by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Long before West Mt. Airy resident Bud Alcock, 68, became a geologist, reading the earth’s story through ancient stones, he had learned to look beneath life’s surface. That probing shaped his politics and foreshadowed a costly decision. Bud spent 22 months in Allenwood Federal Prison in his 20s as a draft resister. “The horror and injustice of the war in Vietnam (1964-1972) led me to believe that I shouldn’t support American militarism in any way,” Bud said.
Alcock’s stance tested close relationships. Born into a Quaker family in Virginia, Bud, the youngest of three children, soon moved with his parents and siblings to a then-rural part of southern Chester County. “There was a creek for playing swimming, throwing rocks and building dams,” he said. “We could skate on it in cold winters.” But prison wouldn’t be child’s play. His family feared that it would ruin his life and limit his chances for future employment. “Our discussions weren’t always easy or calm,” he said.
Against all odds, Bud gained in one respect from his time in the minimum-security prison. He met like-minded men whose friendship would continue to touch his life down the years, but jail took an unforeseen toll. “You know you’ll lose time,” Bud said, “but most of us lost our self-confidence too. Prison destroys your self-reliance. I imagine that some of us didn’t recover.”
Fate sprang a surprise on Bud. In 1974, a few years after prison, a fellow draft resister from his Allenwood days introduced him to his future wife, Molly McLaughlin. “He was cute and good at fixing cars,” Molly said, then laughed. “Seriously, I knew from his history and our mutual friend that he would stand up for his beliefs.” They married in 1981.
But Bud proved resilient in other ways. He began forging a post-prison life as a millwright at the Budd Co. on Hunting Park Avenue. In time, he earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University and taught chemistry at Wissahickon High School. Teaching a course there on earth science quickened his interest in geology. A Haverford College grad, he began taking geology courses at Penn. Later, he taught at Strath Haven High School “way out in Swarthmore.” The grueling commute drained him. “After I counted 45 red lights on my way home one day, I knew I needed a change,” said Bud, who had moved to Mt. Airy in 1977.
Bud plunged full-time in Penn’s graduate geology program. Having two young children at that time brought challenges (the couple’s sons, Colin and Zack, are now 32 and 27, respectively, yet Bud earned his Ph.D). Bud studies metamorphic rock. “They’re old, and we can learn about the earth’s history as we read their stories,” said Bud, who taught geology at Penn State-Abington for 23 years. If he were starting out today, he would focus on glaciers. “They’re more relevant to the real world because ice records temperature. When you drill through ice, you’re going back in time. You can chart yearly changes in temperature and track climate change. Glaciers could give us a better understanding of how climate works.” Given global warming, it’s an urgent issue, Bud said. “We’ve already seen extremes of weather. It’s alarming.”
After Bud’s recent retirement, a friend from his time at Allenwood led him back into the thick of social justice. CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) was organizing a delegation of neutral observers to monitor the country’s upcoming Presidential election, his friend said. CISPES (www.CISPES.org) was founded in 1980 to oppose U.S. aid to the Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992), a vicious conflict that targeted civilians and recruited child soldiers. Bud said yes.
Bud, who speaks Spanish, reached El Salvador on January 25, along with two other observers from Philadelphia, John Braxton and Emily Rodriguez. “During the first few days, we learned about the current political and economic situation in El Salvador, and the programs that the FMLN (Frene Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional), one of the country’s three leading parties, had begun and hoped to continue if it won the election,” Bud said.
FMLN’s initiatives included a drive to eradicate illiteracy and provide children with food, clothes and a backpack so they could attend school. FMLN, which has close ties to CISPES, has also established free health clinics, some serving entirely indigenous communities which previously received little medical attention. “El Salvador has far less than the U.S., but it does much more for its people,” Bud said. “FMLN programs are government programs begun with the election of a president in coalition with FMLN.”
Beginning three days before the election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal trained Bud and other volunteers. They went on a practice run to places where they would observe the election. Bud and the other observers reached their assigned polling places at 4:45 a.m. the morning of February 2. “Besides us, representatives of all three parties —FMLN, ARENA and Unidad — watched every ballot being cast, and later, every vote being counted. It was remarkable how well people worked together, given that 20 years ago they were killing each other.”
Bud returned home tired, but heartened. “The potential exists for countries like El Salvador to find a way to develop economically that serves all of the people, not just a few, in a way that avoids U.S. interference,” he said. “Progressive Philadelphians, many of whom live in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, have been concerned about U.S. Central American policy since the 1954 CIA-organized coup in Guatemala, the Contra war in Nicaragua and the civil war in El Salvador through the 1980s, and should be interested to read our first-hand account of the current situation in El Salvador.”
For more information about CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), visit www.cispes.org.