Monday, November 29, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Eight: "I Want a Test Ban Treaty Under My Tree"

Fairgrounds, fairgrounds, fairgrounds.  I was starting to feel like a prize pig.  The Pennsylvania state fair season had passed, and local leaders kindly granted us permission to camp at a string of fairgrounds across the state.  It was a lucky break for us.  Fairgrounds met our basic needs: flat fields for camping, parking lots for vehicles, shelters—some with the luxury of picnic tables—for relaxing, a relatively secure perimeter, and, occasionally, washrooms with showers.  By the time we arrived, the dog days of summer were long gone.  Proud kids leading blue ribbon calves, toddlers covered in candied apple, and men in aprons judging fruit jams were October memories.  Except for an occasional sprig of hay in the stalls, the grounds were swept clean. 
At the entrance to every campsite, we set up a welcome table where two or three marchers greeted locals.  "Tabling," as we called it, established a starting point for visitors to pick up a free brochure or purchase Great Peace March t-shirts, baseball caps, bumper stickers and pins.  A colorfully painted sign, “Make Donations Here” stood in front of the table.  We never knew whether the day's donations would add up to a few dollars or several hundred, but it was the steady flow of small donations that kept the march on the road.  The welcome table was also the starting point for tours.  We took turns acting as tour guides.  If you happened to be passing the welcome table in the afternoon and heard a welcomer call out, "We're lookin' for a tour guide, anybody?" you would just step up and take the visitors around.  At the Pennsylvania fairgrounds, it must have been strange for the locals, many of whom would have visited the summer fair a few weeks earlier, to see the hog races and the tractor pull replaced by five hundred plucky peace marchers and all our paraphernalia…and to think that we’d be taking them on a tour of their fairgrounds. 

Welcome to Camp
On the evening of October 7th, I joined large number of peace marchers to hear Ralph Nader speak.  The auditorium at Shippensburg University was crowded with local residents and university students.  Nader wore his signature dark green suit and thin, striped tie.  His talk ranged from the madness of standardized testing in schools to the dangers of junk food on our calorific population, from the politicizing of the media to advertising’s degradation of our youth, from the scam of health insurance, to the hope of citizen powers.  Knowing we were in the audience, he spoke of the nuclear arms build-up, too.  Nader impressed me as articulate, rational and extremely knowledgeable.  His enormous capacity for factual information made his arguments hard to refute, and his speech was so packed with data that I wished I’d had a way to record it all so I could listen to it again later.  Nader’s talk was current and focused on the future.  Like many Americans, I viewed Nader as a hero of the common man because he had championed—initiated, really—the cause of consumer rights.  I pondered his assertion that the Democrats and the Republicans were really birds of a feather who kept the wheels of corporate America greased and prevented the political machine from evolving beyond the old boys’ club of the mid-19th century.  A couple of hecklers in the audience made it known that they disagreed with Nader’s criticism of the Reagan administration, but he took it in stride.  By the time we returned to camp, my head was swimming with facts, and I wished I’d had the brains to remember them and keep them all straight.
October 8th was a frosty morning.  We loaded the trucks, and I ran to catch a quick shower in the bathhouse at the fairground before the Workers’ Shuttle left.  I braced myself against the cold water as it sprayed over my head and down the back of my neck.  After the initial wave of goose bumps, my body went numb, and then it was just a matter of soaping up and rinsing off.  A brisk rub with the towel failed to bring the feeling back into my skin.  I dutifully applied body lotion to protect against the elements, dressed gingerly, careful not to let my clothes touch the wet floor as I stepped into them, dried between my toes to avoid athlete’s foot, cleaned my ears, brushed my teeth, air-dried my short-cropped hair under the electric hand dryer, packed up my belongings and hurried outside just in time to catch the Workers’ Shuttle to Carlisle.  By the time I crossed the threshold the warmth was returning to my hands and feet.  I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Wow, that felt great!  I’m going to remember that shower.”  And I did. 

