Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter Fourteen: "Armageddon Outta Here"

          The varied topography of the far western states had provided plenty of visual interest, making each day of walking different from all the rest.  Even at four miles an hour, coming around a bend or over a hill or through a small town had been an exciting prospect.  A ranch, a river, a herd of cattle, a field of wild flowers, an old gas station—each took several minutes to pass and enlivened the conversation.  Eastern Colorado, on the other hand, gave us no landmarks, natural or manmade, no topographical variation, and, except for the occasional “sip-sip” of birds, the intermittent swoosh of cars, and the distant rumble of freight trains, no movement or sound to take one’s mind off the steady padding down the road.  Only the weather changed, and it had just two settings: “Glaring Sun with Sweltering Heat and Humidity” or “Blasting Wind with Pelting Hail and Pouring Rain.”

Rainy Rest Stop
June 4th.  This afternoon’s walk ended in a spectacular hailstorm.  The sky grew dark, the front rolled in, and in a matter of minutes, the temperature dropped by fifteen or twenty degrees.  Most marchers took refuge on the buses and rode the remaining few miles to camp.  A small group of us decided to push through the storm.  I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but I had my North Face rain jacket—the kind that cleverly zipped into its own pocket to form a handy little pouch—hanging from a loop on my belt.  I unfolded it as I walked along and put it on just as the storm hit. 
I found myself walking with Lukas from Germany.  He was pushing two backpacks in a rainbow cart.  Lukas was very tall and took long strides, which was good for me because I had to walk as fast as I could just to keep up with him, and that helped me stay warm.  My jacket and hood kept me dry from the hips up, but the cold, pelting hail stung my legs.  I looked down at them and saw that, hairy as they were—I hadn’t shaven them since February—my legs were covered in goose bumps.  My natural fur was working hard in my favor.  I walked even faster and kept my arms swinging.  Turned against the blasting wind, Lukas and I shouted above the storm.  He was a university student, taking time off from his studies.  He said his hometown was Munich.  I had heard of Munich only from Oktoberfest, which I mentioned, and the Beer Hall Putsch, which I didn’t think it would be polite to mention.  I would have been hard pressed to place Munich on a map of Germany, so I didn’t mention that either.  I asked Lukas a few questions about his family and his impressions of America, but by then the rain had begun, and the gusting squall made it hard to finish a sentence.  Besides, Lukas was so much taller than I was that I couldn’t shout up to him and protect my face from the storm at the same time.  In the end, we just pressed onward together against the wind and rain.
The skies cleared just as we reached camp, an open, fallow field, much of which was now ankle-deep in water.  In places, it looked just like a rice paddy.  We were camping here?  No way.  Everyone would be soaked by morning.  People tiptoed along the dry ridge at the edge of the field or along the raised roadway, or took off their shoes and walked barefoot through the water.  I said goodbye to Lukas and found Iris.  We agreed to share a tent and pitched it on slightly higher ground—in a mere half inch of water.  After dinner, as we lay in our sleeping bags talking, listening to the rain and getting ready to fall asleep, I had a thought.  I asked Iris, “Okay, let’s assume we have a limited number of prayers that will actually get answered on the Great Peace March.  You think we should we use one now?” 
“Yes!” she said. 
So, I quieted my mind and prayed respectfully to the Great Spirit to let us stay dry through the night.  Iris added a string of other requests to the end of the prayer, like riders on the end of an otherwise perfectly good piece of legislation.  I told her I hoped it wouldn’t cheapen the sincerity of our original plea in the eyes of the Great Spirit.  She said if we were going to get a prayer answered, we might as well make it a good one.  We chuckled and then, settling in hopefully, said sweet dreams, goodnight.
The rain continued hard through the night.  Every couple of hours I’d surface from sleep and hear it pouring against the rain fly.  In the morning we awoke and, lying still in our sleeping bags, asked one another, “Are you dry?”
“Yes, I think so, are you?”
  I sat up, slowly opened the tent zipper and drew back the flap.  At least three inches of water surrounded our tent, but inside, miraculously, Iris and I had stayed dry all night.  We exchanged looks of happy surprise and thanked the Great Spirit.  Careful not to kneel too hard on the tent floor, we ever so gingerly changed our clothes, stuffed our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks and stepped out to transfer everything safely to the gear truck.  The soaked tent we just rolled up and slid dripping wet into the tent bag. 

