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On Prairie Chapel Road,

The Last Weekend of the Crawford Vigil


by Leigh Saavedra
(formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas)


Sunday night, August 28, 2005


"May God protect our troops;
May God forgive George Bush."


The past three days have been solidly divided among making the four-hour round trip to Crawford, watching and interviewing at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey, trying to put a myriad of facts, rumors, and emotions into words, and finally falling into sleep, peppered nightly with imaginary voices reading from cardboard signs, such as the one referenced above, that have most scratched at my heart and conscience. I awoke too many times each night, grateful for my air-conditioning, marveling at those loyalists camping out in the humidity and heat of Crawford, pained for those victims of power in the hot desert half a world away, afraid of where we were going, terrified that what was happening in Crawford, Texas might not end the nightmare. There was nothing to do but move, hour by hour, in the same pattern.


This sign immediately visible from the main intersection in Crawford

FRIDAY:

My third drive up to the semi-barren, inhospitable area where George Bush spends a large portion of his time (he has recently broken the record for taking the most vacation days of any president in U.S. history) was marked by one initial change. I'd been taking my 13-year old son Bryndan, who has -- for me -- become an icon of awakening, an image of what positive energies used to fight negative actions can do to a neutral person. This Friday, though, I took along my 4-year old Abbie-Hoffman, a longhaired white American Eskimo (dog) definitely not bred for 100+ degree weather. It was a bad judgment call, as were some of my other decisions on this long weekend.

First noticeable change was that we were no longer allowed to drive to the camps but had to park near the Crawford Peace House and go by shuttles, vans driven by volunteers. Because of Abbie and my not wanting to have him take up shuttle space, the camps were not an option on Friday, so I spent most of my short day around the Peace House, from which all Cindy Sheehan activities emanate. I arrived there, emotionally unsteady.

Several miles back, at a service station, a woman -- seeing my "America Supports Cindy" tee-shirt  -- had asked me why I was going. I tried as politely as I could to brush off both her questions and glares. "I didn't want to get into this war," she said, too loud, pointing her finger so close to my nose that in my farsightedness I couldn't tell whether her nail was sharp or not, "but you don't get in like we did and then pull out."

Stay the course, stay the course, stay the course. If I ever swallow poison I'm going to forego Ipecac and think those three words over and over. If her fingernail scratches my nose, I thought, averting my eyes from the woman, does it mean I should go ahead and cut off the entire nose? I didn't have to suffer a further response, as one of the two women behind the counter, arms folded across their chests, told us to "take it outside."  Sounded frighteningly close to pre-fight words in a bad movie, so I left the small bit of change I was due from my twenty for gas and hurried back to my car, where the engine was still running, blowing cool air on my uncomplicated Abbie-Hoffman. Behind me, I heard the first woman scream out, "All she's doing is causing a traffic jam!"

Nothing, really, had happened, and yet it left me disturbed for twenty minutes, even as I passed the sign for "Rattler's Hill Road," my cue that Crawford is right over the hill. Stay the course? Would I have dared ask her, "Stay the course? So we made a terrible mistake but now we have to stay and finish off the victims while they kill a few hundred (or thousand) more of our remaining army?"

The next glitch, of course, was my realization that it was stupid to have brought a cold-weather dog to a place where daytime temperatures soar above a hundred. Before crossing the street to the Peace House, I met John Warren, Director of "Unconditional Theater" in Berkeley. His people are working on a documentary dealing with activism. Good talk; spirits lifted. So Abbie and I delivered the supplies (water and Gatorade) we had brought and made our way to the tent in the side yard.

Under the large awning we heard the announcement, supposedly straight from CNN, that Bush's approval rating had dropped five more points in the past two weeks. The crowd cheered, and I took notes from the rumor mill, always confusing, sometimes delicious. "Willie" was coming. I presumed they meant Willie Nelson, but no one was sure. I'd have to go inside to find out. But there beside me was my very long-haired, very shedding pal, who would leave clumps of fur inside. I could find out about Willie later. Martin Sheen will be here this weekend, someone else told me. There was an arrest, an angry pro-war person taunting a peace activist. Joan Baez had not left after the concert last Sunday but was still around.

I had ordered anti-war paraphernalia from WhatIDidintheWar.com , thinking to sell it as a mini-fundraiser for Cindy's vigil and coming trips. Red tape to do so abounded, even here, and when one woman advised me to please not charge for it, as no one here had any money left, I began giving it away. Mostly, it was "In Crawford with Cindy, August 2005" buttons made by daughter Rose. I gave those to the people actually camped in Crawford and ran out within five minutes.

While this was going on, I was able to listen to an interview being conducted for radio's "The Brad Show," where veteran Nicholas Perzibel, who had served in Afghanistan, was talking about the outdatedness of Donald Rumsfeld's terms, how many were still red-baiting, still referring to the Cindy Sheehan supporters as "communists." He talked about the media's manipulation of facts, their downplaying numbers of protesters.

All the time I was listening for info in the Peace House tent, there was rising awareness of how much more packed Crawford was getting by the moment. A pro-Bush group, to show its support for the war, had erected "Fort Qualls" next door to The Yellow Rose, a very vocal pro-Bush gift shop. People were arriving there and at the pro-war camp out close to Camp Casey I and at other sites I never saw. At the same time more people were arriving to support Cindy's stance. A large number of the people I talked with were not camping but had come from distant states, California to Vermont, and were staying in motels in nearby towns, predominantly Waco.

The real talk was of tomorrow, the thousands expected on Saturday. Concern was strong that with so many people from both the peace camps and the pro-war camps and with the temperature rising, trouble might be unavoidable. From the beginning, we were constantly reminded to ignore taunts, to just smile and move on. A workshop on peacekeeping was scheduled at Camp Casey 2 for later in the afternoon in the hopes of avoiding confrontations.

