Juan

April 6, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism, Auto-Biography

I was fifteen during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 that unfolded a few miles from where I lived.  Still a few months away from becoming politically aware, my hair was growing longer, which was polarizing me from my father.  My mother was back in the mental hospital.  When Lee, the new kid in the neighborhood, asked me if I wanted to attend an anti-war protest planning meeting, I said yes.  At the age of 16, I joined the ranks of the politically disaffected.

Mostly I sold buttons at political events.  I felt competent to sell things because I’d won the pup tent in Boy Scouts a couple years before.  John Yowell and I sold the most fruitcake, so we both got a tent.  My male relatives were all merchants or manufacturers.  In my world, selling stuff was what guys did.  From 1969–1971, that was my contribution to the anti-war protest.  I sold buttons.

At the Evanston Farmer’s Market in July of 2004 I saw Dale handing out flyers and selling tickets.  For a year and a half, I’d been attending meetings of Evanston Neighbors for Peace.  Dale was usually there, one of its articulate founders.  Neighbors for Peace began on 9/14/01.  I started coming to meetings in late 2002.  I literally never talked.  Speaking to groups, even small groups, felt terrifying.  I watched and listened.

Chatting with Dale at the market, I expressed my interest in traveling to New York for the convention.  Dale sold me a ticket on the protest bus.

I had been political since ‘69 and I’d been going to Neighbors for Peace meetings for 18 months, but I still had never attended a demonstration.  I felt frightened and enraged when I was unable to maneuver in a crowd.  Concerts seemed overwhelming to me.  Bunched up in line, shuffling toward the seats.  I stayed away from events with lots of people.  I stayed away from events with just some people.

One day in 2004, around supper time, my wife dropped me off in front of the Art Institute, where a couple hundred people were gathering as they waited for the four buses that would take us to New York.  My family and friends all wished me well, but on this particular weekend I could not find someone to accompany me.  I felt compelled to participate.  The demonstration at the Republican National Convention was expected to be huge, possibly seminal in swaying opinion, and I longed to effect positive change.  In 2004, watching cultural progress deteriorate around me, I wanted to be part of something that could create profound, positive change.

Standing around waiting for the bus, looking at the people who would be accompanying me on the journey, I felt particularly out of place.  I was at least twice the age of most people there.  I was not a person that liked the mob.  Yet here was a mass of young people, all bunched up, many holding up signs, waiting to pile on the buses going overnight from Chicago to New York.  We would arrive just in time to march.  I focused on getting a seat near the front of the bus.  On a recent bus ride in Jamaica I was made sick by the swaying motion of the vehicle from where I was sitting in the rear.  So I stood by the curb, watching the crowd, hoping for a seat near the front that wouldn’t have me sick for the next 14 hours.

Scanning the crowd, I noticed that everyone looked so 60s.  The piercings and tattoos were, of course, new, but the ambiance was just the same.  Hair styles and clothing worn to communicate that a thinking/feeling individual occupied this space.  There were two particularly wild-eyed males that looked ready to jump out of their skins; one carried an American flag.  Many people were holding their placards as if they were practicing for the event tomorrow.  An extremely slim, sweet-faced girl with an almost predatory intensity to her gaze held a sign quoting an English author that I could barely construct some meaning out of.  One woman, in her 30s, held a huge sign declaring Kerry would help autistic children.  There were lots of buttons being worn.  One man, almost my age, had long, dark hair, a wrestler’s build and a stern, handsome Italian face.  Whereas I was watching the crowd, he seemed to be watching over the crowd, comfortable in the commotion.

Then, like shepherds, there were some folks my age barking orders to the crowd, telling them where to stand.  These were the organizers of the event.  One of them was the man with the wrestler’s build.  They announced that the buses were about to come around the corner.  Indeed, they did.  The magic of cell phones.  I was almost the first in line to the second of four buses.  I got a seat at the front just behind the bus driver’s back-up.  No one sat down next to me.  I stretched out.  The bus took off.

One would think that the experience of being embedded into a large group of college-aged young adults would have me feeling regressed to those years of my early 20s.  Not exactly.  While holding my travel satchel and waiting for the buses, and again while sitting on the bus, I was remembering vividly my childhood camp experiences.  As I settled in, I pulled out of my satchel a bag of homemade banana bread slices and oatmeal cookies, baked by my wife for my bus mates.  I handed the bag to the woman behind me and told her to pass it on.  I felt like a little boy hoping to make friends by passing out the cookies my mommy had baked me.  It was very odd.  But it worked.  Soon I was in conversation with the people nearest to me on the bus.

