Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Seven: "California-Nevada!"

          In the morning, I climbed out of the van and surveyed the peace march encampment in the early light.  The Mojave here was hard, rocky, and littered with debris: crumpled beer cans, broken bits of Styrofoam, windblown plastic shopping bags, and faded food wrappers.  A ring of low, arid mountains surrounded the site, and Whiskey Pete’s, a border casino conveniently located for impatient gamblers on their way to Vegas, was the dominant landmark.  In the parking lot, our fleet of corporate vehicles had given way to a motley caravan of personal cars, vans, school buses, a portable water tank, an old, brown Greyhound bus, and two trailers of bright blue porta-potties.  Someone had procured an ancient blue and white bus to serve as our mobile post office.  The gold limousines were gone and a plain, brown passenger van had been designated “The Weary Wagon.”  By some miracle, the Great Peace March policy board had obtained four full size trucks—two for gear, one for dry food storage, and the last, a refrigeration truck.  Rounding out the convoy was a portable kitchen for cooking and serving meals.  I learned that Paul Newman, Yoko Ono, and two large peace organizations, Physicians for Social Responsibility and The Peace Development Fund, had sent thousands of dollars when they heard about our predicament.  Someone said Paul Newman gave twenty-five thousand dollars, and Yoko Ono, ten thousand, making the acquisition of essential vehicles—and the continuation of the march—possible.  The parking lot near Whiskey Pete’s would not have impressed your average passerby, but to me, it was heaven on wheels.  I looked at the whole miscellaneous mess and thought, “THIS is the peace march I signed up for!”
            We basked in our reunion.  Our friends were happy for our return, and we were relieved to see that they were still on the march.  After breakfast, all of us lined up along the Nevada border, held hands and called out, “California – Nevada!” as we took one giant step across the border.  Thus, we instituted a ritual we would observe all the way across the country: calling out the names of those states we’d traversed and taking a big step together to enter the new one.  But with all we’d endured to get there, the California-Nevada border crossing was especially sweet. 

California - Nevada!
Many returning marchers brought their personal vehicles with them.  They must have figured that with the repossession of all the PRO-Peace vehicles, it would be handy to have a few private cars, trucks, and vans on hand.  Now we had a problem of too many vehicles on the march.  It became difficult to park all of them, but more importantly, any marcher who was driving from one site to the next obviously was not walking.  I encountered several marchers wandering around in the morning begging for someone to drive their vehicles so they could walk to the next site.  We were no exception.  At Whiskey Pete’s, Evan and I agreed to drive Sage so Tim could walk one more time before finally leaving the march.  It worked out well because I’d had great news that my wallet had been found and returned to Fergus’s home.  Evan and I would drive into Las Vegas to pick it up and then drive back toward Whiskey Pete’s to the next encampment.  MC, a photographer from Virginia, asked if she could hitch a ride to find a camera shop where she could stock up on film, and Danny, a Rhode Islander via Boulder, wanted to come along, too.  After the border crossing, the four of us hopped into the van.  I was now headed to Las Vegas—for the second time. 
            Evan drove.  I sat in the passenger seat, stared out the window at the desert landscape and wondered when I would ever start walking routinely on the march.  From the time we’d left Los Angeles, there had been few days that hadn’t been interrupted by a workday or a rest day or financial bankruptcy or a trip to Mexico.  M.C. couldn’t stop talking about “Power Line Road,” which had apparently become an event as well as a place.  She had every reason to crow about their walk across the Mojave, but her conversion experience put me even more at odds with myself.   How was I supposed to have known the march would leave Barstow two days after we’d left for Mexico?  I wanted to forget about it and get on with the march.
