Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Four: "Howie"

            Cassie made a life for herself on the peace march.  By noon of her second day, she had already joined the kitchen crew—and recruited me to wash and chop celery and potatoes for dinner.  Now that she was getting acclimated, I quizzed her—What’s the mayor’s name?   Who is the peace march band?  What’s Evan’s hometown?  Who just lost his first tooth?—and was amazed by how much she already knew.
When we reached Port Clinton, the local town authorities offered the peace marchers a free ferry ride to Sandusky on Lake Erie.  It sounded like fun, so Cassie and I decided to join the group.  We walked in a long procession through Lakeshore, a tidy, gated Methodist community.  There were few clues that this was a Christian community, but as the dock came into view I noticed a huge cross hanging above the gangplank.  Suddenly, the vision of my hands-on healer at the Healing Light Center back in California returned to me in a flash.  I had nearly forgotten my past life as a child Crusader sold into slavery on the north African coast or drowned in the stormy Mediterranean Sea.  And now, here I was in Port Clinton, ready to step aboard a boat under the sign of the cross.  Was this my karmic return?  Was I destined to perish on a free ferryboat ride on the Great Peace March?  Gordon Lightfoot's famous ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," came to mind, feeding my rising fear—that a shipwreck on the Great Lakes was not outside the realm of possibility.  I told Cassie what was running through my mind, and she responded, charitably, I thought, given the absurdity of my concern.  “You don’t want to go?” she asked.  But pulling out now was impossible, really, as there was no backtracking to Sandusky.  Besides, my worries were ridiculous, so I ignored them and boarded the vessel—with the same blind faith that carried the kid Crusaders aboard those flimsy ships back in 1212.
The boat was crowded with marchers.  Cassie, Iris, Georgia and I found places on the deck next to the pilothouse.  From there I could hear the ship’s radio.  If a sudden squall or waterspout appeared to endanger our voyage, I wanted to be the first to know.  While carefree marchers moved about the boat, chatting and admiring the passing scenery, I took a visual inventory of the lifeboats and life vests.  Inside, a man played merry water tunes—Proud Mary, Sea Cruise and others—on a Hammond organ.  I was distracted from the pleasures of the trip, the experience oddly improved by the prospect that these moments might be my last.  The news headline in my mind read: “Peace Marchers Drown at Sea.”  When we finally filed down the gangplank in Sandusky, I was relieved to have survived a karmic false alarm -- and happy because Ohioans met us at the dock with lemonade and chocolate cake.  The whole ferry ride had taken all of fifteen minutes. 
Cassie and I walked the rest of the way to our next campsite, set up our tent and settled in for the evening.  A man named Howie was in camp, attempting to rejoin the march.  Howie was a marcher whose increasingly volatile behavior was becoming a problem for our community.  Some weeks earlier he had completely lost his temper when a woman rejected him.  He lashed out at her by spraying a fire extinguisher into her tent.  Several marchers intervened and ejected Howie from camp.  I didn’t know the details of Howie’s personal issues or history, but even with a layman’s eye, I could see in his face an expression of constant agitation.  Howie was looking for trouble.  Although he had been asked to leave, he kept returning to the march, and each time he did, he tested our philosophy of inclusivity.  We wanted “Peace City” to welcome everyone, but we could not accept a dangerous person into the fold.  This was a true crisis of community and, to my way of thinking, one of the few truly consequential discussions of the Great Peace March.
Someone announced that there would be a talking circle to discuss Howie’s return.  Several marchers with counseling experience had been involved in his case for many weeks.  Thankfully, they took a central role in moderating the discussion.  I stood, along with many other marchers, in a large group gathered around the inner circle.  We stood elbow-to-elbow and listened with all due seriousness to the conversation.  Are we an inclusive community or not?  Can we reject a person because of mental illness?  Where do we draw the line?  Are we rejecting this person because of our own fears and ignorance?  Can we risk having a person among us who might be a danger to others?  Do we have a responsibility to protect one another from danger?  What responsibility do we have to Howie?  Is the Great Peace March the best place for Howie?  Who are we to decide?  Every once in a while, someone from the larger group would offer an opinion or question, but mostly we listened to those who knew Howie and his situation best.  In the end, they reached consensus, and we in the larger group agreed, that if he wanted to join the peace march, Howie had to seek outside professional help.  He had to present a report from a medical professional stating that he was of sound mind and not a danger to himself or others.  In a sense, this was not unlike the medical examination any of us who had joined the march back in the PRO-Peace days had submitted, but Howie’s malady, we all knew, was serious.  No one felt happy or very much relieved in handing Howie an ultimatum that essentially ejected him from the peace march.  In the larger picture, it was a blow to our ideal of a community that could be entirely inclusive.

