Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Three: "This Isn't the March I Signed Up For"

At the end of February, the PRO-Peace marchers walked from the dry riverbed at White Oak to the lush, green grass at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.  Our gigantic gaggle gradually mastered walking without spilling off sidewalks or bumping into parking meters.  We stepped gingerly, careful not to step on one another’s heels or tumble like dominoes when the people up ahead stopped at a red light.  In our clumsiness we may very well have swept up a couple of local pedestrians and carried them downstream in the human river.  (How did you join the peace march?  Well, I went out for my coffee break one day and suddenly I was drawn into a swarm of people, and, well, here I am...)  Cars beeped, drivers waved, people shouted.  Occasionally, I waved back, but mostly I did my best to get down the street without crashing into anything or anyone.  Outwardly, I beamed with excitement; inwardly, I hoped the PRO-Peace march wouldn’t be a cattle drive all the way across the country.

Learning to Walk: White Oak to Griffith Park
As campsites go, Griffith Park was nearly idyllic.  Mature sycamore trees, their tan bark marbled and peeling, shaded the gently rolling green hills.  Fay and I found a comfortable spot to pitch our tent.  Except for the brown haze of smog streaming in from the valley, the place was perfect.  It was something of a surprise, then, when a PRO-Peace spokesperson called the entire camp together for a series of unwelcomed announcements.  First we learned that the insurance company that had been contracted to provide our health coverage had withdrawn from the agreement.  Whether this was a corporate sponsorship that had fallen through or a lack of funding on our part was unclear.  As a consequence of the failed insurance coverage, the medical team that was to have accompanied us had also pulled out.  Finally, the group liability insurance that would have protected the towns along our route had failed, so our campsites all the way across America were no longer guaranteed.   Basically, we were about to walk across the United States with no health or liability insurance, no medical team, and nowhere to sleep.

Griffith Park
The marcher turnout was somewhere around 1,200 people.  Some said 1,400.  It was hard to get a definitive number, but in either case, we could not possibly have raised enough money to pay for the march as originally conceived.  When we began to hear rumors that some marchers had not raised their $3,235 in personal sponsorship money (conservatively, we should have raised over three million dollars), we started to wonder whether PRO-Peace had procured sufficient corporate matching funds.  Beyond the “North Face” label sewn on the front of each tent, there was no evidence of corporate sponsorship advertising on vehicles or equipment in camp. PRO-Peace staff were unable or unwilling to answer questions about the sudden changes in the status of the march.  An undercurrent of chatter arose that perhaps PRO-Peace had, indeed, raised matching funds but had spent the money lavishly before the march began.  In my visits to the PRO-Peace offices in L.A., I had never seen any evidence of wasteful spending, but there had been an advertising campaign, including a television ad that featured Madonna walking with a group of "marchers" somewhere near Los Angeles.  We started wondering how much all of this had cost.  The rumors persisted.  Several hundred marchers, including many of the families, decided that they had no choice but to leave the march.  In emotional speeches at Griffith Park, many of those leaving asked those of us who were staying on to carry them in spirit and promised their support from home.  Many expressed disappointment and anger in an oft-repeated phrase, “This isn’t the march I signed up for.” 
No one could have been oblivious to the signs of deterioration.  I was aware that the original dream was dimming, but somewhere in my mind I crossed health insurance, liability insurance, guaranteed campsites, and a medical team off my list, and I was still up for walking across the country.

"People Should Seriously Think About Going Home"
Beginning in Griffith Park, two trajectory events evolved side by side.  One was the rapid deterioration of the original PRO-Peace march with its bankruptcy and repossession of vehicles and exodus of marchers, and the other was the formation of a new march by those who, despite the uncertainty, looked around and concluded that the peace march was not yet over.  Considering the stream of bad news coming from PRO-Peace, perhaps the earliest attribute shared by those of us who hung on was simply a high tolerance for chaos.  One bit of information we did know for certain was that the departure plan had not changed.  PRO-Peace promised the march would set out from Los Angeles as scheduled.

