Reflections On The Maine Peace Walk 2016-“Stop The Wars On Mother Nature”
By Zack James
Fritz Taylor, the now old Vietnam War veteran and for several years a proud member of the non-violent anti-war oriented Veterans for Peace wasn’t sure just what had gotten him interested in taking his now annual Maine VFP-sponsored Peace Walk in October the preceding few years. (VFP, a group which had its original foundations in the famous and historic Vietnam Veterans Against the War, VVAW, which he had joined just out of the Army, just out of ‘Nam after he had gotten “religion” on the questions of war and peace and decided to cast his fate with the anti-warriors of the world seeing the other side had nothing to offer but murder and mayhem.) All he knew was that a couple of years back he had read about the annual walk, now in its fifth iteration, in one of the VFP publications, maybe In These Times, and had been asked, had been cajoled by a number of his fellow members to head up to Maine to catch the last day of the walk as it headed from Saco down to the Pratt-Whitney plant in South Berwick where they make the jet engines for the military, the navy mostly, to rally outside the plant as the day shift left work. He had been so impressed by those on the walk and the idea of another more visceral way to promote peace that he had continued to take some October time out to join his fellow mostly aging “peaceniks” in their endeavors (that Saco by the way pronounced “socko” as he was made painfully aware of despite the fact that he had been going up to Maine periodically for about fifty years and on many occasions had stayed in that very town. He would not even address that even more serious question about his long affection for Maine made him a “Mainaic ” since he had been severely disabused of that idea by an old born in Maine woman who ran a diner and who threw daggers his ways when he made such an outlandish claim).
The way things had gone as he readied for each new campaign was that each year he was adding a day or two to his commitment as the Walk headed south (usually the Walk started somewhere in the middle of nowhere up-country Maine in places like Rangeley or like this year at the Penobscot Nation, Indian Island, up by Old-Town, if you needed a town name since this really was out in the middle of nowhere from the description one walker gave him since they had to be shuttled thirty-something miles to the nearest point to continue the walk). It didn’t hurt that that southern part of the walk would run along Route One, the old coastal route which he knew well from about Freeport, the place that the outdoors giant merchandiser L.L. Bean had its origins and that this year would follow that same route down to Kittery at the border between Maine and New Hampshire and the site of the Portsmouth Naval Base which strangely is located on the Kittery side of the river that separates the two states for a final protest, a vigil as the day shift left work (and a time of previous hostility or indifference since those very workers felt, some of them anyway as Fritz found out later talking to some of them at a bar in Portsmouth where they were not very ambiguous about their feelings that closing down the base for military purposes and converting to some more socially useful purpose was so much utopian bullshit).
This year’s theme, each year there had been theme which partially determined the route and the stops, was “Stop The Wars Against Mother Nature (that plural is right on wars and not a misspelling by me and missed by the copy editor since the issues addressed were to be the obviously one against the American government’s endless military wars around the globe, big and small, and the degradation of the planet by man-made destruction of the physical space, military and corporate, and climate change so plural is very right). The previous year’s Walk had centered on the “militarization of the seas” hence that Walk had been almost exclusively down the coast to Kittery and while this year’s started in north central Maine with stops along the way to such places as the Poland Springs plant although continuing to emphasis the militarization of the seas as part of the military degradation of the planet this year’s would finish at the key target naval base at Kittery as well.
The previous year Fritz had begun at Freeport so this year he had planned to add a couple of days onto his schedule and start in Lewiston up in the center of the state, up in an old working class-etched factory town fallen like a lot of such old American towns by the negative impact of globalization which has made it easy, very easy to shift jobs off-shore for cheaper labor costs and no back talk although he was not sure what had been produced at those Lewiston plants, probably textiles). As this year’s march came nearer though due to a spade of health issues he had had to bail out on the Lewiston start and pick up the walk at the next starting point in Brunswick the home of Bowdoin College.
No question since the last walk the previous year life had taken a turn downward if not for the worse. Not only did Fritz develop several health problems after a lifetime of being fairly healthy if not exactly physically fit but he had turned seventy and that “milestone” had taken its toll on him mentally as the combination of illness and age made him aware, very aware of his own mortality. Worse, worst of all, was that partially due to his cranky reaction to his declining health, his increasing sense of his own mortality and his increased drive to leave his mark on this wicked old world rather than relaxing, rather attempting to find peace within himself as he faced the future music, he had become estranged from his longtime companion, Laura, or rather she had become estranged from him and so shortly before the Walk they had separated, or rather he had seen the writing on the wall after many pleas to the contrary and had reluctantly agreed to a permanent separation. She would stay in their long time home and he would wind up via an Air B and B arrangement staying in Ogunquit up in Maine for several reasons, including easier access to the Walk rather than driving up from Boston a time-consuming and taxing effort a few times.
