Anti-Nuclear, Historical Memoir, Political Activist

Courage and “mission fortitude”

Dear Betsy,

You may add one more person to your list of readers. I saw your book lying on our dining table and was soon informed by my wife, Natalia, that you had generously given it to her during her stay in your West Seattle home. My interest was piqued by its title, which I could not imagine relating to today’s use of this term. And certainly it wasn’t, as its content quickly revealed.

You seem to be one of these individuals, almost all female, victimized by the patriarchal era in which you lived. Bright, talented, ambitious, and capable of far more spacious boundaries, you mostly played the role of the times. But your spirit was evident in what you did achieve, and your book is testament.

I, too, have a history of a brief residence in Russia, two years for me, in Moscow. Aside from my all-engaging work as an English teacher, I was primarily an ethnologist, exploring the question  of what 73 years of the Soviet experience did to people, not to mention the centuries of servitude under the Czars. As your book makes clear, there is one overarching lesson from foreign immersion. People are people wherever you find them. The aphorism observes that there is a line in human nature below which we are all the same. Big or small, smart or dull, kind or mean, hopeful or fearful, such as we are, are about the same in proportion everywhere on the planet. Aspirations for oneself and for our progeny and friends seem universal, and are heavily driven toward peaceful, supportive, and loving connections between all of us. There is no such thing, under superficialities, as “the Russian character” or the “the Asian nature”. Around the kitchen table, we are all pretty much the same.

The subject of attitude, molded by life, is where we find differences across cultures, and these differences have substantial bearing on the success or failure of entire cultures, judged by those qualities that lead to human fulfillment.

Your writing classes and, as we all experience, your life-long practice in journals and so forth, has made you a pretty good writer. You cleared the bar in my book. I enjoyed your style and frankness. Your story of your work with Target Seattle and the Tashkent sojourns is really quite inspirational and, as I perceive it, took a good deal of courage and “mission fortitude”. You would have made a good US senator or a governor.

With utmost respect and sincere good wishes,

Paul Shelton

Anti-Nuclear, Creative Non-Fiction, Historical Memoir, Memoir

Author2Author interview

William Kenower, talk show host of Author2Author recently interviewed me about Open Borders and how it came to be. I invite you to listen to this 30 minute show, after which you might browse his other author interviews to see if one of your favorite authors has something to say about their work.

Bill curates an archive of talks with Northwest authors. I’ve know Bill as a supportive teacher of memoir and an author in his own right.

Anti-Nuclear, Historical Memoir, Political Activist

Radio interview Open Borders

I am so excited to share with you an in depth radio interview with March Twisdale of the Voice of Vashon, 101.9 FM, KVSH. Our conversation was recorded before Christmas and is now part of March’s New Year programming. I recommend it to you because her questions elicited as discussion of the fear generated in Seattle in 1981 when the first Trident nuclear submarine entered Hood Canal. She also bring out the women’s career vs. motherhood issues working their way in my own development. Your interview is airing this week and next, Saturday January 12 / 19 @ 11am and Monday January 14 / 21 @ 12noon. If you can get Voice of Vashon,be sure to listen on 101.9 FM, KVSH.

If Vashon Island, WA will not reach you. March produces a podcast. The link is below. Download it for entertainment on your next long walk. Then buy the book and share it with your family and friends. Give it to your local library. And thank you for your interest in preventing nuclear war in 2019.

Betsy Bell Interview – PPP071

Anti-Nuclear, Creative Non-Fiction, Historical Memoir, Political Activist

Citizen Diplomat: observer narration

Preview(opens in a new tab)

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good time to clean old files and organize the office. Opening a full notebook of writing from 2016, I find an assignment from Scott Driscoll’s UW class in Literary Fiction. Write an “Observer narration”.

Citizen Diplomacy: Observer Narration Week 4, 1/28/2016.  If you haven’t picked up a copy of Open Borders yet, this will give you a taste.  In Open Borders, a memoir, the reader gets an accurate account of the two events, one in Moscow and one in Tashkent. This sketch is dramatized somewhat for the purpose of the exercise.

He was ahead of us, a group of twenty-nine peace activists traveling from Seattle to the USSR in 1983.  We were moving through a gleaming subway station in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  Aldon Bell strode, as he always did, with confidence, his attaché case tucked tightly under his left arm, his right gesturing as he talked with Masha.  Masha was his personal interpreter, a student from the University of Washington who lived and breathed Russian.  Her halo of curls and his baldpate tipped together, bobbing along, side by side just far enough away from the Russian interpreter to avoid being heard.

We were traveling as tourists under the strict and constant surveillance of Soviet authorities.

We had entered the country from Helsinki, landing in Moscow.  Don, as we all called him, navigated the immigration seamlessly.  Even though each of us carried a manila envelope stuffed with letters to the citizens of our sister city, Tashkent, and signed by over 30,000 well-wishers, he moved us past suspicious guards by carrying a slim volume of Pushkin, visible to anyone whose job was to notice.

I heard the security agent ask Bell, “You like Pushkin?  I like Ray Bradbury.”