Medical facilities had been expanded since my last visit. I had called in for a friend, a doctor in San Antonio who had said he would come if needed, and had learned that most medical problems had been heat-related. Now on Friday there were two new volunteer RNs on hand, and word was that a cardiologist was available.

Cindy had given a press conference before Abbie and I arrived. She had kept it on-theme: "How many more must die?" Three fathers who had lost sons in Iraq were among those who had spoken.

But tomorrow, Saturday, was going to be the big day, at least in terms of numbers. Thousands were expected in this little town with a population of 705 and no hotel.


SATURDAY:

The temperature was rising fast as Bryndan and I made our way north again. By now I was very familiar with the landmarks. We filled the car with gas before leaving so as to avoid any confrontation along the way. If I was going to be slammed in the head, I at least wanted to know I had gentle folks around to bury me. We passed the Moody Dairy Queen where Abbie and I had guiltily stopped for ice cream the day before. Then by the time we reached the tiny turn to Rattler's Hill Road it was evident that today was THE traffic day. A few cars were parked over to the side of the Hwy 317 going into Crawford. Most had "Support the Troops" signs, making it difficult to know which side they were on, since both sides claim to be supporting the troops.

A note: For a couple of years, anti-Bush people, even before he invaded Iraq, felt that the right wing had stolen the flag. An American flag fluttering in the breeze usually meant self-righteous conservatives in favor of George Bush. Somewhere in the growing battle, that changed. Now every camp in Crawford was colored by American flags and other red, white and blue steamers. Spotting the enemy was becoming harder.

We had called the Crawford Peace House before leaving, and Bryndan had been promoted from grunt garbage collector of the weekend before to a traffic director. Parking areas filled quickly, and cars had to be stopped, told they couldn't block other cars but had to go on further down the road to the next parking area. Forgetting the resilience of youth, I wondered if Bryndan, at age 13, was going to be able to handle it. Later that night he would tell me how some of the pro-war people ignored his directions and how one even swerved close to him with a boy glaring out the window as if to say, "Next time we'll get you."

While the internet reported 101 degrees in Crawford on Saturday, we saw a thermometer eight miles down the road that was registering 108 degrees, and I suspect that everywhere packed with asphalt and people was closer to the 108. It was clearly the hottest of the now four days I'd been there. Under the large tent-like covering in the Peace House yard, "Walkin' Mary" from Arizona, camped in the yard for two weeks, strolled around spraying us with invigorating water mist. I suspect even now that she was part angel.

I soaked up all the water I could and sat at a table for some time talking to Su and her daughter Chelsey from Tacoma, Washington. They had flown in on Thursday and were staying in Waco until Tuesday. Su's dad was a Vietnam veteran who "died a bitter man" from his experiences in that war. His bitterness affected Su from an early age. She had seen him, a hundred percent disabled, unable to get the help he had expected from the military. Her mom had assured her that the nightmare of Vietnam would never happen again.

"But it did," Su said, 17-year old Chelsea nodding in agreement. "That's why we're here."

I talked to others camped right in the yard of the Peace House. Several I spoke with hadn't brought camping supplies but had managed to get their vehicles to the original camp or maybe Camp 2 and were sleeping in their cars.

The numbers of people grew as we talked, and the buses hadn't even arrived yet. I was told that 2,000 Bush supporters were being bused in for just a few hours and that the Camp Casey rally was expecting another 1500 peace activists to offset them. I'd received a call the night before that several anti-war buses were coming from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.

Getting restless in the tent and not sure where Bryndan was now trying to help with the parking, I decided to take a deep breath and make my way down to Fort Qualls. From the car, on entering Crawford, it appeared to be a colorful setup, neat and orderly, but with fewer people than I'd expected. Still, I knew backup was on its way, and I wanted to catch whatever glimpse I could of the pro-war people before thousands landed.

I spread half a tube of sunscreen on my face, longed for a hat, and headed toward the main drag, The Yellow Rose, and Fort Qualls, named for a Bush supporter's son, another soldier who had died in Iraq. I was wearing a blue tee-shirt with a large American flag on the front, beneath which are the letters, "This American Patriot opposes the corporate-controlled George Bush." Dana Moore and I had designed the tee-shirt in 2001 after I attended a rally in Austin and was shuttled off to a "first amendment zone." We had the shirts made with the first amendment printed in white across the back. I'd vowed then never to allow myself to be herded into a "first amendment zone" again. But this time I secretly hoped that the large flag would simply make me somewhat invisible.

As I crossed the railroad tracks I began to feel a bit lightheaded, and a long swig from my thermos alleviated very little of it. But straight ahead was the "fort." I entered, attracting no attention. There were probably a hundred people milling around and watching a cowboy-hatted man who sat on a horse (seriously, he was sitting on a horse), asking for volunteer speakers.

I listened, and it seemed I was getting icy stares, but nothing threatening. People came up to say a few words, and the common theme was badmouthing Cindy Sheehan. Unlike the young people racing down the streets and screaming descriptions of Cindy as "the bitch in a ditch," the most common lines in the fort were, "Who does she think she is?" and "What makes her think she knows more than our president? He knows EXACTLY what he's doing." They were far more tame than the roadside screams rich with four-letter words and crude insults to Cindy, absurdities, claims that she slept with Osama bin Laden, that kind of thing. But here in the fort, the focus was on one thing -- the "stupidity" of the peace activists. Over and over, the speakers repeated, "They don't remember 9-11?"