Pam, just behind me, took care of an autistic child.  She was a former marine, perhaps 30 years old.  She’d read a lot about autism and we struck up an animated conversation.  Pam was loud, aggressive, yet tactful.  She was a person who was used to taking charge and being right.  Like most people on the bus, there was no sign in her dress that she was a member of a counterculture, and she wasn’t.  She just hated the Administration and craved a society that would prioritize children with special needs.

Across the aisle were Juan and Teresa.  Juan, maybe 45 years old, carried a huge picture, perhaps 3’ X 4’, of a young man in uniform.  I hesitated to ask who was in the picture.  Teresa was a friend of Juan’s and had agreed to accompany him on the journey.  She seemed a little out of place on the bus.  Perhaps 30 years old, stunningly pretty, dressed as if for a Saturday night.  It became apparent that she was not there to protest but to support Juan.  She spoke English but she was difficult to understand.

Juan was on the bus because his son had just been killed in the war.  He was a featured speaker at the rally that was to precede the march.

Two hours out of Chicago, deep in Indiana, the bus engine turned off.  We glided for a mile or so, and then the bus pulled over.  Exits were miles ahead and behind, though malls were mere feet away, just across the fences that lined the highway.  We all piled out.  Mike, the bus leader, told us it would be two hours before the replacement bus arrived out of Chicago.  The magic of cell phones.

The first bus in our four-bus caravan continued down to the rest stop 10 miles farther and deposited the people from that vehicle.  Then it returned, circling back around to the exit above us, hustled back to where we stood and then finally pulled over, empty, so we could get off the side of the highway where our wounded bus was parked.  We all piled in, heading to the rest stop down the way.

Standing by the side of the road, before the emptied bus returned, I did not share that evident, growing disappointment expressed by the others milling around me as the cars and trucks whizzed by.  There was very little fudge time built into our schedule.  The replacement bus would have to arrive in 2 hours for us to get to the protest march in time.  It did not seem likely the bus would move that fast.  I found myself feeling relieved.  A lot of the talk within the bus involved making sure everyone had the right phone numbers in case they got arrested.  Mike had outlined the likelihood of losing all cash and possessions permanently if someone was arrested.  Mike also emphasized that if you were in contact with someone on the bus who did not come accompanied by a friend, it was not unreasonable to expect that there were federal agents incognito amongst us, and to keep that in mind.  As such an unaccompanied person, I felt the comment deeply inappropriate.  Talk about words having a chilling effect.

While we were waiting for the bus to arrive, a drizzle drove some of us to get back on the grounded bus.  I was feeling relieved (that we might just have to turn around and return to Chicago), disturbed (by Mike’s paranoia) and regressed.  Regressed, because at age 11 my bus had broken down on the way back from summer camp in Minnesota, and I stood outside a broken-down bus for 8 hours until a replacement bus arrived.  Standing in the Indiana drizzle, the situation was feeling serious and unserious at the same time, like we were children playing at protesting with a camp counselor that was a dork.

The replacement bus arrived an hour late, 3 hours after we pulled over.  The other three buses in our caravan were long gone.  It was decided to keep heading to New York.  Whereas the first bus had AC fully cranked, this bus had no AC.  Whereas before we could almost see our breath, now everyone started sweating.  Still, things were far more relaxed.  We’d gotten to know each other some while waiting for the bus to come.

I got to know Juan.

The month before, Juan’s son had been killed in Afghanistan.  The circumstances of his death were suspicious.  The huge poster-size photo of his son stared at me from across the bus aisle for the 14 hours to New York.  Juan talked.  I listened.

I don’t think I got even 2 hours of sleep on the bus.  We were inserted into the subway system to emerge in Manhattan, where several hundred thousand people were assembling.  In a surreal moment, as I was rounding the first corner before crossing the street, F. Murray Abraham (who played Mozart’s nemesis in the movie Amadeus) ran up to me and asked me where the protesters were gathering.  I didn’t respond.  I just stared at him.  I was asking myself why F. Murray Abraham was asking me a question.  He seemed so short, a mere two inches taller than I am.  Then he ran off to ask someone else.

Estimates ran as high as 600,000 people assembled.  Many of them were mothers with strollers.  Lots of creative theatrical protest constructions.  I felt calm, yet excited.  Six hours walking with the crowd.  I felt calm as it ended.

I’d felt embraced by the crowd.

Fourteen hours on the night bus going back to Chicago with Juan’s son watching me.

Marcia picked me up at the Art Institute the next morning.  Things had changed.  I had changed.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was an activist.


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