The Workers' Shuttle
In Carlisle, I waited for a long time for the trucks.  For some reason unknown to me, we were down to just one truck cab, so the drivers had to haul one trailer at a time.  It looked as though it was going to take a while, so I hitched a ride into town in Bill’s van and went in search of a post office.  I had written down the lyrics to all my songs and sealed them in an envelope to send to myself.  This was called the “poor man’s copyright.”  Having worked briefly in the music industry in Los Angeles, I was sensitive to the need to protect one’s artistic work.  I wasn’t expecting anyone to publish the songs, but they were my creation, and it seemed wise to claim them.  With the poor man’s copyright, if all else failed, one could at least prove with the postmark a date before which the songs were composed.  I wasn’t gone long, but by the time I returned to camp, the trucks had arrived and the crew had already unloaded them.
Bill left to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. 
We had lots of visitors to our encampment on a roomy soccer field in Carlisle.  I met a young woman who came by with her baby daughter to have a look around.  Her name was Eileen.  She was friendly and inquisitive.  She admitted somewhat apologetically that her husband worked in the nuclear armaments industry in Carlisle.  Remembering the research I’d done on military contracts back in the PRO-Peace days, I shared my concern that nuclear disarmament would require a careful retooling of the economy so that people could move into peacetime jobs.  I had never had much luck engaging my fellow marchers in a discussion of the disadvantages of nuclear disarmament, but Eileen was relieved that someone had considered this angle.  She said she favored nuclear disarmament, but she was torn because it would mean that her husband would lose his job and their family’s income.  We agreed that the call for disarmament came with a set of serious responsibilities because of the economic impact it would have on millions of livelihoods.  We talked at length about other things, too: her daughter, life in Carlisle, and life on the peace march.  In the end she concluded that perhaps her husband could find another line of work if we were going to move forward with nuclear disarmament.  As we said goodbye, she wished me good luck, and I invited her to meet us at the rally in Washington. 
By this time, a number of “affinity groups” had evolved among marchers who shared common interests.  One was the Test Ban Affinity Group.  They called themselves T-BAG.  They headed up an all-camp letter-writing campaign calling for legislation to stop nuclear testing.  The T-Baggers were always busy and always up for a good political discussion.  They were all in their twenties and had the aura of former high school student government presidents: clean cut and working within the system.  Though I wasn’t a member, T-BAG was the group with whom I felt the greatest affinity because we shared the view that disarmament relied, in part, on engaging the government as an agent of change.
Another affinity group was the Anarchists, one of the best-organized groups in camp.  They tented together and always posted a black flag in the middle of their neighborhood.  Their number seemed to grow gradually to two or three dozen members by the time we’d reached the East Coast.  The Anarchists were politically active in the Great Peace March City Council.  They campaigned on the anarchist platform of dismantling the council, but because they never achieved a majority, they were unable to accomplish their primary goal.  In the meantime, they put forward, and we elected, two representatives for the duration of the march who were, as far as I could tell, as conscientious and reliable as anyone else on the council.  They maintained a perspective that kept everyone alert to the purpose and value of our elected body.
A sizeable group of older marchers, some of whom were well into their sixties and seventies, really pushed themselves to close the book on the nuclear arms race.  They stepped into the limelight to drive home the point that the Great Peace March was not just a young person’s march.  They wanted the public to know that older people with a lifetime of experience and wisdom supported nuclear disarmament, too.  A group of them banded together and called themselves “Over-50’s,” becoming a voice for senior views on the issue.  As a counterpoint, some of the more senior marchers refused to join the “Over-50’s” because they viewed it as “ageist,” but the affinity group became a powerful voice for senior view nonetheless. 
Hands down, the best-named affinity group were the IGUANAS: Impatient Gays United Against Nuclear Arms. 
Ralph Nader’s talk kept coming back to me.  He was critical of so much in America.  He described countless obstacles to change.  Nevertheless, Nader’s explanation of “The System” was more hopeful than Jerry Rubin’s.  Rubin’s ideals seemed pie-in-the-sky, whereas Nader had proven his effectiveness in transforming the system in his fight for consumer rights.  My problem was that I couldn’t see where “The System” ended and “the People” began.  I was not naïve; I knew that the military-industrial complex and the motives of profit and power were no friends of global nuclear disarmament.  Both Rubin and Nader had implied that greed was the greatest adversary to peace, and they warned that the power brokers would not step aside without a fight.  What I liked about Nader was that he believed in democracy and the rule of law.  He worked within the system to change it.  Nader also made it clear that in our pursuit of nuclear disarmament, walking across America would be the easy part.