The myth may go on forever that Iraq was involved in 9-11. This was not the place, however, for me to try some on-the-spot education, i.e. robust disagreement, especially as the lightheadedness was growing rapidly. I found myself staring at the man on the horse in awe, wondering why he was sitting on a HORSE, and then I realized suddenly that my thinking wasn't clear, that I was close to laughing. Time to go! Fast!

I left, hearing the cowboy's words behind me, "You chastise your leaders who are trying to save you. The terrorists can NOT defeat our military." I hoped the "you" wasn't me. I was hotter than ever and then, almost back at the Peace House, I wasn't hot anymore. I heard rumors that Air America and Randi Rhodes would be there soon. I thought I could still hear the cowboy. And the next thing I knew I had been led into the tiny air-conditioned front room of the Peace House, being handed a bottle of Gatorade and told to sip it very slowly.

It didn't help, and when someone went for Bryndan and he returned, blood red in the face, I knew we were going to have to miss the rally, forego the big barbecue, miss a repeat of Joan Baez, and whatever other surprises were there. It was the Moody Dairy Queen and its ice cream that I needed, having learned long ago that nothing cooled the body faster than ice cream. That's not supposed to be medically sound, but it works for me.

We left as hordes of people began to arrive, people offering to help me to the car as they talked about pro-war people gathering at the civic center and the football field.

Damn. We were going to miss it all. I was very frightened that Bryndan had a severe sunburn despite all the sunblock I had unloaded on him. He had been given a hat, a cowboy hat, from his mentor at the Peace House, who saved them for people who made especially needed donations.

We half-crept out of Crawford, the only people leaving as thousands arrived. By the time we got to the Moody Dairy Queen and ordered large milkshakes, the red on Bryndan's face was gone, letting me know it was heat, not sunburn. But my own face was still red and raw. And despite the immense relief of the milkshake, two hours later, home again, and in bed, I was still sick. Another damn.


www.repentantrepublicans.org -- A Website Worth Visiting 


SUNDAY:

One of the prankster gods decided to pull something personal on Sunday to make it as memorable as Saturday, but neither Bryndan nor I had any idea of this when we left home. We headed back to Crawford, my fifth trip, his fourth, in great spirits.

I hadn't planned to return, as I'd continued to have reactions from whatever heat ailment struck me on Saturday throughout the night. But suddenly, dwelling on the frustration of not having made it to the camps yesterday, I called Bryndan, grabbed the camera and notebook, tricked Abbie into the laundry room, and left, all within the space of twelve minutes.

We stopped once, to buy homemade pies for the ongoing buffet in the big tent of Camp Casey 2. Bundles of imagined efficiency, we signed in at the House and immediately got in line for a shuttle to Casey 2.

The gremlin in the skies grinned, and when we were climbing aboard the large, very high van -- I'm not too agile about climbing up into those big vehicles anyway -- my foot slipped and I fell backwards. But for one young man's strong grip on my hand that broke the fall, I might have broken a few hundred bones. As it was, the only fracture, if any, was in my tailbone, and I knew that even if there was a fracture there that nothing could be done about it. Knowing of no one who had ever died from a cracked tailbone, I tried to look brave.

And despite some memorable pain, not to mention the embarrassment of falling as I did, there was much to marvel about. Probably thanks to Hurricane Katrina, a cold front had struck Crawford. We knew it when we saw the Moody, Texas thermometer: 88 degrees. In 88 degrees we could deal with the angriest of the pro-war people. Besides, most of them had gone home last night.

Milling around as we got out of the van (and grateful that I had managed to get out without falling again) we began to soak up the rumors. Two congressmen had declared their support for us. Joan had sang Amazing Grace the day before, had then left. Willie didn't make it. Two pro-war guys had been arrested (I later verified only one arrest, but he WAS from the pro-war side). Two young men had gone into Fort Qualls carrying signs that read, from the top, "No war" and were immediately besieged by hot Fort Qualls supporters who began to tear their signs to shreds until the two young men were able to tell them that they were on THEIR side. Beneath "No war" on the signs, they had written "Except with Democratic presidents."

I didn't quite get it then, and the longer I think about it the more convinced I am that my heat exhaustion is still in effect. I'm grateful that I don't have to pretend to be nonbiased, but I do try to be fair, and I'm incapable of understanding how "No war" is "fightin' words." But never mind; that was yesterday, and today, with its cooler air and fewer people, would be peaceful.

Good premonitions: Sunday was glorious! We had been too late to hear Al Sharpton, but there were more good things awaiting us. Except out on the road, where pro-Bush people drove by constantly with their four-letter admonitions to Cindy and their shouts that we were "hippies" and "communists," it was peace and love almost reminiscent of the sixties. Enormous amounts of roses had been donated, and people were using them to mark the white crosses of Arlington West, the roses being symbolic condolences for the mothers of the dead. More people were exchanging hugs than the day before.


Arlington West -- 200 crosses, each representing ten fallen soldiers


As was the case every day I was there, Veterans for Peace had a large contingent. On Sunday, though, I noticed the growing ranks of IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War). They had their own tent, their own tee-shirts, and plenty of presence.

I spoke with Tina Garnanez, who had joined Cindy for the earlier press conference. Tina had been in Iraq from July to December of 2004, a member of the regular army. She had been quietly opposed to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, not knowing she would be sent there. She said she was like most of the people she knew, full of questions but not really sure what was going on. They believed, she explained, that they were there to find the weapons of mass destruction.

The first day she was there, there had been three mortar attacks; she knew some who had died during her five months in Iraq. She repeated several times the terror that she constantly felt. As for flowers by welcoming Iraqis, she never saw them. She didn't see anyone but some kids throw stones, but she certainly knew nothing about flowers. She was a new member of IVAW, Iraq Veterans against the War.

