Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter Thirteen: "God Save Us From a Single Vision"

          We came through the portal of Denver and one day later stepped onto the Great Plains.  After the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the plains provided their own unique character, but it took an adjustment of the five senses to appreciate it.  No longer the whiff of wild sage and mountain pine; no longer the rush of the river; no longer a cold morning dusted in overnight flurries.  In their place, the glint of a bright green train ducking under a distant overpass, and flocks of black birds, their wings flashed with yellow and red, alighting on tall reeds near a pond, taking flight, dipping, swooping, and turning, and then alighting again in perfect unison.   Whereas the Rockies had been all about light and shadow, the Great Plains were a study in space.

Eastern Colorado seemed to give the marchers a sense that we were now on solid ground.  Our worst organizational nightmares were behind us, we had traversed the Rocky Mountains, and spring promised to turn into summer.  Now we could let our hair down, and as we did, we discovered that we were not all of one mind on a number of core issues.
  Broadly speaking, some marchers were adamantly anti-war and wanted the peace march to speak out as a single voice to end all military engagement everywhere on Earth. They wanted U.S. military bases closed.  They wanted our men and women out of uniform.  They wanted the United States government to shut down the Pentagon and open a Department of Peace. They kept the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King alive as examples of non-violent resistance, but they also broadened our message well beyond the call for global nuclear disarmament. 
The most radical wing of marchers was eager to engage in civil disobedience to draw attention to our cause.  They had had enough of letter-writing campaigns and weekend demonstrations.  They led seminars on non-violent protest and arrest.  In places like the Nevada test site they filled the local jails to voice their disapproval of nuclear testing.  But the urge for civil disobedience did not always sit well with those in camp who advocated a more temperate approach to social change.
There didn’t seem to be much objection to incorporating many other causes—hand gun control, domestic non-violence, a ban on whale hunting, gay and lesbian rights, environmental awareness, women’s rights, animal rights, equal pay, Native American land rights—under the “No Peace, No Justice; No Justice, No Peace” banner.  These issues were integral to people’s lives, but even as we created a community of mutual support, some of us, myself included, were wary of drawing the spotlight away from global nuclear disarmament. 
The only people who really troubled me were those who believed that if we all just thought the same way, we could achieve nuclear disarmament and world peace.  The idea of a “collective vision” arose and was popular with many marchers.  I viewed the concept as anti-intellectual and potentially dangerous, though I realized its proponents saw their vision of peace as a higher order view.  I kept remembering something I’d read by William Blake.  I couldn’t remember the quotation precisely, but it was something like, “God save us from a single vision…” There was more to it, something about the sleep of reason, as I recalled, but the snippet kept circling back into my mind.  I figured Blake probably knew a thing or two about collective vision, and I took his words as a warning that it was better to suffer the messy perspectives of free thinkers, even if some of them were misguided voices of violence, than to attempt to channel human thinking into a single view, even if it was a seemingly peaceful one. 
Our decision-making process centered on our elected council.  We had frequent “town hall meetings,” also known as “all-camp meetings,” to discuss issues and concerns openly and often ad nauseam.  Some meetings had to do with logistics, as when we had to travel by bus rather than by foot in Utah, or learned how to collect donations so that our non-profit status and our donors would be protected.  Other meetings provided an opportunity for us to meet local organizers and learn of local issues that might dovetail with our cause.  My favorite town hall meetings were the ones where someone would stand up and complain about the way something was being done and suggest that “somebody” ought to do it in another way.  Then, everyone would clap and nominate the person standing there to lead the improvement effort, and suddenly the complainer would realize he or she had complained him or herself right into a peace march job.