Friendship Circle at Griffith Park
Journal Entry—March 1, 1986
            This is the day we’ve waited for: The send-off of the Great Peace March from city hall in Los Angeles.  After today we will be on the road.  In four or five days we will have established ourselves enough to see the march in practice.  We leave the verdant shade of Griffith Park in mid-morning and travel by bus on the freeway south to the Coliseum.  From my window seat I watch as we pass Los Angeles, my home for the past eighteen months, and say farewell.  We park in the empty street near the Coliseum and gather at the staging area, an asphalt parking lot surrounded by a high chain-link fence, not a very scenic or comfortable spot for the hour-long wait until the march begins.  Fergus from Nevada and I head for nearby University of Southern California under the pretense of taking a self-guided tour of the campus, but in reality I am in search of chocolate and find it—M&M’s and a Payday bar—in the college bookstore.  We walk to the grassy lawn outside the Natural History Museum where Fergus leaves to find the march and I wait for my brother, David, and my friend, Andy, who are to meet me here shortly.  

            I hear a loud whistle.  It’s David.  He, Andy and I converge on the lawn and Andy presents me with a red rose as a farewell gift.  I’m so glad they’re here.  David listened to all my qualms and quandaries about this march.  He helped me cut away the fat and kept me moving forward.  As a going away gift, he gave me his telephone calling card number so I would always have a way to contact him free of charge.  Andy gave me the article where I first read about the march, and then accompanied me on training hikes.  I feel their spirits with me!  They are not permitted to walk with the marchers, so as the long line leaves, we agree to meet ahead at city hall. 

My Farewell Wishers
            Our route takes us through warehouse and business districts in downtown LA, but it’s Saturday so the streets are somewhat deserted and most businesses are closed.  We walk, as requested, four abreast along the sidewalk.  I take the curb side and hold the hand of Gregory, a punky guy from Lincoln, Nebraska, who wears little round, gold-rimmed glasses and reels me in every time I start to break away to wave to bystanders.  We hold up our arms, link pinkies, and give peace signs to the people on the sidewalks and in the windows above us.  The marchers around us laugh, whoop and holler with excitement as the feeling hits us—this is really it!
            Upon arrival at city hall we file through a crowd of farewell-wishers into a flagstone courtyard.  There we sit in a roped-off area as someone leads some impromptu songs.  We are unprepared and sound uninspired.  Someone begins to chant.
            “What do we want?”
            “When do we want it?”
            I cringe.  I was always vaguely disappointed to have been too young for the political action of the sixties, but I don’t want to live it now, and I certainly don’t want to portray a confused retro-60’s demonstration as we make our way across the country for nuclear disarmament. 
            Mayor Tom Bradley gives a brief speech welcoming us and wishing us well on our journey, and the marchers file to the bandstand for a speech by David Mixner and musical performances by Melissa Manchester, Mister Mister and others.  I choose to stay with David and Andy, having found them in the crowd.  Huge balloons spell out “Pro Peace,” someone has painted and erected a large mural in our honor, and vendors surround the place with souvenir shirts, buttons and baseball caps.  David buys a kosher burrito and a PRO-Peace cap.  Mixner’s speech is touching, but actor Robert Blake says it better, “The nuclear bombs belong to us.  We bought them with our taxes, so we have the right to do with them what we want,” and in doing so establishes himself as the common man’s public voice on the march. 

Send-Off at City Hall in Los Angeles
There Are Many Paths to Peace
Then it is time to leave city hall.  I linger to say goodbye to David and Andy.  Their support and love have brought me here, and they are urging me on!
Night falls as we move through the streets of East LA.  Hundreds of Hispanic families line the sidewalks, shake our hands in front of bars, and wave from windows and porches.  They shout in English and in Spanish, “Peace!”  “Viva la marcha!”  One little boy, about five years old, runs full-speed from his house to the sidewalk shouting, “Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!”  One of the old guys clearly doesn’t know what to think.  He just laughs and yells, “You crazy gringos!”
I wave my red rose and wait to meet someone’s eyes, and then we smile together as they wave back.  It’s fun—just like playing catch.  I call out in English and what little Spanish I know, “Paz, por los ninos!” “Paz—por todo el mundo!”  Rumors had circulated about the dangers of walking through East LA, but none came true.  No one wished us anything but “Good luck.  Good luck and God bless you…”
We arrive at the Cal State University campus where our campsite is a vast, flat, asphalt parking lot illuminated by high floodlights that stay on all night long.  We’re sleeping here?  No way.  The floodlights cast an artificial yellow fog through which we move to collect our gear from piles near the trucks and set up out tents in our “neighborhoods,” the extension tent poles click-click-clicking all over camp and tent zippers sounding their smoothly ascending scale to open and descending scale to close.  After dinner I lay down in my sleeping bag on my foam pad and, after the six-mile walk and the excitement of the day, slip into a satisfied slumber.

