Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter Twelve: "A Mantle of Grace"

The jaunt from Camp Chief Hosa to Red Rocks Park just west of Denver was an easy eight-miler, but I wouldn’t be walking.  It was my first day on the job—my new job, loading trucks.  Evan and I decided to put our brute strength to the test by signing on as truck loaders two days a week.
The peace march had two trucks for transporting all our personal gear.  Each had a long central aisle running the full length of the trailer.  Sturdy wooden shelves along the sides of the aisle held our green crates, two per marcher.  Every morning, the marchers rolled up their tents, sleeping bags, duffle bags and whatnot and left them in big piles near the trucks.  The loading crew, of which Evan and I were now members, formed a bucket brigade and passed the gear into the trucks.  One loader was designated to do the stacking, fitting everything into place from floor to ceiling until the whole aisle was completely packed right up to the two big doors.  I should have known I would love heaving tents and sleeping bags.  Even as a little child, I liked proving myself by doing jobs that required physical strength.  When I was five or six years old, my grandfather, who was always looking for an extra hand in the garden, nicknamed me "Hercules" because I had demonstrated that I could carry the big watering can or drag heavy bags of mulch wherever they were needed.  On our first day on the job as loaders, since no one else seemed game, Evan and I volunteered to be stackers.
  Stacking gear was like a huge game of Tetras.  I had to simultaneously fill a space and look for my next option without knowing exactly what shape or size would present itself next.  The bucket brigade passed the pieces into the truck without pause.  I wasn't by nature a speedy worker, but I was good at establishing a rhythm, so I set the pace like a metronome ticking in my head.  Receive, twist forward, stack, twist back, receive, twist forward, stack, twist back.  As the stack got higher, I had to step up onto the shelves on either side of the aisle to add to the top of the pile.  Evan was presumably doing the same dance over in his truck.  The task was challenging and fun.  They weren't the most beautifully loaded trucks in history, but for a first time, we hadn't done badly, and, most important, the gear all fit. 
Evan went off to find a cup of coffee and I went into the little “Kiddie Haul” school bus that was used as a meeting point for the littlest peace marchers.  I found a broom and swept out the dirt, then arranged the children’s books neatly on the shelves.  The childcare workers tried to keep "Kiddie Haul" orderly and clean, but whereas global nuclear disarmament presented a reasonably attainable goal, cleanliness on the peace march was a truly hopeless cause.  My motives weren’t entirely altruistic.  Tidying up the childcare bus was a random act of kindness that helped me bid a final farewell as I moved away from working with the kids and into the business of loading trucks. 
I found Evan at the Chief Hosa Lodge.  We relaxed for a few minutes, he with his tall, Styrofoam cup of coffee and me with my tea, on the Adirondack chairs on the patio.  We were feeling pretty smug after our truck-loading experience.  Bill arrived.  It was a workday for him, too.  Bill was on the “Campscape” crew, whose job was to put up and break down the big town hall tents.  The steep terrain at Camp Chief Hosa had made it impossible to put up the big tents, so Bill was enjoying an easy morning of it.   As we sat talking, an elderly man walked up and asked if someone could help him remove his wading boots.  He was not a peace marcher, just a camper or a hunter passing through.  I was closest, so I stood up and pulled off his boots, first one, then the other, as he rested his hand on my shoulder for support.  After the man toddled off, boots in hand, Bill said with a wry smile, “You know, it’s really an advantage to be ready for anything that comes along.”  
Evan started to chuckle.  I had no idea what they were talking about, but then I realized how odd the old man’s request had been, and the three of us had a good laugh. 

