Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chapter Nineteen: "Farms, Not Arms"

On the morning of July 14th, Bastille Day, we awoke to the most obnoxious wake-up call ever.  Someone walked around camp screaming at the top of his lungs.  “This is only a test!  This is only a test!  Wake up!  Wake up!  Wake up!”
My first thoughts of the shattered morning were, “Who the hell is that? Does he think this is funny?”  I thought I recognized the voice, but I couldn’t be sure, and by the time I stirred, he had already disappeared, hopefully into his hidey-hole for the remainder of the march.  I got up in a decidedly un-peaceful mood and proceeded to a disappointing breakfast of white French toast and gloppy, cold oatmeal.  I quit halfway through breakfast and stomped an irritated beeline back to my tent.  I noticed that Evan had already returned to his, apparently with the same thought in mind: Go back to sleep and start over again later.
The following day, we arrived at the Friends Meetinghouse west of Des Moines.  The meetinghouse was surrounded by acres of woodland and stretches of shady lawn perfect for camping.  Evan and I unloaded the gear trucks with the crew and then cheered the marchers when they arrived.  Everyone seemed to relax among the Friends, whom we knew to be avid supporters of disarmament.  I had learned that it was derogatory to use the term “Quakers” to describe the Religious Society of Friends, so I was carefully incorporating “Friends” into my vocabulary at every opportunity.  We gathered in the basement of the meetinghouse where the women in the community served trays and trays of homemade baked goods and ceramic mugs of apple cider.  We quickly dispensed with the small talk.  In no time, the room was filled with the sound of marchers and Friends talking shop.  The question was not whether but how to bring about nuclear disarmament.
The Religious Society of Friends had a long tradition of peace activism and conscientious objection to war.   In the 19th century, they fought to abolish slavery in the United States.  In Iowa, they urged us to view our mission as a “new abolitionist movement”—a movement to abolish nuclear weapons.  If society had abolished an entrenched, centuries old practice of slavery, they reasoned, surely we could abolish nuclear weapons.  No one mentioned the fact that the abolition of slavery came after a bloody civil war, but they made their point with the marchers.  Like other supporters we had met, the Friends encouraged us to engage in dialogue with Americans across the country and take a powerful, popular message to Washington.  Theirs was a kind of tough love:  Do not accept any outcome short of global nuclear disarmament.
The peace march had a rest day at Living History Farms just west of Des Moines.  The farm operated as if it were the 19th century.  People dressed in period costume gave demonstrations of life and labor long ago.  Iris’s friend, Michael, a big, burley guy with sparkling blue eyes and a full beard, was the blacksmith.  Michael was an affable spirit who would have fit right in on the peace march.  I detected a spark between them, but I knew from Iris that they hadn’t forged a permanent relationship.  Still, they seemed very happy to be near one another. 
Our walk into Des Moines was a lively march down wide streets through shady residential neighborhoods.  The day was warm and sunny and everyone seemed energized.  I brought my guitar along, slung over my shoulder.  Now that I had a strap, I could carry it anywhere.  At one point I passed a yard sale where someone was selling various articles of clothing, among them a sleeveless, white t-shirt with big, black block letters that said, “NO WAR.” 
“How much?” I asked, assuming it would be out of my price range.
“Five bucks,” came the reply.
“I’ll take it,” I said, digging in my pocket for a fiver.
I stood right there, pulled the new shirt on and deftly wriggled out of the old one, a lifelong skill every girl learns in junior high school.  In my new shirt, I felt like Superman—ready to knock some heads together; not very peaceful, but righteous.  I pulled my guitar into position and walked along playing every song I knew that had anything to do with peace or justice or walking.  I had recently adapted Ruthie Gorton’s union solidarity song, “Step by Step” to a reggae beat.  The lyrics, taken from the preamble of the constitution of the United Mine Workers of America, suited our purpose, too: “Step by step, the longest march can be won; many stones form an arch, singly none; and by union, what we will can be accomplished still; drops of water turn a mill, singly none.”  An entourage of harmonizing singers, dancers, and Bruce with his hand drum, gathered around and we boogied our way through downtown Des Moines. 
