Norman David Mayer (March 31, 1916 – December 9, 1982) was an anti-nuclear weapons activist who was shot and killed by the United States Park Police after threatening to blow up the Washington Monument.
Mayer was born in El Paso, Texas to Jesse and Margott Mayer. After his father died two years later, his penniless mother moved him and his brother Aubrey to New Orleans; she then entered nursing school and placed the children in an ophanage. As a teenager, Mayer attended a trade school where he trained as a tool and die maker. He then left New Orleans and spent much of the 1930s travelling from job to job from Nome, Alaska to the Caribbean, working in a rubber plant and in gold mines among other jobs. He was then drafted into the United States Navy in 1944 while living in Los Angeles, and spent two years stationed at the San Diego Naval Station. He was discharged as a fireman first class and returned to a life of drifting, working in Miami as a machinist in the mid-1950s, as a hotel maintenance man in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica during the 1960s, and as a helicopter mechanic in South Vietnam from 1969-1970. In 1971, he was seriously injured while working on an oil rig in Brunei and recuperated in Singapore before travelling across South Asia. In 1976, he was arrested in Hong Kong for possession of 44 pounds of marijuana in a botched attempt to make a sale. Mayer researched the law in jail and after fifteen months managed to get his conviction reversed on a technicality. He was then deported back to the U.S., and returned to working in hotels.
In 1978, Mayer focused on protesting nuclear weapons. He wished to stage a destructive and dramatic event to grab attention for his cause, and unsuccessfully tried to purchase explosives in Hazard, Kentucky in May of 1982. Mayer subsequently moved to Washington, DC in June of that year, and spent every day for the next few months displaying large plywood signs in front of the White House and proselytizing to passing tourists. Mayer eventually found this manner of protesting frustrating and ineffectual and developed a new attention-getting scheme.
On December 8, 1982, Mayer drove a white van bearing the message “#1 PRIORITY: BAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS” in large letters on its side up to the base of the Monument and jumped out wearing a black motorcycle helmet, a bright blue snowsuit and carrying a remote control. Mayer claimed that he would destroy the Monument with 1,000 pounds of TNT loaded in his van unless a national dialogue on the threat of nuclear weapons was seriously undertaken. Mayer also claimed that he had a hidden accomplice who also could detonate the explosives.
The U.S. Park Police evacuated nearby buildings and closed down area streets for several blocks. Eight tourists were initially trapped inside the Monument, but were released after AP reporter Steven Komarow began negotiating with Mayer. Ten hours into the negotiation, Mayer jumped in his van and started to drive off, threatening to become “a moving time bomb in downtown Washington.” The police opened fire, striking Mayer four times—twice in the head.
The Park Police later claimed that they did not intend to shoot Mayer, but were instead aiming for the van's engine. Their subsequent investigation disclosed that Mayer had neither explosives nor an accomplice.
As a veteran of the U.S. Navy, Mayer, 66, was interred at Arlington National Cemetery despite the objections of the military.
George Stephanopoulos, later White House Press Secretary and communications director under President Bill Clinton, was a 21-year-old intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when Mayer stopped in his office several times to discuss nuclear disarmament. On December 8, 1982, Stephanopoulos made his first appearance on Nightline to discuss Mayer.
In 2003, a similar incident ended differently, when disgruntled tobacco farmer Dwight Watson surrendered and was convicted on federal charges after driving a tractor into a pond on the National Mall. Watson claimed he had explosives to protest about the government's treatment of tobacco farmers and Gulf War veterans.
For 10 hours one day, Norman Mayer held Washington at bay–bluffing about dynamite and a hidden accomplice, preaching of nuclear doom, strutting around the Washington Monument in a jet black motorcycle helmet and a blue snowsuit. All the while, his only brother was convinced that Mayer was too bullheaded to leave the monument any way but dead.
It would be wasted effort to try to talk him off the hill, Aubrey Mayer told FBI officials when they called him at his home in Los Alamitos California,during the siege.
“He wanted to go out in a blaze of glory and he did it. He treated everyone as an intellectual inferior. Once he made up his mind, he would never listen” the brother said.
When Mayer climbed into his white step van and began driving away from the monument at ?:30 p.m, on December 8, his deception was still alive. Nine sharpshooters with infrared night scopes fired, aiming–police insist for the van's engine. Bullets hit Mayer twice in the arm, once an the tip of the chin and once in the left temple.
Pinned behind the wheel of his overturned van, bleeding profusely from the head Mayer stubbornly refused to admit to his con. When federal agent W.H. Seals reached the van, he asked Mayer if there were any explosives. Mayer's last words were a lie. Yes” he said. “I have a thousand pounds.”
