Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter Twenty-Two: "I Am a Patriot"

            An early morning nightmare awoke me with a start at our North Park Village encampment in Chicago—a dream of driving a car with Evan and Tim and coming upon a violent fight between marchers and locals.  The details were lost to my waking mind, but the nightmare spoke to some of my actual fears about the march now that we had gone into permanent “city mode.”  The more volatile urban areas and our vulnerability in them worried me.  Dense population centers meant more interactions with people of all stripes, more intersecting events going on, more reasons to stay alert, and more challenges to remaining grounded in our community.

Rally for Nuclear Disarmament in Chicago
My friend Grace arrived for a visit.  Grace was a fellow teacher.  She was also an avid reader, a world traveler and an amateur photographer.  She loved good food, Almodóvar films, and Motown music.  What she and I had most in common was an interest in the life of the mind.  As teachers, we had long conversations about multiple intelligences, cognitive development and curriculum design, but as friends we also explored the outer limits of the mind: meditation, hypnosis, and psychic ability.  We didn’t take it too seriously, but we delved into unorthodox approaches to ordering knowledge such as astrology, numerology and dream interpretation.  Grace and I had shared many a bottle of wine and spent many hours discussing what the human mind could really do if society weren’t so keen on holding it in check. On the peace march, I introduced Grace to my circle of friends who immediately welcomed her into the fold.
August 17th was a rest day, so Grace drove Iris, Evan, Bill and me along the Lake Michigan shoreline and into downtown Chicago, the summer sun glinting off the skyscrapers.  We parked downtown and went into the Chicago public library.  An elegant marble stairway took us up to the main floor where we stepped through a towering archway and into a rotunda with a glorious stained glass dome.  Soft green and pink glass scallops swept upward to a circle of heart-shaped leaves and zodiacal symbols.  The ordered design; the feminine shapes; the diffused light: I wanted to remember them by heart.  As I gazed upward, the thought crossed my mind that Chicago, too, was one of Jack Geiger's "typical" American cities.  Grace called for me to come along.  
The library was hosting an exhibit of artwork by a man named Martín Ramirez who was a talented artist but an enigma to those who knew him.  He had arrived in the United States, apparently from Mexico, and lived for twenty-five years in California state mental hospitals.  He could or would not speak, so no one was able to learn his story, but he spent his days in quiet solitude, drawing and painting.  With few art supplies available to him, he incorporated whatever institutional materials he could lay his hands on: wrapping paper, pages from books, and brown paper bags.  He even chewed up potatoes to make glue.  Ramirez was apparently obsessed with trains and tunnels, but he drew animals and Madonnas, too, and incorporated repeated parallel lines, especially around the borders of his drawings.  Doctors and therapists and art critics tried unsuccessfully to construct his history from the images.  Was he really mentally ill?  It was impossible to know.  His work reflected resourcefulness and artistic skill, but it made me wonder what he might have done had he lived after the evolution of art therapy and had access to an artist’s studio full of sketch paper and canvasses and paints—and glue. 
We reluctantly departed the library.  Everybody was hungry, and Grace said she wanted to treat us to a meal.  I suggested we find some deep-dish pizza.  It seemed like the Chicago thing to do.  The five of us descended into the kind of petty conversation that cities seem to bring out in visitors, especially hungry ones.  Iris had specific dietary preferences, and they didn’t include meat or cheese.  I was hungry and didn’t feel like wandering around in search of an organic vegetarian restaurant.  None of us knew the city well enough to suggest an alternative.  I should have given up the idea, but I persisted.  So, after having been quietly transported into a fantastic world of visual splendor at the library, we descended into a garish, heavily mirrored pizza restaurant that was loud and obnoxious.  It wasn’t so much the food as the ambience that dampened our spirit.  We stayed just long enough to eat a meal that was, after all, none too satisfying.
Our departure day from Chicago was a workday for Evan, Bill and me.  The march left, Grace left to run some errands, and Evan and I gathered the crew and loaded the trucks.  When we were done, he and I watched as the Greenskeepers picked up trash.  Normally it took them less than an hour, but this morning’s yield was a bumper crop of clothing, cardboard boxes, electronic equipment, even a garbage bag full of shoes.  We joined them in picking through the items, using them as props and posing with a bathrobe and an old umbrella.  After five months on the road, we knew one another’s belongings, and we didn’t recognize any of these things.  We knew peace marchers didn’t own this much stuff.  Certainly no peace marcher owned an umbrella.  Finally, the Greenskeepers gave in.  Their creed was to leave each campsite better than we’d found it, but it would have taken all day and a garbage truck to clean up all the trash at the Chicago site. 
As we prepared to leave, a gnomish little woman who looked as if she might have been a permanent denizen of the park came walking by.  Amused by our antics she sidled up next to Bill.  She stood no more than five feet tall, and Bill, at about 6’3”, towered above her.  She looked up at him for several seconds in awe of his enormity.  He looked down at her in benign anticipation.  Finally she squeaked, “Holy Smokes!” and toddled off, shaking her head.

