Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Five: "The Peace March IS Our Home!"

     Within two weeks of Griffith Park, more than half of the original 1,200 marchers had departed.  Some left because our insurance had failed; some left because the media coverage had failed; some left because the organization was floundering; some left because it was starting to look as though the journey, if there was going to be one, would be considerably more difficult than originally planned.  Why did I stay while others left?  There were many reasons, most of which were only vaguely apparent through the haze and the confusion.  One factor was my love of nature and the outdoors.  My mother recognized early on that one of her five pups heard the call of the wild.  In my childhood, whenever I got restless or bored, my mother would say, “Why don’t you go outside for a while?”  Her tone was more commanding than questioning, but it was excellent advice.  I spent much of my childhood exploring the rural woods, fields and streams that surrounded my suburban neighborhood in Maryland.  I went camping with the Girl Scouts and with my family and friends.  I felt comfortable in nature.  It didn’t bother me to be close to moss and old logs and dried leaves and newts and daddy long legs and all the other stuff you find on the forest floor.  Sleeping in a tent was a pleasure.  I liked hearing the night creatures shuffling and the dew dripping from overhanging branches.  As long as I could stay warm and dry, I could make a home outdoors.  So, when David Mixner announced bankruptcy and told us all to go home, organizationally and financially, I thought we were in serious trouble, but in terms of comfort, I looked around at our encampment in the creosote desert and thought, ‘This isn’t all that bad.”  Many of the remaining marchers put it another way: “Go home?  The peace march is our home!”