Having shortened up his commitment by a day due to a bad reaction from an on-going medical treatment Fritz had been undertaking the past several weeks he was primed to head up to Brunswick to begin the march south. That first morning he went up early to meet the walkers at the designated place at Bowdoin College-the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial as you enter the campus from downtown. Fritz an old time American Civil War buff thought it both fitting and ironic that the caravan had decided to form up at that particular place. Fitting since Professor Chamberlain had led a regiment of Maine’s heartiest and most dedicated to the Union and/or abolitionist cause in the gruesome key day down at Gettysburg, a key turning point along with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg along the Mississippi in the Civil War. Ironic in that that civil war against the scourge of slavery, the bedrock on which the American economy was probably the last time that a “peacenik” could have in good conscience taken up arms in a righteous American cause, here against the villainous and unforgiving South. Given that this day as all of the days of the march would be dedicated to stopping just those kind of wars, the on-going proliferation of civil wars, as part of the grand strategy of making this wicked old world a more peaceful place the irony was not lost on Fritz.
Having done the last five days of the walk the year before Fritz knew that he had to pace himself the first day, although the walk to Freeport was not all that long, about ten miles or so. After greeting old friend walkers from the previous years and waiting on other walkers to arrive from their various destinations (walkers were being hosted in various location by friendly patrons mostly from the assorted church denominations who have active social action committees within their congregations) he got back into his automobile to be shuttled along with others who had brought their automobiles to the lunch stop, an abandoned radio station with a porch, luckily with a porch since the day had begun rainy. Returning via the ever present van he joined the walkers as they headed out of Brunswick onto U.S. Route One, a road he was very familiar with further south but would be new ground covered here.
[That van, a rented van from “Rent a Wreck” in Bangor to save money and not worry as much about wear and tear or accidents, had its own history on the Walk as not only the shuttle vehicle but as a place of refuge for those who were willingly at heart to walk but were too infirm to go the daily distance without some additional rest. Also a place on the various daily breaks for people to get snacks and lunches. There was a separate van for personal gear, sleeping bags, knapsacks, other effects. The van as was to be expected had also been geared up, suited up, decorated up with a model dolphin created by Randy Ray, an artist who was also on the walk and a banner on one side which proclaimed the theme-Stop The Wars Against Mother Earth. Randy at one of the informational evening programs which were part of the routine of the Walk told the entranced gathering of walkers, local supporters, and supper and sleeping quarters hosts about the thought process he had gone through to create this beautiful piece of artistic propaganda which as the saying goes was more powerful than a thousand words. See banner above.]
Fritz the previous year had noted that despite the fact that he had been coming up to Maine off and on for perhaps the past fifty years or so (which in no way, as he was periodically told and has gone out of his way to tell everybody on the Walk previously like they had not gotten the point by native Mainers, made you a Mainer you had to have been born and bred to the place) that it had all been done by automobile, at least on U.S. 1 and so he had missed a lot of what Maine, working class and small town trades Maine was about. He had been amazed by the number of small businesses, hair salons, print shops, dentists’ offices adjoining their homes that there were along the way. That same though occurred to him again on this walk as he edged along this new walking stretch of miles. Fritz though it funny as he ambled along how so much of Maine had changed, especially along the coast where many out-of-staters had decided to settle for the cheaper housing prices and the slower way of life ever since the various Interstate highway connections made it easier to rationalize the long drives to the cities for work against the cheaper cost of living. So beside various “estate” dwellings, you know the routine, some The Glendale Estates which meant the low-rent types were not welcome, those same working poor types had their various run-down in desperate need of paint houses with rusted out old cars out back, whelping snarling dogs, screaming under-clothed kids, and cigarette butts and empty beer cans strewn everywhere. But that scene had been getting less notable along the big roads, the U.S. One roads and more likely to be seen on the intricate set of rutted back roads that form a web throughout the state.