Waiting for the Tractors to Pull Our Vehicles Out of the Mud

The "Crate" Peace March
 Camp was a mess.  Several of our vehicles were sunk in a foot of mud.  Only the vehicles that were parked up on the roadway had remained dry.  I saw Rick, our Info-Com master, who always had a lot to do in the morning, traveling by crate across the field.  He set down two crates and used them as stepping stones, stepping on one, then stooping down to pick up the one in back, place it in front, stand up, take another step and repeat the process.  It took a while, but he finally crated his way across the field without getting wet.  Meanwhile, other marchers surrendered to the forces of nature and waded through the water.  A number of local farmers drove their tractors and trucks to camp and spent the morning hauling our buses out of the muck.  Once we got everything and everybody back up on the roadway, we were high and dry. 
June 7th.  The twenty miles to Sterling in northeastern Colorado was a nearly treeless stretch of two-lane blacktop.  Twenty miles.  Now the weather had turned to the other setting, and the day was sweltering.  Evan and I left the lunch stop early and walked ahead of the main march.  There would be no avoiding the afternoon heat, so we figured we might as well head right out into it.   We walked and talked and walked and talked and reminded one another to “drink water.”  Every fifteen minutes or so I mechanically took my water bottle, unscrewed the top, took a swig, and recapped the bottle without missing a step.  As the water got warmer, I finish the ritual with a sarcastic, “Mmmm, refreshing.” 
Talking with Evan made the miles pass more quickly.  We slipped into accents: British, particularly when we were discussing where our imaginary butler, Charles, and his charades with the local girls; southern, at which I could not hope to compete with Mister Loo-zianna; New Jersey, at which I excelled, having learned first hand from my mother, who grew up in Bayonne; African-American, through which we both failed, miserably, to approach street cool or adequately express the Blues brought on by our trek.  We'd sing snippets of songs brought out by the conversation.  We laughed at everything.  Funny thing was, we rarely talked about nuclear disarmament.  In fact, other than the obvious, I hardly knew what Evan thought of politics or our military weapons program.  He tended to laugh at this no-laughing matter.  Whenever he had to go do something, for instance, he’d walk away, saying, “Armageddon outta here!”  I'd groan and roll my eyes, shake my head -- and smile.  
There had been a lot of discussion about “march potatoes” in camp and Evan and I both wished everyone would put it to rest.  It was clear that some people worked non-stop, even to the point of sacrificing the walking, to make the peace march happen (though it never occurred to me at the time that maybe some of those busy people preferred working in a car to walking twenty miles under the solar broiler).  Others did almost no work at all and walked whenever they felt like it.  Evan and I agreed that we were somewhere in the middle—we loaded trucks and stepped up anytime something, as he put it, “needed doin’.”  We worked on workdays, rested on rest days and walked on the days in between.  We pronounced ourselves “middle class marchers.”
As we approached Sterling, Evan and I stopped at a small market where I bought a Mandarin orange Popsicle.  Even at the end of a twenty-mile walk in the scorching sun, I actually stopped to consider whether I had “earned it.”  I decided yes, I had, and was it ever sweet and delicious and refreshing.  At the edge of town we noticed a quiet, shaded graveyard, so we stopped to rest and wait for the main march to catch up.  For the very first time since leaving Los Angeles, my legs were sore and my feet were dog tired.  I fell fast asleep in the shade.  When I woke up a little while later, I was surprised at having dozed off.  I apologized to Evan for having dissolved into sleep when he was in mid-sentence.  He forgave me, adding that it was hard to find a moment when he wasn’t in mid-sentence.  Many marchers napped during rest stops and lunch breaks, but other than the occasional nap in my tent in the afternoon, I had never fallen asleep on the march during the daytime, and I perceived it as a moment of weakness.  It never occurred to me that after a twenty-mile walk in Hades, hell, I might just need a nap. 
When the main march caught up, Evan and I joined them, and we all walked through Sterling along the central median strip.  A tiny sprinkling of local residents turned out, leaving me to wonder what impact, if any, we were having in this remote part of the country.  What was the point of our message if there was no one around to receive it? 