As the peace march arrived in her hometown, Iris took charge.  She arranged for Evan, Bill, Tom and me to stay with Jack and Mandy, her friends who owned a whole foods market called “Greens and Grains.”  The lifestyle Iris experienced on her family’s farm came from an era before vegetarianism and organic methods had taken hold.  She grew up seeking a healthier way of life, one that would separate her from the meat-and-potatoes diet of her childhood.  As an adult, she had found likeminded seekers, and "Greens and Grains" stood at the center of their community. Here she had found others who believed as she did that an evolution to a meatless, dairy-free diet was fundamental to achieving world peace.  She had worked at "Greens and Grains" before the march; in fact it was there that she first learned about the march, and she gave me the grand tour: colorful, organic fruits and vegetables, all-natural cosmetics and lotions, bags of blue corn chips, and salad dressing with our benefactor, Paul Newman, on the label.  In the bulk foods department she cooed over adorable black turtle beans, speckled pinto beans, flat fava beans and reliable black-eyed peas.  Iris was serious about the importance of a healthy diet, but on our tour past the tubs of beans and grains, the whimsical “Beaner” came through.  She imagined whole recipes aloud and inhaled deeply at the thought of the spices—cayenne, cumin, and coriander—that would enhance each one.
At their house that evening, Jack and Mandy invited us to make ourselves at home.  Jack was a quietly attentive man, Mandy, his talkative, take-charge counterpart.  We met their children, Allison and Trevor.  Iris said they had been brought up as vegetarians since birth.  I wondered about their health and development and observed them with an analytical eye, but they appeared perfectly happy, vibrant and quick-witted.  I nested on a futon on the floor and settled in for the night.  In the morning I awoke to the room filled with sunlight, the shadows of trees swimming across the floor and walls.  We ate Jack’s fresh blueberry pancakes and shared a few stories from our trek, though as business owners, Jack and Mandy spent a good chunk of time talking with each other about the needs of their shop.  Their easy-going lifestyle belied the enormous effort it took to keep their small business afloat.

Marcher-in-the-Home, Des Moines Style
Iris wanted to show us one of her favorite spots, so she, Bill, Tom and I headed out to Peterson’s Pond.  We made ourselves at home among a dozen or so local folks, relaxing, talking, laughing and swimming.  So, this was Iris’s members-only swim club.  The overhanging trees provided shade from the sun.  The pond, an oasis of cool water on a peaceful summer day.  We had toweled off and were relaxing on the grass when Iris spotted an elderly man coming over the hill, an empty pail in hand.  “There’s Mr. Peterson,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Peterson’s Pond was actually the property of a living person.  My first thought was that maybe we were going to be ejected for trespassing, so I let Iris, who seemed to be acquainted, handle the conversation.  Much to my surprise, Mr. Peterson greeted and welcomed us.  He was a man of few words, but when he said, “You’re my personal guests,” we fell into friendly conversation.  We talked for a while about what a beautiful place he had and how good he was to share it with us.  He nodded, then stepped down to the water’s edge, gathered some water in his bucket, poured it around the base of his newly planted saplings, and continued on his way.  The afternoon waned, and the families gathered up their children and towels and toys, but we stayed a while longer until we were the last ones left at Peterson’s Pond.