Taming an Ornery Tent
In addition to my love of the outdoors, the challenge of walking across the United States compelled me to stay.  I had long been enthralled with stories of adventure, mostly through literature.  While everyone else was reading Nancy Drew, I was reading Trixie Belden, tomboy detective.  Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, the story of a boy who runs away from home and survives on his grandfather’s land through a winter, planted a seed of adventure that slowly sprouted through childhood.  When my family went on car trips, I would gaze out the window and imagine myself hiking through the woods or fields and stopping at night to pitch a tent and live off the land.  Some years later, I read The Long Walk, purportedly a true story of an escape from a prison camp in the Soviet Union whose main characters walked out of Siberia, across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas to freedom.  Surely the peace march would be easier than that. 
            Aside from the personal motives, there was the overwhelming problem of the future of the Earth itself.  Nuclear weapons threatened hundreds of cities and millions of people, it was true, but the real story was much worse than that.  Scientists at the time told us that at the end of a nuclear war, a cloud of radioactive dust would blanket the earth, sending the whole planet into a “nuclear winter.”  The Bomb threatened everything on Earth—all life in her unique ecosystem, every miraculous creature that had evolved over millions of years; every plant from prickly desert cacti to cool, moist ferns to slimy, salty seaweed; from the mighty, trumpeting elephant to the common backyard squirrel; from the lowly dung beetle to the lovely butterfly.  All the beauty of the earth was under threat of extinction from nuclear bombs, and it was not an exaggeration to say so.  The nuclear arms race was forcing us to choose between the future of life on the planet and total annihilation.  The peace march, if there were to be one after all, would permit me to indulge in Earth’s natural splendor, and in doing so, further deepen my conviction to nuclear disarmament, and that was a fervor I wanted to feel.            
Our imperative, everyone agreed, was to get moving again.  As soon as PRO-Peace was out of the picture, the dozen or so people who had taken charge of our camp made a thorough assessment of the issues that were plaguing the march.  The list of practicalities was long and ugly.  Top on the list was the fact that all of the PRO-Peace vehicles were being repossessed.  Many of us welcomed the repossessions as a means of re-focusing our priorities.  Mobile showers?  Gone!  Limosines?  Gone!  And while we were at it, non-existent corporate sponsorships?  Gone!  On the other hand, we could not continue without porta-potties, a mobile kitchen, gear and food trucks, and a way to carry water across the Mojave.  We had to retain or attain the essential support vehicles that would keep the march alive.
            Two days later, the march left Stoddard Wells Road and walked into the town of Barstow, giving everyone a tremendous emotional boost.  I had no idea who had made the decision or how it came about; I was happy just to roll up my tent and move.  As much as I wanted to walk that day, our North Face delivery had finally arrived, and Fergus and I volunteered to inventory the order.  It was raining again, so we drove to a town park in Barstow and backed the car up to a sheltered picnic table.  For the next couple of hours we counted thermal underwear, sleeping bags, socks, gloves, hats, rain gear, warm-up suits, and Thermarest pads.  When we saw all the clothing and equipment that people had been doing without, it was obvious why so many had been so miserable.  Fergus wondered aloud whether the people who had left might have stayed if the North Face delivery had arrived two weeks earlier.  We matched names with gear, having little clue as to who of these folks were still in camp, reorganized it for distribution, and headed into town to our camp at the BMX motocross parking lot.  
            The parking lot formed a kind of bowl that was surrounded by dry desert hills littered with old tires, broken glass and debris that made me glad I had updated my tetanus immunization.  David and Andy drove out from L.A.  David poked fun and the three of us had to laugh at the pathetic state of the march.  The repo companies were towing away our vehicles, a door was missing from one of the porta-potties, our numbers were dwindling by the hour, and we had no money—no means for staying, and no means for moving on.  That old Roger Miller song, “King of the Road,” kept coming to mind: “No phone, no pool, no pets; I ain’t got no cigarettes.”   The three of us climbed up a nearby mesa to survey the campsite from a god’s eye view.  It didn’t look any better from up there.  Our gear trucks and a few smaller support vehicles took up a portion of the parking lot.  The mobile kitchen and a blue, geodesic dome that we used for food preparation stood at one end.  The rest of the lot was a mosaic of tents organized into color-coded neighborhoods.  A few renegade campers had pitched their tents beyond the edges of the lot into the surrounding desert, the pastel domes bright against the tan earth. 
David started a conversation with a stranger who turned out to be from our hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut.  The guy said he wasn’t on the peace march; he had just come to check it out.  He and David talked about Waterbury neighborhoods and streets and even some of the people they both knew or knew of.  The guy said that back in Waterbury he worked collecting shopping carts for one of the big grocery stores, so he knew the city well.   I listened to their conversation as a wave of childhood memories washed over me.  It was as though this stranger had appeared to remind me that my journey had started not in California a few weeks earlier but decades earlier—in Waterbury—when I was only a toddler.  My family told the story of my having slipped out undetected—"still in diapers"—and hoofed it across Buckingham Street to “John’s,” the little corner store about three blocks away.  Evidently I thought nothing of passing Mrs. Hart's house, where, I would later discover, she had a stairway elevator between the first and second floors and a real fountain in the yard, and the UConn campus where, remarkably, not a soul noticed a tiny toddler out for a hike across town, and then crossing busy Cook Street, where cars approached blindly from down the hill.  One can only imagine what "John" thought when I came through the door.  He lured me in with an ice cream and phoned my mother.  As she told it, he asking politely if she knew I was there, though he must have been at a loss for how she could have lost track of her diapered little marcher for the half hour or so that it would have taken me to get there from our house.  But that wasn't the first time I'd headed out on the road.  On an earlier occasion, I headed away from the pack of siblings and cousins who were charged with keeping an eye on me and was found, after a neighborhood hunt, in a parked car, beeping the horn.  My baby wanderlust was so strong that my mother put me in a little yellow halter and leash so that I wouldn’t run away while we were out.  Fortunately, the blessing of childhood memory had not yet taken root, so I was spared the humiliation of being walked like a dog by my family.  Whenever I heard these stories in the years that followed, I questioned my mother for having leashed me as a child, and she’d shriek, “You should be glad to be alive.  You’d have been killed if I hadn’t kept you on that leash.  You were constantly running away.”
David took Andy and me out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant he knew in Barstow, though Andy was fasting and not easy company.  I tried not to look for approval from either of them, but especially not from David.  Whether he was amused or alarmed, my brother never tried to talk me out of staying on the march, even in its sorry state.  Surely he could see better than I that hope was hanging by a thread.  He must have been shaking his head all the way back to L.A.