Original Journal with Found Desert Flowers and Butterfly Wings
             Evan had borrowed a car, so after Bill departed, he and I walked back to the parking lot.  As we crossed the bridge that passed over the highway to Red Rocks, we glanced down at the road below.  There, entering the highway from the entrance ramp was one of our gear trucks—with the big back doors swinging wide open.  Our truck loader bravado suddenly vanished as we imagined hundreds of sleeping bags and tents strewn across the highway.  We looked at each other in horror.  At that very moment, Frank and Flo drove by in their tent repair van, so we flagged them down, babbling a desperate explanation.  Frank responded immediately, heading off at top speed to see if he could intercept the truck and save our gear.
In the meantime, Evan and I headed for the parking lot and got the car.  Evan drove.  After a mile or two, we concluded, much to our relief, that the highway appeared free of camping gear.  We relaxed a little, and I gazed out the window as we said goodbye to the last of the mountain valleys, rolling, sun-kissed and unexpectedly green.  The lush, low hills reminded me of the west coast of Ireland, where I had spent a few weeks traveling in my college days.  Intermittent clouds sent a checkered design of light and shadow over the land, and shades of green competed with one another for the spotlight.  Evan was keeping his eyes on the road, so I described the last valley to him and told him about the time I’d fallen fast asleep in the afternoon sun on a loamy cliff high above the sea in Ireland.  The thick, green moss was as comfortable as any bed.  Evan was intensely proud of his heritage and yearned to travel to Ireland, Scotland and England, the homes of his ancestors.  We agreed that it was strange—in a good way—to see Ireland in Colorado.  We also agreed that the Great Peace March was not a good place to get the Wanderlust out of your system.  Within minutes, the landscape changed completely.  Where the valley eased off, a scattering of enormous, red mesas and broad, red rocks had fallen, millions of years ago, off the edge of the mountain.  This was Red Rocks.  Evan pulled into the parking lot.  There were the gear trucks, their back doors securely latched shut.  Frank and Flossie had saved the day.  "Guess we packed 'em pretty tight," Evan suggested, the bravado returning to his voice.  I laughed and breathed a sigh, "Yea, I guess we did."  
Upon arrival, I felt a bit queasy.  We had to wait for the Workers’ Shuttle to arrive anyway, so I walked a short distance into the park and lay down on a big, flat, red rock, hoping that my headache and upset stomach had more to do with gazing out the window at images of Ireland whizzing by than whatever I’d eaten for breakfast.  Given that we purchased food from local greengrocers and farm cooperatives, and that it was prepared by a rotation of ten or fifteen marchers in the great outdoors with limited access to running water, it was something of a miracle that no one had come down with food poisoning.  Then again, we kept all of our food storage, prep and cooking facilities remarkably clean, and most of us were fastidious about washing our hands before meals.  Alfred, a master carpenter from Massachusetts with snowy white hair and a neatly trimmed beard, said he believed the peace march had “a mantle of grace” keeping us safe and sound all along the road. 
I awoke a little while later like a lizard blinking in the sun.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, Red Rocks… the peace march.  I took a deep breath.  My head had cleared.  Another breath.  My stomach felt better.  I reflected on the fact that among my new skills, I had developed the ability to fall asleep almost anywhere.  A flat stone in the sun had served me fine.  I joined Evan and the crew and unloaded the trucks, carefully stacking gear into piles according to the “neighborhood” code written on the outside of the bags.  When we were done, I set up my tent on a site overlooking the parking lot.  From my vantage point, Denver was visible as a pool of brown smog about ten miles off in the distance. 