Fritz as he traipsed along that first mile or so carrying the dove-centered black on white VFP flag that he had carried on almost every public occasion the last several years thought about the rhythm of the next six days which were pretty predictable, predictable in the best sense of that word because the organizing committee had done it work well and had the benefit of four previous efforts. Each day including this damp drizzling day started by all the various walkers meeting in a central location from their respective home-stay places near the end of the previous day’s march (or a few times when home-stays were not practical then some dusty church basement-nobody said the spreading the word about peace was a luxurious undertaking). Each day, once the issue of the shuttle had been solved with the automobiles pushed forward to the daily luncheon location had been settled, would start with a circle, a circle which he was never clear about its purpose but perhaps had something to do with the ceremonial needs of the Buddhist monks and nuns who would lead the Walk, beating their merciless drums with sticks an chanting some incantation for the well-being of the walkers and to demonstrate the one-ness of the universe. He had been surprised how many of the walkers, several of them hard-core VFPers with many anti-war actions and arrests under their belts were either deferential to the ceremonial or were in some degree sympathetic to Buddhism. He had been almost enraged the first time he saw the Buddhists scarping and bowing and the others following suit as a matter of course. He made a point of not doing the bowing and scraping and although this year he had due to his health and his new-found loneliness status begun to think more spiritually that way of the dharma was not for his as attractive as it seemed to those he admired, including his literary hero Jack Kerouac.
Each day walk covered between twelve and fifteen miles depending on what places were welcoming to this small band of active citizens and had been roughly broken into three mile segments starting about nine in the morning with ten to fifteen minute breaks, an hour or so for lunch and would continue until four or five in the late afternoon. Supper, provided supports mostly form the “usual suspects,” church groups with social action committees bend toward helping peace activists do their walking without themselves necessarily walking the trails as well. Supper were surprisingly good and bountiful as if those who were breaking bread with the righteous in their eyes walking brethren went way out of their ways to make the best possible pot luck dishes their culinary skills could muster. (A number of walkers, male and female alike, had assumed that during the Walk they would lose some pounds and as it turned out several had gained weight due to those well-done over-the-top culinary delights and unforgettable killer desserts). After a good meal each night ended with a short to medium program centered on the theme of the Walk. One of the walkers would be elected or asked to lead the presentation to the assorted guests.
The first night of this year’s Walk for Fritz had been held at the Friends Meeting House in Durham about ten miles away from Freeport and could serve as an exemplar for the flow of most programs. Betsy Binstock, the long-time and well-known Maine peace activist and veteran walker for a million causes, led the program telling her listeners about several actions that were done by the walkers including a ceremonial sent-off by the Native Americans of the Penobscot Nation up on their sacred grounds, a stop at Poland Springs, and a rally and vigil at the notorious civilian-run Bath Iron Works who have produced more deadly vessels for the Navy than one could shake a stick at. Then Betsy present Robert Ray the designer of the banner and other artwork that graced the side of the support van and on various propaganda pieces put out by the Walk. The evening ended with a few rousing songs performed by master guitarist Jacob Wright including War No More, a song of his own creation.
[The evening program which had been organized by the committee to inform local supporters and interested parties and to entertain as well with music a key component of most programs had in Fritz’s mind taken second place as a way to inform people about what was going one to the actual sight of a group of twenty to thirty walkers depending on the day and the location. The sight of a lead walker along the roads signaling with an orange flag that a procession was coming, somebody carrying the theme sign strapped to their shoulders-Stop The Wars Against Mother Earth- a Buddhist flag leading several monks and nuns chanting and beating drums, various dove-emblemed Veterans for Peace flags furiously fluttering in the wind, a banner expressing solidarity with the Native American land rights struggle out in the Dakotas, other peace and justice oriented signs and a tail-end repeat of the lead banner sign seemed more informative in a way than a few words at a program to people who already were on board. He had mentioned this idea, for which he received some counter-arguments, along the Walk to some walkers stating that the supportive honks from passing motorists, hell, the unacknowledged response even if momentarily of most motorists not hooked to a cellphone or texting was worth walking for. His idea being that some of those who viewed the passage would have to think a little anyway about what they saw and that some citizens were walking their legs off to make a point worth thinking about. The argument will continue-as usual.]
The routine established Fritz already knew the contours of the next day’s walk from Freeport to Portland, a long walk which he had a certain amount of trepidation about since the previous year that had been the first day of the Walk for him and he was dog-tired at the end of it. With rain expected to dog them that all day he was worried about having the strength to go the distance. He feared, dreaded, stood in horror of having to ride part of the route in the refugee van-that was for old people and he dreaded that notion of refuge-taking worse than anything.