IVAW had their own tent, and I saw a lot of people wearing IVAW tee-shirts. I was struck by the IVAW Mission Statement: "Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is a group of veterans who have served since September 11th, 2001 including Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We are committed to saving lives and ending the violence in Iraq by an immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces. We also believe that the governments that sponsored these wars are indebted to the men and women who were forced to fight them and must give their Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen the benefits that are owed to them upon their return home."

I find myself wondering how the pro-war people can call themselves supportive of the troops when so many former troops are coming forth against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I was told many times that a soldier has to stay in the Green Zone, attached to the outside world only through Fox News, in order to continue to believe the B.S.

Some mothers are speaking in pro-war rallies about the good their sons are accomplishing in Iraq at the same time that mothers like Cindy Sheehan, Amy Branham, and Jane Bright are talking about the need to bring our soldiers home. On Saturday, in the parking lot of the Crawford High School football field, pro-war speakers veered far from the message of Cindy Sheehan and her followers. Howard Kaloogian, founder of "Move America Forward," which financially sponsored the pro-war appearance in Crawford intended to offset the attention drawn by the peace movement, told a crowd of Bush supporters that the anti-war movement was fueling the Iraq insurgency. He told his followers that the terrorists were watching Cindy Sheehan's movement, believing that it might topple the Bush administration. Vietnam all over again. I remembered being told that our demonstrations then were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

With Mr. Kaloogian was Deena Burnett, whose husband was on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Mrs. Burnett said, "Our troops are promoting a better quality of life for the people in Iraq. I commend them for that and I thank them for their service to America and the world."

But on the other end of the spectrum were the words of a Marine who served two tours in Iraq. Corporal Sean O'Neill, on the same weekend that Mrs. Burnett told a crowd that American troops are bringing a better quality of life to Iraq, spoke at Camp Casey 2 to explain his reasons for now opposing the war in which he fought. He stated:

"My second tour in Iraq brought more education when I saw children starving in Al-Qaim and Fallujah, when I would go into our chow halls and see all-you-can-eat buffets, soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines stuffing ourselves where a mile away just outside the wire, children are dying from diphtheria and anything else that could be cured just by a normal healthy diet. When I saw that we werenít doing anything, that all we did was pave over our own supply routes and exclude the Iraqis when we didnít build schools and hospitals and things that they needed, we werenít there for them. We were just taking care of our own interests."

On a brighter and certainly less contentious note, the highpoint of Sunday afternoon for many of us was the wedding of Genevieve Van Cleve and Peter Ravella, two activists who chose Camp Casey 2 for their marriage ceremony after spending the weekend of August 20-21 there, meeting the military families who had assembled in Crawford. We were all asked to join in humming the traditional wedding march. We didn't do too bad.

The newlyweds issued this statement regarding the military:

"We ask that they be called to a higher mission, one that will reduce the propensity for terror and violence in the world, instead of a war that has and will increase it.

"We support freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people but doubt the wisdom of an American military invasion as a means to accomplish that goal.

"We honor the courage of the 'Gold Star Families' and 'Military Families Speak Out' who seek the end of our misguided venture in Iraq. We respect their willingness to stand up for their principles -- our principles -- in the face of criticism and even ridicule.

"It is these values we seek to affirm in our wedding. We embrace life, love and hope and openly acknowledge the public statement we are making as we join those who oppose the war in Iraq.

"In Peace Peter & Genevieve Austin, Texas"

The couple asked their friends, in lieu of gifts, to please join them in donating to 'Gold Star Families for Peace' and 'Military Families Speak Out'.

As Bryndan and I headed back to look for a shuttle, it seemed I began to recognize half the faces I saw. Later I would read that 7,000 people descended upon Crawford this weekend, but for those few minutes, I was surrounded by old friends. John Warren of Unconditional Theater appeared beside me, asking where Abbie-Hoffman was. The lady from Georgia, from the first shuttle, was suddenly there, holding a white rose, telling me she was taking it back to Georgia to a man who had lost his son in Iraq. A man with a long beard came up to hug me and thank me again for his "In Crawford with Cindy" button from the day before. They compensated well for our missing Martin Sheen.

* * * * *

I am not an unbiased journalist, haven't been since 1989, and don't wish to be. I am a writer stating events, making observations, and trying to synthesize them into a few images that explain why I am writing about them.

In the five visits I made to Crawford during Cindy Sheehan's vigil I have never been more convinced that, for me, it is the way to write. To cover these very life-and-death matters, a war that has left over 100,000 humans dead, with no bias is not something I can comprehend. I would not want the passionless ability to coldly state places, names and figures.

Most certainly, I learned a lot more than I taught in ambling through the Peace House, the camps, the opposition camp at Fort Qualls, even the small town stops made along the way. I saw nice pro-Bush people, and I saw some very ugly pro-Bush people. I saw unfriendly and officious anti-war people, but never once, not ONCE, did I encounter any ugliness in the people throwing themselves into the pleas for peace. I asked over a hundred people if I might take their photo or their child's photo. Once, only once, did I receive a "no," and it was polite. Even if he was CIA, he was polite.

I learned about toughness and conviction. With all my own complaints about the heat, feeling that I would pass out, grumbling about a minor injury from an awkward fall, knowing that I couldn't sleep on the hard Texas dirt with the miniscule insects that own the land, I felt true awe and respect for those uncomplaining people who transcended all my own complaints. I think the awe made both me and my son better people.