Full Moon Over Barstow
            The local Church of God in Christ community graciously offered us their building and grounds for a festival and town meeting.  The church leaders and many members of the congregation came out to greet us, lifting our spirits and making us feel genuinely at home.  The children’s choir, their beautiful faces beaming, sang rousing gospel music.  Several people spoke, among them the mayor of Barstow who read a resolution of welcome and support for the march.  Halfway through the formal language of the resolution, he interrupted himself.  “I wish they’d cut out all those big words!” he exclaimed.  And we all had a good laugh.  The meeting at the church in Barstow gave us hope when we most needed it that the new peace march would take flight and American communities would, if needed, put a roof over our heads. 
As resources rapidly dwindled, every marcher had to decide what to do to support the transition.  Many people left with the promise to return when the new march had taken shape.  Those who could not leave attempted to lighten their impact as much as possible.  Marchers used their own funds to eat at local restaurants; some stayed in hotels for a hot shower and a comfortable place to sleep.   We awaited status reports from the policy board, particularly news regarding private donations that would allow the march to proceed.  The latest word was that there were hopeful signs of support in the form of money, food and vehicles.  The policy board was simultaneously gathering fragile pledges and prioritizing our needs.  The rest of us were killing time window-shopping in Barstow.

Our Encampment in Barstow, Where We Believed...

A Phoenix Would Rise From the Ashes
I stayed one last night with Libby at the Ward’s house.  I phoned home and decided to take my mother up on her offer to fly me to D.C. for her sixtieth birthday.  My immediate family would be gathering to celebrate, and I would have a chance to give them an update in person.  My sister, Cassie, and my mother, also an experienced and competent social organizer, expressed fury at Mixner’s failure to adapt the march to the means.   My older brother Louis, who, like me, had a tendency to fret about things, worried about the disintegration of the march.  He didn’t want anyone to get hurt, he said, and he didn’t want to see me heartbroken.  I did my best to reassure him, but he remained unconvinced. 
My family and friends wanted to be sure that Mixner wasn’t getting away with anything criminal.  It was, after all, three thousand dollars of their money that I had turned over to PRO-Peace in sponsorship donations.  I agreed, as did many other marchers, that Mixner should be held accountable for his actions, but we simply did not have the time or manpower to step up an investigation or a lawsuit while reconstituting the march.  It was hard, amid the disbelief and disappointment, to persuade people on the outside that the most important priority was to gather the resources to move on.  On the telephone, I explained to my family the policy board’s plan to incorporate under a new name and appeal to new benefactors—peace organizations and the general public—for donations, but my family and friends remained understandably dubious. 
            If the peace march could get on the road again, Las Vegas would be our next big city, so while the policy board was hard at work in Barstow, several marchers drove to Las Vegas to prepare the city for our arrival.  Fergus invited me to join them at his home, which was being transformed into an unofficial peace march office.  I was looking for ways to be helpful, and hanging around in Barstow was only making me anxious, so I agreed.  A woman named Abby took control and set out to unify the local Las Vegas peace groups who wanted to help resuscitate the march but were failing to communicate effectively with one another.  Of greatest concern was the duplication of requests for donations.  Our group became her task force. 
Abby took command of Fergus’s house.  She set up headquarters in the living room and directed the small group who managed phone calls and donations.  Her priority was a meeting of local peace groups, so she started by contacting them.  Meanwhile, another group of us set out to a nearby elementary school to speak with the kids.  We set up a tent in the classroom so the students could take a look inside.  They asked endless questions about the make of our shoes, whether we had any pets on the march, whether the kids on the march got to skip school, whether, when we got tired we could catch a ride, whether we had video games, how long it would take to get to Washington, and then how would we get back to our homes.  Because we didn’t really know what shape the march would eventually take, we had to guess at some of the answers.  When it came to why we were walking, we toned down the rhetoric a bit explaining that we wanted to tell the president to stop building dangerous bombs that might hurt all of us.  Some of the children knew that we were talking about nuclear weapons but others did not, and we thought it best to leave it at that.  The school children loved the idea that kids would go to school on the march, but they weren’t sure they wanted to do all that walking. 
The conversation with the kids in Las Vegas brought my whole purpose back into focus.  I was annoyed that ProPeace had disgorged us in the desert, but these kids’ future was on the line, and we needed to pull ourselves together for them.  On a practical level, we hoped the children would go home at the end of the school day and let their parents know that the Great Peace March was coming to Las Vegas. 
A local man named Forrest Larson had arranged our elementary school visit.  Forrest had organized peace groups for decades.  He appeared at Fergus’s house each day, gently supporting our work to rebuild the march.  His presence reminded us younger folks that the peace movement had been alive for a long, long time.  The Great Peace March was not an isolated event but part of an age-old legacy of peace activism.  When we expressed doubt about the viability of the march, Forrest calmly assured us that there were thousands of supporters across the country, and they would not let us fail.  I liked Forrest.  I trusted him, and I allowed his words to penetrate the buzz at Fergus’s house. 
            I wrote my first newsletter from Las Vegas.  Surely my friends and sponsors were wondering what was going on with the march.  I had no idea what they had heard in the media or through the grapevine, but it probably wasn’t good news.   I wanted to summarize recent events and state emphatically that the march was still alive and determined to succeed.