Norman David Mayer died a victim of his own eccentric idealism and unyielding will It had been that way all his life. For 66 years he wandered the world, falling victim to his own half-baked ideas and vengeful courage. He lived as he died: a creative, meticulous, irrepressible schemer of failed schemes.
In Miami Beach in the 1950's, he talked of mixing plastic and coconuts to create a marketable building material. In the Far East in 1976, trying to parlay 44 pounds of marijuana into a fortune, he was betrayed by his own dope dealer and convicted on drug charges. Turning jailhouse lawyer, he got himself off on a technicality. In Hazard, Ky., last May he tried to bribe a powder man into selling him 8,000 pounds Of dynamite. He couldn't buy the powder and aa he'd been doing for more than 40 years–he got mad and moved on. In the last four years of his life, Mayer focused his rage on his “No. 1 Priority-Ban Nuclear Weapons.” With painstaking care, he prepared to take his message to Washington. He worked double-shifts, in a Miami Beach hotel to save $18,333.23. He spent almost all of it to combat nuclear war – the one happening that can exterminate us all: Now!” He paid $7,900 cash for a van, the first vehicle he'd ever owned, which he saw as his bomb-shelter on wheels. He bought antinuclear advertisements in publications ranging from the Coalfield Progress in Norton, Virginia, to the New Republic.
Last,spring when he headed north to Washington-his bank account drained of all but $91, and his pockets full-of $100 bills–he' told his best friend that sacrificing his life in some irrational move is small payment for saving the world.”
The fatal assault on Washington was presaged in a sense, by his quixotic life. He roamed the world from Alaska & Borneo. Women bilked Mayer and business partners cheated him. A gifted craftsman, he was a tool-and die-maker, oil-rig roughneck; gold miner, helicopter machinist and maintenance engineer. He stopped off on a sub tropical island to live alone for three years–a solitary thinker with no faith in the human race. He was close to being a vegetarian (except for chicken)`and a fanatical devotee of physical fitness who took pills for high blood pressure. From the time he was a seven-year-old boy with broken, bloody fists in a jewish orphanage in New Orleans no one could lay a hand on him without a fight.
Mayer had few close friends. Although long term relationships with women tired him, he was always interested in what he called “young girls.” In.a letter written to Playboy magazine he claimed to have had sex with 2,800 women.
In Washington, where he moved last June. Mayer was close to just one person –a bearded, homeless.wanderer named William Thomas whom he met as they both stood vigil against nuclear doom; in front of the White House.
Mayer, a jew, would not tolerate ethnic jokes or racial prejudice, was a loyal friend to the indigent Thomas. Mayer financed Thomas' apocalyptic signs, brought him food and called him,Thomas said, ” the only other-true anti-genocidalist.”
When Mayer seized the Washington Monument and the attention of the nation, Thomas proved.. that he~-too,was a loyal friend. He went to the monument and before police could stop him went up to Mayer.
“They think there is somebody else up here with me,” Mayer told him “When you go back down there don't tell them any information. I am either going to go to prison for a long time or I am going to die.”
Thomas walked back to the police command center where he said he “intentionally misled them about whether Norman had an accomplice. I knew he didn't..have any dynamite because I helped him unload his truck the weekend before. But I didn't tell police that either, I didn't want to blow Norman's caper.”
Almost from its beginning, the life of Norman Mayer was prologue to his dying declaration. Two years after Mayer was born in El Paso,Tex., his father, a buyer in an El Paso department store-died. His mother was left penniless and without job prospects. When Norman was 4 years old, Margatt Mayer took her sons to New Orleans. She went into nurse's training and the boys were placed' in an orphanage, the Jewish Children's Home.
In the orphanage, Aubrey Mayer recalls that by the time his brother–nicknamed “Buddy”–was a teenager, he had become the opinionated, contentious rebel he remained all his life.
Says the brother: “Buddy was always in trouble. He-had broken fingers and casts on his hands from fighting in school. He didn't participate in organized anything. Buddy was always more sure of what he thought than I was. He read Marx,Dos Passos and [Upton] Sinclair and we were influenced by some older young people who were lefties. He was always a beautiful physical specimen; Lay your hands on him and you were in trouble.”
In seventh grade, Norman, according to his brother, was kicked out of the Isadora Newman-Manual Training School, a Jewish school attended by children from the orphanage. He then entered the Delgado Trade School where he learned tool-and-die making, a craft he practiced off and on around the world.
In later life, when Mayer felt doctors were incompetently treating wart-like growths on his neck, he turned his machine- tool skills to shaping and tempering his own surgical instruments. He used the instruments on himself to remove the growths.
