Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Five: "You Are the New Day"

Plane, bus, train to Princeton Junction.  Cassie and I spotted Mom by her snow white hair on a distant platform.  She was standing near a big poster that read, “Lunar Space Station.”  We had to laugh.  Mom was the science mind of the family, an amateur archaeologist and something of an astronomy buff.  She would have preferred meeting us at a lunar space station instead of plain old Amtrak.  After big hugs, we chatted nonstop in the car on the way to the hotel.  Cassie and I had news and Mom asked a million questions. 
Everyone was in good spirits for Terry and Ginnie’s wedding.  All of my mother’s side gathered at the reception, a beautiful site overlooking the Delaware River.  I spent a long time talking with my grandmother, who was eighty-seven years old and loved nothing better than a party.  It was Terry and Ginnie’s big day, so I was restrained in sharing news of the peace march with my aunts, uncles and cousins.  I had the feeling that a couple of them would have joined me for the remainder of the trek if they could have.  The last time I had seen my family, the peace march was in tatters in Barstow; now we were making our way through the Buckeye State.  I briefed them, but the stories were already becoming too numerous to recount and the experience, difficult to put into words.  It took a long time to retell a peace march story, what with the geographical references, the people involved, and the cultural and community context.  I slowly became aware that most people did not have the time or patience to listen for more than a minute or two. 
After the wedding, I traveled to D.C. for a few days.  I hoped to lend a hand at the Great Peace March office in planning for our arrival in November.   I stayed with my parents in their home off P Street.  With four solid walls around me, I had a hard time sleeping in a bed at night and living indoors during the day.  Sitting at the dining room table was odd.  Sitting in a chair was odd.  Sitting at all was odd.  I felt as though I had stepped off a fast-moving escalator; my legs wanted to keep moving.  I was also intensely clean.  On the second morning, I paused in the shower with the soap in my hand to wonder why I was washing my body so soon after yesterday morning’s shower.
Mom and Dad took me to hear one of their favorite vocal groups, The King’s Singers, at Wolf Trap, a concert venue in Virginia.  The group performed a cappella, their tightly harmonized voices evoking a wide range of emotions.  Their performance of a piece called You Are the New Day moved me to tears.  “Thoughts that we as humans small; could slow worlds and end it all,” the lyrics said.  I reflected on the fact that the peace marchers were nobody special, but we all believed that by doing something extraordinary, we could rise above our everyday limitations and find the strength to overcome what we considered the great folly of our lifetime.  The lyric continued, “Hope is my philosophy; just needs days in which to be…”  The number of times people had asked, “Do you really think the peace march will do any good?” and I had responded, “I sure hope so.”  But hope was static without action, and the song’s final line, “You are the new day,” spoke to the promise of the future.
I had lunch with Dad at his favorite spot, the Cosmos Club, an exclusive gathering place for men who had made a contribution to society.  The club’s halls were lined with photographs of eminent scientists and politicians and diplomats.  The dining room tables were set with silver and crystal and white cloth napkins.  Dad and I talked about the mindset of young people living under the nuclear threat.  I told him about the study showing that many children were dubious about surviving to adulthood, and he seemed moved by the fact.  We talked about the conservative Reagan administration and their unwillingness to respond positively to the overtures made by the Gorbachev government for reaching a peaceful agreement on nuclear arms.  Dad favored a “cautious” approach.  Of the two of us, he was by far the more conservative.  I asked what, then, were our chances for reducing the nuclear arsenal.  Like me, he felt that any lasting change would have to come through our lawmakers on Capitol Hill.  So, the Great Peace March was on the right track.  He didn’t agree right away, but I could see it sinking in. 
Before lunch was over, we discussed one other topic.  My father was an avid reader and writer.  He urged me to write about my experiences on the peace march.  I told him I was keeping a journal but added that the challenges of living on the road made daily writing impossible.  He cautioned me to get the details down while they were still fresh in my mind.
Over the next few days, my father and I discussed the legislative process and the upcoming elections.  Cranston would have a hard Senatorial race in California, he said.  Markey was uncontested in his congressional district in Massachusetts.  I reminded myself to get an absentee ballot.  My father suggested I run for elected office.  The idea seemed preposterous, but out of curiosity I picked up a Congressional Directory and read some of the biographies.  It only took a few minutes to see that my interests and temperament were totally incompatible with the job.  I wouldn’t have survived the limelight, the intense competition, or the rancorous environment.  I didn’t have a law degree, and I wasn’t interested in getting one.  However, I thought of several peace marchers who would have made excellent candidates.  Lawrence, a young anarchist who served on the city council for the duration of the march, would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the job, and he had tough skin and a quick mind under pressure.  Several members of the Test Ban Affinity Group and a couple of the Wild Wimmin for Peace had the right stuff for a political career and would have represented our cause well.  There were at least a dozen people who came to mind.  When I imagined Capitol Hill peppered with elected peace marchers, it made me smile. 
