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Grass-roots antinuke drive springs up in Traverse City

It is growing late. The strategy meeting in the tiny upstairs room over a church in this small northwestern Michigan city has ended. The last stragglers have gone home in the windy, rainy autumn night.

Steve Holl and Greg Griswold, both in their mid-20s, are packing up the bumper stickers, buttons, and leaflets left behind by the dozen people who form the nucleus of the Traverse Bay Area Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. They want to get a ''yes'' vote on Proposal E on the Michigan ballot in November - a proposal calling for consideration of a verifiable mutual freeze on nuclear weapons by the United States and the USSR and a transfer of US nuclear weapons funds to civilian use.

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Michigan is one of eight states (the others: Arizona, California, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia where voters face freeze proposals this fall. Wisconsin recently passed its proposal by a 3-to-1 margin; an estimated 400 municipal and county governments nationwide have passed theirs.

Holl, of Traverse City, heads the relatively low-key grass-roots freeze effort in this largely rural-resort area, isolated by a few hundred miles from the larger centers of population downstate. This is not anything he ever imagined doing. Neither did Griswold, of nearby Interlochen.

How did they get involved? It goes back to their childhoods, they say.

''I was raised in the '50s, when the US was testing nuclear bombs above ground out West,'' Holl recalls. ''We kids used to chant: 'Don't eat the snow,' because our parents said it was covered with fallout.''

Griswold remembers the chant, too, and they say it together, smiling ruefully: ''Don't eat the snow.''

They also remember bomb drills in school. ''I learned to duck behind my desk, '' Holl says. ''It left a lasting impression.''

This involvement is a first for both of them. Holl is a college student. Griswold works in an auto-parts store.

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''My wife, Robin, who is a homemaker and potter, sent me to the meeting while she stayed with our three children,'' Griswold says. ''She and I want to campaign in Benzie County, where we live.''

The young men were not activists in the '60s, they point out, because they were too young. ''I was only in junior high during the Vietnam war,'' Holl says. ''Lots of us in this group have never done anything like this before. We have all ages and people from all walks of life - a mechanic, a postal worker, farmers, clerks, business owners. Some just say, 'I want to learn,' or 'I want to do something to express my feelings.' ''

Holl's experience is borne out by Debbie Hejl, coordinator of the Detroit Area Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign founded last June to help collect the 385, 000 signatures which put the issue on the Michigan ballot. Asked by a Detroit newspaper if the freeze movement was made up of ''leftover 1960s activists who need some cause to push,'' Ms. Hejl replied:

''Most people working with us on the freeze campaign have never been involved in a peace-oriented issue before. It isn't just a lot of young people. It crosses from high school students to grandparents. We're crossing class lines, political lines. A number of conservative people have been supportive.''

Emmy Williams of Traverse City says she would be enjoying ''a more serene retirement'' if it hadn't been for the two years she and her husband lived in Japan, where they visited the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums and saw the effects of the atomic bombs dropped by the US in World War II.

Because she is ''continually haunted'' by those visits, Mrs. Williams spent much of last spring standing on street corners, and going door to door to gather petition signatures. This fall, she is doing the same to get a ''yes'' vote.

A rather quiet person herself, she says it's a ''quiet'' campaign. ''Most people are very nice, even if they disagree, but every once in a while you get someone antagonistic and then you get a real, hot earful. I listen. It doesn't stop me.''

Claire Smith, a young nurse at Interlochen National Arts Academy, gave up one of her few free evenings to attend a freeze meeting - a first for her. ''I'm not an activist but I've never felt this strongly about an issue before,'' she says. ''I feel it's my duty to do what I can.''

Jim Porter, a consulting engineer and energy specialist from Rapid City, is a member of the group's speakers bureau. He has dates to address some members of the Lions and Masons, along with informal meetings with business leaders. He gets up at 5:30 every morning to research and write his speeches, drawing upon his many years as a worker for peace causes.

''I'm not a zealot; I don't evangelize,'' he says. ''I just list what I see as the facts. And I tell people: I care for you.''

Pat Pritchard echoes his conviction. Ms. Pritchard works in the library at Northwestern Michigan College, is studying for a degree in business, and has three sons, ages 14 to 19.

''Because of my children, I'm aware of the fragileness of life,'' she says. ''I only have time to type labels or do mailings, but I do what I can. I like the way this group operates. It's very professional. It's a real, middle-class movement. People work hard and get things done.''

At Northwestern Michigan College (in Traverse City) last spring, Tom Shea taught a course in nuclear war ''to present all aspects - diplomatic, military, psychological. About 25 persons of various ages attended. One of our guest speakers was at the test-ban treaty meetings. It was enlightening.''

Tom Shea and a few other freeze members belong to World Peacemakers, whose 100 groups nationwide subscribe to what he describes as ''a dual philosophy, an inward-outward journey, a spiritual journey in which we work on peace within ourselves and peace in the world.'' The local Peacemakers group raised $400 in the Traverse Bay area last Christmas season to put up ''Pray for Peace'' billboards.

Mr. Shea has written on the freeze effort in the local press. He says: ''People take risks to make their views known in a small community. At our interdenominational prayer meeting last spring, some canvassers asked how to deal with charges that wanting a freeze was unpatriotic, playing into Russian hands. These charges come from neighbors and co-workers. It isn't easy. It isn't impersonal, like it is when you campaign in the big cities.''

He takes something of a risk himself. He works for Community, Family, and Children Services, and says, ''I have to raise public funds for the agency I serve and when people see my name and picture connected with the freeze movement , there could be negative repercussions. But I'm not a martyr; it's a risk worth taking.''

The freeze group follows a small-town tradition in which business people often gather at ''a table'' in Stacy's downtown restaurant at noon. Every Tuesday they gather at what they have dubbed ''the peace table'' for lunch.

The all-volunteer campaign this month will include leaflets, phone calls, speaking engagements, and media apearances; weekly Thursday night informational meetings for the public at Central Methodist Church in Traverse City; and a slide show and a talk by a local member of Physicians for Social Responsibility at Northwestern Michigan College the evening of Oct. 22. They have already held a benefit evening with a reggae band.

''Fund raising is crucial,'' says Holl. ''Our only source of income for advertising and expenses is what we can raise from individuals. We need a campaign office. We need literature. We need people.''

Even getting out a newsletter is no small thing, he says. ''It took three of us nine hours of work at my house, and then it had to be run off and mailed. Amazingly, everything comes together, even when it doesn't look like it's going to. We only had 30 to 40 canvassers last spring, but we did extremely well. Leelanau County, up here, is one of the smallest in Michigan, but it had the largest percentage of its population sign petitions.''

Distance is a problem. When the state campaign holds political-skills workshops and other important meetings, it usually means an overnight trip which few of the Traverse Bay campaigners can afford in terms of time or money. Long-distance phone calls and the gas to attend meetings are a drain on individuals in an area where communities are many miles apart. This, the core group says, keeps many people from joining.

At present, there is no organized opposition in the state or on the local scene, though many individuals oppose the freeze idea vigorously and take every opportunity to put forth counterarguments.

''Our opponents keep us diligent,'' Steve Holl says. ''This grass-roots movement takes a lot of people by surprise. We had 125,000 more signatures than we needed to put the issue on the ballot.'' A recent Detroit News poll showed that Michigan residents supported the concept of a mutual freeze by 69 to 25 percent. ''A lot of people think it would pass, even without a campaign,'' says Holl, ''but we don't want to take that chance.''

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