My family had a farm in Unadilla, a small village in the rolling dairy country of upstate New York. I attended a Quaker meeting on Sundays. The Korean War was in the background of my approaching graduation from high school, which would make me eligible to be drafted into military service. My Quaker friends challenged me with this opportunity to protest war, to be a conscientious objector. I considered this option seriously, but did serve in the military in Korea.
Perhaps because of this failure of youthful idealism and the questions it left unanswered, I have remained sensitive to the intent of Quakerism. So when my wife suggested the Penn Club as a place to stay in London, I was quick to agree. You don't have to be a Quaker to join the Penn Club, one of many clubs that offer accommodations in London. The club derives its name from William Penn, who was given a grant of land in Pennsylvania by England's King George III. Penn established Quakerism in America.
The club is very near the British Museum and within easy walking distance of a tube station.
After a day of touring by subway, we returned to the Russell Square station at rush hour. We ran to catch the elevator that would take us up to street level. The automatic doors began to close as we entered. Glancing back, I saw two men running to catch the elevator. I let my backpack slip off my shoulder and swung it casually between the doors, causing them to rebound convulsively several times. Preoccupied with feelings of benevolence as the men entered the elevator smiling, I was startled by an angry voice:
I turned to see a gentleman in a dark pinstriped suit. He shouted at me again,
"You're an obstructionist!" The look on his face was not friendly.
"No, I'm a humanist!" I responded with spirit.
My word was not accurate. What I meant was that I was being a humanitarian, but words have little meaning in moments of high emotion. The angry man was Nigerian perhaps, well dressed, articulate. A lawyer, perhaps? A government deputy of some nation?
He spoke as one accustomed to commanding respect.
The hush in the elevator was palpable. Smiles faded on the late arrivals' faces. Sensing conflict, the other occupants edged back as far as the confined space allowed.
I challenged him.
"Men are not made to be ruled by machines!"
I can't believe I said that!
We rose in silence and various unpleasant scenarios intruded on my shattered complacency. I saw the morning headlines: "Yank Causes Race Riot," "Peace Conference Delegate Assaulted."
When the elevator doors opened, as we filed out, I quickly strode up beside him and let my arm rest tentatively across his broad shoulders.
"I didn't mean to offend you."
We exchanged fleeting smiles as we merged into the dense pedestrian traffic.
This confrontation passed as quickly as a windblown cloud that dims the sun momentarily. But it left my wife and me in a state of emotional agitation. I reflected on my self-righteous volubility. Normally I shrink from verbal challenge. My wife observed wisely that he might not have seen the men running for the elevator. He and I had vastly different perspectives on the same event. I saw my act as generous and benign; he saw it as frivolous, selfish.
In the larger arena of world events, where everyone has his own perspective, conflict seems inevitable. Frustration, anger, and violence are often our first reaction. How can the peaceable kingdom on Earth ever be achieved?
We returned to the Penn Club more aware of its dedication to the Quaker ideal of peaceful resolution to conflict, grateful to have made it the center of our visit to London.