First Journal Entry - Petals from Andy's Rose
According to the PRO-Peace plan, every marcher walked four days and worked two days a week on a rotating schedule.  On the seventh day, the community would stop and rest.  My first workday as a peace march teacher fell on the second day of the march.  In the morning, I met a small group of elementary school aged children and the three young adults who had come to help look after them for the day.  We all climbed into a shuttle to our next site at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.  PRO-Peace had procured a small fleet of airport limousines for transporting marchers who were sick, lame or too tired to walk.  Unfortunately, these stretch limos were painted a ritzy golden brown, elevating the already rising suspicion about the fiscal decisions PRO-Peace had made.  I was growing annoyed that the home schooling program hadn’t taken shape yet.  I wasn’t looking forward to babysitting for a whole day, and I had a terrible headache to boot.  Fortunately, the three young adults provided plenty of energy and fun.  The Santa Fe Dam recreation area was a grassy lawn surrounding a reservoir.  A flock of geese had the run of the place.  Mounds of goose scat all along the water’s edge marked their territory and kept me from taking off my shoes and wading in.  One little girl asked me what all the green gooey stuff was, and when I told her, she kept her shoes on, too.  The kids were content to play a leisurely game of kickball and hang out on the picnic tables, but wading by a goose pond didn’t match my idea of a peace march school.  
In the late afternoon, the march arrived, looking like an army of ants along the high, distant wall of the dam.  Everyone who had worked that day gathered, along with the kids, to form a welcoming party.  We clapped and cheered as the marchers arrived in camp. 
“Yeah, marchers, welcome home!”
 “Woo-hoo!  Lookin’ good!”
We joked about how great it was to have a life where you were welcomed home at the end of the day with applause.  The welcoming ritual became our very first peace march tradition. 
In the evening, the entire camp gathered in an “all-city meeting.”  Our agenda was to create a plan for governing ourselves.  The conversation quickly dissolved into a discussion of the confusion about the status of the march and the growing resentment that PRO-Peace was supposedly in charge and at the same time invisible and unresponsive.  Frustrated archers aired concerns and volleyed opinions.  PRO-Peace supporters claimed that they were gradually reducing their organizational role as the peace marchers established a way of life on the road, but marchers wondered whether there would be a life on the road if PRO-Peace hadn’t raised enough money for the march to continue.  Several marchers demanded “marcher control.”  The meeting ended without resolution. 
The march continued to move forward as planned.  As we walked eastward along Base Line Road, the skyline of Los Angeles slowly receded behind us.  We had the luxury of wide, suburban sidewalks, but our procession had to be trained to walk without wandering out onto the streets.  For several days, PRO-Peace staffers stood at the sidewalk’s edge amiably shouting us into line.  They reminded us to walk no more than two or three abreast and herded us safely across streets and intersections.  This flanked style of walking became known as “city mode.” 
We strode along the sidewalks, walking first with one person, then with another, shifting forward and back to walk and talk with a number of people throughout the day.  At one point, a fellow marcher whom I’d met in Los Angeles pulled up along side me.  He had a pith helmet with a built-in, battery-operated fan.  He looked at his watch as we went along, giving the exact number of days, hours, minutes and miles we’d gone and how far, with equal precision, we had left to go.  I had to tell him candidly that if I analyzed the march at that level of detail, I’d never make it to Washington.  He smiled wanly and drifted away, and we never walked together again. 
Local residents and workers appeared in front of homes, shops and office buildings to watch us pass.  Some shouted out to us as we waved or gave them the peace sign.  A typical exchange went something like:
“Where are you going?”
“We’re walking to Washington, D.C.”
“You’re what?”
“Walking to Washington!”
“To stop the nuclear arms race!”
“You’re walking?!”
“Yes, 3,000 miles!”
“Good Lord!"
Then the bystander would excitedly break the news to the person standing next to him, as if she hadn’t just heard the whole conversation.  “Did you hear that?  They’re walking to Washington, D.C.!”  And then, turning back to us with a “what-else-can-I-say” expression, he’d add, “Well…Good luck!”
            Not everyone we encountered was so polite or positive.  From the outset, we heard expletive comments, though mostly good-natured in tone, and noticed cold stares from bystanders who clearly disagreed with our cause.  Someone shouted, “Peace through strength!” which a marcher countered with “Strength through peace!” Someone else called out, “Go walk in the Soviet Union!” to which someone in our group cordially replied, “We hope to!”
            Balancing the negativity, someone came to camp and donated two big boxes of sunglasses in all shapes and sizes for the marchers.  My first thought was to leave them for people who really needed them, but then I realized really needed them, so I sorted through the collection and picked out a pair—silver with black flecks—and tried them on.  They fit perfectly, and I was glad to have them.