Our Campsite at Red Rocks, Colorado
In addition to the geological park, Red Rocks was home to an outdoor amphitheatre that was a popular venue for folk and rock bands.  I walked to the front entrance to see if I could find out who was currently on the bill, but the gates were closed, so I strolled back and found Bill and Craig playing their guitars in the afternoon sun.  I sat with them and for the first time heard Bill perform his original songs.  His capricious guitar style and demented lyrics made his songs seem like a Diane Arbus photograph set to music.  Unlike me, Bill apparently didn’t care what other people thought of his music, and that seemed to set him free.  Craig, it turned out, was new to the guitar, though you would never have known from the way he was strumming and attempting to play complex chords and progressions that took him well beyond jazz.  They had a book of Credence Clearwater Revival songs, so we leafed through and played some:  “Looking Out My Back Door,” “Bad Moon Rising.”  When “Proud Mary” came up, I had to admit to Bill and Craig that I’d sung in a top-40 band when I was in high school, and this was one of our songs.  They found the notion of me in an evening gown behind the microphone on stage in a cocktail lounge with a band of guys wearing white tuxedos entertaining indeed.  I figured they might as well know the truth.  Our little hootenanny was interrupted by a park ranger who drove by in a truck announcing—through a bullhorn—that walking or climbing on the rocks was dangerous and strictly forbidden; he added that we could die from climbing on the rocks.  The park authorities had directed us to camp near the rocks, so we were annoyed by the mixed message.  Still, we tried to be good guests and follow the rules, so our musical trio moved to a less deadly spot.  We were done singing anyway, and we joked that, like other big acts in the business, we could now say we had played Red Rocks.
Pete Seeger, renowned folk singer, arrived at camp that evening, as did a dangerous thunderstorm.  Ignoring the first rule of storm safety, I had pitched my tent on a high spot above the parking lot because the yellow cacti were in bloom and I wanted to be near them.  The sky turned absolutely black; I could hear distant thunder and see flashes of lightning approaching at the front of the storm.  I retreated into my little nylon dome, thin assurance against the gusting wind, and lay down on my sleeping bag.  Fortunately, my stakes were well planted and my rain fly was securely attached.  I was pretty sure the whole tent wouldn’t blow away as long as I was in it to weigh it down, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.  The rain came in squalling buckets as the wind pressed hard against the tent, bending the arced tent poles inward.  As the lightning flashed closer and closer, all I could do was lie spread eagle on my back, holding the shivering tent poles steady with my hands and feet, and praying to God that this spot had been hit by lightning before.  Given its exposed location, I thought there was a good chance it had.   I counted aloud the seconds between flashes of lightning—“one sweet potato, two sweet potato, three sweet potato…” and the interrupting echo of thunder.  Soon the pause between sweet potatoes closed completely as the storm raged directly overhead.  I laughed every time the thunder cracked, but it was the uneasy laughter of a person hoping the cup will pass—and quickly.  I imagined my legacy among friends and family of having been struck by lightning on the Great Peace March, and I didn’t like the sound of it.  At last the storm eased and my heart stopped pounding.  Soon, it was just the rain, and then that passed, too.  My little ship had survived the storm.  One point for Alfred's mantle of grace.
   I lay still and listened to the marchers unzip their tents all around camp.  Everyone was heading to the evening program at the big town hall tent.  It would be standing room only, with a large overflow crowd, so I decided to stay in my trusty dome home and listen from above.  Pete Seeger strummed his banjo and sang, and the tent full of marchers joined in.  When the last song was over, a spirited conversation flowed through camp as marchers returned to their tents and settled in for the night, our last night in the Rockies.
 Early the next morning, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder spoke to the peace marchers.  In a slightly shaky but enthusiastic voice, she welcomed us.  For the moment, she said, we were living in her congressional district and were therefore her constituents.  Gerrymandering was never more finely applied.  Her message on disarmament was unwavering.  She insisted that we were not alone in our wish to end the nuclear arms race.  She said we had supporters on Capitol Hill and urged us to awaken America to the cause so that our supporters in government could legislate the changes we sought.  Schroeder’s speech galvanized the crowd and gave me hope that we were on the right track.

Journal Entry—June 2, 1986
Arrive in Denver at our camp near the Sunrise Café and quickly set up my tent so I can catch a ride to the Zephyrs’ baseball game.  The Zephyrs, the local farm team, have donated one hundred free tickets to the march and instantly become our home team.  The Kiddie Haul bus fills and we hit the road for Mile-High Stadium.  We form a large cheering section of Zephyr fans and remain loyal even as they fall behind the Buffalo Bisons by five runs.  We enjoy hot dogs and peanuts, though beer at $2.25 a glass keeps us all sober.  None of us has that kind of money.  Our name goes up on the scoreboard and we all cheer; a local fan leads us and we all cheer; one of our marchers, Matty spells out Z-E-P-H-Y-R-S using semaphores and we all cheer.  Finally, in the last inning, the peace marchers get an “om,” going, and sure enough, it works – an “om run” for the Zephyrs!  A moment of march magic.  On the bus back to camp—everyone singing TV theme songs.  Great night. 