Town Council Meeting
In most instances, our City Council listened respectfully to our views and managed those issues that fell within their purview.  From the moment of truth back on Stoddard Wells Road, I never questioned their capability or their motives.  I thought they did a good job.  Unfortunately, the members of the City Council often became a lightning rod for disappointment and anger when they had to make unpopular decisions or whenever a marcher got ticked off and felt like taking it out on someone.  Our City Council were, after all, just fellow marchers who had accepted a level of responsibility beyond what the rest of us had, but, for better or worse, we usually knew what they were thinking and understood, even if we did not always agree with, their decisions.
The Board of Directors, on the other hand, worked largely behind the scenes.  I was not familiar with our charter or our terms of incorporation, but I assumed that a board of directors was a legal requirement of our incorporation, and I assumed they had taken fiduciary responsibility for the newly reformed Great Peace March.  There had been one unfortunate incident that distanced many marchers from the Board of Directors and led some to question their motives.  One of the members of the Board of Directors evidently had business cards printed naming himself “president” of the Great Peace March.  This decision would have been pro forma in the corporate world, but it irked many peace marchers to no end.  Someone even went so far as to make multiple copies of the business card and wallpaper the inside of the porta-potties with them.  In a group largely predisposed to distrust the corporate mentality -- or any authoritarian hierarchy, for that matter -- the late night, town hall discussions about the true intentions of the Board of Directors didn’t lend much clarity.  Frustration grew until one director declared his resignation, and, finally, we decided to elect a whole new board. 
We headed northeast out of Denver toward Sterling, Colorado.  The farther east we went, out of the leeward rain shadow of the Rockies, the more lush the earth became.  Maybe “lush” was too generous a term, but we had left the cacti and the creosote and the ponderosa pines behind and were literally walking in amber waves of grain.  One morning in early June, when the mornings were still cool, I woke up, changed into clean clothes, unzipped my tent and looked out into a misty sea of tall grasses and diffused sunlight.  I sat for a few minutes gazing out at the day, thinking that something, something was different.  Then it dawned on me:  It was summer.  It was summer, and I was on the camping trip of a lifetime.  I picked up my shoes and gave them the usual clap, clap, clap, a habit I’d taken up on camping trips long before and to which I’d rededicated myself after I heard that someone had found a scorpion in his shoe back in Barstow.  I tied my shoelaces and walked across the field, insects hopping and popping away as I waded through the tall grass.  There was a summertime smell in the air and a pressure that told me the temperature would be up before mid-morning.  I used the porta-potties, washed my hands and face with soap and water, using my bandana as a washcloth, brushed my teeth, rolled up yesterday’s clothes (soiled clothes were rolled; laundered clothes were folded) and deposited them in my crates on the gear truck, and headed over to the kitchen for a bowl of granola and milk.  I returned to stuff my sleeping bag into its stuff sack and take down my tent, now dry from twenty minutes in the early morning sun.  I filled my water bottle and took inventory:  Sun glasses?  Check.  Walkman?  Check.   Visor?  Check.  Sun block?  Check.  The fog burned off quickly, and the day was already warming up as I joined the marchers on the road, headed eastward, always eastward toward the rising summer sun.