California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois…
We piled into Bill’s van and headed for the next site.  En route, we crossed into Indiana, our ninth state, and found ourselves riding behind a fellow marcher, Owen, a boilermaker by trade, driving a hay baler.  Did anyone except me think it was wildly ridiculous that the Great Peace March now had a hay baler among its vehicles?  A lunar landing module would have been more useful.  But Owen was a smart guy.  Maybe he needed the hay baler for parts, or maybe he was counting on getting a good price on resale as the hay-baling season approached.  At the moment, however, wearing a baseball cap backward on his head and a pair of yellow ski goggles, Owen looked like a deranged farmer, fighting to shift gears against a faulty clutch.  Bill pulled up behind and kept Owen covered in the slow lane.  We stayed with him for a mile or so, but eventually Owen pulled onto the shoulder and waved us past.  I never asked Owen what he did with that hay baler, but he definitely did not drive it all the way to Washington. 
We found camp in Wolf Lake State Park, a little oasis just west of Gary, Indiana.  With the highway rushing along one side and smoke stacks coughing out smoke in the distance, the little city park gave the impression that it was hunched over, covering its head against the onslaught of noise and air pollution.  I scouted around for a few minutes and found the one spot where the weeping willows and tall cattails blocked out the industrial backdrop.  I had the sinking feeling that the beautiful part of the Great Peace March was over.  Grace found me, and we sat on the green grass talking, wondering what was taking the gear trucks so long to arrive.  Maybe they had stopped to help Owen perambulate his hay baler.

Jeff-Free's Quotation Dome
With Grace’s visit, I was seeing the march through another person’s eyes.  I had grown accustomed to our inimitable community long ago, but from a visitor’s perspective, the marchers represented an unusual wedge of the human pie.  I introduced some of our assembly to her, in person or from afar: Jeff-Free had completely covered his tent with pithy, philosophical quotations; Morris, our most senior marcher, walked resolutely with a cane each day and sat comfortably on a folding camp stool in the evening; Jacob, a tall, lanky fourteen year-old, entertained us one evening by leaping high over everyone’s heads as we sat on the grass eating dinner.  Peter, a peace walker from the Pacific Northwest, had recently found his spirit name, “Deer Dancer,” which I loved because “deer” could be spelled either way; Cap’n Jim, a tough, gnarly old guy, had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama; Jouji, a marcher from Japan, carried the Hiroshima peace flame in a small lantern; our "peace Clown," Kelly, painted on his clown face and donned his colorful costume and big, green hat; Don race-walked across the country with a little bell on his fanny pack so that when we heard his ting-a-ling, we moved aside and let him glide on by; Anita wasn’t letting her Multiple Sclerosis stop her from walking.  Anthony dressed in black and taught a Tai Chi class in camp; Rachelle, a minister, always wore her collar, while Carl and Jen, the other ministers, never wore theirs, but all three were on hand for anyone in need; Yvonne never stopped talking but occasionally said the one perfect thing that no one else would ever have thought of; and Linda sang Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot,” with a voice that was the sound of peace itself: fragile, powerful and free. 

