The other morning, after her parents had brought her home, the phone rang at 782 Barrymore Lane. Her mother picked it up. "You're Nazi spies," an ugly voice said.
Later, it rang again. This time Leslie Anne Cole herself answered. "They should cut your tits off, you dirty . . ." the same voice said. But the suddenly famous conscientious objector had already set the receiver down.
She is the sailor who fell from grace with the sea, the pacifist who went to jail and wrapped herself in a sheet rather than have to wear the uniform of the "U.S. killing machine." Poets find their poems, mystics find their grace, and the unlikeliest heroes find their moment--a flashing tincture of time to summon a conviction they didn't quite know they had.
This is about how one small-voiced, raven-haired, 28-year-old ex-firefighter on a submarine tender won an implausible battle with the U.S. Navy. Seaman Leslie Anne Cole didn't exactly bring Goliath to its knees, and Goliath has its own side to tell in the story, too, and maybe the deeper story isn't how she got out as much as why she ever got in. But still.
Her hair is in a schoolmarm's bun. The nails are neatly manicured. Intense dark eyes smile out from behind huge frames.
"No, people like that don't really repulse me," she is saying of the obscene caller, not looking up but instead tracing a groove, over and over, in the knee of a pair of freshly washed jeans. She is curled, barefoot, on a sofa in her parents' living room. The shades are drawn, and it is gloomy outside. There is a vague smell of old incense, and spread around the room are small hand-lettered signs: No Smoking Please.
"I know some people think I hate America: 'You just want to get out.' 'You're a cop-out.' 'You signed your name.' They think I hate the U.S. military, but actually I am anti-military worldwide.
"Something spiritual was going on in my soul, and my mind just wouldn't adjust to it. I was embarrassed at first, because I've never considered myself a spiritual person. I wasn't Joan of Arc."
Last week, in a Baltimore court, nearly 2 1/2 months after she first went to jail, a U.S. District Court judge told Cole he was granting her an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector; that he was overturning a military court-martial; that she was free to go home and help her family put in the spring garden. Some of her actions had been rash, Judge Walter E. Black Jr. said, but that fact should not be allowed to interfere with her sincere desire to be a conscientious objector. (Her application for CO status had been held up because of a February court-martial.)
Reportedly, the Navy will appeal.
"I can go now?" she had said, unbelieving.
Yes, he said.
As she left the courtroom, some military marshals tried to take hold of her, she says. "No," somebody called out. "She's free right now."
"I feel like I have come back home where I belong in my soul," she said outside the courtroom. Afterward her parents took her out to dinner. She had a salad and a Harvey's Bristol Cream, but her stomach was still in knots. That night she tossed and tossed.
"My folks took me out to lunch yesterday at the Aspen Inn. It's one of the best in Bethlehem. The owner Bob wanted to meet me. It's good, talking about it. Before, nobody cared."
She is cupping her chin in her hand, putting into her mouth the rawhide cord that loops her red blouse together. "I was very . . . hopeful the judge was going to give me a CO. I felt he was a very understanding man. He was reading his opinion, not looking up, and then . . . he just said it. I was very tense. Then I felt this hotness inside. My parents were sitting right behind the little wooden gate at the front of the courtroom, and I could hear my mother catch at her throat. I didn't want to cry, dammit, but I just couldn't help it."
This isn't quite the living room one might have expected, somehow. It is filled with exotica--odd-shaped bowls and ornately carved tables and little metal boxes and mysterious tapestries painted with gay elephants and rare birds--all mementos from the five years her family spent in the Peace Corps, in Afghanistan, India and Swaziland. In 1968 John Cole was a 55-year-old successful doctor who one day came home and said to his wife, "How long would it take you to get ready to go to the Peace Corps?" About three days, she answered. A few months later they left and three of their nine children went with them, including Leslie Anne, then 14.
"He's just a very compassionate man," the daughter says of her father. "He just wanted to do something. And, of course, that experience must have marked me greatly. I don't know, maybe that's where everything started. It really opens you up, something like that. Your mind is young. You no longer took life for granted when you began to see starving people. I didn't miss the States at all. Maybe that's when I started losing my patriotism for America. Now I have patriotism for the world."
Leslie Cole's public ordeal began in late January, when she went to jail, three days after she had walked up to the mess deck of the USS L.Y. Spear, based in Norfolk, to tell her senior chief she would no longer wear a military uniform or report to her job. The chief called the master of arms. "He knew me. He knew I wasn't fooling around," she says.
What did the L.Y. Spear look like, she is asked. Was it pretty? "Are you kidding? It made me sick to look at. All gray metal. Cold gray saline metal that just helped the killing machine."
For nearly a month they kept her in the Newport News, Va., city jail. In late February, after her court-martial, she was transferred to the Army stockade at Fort Meade. She would sit rigidly, her mind fixed on Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mohandas Gandhi. "I couldn't get out of my mind the idea of going to India to help Mother Teresa."
They had her in and out of several cells. They put her in a segregation cell, which at Fort Meade is a 6-by-8-foot room with a toilet, a sink, a metal bunk coming off a pink wall. "Nauseating pink," she says. During the day--which began at 5 a.m., when they flipped on the lights--the guards came in and took the mattress, and then Seaman Cole's bunk was a sheet of metal with some holes in it.
