Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter Thirty-Three: "Sweet Pea"

Despite thousands of miles through unfamiliar neighborhoods and cities, there was only day when I got completely stranded on the peace march.  It was the fifth of November.  I was with the usual suspects, Evan, Georgia, Iris and Sheila, and we had spent the morning in Philadelphia.  Our plan was to catch public transportation through South Philly to our next campsite in Newark (pronounced “New Ark”), Delaware.  We knew where we were going but had only a vague notion how to get there.  We transferred from one city bus to another and then another, until finally we got off at Chester, a dingy little fringe town on the outskirts of the city.  It was raining intermittently.  At dusk, the streetlights blinked on, most of them, anyway, bathing the empty streets and auto repair lots in a jaundiced fog.  The shopkeepers had already covered their storefronts with metal shutters for the night.  We went into a convenience store to buy something to drink.  The checkout counter was separated from the rest of the shop by a wall of thick Plexiglas.  When shopkeepers have to protect themselves from being robbed and murdered by their customers, you know you’re in an unsavory part of town. 

Me, Sheila, Georgia and Evan Getting Lost in Philadelphia
The five of us walked along the main street, wondering why the bus we’d expected to catch was nowhere in sight.  We came upon a police station.  The officer inside told us that the public bus had stopped running for the night.  He directed us to a Greyhound depot saying that we might be able to catch a bus to Newark from there.  We continued through deserted streets to the Greyhound station but found it closed.  It seemed that everything was shut down for the night.  Now we had no way to get to camp.  A little farther on, we came to an ice cream store still open.  By this time it had started to rain, so we stepped inside, bought a couple of cones and discussed our predicament.  Maybe the police officer was wrong about the bus.  It seemed an unlikely place to call a taxi.  Besides, we didn’t have enough money for a cab.  The shop owner overheard our conversation.  “Where are you kids trying to go?” he asked.  It hadn’t occurred to us to ask him for help.  We explained, and he said as soon as he finished closing his shop, he would drive us to camp.  We were so grateful.  We all packed into his station wagon and headed for Newark, defroster blowing full blast, windshield wipers slapping in the rain.  I was sitting in the way back, so I couldn’t hear or contribute much to the conversation, but our driver had gotten us out of a fix, and we thanked him again and again for his kindness.  By the time we arrived at camp, the sky was pouring buckets.  We thanked him one last time and stepped out into the rain. 
Camp was no more than a cluster of peace march vehicles.  Everyone had gone to Marcher-in-the-Home.  Someone had set out a walkway of wooden pallets to save the few remaining marchers from walking through the water, but otherwise, camp was rapidly deteriorating into a muddy mess.  Everything was dark and quiet except for the pounding rain and one or two generators providing electricity to the kitchen, which shone like a hearth.  We joined the small huddle eating dinner and reviewed our situation.  It did not look promising.  The gear trucks were shut, and we had no tents or sleeping bags.  Just as we started wondering whether we could sleep in one of the trucks, a car appeared out of the darkness.  It pulled up beside us, and the passenger side window rolled down, revealing a friendly-faced woman.  She shouted through the spattering rain, “Does anyone need a place to stay tonight?”
 Fran and Nick made us feel completely at home.  Our rescue from a miserable night was reason enough to celebrate.  We took turns showering and sat comfortably in their living room while they plied us with snacks and drinks and endless questions about the peace march.  We told them story after story about our trek, and they, having traveled widely, told us theirs.  We sat looking through albums of their travel photos, imagining all the places in the world we had yet to see.  I wanted to walk the Great Wall of China and the Erie Canal.  Others wanted an African safari or a sailing adventure.  We were in good company for dreaming of future travels.  Finally, one yawn led to the next, and we all wished each other sweet dreams and went off to bed.  It rained hard all night, and every time I surfaced from sleep to hear it pouring, I was thankful for the roof over my head.  I didn’t know then that our night with Fran and Nick would be the last Marcher-in-the-Home of my journey.  Their hospitality on an especially nasty night came with one request: bring their personal message of nuclear disarmament to Washington, and we left them with the promise we would.
California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New Jersey, Delaware… 
The November 6th border crossing brought us into Maryland, our last state before our arrival in Washington, D.C.  I had moved to Maryland as a child and lived there for ten years, through high school.  Because my family had maintained strong ties with Connecticut, however, I never developed a “home state” attachment to Maryland.  After I graduated from high school, my parents had moved into Washington and I left for college.  I didn’t feel compelled, as Evan had in Salt Lake, and as Iris had in Des Moines, to act as a tour guide as we entered the state.  Besides, the sightseeing part of our journey was over; the point now was to push through Maryland and into Washington.