Our Peace Clown
There were a lot of ordinary people on the march, too.  Grace pointed out that even the ordinary marchers were extraordinary in their decision to take up the torch for nuclear disarmament.  I understood what she meant, but I didn’t feel extraordinary.  Fearless firefighters who bullied their way into burning buildings were extraordinary; teachers who taught special needs children to read were extraordinary; midwives who guided women through difficult childbirth were extraordinary.  To me, being a peace marcher still seemed normal, as it had from the start.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
The Peace City News for August 23rd reported that the wake-up call would come at 5:30 am, followed by an 18-miler onto the Notre Dame University campus in South Bend.  The unofficial “rumor” of a weather report predicted a fifty percent chance of rain and recommended keeping “rain gear or a garbage bag” handy.  The editor added that if we wanted more than a rumor of weather, we should chip in to buy new batteries for her radio.  Among the newspaper's reported events: a guest marcher would lead a meditation in the yurt or in the blue town hall tent; the Cleveland advance team would have a meeting; and Rocky Horror Picture Show would be playing at Peace Academy at 8pm.  Lost and Found notices included one found camera and a search for a bag that seemed to have “marched off the porta-potty truck.”  A book entitled The Abolition was reported missing from the Bookmobile.  Candidates for Judicial Board were holding an “informal dinnertime forum.”  Five months into the peace march, we had come to operate pretty much like any other small American town. 

Every Gesture of Support Empowered Us
When we arrived in South Bend, I spotted MC directing traffic into the new campsite.   In contrast with her white blonde hair, cotton scarves and long, flowing hippie skirts, MC wore a neon orange glove when she directed traffic.  Nobody could miss her, and if they did, she quickly and none too quietly let them know who was in charge.  Today she seemed particularly adamant that we park vehicles and pitch our tents exactly where she wanted them.  As it turned out, MC had a plan in mind.  She had met a local pilot who offered to take her up in his private plane to take photographs.  That afternoon, she took off with the pilot and clicked one of the great aerial photographs of the peace march—our campsite of in the shape of a gigantic peace sign.

Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament at Notre Dame

Journal Entry—August 24, 1986
Bill on the artist’s dilemma:  “… because you’re creating out of nothingness and then you’re trying to find a place to put it…”