I went to a meeting at the Great Peace March office near Dupont Circle in northwest Washington.  The GPM office was in a church basement at the edge of Rock Creek Park, just north of P Street.  Having lived several years in and around Washington, I hoped to help in working out details of our arrival or perhaps in offering names of local people as contacts in government and education.  As the meeting commenced, I realized that with just eight weeks to go before our arrival, the staff did not have a concrete plan in place.  When I asked what they had in mind, some expressed frustration in dealing with the city’s bureaucracy.  I didn’t know much about organizing big events, but I had witnessed many demonstrations, protests and marches in Washington.  “There are demonstrations in D.C. almost every day,” I pointed out.  “The police handle parade permits all the time.  They have a standard procedure in place.  There’s no need to re-invent the wheel; it’s just a matter of applying for the permits from the Park Police.”
“Well, we already applied for the permits to demonstrate near the White House,” said one staffer, “and we have permission to gather on Capitol Hill.”
“Okay, but we still need a parade permit?”  I asked.
“Yes, because we haven’t identified a march route yet,” a staffer pointed out.
“I’m concerned,” I said, “that if we don’t get these in, we may miss deadlines.”
There was more.  Another staffer pointed out that the office was bogged down in disagreement among themselves as to how the march should conclude.  Based on what they told me, though no one said so directly, I had the sense that there were a few among the absentee staffers who wanted the Great Peace March to subvert the U.S. Park Service protocol and that they were intentionally stalling the process.  Maybe they were still operating on David Mixner’s grandiose plan for large-scale civil disobedience, but the peace march had evolved into something very different, and the D.C. organizers needed to come together to support the march that actually existed.  I urged the D.C. staff members to come and spend time on the march so they could get an idea for the kind of planning that would be appropriate to our arrival in Washington.  Before the meeting ended, we brain stormed a list of possible campsites, march routes and demonstration sites.
Back at home, Mom and Dad heard my frustrations and offered suggestions for a viable plan.  In a family of able political and social organizers, these were not talents or skills that came naturally to me.  I preferred to stay behind the scenes.  I did have ideas for ending the march that would take advantage of what D.C. had to offer.  I thought, for instance, that we might camp at Haines Point on the Potomac River near an inspirational statue known as “The Awakening.”  I thought we should all converge on Capitol Hill on one day to meet with our legislators.  But my suggestions had no sticking power if I couldn’t be in D.C. to develop plans and see them through.  Understandably, the D.C. organizers were working on ideas of their own as well as those of marchers who held positions of leadership on the march.  It was hard to know who had the ear of the D.C. staff and what was being suggested.   
I sat in the basement at my father’s IBM Selectric and typed up another newsletter, taking comfort in the knowledge that sixty or seventy supporters continued to follow my progress.  Writing helped me articulate recent events; the thought of another person reading my newsletter forced me to choose descriptions carefully.  I massaged the wall-to-wall, shag carpeting through my stocking feet and gazed from time to time at the family photos and personal artifacts that populated my father’s workspace.  I wrote, more hopefully than I believed, that plans for our arrival were “falling into place,” and that permits to march at the White House and Capitol had been submitted.  I invited my supporters to join us for the final march into Washington or, if they couldn’t be there, to write letters to their representatives that would coincide with our arrival.  It was a luxury to have a warm, dry place to write.  When the newsletter was done, I caught up with my peace march journal.
Mom and Dad invited an old family friend, Glen Matthews, to dinner.  Glen was a community organizer with many years experience.  He was interested in the Great Peace March, in part because he supported nuclear disarmament, but also because he was intrigued by the idea of creating a community from scratch.  At dinner, he recommended several local community leaders who might help in planning for our arrival.  In fact, our DC office had already contacted some of these people but had been unable to make things gel.