Dear Folks,
“On this, the eighteenth day of the Great Peace March, I am writing to set forth some of the ever-changing facts available to me as one of the marchers.  As you undoubtedly know, PRO-Peace stepped down last week in the throes of bankruptcy leaving the marchers to determine the form and future of the march.  With the bankruptcy of PRO Peace came the immediate formation of a new entity now known as the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, Inc., a non-profit organization established primarily to handle the group’s financial affairs.  In the transition we were fortunate to retain the full-time volunteer services of several former staff members and a legal counsel.
            “About one half of the marchers have taken leave permanently or until the marchers reorganize and get underway once again.  The general feeling among those leaving was admittedly one of disappointment that the march had taken on a profile so fundamentally unlike the original PRO-Peace image.  Some felt betrayed when it became apparent that the organization, planning and financing of the march had failed.  Those who remain are determined to complete the task of making the cross-country trek to demonstrate our support for nuclear disarmament.
            “At this moment the 500 remaining marchers are encamped in Barstow, California at the western edge of the Mojave Desert while they organize an approach that must now include fund-raising, canvassing, campsite location and permitting, procuring donations of food, transportation and storage vehicles and sanitations facilities—in short, everything for which we had come to depend on PRO-Peace.
            “To facilitate and implement the new program, the marchers have organized task forces which are overseen by a policy board comprised of four voting marchers, four former PRO-Peace staff members, also voting, and four non-voting marchers.  The policy board has met daily in emergency session to direct the new program.  I have been impressed by the efficiency and professionalism displayed by the policy board at these meetings, and I am confident that they can provide the kind of centralized government needed to coordinate the needs of the marchers and the efforts of the communities. 
            “Daily reports from the policy board indicate that we are faced with the repossession of all major support vehicles procured by PRO-Peace.  Among these, the most critical are the refrigeration and dry foods storage trucks, the potable sanitation trailers and the water-hauling vehicle needed to supply water on the journey across the desert.  Appropriate task forces have been established and are presently making public appeals for these vehicles and financial donations toward the purchase of such items.  We are adjusting to our dependency upon local communities for support.  The reception we have seen thus far indicates that the resources are available.  We are now organizing efficient, effective systems to locate, collect and appropriate them as needed.
            “We are working hard to investigate every avenue possible to keep this movement alive.  The source of our faith in the project lies in the thanks and good luck wishes of the residents of the communities through which we have come.  These are the people for whom we carry the message to Congress and by whom we are inspired to go on.  As long as we have their support we will push for the continuation of the march.  I hope to be able to report in greater detail at a later date.”

