunted, we rigged up a large, white bedsheet on a rope tied between two trees. It worked just fine.

Naturally, I brought my own set of experiences, and values, and models to my work on behalf of nuclear disarmament. Deeply involved in all those experiences, values, and models was my son Nolan. We lived in a house on Wendell Street in Cambridge at a time when life seemed much simpler than today. Our neighborhood was loving, safe, and supportive—and love is a prime motivation for survival, which not everyone recognizes.

Nolan and I were fortunate when Nolan started at the Agassiz School on Oxford Street between Harvard and Porter Squares. The Agassiz School was supportive and affirmative. Since I didn’t have a car, I had to take a bus from Harvard Square to Dudley Street Station in Roxbury for work each day. I had to leave Nolan off early at school. I would take him over about 7, and the school janitor, Mr. Walsh, would give Nolan breakfast in the boiler room. He had breakfast with Nolan every day. I can’t imagine an accommodation like this being allowed today. Having Nolan and being a single mom was a challenge. His actions as a stubborn, determined child shaped me in ways it took me years to understand.

I started smoking when I was a teenager and continued smoking after Nolan was born. In 1976, on a visit to the Science Museum, Nolan saw a pair of smokers’ lungs. They were diseased, basically useless, and non-functioning. As a 9-year-old, somehow, I don’t know how, he paid for it, signing us up for a Smoke Enders ten-week class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Harvard Square. He attended with me every single week. I had to pick a day during the 5th week of the course to stop smoking. Which I did, on April 10th, 1976. At midnight. I took up running around the Harvard Law School Yard instead. This was a moment of transformative change in my life. If I had continued smoking a pack of Marlboros a day, I wouldn’t be here today.. I would never have had the stamina to haul dogs around and work day in and day out for years. Thanks, Nolan. (In Irish Nolan means infamous and noble.)

Nolan and I were able to put together a united front that convinced a huge number of people to quit smoking. The enemy then was the tobacco industry, which was making enormous amounts of money from people who smoked, and smoked, etc. Children like Nolan wised up their parents and through loving gestures got them to save themselves.

Now the enemy is the military industrial complex and the task is more difficult. We don’t have smokers’ lungs to show people. Other strategies have to be used. Once again, love is here to help—for example, love for all the animals that share our planet with us. I have recently helped initiate, within MAPA’s Nuclear Disarmament Working Group, the Be their voice campaign. This campaign is designed to remind people—in particular, people who love non-human animals and appreciate their roles in our lives–that not only would people be wiped out by a nuclear attack (intended or accidental) but the same horrible and catastrophic fate would be inflicted on all animals, who would suffer and die through no fault of their own. Our team believes that when confronted with the reality of potential extinction inherent in nuclear weapons, millions of people will react the way that Nolan reacted when he saw the smoker’s lungs–they will want to save all they love. Love can be a powerful impetus and the means for change.

Nolan and I at our house on Wendell Street in Cambridge on the day he graduated 8th grade.

One day while leaving work and heading for home, I saw a man with a basket full of Free to Good Home puppies near the Out of Town news kiosk in Harvard Square. I brought Mandy home and Nolan helped take care of her. She brought us love and joy and support, as so many animals do for so many people. It is difficult to communicate with people in general about the urgency and vile danger of nuclear war. The situation in Ukraine has the world on a knife’s edge, but refusing to think about the risks won’t save a single life on this earth.

So, to penetrate the denial of the nuclear threat and motivate people to fight for nuclear disarmament, we are asking them to think about how catastrophic if will be for all lives; all those innocent animals that have meant so much to so many will be horrendously extinguished. Showing people diseased lungs can’t protect lives in an era of nuclear threat but creating a large enough movement, recruiting a broad enough segment of society, can do so. People will defend their animals if shown how to do so. It is the goal MAPA’s Nuclear Disarmament and other working groups to provide concrete, practical actions for protecting peace and life. You can help. To learn more about animals and war, click here. To learn more about the Be Their Voice campaign, click here. And please endorse the Be Their Voice Campaign. Choose morality instead of mortality, the Golden Rule instead of extinction. Work with what has worked before. Fuel your efforts with love for what you do.

In loving memory of Nolan, who committed suicide in July, 2020, during the height of the pandemic. He was working alone as an IT specialist, and was isolated, extremely depressed, and felt that nothing was ever going to get better. Depression is a terrible disease, and in Nolan’s case, the conditions of the pandemic made his emotional state much worse. In honor of his life, I fight for all lives.

Nolan as an adult.

Louise Coleman, an active member of Mass Peace Action since the mid-eighties, is Press Liaison for the association and serves on the Communications Committee, the Nuclear Disarmament Committee and its subcommittees (Public Education and Movement Building, Back From the Brink, Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons), and the Raytheon Anti-War campaign, among others.