We stopped at Fergus’s house to retrieve my wallet, and then drove to a shopping mall near the Las Vegas Strip so MC could buy film.  There was a Salvador Dalí art show at the mall.  I thought it would have been impossible to find Dalí’s paintings and drawings except in a museum, but these were original works being sold on the retail market.  To me, Dalí and the other surrealists captured one of the coolest forms of human expression in the weird world between awake and sleeping, sanity and madness, an uncontrolled place that everyone knows but not everyone goes.  The four of us went into the retail space that had been transformed into a small art gallery.  A woman greeted us as we entered and asked if she could help us but on second glance appeared to peg us as unlikely, perhaps even unsavory customers and pivoted skillfully to edge us out of the gallery.  With our bandanas, boots and backpacks, we surely appeared out of the mainstream, but no more so than the artist whose works she was peddling.  We explained courteously that we were traveling through Las Vegas on a peace walk to Washington D.C.  She was not interested in the least, but she conceded to let us browse through the collection.  Dalí’s barren landscapes of melting clocks and caravans of long-limbed creatures marching across no man’s land evoked our own brief history.  A few pastel dome tents on the landscape and we’d have been right at home.  We finished exploring and thanked the shopkeeper as we left.  As we said goodbye, I imagined her watching the evening news as the story of our arrival in Las Vegas was being aired.  She’d suddenly perk up and say, “Hey, some of those folks were in my shop!”  Right then and there she’d start thinking about nuclear disarmament.  I imagined that kind of transformation in literally everyone I met.  I didn’t need to convince people to agree to disarmament, I just needed to get them thinking about it.  Any thinking person, I was sure, would conclude that our nuclear program was out of control.    
We stepped out of Dalí’s bizarre stream of consciousness, and continued down the Strip, a surreal world in its own right.  At Circus Circus we ate a famous Las Vegas “ninety-nine cent breakfast,” though by this time it was well into the afternoon.  As we headed back to camp, I wondered what to expect when the Great Peace March arrived in a city that on its glittering surface had no connection with our cause.  In the interim, I would restore my walking legs and tap into the rhythm of the march. 

Making Friends Along the Road
Arriving at Camp in the Afternoon
Most of what I knew about nuclear warfare I had learned about two years earlier during a radio broadcast.  A congressional committee was gathering information on the collateral impact of deploying nuclear weapons, and C-SPAN aired the hearing.  Their witness, Dr. Jack Geiger, specialized in detailing the theoretical aftermath of a nuclear explosion on a typical American city.  In his testimony, Geiger portrayed the impact of a nuclear blast from a one-megaton nuclear bomb.  His calm voice and matter-of-fact tone belied the horror he described: a blinding flash of light and winds of more than four hundred miles per hour, stronger by far than the most violent hurricane ever recorded; the vaporization of everyone and everything at the point of impact; the destruction expanding outward in co-centric circles away from ground zero.  A few miles away, the blast would destabilize buildings as in a massive earthquake.  There, he said, the “walking dead” would wait for radiation poisoning to kill them.  In the outermost bands, twenty and thirty miles away, people would survive but with undetermined genetic damage that might not be apparent for another generation.  Geiger explained how the collapse of the city’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, hospitals, public transportation and airports—would make it impossible to get the injured out or help in.  The destabilizing impact on government would guarantee chaos for weeks and months after the explosion.  I sat riveted to my radio, listening to Geiger’s every word and picturing the devastation.  I was reminded of John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima, describing the day the Enola Gay dropped the atom bomb, but Geiger brought the horror home to the present day in an American city.  At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C.  I knew all too well which city was most likely to become Geiger’s “typical” American city.  His graphic account was one of the reasons I had been drawn to the peace march in the first place, and it served as a foundation for my Las Vegas experience.
