Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Nine: "Please Don't Pet My Dog"

        Morning dawned chilly and clear, a fine autumn rest day in camp.  Most marchers had gone to Marcher-in-the-Home, so the agricultural fairgrounds in Harrisburg were all but deserted.  Marcher-in-the-Home had evolved since the beginning of the march.  From our first Marcher-in-the-Home back in Claremont, we had gone into local homes primarily out of need.  Over time, however, we learned the value of our home stays as opportunities for community outreach.  When hundreds of marchers stayed overnight with local families, the better part of a town was engaged in conversations about nuclear disarmament.  By the time The Great Peace March crossed Pennsylvania, we stayed with local residents so often that some marchers referred to our overnight stays as “Moocher-in-the-Home.”
I stayed in camp to rest my hips and legs.  Pennsylvania’s cooler temperatures and perpetual rain required extra layers of clothing that were cumbersome and made each mile a little more taxing.  But what started to wear on me most was the walk over the Appalachians, America’s eastern mountain range.  I had learned in elementary school, as American children do, that the Appalachians stretch from Maine to Georgia and are old mountains, worn down by millions of years of erosion.  In comparison, the young Rockies cut a jagged profile against the western sky.  (As a child, I absorbed a broader interpretation of this lesson: youth as towering and dangerous; old age as hunched and gentle.)  What I hadn’t anticipated was the difficulty of walking up and down the Appalachian Mountain roads, which, unlike the gradual Rocky Mountain switchbacks, were engineered to follow the contours of the terrain up and down every mountain.
This problem was exacerbated by another feature of modern road design.  Anyone who has stopped along the road to change a tire knows that the shoulder isn’t completely flat; it’s sloped away for drainage.  Consequently, the walker steps about half an inch lower on the left foot than on the right; then the right foot steps up the half-inch, and so on down the road.  It doesn’t seem like much, but after thousands of miles, all those little uneven steps throw the skeleton out of alignment, and the ankles, knees and hips start to suffer.  By the time we’d reached Pennsylvania, I was beginning to feel the wear and tear on my muscles and joints.  When I lay down to sleep at night, my hips were exhausted.  I didn’t experience pain, just fatigue.  My calf and thigh muscles felt fit and strong, but my knees seemed to be losing their elasticity and range of motion; they felt slightly swollen all the time, and I couldn’t bend them all the way.  Like many others, I started to wonder about the long-term damage the peace march was doing to my body.

Early Morning in Camp
My plan was to rest, but an active day unfurled, and I acquiesced.  The kitchen crew surprised us with eggs cooked to order, an indulgence made possible only because so few of us had remained in camp.  After breakfast, I joined Georgia, Marty, Tom, and the Boulder gang—Danny, Julia, Allie, and Sheila—in a café, where we celebrated Sheila’s birthday.  Gourds, pumpkins and mums brightened the farmers’ market with fall colors.  We drank sweet, sparkling apple cider and mingled with the local residents.  “Test Ban Treaty” and “Stand by You” played—fully orchestrated and to an appreciative audience—inside my head.  
In the afternoon, Tom and I walked into one of the fairground buildings and found a horse show underway.  I took a deep, satisfying whiff of fresh hay, sawdust and horse manure as we entered the arena.  I thought it would be fun to watch for a while, but it was actually kind of sad to see the riders force their horses over high jumps set at short intervals.  Having seen playful steeds galloping on the open range in Utah, I no longer believed, as I had heard equestrians claim, that show horses enjoyed their stiff routines.  The woman sitting in front of us complained loudly about her daughter who was riding in the show: If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t worth doing at all.  If that were the case, I thought, we’d still be wallowing in the dirt back in Barstow.  All the creatures at the horse show seemed oppressed, so Tom and I left and walked back to camp. 