After finishing trade school, Mayer took off. Throughout his life, Mayer worked long enough to save a new stake,” as he called it in a letter. Then he traveled until~ money gave out. “He would find jobs and work double and triple shifts and save all his money. And.then he would take off as far as he could go….He really wanted to get away from the rest of the world,” said his brother.
Mayer mined gold in both Nome, Alaska, and Searchlight, Nevada. In Searchlight in the late 1930's a mining partner ran off with some of Mayer's money, Aubrey Mayer remembers. He recalls: “My brother is a naive businessman.”
The Navy caught up with Mayer in 1944 in Los Angeles. He was drafted and served two years in San Diego as a fireman first class. After his honorable discharge, Mayer lived in Los Angeles until the mid-50s,when he took off again for South Florida.
Miami Beach was at its peak as an art deco, palm tree playground when Mayer arrived. The beach was full of drifters and sun-seekers. But Mayer kept to himself, reading magazines and making just one close: friend Jack Bauer, a refugee from inner -city Chicago.:Then in his 20's, Bauer, who had..the physique of a body builder and who later became a professional wrestler, became Mayer's disciple and remained so until his teacher was shot.
“I got first-class-tutoring from him” Bauer recalls. “I feel I was almost like a child being taken care of.” Then in his late 30's, Mayer lectured Bauer on world affairs. He scolded Bauer for telling ethnic ‘jokes, saying, “Ethnic ‘jokes always step on someone's toes and hurt somebody.”
The man who 25 years later meticulously outlined and executed a bluff that for one day bamboozled the entire law enforcement brain- trust of the nation's capital spent his free time. in Miami Beach scheming of ways to get rich. He came up with ~solution” for solving world food shortages~that involved packing food with a nitrogen-type gas” so it could be shipped: “throughout, the world without, refrigeration,” Bauer said. Mayer also hit upon an idea for a coconut;and-plastic building mate- land, part of the isolated Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
On La Digue, with money he had apparently saved-from his work in SouthEast Asia, Mayer rented a small cottage on the beach and lived quietly Mayer's nephew said his uncle would often smoke marijuana and drink creme de menthe as he watched the spectacularly brief tropical sunset.
Mayer told his nephew that since he was going to run out of money he wanted to make a “big score” on drugs, Then 56 years. old, Mayer indulged in melancholy; his nephew recalls. He said he was getting too old for the ~young girls~'he'd bedded around the world. He was searching, he' said, for some cause to give his life meaning. He alluded to the horror of nuclear weapons and related it to the destruction he'd seen in Vietnam.
In the spring of 1976 in Bangkok, Mayer tried to make his “big score Mayer bought 443/r pounds Of marijuana from a-Bangkok drug dealer, picked it.into a Thai statuette:and a clock, and boarded plane ~bound for Los Angeles. When his plane stopped over in Hong Kong on April 8, 1976, Mayer was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. He was betrayed, like' many small-time drug smugglers in Southeast Asia, by the Bangkok dealer who, for a reward, tipped off, authorities.
Mayer spent 10 months in a Hong Kong jail, losing several of. his teeth to decay; and fuming and`preparing his defense. “I: intend-to fight as hard as I can and I expect no quarter from them [the Hong Kong authorities,” Mayer said in a letter to his brother in June. In October, his spirits higher, Mayer wrote, ” … I'll whip their asses, even with their resources in access (sic) of mine 1,000,000 to 1.
In early 1977 Mayer hinted st the self-destructiveness that led to his death 4 years later in Washington. He told a reporter from the South China Morning Post/that he he'd invested the`last of his money, some $10,000, in marijuana so he could sell it in the U.S., have a “good time,” and then kill himself.
Acting as his own lawyer, Mayer charged into court in February. He called 20 witnesses for the defense, including most of the major law enforcement officials in Hong Kong. He badgered government chemists for days, arguing over the glandular hairs and sex characteristics of marijuana blossoms. Near the end of his trial, during a l5minute recess, Mayer left the courtroom and was, found three hours later at his apartment in Hong Kong's red-light district taking a bath.
But at the end of the 22 day trial, during which he was scolded, found guilty of possession of marijuana and sentenced to three years in prison. In sentencing Mayer, Judge Benjamin Liu said it was a pity that Mayer had not made better use of his “high intelligence and ingenuity.
Mayer, in reply, told the judge: “This is an act of violence and the first act of war between the government of Hong Kong and the government of the United States.”
For that and other statements, Mayer was confined for five months in Sui Lam Psychiatric Center. There, he continued to study British law and prepared an appeal based on illegal search and seizure. In April 1978, his appeal proved successful and Mayer was deported.