No One Around to Receive Our Message
We set up our little neighborhood at the fairgrounds in Sterling.  Evan and I almost always tented next to each other, though he disappeared from time to time to camp with Gregory and his other friends over in the punk neighborhood.  Even after three months on the march, Evan approached with his sleeping bag tucked under one arm and his tent bag in the other hand and asked courteously if he might set up his tent near mine.  I was always charmed and replied with as much hospitality as a Yankee could muster.  Sometimes the tables were turned and Evan would have scouted a spot first, and I would ask, “May I join you?”  Either way, with Evan next door, I always felt at home.  As time went on, Iris Bean Blossom often joined our neighborhood, too.  She and I sometimes shared a tent if one of us was too lazy to set up our own, but usually the three of us preferred the privacy of our own little domes at night.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
After we set up our tents, I was grumpy and had a slight headache.  Sheila and Evan both suggested I should drink more water, so I did, but didn’t help much, and when Evan suggested we head out to a pizza restaurant at a nearby shopping center, I groggily agreed.  The cool restaurant air and the tall, red tumblers of ice water brought me around.  I hadn’t realized how dehydrated I had become even though I had drunk probably a gallon—and that was not an exaggeration—of water throughout the day.  Evan was used to hiking in the dry mountain air in Utah and must have recognized the symptoms.  I would have to learn to monitor my water intake more carefully.  We still had the whole summer and two thousand miles to go. 
It was already dark—and pouring buckets—when Evan and I came out of the restaurant.  The meteorological dial had switched back to torrential rain.  We waited for a while to see if the storm would pass, and then lucked into a ride back to camp from a fellow marcher whom neither of us had ever met.  It was only a mile or so to camp, but our driver crept along in the pouring rain, both of his headlights broken.  He dominated the conversation with a rambling, half-jointed story about getting beaten up in a town somewhere along the peace march route.  The pieces of his story didn’t quite fit together, but he was very disturbed about it.   I asked if he had reported the assault to the police, and he said no, so I silently wondered if maybe he was not so much the innocent victim as he was leading us to believe.  I wasn’t sure what Evan was thinking, but I started to get the feeling that this was the kind of guy with whom you had to choose your words very carefully or he might fly off the handle.  I wondered if that was how he had gotten into trouble in the first place.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself and only said I was sorry it had happened.  We drove back to camp listening to his dark, violent tale, the windshield wipers slapping in the rain.  I was relieved to get out of the car.  Even “Peace City” had its occasional brooding weirdo.

Journal Entry—June 9, 1986. 
It’s evening and I’m sitting here in a huge grain storage building about twenty-five miles east of Sterling, Colorado.  It’s pouring rain and hailing outside, and it’s impossible to set up our tents.  I think the whole peace march is camped inside this huge hangar.  There’s a strong smell in here, and it’s not the marchers.  I think it’s fertilizer.  After a delicious “Wheat Not Meat” dinner, I’ve scoped my little sleeping spot for tonight, and I’m listening to Andy’s “There’s Gonna Be a Nuclear Bomb” on my Walkman.  The lightening is flashing outside, and the marchers in here are singing “Back in the U.S.S.R.”  Next to the train depot in Denver, this is the weirdest place I’ve ever slept. 