Entrance to the US Army War College, Carlisle, PA

Demonstration at the US Army War College
On October 9th, we walked to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle to demonstrate at the main gate.  A war college?  What a concept.  I never even knew we had one.  I shook my head in dismay every time I thought about it.  The glory of military service had recently been severely tarnished by the disastrous Vietnam conflict.  In its wake, Vietnam left fifty thousand American soldiers dead, a failed military strategy, a gash in the American psyche, and thousands of homeless men sleeping on park benches and grates in cities all across America.  As a nation, we gradually came to recognize them not as faceless winos and junkies but as cast-off Vietnam veterans whose lives had been destroyed in combat.  The failures of Vietnam made conventional warfare an easy target for peace activists in the 80’s, but the issues surrounding conventional warfare paled in comparison with the moral problem posed by thermonuclear warfare. 
Our strategy of nuclear warfare was fundamentally a policy of suicide, homicide, and genocide.  In giving or following orders for a nuclear strike, service men and women would bring about the destruction of not only the enemy’s military forces but also millions of enemy civilians.  More to the point, it would also annihilate one’s own troops and civilians and allies and most of humanity and very possibly all life on the planet.  This kind of warfare had nothing to do with the acts of honor or heroism typically associated with military service.  In the end, it had nothing to do with gained or lost territory or winning an ideological war.  There would be no medals for honor or valor at the end of a nuclear war.
Some marchers insisted that all military conflict—all war—was wrong.  In a long discussion with a group of fellow marchers, I questioned the immorality of raising an army against the Nazis in World War II.  It seemed obvious to me that Hitler’s Third Reich was a perfect example of a good reason to go to war.  One marcher asked if I knew that there had been conscientious objectors during World War II.  I was taken aback.  I had no idea.  I had certainly never read about them in any history book I’d read—or taught.  I had no idea that thousands of American men had refused to fight even the madness of an Adolf Hitler.  Some conscientious objectors went into battle as unarmed medical personnel; some served on the home front in the United States Forestry Service building dams and bridges; others worked in mental wards; and some served time in prison for their pacifism.  After I took a minute to digest the new information, I asked pointedly, “But what would have happened if all Americans had refused to go against Hitler?”  At this, one marcher played his trump card.
“What if,” he asked, “the Germans had refused to fight for Hitler?” 
The fact that he had strayed far from the historical record was irrelevant to him, and that was where he and I parted ways; he focused not on gritty social realities but on a lofty vision of world peace: everyone on earth, a conscientious objector.
I tried to imagine what the U.S. Army War College taught and who was enrolled there.  Did the professors train young men and women to run better wars?  What was a better war?  I had to admit that all the wars I’d ever heard of could have used quite a bit of improvement.  For starters, how about a war where nobody gets injured or killed?  Couldn’t we give the young mathematical and engineering minds of our nation something better to design than wars?  Wouldn’t we be better served by training young engineers to restore the sick rivers and rusting industrial sites and impoverished company towns we had left to ruin all across the country?  I wondered about the thread of war that seemed so thickly woven into the fabric of American history.  I pondered why I had never learned about conscientious objection as part of my normal education.  I wondered what else the school boards and textbook editors were leaving out.  Tangentially, I wondered if the reason so many “Women’s History “ courses in colleges had been degraded and marginalized was not because they were about women but because they weren’t about war.
It was getting hard to maintain a peaceful attitude about warfare.  What worried me most was that Rosie the Riveter no longer needed an Adolf Hitler or a Pearl Harbor to galvanize weapons production.  The Cold War had produced a dangerous passivity about nuclear proliferation.  All Rosie needed was a designated enemy, a media machine selling bad news and propaganda, an entertainment industry churning out TV shows and movies that vilified the enemy, and an educational system promoting submissiveness and fear in our children.  We had certainly succeeded in the latter effort.  By the mid 1980’s a significant number of kids in the country believed that a nuclear war would end their lives before they reached adulthood.  One study at the time reported that next to the death of a parent, nearly eighty percent of the children surveyed ranked nuclear war as their greatest worry.  You didn’t need a diploma from the U.S. Army War College to see that we had overplayed our hand.
Die-In at the US Army War College
A large group of marchers staged a “die-in” in front of the Army War College, followed by a peaceful vigil outside the main gate.  I took what I considered to be the more radical approach and turned around to stand with the guards at the gate, facing away from the college, and a small group of marchers near me did the same.  I wanted to demonstrate that it was our U.S. Army War College.  We sanctioned its existence.  With our tax dollars we paid the salaries of its professors and kept its doors open.   Presumably, that meant we should have some input into its mission and its curriculum.  At Carlisle, the growing taproot of radicalism that had for months been feeding the march began to feed me, too.