In the evening, Tom, Bill, Evan and I met up with Iris’s Des Moines friends and headed out to a popular Thai restaurant.  It was a long walk, relatively speaking, and my three-quarter rhythm sent me into meditation mode.  I dropped back for a few minutes of solitude.  Everyone understood and no one seemed to mind that I walked in silence in the wake of their friendly chatter.  The restaurant owner showed our big group to a long table on the patio.  Iris knew him personally, so although the place was busy, every free moment he had, he came over to ask a little more about the march and make sure we had everything we needed.  From there we went out to a local club to hear “Collective Vision,” who by this time had become the “official” peace march band.  Their music was sounding better with every performance.  They brought great dance rhythms and meaningful lyrics together in a way that not only entertained us marchers but also communicated our message to the locals who came to celebrate with us.  Working for nuclear disarmament didn’t always have to be serious; it could also be festive.  Opening for Collective Vision was a local spandex funk band.  The club was a crossroads of cultures—peace marchers, funk fans, and Iowa farm boys and gals—all talking, dancing, and having fun.

Journal Entry—July 18, 1986
Bill was at his typewriter all day.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
The march departed Des Moines on the morning of July 21st en route to Grinnell.  Evan and I had lingered at Jack and Mandy’s house too long and missed getting to camp to load the trucks.  We needed to get to the next site in time to unload.  A friend of Iris’s offered us a ride but said that on the way he needed to stop in the small town of Newton.  As I had typed up another newsletter in Des Moines, when I spotted a small print shop in Newton, I went in to make copies.  I chatted with the owner, a soft-spoken but talkative man, while he made the copies.  I noticed an old linotype machine in the shop, and when I mentioned it the owner invited me to see it work.  He flipped the switch and the Industrial Age came alive.  The well-oiled, machine moved the metal letters and gracefully dropped a sheet of paper, like a lady's handkerchief, into place.  The roller passed back and forth and it was done.  The owner, Mr. Grant, then showed me an old machine called an addressograph, which made a template for a business address.  Both of these machines were built around 1900, he said, but they still worked perfectly some eighty years later. 
Mr. Grant had grown up in New York, in what is now Spanish Harlem and had moved to Iowa in the 1950’s to work as a printer on the G.I. Bill.  After World War II, he said, the government offered work to young men coming back from the war, but, depending on one’s skills and interest, it sometimes meant moving to another part of the country.  Mr. Grant said he had moved to Iowa to learn the printing trade and never moved back east.  I asked him how he came to own the old machines.  He said he developed an interest in the history of printing early on, and as Xerox machines came in and the old style printers went out of use, he bought up the old machines as they became available.  I told him that I was on my way to Washington, D.C. on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.  He took and interest and asked a few questions about our trek.  Just then, the phone rang, and as he turned to answer it, I waved and he waved and I left the shop.  He had very kindly given me the Xerox copies gratis. 
As I stepped outside, I bumped into Evan and told him he really had to see these old machines, so we went back into the shop.  By this time Mr. Grant was off the phone, and I introduced him to Evan and asked if I could show him the machines.  When he saw that we were really interested, Mr. Grant took us to a back room where he had a huge, old wooden camera, two printers, a little serial number clicker (the FBI checked if you ordered one with more than five numbers), an old paper cutter, and a stapler, properly called a lacer, for doing big stapling jobs.  Mr. Grant said the only item he didn’t like was the machine for making rubber stamps; he made them only as favors to friends.  We examined the machines and talked for a while about the Industrial Revolution and the world of our great grandparents, but the peace march was calling, so we thanked Mr. Grant for showing us around and went outside to find our ride to camp.  From the single Xerox copier in the front window, we noticed, a casual passerby would have no idea that Mr. Grant’s print shop was a portal to the past.
Evan and I loaded and unloaded the gear trucks with such regularity that Adam, the work coordinator, asked us if we were interested in a promotion to “loading supervisors” on Wednesdays.  In fact, we had been supervising the loading for many weeks, dutifully calling up the loaders in the morning and serving as the stackers on each truck, but the promotion made me feel proud that I had found my place at last.  We took the title tongue-in-cheek—Adam, too—since we knew that titles earned on the peace march were hardly resume-builders, but I promised Adam that he could rely on us.  He was thankful because it meant he could walk on Wednesdays instead of waiting around in camp until the trucks were loaded.  I didn’t see any point in mentioning the truck doors swinging open on the highway back in Colorado or disclosing the fact that we had skipped our morning loading job just two days earlier.  We just shook hands on the promotion. 