Bad News Was Better Than No News
In the evening, we arrived in the city of Claremont, California.  A network of Claremont churches and synagogues joined forces to counteract a city council that had turned down our request to camp on public property.  The people of Claremont provided an enormous potluck dinner and places to stay overnight in church basements and social halls or with local families.  This was our first experience with what we would come to refer to as “Marcher-in-the-Home.”  With so many of us, it seemed as though there was a marcher in every home in Claremont.  If you went into a drug store or walked down the street, you’d see peace marchers everywhere.  Claremont embraced us, took us in, gave us food and shelter, and then set us back on the road.  They taught us the power of a community that opens its doors.  We wanted to be like Claremont.  In their independent action, they had embodied Dwight Eisenhower’s words: “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.”  Whether or not they agreed with our call for nuclear disarmament, the residents of Claremont acted on the greater spirit of welcoming us as travelers on the road.

Chaffee College Football Field

Journal Entry—March 4, 1986
            Today is my birthday.  We are camped at Chaffee College on the football field, a lush, green site.  As evening falls, a fellow marcher tells me that five women are standing on the football field yelling my name.  I walk to the middle of the field, now nearly covered with tents, and hear the cry go up again.  I yell, “Ye—es!” and turn to see Ruth Daley and her friends from the poetry reading.  I had completely forgotten the promise they’d made to appear on this day to take me out to dinner.  We all laugh, share a round of hugs, and, joined by Aaron, another peace march friend of theirs, head out to a nice dinner at a nearby inn.  At a fresh twenty-nine, I am the junior member of the dinner party.  Among my elders, I feel like a kid, so I am open to advice and feel a bit embarrassed that the march is not going well and that I know so little in answer to everyone’s questions.  The fact that Aaron is in the same situation gives me some comfort.  Our dinner conversation gives me a chance to air concerns and gain some perspective.  It also allows me to get to know their friend Aaron, whom they affectionately called Ari, and to see that he is determined to stay with the march despite the gathering clouds.  I reflect on the fact that I will spend the majority of the upcoming year on the march.  Our dinner together refreshes my commitment, and Aaron, with his serious demeanor and resolve, is a reminder to me not to wobble.