Peace March Kids and a Bottle of Bubbles
In the evening, a group of us sat around talking in our tent neighborhood.  It was Sheila’s birthday, and a couple of her friends had come to visit, so everyone joined in the conversation.  Sheila introduced the idea of a “life of peace,” and the idea that the sum of one’s individual actions and decisions potentially comprised a “life of peace.”  People started talking about “drawing positive energy” to themselves, not an uncommon theme among marchers.  The idea dispatched several trains of thought in my mind.  The first was based in quantum physics:  If everything in the universe was made of energy, and all forces naturally affect one another, then perhaps the power of human intention could bring about physical change.  But did a person really have the power to draw love or a miracle cure or a winning lottery ticket—or global nuclear disarmament—to himself?  Next, I considered the Eastern philosophical model: yin and yang describing a cosmic balance between neutral opposites like light and dark, male and female, or strong and weak.  The concept of balanced energies, fundamental to the Eastern mindset, made more sense to me than Western, warring counter-concepts like virtue and sin.  It was the Western mindset that seemed to require “drawing positive energy,” which, I assumed, was necessary in order to stave off the equal and opposite negative energy, which brought me back to physics.  At some point my train of thought petered out, and I lost interest in shoveling in more coal.  When people suggested that the peace marchers draw positive energy to ourselves, I usually smiled and nodded in mild agreement, but I really wasn’t sure what they were talking about.  On the other hand, there was the matter of that little, white cardboard heart on the road back in Iowa.  I still had no explanation for that.   
Bill had returned from the Appalachian Trail.  Evan, Tom, Iris and I were curious to know how it had gone.  In his inimitably entertaining way, Bill told stories about the difficult walk over rough terrain, carrying a backpack and camping, more often than not, in the rain.  It seemed to me that Bill just couldn’t make the Great Peace March hard enough.  His woeful stories from the Appalachian Trail made our trek seem cushy by comparison.  I confessed that I could never have done our cross-country walk if we’d had to carry backpacks; I’d have had to stop and rest every two hundred yards.  Everybody laughed because they knew I was not exaggerating.  I could load hundreds of pounds of gear and walk twenty miles, but put a backpack on my back and I'd have been grounded.
T-BAG was meeting in one of the town hall tents, and they were embroiled in a disagreement.  About what, I didn’t know, but I overheard the heated conversation as I passed by, and it made me think it might be the perfect time for a musical debut.  Georgia and I still hadn’t sung “Test Ban Treaty” for the Test Ban Affinity Group.  I quickly found her and made a plan.  We stepped quietly into the tent, politely interrupted the discussion and asked if we could sing them our new song, which we thought they would find apropos.  They were a bit bristly, uncharacteristically so, as these were some of our friends, but they agreed to stop for a few minutes to listen.  By the time we finished singing the last chorus, there were smiles all around.  “Test Ban Treaty” was their new anthem.  Georgia and I stepped out of the tent and high-fived, satisfied that we had created something good and hopeful that T-BAG could return to their discussion in a new light. 

Portrait: Peace Marcher
In the evening, the Great Peace March kids presented a production of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, based on the true story of Sadako, a Japanese girl who lived in Hiroshima and developed leukemia soon after the U.S. dropped the atom bomb.  An old Japanese legend told that folding a thousand paper cranes would make a wish come true.  Sadako’s wish was that she would continue to live despite her leukemia.  The little girl folded 644 origami paper cranes before she died.  It was a tale of hope and sorrow.  The peace march children had worked together to create a script that reflected a child’s awareness of the dangers of nuclear war, and they incorporated elements of Japanese culture into their interpretation, improvising costumes and a modest set.  As drama coach, Rhoda had worked her magic.  The players acted their parts flawlessly, and their beautiful performance moved us to tears.
Two local women whom I had met in Harrisburg the previous day found me in camp.  They had gathered up all the neighborhood kids—there were seven—loaded them into their van and brought them down to see the peace march.  I showed them everything and explained how we all worked together.  The children were fascinated, some a little shy, others curious and questioning.  We visited the post office bus, the mobile kitchen, and the Bookmobile.  We boarded the school buses so the children could take a look around and see where the peace march kids went to school.  As I walked my guests back to their van, one little girl gave me a posy of yellow wildflowers “for good luck,” she said.  I gave her a hug and thanked her for the flowers and for the luck, and for coming to visit us.  After we waved goodbye, I pressed the flowers into my journal so I could keep them there forever.