The Wednesday loading crew was totally reliable and made the task go like clockwork.  There were usually ten or twelve of us, with a core crew of about eight.  Sabine, a feisty, petit, blonde woman from Germany, wore bright colors and had the strength of a bull.  Alec, a teenager, wore headphones, showed up on time, worked quietly, and never complained even in the heat or pouring rain.  He had come on the peace march with his mom, who was also a loader.  I was too intimidated to talk with a guy named Mike who looked a little bit like Mel Gibson.  He never smiled.  I imagined he had a dark past, but it could have been that he just didn’t like loading trucks.  Sometimes everyone sang or talked, but it was hard work to hoist the gear, so aside from the occasional grunt or a shout to slow down or speed up, we usually worked fairly quietly.
To my knowledge, only two labor disputes arose during the whole peace march.  In the first instance, the number of people appearing for kitchen duty had dwindled until one afternoon only four cooks showed up to prepare the evening meal for five hundred marchers.  Normally, three or four times that number were required to prepare and serve dinner.  Sudama’s solution was immediate and fair:  Simplify the menu.  That evening we endured a tasteless meal featuring wedges of boiled cabbage.  Sudama waited until we had gathered for dinner and explained the situation and then stood at the end of the serving line, clipboard in hand, taking names of new recruits for kitchen duty.  By the end of dinner, his roster was full and the issue was resolved. 
Another afternoon I heard there had been a strike by the port-a-potty crew.  I knew nothing of the nature of the dispute, but it was resolved quickly, the threat of overflowing porta-potties being a powerful force in labor negotiations.   On the peace march every job was important, but there was no doubt that the porta-potty cleaners had the most important job of all.  One of my favorite images from the march was the help-wanted ad for porta-potty cleaners that someone had sketched and then taped to the port-a-potty door: a cartoon of Gandhi standing next to a toilet, a toilet brush in hand. 
The maintenance crew protested conditions from time to time or begged people to return borrowed tools, but, to my knowledge, they never struck.  Anyway, their work was so demanding and so critical to our mission that we would have given them anything they wanted if we could. 
In Ladora, Iowa, we stayed in a strangely claustrophobic campground on a high ridge with beautiful fields spreading out in the distance on either side but little room along the ridge for actually setting up our tents.  Since leaving Denver, we had had the luxury of spacious tent neighborhoods with plenty of elbowroom and privacy, but Ladora put us back at each other’s doorsteps.  Tom pointed out that an occasional site like Ladora might not be such a bad thing as it prepared us for the urban campsites of Chicago and beyond.
Evan and I headed out for an eleven-miler through a chain of towns known as the Amanas.  It was July 24th, an average day on the Great Peace March.  No sooner had we hit the road than a man and his two little sons in a pick-up truck stopped and asked if we wanted a tour of an Iowa farm.  We thought that was a great idea, so we accepted and were joined by Iris and Sheila, and, a few minutes later, by Caleb from Boulder with whom the farmer, George Carter, had spoken earlier in the morning.  The five of us climbed into the back of the pick-up truck and rode down the highway toward the Carter farm.  At one point Mr. Carter pulled over and stepped out to talk with us about the differences between growing seed corn and commercial feed corn.  These were specialized fields, he said, requiring careful monitoring and a thorough understanding of plant and fertilizer chemistry.  He also mentioned that agricultural studies had concluded that planting seed at a particular phase of the moon promoted plant growth.  I was amazed that Mr. Carter was aware of the folklore associated with agriculture; moreover, that he would incorporate ancient techniques on his modern farm. 
