Life in Norumbega County: The Game Loft's MLK Day Event 2011
This year's Martin Luther King Day event, held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Belfast, Maine, brought out over 100 people from in and around the community. Game Loft participants, volunteers, and community members all came together to enact a mock trial out of the Civil Rights era, involving the draft to Vietnam. This was a pivotal issue and it remains directly tied to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he was steadfastedly against the American involvement in the war in Vietnam.
The live action story illustrated at the community event was a culmination of months and months of narrative work by Game Loft participants, involved in a game that was many years in the making by the founders of the Game Loft. Soon after Patricia and Ray Estabrook opened The Game Loft in 1998 they discovered that there are a lot of kids in middle and high school who are not succeeding in school. Some of the problems have to do with family issues or substance abuse, but other issues are just a lack of motivation by the students. One of the most difficult issues for kids is developing a love for the subjects they take in school and developing an intrinsic motivation to succeed. This lack of motivation explains the failure we see so often in otherwise bright kids. In the early 1990’s Ray and Patricia Estabrook studied this problem particularly in the way it relates to the learning of American history. We found that kids are willing to read hundreds of pages of dense type to get at technical facts about Dungeons and Dragons but are not willing to read a few pages with large type and illustrations in American history textbooks. The solution came to Ray as a Eureka moment, take the dungeons and the dragons out of the game and put in American history and you would have something that reluctant learners could embrace.
“Life in Norumbega County” is the product of a role play game and a history lesson. The basic premise is that history is a story. American history is the story of the American people and how they have responded to the challenges and potentials of their time. “Life in Norumbega County” follows mythical families in a mythical place, Norumbega County, Maine. Players become part of a family and make decisions for their characters based on the pressures and potential of their characters and their time period. The moderators create the issues and the players solve them in interactive story form. When completed, “Life in Norumbega County” will be an enrichment history curriculum that will be available to after-school programs, homeschoolers, and other non-traditional teaching venues.
“Life in Norumbega County” helps young people understand history through the coming of age stories of young people in seven historical periods. Each historical unit addresses overarching themes present in Maine and the United States. The 1950’s and ‘60’s unit looks at Cold War culture, conformism and non-conformism, Civil Rights and racism, the impact of television on American culture, increased mobility in American life, and the Viet Nam War. One of the stories in this unit is the rebellion of Henry Jonah Chandler, who provided the focus for this year's MLK event.
Henry Jonah Chandler is the son of Hank and Lucy Chandler. The Chandlers run the run-down auto garage in what used to be known as Chartwell Settlement, a part of Leighton. The Chandlers have had many challenges with their sons over the past few years. Chuck lives in New York City and is, to his father’s way of thinking “a red Commie.” Scott is a folksinger of some renown in New York City and has “radical tendencies.” Jim ran away to Canada last year to avoid the draft and is in his father’s great disfavor. Larry has “redeemed the family honor” by doing two terms of service in Viet Nam. He is now married and living in New Hampshire. The youngest son, Henry Jonah, has always been quiet, passive, and likeable, the “good boy.” The family assumed he would take over the repair station from his father and continue the family business. Last summer he spent some time in New York and California with brother Scott and then all the troubles began.
Scott and Henry Jonah traveled across the country as Scott’s graduation gift to Henry. After a few weeks in Canada Scott went back to New York but Henry stayed on. He became involved with some California radicals and even spent some time in jail for blocking the entrance to a draft induction center. Henry stayed in a commune with Joan Baez and other radicals but spent most of his time fixing their cars.
Henry drifted back home to Maine where his father was incensed by his lack of initiative. Henry moved from house to house in the community, staying a few days or weeks until he wore out his welcome. When his draft notice came he put it on the counter and forgot about it. He was living in New Salem with a friend when he was arrested for defying the draft. When Henry was questioned about why he did not register he just said, “I guess I forgot about it.”
Henry Jonah Chandler was like many uneducated young men in the 1960’s. He ignored problems, lived for the moment, and went along to get along. He was not a hippy, a red neck, an outlaw, or a rebel, he was just a feckless kid. His arrest and imprisonment surprised him. He had no idea that there was an option available to him to become a conscientious objector. His view of war was, “Killing people is not friendly.” The draft, his imprisonment, and the trial were mystifying.
Chuck Chandler hired an attorney for Henry, a Mr. Money I. Steele. Attorney Steele felt that Henry’s only hope was to claim that he was a conscientious objector. Unfortunately Mr. Steele was unable to persuade the jury that Henry was a conscientious objector to the Viet Nam War and to all wars. He was sentenced to a year in jail and two years of full-time alternative service.
In the meantime Henry’s father had a severe heart attack and was unable to work at the garage. Mrs. Chandler has never worked outside the home and has no job skills. The sons will be called upon to take financial responsibility for the Chandlers but it is likely the burden of their support will be on the Rev. Josiah Chandler, Henry’s uncle. The Chandlers may be forced to rely on the “welfare state” that Hank has always decried.
The story of Henry Jonah Chandler is only one of the many stories of coming of age in Norumbega County in the 1960’s. It is our hope that Luke, who played Henry, and the others of the group, will remember the issues of this trial and its outcomes.