One evening, several of us were sitting around after dinner.  In the hours between dinner and sunset, dusk settled over the camp, and despite our weariness from the day’s walk, there seemed to be a rise in energy as friends and neighbors gathered to socialize in the cool of the day.  On this particular evening, Iris was telling us about her childhood days on the farm in Iowa.  For me, a product of suburban America, her descriptions of rural life were novel and charming.  It was as though the city mouse and the country mouse had the benefit of nine months to get acquainted instead of just one visit.  I loved hearing her detailed descriptions of the chores she and her brothers and sisters loathed doing, the animal births she delighted in assisting and the family gatherings she enjoyed attending—especially when her older cousin, Lucille, was there.  As a little girl, Iris was in awe of cousin Lucille because she was so glamorous.  She explained that unlike the other plain-dressed women in the family, Lucille had her hair done regularly—at the hairdresser—and wore high heels and rhinestone earrings and pearls. 
For some reason, Iris’s description of her cousin stayed with me, and over the next few days I easily wrote a slow, simple country waltz, inspired by Lucille.  As I finished the lyrics, I realized that the song was from a man’s perspective.  It had never occurred to me that as a songwriter, I could assume a role, like an actor does, and write from another point of view.  This new awareness felt a little strange since I wasn’t sure where these songs were coming from anyway, but it freed me to think about all the people I could be as a songwriter who I couldn’t be as a person.  I realized that two of my favorite songwriters, John Prine and Randy Newman, composed many of their songs from assumed perspectives, too. 
Evan absolutely loved the song.  He added a sweet harmony part and we sang “Lucille” for Iris for the first of many times.  She was thrilled.  From that day on, Evan always called me “Lucille.”

“Lucille, high heel, under my bed;
Lucille, hiding inside my head;
Lucille, I wonder, where did you go?
Lucille, I love you, I want you to know;
Lucille, I love you, I want you to know.
I remember rhinestones, I remember pearls;
 I remember Lucille as one of the girls;
I thought I’d take her, make her my own,
But Lucille you loved me and left me alone,
Lucille, you loved me and left me alone.”

(Click here to watch a video and listen to "Lucille.") 