            We managed to set up our campsite at Sunset Park in Las Vegas in the way David Mixner had envisioned:  pinks were with pinks, blues were with blues, oranges were with oranges, yellows were with yellows, and greens were with greens.  The camp looked great, but in our color segregated community, I was not camped near any of my friends.  The site was compact, so we were tent-to-tent with narrow walkways in between.  Most marchers insisted on putting up their guy lines, making an obstacle course of nearly invisible tent strings.  I silently hoped that the color-coded campsite would lose its appeal.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
On our second day, a rest day, we held an open house for visitors to tour the camp.  Many marchers volunteered to serve as tour guides, so Evan and I headed out to find the local library: air conditioning and mental stimulation—for free.  I had started to investigate the Children’s Crusade, and I wanted to learn a little more about it.  What I had discovered thus far was this:
The year was 1212.  The first five Crusades had failed to secure the Holy Land for the Christians.  A young shepherd boy in northern France had a vision that he was destined to lead a crusade of children to the Holy Land to win it back from the Muslims.  His name was Stephen.  He believed that the innocence of children would prevail where military strength had failed.  He started to travel southward through France, stopping in towns and villages and gathering children as he went.  He must have been very convincing because by the time he reached Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast, the children numbered in the thousands, perhaps over ten thousand.  Nobody knows for sure.  Simultaneously, a German boy with a similar mission picked up and started leading a group southward through Germany.  His name was Nicholas.  He, too, gathered thousands of children bound for the Holy Land.  Many of them died on their journey over the Alps.  Fortunately for Nicholas’s group, the Pope talked them out of their plan and sent them back home.  Stephen’s group was not so lucky.  When they reached Marseilles, they expected the Mediterranean to part, like the Red Sea had parted for Moses, but the sea remained unchanged.  Two sea merchants appeared, offering to take the children to the Holy Land in their boats.  Thinking this was a blessing from God, the children boarded the boats, and, the story goes, one group perished in a huge storm at sea, while the other was taken to North Africa and sold into slavery.  Gee, why hadn’t anyone put that story into any of my history books?
            Evan and I were walking to the library along the main street when a woman in a shiny, new black Jaguar sedan pulled up beside us, rolled down her window and asked if we were peace marchers.  She asked if she could give us a ride, and I for one thought, well, yes, a ride in a shiny new Jaguar would be rather nice.  Without hesitation we stepped in.  The car was beautiful to the smallest detail: the telephone between the front seats (long before today’s commonplace car phones), the leather upholstery, the glossy, paneled dashboard, the automatic everything.  The day was terribly hot outside, but the windows were up and the air conditioning bathed us in cool comfort.  I reflected gladly on the fact that I had showered that morning.
            However, the elegant interior of the Jag did not match the conversation we had with its owner.  The woman asked the usual questions about the march: how we were organized, how we managed the logistics of moving from place to place, how we were being funded, and what we thought about nuclear weapons.  She seemed nervous.  After a few minutes of small talk, she told us her story, and I understood why.  “I grew up here in Las Vegas,” she began.  “When I was a little girl, the tests were conducted above ground out at the test site, an hour’s drive from the city.”
It took me a moment to catch on that she was talking about the atom bomb tests that were conducted at the Nevada test site, about sixty miles from Las Vegas, back in the 1950’s and 60’s. 
“When I was at elementary school,” she continued, “whenever a test was scheduled, our teachers evacuated us from the school building.  The authorities at the test site thought it was safer to bring us outside.  We all went out to the playground, and the teachers told us to lie facedown on the ground.  After the blast, they let us lift our heads to watch the mushroom cloud.”
These were images I had seen in old black-and-white films about the nuclear menace.  I had scoffed at the ignorance of communities who had put themselves in jeopardy while nuclear weapons were being tested above ground, but I had never met a person who had actually experienced it.  I wasn’t sure where the woman was coming from with her story.  Given her obvious standing in the community, I guessed she came from the corporate world, so I braced myself for a pro-nukes lecture.  What she said next came as a complete surprise.
“Now I’m terrified,” she continued, “that all that radiation may have affected me in some way.  I hear stories about the high rates of cancer in this area.  I have a daughter, and I worry that she could develop cancer, too.  I just don’t know.”
