Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Four: "Leave the March! Leave the March!"

            If it were possible to calculate the mass of events over time, the next few days would constitute a kind of wormhole in our tiny universe.  Past, present and future collided and collapsed as the peace march ground to a halt right there in the creosote desert on Stoddard Wells Road.  Rumors were that PRO-Peace staff had not been paid in weeks and were getting ready to quit.  The kitchen staff continued to serve meals, though they scaled back the portions and stopped serving coffee.  The latter was received with almost as much consternation as if we'd been told we had to walk to Washington without shoes on our feet.  PRO-Peace couched the news in medical terms.  We were told that caffeine dehydrated the body: after drinking one cup, a person required two cups of water to rehydrate.  I wasn't sure what to believe.  The herbal tea bags that replaced the coffee pot were fine with me, but the caffeine drought sent Evan and others elsewhere in search of a cherished cup. 
It was about this time that the trailer of mobile showers finally arrived.  PRO-Peace had been touting the mobile showers for weeks.  They were part of the original vision for a large-scale peace march.  The mobile showers seemed to symbolize the well-being of the march and the respectability of the marchers.  After the trailers pulled into place along the shoulder at Stoddard Wells Road, I went in for a shower.  The trailer was cramped and crowded, and the floor was covered in mud, but the water was relatively warm, and I came out relatively clean.  As it turned out, the mobile showers were another cake that PRO-Peace left out in the rain.  From one day to the next, they were gone, and I was pretty sure we'd never have that recipe again.

Walking Across the Desert to the Slash X
Someone organized the PRO-Peace shuttles so marchers could ride into Barstow to wash clothes at the local Laundromat.  Every now and then someone would walk through camp shouting, “There’s a laundry shuttle leaving in ten minutes.”  Meanwhile, the “Slash X,” a bar located about a mile or so across the creosote desert, became the marcher watering hole.  Amid the baskets of peanuts on the bar, the empty peanut shells on the floor, the baseball caps lining the walls and ceiling, and the pay phone on the porch, a Slash-X owner served hot coffee and eggs to order in the morning and beer and burgers in the afternoon.  He probably made more money in a day than he had made in a whole year, maybe ever.  Evan and I were among the many marchers who carried our conversation to the more congenial atmosphere away from the growing delirium of the march.  He and I had fallen into a kind of silent agreement to hold normal conversations and not talk constantly about the woes in camp.  The Slash-X gave us a place to honor that code.
Stoddard Wells Road was awash in serious doubt about the viability of PRO-Peace, and myriad rumors arose around a central theme of doom.  Fear that the desert crossing might prove more dangerous than PRO-Peace had originally advised spread through camp.  One person walked around speaking through a bullhorn warning of all the possible dangers of crossing the desert—poisonous snakes and scorpions and dehydration—and telling everyone to “Leave the march! Leave the march!”  Another marcher announced that a survival expert had been consulted and warned that some of us might be seriously injured or even die crossing the Mojave.  
The next two days passed and still we did not move.  The future of the march looked grim.  Fay and I spent a lot of time talking about the bits of bad news that dribbled into camp each day.  A rumor that PRO-Peace was bankrupt blew around like so much tumbleweed.  Fay was more dubious than I, and she was not alone, but having had a taste of the march on the move, I wanted to keep going.  It appeared to me that a critical mass of people was waiting to see what would happen next.  We had already come this far, and we were willing to carry on.  I wouldn’t describe my motivation as commitment, exactly.  I just didn’t think the peace march was over.  However, as more and more marchers departed during those difficult days, I was wary of the changes rapidly taking place.  I started to keep an internal appraisal of the people remaining on the march.  I felt that the greatest strength of the peace march was in our ability to demonstrate that mainstream America wanted to stop the nuclear arms race.  To be effective, the public had to see us as normal people just like them.  I didn’t want to be swept out to sea by a riptide of fringe radicals who would alienate the public from our cause.  So, as people departed, I kept a visual check on who remained: a preppie marathoner from Cape Cod; level-headed Simon from the Pro Peace office; a stately, elderly man who walked with a cane; a family with three young children; Aaron from the Daley Peace Group; and a nun named Libby.  It never occurred to me that others might have held me up against a similar measuring stick.
It was on the third day at Stoddard Wells that I started to wobble.   Talking with other marchers only exacerbated my concern.  No one had any answers.  PRO-Peace was invisible.  Thinking got me nowhere.  I’d think, “Should I be thinking about leaving?” but then I’d stay a while longer to talk with someone in camp or take the shuttle into town or walk across the desert to the Slash X for peanuts and a beer.  There was always something going on, always more news, mostly bad, but events were still unfolding.  My friends, Evan, Fergus, Sheila from Boulder, Evan’s friend Tim from Salt Lake, and several others, were hanging in there, too.  It wasn’t as though I had no place to go.  I could have returned to L.A. or headed back East, and as I watched hundreds of marchers depart from Stoddard Wells, I very nearly did.
Fay left.  She had been increasingly unhappy with the course of events and finally said she just couldn’t stay any longer.  I accompanied her to the bus station in Barstow where the mass exodus had inspired the bus company to offer a thirty percent discount to departing marchers.  I was sorry to see her go, but it was more apparent than ever that anyone who didn’t want to be here shouldn’t stay.  This was definitely not the peace march we had signed up for. 
The camp started to look sparse and ragged.  Every few hours I’d take a look around and notice more tents gone.  I was seriously contemplating rolling up my sleeping bag and heading for the bus station when I happened to bump into Libby.  Friendly, upbeat, smiling behind eyeglasses that were perpetually slipping down her nose, Libby had a robust physique, a ready laugh and a great hug.  She was a member of a religious order—one of the liberal, camping, peace marching religious orders, we’d joked.  She was also a fellow teacher.  I considered her a good test of the viability and reputation of the march.  I told her I was thinking of leaving.  Her response totally caught me off guard and completely changed my mind.  “Oh,” she said lightheartedly, “You don’t want to do that!  This is going to be fun!”
Libby invited me to join her at the home of some friends she knew in nearby Barstow.  They were the Wards, and they took us in for the next two days and made us part of the family.  We had pizza with the Wards; we went bowling with the Wards; we ate ice cream with the Wards.  And, bless them, we sat around the dinner table and hashed out the woes of the PRO-Peace march splayed out like a dead cat on the side of the road just a few miles away.  Libby possessed a strong and steady faith that helped keep me grounded, and the Wards, though I’m sure they had heard more than enough of our concerns, listened and gave us positive feedback about the importance of our mission.
 The Wards were a military family, so it came as a surprise that they agreed that the nuclear arms race was out of control and that nuclear weapons were no longer a viable military option.  Ted Ward’s view was even more radical than mine.  “I’d disarm unilaterally,” he said, “and let the Russians show their face.”  He believed that the U.S. military could handle the Soviet Union even without nuclear force. 
I phoned my parents to update them.  They sounded concerned but not worried.  I didn’t have time to give them as many details as I would have liked, but I wanted them to know I was okay.  I told them I didn’t know how events would turn out, but I was determined to stay until the end.  It was one of those odd moments where I could hear myself talking as though I had stepped aside and allowed my inner voice to speak.  My feet were solidly planted on the Ward’s kitchen floor.  I won’t do it alone, I told my mother, but if there were only two people left to walk across the country, I planned to be one of them.
Libby took me to visit a friend of hers who was a middle school teacher in Barstow.  We observed the class as Anton Tucker a veteran teacher, obviously well loved and trusted by his students, took their questions to him in a steady stream.  Libby had told him about our impending trek, and Mr. Tucker shared that many years earlier he had had the opportunity to march with Martin Luther King, Jr., but, as he put it, he just couldn’t do it.  He didn’t go into detail, an although I was curious to know what had kept him from marching, I simply nodded, thinking about the many people who were leaving the peace march and wondering how much longer I—and it—would last.