The Misty Morning View from My Front Porch
As we eased onto the plains, a seed of resentment took root among a handful of marchers who took umbrage with people who dressed in outlandish clothing and neither worked nor walked.  The freeloaders, or “march potatoes,” as some called them, became a source of serious consternation for a small but vocal group.  The dilemma came to a head after a contingent of newcomers joined the march from the “Rainbow Gathering.”  The Rainbow Gathering, as I understood it, was an outdoor assembly of earthy, organic, free-spirited folks who spent a few days together each year dancing in circles, eating whole foods, sleeping under the stars, and loving the earth and one another.  By my estimation, the Rainbow People who joined us were completely harmless and merely representative of a colorful if unwashed fringe of the peace spectrum.  However, they were not particularly linked in with our political message, and, in their flowing, cotton, tie-dyed robes and long, unkempt hair and beards, the Rainbow People were a sight to see.  The more tucked-in crowd didn’t like their look, their spacey attitude, or the fact that the Rainbow People, too, might come to represent the march.  For several weeks, the small group of marchers took control of the agenda at all-camp meetings, insisting that we adopt a Great Peace March dress code.  Everyone should be “clean” and have “nice hair,” and the men on the march should not wear “robes” or “dresses.” 
Even in a community dedicated to hearing people out on just about any issue, it was hard to take the "dress coders" seriously.  For most of us, the desire for cleanliness far outweighed our ability to achieve it.  We had abandoned any hope of having “nice hair,” the mullet and the Che Guevara beard being the two most egregious de-evolutions in style, and any plan for staying "clean" rested entirely on the availability of showers in the towns through which we traveled.  Our wardrobes were dictated by two factors: current weather conditions and the cubic space of two milk crates.  People did their best to look nice—a scarf here, a pair of cheery socks there, but function dominated form. 
After several days of intense debate, wouldn’t you know, a number of men in camp borrowed dresses and skirts and donned them as a protest against the “dress” code.  I smiled and silently blessed them for their common sense and humor.  The fuss persisted over the summer months, and the men continued to wear skirts from time to time through the Plains states to keep the dress coders in check, but also because they discovered that on hot summer days, skirts were breezy and cool.  One man, I noticed, wore a dress every day, but he seemed to be making another point entirely.
The dress code issue was a big deal, proving that people can elevate any cause if they pump steady time and energy into it.  It seemed to me that the dress code was a stab at creating an identity for the march.  Like a teenager standing before a mirror trying on clothing and hairstyles and attitudes, the peace march struggled to find an enduring outward expression of our identity as a community.  As a middle school educator I was probably inclined to allow for experimentation, but from a practical standpoint, too, our disarmament message had to sway as many Americans as possible, so a broad range of diversity within our community gave us more points of contact with the people we met along the way.  Hippies, preppies, punks, straights, gays, nuns, anarchists, actors, truckers, soldiers, physicists, straight laced ladies, you name ‘em, we had ‘em, all connecting with people in communities on our way to Washington.  We needed our diversity to show so that, like that guy in the chili restaurant back in Barstow, everyone we met could look at some peace marcher among us and say, “You’re just like me!”
While I sided with the skirted men on the dress code issue, I felt strongly that the march shouldn’t support anyone who was unwilling to walk and work.  There were a few exceptions to the walking rule.  Babies, obviously, and people who sincerely wished to walk but found they couldn’t.  Through their ingenuity and determination, many contributed to life on the march.  Frank and Flossie’s Tent Repair service was a good example.  Our trusty porta-potty drivers were another.  So were the seniors who kept finances or washed dishes or drove the kids on field trips.  There was never a doubt that they were marching right along with us. 

Maintenance Crew Toiled Over Vehicles
Some peace march jobs ruled out walking.   The Advance Team, for instance, drove ahead to meet with local leaders and beg up campsites, showers, food supplies, rally sites, and more.  Our Media Outreach team similarly scouted opportunities for TV, radio, and newspaper coverage.  Back in camp, our Maintenance Crew toiled over our vehicles, many of which were in dicey condition to begin with, to keep them up and running.  They often sacrificed walking.  Other than these sanctioned exceptions to the work-and-walk rule, everyone had to walk to give the march meaning, and work to keep it moving. 

Media Crew Excelled at Getting Attention
One Rainbow Person was a tall, lanky fellow, about eighteen years old, with thick blonde dreadlocks.  Perhaps because he stood out as particularly unkempt, Harold drew a lot of flack for all of the Rainbow People.  Like the other Rainbow People, he usually slept under the trucks rather than setting up a tent, so one morning, as he was nearby, I asked him to help us with the loading.  He willingly joined the crew, and I overheard him and another marcher start a conversation.  She asked him how the peace march was going for him so far.  He told her he couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to hate him and why people wanted him to leave the march.  I felt a twinge of compassion and wondered what she would say next.  She stepped with him away from the loading line for a moment and explained to him what he apparently had not figured out on his own. 
“Harold,” she said, “there are only two things you have to do to stay on the march.  First, you have to work two days a week.”  She pointed out the work being done around camp at that moment.  “These people loading the truck are working, the people making lunches in the trailer over there are working, the people washing up after breakfast are working, and the people cleaning up the camp are working.  Everyone has a job, and you need to find one, too, or people won’t respect you here.  The other thing you have to do is walk on the march every day.”
Harold seemed to take it all in, and then he finished helping us load the truck.  I didn’t think much more about it until a few days later when I saw him walking on the march.  While the rest of us tromped along the shoulder, Harold stepped gingerly through the rough grass off the side of the road.  That’s when I realized that Harold had no shoes.  It occurred to me that the old adage about walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes would have explained a lot about Harold’s “march potato” tendencies.  Eventually, he must have gotten a cast-off pair from the lost and found, because the next time I saw him, he was wearing some old, worn sandals.  It looked to me like he was making a good effort to become a peace marcher.  Some time later I overheard some people complaining about Harold and was compelled to defend him saying that now that he was working and walking, Harold was part of the peace march, too.  I was pleased that most of the marchers eventually accepted him, and that a few of the Rainbow People found a place on the march.  At night, alas, a good number of them still slept under the trucks. 