In the end, the most frightening thing that I learned in these two weeks is a warning which I hope I and those close to me will heed and remember: The communist who hid under my bed when I was a child, the one with a walkie-talkie to the others that hid in the bushes beneath my window screen -- I know now that he wears a turban, reads the Koran.

May God forgive us when our complacency allows powerful men to use boogeymen to manipulate and control us. I am grateful for having met dozens and dozens of people in Crawford, Texas who probably cannot comprehend such complacency.

Stay the course, Good People.



Leigh Saavedra, writing until May, 2005, as Lisa Walsh Thomas, has published poetry and fiction for over thirty years. Though she has been a civil rights and peace activist all her life, she did not begin political writing until the year 2000. A collection of her political essays, "The Girl with Yellow Flowers in her Hair," is available through www.WhatIDidintheWar.com . Leigh appreciates comments at saavedra1979@yahoo.com .

 


On Prairie Chapel Road, the Second Visit

by Leigh Saavedra
(formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas)

August 23, 2005

(The first report directly below. Eds.)

Sunday night in Crawford was dazzling magic for anyone who was seriously around in the sixties, when so many of us were marching FOR civil rights and AGAINST the Vietnam War. The salient reason: Joan Baez, or Joanie as many still call her.

I had been in Crawford the week before, but this time, the minute my 13-year old son and I pulled up to the Peace House, from which the activities around Cindy Sheehan's vigil all begin, we could see the difference. In just seven days, everything had become bigger, noticeably so, and all this despite Cindy's temporary absence. In the yard of the Peace House were two large U-Haul trailers, providing backdrops for all the signs related to Cindy's insistence that Bush speak with her. Posters saying "For What Noble Cause?" remind the first-time visitor that Cindy began this history-making encampment by hearing Bush say that our soldiers who are dying in Iraq are doing so for a noble cause. She has asked Mr. Bush to explain truthfully the noble cause that took her son Casey's life last year.

The volunteers are now able to park cars on a vacant lot next door and across the street from the Peace Center, something unavailable to them a week ago. Still, the good luck fairies must have been with me, as we pulled into literally the last parking space anywhere near the House.

Several people have brought vans to use as shuttles between the Peace House and Camp Casey I, of which I wrote last week, and the new second camp, Casey II. They go back and forth from the house to the camps every few minutes.

We brought the people at the house a fifty-quart Coleman chest filled with ice and bottled water, a never-ending need in this hot, humid spot that must have produced enough sweat by now to fill a dozen dry Texas gulches. The services of the medic volunteers have been required several times for heat-related problems.

Soon after our signing in at the Peace House, I was ready to board a shuttle and head for the new camp, Casey II, where there would be speakers and entertainers, featuring Joan Baez, a lifelong peace activist herself. I'd never met Joan Baez, but her music had been wound thoroughly through my life in the not-so-long-ago past. For years all it took to make me want to leave all possessions behind and go lose myself in California's Big Sur were a few lines from "Don't Think Twice" or "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." My young husband from back then had joined her on stage once in Chicago to provide a second guitar. The story was our trophy. To say I had made the drive up to Crawford this time with a strictly altruistic motive would have added a full two inches to my nose.

Bryndan, my 13-year old son, opted to stay at the house and do badly needed grunt work, picking up empty cups and wrappers from the ground and cleaning whatever needed to be cleaned. He also helped out at a table with tee-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. They were there for a "donation." Bryndan told me later that night that they had found a hundred-dollar bill in the jar.

The first things I saw as we pulled up to the new camp were large, rather formidable signs on the road to George Bush's place. It they weren't successful in letting us know that we couldn't set foot behind them without "proper" ID, the police cars up the road to the ranch were.


Standing there in the unmoving air as I looked down the road toward the go-no-further warning signs gave me one of those inexpressible moments, the feel of history rumbling beneath my feet. On one side of me was a huge tent beginning to fill with people eager for a world famous singer who had traveled to an inhospitable town to do her part, as she had thirty years ago, to end another war. On the other side of me was the dirt road that turned off Prairie Chapel Road toward an air-conditioned house where decisions that determine the fate of the world are made. Somewhere in Iraq, I thought darkly, there is a child who will have or not have a little sister next month, depending upon what the people who meet in that house decide. Somewhere in America, I continued, there is a child who will have or not have a father next month, but may instead come with his mother to Camp Casey to look for the small white cross listing death number 1891.
 


The very thought of being within shouting distance of so much power was chilling. Tonight, I dared to think, I could spit and my DNA would find root in soil that belongs to a man who could either transform the Mideast into a democratic paradise or lead the world into irreparable destruction.

I don't know if the Bush people at the ranch can hear the cries and songs and chants, but the proximity to this decision-maker in whose hands lie so many life v death choices reminded me, for the hundredth time, of the power of people. It's simply a matter of peeling back the comfort of complacency and putting one foot in front of the other, then finding that you're marching. And when the march is loud enough, people can move things that dwarf mountains.

Especially knowing that I would be hearing Joanie in a few minutes, I reminded myself, again for the hundredth time, that if we took Vietnam into the American living rooms, we could do it with Iraq. If we stopped the killing in Indochina thirty years ago, we might stop the killing in the Mideast this time.

Yes, everything was clearly bigger. There were at least fifteen clean, new portable outhouses, medical facilities, things that probably never entered Cindy Sheehan's mind as she landed in Texas a couple of weeks ago.

Back inside the tent, there was a buffet -- salads, lasagna, vegetables, deserts, many choices. This was my second buffet in Crawford and I still don't know who prepares the food, but it's very good. I looked around as I fought the heat by eating cold melon and mango and noticed the absence of piled-up food, abandoned on tables in so many buffet restaurants. Another way that this was different.