The next day, we walked an short five-miler to Glen Helen.  It was there that I realized that many of my fellow peace marchers apparently had not trained as rigorously as I had.  Endurance over speed, I was one of the last to arrive at camp, and I had to laugh at the picture that greeted me: hundreds of exhausted marchers sprawled out, shoes and socks off, baseball caps and water bottles strewn about, napping heavily on the grassy, green hills.  To me they looked like a peace march reenactment of Breughel’s Land of Cockaigne.
At Glen Helen, we had our first community “rest day.”  Everyone awoke at a leisurely pace and enjoyed a delicious breakfast.  I heard that some folks were planning to visit a nearby nudist recreation area, but I didn’t know any of my fellow peace marchers well enough for full exposure just yet, so I didn’t pursue that option.  Instead, Evan and I wet our dew rags, filled our water bottles and left the grassy campsite for a long walk out into the hot, dry desert along a road that seemed to lead nowhere.  We talked non-stop, shared an orange, examined a dead rattlesnake, and sang “Chatanooga Choo-choo” when we heard a train whistle strike the opening chord off in the distance.  We passed a California state prison installation and imagined the fate of the desperate inmate who would attempt an escape out here in the desert.  Two or three miles out, we circled around, found a little market where we bought some ice cream, and continued back to camp.  A short while later I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Was it a mirage?  No it was Neil, a marathoner from Cape Cod, running toward us at top speed through the sweltering heat.  He smiled and nodded cordially as he passed.  We laughed and waved to him.  It seemed a few marchers were into rigorous training after all.  Evan and I returned to camp via the “Screaming Chicken,” the local watering hole, where we washed down the ice cream with a beer apiece.  The heavy drinkers on the march had already gravitated to the bar and told us we’d really missed a party the previous night.  We settled in to enjoy the air conditioning and the friendly ambiance. 
            It was dark by the time we returned to camp.  I could hear some marchers playing music near one of the gear trucks, but I didn’t feel like joining them.  Singing and I were fickle friends.  I could play guitar well enough and harmonize my way through most songs, but sometimes singing felt like a burden; I felt the judgment of the listener on every note.  What made me most uncomfortable was finding myself as the song leader, trying to think of songs that everyone knew and that I could play on guitar.  “How about ‘American Pie,’” someone would say, and I’d have to admit that I didn’t know all the words.  “Well, how about ‘Like a Rollin’ Stone,’” someone else would suggest, and I’d have to admit I didn’t know the chords.  “You know anything by the Indigo Girls?” someone would ask, and I’d have to admit that I didn’t.  I knew lots of songs, but few people ever seemed interested in singing “Clementine” or “Erie Canal” or “If I Had a Hammer.”  My musical appeal had really gone downhill since Girl Scout camp.  Other times, I sang with abandon, surrendered any hope of playing all the chords right and had a great time.  There was no telling which mood the muse would ride in on. 
            For me, the most difficult day of the early march was the walk from Hesperia to Victorville.  Beyond the residential neighborhoods of outer Los Angeles, the landscape had opened up on either side of the road.  The sky was overcast, clouds thickening, roiling, and grey, and moving fast overhead.  The wind picked up, blowing the sand around, beating it hard against our legs and into our faces.  Everyone pulled up their hoods or wrapped whatever they had around their heads against the wind.  I put on my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the flying sand, tied my bandana across my nose and mouth, and pulled the strings on my hood tight.  Under my slicker, I had my Walkman on my belt, so I quickly rewound the cassette I’d been listening to, pressed the record buttons and narrated the sand storm as it hit.  At its most intense, the blasting sand prevented me from seeing more than a few feet in front of my face, but there was no place to go for shelter, so we all just continued moving forward, our bodies hunched against the wind.  Then the rain began, chilling the air and turning the sand under foot to mud.  My rain gear was adequate from my head to my hips, but my soaked pants and soggy shoes made it difficult to walk.  I had never experienced the harsh power of a sand storm, and I hadn’t anticipated walking through one on the peace march.  I was impressed and a little frightened by its sudden command of our surroundings.  The peace marchers looked miserable slogging through the cold rain as we hobbled shivering into Victorville.  For me this was a trying day.  For others, the next day would be worse. 
            On March 10th, we arrived at a campsite on Stoddard Wells Road, just outside Barstow.  At Stoddard Wells, the open desert dotted with low, dark green creosote bushes, stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see.  This was the desert of the old TV westerns.  Our vehicles were parked in a long convoy along the shoulder of the two-lane road.  The campsite spread out into the desert on one side of the road, our tents loosely organized into neighborhoods and providing a splash of color on the desert landscape.    The weather was typical of March in the Southern California desert: variably cool, windy and rainy.

Journal Entry—March 10, 1986
March is the rainy season in southern California, and when we arrive at our campsite at Stoddard Wells Road, the day has turned rainy and quite cold.  Very few marchers have the proper gear for living outdoors in cold conditions.  Our second North Face delivery hasn’t arrived yet, so I still haven’t gotten my Gore-Tex rain jacket.  My slicker repels the rain, but my body gets damp from perspiration and I shiver whenever we stop to rest.  I’m wearing Nikes for walking, but I don’t have any waterproof shoes or boots for the rain. 
            Unfortunately, others are worse off.  At least a dozen marchers get hypothermia on the way to Stoddard Wells.  People are passing cups of warm drinks to marchers as we arrive at camp.  Several marchers are standing around with sleeping bags hung over their shoulders.  Here at the edge of the desert where the landscape looks much the same in any direction, marchers with hypothermia are in danger of losing clarity and wandering off.  In this group of nearly a thousand people it’s hard to know when someone is missing.  Someone with a bullhorn directs us to form pairs and small groups to keep an eye on each other and report any strange behavior.  We chuckle at the latter, but it’s a serious situation.

Stoddard Wells Road