Flowers "For Good Luck"
For me, October 11th was a miserable walk, not catastrophic, just disjointed and unpleasant.  I had my period and was feeling neither amiable nor energetic, but I still had to put in the day’s miles.  I walked with Evan, who was invariably agreeable, but neither of us had bothered to look at the day’s map or write down directions through Harrisburg.  The first few miles took us into an old, run-down neighborhood.  We stopped at a place called the Deluxe Diner so Evan could have his morning tankard of coffee.  He and I talked about Willa’s new van and how cool it would be to turn the whole vehicle into a giant message board inviting everyone along the route to join us in Washington on November 15th.  After coffee, we continued walking through the tumbledown neighborhood, but we had no directions and had to find our own way.  We passed a fabulous mural covering the entire side of a tenement building.  We talked about the schism between blacks and whites and rich and poor in America.  We were not getting an overwhelming feeling of welcome as we walked down the street.  We passed one home, and a Doberman puppy came to the fence.  We stopped to see it.  “Excuse me; please don’t pet my dog,” a man on the porch said sternly.  His words were polite but his tone was short-tempered and angry.  He was training it to be a guard dog.  I apologized and backed away, embarrassed and a little miffed that interacting with a friendly little puppy was so clearly the wrong thing to do. 
After two thousand miles on the road across America, Harrisburg was my first contact with a neighborhood where people gave me the sense that they didn’t want us there.  I wanted to leave, but when we asked a couple of the neighbors for directions, they brushed us off, saying they hadn’t seen or heard of any march.  Could they really have heard nothing about hundreds of people walking through their neighborhood?  Eventually we found a few familiar stragglers three or four blocks away.
Evan and I wended our way out of the downtown neighborhoods and into the suburbs.   The walk through Harrisburg had made me nervous and insecure.  My hormones were making me moody.  We went into a grocery store to buy some food as we had gotten out of synch with the march and missed lunch.  In the produce department, a middle-aged woman approached and asked if we were peace marchers.  When we said we were, she reached into her handbag and gave us two dollars.  "To support the march," she said.  We thanked her as she explained that her anti-nuclear stance stemmed from her husband’s death from bone cancer.  Her daughter-in-law died from cancer, too, she said, and she wondered aloud whether maybe nuclear waste was polluting our environment.  She asked if we would bring her concerns about nuclear safety to Washington.  Here we were, standing in the produce department of the grocery store as this woman shared some of the most painful chapters in her life.  We were complete strangers, but as peace marchers we became envoys, couriers for messages that had to be carried in the heart.  I could feel her burden shifting to us.  We told her we would walk in memory of her husband and daughter-in-law.  We thanked her for her donation, which, modest though it was, endowed us with the authority to make an appeal on her behalf.  She said she wished it were more.  We assured her that thousands of donations like hers had brought the peace march across the country.  We exchanged kind wishes and continued on our way.  I didn’t let on to Evan, though I probably would have felt better if I had, but after hearing this woman’s painful story, and on top of the unfriendly interactions we’d had earlier in the morning, I had a heavy heart.  I wasn’t a brave peace marcher.  I wanted to sit somewhere for a while and cry. 
The route took us along a typical suburban American highway: acres of business corridor strung together by miles of telephone wire and a wide, white sidewalk that seemed never to have seen a pedestrian before the arrival of the peace march.  Everyone else was in a car.  Here and there, a newly rolled, asphalt parking lot formed a smooth black moat around a hermetically sealed office building.  The little patch of lawn and recently planted trees were a vain stab at restoring nature.  In seven months of walking across the country, one thing the Great Peace March had never been was boring.  Even the flatlands of Nebraska had posed a unique challenge.   But the day had already been an emotional one, and the ugly, overdeveloped suburbs disgusted me.  I started to grumble to Evan that I thought it was a sin that people had bulldozed rolling farmland to build tract developments and bland little office parks.  Evan listened patiently and politely changed the subject.  He was a true gentleman, but if there was one thing he did not tolerate well, it was anybody up on a soapbox.  Usually, I took his hint, but on this particular day I just wouldn’t step down.  We were growing irritated with one another when something strange happened.  A car drove by, and as it passed, a smoke ring formed outside the passenger window.  After the car passed, the smoke ring hung in the air, growing larger and larger, and spinning slowly, like a big lasso until it gradually floated upward and dissipated into thin air.  I watched in wonder and asked Evan if he had ever seen anything like it, but he must have already been ignoring me by then because he registered only mild interest as he assured me he had not.  I resumed my pouty mood. 
We continued walking, searching for a place to stop and eat the food we had bought.  I started grumbling about the sterile landscape.  A few minutes later we spied two lucky picnic tables situated between the office buildings—a little oasis.  I credited Evan for conjuring them up.  I wondered aloud if anyone would mind our using their tables, but Evan commented that the people who worked inside probably never even looked out the windows.  We sat and ate lunch, using Jason’s Swiss Army knife to slice up an apple for dessert (we always shared food; the less we had, the more we shared) and then continued on our way. 
Another mile down the road and I was whining again.  Evan must have had enough of me by then.  I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d been contemplating an inconspicuous shove into oncoming traffic.  A few minutes later, an old-fashioned, brightly-colored roadster sped by on the highway, then, a minute or so later, two more, then three, and, for the next fifteen minutes or more, dozens of cool, old roadsters sped past, apparently on their way to a roadsters’ convention.  They were all shapes and colors, some closed and some convertible top; the drivers were wearing all manner of roadster garb from floppy driving caps to goggles.  It was enough to distract me from my slump until we found our way to our campsite, a soccer field in a town park with a big outdoor stage.  I had one more complaint, but this time, considering my menstrual condition, it was a valid one: the facility had no showers. 
That afternoon, two marchers, Stan and Sue, got married on the outdoor stage.  Sue wore a stunning scarlet dress and Stan wore blue jeans and a jeans jacket.  Jen, one of our ministers, married them.  I didn’t know them personally, but it was exciting to think that two people were being married on the peace march.  There were so many couples who got together—and even more who broke up—on the march.  We talked about how great it was to have a wedding where you could invite five hundred guests but didn’t need to plan—or pay for—a thing.