His open blue eyes and careful goatee, his lean face and broad shoulders (he’d been a rower at Oxford), his average height and slim waist made him a dead ringer for Lenin.  You couldn’t help notice it when he stood waiting for his luggage, his face silhouetted against the proverbial portrait of the most favored leader plastered on the airport chamber’s walls.  The youthful security forces had to have noticed the likeness, too.

He did well in the formal interrogation with some high official in Moscow, all of us sitting around the outside edge of a horseshoe table with simultaneous translation going on.  I had knots in my stomach and thought I might lose my lunch, but he, he remained calm.  His face had a shy smile, but could turn into a grimace, lips curling, and the gap in his front teeth adding a fierce quality to his words when called for.  The forty-five minute counterpoint between the two men moved from platitudes, to arguments about the Freeze Campaign and Unilateral Disarmament neither of which we favored.  With Masha whispering her own interpretations of the Soviet officials challenging remarks, Don held his own.  At least from where I sat, he seemed to be doing well. Don tended to be pessimistic before hand, expecting things to go badly if they could.  In the moment, his manner and words displayed a kind of Ben Franklin diplomacy, declaring nothing certain, open to whatever might unfold.  Never belligerent. And belligerent was certainly the way the Soviet spokesperson sounded.  Our guy, I observed, was coming out even, maybe a little ahead.

“We come in peace.  Our governments speak angry words.  We can speak kind, personal words to each other.  We love our country as you love yours.  We want to see our children grow up and marry, as do you.  As people, we can know each other and wish for each other’s happiness.” 

Our reception in Tashkent was more relaxed.  We were away from the intensity of the Moscow stage.  As we following Don, striding out of the Tashkent subway station—it had been emptied of normal crowds “for our protection”—we burst into the bitter cold of early March.  I watched him wondering how he would assess our next venue.  His face was passive, slack jawed, relaxed full lips, eyes scanning like an owl, without movement.  I alone knew he was carrying messages of encouragement and hope to the Refusenicks rolled tightly into the empty film canisters and tucked into his coat pockets.  My teeth chattered as much from fear as from the cold as I wondered how he could maintain such equanimity.  Before returning to the US, we would find a way to deliver them to desperate people.  If caught, our mission would end in disaster.  Did he imagine the consequences and simply override them?  From where I stood, it seemed so.  He always dissembled well.  No one could guess his thoughts.

The square the subway emptied into was full of people, two or three deep on three sides, facing a podium.  The crowd parted to let him, Masha and our official interpreter and guide through.  I took my place with the others dispersed in the crowd and kept an eye on Don.  He seemed nonplused by the numbers of onlookers, some on the surrounding rooftops, the array of stout, heavily over-coated men standing of the platform.

Suddenly Masha pulled his sleeve.  He leaned his ear toward her.  She must have overheard some news that could impact us.  Seconds later I saw the blood run from his face, his jaw clench; his eyes fly open and then narrow to slits of purpose.  Something was terribly wrong.  A couple of the others in our group noticed the change in Don’s demeanor. I didn’t take my eyes off him as the proceedings opened with a bombastic speech by a highly decorated veteran.  While the official translator repeated the soldier’s triumphs in war against the Germans as an ally of the United States, I watched Don fumble with his attaché case.  He pretended to listen, but I could see he was working out how to handle some seriously bad news.  None of us spoke out of respect for the proceedings.  We all knew Reagan was planning a major speech on the state of the Cold War.  We hoped against hope that he would wait until our return.  The State Dept. had warned us about the folly of such a trip.  Don assured them we were tourists under the auspices of Holiday Travel in Seattle and nothing more.  They gave us all the necessary visas.  Something terrible must have happened.

The old soldier ended with a few clenched fist thrusts and moved to one side as the crowd applauded.  Don seemed to hold his breath as a Soviet official took the podium and began speaking in a menacing tone as if to whip up the crowd against the Americans in their midst.  His task was to welcome us and introduce our leader whose speech was the main attraction.  We were the reason so many students and housewives responded to the unofficial command to assemble.  As I watched his face, the twitch in his jaw slowed down.  His shoulders began to drop.  He took out a handkerchief and blew loudly into it, folded it again into its square with the precision of an altar guild lady.  The handkerchief made its way into his rear pant’s pocket.  Then he took off his glasses and polished the lenses with the inside of his silk tie, methodically inspecting them before adjusting them on his nose.  A familiar ritual of making himself ready.  His cheeks inflated slightly and then his breath released, long and far reaching.  The speaker paused, gestured with a flat pudgy hand to punctuate his badly pronounced Aldon Bell, Professor.  All the while, the Soviet functionary kept eye contact with the expectant crowd.  He then turned to Don, shook his hand and guided him to the microphone with a firm hold on his elbow.

I knew he would not fail, that whatever nonplussed him moments ago would become a launching point for his message of cooperation, but my heart was in my mouth.  I did not breathe until his first words rang out.