Entering Maryland, Our Last State
As we entered the northernmost part of the state, a rumor spread among the marchers that the region was a hub for Ku Klux Klan activity.  By this time, we had heard and dispelled so many rumors that most of us weren’t even listening anymore.  We had become adept at handling people who disagreed with our political views, and our Peacekeepers had been able to handle the occasional heckler or bottle thrower at the gate.  At our first campsite in Maryland, however, although we had received permission from the town leaders to camp in an open field overnight, a small group of neighbors came out and pointedly said, “You can’t stay here.”  The confrontation was limited to a few people, and they hardly represented the whole state, but I felt disappointed and a little embarrassed that the first people we encountered in Maryland were rude and inhospitable.  My first thought was, “Don’t these folks know that we’ve already crossed the entire country and proven our good reputation all along the way?”  Normally, our Peacekeepers handled volatile situations, but in this case the Maryland state police stepped in and told the locals to back off.  It was not a nice welcome to the Old Line state.
A few mornings later, somewhere between the Maryland border and Baltimore, I woke up, dressed, climbed out of my tent as usual, looked around, caught a glimpse of nine or ten people—and did not recognize a single soul.  A strange feeling came over me.  Where did my peace march go?  Who were all these clean, perky people?  To my weary eyes, they looked like hungry baby birds, beaks wide open, noisily chirping for a worm.  I wasn’t sure I wanted all these strangers on my peace march.  I was already tapping the last of my reserves and no longer had the strength to initiate newcomers with small talk or road stories.  With so many new people in camp, it was hard to keep track of our personal belongings.  We had become familiar with each other’s stuff—a fanny pack, a floppy green hat, an orange down vest, an alpaca sweater, a rainbow beret, a black bandana, a wooden cane—and we knew what belonged to whom.  We generally left each other’s things alone.  But now everything was in a jumble.  I couldn’t put anything down and expect to find it in the same spot—or at all—ten minutes later. As our numbers grew, marchers, especially new marchers, were constantly making all-camp announcements about “lost” or “stolen” belongings.  More importantly, with all the newcomers, everyone’s gear no longer fit on the gear trucks.

Rally for Global Nuclear Disarmament in Baltimore
The morning walk brought us to lunch near a restaurant called the Cider House.  Grace was waiting in the parking lot there when we arrived.  It was always a nice surprise to see her.  Grace drove Evan and me into Baltimore where we ate some seafood, read the City Paper and walked around the Inner Harbor.  I had been there many times, but Evan had never seen Baltimore.  When we returned to camp toward evening, I discovered that my sleeping bag and sleeping pad were gone.  I was furious with myself because I should have been in camp to collect my belongings in the afternoon when they were unloaded from the truck.  Now it was getting dark, and I realized that anyone could have taken them.  I searched everywhere and asked around, but it was hopeless.  I was frantic.  I still had Alfred’s sleeping bag with the broken zipper, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough.  A cloud of worry settled over me, but this time is wasn't just passing clouds.  This was a serious problem.  I was so exhausted; I wanted to cry.  I layered on all the warm clothing I owned and wrapped Alfred's sleeping bag around me.  The ground was rock hard under my tired, sore hips, and the cold air crept in where the zipper should have been.  I was peeved and miserable, and I spat a few choice words to the darkness before surrendering to a fitful night. 
November 9th.  I was awake at the first gong—the last Sunday of the march. Overcast skies.  With Grace’s visit, we’d probably drive part of the way, though with the march nearly over, I really wanted to walk.  These were moments to savor.  I couldn’t contemplate the meaning of this experience.  I knew it was something extraordinary, but in our day-to-day, step-by-step lives it all seemed pretty normal.  It was too much to reflect on, and I was too tired to try.  Everything had changed: even my face felt different.  Physical endurance so outweighed physical appearance that my facial features had become irrelevant—I had stopped thinking about what I looked like. 