Remmy's Rainbow Cart Transporting Girls and Dinners
While some marchers were making mountains out of molehills, others were inventing solutions to everyday problems.  When it became clear that the younger marchers couldn’t walk the full distance of the march each day, one man named Remmy took it upon himself to build a couple of two-wheeled carts that could be pushed like wheelbarrows or pulled like rickshaws.  They were made of sturdy wood but meticulously balanced and remarkably lightweight.  Remmy covered the sides with festive, rainbow fabric, so the carts looked as great as they rode.  Remmy’s "rainbow carts" were among dozens of individual initiatives that improved our quality of life.  Early on, two marchers acquired a small, flatbed trailer.  They installed a large plastic tank on top and connected it with hoses that brought the water down to half a dozen spigots.  They attached a length of guttering along both sides of the trailer to drain the water off to one end and onto the ground.  They created a communal wash-up wagon in a camp that otherwise had no running water. 
Although the original PRO-Peace medical team had left long ago, we had the good fortune to have with us a dentist and an oral hygienist.  Somehow, they had the means to obtain a mobile dentist office for the duration of the march.  The couple put out the word that anyone who was due for a cleaning or needed minor dental work done could make an appointment.  Their RV was equipped with a dentist chair, examination lighting, and all the usual tools needed for a check-up. 
A small group took the initiative to paint several of our vehicles.  Over a period of weeks, they transformed our drab caravan into a colorful convoy that clearly identified us as “The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament” wherever we went.  Anyone in camp could easily locate “Kiddie Haul,” “Info-Com,” “Peace Academy,” or “The Media Bus.”  I loved the paint job on the truck used to extract the contents of the porta-potties.  The Reagan administration had attempted to neutralize the nation’s nuclear weapons systems with nifty names like the “Space Defense Initiative” or Orwellian war-is-peace names like “Peacekeepers.”  In green and white, the neat calligraphy on the side of the truck read, “If Nuclear Weapons are Peacekeepers… This is a Truckload of Roses.”

If Nuclear Weapons are Peacekeepers...
Someone announced that “Peace City” needed a mayor.  By osmosis, we unanimously chose Justine, an outgoing, down-to-earth woman who had up to that point been the head of the Greens Keepers, the group that made sure we left each campsite better than we’d found it.  Justine rose to the office with aplomb.  I felt proud whenever she stood to represent us.   A two-prong program defined her mayoral office: “Keys and Trees.”  She enlisted Will, a woodworker, to craft keys to “Peace City.”  He carved “The Great Peace March,” along with the date and the key number, into each wooden key.  Justine contacted the town hall of every town and city along our route and asked to meet with the mayor in a goodwill ceremony.   She presented the local mayor with a key to “Peace City,” and the mayor reciprocated.  By the end of the march Mayor Justine had collected keys and gavels and welcome plaques from nearly every town and city we passed along the way.
Mayor Justine also invited a local nursery to donate a “peace tree” and arranged for the planting to take place during the goodwill ceremony.  Residents and peace marchers gathered in a local park for a blessing, a brief speech about the communities gathered in friendship, and a song or two.  Peace marchers usually supplied the music.  Some marchers became tree-planting groupies.  By the time we got to eastern Colorado, Justine was lightheartedly boasting that she was planting “the longest, thinnest forest in America.”