I mentioned to Glen that I had heard from peace organizers across the country that petty disagreements often prevented the movement from gathering enough of a ground swell to accomplish lasting change.  Glen nodded knowingly and asked if I was familiar with “Beyond War,” a group with which he was affiliated.  I said I wasn’t.  He said that their simple, clearly stated goal was to make war obsolete.  I was intrigued by that angle.  The “Beyond War” motto had put its finger on one of the problems that had been percolating in my mind for several weeks.  Next to my fellow peace marchers, many of whom were true “peace activists,” my views seemed almost hawkish.  I was not walking for peace; I was walking for global nuclear disarmament.  I wasn’t against peace, of course, but peace seemed a nebulous goal, like blowing bubbles into the wind.  I wasn’t sure we’d recognize peace even if we’d arrived at it.  However, when Glen introduced the idea of making war obsolete, that goal seemed tangible, and certainly nuclear war was obsolete.  As one of the signs in camp put it, “Nuclear War Doesn’t Prove Who’s Right…Just Who’s Left.”  That clever phrase, “making war obsolete,” Glen said, helped many peace activists overcome differences and work together.
September 18th was a busy day as I prepared to return to the march.  Dad very kindly donated enough money to fund my newsletter, so I prepared everything Cassie needed to send them out.  Mom offered to take me shopping for new clothes.  She was the camper in our family, the one who had encouraged my love of the outdoors by sending me out to explore the woods and creeks and fields near our home.  While Dad preferred a hotel and restaurant, Mom was fine with a camper and cook stove.  It was easy to be with her.  She understood my motives.  We kept the shopping list short: underwear, a pair of pants, and a plaid flannel shirt for the cold days ahead.  I wondered what I would remove from my crates to make room for the new clothes until I realized I’d be wearing layers from now to the end of the march. 
I returned to the GPM D.C. office for a second meeting only to discover that some of the staff who had not been present at the previous meeting had already discarded every brain storm idea we had drafted.  I was not the only person to express dismay that a small group had effectively co-opted the planning process.  By the end of the meeting I concluded that I could not be helpful on the D.C. end.  Our arrival in Washington would be, as they say, what it was.  My place was on the march.
Mom and Dad had been generous, supportive, and totally amazing as parents go.  The next time I would see them would be as I crossed the border into D.C. at the end of the march.  As it turned out, their friend, Glen, was headed north and generously offered to drive me back to our camp in Warren, Ohio.  On the way, Glen asked me to tell him more about the march.  I threw my mental net into the sea of peace march experiences and hauled up a few stories and facts and insights, but the images and events were all infinitely connected, and it was hard to give shape to any one story.  I jabbered what sounded to me like an incoherent stream of thought.  I was relieved when he slipped a cassette of a “Beyond War” program into the cassette player.  The program brought together songs, stories, and autobiographical vignettes on a common theme of moving beyond war. 
The presenters included a retired U.S. Navy Admiral named Gene LaRoque and Russell Schweickart, the astronaut.  I was impressed.  These were not your typical liberal peaceniks.  Schweickart talked about traveling into space.  He recalled looking out the tiny window of the spacecraft back at planet Earth, a little dot in space.  As he looked at his home planet far away, he said, he realized that everything he knew, all of history, all of man’s accomplishments, all of man’s wars, everyone he loved, lay on that tiny planet; and how fragile it all seemed.
Schweikert also talked about his early days in the U.S. Air Force when his duty was to transfer nuclear bombs to and from the airplanes that carried them.  Waiting on the airfield for the planes to land, he sometimes would lie on his back looking at the night sky full of stars, thinking about our nuclear weapons.  He said he assumed that political leaders and high-ranking military officers understood better than he the purpose behind our nuclear strategy.  As he matured and rose in rank, however, he came to wonder whether the men in charge could really justify the nuclear arms race.   He began to question the assumption that nuclear weapons were necessary and came to believe that the authority and responsibility for nuclear warfare lay not with our leaders but within him and all of us as citizens.  That’s how Schweikert became an advocate for nuclear disarmament: by learning to think for himself.
 I listened to Glen’s tape, wanting to remember every word.  I was moved by the possibility that as a construct of man, war could be transformed and left behind.   Much to my delight, at the end of the cassette was The King’s Singers performance of “You Are the New Day.”
After the cassette ended, Glen and I talked about peace groups and the peace movement and the peace march.  What I appreciated most about him was that he was persistently positive, and he asked great questions:  How were people recording the events on the march?  What were the organizing structures?  Whom did I admire and why?  Glen was genuinely curious and open-minded; discerning but non-judgmental.  He gradually dropped the expectation that I would or should be at the center of the Great Peace March organization, and we spoke at length about what was most important to me: to stop the bomb from destroying the awesome beauty of our earth and restore our children’s faith in the future.  Glen dropped me at the peace march site, but the marchers had already left for the day, and the vehicles were nearly all gone, so, unfortunately, I was unable to show him our camp.  I appreciated the ride so much, but mostly I was grateful for a thought-provoking conversation.  I should have been the one leaving him with a gift, but as I gathered my belongings and said goodbye, Glen gave me the “Beyond War” cassette.