          I took Iris’s work shift while she flew to New Jersey to celebrate her nephew’s birthday.  Ned and Nora were in the process of transforming an old bus into the “Peace Academy,” a mobile resource center where marchers and visitors could learn about the nuclear issue.  I knew who Ned and Nora were, but I had never met them.  They were one of the peace march “couples,” many of whom, for some reason, had alliterative names.  I introduced myself as Iris’s substitute.  Ned explained that they were preparing to stock Peace Academy with educational materials, but first he and Stanley had to build shelves in the back of the bus.  We needed to move boxes of materials off the bus to make room for the shelves to go up.  We all set to work, simultaneously engaging in a long conversation about the “major camp rules”—no drinking and no drugs—and the process in place for dealing with anyone who broke them.  Ned, Nora and Stanley were quiet folk, serious, smart and sensible, and not without strong opinions.  We all knew that some marchers broke the camp rules, but for the most part, five hundred people behaved responsibly and respectfully for the sake of the march.  People who wanted to drink alcohol did so mostly in bars, where the compounded benefit of community outreach justified a visit to the local watering hole.  Some peace marchers were by nature pretty trippy, so it was hard to tell, but it seemed to me that most people were discreet about their drug use, too.
Once the boxes were out of the way, there wasn’t much more I could do, so I picked up a book called Dialogue and started reading.  The book was published by Physicians for Social Responsibility and contained chapters on peer mediation and conflict resolution, geo-political ideologies, political activism and social change.  Global education and conflict resolution were by no means typical offerings in U.S. schools, and Dialogue made me wonder if it might be possible to design a course of study—or an entire school system—based on peace studies and nonviolence.  I started thinking about nonviolence as an educational methodology, replacing the learning-through-intimidation that most children encountered in our schools.  I imagined a system of assessment based not on the degrading system where, by definition, 80% of students are thrust into the lower castes, but on tracking student progress along an individualized continuum.  I considered the possibility of introducing young people to peer mediation and an ideal of family and community nonviolence.  By revolutionizing the paradigm maybe we really could, as the bumper sticker said, “Teach Peace.”
Stanley and Ned finished putting up the shelves, so we loaded the boxes on the bus and drove back to Sterling for a bite to eat.  They asked if I wanted to join them, but I didn’t have enough money for lunch, and I didn’t know them well enough to ask if they would buy me a meal, so I declined and took a walk around town instead.  By this time, Mother Nature had reset the dial to “swelter.”  I was the only person out in the pulsing midday heat.  Sterling was a small town of maybe eight or ten thousand people, and the main street was lined with one- and two-storey buildings typical of tornado alley.  Decorative touches—an awning, a row of potted plants, a wooden bench—were notably absent where twisters could turn them into deadly projectiles in a matter of seconds.  The noonday sun glared mercilessly off the windshield of every parked car and against the storefront windows.  Here and there a lone tree threw down a miserly oasis of shade, but not enough to keep my mind off an excuse to find some air conditioning. 
On the main street, I happened upon a military recruiting center.  Hanging in the front window I noticed a popular poster from WWII of a spirited young woman in a Navy uniform, saying, “If I were a man, I’d join the Navy.”  My grandmother always maintained that she was the model for that picture.  She said an artist had sketched her sitting in a park in Manhattan and then used the sketch for the poster.  There was no proof either way, but my family and I agreed that with her wavy black hair, her broad, Slavic cheekbones, and her smiling eyes, the model did look very much like my grandmother in her younger days.
I stepped into the recruitment center and approached two guys sitting in metal folding chairs behind a wood-paneled divider.  They looked as though they had nothing better to do but listen to my story about their poster and my grandmother, so I told them all about it.  I asked if they knew where I could get one, and much to my surprise, they said they had an extra one they could give to me.  I asked if they were sure they wouldn’t need it for some event or something, and they shot me an expression that said, “You may have noticed, ma’am, this isn’t exactly Grand Central Station.”  Maybe they thought it was amusing that a peace marcher wanted a Navy recruitment poster.  More likely they were just angling to send me packing so they could resume their conversation.  In any case, I was pleased to get it, and I thanked them as one young man rolled it up and placed a rubber band around it.  I knew the poster would never survive the peace march, so I asked them to direct me to the post office.  There, I bought a mailing tube and sent the poster to myself at my parents’ home.  As I handed it over the counter at the post office, I thought for a moment how strange it was going to be to have possessions again at the end of the march.
The Peace Academy bus broke down on the road to camp, which turned out to be the wrong road anyway, just as another wicked storm broke.  I sat on the bus listening to sheets of rain slap hard against the windows while poor Ned and Sheldon huddled over the engine trying to diagnose the problem.  Fortunately, a local man saw us on the side of the road and offered to help.  He was a Christian missionary, but, more to the point, he was good with cars.  The three of them managed to start the engine, and we set out on our way to camp.  Once we found the right road, everyone relaxed a little and talked at length about another cross-country walk, a solo endeavor by Peter Jenkins, recorded in his book Walk Across America.  I couldn’t imagine walking across the United States completely alone.  As friendly and welcoming as Americans had been to the peace marchers, the long stretches of highway would have made a single woman entirely too vulnerable to the whims of weather and perversions of mankind, and for me the solitude would have been unbearable.  I hadn’t read Jenkins’ book but made a mental note to put it on my reading list.

Journal Entry—June 10, 1986
Had a vivid dream last night.  I am in a small, sparsely furnished apartment that may or may not be mine.  The walls are white and not very warm or homey.  It is evening and I am standing in the kitchen near a counter that divides the kitchen from the dining area.  I am getting ready to go out to some formal event, and I am dressed in black pants and a black top.  I am just buttoning the top of my pants as my friends enter to pick me up.  Among the three or four people who come in I recognize Sheila from Boulder who is dressed entirely in white.  She introduces me to someone I don’t recognize named Michael Anthony.  We walk right by each other as if oblivious to the introduction.  I’m not sure if this is a joke or some kind of message in my dream.  Then, as if to roll the cameras back, or perhaps at a later time, I walk past him and say very casually and noncommittally, “How’s it going?”  Should I say something more involving?  Finally there is a brief scene where I am sitting at a desk, also white or brightly lit, working at something—typing.  Michael Anthony stands behind me and rubs my shoulders for a moment and then asks, “How’s the march going?” to which I swivel in my chair and answer, “Actually, it’s going really well.”  I don’t have a clear sense for the meaning or significance of the dream or the introduction of this man, but when I woke up, I thought I should write it down.

A comment by a visitor to Peace City stuck in my craw.  He finished his tour, looked around camp and said, “The march is a hell of a statement, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.”