Wedding Ceremony
The D.C. office staff arrived to explain the process for making suggestions for our arrival in D.C.  As far as I could tell, the process for the process was itself a work in progress.   We were a little more than a month away from the end of the march. 
On October 12th, my journal says, we walked to a campground in a field near a barn.  With scores of campsites behind us, it was already getting harder to remember one field, one fairground, one farm from another.  Remember that site back in Iowa?  You mean the one in the big field?  With the white barn?
I went over to Georgia’s tent to sing.  Some of the little girls came to listen.  The little kids were always wandering around camp looking for something to do.  They had gotten good at using found objects—balls, string, sticks, scarves—as toys, and they always seemed to comply with whatever buddy system their parents had imposed.  Aside from the unavoidable tears of childhood and an occasional temper tantrum, the children seemed to have adjusted to life on the road as well as anyone else in camp.  A man up from the D.C. office walked over and joined in.  He sang some peace and environmental songs.  Georgia and I sang “Test Ban Treaty.”  By the time we were done, it was raining again.

Journal Entry - October 13, 1986
Iceland peace mini-summit in Reykjavik fails as Reagan refuses to offer Star Wars as a bargaining chip as previously promised and walks out of the summit.  No future summit is scheduled.  The camp watches on TV.  Nearly agreed to huge reductions over ten-year period but then blew it when Gorbachev insisted that testing for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) be confined to the laboratory and not brought into space.  Still, in his address, Reagan calls the summit “a breakthrough.”  Rhetorical doublespeak.