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, Calif., 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 truck and began driving away from the monument just after 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 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 on 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 trick. When Treasury 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 1950s, 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 an explosives expert into selling him 8,000 pounds of dynamite. He couldn't buy the explosives and so -- as 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 truck, 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, Va., 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 to 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 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 (he did eat chicken) and a fanatical devotee of physical fitness who took pills for high blood pressure. From the time he was a 7-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 who would not tolerate ethnic jokes or racial prejudice, was a loyal friend to the indigent Thomas. Mayer financed Thomas' apocalyptic signs, bought 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 of will. 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 7 years old, Margott 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 teen-ager, 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 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 his 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, Nev. In Searchlight in the late 1930s, a mining partner ran off with some of Mayer's money, Aubrey Mayer remembers. He recalls: "My brother was 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 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 twenties, 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 thirties, 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 braintrust of the nation's capital spent his free time in Miami Beach scheming of ways to get rich. He came up with a "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 material.
In addition to scheming, Mayer, characteristically, was tilting at windmills and seeking vengeance. Once in a machine shop in Hialeah he complained loud and often about working conditions. According to Bauer, "two hired goons beat him near to death. It took him several weeks to get back on his feet." When he recovered, he went back to the shop, tracked down his attackers and thrashed them.
He was arrested Feb. 1, 1957, for assault and battery. The charges were soon dropped, but Mayer paid for his revenge. He found it impossible to find work in Miami and headed for the Caribbean. Throughout most of the 1960s, he made his living as a maintenance engineer in hotels in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
In 1969, Mayer again took off -- this time for Vietnam, where he worked for two years as a helicopter machinist. Mayer, who went to Vietnam for a first-hand look at the war, later said he was impressed by the unrelenting determination of the Vietcong. "Where else can you find such opposition that will fight to the death on a handful of rice," he told his friend Bauer.
Mayer also said he was revolted by the indiscriminate use of U.S. weaponry that, he claimed, murdered innocent Vietnamese. He witnessed an ammunition explosion and told Bauer it looked like "the most hellacious thing you could imagine . . . like the end of the world."
In late 1971, when he was working as a roughneck on an oil rig off Brunei, a steel cable snapped and broke one of Mayer's legs. He spent several months in early 1972 recuperating in Singapore. There, his brother says, he met a Singapore woman who took his check book and wrote $12,000 in forged checks.
Disillusioned by the Vietnamese war and still limping from his injury, Mayer left Singapore and traveled west in 1972 across Southeast Asia. He took a train across India, and from Bombay boarded a ship bound for Mombasa, Kenya. En route, according to his nephew David Mayer, who visited him that year, Mayer stopped off on tropical La Digue Island, 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 44 3/4 pounds of marijuana from a Bangkok drug dealer, packed it into a Thai statuette and a clock, and boarded a 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 whup their asses, even with their resources in access sic of mine1,000,000 to 1."
In early 1977 Mayer hinted at the self-destructiveness that led to his death 4 1/2 years later in Washington. He told a reporter from the South China Morning Post that he had invested the last of his money, some $10,000, in marijuana so he could sell it in the United States, 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 15-minute 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 for wasting the court's time, he was 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 Centre. 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 United States, 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 doorway 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 was 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 at the hotel as a 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, Mayer bought a used truck. He told Mark Boccaccio, a friend, that the truck 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 last 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, Ky., 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 offer 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 truck 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, he decided to find "radicals" at Baltimore's Jonah House, 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 Nonviolence 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 on 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 truck 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 Capt. 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.
Shortly after the evening network newscast, he drove off to his death.