If you wanted something, you yelled "Cellblock," and then a female guard came down. "I didn't want much. Oh, once I wanted some lip cream. And another time I asked for writing paper." She was allowed the Bible, though not secular reading.
Later, they gave her a chair.
"Yes, a segregation cell is just what the term implies," says Army Col. Havis Holloway, provost marshal at what is officially called the Fort Meade Confinement Facility. (A provost marshal is a chief of police, but he gets permission from a public affairs officer before he can talk to reporters about things not previously on the record.) "You're all alone and away from the rest of the population of the stockade. Now, was she problematic to me? Well, we know she was problematic just from the fact that she was incarcerated in the first place, don't we? But was she belligerent? No. Did she stand up at attention and salute me as a normal soldier did when I entered her cell? No sir. She really didn't give me any problem, if that's what you're asking."
At one impasse, according to Cole, they shackled her hands and forcibly tried to get her out of her civilian clothes. She curled in a ball on the metal bunk and hugged her arms around her knees. Please, God, she screamed inwardly, help me make it through this. They got her pants off and were going for her shirt. "No," she ground out, "I'll take it off myself."
Both sides were heaving and glaring at each other. They put a uniform in her cell but she tore it into pieces. They managed to get her civvies away from her, but a 100-pound immovable force said she would rather sit naked than put on Navy clothes. For l0 days she sat wrapped in a sheet. By now the press was hot on the story. The Cole family asked their congressman, Republican Don Ritter, to intervene. He did. Ultimately, Seaman Cole was permitted to wear hospital pajamas and a blue robe. But she couldn't go into the visitors' room.
At a hearing on April 6, one of Cole's lawyers asked Col. Holloway why it was so important she wear the Navy uniform. The colonel said that military regs require that anyone in confinement wear the uniform. The lawyer pressed some more, and the colonel said, "If I allowed civilian clothes, some would be in buckskins and some would be in G-strings."
"Oh, they do it for everybody, the handcuffs."
She is recalling her ride up to Baltimore on the morning last week when the judge set her free. They had brought her up in handcuffs that morning, three guards in a military van, two in the front, one on the seat beside her, watching her as if any minute now she might spring the jailbreak of the century.
"It's part of the treatment. Actually, the guards were pretty nice to me. They weren't taking it personally. They might not have understood, exactly, but they weren't nasty, as some have been.
"I was a badass in there. They felt they had to break me. The second day I was in the brig I got screamed at. You know how they get a few inches from your face and start yelling at you?"
The question that looms here, of course, is: Why did you join up at all? Couldn't you have guessed it wasn't your . . . milieu?
She scratches her neck. "Um, you see, I've always had these feelings of wanting to work for peace. So I thought: Why not just jump right into the middle of it? But they don't want to hear about peace in there. They give you odd dirty looks when you say that. It's very tightly controlled in there. Everybody is after rank and money."
So the urge might be to call her naive--or worse. The Navy was never any place for Leslie Anne Cole. But the naive sometimes bring down the haughtiest assumptions of man. "You see, I believe that when you have all these festering feelings, something is communicating to you from above. My mind just wouldn't adjust to it. For 10 months I had had crying spells. I tried to hide it but couldn't. There was a contradiction in my soul. I had all these worthless feelings. I didn't understand them. I was serving the military, I wasn't serving peace."
In the spring of 1982 she was sent to school in San Diego. "NDT," she says. "Non-Destructive Training. But in the second week of April, something told me I could no longer participate. I kept going back to my apartment in El Cajon and bursting into tears. I just felt sick to my soul. I would even wake up crying. So in June I went UA."
In Navy lingo UA means "unauthorized absence." Leslie Anne Cole, outlaw, lit out across the country. She hitched rides with farmers and truckers. She hitched down to Texas, then to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where her brother, a scientist, lives. When truckers pulled over, she told them flatly: I'm not a whore. If you don't want to help me, just keep on going. "I used to wait on the on-ramp of interstates. They'd get on their CBs and say, 'I got a real lady here who needs a ride.' "
She went back to San Diego and turned herself in. But the feelings wouldn't go away. "These feelings were scaring me. I'm not a crybaby."
In January of this year, her CO papers were sent off to Washington. They told her it might take five weeks. "Now people harp on this: 'Why couldn't you have waited five weeks?' But I couldn't wait any longer."
Now that she is out, Leslie Cole thinks she would like to work with children, maybe in a hospital setting. There isn't talk any longer of going to India to help Mother Teresa. She hopes to enroll at Moravian College in Bethlehem later this year to study psychology. At the moment, she says, it's too wet to plant the family garden. She wants to turn the earth herself. "We've had sweet potatoes in other years. I don't know whether Dad will want to put in white potatoes this year or not."
Downtown, in the Professional Building, Dr. John Cole, Bethlehem family doctor for nearly four decades, sits in a lab coat in a small examining room and says this: "Well, we've always tried to let the children make up their own minds about things. It should have never come to this. Months ago a sensitive administrative officer should have spoken up and said the Navy wasn't good for Leslie and Leslie wasn't good for the Navy. They have such people--I was in the military myself 3 1/2 years and I know. I'm not bitter, but I've had to rethink some things."