Back in the U.S., Mayer headed immediately to Washington where sometime in the summer of 1978, he embraced the issue of nuclear disarmament. It quickly obsessed him. In almost every respect, it was the perfect issue for Mayer. It galvanized his deep suspicion of government authority, his lack of faith in the human race and his need for an all-consuming cause.
In November 1978, in the door pay of Jack Bauer's Miami Beach car-repair shop, Mayer showed up, reborn as an antinuclear fanatic. The hair that ringed his bald head was grown long and tied back in a braided ponytail. His belt buckle bore the message: “Ban the Bomb or Have a Nice Doomsday.” Mayer told his friend, “this is the first time I've had purpose and meaning in my life.
Over the next four, years, Mayer has single-minded. He moved into a cramped one-room apartment on the roof of the Continental Hotel in Miami Beach. He spent all his free time there reading publications such as The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and churning out leaflets and letters; that he mailed to scientists, editorial ~writers and leaders of antinuclear movements. He worked double shifts it the hotel as n maintenance man and night desk clerk, saving almost all his money. Handing out leaflets, he was twice arrested for trespassing on local college campuses.
Ben Feigenbaum, a guest at the Continental, recalled saying good morning to. Mayer. Mayer snapped back:
“It's great today; you're alive, but tomorrow we might be blown to hell off this planet;”
In the summer of 1981, he bought a used van. He told Mark Boccaccio, a friend, that the van could help him survive a nuclear war.
Boccaccio recalled, “I kept saying, Norman, that will probably only buy you three seconds. Norman said,'As long as I can see the destruction, that will be three more seconds than anybody else.”
Mayer said his goodbyes to Bauer in early May, handing him a copy of Jonathan Schell's book, “Fate of the Earth,” and saying he was bound for a July Fourth antinuclear rally in New York City. Heading north, Mayer apparently hit upon a scheme to draw attention to the last great cause of his life.
“You know where I might be able to acquire the services of an explosives' jockey?” he asked a reporter in Norton, Va. “I thought I might blow something up. Don't You think that would be a good way to get someone's attention?”
In the parking lot of the Napier Dairy Bar in Hazard, Kentucky, Mayer tried to bribe Harold Miller, a licensed explosives expert, to buy him dynamite.
“He said he wanted 8,000 pounds or more and he said there was a good hunk of money in it. He offered me $1,000 plus a dollar a pound for every pound that I would buy him,” said Miller. Miller turned the bribe down and called police, who on May 28 questioned and released Mayer because he hadn't actually bought any dynamite.
Without explosives, Mayer arrived in Washington June 7, searching ‘for a national audience'. But almost no one would listen; by August, he was in front of the White House, part of a menagerie of hopeless supplicants.
In late August, Mayer asked William Thomas to help him “take out one of their sacred icons.” Thomas said he refused.
For the next three months,Mayer kept to his vigil in front of the White House. He drove up to the sidewalk every day at 11 a.m., unloaded large plywood signs from his van and proselytized until sundown. Mayer took off Sundays to study evangelical preachers whom he called “masters of illusion.” He told friends he envied their skill at conning Americans.
Unlike most of the regulars on the White House sidewalk, Mayer-with plenty of $100 bills–could afford a place to stay at night' He spent nearly $5,000 in cash for a $30-a-night room at the Downtown Motel on New York Avenue NE. His money and his patience, however, were running out. No one, including established antinuclear organizations such as SANE, Ground Zero and the Arms Control Association, was listening to him.
In mid-November, I decided to find ‘radicals” at Baltimore's Jonah Howe, a commune devoted to disarmament that was founded by activist ex-priest Philip Berrigan.
“I found him to be deeply frustrated,” said Berrigan's wife, Elizabeth McAlister. “Seventy-five days in front of the White House. talking to tourists is enough to, frustrate-anyone.”
Mayer returned to Washington more disillusioned than ever. On Thanksgiving Day he told Richard Miller of the Community for Creative Non-Violence that he was really discouraged by the way his protest was going.”
On Monday, Dec.6, two days before the monument siege, Mayer, was seen in his motel trying on a new snowsuit that still had price tags an it. On Tuesday, he told William Thomas in an abrupt phone conversation, “I have decided what I'm going to do and I'm going to do it.”
At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, in the costume of a B-movie villain, Mayer drove his van to the base of the Washington Monument and executed his bluff.
Ever meticulous, he had prepared a cue card for himself listing his demands. Ever belligerent, he refused to negotiate and pulled off what U.S. Park Police Captain Robert H. Hines said was the longest terrorist bluff in U.S. history. Ever skeptical of the human race, Mayer watched a portable Panasonic television to make sure he had reached the world.
Read our general and most popular articles
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard