Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Two: "Loo-Ziannah"

          At the end of February, PRO-Peace established a training camp at the White Oak Recreation Center in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles.  Marchers gathered from all over the country to meet one another and get acquainted with the routines that would direct our lives for the next nine months.  On my way to White Oak, I sold my car at a dealership a couple of miles away, sent the check to my father to pay off a loan I’d taken from him, and walked back to the training camp debt-free, at least in the strictly financial sense.  I was well aware that a hundred people had invested over $3,000 in my cross-country success.

Color-Coded Neighborhoods at Training Camp
            The training camp was located in a suburban park at the intersection of White Oak and Victory, near the Van Nuys municipal airport.  On the south side was the “L.A. River,” the concrete riverbed that runs through Los Angeles.  At the center of the site, a community recreation center served as a check-in point for the gathering marchers.  Surrounding the rec center were a number of support vehicles, a large white tent of sweeping, architectural design, a broad, flat field dotted with colorful dome tents, and several hundred people buzzing around.  So, I thought, this is what the peace march looks like—busy and organized, colorful and neat.  I laughed aloud and took a deep breath, ecstatic to finally be here.  My excitement was muted only by the apprehension that comes with meeting so many people all at once and finding one’s place in a new community.
Because I arrived late in the afternoon, I missed the last “orientation circle,” so I was assigned to sleep in the tent “hotel,” where I shared a tent with Fay Fearing, a woman in her early twenties from Boulder, Colorado.  When she introduced herself, I smiled and shook her hand and politely ignored the fact that her name sounded like an Agatha Christie character who wouldn’t survive to the end of the first chapter.  We volleyed small talk and then turned to the question of how the march was supposed to work, laughing at how little we really knew.  We lay in our sleeping bags that night and hoped aloud that the next morning’s orientation would clarify the logistical details.  The ground, softened by heavy rains of the previous week, was perfect for sleeping.  I awoke in the middle of the night and quietly crept out to find the bathrooms.  I was stepping gingerly along the narrow pathway between the tents when something stopped me in my tracks.  I stood still and listened.  It was a sound I had never heard before, and it took me a moment to identify the sputtering grunts as a thousand sleepers snoring.  If you’ve ever slept with the windows open in the woods in the summertime, you know the nocturnal din of frogs and crickets.  This sea of snorers was even louder, and the sounds were all human. 
            The pre-dawn wake-up call came in the sound of a gentle Zen meditation gong echoing through camp, easing me from slumber and allowing a pause, a reverie, before full awakening.  I smiled and stretched, pleased with this civilized welcome to a new day and a new way of life.  I showered in the community center, put on clean clothes and headed for breakfast, a delightful, vegetarian gourmet meal served in generous portions by a kitchen staff hired by PRO-Peace.  Inside the recreation center, gear crates lined the halls, the smell a combination of mink oil, new shoes, shampoo, cocoanut conditioner, nylon and other new things.  The first marcher who stood out to me was Niko, sitting among the green milk crates, sleeping bags and musical instruments, playing bottleneck on a steel guitar.  With a carefree smile on his face and a thick, blonde ponytail down his back, Niko looked ready for a road trip.  I stopped to listen for a minute and then went to collect my gear and get organized.
            PRO-Peace provided two small, green crates per person for storing our personal belongings.  One was twelve inches square, and the other, twelve by fifteen inches.  At home I had carefully measured my belongings to fit into the required crates.  I worried that if my stuff didn’t fit into my crates, they might not let me go on the peace march, so I had already removed anything I could possibly live without.  I unzipped my duffle bag and arranged everything neatly into my crates.  It all fit.  I breathed a sigh of relief and silently congratulated myself for crossing the first hurdle.  I stashed the crates against the wall and proceeded to the large storage closet where PRO-Peace had received a delivery from North Face, the camping supply company.  I was expecting a new sleeping bag I had ordered a few weeks earlier.  I poked my head into the closet and wondered why no one was on hand to match marchers with their invoices.  PRO-Peace was short-staffed, it seemed, so I walked into the closet, found the box with my name on it, signed off on a sheet of paper, and then proceeded outside for “tent training.”

Tent Training
Two marchers, one serious and one humorous, taught us how to pitch our tents with, as the serious trainer put it, “minimal wear, tear and stress to the tent.”  When it came time for us to try it ourselves, the fellow next to me invited me to be his partner.  We were issued a pastel pink tent, and we talked non-stop as we set it up and applied waterproofing solution from little squeeze bottles to the nylon seams inside and out.  He was Evan from Shreveport, Louisiana via Salt Lake City, a handsome young actor whose looks could have fit right in with the Brat Pack.  When I asked something about Louisiana, he gently corrected me saying, “That’s Loo – ziannah.”  I repeated “Loo-ziannah” until I passed muster.  Evan said he had succeeded in ridding himself of his southern drawl when he moved to Salt Lake, but he was adamant that his home state be pronounced with the proper southern “interpitation.”  Evan and I small talked a blue streak, and I hoped that he and I were going to be friends.  He had already been issued a tent, so the instructors gave me the one we had just prepared—OR59.  That meant I was pink tent number fifty-nine, living in the orange neighborhood.  OR59 was to be my “dome home” across America, and Fay Fearing, my roommate from the “hotel,” became my tent mate.

North Face Dome Home
The general understanding was that PRO-Peace would take care of advance planning on the road and see that our support vehicles moved along each day.  Mixner’s group had hired a kitchen staff to prepare our meals and a professional medical team to take care of any health concerns that might arise.  PRO-Peace would continue to secure behind-the-scenes financial support.  Our job as marchers was to establish a community and reach out to people along the way with our message of nuclear disarmament. 
Everyone had to sign up to do a job on the march.  I had enlisted with Peggy Nelson, who was organizing the PRO-Peace school.  She specialized in home schooling, and she had ordered instructional materials based on a home schooling model.  I had so many questions: How many families had come to walk across the country?  How old were the children?  Where had they come from?  How would we stay in contact with their home schools?  Friendly, organized and bright, Peggy seemed like a person with whom I could get along.  I was eager to try teaching in a whole new way.  Our prime directive was to assure that the children on the march did not lose a year of school during our trek.

The L.A. River
Before the training camp, I had walked at least a couple of miles every day.  I didn’t want to lose momentum, so Evan from Loo-zianna and I set out for a stretch along the L.A. River.  We talked about movies, TV, theatre, acting, music, our families, and the march.  Evan was a good walking companion, easy-going, imaginative and open-minded.  He told me about the acting company that was his second home in Salt Lake, which explained his talent for moving fluidly into characters and foreign accents as well as quoting snippets from all manner of media as we coursed along.  He was opinionated but courteous, and he found the humor in everything.  We had to laugh at the irony of a PRO-Peace training camp that officially included no walking.  Eventually we turned around and headed eastward back to camp.  Evan pointed out the full moon rising over the airport.  I remembered what someone had once told me: that good guys notice the moon.  I didn’t mention this to Evan but quietly confirmed what I already supposed. 
During the training days at White Oak, I had an uneasy feeling that whoever was in charge of the peace march hadn’t shown up yet.  PRO-Peace couldn’t answer even the simplest questions that arose during the days of preparation.  I wondered why it was so hard to find out the names and ages of the children who were coming on the march.  No one seemed to have so much as a roster of peace marchers.  It took days to track down the schoolbooks and identify the rest of the teaching team.  I felt a little apprehensive that I needed to start teaching within a week or so and hadn’t had a chance to read up on home schooling methods or review the instructional materials.  Moreover, no one presented an overview of how everything was supposed to lock into place.  The PRO-Peace staffers were upbeat and friendly, but they seemed to know little beyond their immediate assignments.  One guy even went so far as to tape a little sign to his cap that read, "Don't ask me!"

Our "Moss" Tent: Architectural but Impractical 
Nevertheless, we dutifully submitted medical forms, procured photo IDs, enjoyed showers inside the community center, made calls from the mobile bank of phones, and gathered for gourmet meals under the sweeping, designer tent that everyone kept referring to as a “Moss” tent, though I had no idea why.  We got to know one another by striking up conversations as we stood in various lines.  One such conversation turned to the personal goals we had set for ourselves.  One person was determined to lose weight.  Another wanted to learn to play the drums.  I said I planned to be celibate for the duration of the march.  The wanna-be drummer started to laugh so hard; I thought he would wet his pants.  He said surely I was kidding.  No, it’s true, I said quietly, not particularly wanting the entire line to hear about my celibacy plan.  He wiped the tears from his eyes and shook his head.  He thought I was crazy.  Clearly, he was on board for nine months of tent-hopping.
In the few days at White Oak, I met people of all ages from all walks of life who had left their homes, their mortgages, their friends, their elementary schools, their undergraduate programs, their jobs, their businesses, even their spouses and children, to join the PRO-Peace march.  Eventually, we would begin to identify ourselves simply as “peace marchers” who lived “on the march” and who were “walking for peace,” but in those early days, as we stuffed our belongings into milk crates, learned the names of our fellow marchers, broke in new shoes, and awakened to the fact that we had, indeed, signed up for a 3,235 mile walk across the country, the complexities of the days ahead eluded us.  Had we known how events would unfold, few of us would have gathered to make the trek.