I was stunned.  It pained me to think that this woman, clearly provided for in every other way, lived in constant fear for her wellbeing.  “Have you spoken with your husband or your doctor or anyone else about your concerns?” I asked. 
“No,” she said.  “You’re the first people I’ve told.”
A long pause followed.  Here were Evan and I, complete strangers—whom she’d picked up along the road, for God’s sake—and she was telling us her deepest concern, a fear she hadn’t even discussed with her husband.  Why?  Because her fears were rooted in radiation poisoning caused by nuclear bombs, and we were demonstrating against them.  She was a traveler on a dark night, looking for a candle to light her way.  We broke the silence by suggesting she couldn’t be the only person who felt this way.  There must be other people who had the same experience and the same concerns.  She agreed it would be a good idea to find out if there was a group she could talk with.  As we neared the library, she seemed somewhat relieved to have shared her story.  I stepped out of the car feeling we hadn’t helped much.
I had no idea at the time, but I was about to learn that the woman in the black Jaguar was one of the original “Downwinders,” people who, because they lived downwind of the Nevada test site, were threatened by radiation from nuclear testing.  The woman in the Jag was not alone.  There were thousands of Nevadans who, in effect, had lived in the outermost bands of Jack Geiger’s ground zero model many times over.  Some had formed an organization to publish evidence of unusually high cancer rates in the region and to demonstrate against further nuclear testing.  The Great Peace March was about to join them.

Guardian of Our Critical Water Supply
We shuttled by bus to the Nevada test site on April 10th.  On the road leading up to the gate, peace marchers swelled the numbers of the local groups who demonstrated routinely at the site.  Aside from a parking lot in the desert, there wasn’t much to see.  I expected a more dramatic scene—a phalanx of police officers in riot gear or a sci-fi city gleaming off in the distance.  Instead, two or three guards patrolled a fence line on motorcycles and a handful of uniformed guards stood at the entrance, which wasn’t much more than an opening in the fence and a cattle grate.  Otherwise, we were completely surrounded by the rugged Nevada desert.  I was struck by the irony of the signs that hung every few hundred feet along the fence line.  “Property of U.S. Government: No Trespassing.”  Funny, I thought I was the U.S. Government. 
Back in camp, in preparation for this day, a few experienced peace activists had instructed us in techniques for non-violent civil disobedience and arrest.  The act of civil disobedience was to be simple and unambiguous.  The arrest was to be submissive and peaceful.  The body remained utterly limp, allowing the arresting authorities to take the demonstrator into custody.  The point was not to make a fuss at the time of arrest; the point was to draw attention to an unjust law—or an intolerable circumstance—by filling the jails. 
In the simple act of stepping over the cattle grate, people put their principles to the test.  When the guards stepped forward, the demonstrator collapsed or submitted, as if on cue, to be handcuffed and dragged along the ground to the police bus.  The procedure was eerily mechanical and disturbing.  These were people I knew, friends with whom I’d walked and talked and laughed just hours earlier.  Expressions of serious resolve and tears of determination belied any fear they may have felt.  Those of us who had chosen not to be arrested called out in support of the others who were being loaded onto the police bus.
“We’re with you, Judith!”
 “Thank you for your courage, James!” 
More than one hundred demonstrators filled the area jails beyond capacity and remained there for several days.  I heard that the police finally had no choice but to stop processing arrests.  Other demonstrators sneaked onto the test site at a remote place along the fence line and couldn’t be located by the patrol for several hours, delaying the test.  It was much later that we learned that the underground explosion had gone terribly wrong, forcing Department of Energy authorities to vent xenon gas into the atmosphere over a period of several weeks.  That’s how all of the peace marchers became Downwinders. 