We drove onto the farm and walked up to the hog barns where, in pen after pen, huge sows lolled on their sides, nursing hungry piglets.  I politely ignored the odor of the place, though to have described it as pungent would have been putting it mildly.  Iris was feeling right at home.  I was excited to experience a working farm, though in the back of my mind I was not thrilled to think that these porkers were headed for someone’s dinner plate.  I was pretty sure Iris was thinking the same thing.  Nevertheless, hog farming was big business and a major source of income for this family.  Mr. Carter let several of the hogs out into the yard.  They were bigger and more intimidating than I’d imagined, and he warned that the sows could be aggressive around their babies.  We warily picked up some of the piglets as they squealed and wriggled at first and then settled into our arms.  They were adorable.  We patted their firmly packed little bellies and smiled at them because their mouths turned up at the edges as though they were smiling at us.  Mr. Carter ignored our frivolity but stood talking with Caleb while we took pictures of each other with our little darlings. 

Three Little Pigs
We returned the piglets to their mommas and continued to Mr. Carter’s machine shop, a building the size of a small airplane hangar, to inspect the farm machinery, including an enormous combine the likes of which I had seen only across the fields from a distance.  Caleb conversed knowledgeably about the equipment in the machine shop.  I had never met Caleb before, but his big ten-gallon hat and easy exchange with Mr. Carter about farm prices, government loans, good economic times and the current tough economic times, made it clear that he came from a farming background.  This was foreign territory to me, but I gathered that Mr. Carter’s farm was, like most “family farms” in America, in serious economic crisis. 
We walked up to the house and met Mrs. Carter, who kindly served us iced tea and joined in the conversation.  She shared photo albums showing a year’s typical cycle of farming, extraordinarily good crop years as well as severe winters and devastating floods.  I noticed shelves of neatly archived agricultural magazines and U.S. Department of Agriculture newsletters.  Mr. Carter talked authoritatively about the grave difficulties facing farmers.  He said that he and many others like him had followed the advice of the federal government for years.  They carefully planned what they produced and how much they produced and how they produced it, but their farms were still failing.  Farmers across the Great Plains were defaulting on loans and being forced to sell out to the agricultural conglomerates that were buying up thousands of acres of farmland for pennies on the dollar and making it impossible for the independent farmers to compete. 
As he spoke, I reflected on the many farms we had passed where combines and tractors and farm machinery were lined up along the roadside with big “For Sale” signs hung on them, but in speaking with Mr. Carter, I realized that it wasn’t just farm equipment that was up for sale; it was a whole way of life.  Large corporations were bullying an aspect of American culture right out of existence.  It was heartbreaking to hear Mr. Carter, a strong, intelligent, able farmer, talk about an uncertain future that threatened his livelihood and the farm that had been in his family for generations.  Our visit to the Carter farm helped me understand something that my upper middle class upbringing had not exposed me to: that the tenacity of family farmers like Mr. Carter, the thoughtfulness of small businessmen like Mr. Grant, and the dedication of shopkeepers like Jack and Mandy in Des Moines, represented a powerful expression of self-determination.  Our independent spirit as a nation was built, in large part, upon their independent spirit as citizens.

Farms, Not Arms
Mr. Carter and two of his children, Maura and Kevin, took us back to camp.  Now it was our turn to give them the grand tour.  We didn’t have piglets to offer, but we let the kids check out the inside of a tent, the school buses and the Bookmobile.  They saw the porta-potties, the mobile kitchen, and the town hall tents.  They saw the finance bus, the media bus, the info/com trailer, the mobile dentist office—everything.  Mr. Carter was impressed by how all the systems worked.  It had only been a few hours but it had been a day of sharing and learning, and when the Carters were getting ready to leave, I didn’t want to say goodbye.  Their hospitality had brought new meaning to the "Farms, Not Arms" banner I had seen every day in camp, and had given me yet another reason to make it to Washington.  We shook hands and wished one another well.  Later that afternoon, I went into town to do my laundry.  In the Laundromat, among the issues of “People” and “Good Housekeeping,” I noticed several monthly farm magazines.  Before my visit to the Carter farm, I’d have ignored them, maybe even made fun of them, but Mr. Carter and his family had given me a lot to think about, and I read through them with genuine interest and appreciation.