Walking the Talk

Member of the radical 1960’s anti-war group Baltimore Four reflects on social justice, his life and going through it with a disability

Although activist Jim Mengel recalls falling asleep in class, he didn’t know he had narcolepsy until after he was married. At 92, he still dozes off occasionally, but that doesn’t stop him from attending weekly peace vigils in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Between boyish chuckles, the soft-spoken pastor remained humble throughout the interview. He was self-deprecating at times and deliberated questions at length before giving detailed explanations that sometimes digressed from the theme. It was apparent he took his faith in Jesus Christ seriously and let me know early on he didn’t want to be portrayed as a hero in this story.

Mengel grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania with the influence of the United Church of Christ. He was a Boy Scout who loved playing baseball and tennis and found part-time employment as a printer when he was a teenager. His mother stayed home with three kids and his father was employed by the local water department. He recalled his dad working his way up from fixing frozen water pipes to station manager. He didn’t think much about the difficulty he had with reading or his tendency to fall asleep in school. He did, however, think a lot about the anguish his family felt after learning his uncle had been killed in France during WW2.

He graduated from Albright College in 1950 with a BS in Business using a learning system he invented that didn’t include reading text books. Instead, he made sure he attended every class and sat up front so he could hear clearly and take detailed notes with a form of shorthand he devised. Sometimes he’d sit in the back so he could fall asleep and not disturb anyone. When he studied he generally focused on headlines, summaries, glossary words or what he could glean from indexes or pictures.

Right after college he joined the National Guard along with his brother and cousin at the onset of the Korean War. He stayed stateside and worked primarily as a clerk after he was released from flight school because of trouble he had with landing planes safely. He started thinking harder about what he called “the foolishness of seeking peace through the military” when he left the service. This sentiment grew stronger throughout his life. After his discharge he took a freighter to Africa and worked from 1952-54 as a missionary.

He met his wife later in Cleveland during a clinical internship while he was enrolled in the Lancaster Theological Seminary. It wasn’t long after the two were married that he and his wife, who was a nurse, discovered he had narcolepsy. “Winston Churchill, Harriet Tubman and Jimmy Kimmel had narcolepsy” Mengel mentioned.

The pills he took for narcolepsy didn’t help much, impelling him and his wife to continue on with their lives as best they could. Because of his medical condition, he could only hold a job for about seven months so his wife became the primary bread winner while he did more stay-home parenting. After taking another freighter across the ocean, the couple had their second child in Daegu, Korea where Mengel worked from 1963-66 as a civilian pastor and missionary with street-children and orphans impacted by the Korean War.

It was a life-defining moment for him in 1966 when he met the late Josephite priest and anti-war activist Phil Berrigan who is remembered for his early work with disenfranchised blacks along with his dedication to the 1960’s peace movement. Mengel was particularly impressed with Berrigan after he openly criticized the Catholic Church for not taking a tougher stance against warfare. He recalled the ire Berrigan received when he linked Black oppression with the disproportionate number of Blacks who were used as cannon fodder during the Vietnam War. Phil’s brother Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest/Christian pacifist and poet worked alongside Phil during their lives. “The Berrigans were saying things in church that needed to be said. They saw what was happening to Blacks, especially because of the war” said Mengel pointing out that Martin Luther King Jr. was saying similar things.

At that time, Mengel was traveling between Baltimore and Washington DC to attend anti-war demonstrations. On October 27, 1967 he was arrested with three others after they occupied the draft board office at the Customs House in Baltimore. During an act of civil disobedience, Phil Berrigan, artist/Tom Lewis and writer/poet David Eberhardt combined the blood from all four activists with poultry blood and poured it over draft records. They hoped this symbolic and sacrificial ritual would bring more awareness to the Vietnam War. Mengel decided to forego the actual pouring of blood and passed out “Good News for Modern Man” (New Testament) paperbacks instead. The three others distributed Bibles and talked about the reasons for doing what they did with those nearby until the police arrived for a peaceful arrest.

The group, along with their efforts, did make headlines and were tagged the Baltimore Four. Berrigan was sentenced to six years in a federal penitentiary and Eberhart and Lewis served additional jail time after the arrest. That didn’t stop Berrigan from organizing or inspiring others to continue on with radical demonstrations — he’d been to jail before and would end up there again.

Mengel, though, continued on with peace-and-justice work, while avoiding jail, in parishes or through community service. He moved to Minnesota about twenty years ago and still resides in White Bear Lake not far from his two children and three grandsons.

James and daughter Mary

He emphasized numerous times he didn’t want to be portrayed as a hero in this article, referring back to the importance of the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. and Berrigan brothers. His admiration for his deceased wife Norma also surfaced frequently. He spoke of her lovingly and panegyrically as an amazing person who excelled in many things and contributed more to their lives together than he did. Going on to say if there’s to be a hero in this write-up, it should be his wife, adding that men should be more appreciative and inclusive of women — especially the ones in their lives. His daughter Mary Mengel mentioned the heavy emotional toll her father feels after the death of his wife a year and a half ago.

James and Norma Mengel

Nevertheless, Mengel continues to show up Mondays near downtown White Bear Lake. He’s there between 3 and 4, shuffling back-and-forth along the sidewalk holding a sign with a message for peace, just like a trooper — not a hero.

• Photos courtesy of Mary Mengel

Craig Wood is a Minneapolis writer and member of Veterans For Peace. He can be reached at craig2mpls@yahoo.com Read other articles by Craig.