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The first radical ecologist was a nervous 'Fox'


NOT LONG BEFORE Earth Day last year, a conservative think tank issued a warning about radical ecologists who break laws while protesting assaults on the environment.

Although the think tank tried to portray the protesters as being as dangerous as John Dillinger, most of the examples they gave amounted to not much more than the kind of vandalism that occurs on Halloween.

But in reading the report, I got to the part where the think tank traced the origins of this kind of ecological warfare.

And I almost fell out of my chair from laughing.

This dangerous behavior was started more than 20 years ago, the think tankers said, by a menacing character from the Chicago area known only as "The Fox."

They said that "The Fox," in his misguided attempts to protect the environment, committed furtive acts of sabotage against corporations that not only broke laws, but endangered innocent life and limb.

And it was his irresponsible and dangerous behavior that encouraged others to take the law into their own hands.

If "The Fox" read that, he probably laughed louder than I did. On second thought, he probably wouldn't laugh. He might have giggled nervously.

As it happens, I knew "The Fox." Over the years, we've lost contact. But when he was active, I was his journalistic pipeline to the public.

We met when he came in to see me one day. A mild-mannered, professional man, he lived in the Fox River Valley and was alarmed by the spread of pollution.

He told me about his attempts to talk sense to big and small corporations that were dumping wastes into streams and Lake Michigan, and his failure to get past a receptionist or receive something more than a soothing corporate form letter about his concerns.

So he said he was through talking. He would become an ecological warrior and take direct action to dramatize the problem.

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical. And you would have been too, if you had known him. Try to imagine a slightly larger Woody Allen playing the part of Rambo.

But he said he was going to do it and would phone me when he planned to do something dramatic, and come see me after the deed was done. I told him that I didn't want to know what his intentions were in advance because that would make me some sort of accomplice. I wasn't sure why that was, but my lawyer told me that what I didn't know would keep me out of court.

And to my amazement, he went ahead and did it. He stopped up drainage outlets of big polluters; he draped derogatory signs on highway overpasses near their plants, and he plugged a few factory chimneys.

Once, he crawled under the fence of an asphalt plant, figured out a way to turn a few knobs, and shut down the plant for about two days.

Whenever he did something, he would leave behind a note of warning to the polluter, with his signature -- a drawing of a fox. He called himself "The Fox" because he was from the Fox River Valley and because foxes are sly, hard-to-catch creatures.

After each of his capers, he'd call or come and see me and give me the details. Then I'd write about it. And angry executives of the polluting corporations would phone me or my editor and sputter and threaten lawsuits and demand to know who this dangerous character was.

What I remember most about him was how out of character his activities were. After each of his adventures, he would be trembling, panting from nervousness and barely able to talk.

And despite what the conservative think tank now says, he never did anything that endangered anyone.

Well, maybe once. It was on his last raid, I believe.

He phoned me that morning and nervously said he was going to do something more dramatic and daring than anything in the past.

And in its own goofy way, it was.

He went to an outlet of a steel company that was dumping slop into Lake Michigan. He managed to get a jar of the discharged waste. Then, as a flourish, he added some scallops, oysters, shrimps and minnows to the jar of glop to symbolize what the steel company was doing to wildlife.

He then went to the Loop corporate headquarters of the steel company and asked to see the vice president for public relations.

Although "The Fox" was dressed in a business suit, the secretary became suspicious. Probably because of the beads of sweat on his forehead and his trembling hands. When she reached for the phone, he suspected that she was about to call security.

So he took the jar out of his briefcase and dumped the contents on the plush office carpet. The secretary screeched. He --ed out and escaped before the cops got there.

The vice president for public relations was on the phone to me even before I wrote about it. He bellowed that I was just encouraging the villain.

I said something like: "Oh, what's a little carpet to a Fortune 500 company?"

Then he made my day with one of the better quotes I've ever printed. He said:

"Do you know what that man did? You say he isn't dangerous? Well, he made my secretary hyperventilate!"

After that, "The Fox" said he was going to work within the system and try to educate people about environmental concerns. The last I heard, that's what he was doing.

And I'm sure that approach has been effective. But making somebody hyperventilate was more fun.

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