There were other entertainers and speakers besides Joan Baez, too many to mention here. Happily, I was able to hear Austin songwriter and folksinger Steve Brooks, known for, among other things, writing an original topical song based on the news for the nationally-syndicated Jim Hightower show throughout 1998, a new one every week. When Steve broke into the Woody Guthrie classic, "This Land is Your Land..." it was not just the more seasoned music lovers come to hear Joanie who got to their feet. The tent was electric with youth.

Among several people contributing to the program was 85-year old Liz Carpenter, who paved the way for Helen Thomas by going to Washington DC in 1943 and staying as a member of the White House Press Corps through the tenure of Jimmy Carter. She brought down the tent when she told us, "I knew the Dead Sea when it first got sick."

I would happily have listened to Ms Carpenter for hours. Her wit and wisdom alone would have been worth a long drive to Crawford. Best anecdote of her speech: When she worked for Lyndon Johnson, she once heard him tell his speechwriters, "I want SHORT sentences. I want sentences that EVERYBODY will understand." Later, when a speechwriter gave him a speech with a quote by Aristotle, Johnson apparently shouted, "No. There are people who won't even know who Aristotle is. This is NOT what I want." Ms Carpenter listened carefully to Johnson's next speech, when he told the audience, "As me old Pappy used to say..." and there were Aristotle's words, straight out of old Pappy's mouth.

In the end, of course, she was dead serious. She reminded us that we've been getting in and out of wars for as long as she could remember, that she'd been through it all from FDR to Carter and that "this is the worst shape we have EVER been in." She concluded with a simple thought. "What is diplomacy?" she had once asked an unnamed senator. His answer should have been given a lot of thought in 2003. "Keeping the conversation going."

In time came the star, Joan Baez. Rarely have I felt so happily back in "the old days." She asked us what we wanted, and we called out for "Joe Hill," then "Diamonds and Rust" and others. Before one song she made a dedication. "This is for those who are -- I love the euphemism 'in harm's way,'" she said, bending her head as she tuned her guitar, "'harm's way' meaning nothing more than sitting ducks."

There were an estimated 600 to a thousand people in and around the tent, and when Joan concluded with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the young woman sitting next to me, too young to have watched many wars, even on TV, unabashedly let tears stream down her face.

When it was time to go, to return to the Peace House, I was still trying to separate an amalgam of people, looking for a few words to describe what KIND of people were there. In a nation where having any views to the left of John Birch allows your opponent to dismiss anything you do or say as being "liberal," (meaning too often that you have no morals, that your hair is long, that you secretly hate God, and that you probably are not anguishing over the fact that Clinton, for God's sake, told a LIE), it becomes relevant to answer the question, "Who ARE these people?"

Except for noticing an extremely high percentage of Caucasians, I couldn't get anywhere with it. There were middle-aged ladies who look like those our Republican mothers play bridge with. There were young men with long ponytails. There were people on the other side of seventy-five, and there were many, many more people who appeared to be in their twenties than I've seen in recent demonstrations. But as for who they are, I can't give a pictorial answer. I saw people who didn't look as if they would come to any kind of rally, but on the other hand there were old familiar faces. The guy driving the van I rode in back to the Peace Center was active in Veterans for Peace. It turned out that he was in a convoy taking supplies to Nicaragua in the winter of 1989, the same time when I first took medicines down to Managua. Ships in the night; it's always fun to blink with the inexorable thrills of happenstance.

Later this week I hope to get a more concrete handle on the people who are sleeping in tents up there, night after night. I get so hot while I'm there that I can't hold all the water I need; I get so itchy that it takes three showers to stop suspecting that some new breed of viperous paramecium has been unleashed on us and that it is crawling around just beneath the skin.

When the Veteran for Peace let me off at the Peace House I was focused on that, just WHO these people are who would be willing to give up every comfort to breathe in air that is over a hundred degrees, to forego electricity, to constantly be smiling and upbeat. I knew only that they were saints and that I wasn't.

Inside the Peace House to retrieve Bryndan, I was tossed a doozy of a question: "Hey, can I spend the night? I already asked, and they said fine, it's up to you, and there's a lot of work to be done in the morning." Guilt hit me like a hot, sticky syrup. Deep in my heart I was salivating over a nice gin and tonic in a quiet, air-conditioned place with soft music.

Who ARE these people? I wondered again.

"Can I?"

"No. You have to go to school tomorrow."

"Well, are we coming back?"

Who ARE these people? Has my son become one of them? Has he forgotten his cushy bed with the large air-conditioning vent over to one side?

"Are we?"

And then there was a woman beside me, thanking us, thanking me for bringing HIM. He'd been an IMMENSE help to them, she told me adamantly.

Yeah, we'll be back again in a few days. That will be the day I figure out who these people ARE. Meanwhile, heading south again, I had the lyrics of one of Joan Baez' sweetest songs doing waltzes in my mind.

"May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young."


Thanks, Joanie.


A Day on Prairie Chapel Road

Leigh Saavedra

(formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas)
 

August 16, 2005


Last Sunday, limping noticeably from combined age and injury and using my 13-year old son's arm for support as we made our way down Prairie Chapel Road in Crawford, Texas, a carload of young people swerved teasingly near us. One young woman, early twenties, sun-bronzed and in a halter top, leaned out of the back car window only inches away from us and sneered at me: "Get a job!"

For an instant, it was almost funny. The absurdities -- a broiling sun, jobs I'd held long before the young woman was ever born, my damned aging knees, but mostly the look of frightened offense on my son's young face -- changed my first reaction. It wasn't funny for more than a few seconds. Hate is never funny.