Maryland School Children Came Out to the Road to Greet Us

Slappin' Five for Peace
Grace, Evan, Tom and I drove into Bel Air and stopped at a little bakeshop for coffee, fresh-baked pastry and the Sunday paper.  The Great Peace March was the Washington Post Sunday magazine cover story.  We took turns reading it and in the end agreed that although the article was fair and accurate, you’d need a forty-page special edition just to scratch the surface.  I was impatient to get back to the march.  Grace dropped me at the first rest stop while Evan and Tom rode ahead to lunch. 
Walking southward along Route 1, I stepped into a roadside bar to use the facilities.  Inside were a big, dark room decorated with a few glowing beer lights, and a lightly populated bar.  The bartender kindly gestured me toward the restroom.  As I was leaving a few minutes later, an older man at the bar in a lime green leisure suit called out to me.  “Sweet pea,” he began, “can I ask you a question without being rude?”  I thought for sure he was going to say something racy, but he continued politely.  “Where are you going and what is your cause?”
I felt relieved and a little ashamed that I had presumed he would be uncouth.  “I’m on a peace march,” I answered.  “We’re headed for Washington, DC.”
He waved me over and asked the bartender to bring me a Pepsi.  I sipped it and found it oddly delicious and refreshing.  I went into detail about where we’d started and all the states we’d been through, and what we were hoping to accomplish.  He was a kind man, respectful and attentive; and when he wished me well on my journey, I felt well wished.  I thanked him and thanked the bartender and said goodbye and stepped back out into the daylight. 
I continued walking, a little high on Pepsi, contentedly meditating to open the heart chakra.  Four miles down the road, my friend Wendy from Los Angeles appeared at the rest stop.  My heart was wide open, and Wendy Bell was the perfect person to see.  What a soulful woman she was, and what a great supporter of the cause.  Wendy had really been with me in spirit all the way.  We talked about the end of the march and my plans for the future.   Wendy suggested graduate school, but it seemed out of reach for me.  Frankly, I didn’t know if I was smart enough to get into or finish a graduate school program.  Wendy gently pressed.  She thought I should pursue it, so I promised I would give it some thought.  I asked if she could stay to walk or sing or camp, but she said she had to be on her way, so we hugged big hugs and said goodbye. 