Mr. Tucker, Libby and Me
March 14th was our fourth day on Stoddard Wells Road.  Evan, Tim, Sheila and I went to the Slash X for breakfast.  When we returned, camp was in turmoil. 
Journal Entry – March 14, 1986
Inside one of the big town hall tents, a crowd has gathered to hear a meeting of our newly elected policy board.  We have chosen a group to represent us, but with the rapid deterioration of the march, some have already left to go home.  The remaining elected marchers have gathered in heated discussion.  They are trying to figure out, even as people are leaving in a steady stream, if there is enough support to keep the march going.  I stand outside the tent and look in through the big screen window.  The tent is full.  More and more marchers gather around.  Everyone is quiet, listening intently to the conversation.  We shush the talkers.  The news in camp is that PRO-Peace is bankrupt and about to fold.  There are several hundred of us waiting to see what will happen.  The policy board has no way of knowing how many of us are going to stay and how many have already made the decision to leave.  The discussion that ensues is a classic example of Occam’s razor—the simplest solution is the best solution.  They discuss and immediately reject as insignificant a number of issues, problems, and opinions.  I can see myself witnessing a momentous decision.  All that matters is whether these people are willing to pull together a new peace march.  If they are willing to reconstruct the march, we are willing to be the march.  The significance of this moment resonates intensely with me.  I can feel the air of anticipation.  If nothing else comes of this march, I’ll know that this was the moment of truth.
            All at once, the discussion makes a palpable shift as the members of the policy board simultaneously settle on the essential question and arrive at the critical conclusion.  Yes, the march will continue.  We don’t know how, they admit, but if there is a way, we will find it.  I am proud and relieved and thrilled, for in having found the essential question, we are able to agree on an answer.  As the policy board continues its meeting, I turn and head across camp to a place where several hundred marchers have gathered in a large circle.  Something has been happening here, too, but by the time I arrive, whatever has happened is over.  I ask a fellow marcher, who says, “David Mixner just announced the bankruptcy of PRO-Peace.  He says everyone should go home.”  Go home?  Moments ago, a hundred yards away, the peace marchers just decided to stay.

Stoddard Wells Road - Still Here