            Rest day near Shipshewana, Indiana—Amish country.  We camped on grounds adjacent to Shipshewana-Scott Elementary School.  An old Amish grandpa, cane in hand, came to pick up his grandson and a little friend from school and then rode off with them in a horse-drawn buggy.  As they pulled away, I noticed one of those bright, orange reflective triangles on the back of the cart.  It seemed an odd juxtaposition of old and new.  Many Amish were on the streets—bearded men in plain black suits and stiff straw hats, and simply dressed women in lace bonnets—going about their business.  Across the street from our camp was the Amish market and auction.  Iris, Grace and I wandered over and browsed through the bolts of cotton fabric, wooden kitchen utensils, hand-made aprons, homemade fruit preserves, beeswax candles, penny candy, hand-crafted wooden chairs, stools and brooms, and hundreds of other goods for a simple life.  That persistent thought crossed my mind: If nuclear weapons are let loose, this unique subculture will be lost: a sub-culture who live according to their beliefs, in community, in harmony with nature and who, by the way, have nothing to do with our deadly nuclear inventions.  Much as the Amish had succeeded in isolating themselves from modern society, their fate, too, lay under a deadly nuclear cloud. 
I left Iris and Grace to their shopping and crossed over to the cattle auction, a big, modern agricultural building with sawdust on the floors and tiered seating surrounding a large central pen.  I sat off to one side, wondering if it were possible to inadvertently bid on a farm animal by scratching my head or rubbing my nose at the wrong moment.  I’d never been to a live auction.  Someone led a steer into the center pen and the auctioneer started taking bidding in an unintelligible babble.  It lasted for a minute or two until the shouting slowed and stopped and the steer was led out none the wiser whence he came.  From where I was sitting, I could see a herd of cattle being led into a holding pen.  Ten or fifteen head of cattle were pressed into the pen, too many to stand in the small space.  Some had to climb up on the backs of the others.  Their eyes flashed in fear; their black-tongued mouths moaned in distress.  As I watched their terror, I became aware the distinct features of each cow’s face.  Each cow looked as different from the others as an individual person would in a group of humans, and they looked terrified.  I was reminded of something a college roommate had said years earlier.  On our daily walk to classes, we passed along a street where there happened to be a funeral home right next to a butcher shop.  “In one place they lay them out in pretty, satin-lined boxes,” she said, “and in the other, they hang them from hooks in the window.”  I left the auction feeling helpless and sickened, and I vowed never to eat meat again.
One day’s walk past Shipshewana I woke up feeling under the weather.  I got dressed and slumped over to breakfast.  Afterward, I went back to pack up my tent but instead crawled in and put my head down.  I could feel myself coming down fast.  I had a pounding headache and a searing sore throat, and I couldn’t lift my head from my pillow.  Bill and Craig came by and knelt outside my tent in a princely manner and played their guitars and sang a song for me.  I tried to smile in appreciation, but I was feeling pretty low.  Grace suggested we drive to her parents’ house in Detroit to see a doctor.  That sounded like a good idea, so I dragged myself out of my tent and into the back seat of Grace’s car.  Iris decided she’d better come, too. 
At the Woodley’s home, we were warmly welcomed, though I was feeling too ill to reply with much courtesy or enthusiasm.  Grace’s sister-in-law had called her family doctor who had recommended an ear, nose and throat specialist.  We drove over to his office right away, even though it was a Sunday, and he immediately spotted the problem as a throat infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics.  He also recommended a few of days rest before returning to life outdoors.
When a doctor recommends a couple of days rest, and you are at the Woodley’s house in Detroit, you can be the happiest sick person in the world.  The house was filled with light, the rooms were beautiful and spacious, and nobody made me feel the least bit guilty for sleeping all day as I let the antibiotics take their course.  Between naps, Mrs. Woodley’s garden was lovely for short walks, and there was a small swimming pool surrounded by a stone patio where I could rest in the chaise lounge and smile at the gigantic, inflatable shoes that Mr. Woodley had ordered from a catalogue so he could honestly claim that his family all walked on water.  Iris picked apples from the little orchard in the yard and baked two perfect apple pies.  The Woodleys had never done so and were impressed with her ingenuity and skill.  I was so appreciative of Grace and her family.  I really couldn’t imagine what I’d have done if they hadn’t taken me in. 
After a few days rest, I was feeling much improved and managed an honest grin when Mr. Woodley snapped a couple of photos of Grace, Iris and me on the upstairs balcony.  On September 2nd, we prepared to leave the Woodley’s house and return to the march.  I opened my journal to jot down a few words, and there was the photo of my nephew, Ray, in his garden of marigolds.  Today was his fourth birthday. 
I couldn’t thank the Woodleys enough for their generosity.  I had the feeling you could have a roaring good time at their house if you weren’t battling a throat infection.  Grace, Iris and I returned to the peace march on September 3rd.  We found our camp forced into one corner of a large field where the owner had mown a small area for us.  The effect was a small, claustrophobic campsite in a huge, open field.   
Grace’s car had been acting up, and as she prepared to depart camp, she couldn’t get it to start.  She had already missed the first faculty meeting at school in Washington and couldn’t afford to delay her departure any further.  We approached Vigo, one of our maintenance guys, to ask if he could do anything with it.  With his half-shaved head and multiple piercings, Vigo looked like the kind of guy you would encounter if you mistakenly stumbled into a pool hall on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was really a soft-spoken person and a skilled mechanic.  The maintenance guys on the peace march worked so hard every day to keep our vehicles on the road that I hated to ask him to do one more job, but Vigo took it in stride and told Grace to turn the key.  He listened to the engine cranking, and identified the problem.  For the next hour or so, Vigo dismantled the alternator and reconstructed it before our eyes.  As soon as he reassembled the parts, he gave Grace the high sign, and the car started like a dream.  We were amazed and thanked him for his help.  Grace was relieved.  She and I said our goodbyes, and she set out on the road for D.C.  No sooner had Grace left then I headed to Toledo to meet another visitor.  My sister, Cassie, was coming to the march.