Like many marchers, I considered arrest.  It was a topic for serious contemplation.  I had a lot of respect for the marchers who had the guts to put themselves up against the authorities and pit their reputations against their principles.  Was it possible that a hundred people getting arrested in the desert could have an impact on nuclear disarmament?  The demonstrators certainly seemed to think so, and I was inclined to agree.  It seemed appropriate that people would practice civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site.  It was a direct action against an immediate threat, a way to claim ownership of government property where an act of senseless destruction was taking place.  Civil disobedience made sense but not for me.  For me, the biggest obstacle was the fact that an arrest record for a federal offense would compromise my future as a teacher.  I wasn’t willing to make that trade in order to take a stand. 
The Nevada test site was our first encounter with our central purpose as a group and my first opportunity to learn about the perils of nuclear weapons testing.  It was an awakening for me.  I understood the implications of a nuclear attack, and they were almost too horrific to ponder, but I had known very little about the dangers of nuclear testing before our arrival in Nevada.  Las Vegas made me realize that nuclear weapons were not only a potential threat; they were a current threat, too.  Soon after our demonstration at the Nevada test site, I joined the call for a comprehensive nuclear test ban between the Soviet Union and the United States.  In fact, the Soviet Union had already stopped nuclear testing.  It was the U.S. that had to answer the challenge and stop the race.
The march left Sunset Park on the morning of April 12th and walked along the famous Las Vegas Strip.  Even at an early hour, gamblers crowded the casinos.  Some stood along the street, drinks in hand, to watch us pass.  Our disheveled procession must have been as incongruous a sight as the Strip had ever seen.   We passed hotels with their outlandish architecture and gushing, lighted fountains, and tacky Las Vegas wedding chapels with artificial flower gardens and plaster cherubs.  We waved to the bystanders with their been-up-all-night-gamblin’ faces, but their drowsy, amused or utterly confused expressions made it clear that our anti-nuclear message was not going to resonate with the casino crowd.  However, circumstances were about to change.

Strumming Down the Vegas Strip
Leaving the Strip, we continued walking northward into the suburbs.  As we approached our last rest stop of the day, we were met by scores of Las Vegas residents waiting to take us into their homes—our first “Marcher-in-the-Home” since leaving Barstow.  Abby and her Great Peace March team back at Fergus’s house must have contacted every peace group, church, school and civic organization in Las Vegas.  It was starting to dawn on me that Las Vegas residents had good reason to support nuclear disarmament.  The outpouring of hospitality was overwhelming.
Two retired schoolteachers, Clarice and Donna, took five of us home for dinner and an overnight stay.  They were energetic and intelligent and interested in every detail of the march.  These two women did not suffer fools gladly; they probed our motives and intentions with an intensity that made me wonder if I would ever really be able to articulate my thoughts about the peace march or gain enough knowledge to discuss the nuclear issue intelligently.  The five of us managed to merge our fledgling perspectives, feeding off each other’s ideas and opinions, resulting in a fairly complete picture.  Our hostesses gave us an opportunity to tell stories, laugh at our already checkered history, and incorporate the perspectives of two smart teachers into the mix.  Above all, they were adamant that we make the Great Peace March a success.
Clarice and Donna kindly gave us free access to their home library, an eclectic collection with something of interest to each of us.  At one point all five of us were huddled in one corner of the room, each reading a book.  Donna came in, took one look at us, and chuckled.  We all stopped reading and turned to see what was so funny.  “I read somewhere,” she began, “that when a team of astronauts return from space, they continue to cluster with one another, and they sit close together, even when a large space is available.”
  We looked around at each other, all within arm’s length and laughed.  It appeared that for some reason, our peace march lifestyle had produced the same behavior.
On our first day beyond Las Vegas, we were back in the desert.  Thousands of low creosote bushes dotted the landscape.  Bill told me they were older than the California redwoods.  I found it hard to believe that a shrub that had grown only as high as my knee was over two hundred years old, but Bill said it was true, so I took it as fact.  It felt great to be outdoors among the plants, whatever their age, under the sky in the wide-open spaces.  Best of all, the Great Peace March was on the move, and we had months of uninterrupted walking ahead of us.