Iris, Me and Evan Stepping Out of the Rockies and Into Denver
After the exhilaration of the Rockies, Denver seemed soupy and polluted and crowded.  I had worried about safety in the mountains because of the narrow, winding roads, unpredictable weather and precarious campsites.  None of my worries had come to pass.  However, we set up camp in the Denver railroad yard a few hundred feet from the train tracks and, like hoboes of the Depression Era, slept in the shadow of the empty freight cars.  Everything around us was rust and metal and grease and chipping paint.  The trains clanked and creaked against one another as they shifted on the tracks all night long.  America’s freight trains had become our constant travelling companions through the mountains, but I hoped we wouldn’t make a habit of sleeping with them.
My old shoes had gone flat, but I hadn’t realized just how worn down they were until I slipped my feet into a new pair at a downtown mall in Denver.  Nike Airs were true to their name.  I took a few steps and laughed aloud, directing a grin to the two salespeople who had never, I was sure – they were both about seventeen years old—shod a more appreciative customer.  “Feels like I’m on a trampoline!”  I said. "I can’t wait to test them out on the road."  I told the clerks I was walking across America for nuclear disarmament.  They seemed cautiously interested, so I continued the conversation.  When I mentioned that my old shoes had walked me all the way from California, something clicked.  Still, they seemed reluctant to get too friendly with an overenthusiastic customer.  “Unfortunately," I lamented, looking over the old, worn pair, "my storage space is limited, so I can’t keep the old ones.  Do you think I should send them to the Smithsonian?”  They both chuckled.  So, I thought, they know the Smithsonian.  These kids had promise.  “I guess they wouldn’t be interested,” I sighed.  The young man respectfully held out the trash can.  They were both part of a ritual now and didn’t think it odd, or didn’t let on if they did, when I paused before placing the shoes inside.  “Bye, old shoes,” I said.  “Thanks for bringing me this far.”
On my way out of the shoe store, I imagined what these two kids might talk about after I left.  Maybe they’d just roll their eyes and shake their heads and go back to talking about Beverly Hills Cop or the Cosby Show.  On the other hand, maybe—even if it were hours or days later— they’d remember that woman who was walking across the country for—what was it?  Oh, yea—global nuclear disarmament. 
I stopped for a few minutes to listen to a band playing Andean folk music in the atrium of the mall.  Their instruments - pipes and guitars and hand drums - and driving rhythms appealed to me.  They must have traveled thousands of miles to play in this shopping mall in America.  I imagined them in their home villages.  I reflected on a world without them.  On the peace march, this was the sad scrim against which the world’s wonders were projected.  I added Andean folk music to my growing list of reasons to end the nuclear arms race.  As I left the shopping mall, I noticed that my feet felt much better.  I made a mental note that when my knees and hips and feet started to feel fatigued, it was probably time for a new pair of shoes.  I anticipated an investment in three more pairs before it was all over.
We held a peace rally on the steps of the Colorado state capitol.  It was a lightly attended affair of about 1,500 people including us, the Denver Post reported, but those who gathered were enthusiastic and generous in their support.  The mayor read an inspired declaration saying, "The Great Peace March is one of the most ambitious and monumental civilian undertakings in history."  A group of Native American elders spoke about our shared responsibility for caring for the earth.  Georgia and I sang “Long Walk to D.C.,” and Fergus and his group performed, but the highlight came when someone took the microphone and announced that a doctor from Denver had written a personal check to the Great Peace March for twenty-five thousand dollars.  “If Paul Newman can give $25,000,” the doctor announced, “I can too.”
A roar of cheers and a collective sigh of relief swept through the crowd.  We chattered and did little happy feet dances; we whooped and cheered some more.  I couldn’t imagine having the resources to make such an enormous gift, and to entrust a small fortune to a caravan of peace pilgrims was really quite remarkable.  I wasn’t privy to the details of our financial situation, but it was clear that we were living on a shoestring (not inappropriately so, Bill would have added), and the doctor’s gift would allow our finance department to secure our solvency. 

Cheering a Generous Donor at the State Capitol in Denver
As a general rule, any time anyone gave me so much as a smile or a wave or a handshake, I took it as a direct order to make nuclear disarmament happen.  I imagined the single path we were taking across the United States and multiplied the number of supporters by an area that covered the entire country.  I was weak at math and geometry, but I knew the number had to be in the hundreds of thousands.  I often wondered if there were places in the country where we would have been completely scorned, but given that we had already passed unscathed through some relatively conservative areas, I concluded that we would have found many more supporters than detractors along any imaginable route.  The beauty of it was that five hundred of my fellow marchers were getting the same encouragement.  The “woop-de-doo” was coming not just from our fellow marchers in camp at the end of the day but from hundreds of local people, too, and every gesture of support made it that much easier for us to accomplish our goal.

"The GPM is One of the Most Ambitious and Monumental Civilian Undertakings in History..."
On the other hand, if we needed proof that not everyone agreed with us, the local press provided a steady supply.  The Denver Post covered our story as we approached the city.  The news stories laid out the facts, with photographs (including an appealing portrait of Lynnie, our youngest marcher, holding a globe pillow above her head), but the letters to the editor on the op-ed page revealed a heated local debate.  One reader wrote that she respected our efforts but then faintly praised our cause as “idealistic” and “probably hopeless.”  Another letter said we were walking across the country “on a lark.”  Many readers in the Post—and other newspapers—seemed unaware of our goal to end the nuclear arms race.  These readers often cited the sacrifices of World War II veterans in preserving the liberties of Europeans and Americans, and suggested that the peace marchers were not only disrespectful of those sacrifices but naïve to think that the world could live in peace.  It was clear to me that this misconception was a consequence of marchers talking too generally about peace and not specifically about global nuclear disarmament.  I was sure that if we could emphasize the "for Global Nuclear Disarmament" half of our name, we could convince those veterans—and others who had taken the time to write letters to the editors—that having 50,000 nuclear weapons was going overboard to defend our liberties.