Octogenarian Activist Makes Birthday Jump As Political Statement

Friday July 09, 2004

Parachuting out of an airplane isn’t usually considered a political statement. Not unless you’re Berkeley resident Ken Norwood and you try to make it one. 

A World War II veteran, a well-known architect/planner, and a longtime Berkeley activist, Norwood used the jump this Thursday to celebrate his 80th birthday and to mock George Bush, Sr., who did the same thing to celebrate his birthday just a couple weeks back. 

Norwood also used the jump to promote his new memoir, which chronicles a life dedicated to creating social change and equity.  

A frequent contributor to the commentary pages of the Berkeley Daily Planet, Norwood says his memoir has a special meaning since the attacks of 9/11, and he’s doing everything he can to get it into the public eye. For four years he’s been working hard on the book, and what better way to promote it and hopefully secure a publisher, he thought, than to jump out of an airplane. 

He has rushed to finish the book, Norwood said, since the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon walls came crumbling down in 2001, because he believes his memoir will help people understand the true meaning behind war and revenge. It is something Norwood has been privy too as a veteran, but something he thinks that not many others understood until recently.  

The parachute jump also had extra meaning because it’s also about the same place where the book starts: bailing out of an airplane.  

In 1944, Norwood was forced to jump out of a burning B-24 bomber over occupied Belgium after his plane was hit by enemy fire. He doesn’t remember the jump, however, and was only able to piece the story together from others who jumped with him while they were recovering in a Nazi POW hospital in Brussels.  

The whole experience was the start of a revelation of sorts for Norwood, who, while recovering in the hospital, started hearing stories from incoming POWs about the havoc and destruction created by allied forces. A bomber himself, Norwood said his illusions of war started to melt away and were eventually solidly destroyed when American bombers began dropping bombs on civilian areas near the hospital. With the war almost over, Norwood said the bombings were part of a campaign to create unnecessary revenge and violence. 

As he left the camp by rail, Norwood said he peered through cracks in the train cars and watched families pull bodies from the rubble and push wheelbarrows full of dead children. On the boat ride home, down in the hull of the SS Ayecock while it traversed the Atlantic for a month, he said he also came upon a dispute between two soldiers, one from Detroit and the other from Texas. The two were arguing about the war, with the man from Detroit, a former union organizer, warning the soldier about the American corporations such as Ford and General Motors that profited from the war by helping the Nazis. It was the alliance that President Dwight Eisenhower later famously labeled the “military-industrial complex.” Unimpressed by the argument, the soldier from Texas retaliated by calling the Detroit soldier a commie. 

These two memories, said Norwood, stuck with him and helped change him permanently.  

“All of those knee-jerk patriotic terminologies [such as valor, loyalty] were the ones that were important to us in WWII,” he said, “but by the end of the war I began to see flaw in this whole issue of valor and honor. The Air Force bombing German cities unmercifully in the last several months of the war when the war was virtually through, when there was no opposition….. I could not communicate, I got to such revelations and such momentous re-awakenings that it took quite a while before I began to meet people and sought out people who had some similar realizations.” He said he felt alienated from a world that tried to immediately romanticize the war. 

What Norwood eventually figured out was that the only way he could cope with his transformation was to try to right as many wrongs of the recent war as he could. He enrolled in architecture school, graduated and began working for progressive architecture firms in L.A. But even that wasn’t enough. 

“I came to the realization that in private business it’s very hard to do good work. Competitive pressure requires you to cater to businesses that don’t care [such as] builders and developers who only want the bottom line,” he said. 

So Norwood changed his focus and started working on sustainable development projects. That eventually led him to Berkeley and several cooperative housing projects. For years he lived in and designed similar co-ops and eventually opened a non-profit dedicated to designing them. 

Then came George W. Bush.  

“When the Bush administration came along I could see the handwriting on the wall,” said Norwood. “To me it was obvious and to a lot of other people it was obvious, people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. We had an inkling these weren’t government people, these were corporate industrial tycoons.” 

It was an immediate flashback to the conversation in the hull of the SS Ayecock. For Norwood, it was the military industrial complex in full form.  

“That is what fuels the military industrial complex, corporate tycoons who have no cultural political experience,” said Norwood. “[Their experience] is a bottom line experience so they don’t have really deep foreign policy know-how.” 

Then came 9/11 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Norwood had immediate proof of what he had been claiming all along. 

Norwood knew his work would help people understand the whole scenario, from Bush to 9/11, to Iraq. More people were beginning to grasp the idea of the military industrial complex and he wanted to make sure his book helped them firmly solidify their understanding.  

At 14 chapters, the book is still in the works but soon to be completed. Last Tuesday, he said, he was in a bookstore, perusing the WWII section and realizing again why an ] account of the war is now more important than ever. 

Regardless of what happens, said Norwood, he was thrilled to have been able to take the jump. And most important, he felt especially proud that he was able to keep Bush the elder “from getting one up on me.”