Strange Plants
At camp, I spoke with a fellow marcher who knew American Sign Language and had signed many of our events on the march.  I wanted to be sure we were prepared for hearing-impaired supporters who might join us at the D.C. border crossing and beyond.  My cousin, Martha, a long-time peace activist and an enthusiastic supporter of the march, taught at Gallaudet University, Washington’s college for the deaf.  She promised to spread the word among her students that the peace march was coming to town, and I wanted us to be ready to welcome them.  Cynthia, our ASL expert, said she would be on hand.  I needed to be in Washington for the radio interview the following day, so I hitched a ride into town with Grace.  As we drove around the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring, the setting sun lit up the golden spires on the Mormon Temple.  It looked like we were heading into Oz.
November 11th was an overcast Veterans’ Day with intermittent rain.  Tim from Utah had arrived to finish the march.  He had driven Sage all the way from Salt Lake City.  In the morning, he and Grace and I walked down to the Vietnam Memorial.  Between the grey skies, the intensity of the memorial and the emotional ups and downs of the ending march, my mood was somber and shifting.  The Vietnam Memorial was crowded with veterans and their families and friends searching for familiar names among the thousands etched into the reflective black stone.  A steady stream of people slowly passed the wall as the path sank deeper into the earth and the wall grew steadily higher, indicative of America’s growing involvement in the conflict.  Where the path rose gradually up to ground level again and the wall grew shorter, people stood aside in private meditation, or talked with one another in whispers.  Some wept or shed quiet tears. 
I noticed a familiar striped sweater some distance away and walked over to say hello to Phil from Nebraska.  I remembered then that he was a Vietnam veteran.  As we talked, Phil shared an amazing personal revelation.  He said that he had come to the memorial every year since it was erected after the Vietnam conflict ended.  Today, he said, he had come for the last time.  He was sure he would never need to come back again.  Phil looked slightly overwhelmed, as though by saying the words he was finally making it so.  I had heard people describe the Vietnam Memorial as “sacred ground,” and standing with Phil, I knew it was true.  We shared a warm embrace to celebrate his enduring courage.  I felt privileged to be in that moment with him and to witness the healing power of the Wall and the Great Peace March.
Later in the day, I participated in the radio interview at WAMU with fellow marchers Herb, Keith, and Morris.  The Fred Fiske radio program was a long-running call-in show popular with Washington D.C. listeners.  Fred was known for doing his research and asking probing questions of his guests.  He asked about many aspects of the march, from the early organizational difficulties to the logistical considerations; from our political views to the nature of our community.  He gave each of us an opportunity to construct a piece of the story.  I talked a bit about the fact that the peace march was much like any other community, and that we had mourned the death of one of our marchers, but also celebrated the joys of weddings and a birth.  When Fred opened the phones, I was surprised and pleased when Colleen Shea, a former student from Maret School, called.  “What can students do?” she asked.  It was a lobbing softball that allowed me to put in a plug for young people to study the nuclear issue and begin to follow current events and take an active role in our democratic system.

Newest Peace Marcher: One More for Our Team!  
November 11th was my last journal entry.  The last four days of the march were a convergence of emotions, a collage of overlapping events, and a swell of newcomers joining us for the final march and rally.  It was impossible to find time to write anything down, and there would be no more rest days.
Tim drove me back to camp in Sage, the same Sage that had taken us to Mexico eight months earlier.  He and I talked about the march, but I felt a little uncomfortable saying too much about how great it had been.  I didn’t want him to think that I was suggesting he should have stuck with it.  At the same time, I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask him why he had left back in Nevada.  It seemed like a sensitive subject.  We returned to camp just outside Baltimore. 
Between Baltimore and D.C., the nighttime temperatures fell very low.  I still hadn’t found my sleeping bag, so I asked my friends if they would mind sleeping in my tent so I could stay a little warmer.  Everybody jumped at the excuse to sleep all bundled up and tucked in together like puppies.  Each night we were four or five sleeping side-by-side in a tent designed for two or three.  Tim even brought a wall-to-wall foam pad from his van into the tent, so we were all unusually comfortable.  Aside from keeping me warmer, tenting together toward the end of the march was fun and probably therapeutic for all of us.

One cold morning all of us were waking up, I sat inside my tent, looking out the front door.  I spotted Alfred with his towel draped over one shoulder, obviously returning from his morning wash-up.  He was dancing.  Alfred was always dancing.  He floated on air and held his arms out as if he were leading a lovely lady.  He was good friends with Tom, and he knew we occasionally tented together, so he danced up, peered in and asked in amazement how many of us were in there.  I laughed and sheepishly explained that several of us were all sleeping together to stay warm.  Alfred nodded his approval and said that the overnight temperature had been eleven degrees.