Watching the Demonstration in Carlisle
After the demonstration, I opted for the worker’s shuttle through Mechanicsburg, across the Susquehanna River and into Harrisburg.  The afternoon had turned cold and windy, dark clouds scuttling across the sky as though they had someplace important to go.  That put me into camp early, so I looked around for some work that, as Evan would put it, needed doin’. 
A local TV news reporter was looking for some peace marchers to interview, so Georgia, Marty and I volunteered.  She was friendly and curious and seemed genuinely open to hearing our story and our views.  We gave her and her camera crew the full tour.  I had matured in handling questions about peace march logistics and the nuclear arms race and for once felt in control of my comments.  It helped that both Georgia and Marty were well informed and that Georgia infused the conversation with her natural effervescence.  The reporter stayed for an hour or so and took copious notes in a little notebook.  I wondered what she had written down and whether it would evolve into a story I’d recognize on the evening news.  I also realized how helpless one really is at the mercy of the media.  As she and her crew packed up, she thanked us and said to look for the story on TV that evening.  She had less than two hours to edit the report before it went on the air. 
After dinner, Georgia, Marty and I went to Peace Academy to watch the broadcast.   Just as our story came on, the television went on the fritz, but Marty quickly fixed it and we eagerly watched our sixty seconds of fame.  As soon as it was over, we launched into a critique.  It was important to all of us that we leave an honest, accurate impression of the peace march, and we thought we had managed to do that; we had even included a comment about the importance of voting in the upcoming elections.  On the negative side, we agreed that we could have fit in more facts about the nuclear issue.  We had yet to develop the knack for condensing eight months of the Great Peace March into a one-minute newscast.
Later that evening, several of us were sitting in the food prep trailer cutting watermelon for breakfast and singing songs.  The lights in the trailer went out, due to the wind, we guessed, so we set our knives down for a while and sat talking in the dark.  The discussion turned to what we really wanted from the peace march.  Georgia started fooling around, making up a saucy blues tune, “I want a test ban treaty under my tree, I want a test ban treaty, give it to me.”  I took up the Christmas theme and improvised a first stanza: “I don’t want no hat or high heeled shoes; I want a gift that will make the evening news…I don’t want no diamonds or LTD; I want a test ban treaty under my tree…”  We harmonized the chorus in between, feeding off one another’s righteous attitude.  Georgia followed up with two spontaneous stanzas of her own.  The rest of the world disappeared; she was uninhibited and free.  I was goading her on.  Once or twice, the lights flickered on and the creative flow momentarily slowed, but when the wind blew them off again, the surge resumed.  I improvised a final verse, we sang the chorus once more, and the song was done.  That’s how “Test Ban Treaty” was born.  No re-writing, no revising.  We stepped outside and debuted it for some unsuspecting marchers sitting near the kitchen.  Georgia and I were on cloud nine.  We sang joyfully, mischievously.  We knew they were going to love it, and they did. 

I want a test ban treaty under my tree,
I want a test ban treaty, give it to me     (x2)
I don’t want no hat or high heeled shoes,
I want a gift that will make the evening news;
I don’t want no diamonds or LTD,
I want a test ban treaty under my tree.
I want a test ban, I want a test ban
            I don’t want no wrappin’, ribbon or bow,
            I want the only thing sweeter than mistletoe
            Give it to the country, give it to me,
            Give it to the world and set us free (with a…)
Test ban, you know we really need a test ban
I want my stocking stuffed with somethin’ legit,
And a test ban treaty, well I know it would fit;
I like my chestnuts roasting by an open fire,
Well that’s quite nice, but my one desire
Is for a test ban, you know I really want a test ban
Listen to me, Santa, I’m talkin’ to you,
And there’s just one thing that I want you to do;
When you come dancin’ on my chimney top,
I wanna hear you say, “This testin’s gotta stop,”
With a test ban, you know we gotta have a test ban
We really need a test ban, we really want a test ban.

(Click here to listen to "Test Ban Treaty.")