“We come to bring greetings to the people of Tashkent, Seattle’s Sister City.  Tashkent and Seattle are far from the seats of government that manage our affairs and speak to world leaders about our differences. We come not to debate these affairs but to share our worry for the future of our remote cities, for the future of our families, for the beauty of the land we each call home.”

His voice was clear and strong.  He paused for the translation.  Faces, stern and suspicious, began to melt.  A cluster of older babushka, grandmothers with fringed scarves around their heads, began to weep. Some of the students turned to look at us standing next to them, and nodded in sympathy.  We Americans relaxed our collective brows.  His shy smile and the way he dipped his head to divert attention from himself won over the onlookers.  He simply ignored whatever had happened on the world stage that inspired the Soviet official’s angry speech.

That night in the privacy of a spacious hotel suite, we discovered the awful cloud that threatened to shroud any hope for mutual understanding.  Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals one day earlier on March 8, 1983, declaring the Soviet Union an Empire of Evil that had to be overturned.  Those men on the podium expected Don to follow his president in condemning Communism.  He did not.  We lifted our shots of vodka with relief.


To order Open Borders, go to my Amazon page and they’ll ship one out to you. You can also order from your favorite Indiebound local independent bookstore. Thank you for reading. Please pass this along to history buffs who are digging into the Cold War. And to people who need inspiration for the threatening nuclear weapon buildup of 2019. Betsy Bell Author

Anti-Nuclear, Buy Open Borders, Historical Memoir, Memoir, Political Activist, Travel

INF Treaty under threat

Today nine nations possess nuclear weapons. At least two heads of state are unpredictable and have sole authority over the use of these weapons.
I believe ordinary citizens, you, Dear Reader, have powerful influence on the world stage and can change this reality.

The US accuses Russia of breaking a treaty that bans Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, INF, and our president decides to trash the treaty. He hints that he may not authorize talks for a new START treaty when the terms of the old one expire.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

As the NATO-USSR deployed intermediate range nuclear SS-20 missile facing off between East and West Europe in the 1970s, thousands of citizens in England and Europe protested and marched. In Central Park, New York City, throngs of people created the largest anti-arms race peace rally in the history of the modern world. Within a few years—1987—the INF treaty was signed ending this madness. By 1989, the borders between East and West opened.

We can do this again.

My husband, Don Bell, led a group of people in Seattle who challenge the government’s Peace Through Strength approach. Forty-five thousand people in the Puget Sound area educated themselves about less dangerous ways of preventing conflict.

The first Trident submarine steamed into Puget Sound in 1982. Now there are eight nuclear subs just twenty miles from downtown Seattle. They have the fire power to destroy the Earth and life as we know it. Nothing can survive a nuclear war.

Open Borders, the newly published memoir about my small role in the Seattle based movement tells the story of delivering a love letter to people in the USSR, in particular to people in our sister city, Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Thirty-three ordinary people from Seattle handed out the letters, three-thousand copies of them, each with ten signatures, to people on the streets asking them to join us in preventing nuclear war.

Our government wasn’t happy with the people in Seattle or our friendship with our “enemies”. Edward Rowney, Reagan’s ambassador to the START treaty negotiations, came out to speak at one of our educational events. Afterward, he and Don’s co-chair, Virginia, were in conversation at a private dinner party. Rowney said,

“The reason I agreed to come here was to find out what you people are thinking.”
She told him she appreciated that. After a pause, he asked expansively,
“What shall I tell the President when I return to Washington?”
“Tell the President that there are thousands of people here who are enraged by the threat of nuclear war.”
The General literally jumped in his chair and responded, “I couldn’t possibly tell the President that!”
“Why not?” Virginia remembers asking.
“Look, you don’t have to worry about that. I am working very hard on all this. I will save you!”
“What if I don’t believe you?”
“Then you aren’t worth saving.”
That comment was so outrageous—as much to Rowney as to Virginia—that they both just laughed. p. 47 Open Borders

When we are all done laughing at the absurdity of our situation—then and now—we mostly sink into denial convincing ourselves that no person would ever fire a nuclear weapon. “It won’t happen,” we tell ourselves, flooded with emotion.

Instead of nightmares, how about waking up with a commitment to change our present situation?

Our trip to the USSR was followed by dozens of friendship trips, back and forth, doctors, chefs, dancers, singers, artists, musicians (Pink Cadillac played Moscow), teachers, professor exchanges.

Want to travel to Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Russian? Organize a tour with a company that specializes in this sort of trip. Let those people meet ordinary Americans. Get with others who are crafting legislation to limit presidential powers, to prevent new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles from being built by cutting the budget, to incite a massive public outcry against this threat.

We were terrified in 1983. Our children were practicing “duck and cover” in our schools. Our buildings downtown sported large yellow bomb shelter signs. We were terrified.

We bought airplane tickets and went to meet the enemy as friends. Open Borders tells our story. Read it and be inspired to find one little thing to do to change the future.

Did we make a difference? Who knows. But, coincidentally, after our trip the Berlin Wall came down. The INF treaty got signed. As a result of that Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991.

To find out who is doing what in the Puget Sound area (or wherever you are), go to and find the chapter nearest you. Together we can turn this around.