All-Camp Meeting
Journal Entry—September 9, 1986
In the evening I take a peace march bus to a local hearing concerning the Davis Besse Power Plant.  There are three major nuclear power plants along this section of Lake Erie.   The Davis Besse Plant was recently shut down.  The owners want to re-open the plant, but a group of citizens have gathered to reject the plan.  The question is how large a diameter is a “safe” zone for an emergency evacuation in case of an accident.  The owners and many of the employees believe that there is no danger in re-opening the plant.  The citizens’ group feels that there is no area large enough to make re-opening safe.
There is much talk here about a worst-case scenario, and the owners argue that they have so many security measures that no serious accident could possibly occur.  The citizens’ group hopes that by increasing the size of the evacuation zone, they will make it so expensive to evacuate that the local government will refuse to provide funds for an evacuation program and the plant will remain shut.  The present diameter is ten miles, which, in case of a major nuclear accident, the citizens say is ridiculously small.  They push to make the diameter fifty miles, a size that will then overlap with the other power plant evacuation zones making the very idea of evacuation unworkable because there will be no safe zone. 
Our presence here is much appreciated by the local citizens’ group and very much resented by the plant owners who say that we should stay out of local business and local problems.  Because we are nomadic, we integrate with the local community wherever we go.  For the few days that this is our home, local concerns become our concerns.  Local concerns are part of a larger whole.  We have met the Downwinders and heard about the devastation of Chernobyl.  We are not welcome in this community discussion, but we make our view known nonetheless, by our sheer numbers.
Finally, the governor’s committee hears the testimony of a former nuclear physicist, a tall, lanky man who presents an evacuation scenario set in mid-winter where, for whatever reason, a ten-mile area around Davis-Besse would have to be evacuated.  In the style of Jack Geiger, he includes each and every factor.  Snow and ice would cover the roads; there would be difficulty in moving the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped; the sick and infirm.  Transportation would be hampered by the snow conditions.  Roads would be impassible.  The scenario was starkly vivid and strikingly realistic, and not at all outlandish.  An evacuation overlapped with a snowstorm was a reasonable probability in this part of Ohio.  The physicist adds more and more data to the scenario until it is obvious that it would be impossible to predict, plan or control any evacuation.  His message is that, in the end, it was impossible to make an evacuation program safe, so it is impossible to make the nuclear power plant safe, and the only responsible thing to do is to keep the plant closed. 

September 10th was a workday.  Cassie joined the loaders and hefted gear.  One of the folks at Peace Academy asked if I would sing at a community outreach event in the afternoon in Vermillion, Ohio.  They had arranged for us to stay overnight, too.  Of course, I said yes, and Cassie agreed, and Evan said he would come to make thee part harmonies.  We took the Workers’ Shuttle to the next site and unloaded the trucks.  Later in the evening, we gathered our overnight gear and rode with a local man named Dick, our host, in a little red car to the quaint town of Vermilion on Lake Erie, where we had coffee in an antique shop.  Dick said our audience would be a Catholic teen group.  Cassie, Evan and I had all gone to Catholic elementary schools so we were somewhat familiar with the scene.  I had strong negative feelings about the Catholic Church, but I set them aside as our topic was not Catholic dogma but the comparatively neutral subject of nuclear disarmament. 
When we first arrived, the kids were reluctant to speak with us.  Based on my own experiences in the Catholic Church I assumed that they hadn’t had many opportunities to develop opinions or consider views other than what they had been taught.  We broke the ice by introducing ourselves, telling a little bit about the peace march and singing “Lucille, “ which sounded beautiful in three parts.  A few of the kids opened up and asked questions, but others remained quiet or held side conversations.  Perhaps they disagreed with our cause but were too polite to say so.  Maybe they had never thought about nuclear disarmament.  Maybe they thought we were ridiculous.  It was hard to tell.  We did our best to involve everyone in the room.  I wished I’d brought along the BB demonstration.  In the end, I felt a good connection with the three students who had taken an interest.  After the meeting adjourned, Dick took us to his home so we could take showers.  According to my journal, Evan, Cassie and I stayed overnight at Vermilion Middle School.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
September 12th took us through an affluent neighborhood just outside Cleveland.  By this time I had walked past thousands of homes in hundreds of neighborhoods in America.  I had a fair sense that the majority of Americans were getting along fine economically; but regions of economic distress—the abandoned blue highways of Nebraska, the family farm auctions in Iowa, and the deteriorating factory towns of Illinois—taught me a sobering fact: Wealthy suburban neighborhoods like the one where I grew up were truly extraordinary.  Late model cars stood in the driveways.  Lush lawns and gardens formed finely landscaped privacy moats around houses each unique in architectural style.  It was only few seconds walk across the lawn to the next house, but each house seemed designed for isolation, and it made me wonder if people still borrowed a cup of sugar or milk from a neighbor.