I set up my tent on Fergus’s back patio and slept outside in the cool, dry desert air.  A full moon illuminated the patio and shone into my pink tent: one moon since White Oak.  In my tent, at least, I could feel that I was still on the peace march.  In the daytime, I got to know the other marchers gathered at Fergus’s place.  Georgia from Iowa had a gutsy laugh and a great voice for singing everything from country to Blues.  Her ebullience shot forth in everything she said and did, and she was not shy about sharing her opinions.  Whenever the spirit moved her, which was often, she started singing, confident that everyone around her would join right in, and I, for one, never let her down.  Fergus with his Sweet Baby James tenor, Georgia and I, sang together and livened up the kitchen while dinner was prepared or when we washed up afterwards.  No one seemed to mind—except once or twice when the phone callers shushed us from the next room. 
With the march faltering, several alternative plans arose among splinter groups of marchers.  I considered joining a group of women who were planning a walk from Las Vegas to Denver doing community outreach and fund raising.  In the end I didn’t go with them because I felt it was more important to preserve the unity of a single march.  The time in Las Vegas was critical for advance planning and fund raising, but in my mind I heard one mantra:  The walking is the thing.  If we couldn’t get walking again, there really was no Great Peace March.
From time to time, I managed to hide away in an upstairs loft where I began writing a song.  Georgia joined me.  She was enthusiastic—about everything, but about music especially.  She encouraged me and hung around while I worked through bits and pieces.  Normally, having another person around would have shut down the creative flow, but with Georgia I felt completely comfortable to continue working.  I had taken a few stabs at songwriting before, but I felt this was my first real song.  I tuned my guitar to an open E tuning, and two stanzas emerged:

            “Three blind mice, see how they run, see how they run from each other.
Each of the three, too blind to see, too blind to see his own brother.
            The hunter is gone for the season, the sailor is gone to sea,
            The warrior wages a hundred year’s war, and my love is gone from me.

I’ve got a friend with a ring on her finger; I’ve got a friend with chains on her heart.
            No one can see like my two friends and me;
            Where there once was one heart out there, now there are three,
And the wind can blow hard at the window, and the waves can roll in from the sea;
            Love can stay outside or love can come in,
            my love is here with me... “            

The few days in Washington allowed me to visit with my family and report on the state of the march.  My older sister, Deanna, and my mother had birthdays one day apart, and most of the immediate family was on hand to celebrate.  At the same time, everyone wanted to know how the march was going.   My family continued to be completely supportive of me, but their enthusiasm for the march had been tainted with anger, skepticism and disgust.  I felt inept at describing the critical events that had unfolded in the desert.  I kept thinking that one had to be there to understand the hope and determination that people were hanging onto as they waited for the tide to turn.  I focused instead on transforming everyone’s dismay into positive support for the new peace march. 
During my visit, my sister’s husband, a folk musician, was performing at a small theatre in D.C.  Raleigh’s audience, mostly left-leaning folkies, were just the kind of people who were interested in what was happening with the Great Peace March.  He asked if I would say a few words at the end of the concert.  I was so nervous that it was hard for me to concentrate on his performance.  I couldn’t really think about anything except for what I would say, and I kept mulling it over in my mind.  It was a great opportunity to bring the message that, contrary to popular belief, the peace march had not failed; rather it was re-tooling at the edge of the Mojave Desert and would soon be on the road again.  When Raleigh called me up, I spoke as truthfully and as convincingly as I could.  In reality, I was not at all sure whether, in the few days I’d been away, the whole organization hadn’t completely collapsed. 
My family sent me off with a broad range of warnings, but no one suggested I give up and leave the march, and I returned to Las Vegas determined to succeed.