We had come to Crawford to offer support to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan, a 24-year old soldier who was killed in Baghdad on April 4, 2004. The soft-spoken Cindy, a bereaved mother now camped out in the sweltering Texas heat two miles from where George Bush is spending a five-week vacation, has asked for a face-to-face meeting with him. She demands that he tell her for what "noble cause" her firstborn died. When the White House ignored her request, Cindy pitched a tent by the side of the road and says she will stay until she is answered, or until Bush finishes his vacation.


The White House has still not responded to her request, and the closest Cindy has been to Bush or a member of the administration since making her demand occurred recently when a presidential cavalcade drove down Prairie Chapel Road, within a few yards of Cindy and the others who have joined her, on their way to a Republican fundraiser. George Bush was behind the tinted glass of one of the SUVs.

So, after a stunned moment standing silent by a ditch on Prairie Chapel Road on Sunday, watching the young people speed on down the lane toward the famous ranch, I climbed into our car, where Bryndan and I gulped down water that was now almost too hot to drink. I thought of the get-a-job young woman who had yelled at me, in awe that someone so young could show such venom to those opposed to the killing machine that the invasion of Iraq has launched. The night before, arriving home after a 550-mile drive, I came online to catch up on the news I'd missed in the past week of vacation, and there was news of Cindy Sheehan's vigil everywhere. Reading of all the people joining her, from all parts of the country, so inspired me that it was tempting to drive to Crawford and extend our support as well. But I'd just driven for twelve hours and was a week behind in everything. When I read on, it was not the uplifting story of people's support for Cindy that made me decide to go. Rather, it was the ugly that always picks up the scent of the sublime and slithers toward it.

In awe, I saw that Cindy is perceived by people like those in the car as something between Satan and whatever term now replaces "dirty rotten commie." There are rightwing bloggers who see Cindy Sheehan's actions as being treasonous, people who set up websites specifically to attack not only her actions but her character as well (selling overpriced t-shirts and stickers at the same time). Someone had posted on a memorial site, addressing Casey, "I am sorry your mother has chosen to use your heroism as a platform to denigrate your sacrifice." Instead of reading all the information of what was actually happening in Crawford, I became riveted to the horrors of what the "opposition" was saying and writing. Some people seemed to take pleasure in the separation of Cindy and her husband following Casey's death, as if a "bad things come to bad people" philosophy might justify their anger at someone refusing to march in lockstep with the Bush rule.

So in the end, it was to bear witness and continue the battle against mainstream media's disinformation that we loaded the car with water and made the drive. Countering the ever-reluctant media's hesitations to provide us with accurate and fully-rounded facts is, for me, the first requirement to take back our country. I wouldn't have the right to denounce a statement that Cindy Sheehan was simply a pawn in the hands of our enemies without seeing her, hearing her, being there. The same logic has sent me to some interesting places, and the "being there" has always served me well.

And it did in that seemingly insignificant incident on Prairie Chapel Road. By the time the young woman in the fast car yelled at me, we had already been to the Crawford Peace House and heard Cindy and two Iraqis speak. There was a fine buffet lunch, middle east fare, and we arrived in time to eat before anyone spoke. Bryndan and I were flanked on one side by a young man wearing a tee-shirt that said, "Iraq veterans against the war" and on the other side by an older man whose shirt said, "Vietnam Veterans against War." Bryndan counted over 250 people sharing lunch under tents and milling around outside the covered area. I saw faces I recognized, and I was grateful that we had made the drive.


Cindy spoke first, in a soft voice. The audience, in total silence, allowed us to hear every word, as she explained that she had been fighting "falseness" for well over a year now. She summarized her own activities by saying that she had in no way started a movement, that the movement was already here and she simply spoke with it. She talked about the roots of terrorism and the lies that have been used to shore up this invasion and occupation through which billions of dollars are being made for a select few people.

When addressing her specific action of camping at Bush's doorstep, she said the decision was made earlier in the month when fourteen marines were killed in one day. "I felt like a failure for not having made a difference," she told us, her voice faltering for a moment, her "Support Our Troops" tee-shirt bright in the hot sun. So strong was her reaction to feelings of helplessness, she explained, that she determined it was necessary to confront the top decision-maker responsible for these fourteen deaths as well as the killing of Casey and the other 1800.

It hasn't be easy, she promised us. "They are scrutinizing everything I've ever said and done. Why can't they [ed: mainstream media] pound on Bush as they pound on me? I don't have a thick skin and the attacks hurt me."

But after she finished, the one sentence that resonated over and over with me was her simple comment that "What we're doing is good and what they're doing is ugly." And no one in our audience doubted who the "they" referred to.

An Iraqi speaker whose 14-year old nephew had been kidnapped and beaten before release for a $50,000 ransom told us of conditions in Iraq now. One of the greatest changes in Iraq today, the speaker told us, is the shortage of oil. In this land that holds the world's second largest oil reserves, in this land where temperatures reach higher than a hundred and twenty degrees, there is a scarcity of oil and very little refrigeration.

"What we hear is straight from the Green Zone," he explained. "Those in the Green Zone know nothing of what's happening OUTSIDE the Green Zone."

Thus, our nightly news. Thus, the fault and guilt of ignorance. We are not told of the obscene amount of money flowing through Iraq, or that the country under occupation cannot provide the necessary water and electricity.

An Iraqi woman spoke next, describing the devastation the U.S. imposed upon Iraq through ten years of sanctions. "All," she said emphatically, "because of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist." She repeated three times that Iraqis had done NOTHING to the United States.