Cassie and I reminisced as we walked into Edgewater Park, with its beautiful view of Cleveland across the lake.  We really were lucky to have grown up in a friendly neighborhood.  Mrs. Hanover would come by and chat with Mom over the Dutch kitchen door.  The kids would all run across the back lawns to get to one another’s houses to play.  There were no fences and nobody fussed about property lines.  Just about every family had a dog.  The Hanovers had hunting dogs they kept in a kennel in their back yard; the Campions covered their dog Max with green food coloring for St. Patrick’s Day, and the Fords dug a tunnel for their dachshund, Josh, whenever it snowed.  Every house was in motion.  By contrast, this Cleveland neighborhood was quiet.  No one so much as peered out a window.  It seemed as though everyone was out for the day.
As a general rule, the people I’d ever met from Cleveland were apologetic of their hometown roots. “Cleveland,” they would sigh when asked where they were from, as if to say, “but please don’t hold that against me.”  Consequently, I expected the place to be slow and uninteresting.  But Cleveland was a vibrant city whose residents took a keen interest in historical and political events.  Eli was a good example, as were the dozen or so marchers who called the city home.  As the Great Peace March approached Cleveland, we heard from visitors to camp that “everyone” knew we were coming.  Finally!  More than six months into the march, we had at last arrived in a city where a large number of local people had heard about our trek and were awaiting our arrival.  Afterward, I heard that ten thousand Clevelanders welcomed the Great Peace March with an enthusiasm that no other city had.  It was a highlight I would unfortunately have to miss.  Cassie and I had another celebration to attend: we were heading to New Jersey to attend my cousin Terry’s wedding.

By this time I had come to accept that a marcher did not have to stay in camp all the time to be “on the march.”  It was an awareness that had come slowly.  The phrase "Power Line Road" still held a sting.  To go “away from the march” had at first seemed like abandonment, and I resisted it except when I was sick and needed time away to get well again.  Our stay at Helen’s had been an exception to the rule.  But eventually I came to realize that when people were “away from the march,” they brought our message of nuclear disarmament to people whose paths we would not otherwise have crossed.  They brought news of the peace march to other parts of the country, and they returned with news—and sometimes donations—of support.  All that coming and going seemed natural for a town that was always on the move.  If everyone had left all at once, there would have been no march, of course, but we staggered our time away, and everything stayed intact.  I came to see that when I was “away from the march,” I was no less a peace marcher.  Even at the time, I could see that this way of thinking would stay with me for the rest of my life. 
Cassie and I gathered our belongings and rendezvoused with Iris, Evan and Bill to ride to the Cleveland airport.  Bill’s beloved van was suffering from too many hard miles over lumpy fields and dirt roads, but it was no worse off than most of the other march vehicles, so we all climbed in.  A faulty alternator was overcharging the battery, Bill explained, and in order to keep the engine running, everything that ran on the battery had to be switched on.  I didn’t really understand the electronics of it, but our little circus act rolled down the road with the windshield wipers going, the heater fan blasting and the high beam headlights on.  We arrived at the Cleveland airport where we took photos of one another, and Bill, Iris and Evan said goodbye to Cassie with big hugs and kind wishes.  I had a fleeting sensation that the goodbyes at end of the march were going to feel something like this.
Cassie and I had peppered our peace march days with the kind of inside jokes and childhood memories that only siblings share.  No one but Cassie could really appreciate what hearing Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” had meant to me or how completely at home I felt on the march.  With her gone, I would miss the fun of indulging in an incomparable experience.  Had she stayed on the Great Peace March, Cassie would surely have taken up a leadership role.  She was good at organizing people, especially those with a lot of creative energy.  Maybe she’s also have inspired the March Potatoes to walk a few miles and chop some carrots and celery for their dinner.