Before the speeches, I asked a coordinator of the program if Cindy would have interview time available in the afternoon, and the woman told me no, that every single second was filled, that her schedule was totally packed. Understanding how tired she must be, I decided against even going up to meet her. It was hot, and bodies crushed together don't do well in this kind of humidity. But as I prepared to leave and drive to Camp Casey, some distance from the Peace House, I saw that Bryndan was gone. I looked over toward Cindy just in time to see her embracing my son, not a quick perfunctory embrace but a gesture with feeling, prolonged for many seconds. My eyes stung. Was she remembering Casey at age 13? Was she hoping that her work would spare THIS 13-year old from ever being shipped home in a flag-draped coffin?

Afterwards he met me at the car and explained that he'd wanted to take her the gift we'd brought along. "And I thanked her for all she's doing," he added. And silently, I thanked HER for finding the time for a young boy determined to get a small gift to her.

Perhaps things are better organized by now, but on Sunday parking was a nightmare. All the best intentions in the world can't create space. Because I have a handicap card, I was directed to a place that said "no parking" but which, I was told by a member of the Peace House, was not going to be ticketed. "Shhh," she reminded me. She had a policeman's word on it. I was the second car there, and when we reached our car after lunch there were eighteen more vehicles, all unticketed.

Down the street from the Peace House is what appears to be the town's main intersection, dominated by a gift shop called "The Yellow Rose." Outside the Yellow Rose are large cement tablets on which are carved the Ten Commandments. To either side are the usual signs, "Freedom isn't free," "We support our president," etc. Ten or so people stood outside. I needed directions to Camp Casey, where those staying with Cindy were pitching their camp. I glanced over at the folks standing outside the Yellow Rose, and though I saw no overt signs of belligerence, I opted to call my daughter in California to look up directions for me rather than stop for directions.

A bit later we reached the camp. The most noticeable thing upon driving down Prairie Chapel Road, as the road to the Bush ranch is named, passing near Cindy's Camp Casey, is what seems to be endless rows of white crosses, one for each American soldier who has been killed in Iraq. Many have flowers; some have photos and other memorabilia. At one end is a large placard containing a thousand photographs, the first thousand American soldiers to die in Iraq.


Signs abound over and between the several dozen campsites, my favorite being, "Clinton would have talked with Cindy."

I was moved by a hundred things, the generosity of people sharing water, the prime commodity on a day like this one, people in intense discussion, people finding time to laugh, people refusing to respond to a couple of taunts from a dozen or so Bush supporters standing idly on the other side of Prairie Chapel Road. Mostly, I was moved that anyone would be willing to sleep in this inhospitable climate, on the ground or on a cot, in an area where they were neither respected nor welcomed, where there was no pizza delivery service within miles, and even less refrigeration at hand than is found in Baghdad.

We talked to dozens of people of every age, from children to a few who were pretty old during the Vietnam War. I half-promised myself to return in a few days. But life at home, the start of school, finally pulled us away, and it was upon leaving that the car of young people swerved close to me, the young woman telling me to get a job. In the context of all I saw in those few hours, I can now only shake my head at her complete lack of comprehension.

Parts of the day had been almost surreal, the no-bones-about-it supporters of "staying the course" who watched us at the intersection from The Yellow Rose, the rumor that someone had seen a rattlesnake in the field behind the camp, beautiful trees forming near-arches in some places on the road to the now-famous ranch and to the almost-famous Camp Casey, Cindy holding my son, the memory of the car coming so close to me.

We headed home, both Bryndan and I silent for several minutes. Then, as Crawford disappeared behind us, I realized what it was that was making me want to stay, making me want to be a part of what was going on. It was the possibility of what this might mean.

Occasionally an ordinary person, without ever daring to dream of such bigness, actually changes history. Rosa Parks comes first to the minds of many of us. Today, it's possible that Cindy Sheehan, out of sheer determination to have her son's death explained, is waking up enough Americans to completely alter, possibly bring to a loud halt, the neocon plans for control of the entire mideast.

It cannot be ignored that people from across the country, Seattle to Maine, have flown and driven to Crawford to express their solidarity with this plainspoken mother who has transformed her grief into actions designed to spare other mothers the pain she lives with. Some have even pitched tents and joined her in the broiling sun. Some mothers of other soldiers killed in what many are calling "the Bush War" have gone to Crawford to join her. In a world where people like flags and apple pie and baseball, mothers carry clout. Mothers whose sons have died as a result of lies carry enough clout to force even the corporate-driven mainstream media to deal with Cindy Sheehan's vigil. And when the mainstream media is forced to show its hand, viewers ask questions.

After we reached home and were preparing for bed that night I looked at notes I'd taken the night before. I'd copied words from one especially angry site: "Cindy Sheehan has made a mockery of her son's death."

No, I don't think so. Bryndan was young and not unusually well informed, and I moved around with a very tired limp, but we were there. We were insignificant and we didn't make speeches and I never even talked to Cindy herself, but we were there. We saw the white crosses memorializing each soldier who had been killed in a war that has yet to be justified. Without Cindy Sheehan, those memorials would not exist. The woman who took the time for a long, long embrace with my young son isn't the type to make a mockery of anything. I know. I could see her face.


Leigh Saavedra has written poetry, short fiction, and political essays for thirty years under the name Lisa Walsh Thomas. In 1989 she became aware of the irresponsibility marking our mainstream media when reports over both broadcast news and print media portrayed the young revolutionaries of Nicaragua as communists. She went to Managua and spent that winter and the next in Nicaragua, finding the value of "being there." She is the author of an award-winning book of fiction ("So Narrow the Bridge and Deep the Water", Seal Press, out of print) and a book of political essays ("The Girl with Yellow Flowers in her Hair", Pitchfork Publishing). She appreciates comments at saavedra1979 yahoo.com.
 

 

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