This is the way Fritz later explained how important to him walking this Peace Walk had become over the previous couple of years to his old friend and fellow anti-war activist, Jack Callahan, who due to severe hip problems had been unable to make the walks. Fritz, they had been in all kinds of anti-war actions from huge demonstrations in Washington to tiny forlorn vigils outside Army bases but he had said of late with the serious decline of any action whatsoever against war in the street sometimes it was necessary to “show the colors,” to make a public display of opposition out in the streets. Now there are still all kinds of small clots of people doing that but a Peace Walk provides an on-going thrust over several days to get the message out. Just the public display along the sometimes lonely roads of Maine can provide a boost as the occasional motorist toots his or her car horn in solidarity, or people as they passed by would say “good work.” Moreover old-fashioned leafletting along the route especially in the towns passed through provide a way to get the message out. An occasional news article by some young budding journalist who got one of the press releases and needed a subject for his or her by-line gave an added publicity push. Lately though as Fritz has become more as ease with the sense of his own mortality just the meditative rush that he received as he walked along helped him get through this rough patch heath and companion problems. No question walking along to the beat of those Buddhist drums and chanting kept him going for more than a few miles this year as he became weary on the road.
Fritz also told Jack that night as they were slowly sipping their scotches at Jack’s, their favorite watering hole of late, to avoid too much alcohol for their respective rides home that he had met some interesting characters along the line of march, some of whom Jack knew or had heard of from various VFP actions that the pair had participated in the past. Some of the walkers had started out in Penobscot Nation and were going through to Kittery but the that was a small core mostly the long march was peopled by those like Fritz picking up the march for a day, a few days and then leave so turnover was a fairly routine occurrence (although the partings even after a couple of days on the road were emotional, a variation of separation anxiety as one wag on the road put the matter very succinctly). Of course an important element of the core, the Buddhists who led the procession daily, their personas were a book sealed with seven seals both because of language difficulties and, well, cultural differences as well since they seemed totally immersed in the drumming and chanting. Strangely, well maybe not so strangely after all, he tended to stay toward the front this year which was a “quiet zone” out of respect for the work of the Buddhists and those who were doing “walking” meditation. He stayed up with them in setting the pace in order to see if the beat in his head, a beat driven by childhood-driven rock and roll and lately the blues, maybe not even the beat in his head but the fire in his head over his current troubles, could get in synch with the beat the drummers were laying down. This in contrast to his placement the previous year where he staked out the rear of the procession and he could freely talk and let the drummers do their thing far up front but also he was then in a mood reflecting his take on the Chelsea Manning case of not leaving anybody, brother or sister behind, one of the few things felt the Army was positive in emphasizing-but as he told Jack don’t make too much of that idea, that idea that the Army could instill something positive in anybody at any time under any circumstance.
Bob, the initial organizer of five Peace Walks and a veteran of other walks in other locales, especially down in Florida, was an enigma, rather quiet along the route but determined to give the appearance that this was a democratic effort, although peace walkers, peace activists in general these days an almost extinct species have a history of being self-starters so unless some monster problem came up to expose the reality of who was in charge (him, no question, although not without dispute, friendly dispute) that appearance held up pretty well. Beyond that there were the usual assortment of AARP-worthies who had the time to spare from their lesser pursuits of retirement like golfing or crocheting and could still go the distance (even if with a little help from the dreaded van) whom Fritz tended to stay away from since he didn’t want to get into a pissing match with those fellow worthies who wanted to detail their various illnesses, overcome and pending. The few young people, high school students who actually put the walkers up one night in Kennebuck and recent college graduates without jobs or seeking who they were, tagging along were so earnest and serious, earnest and serious like he had been when he was their age if that was possible that they were beyond the pale, just as he had been in his turn.
The most interesting characters were, as he might have suspected if he thought about it for a while, his fellow ex-servicemen with whom he could swap stories. Like Ivan who had been drafted and sent to Germany during the Vietnam War on a fluke of having been hospitalized when the rest of his training unit was given orders to that hellhole. Only to have orders to go to Vietnam during his tour in Germany as infantrymen, grunts, “cannon fodder” were pretty short on the ground during and after Tet, 1968. Another had just gotten back from Standing Rock out in the Dakotas standing in solidarity with the Native American tribes taking on Big Oil in another titanic struggle to preserve their land and their scared heritage (once again fighting for what was their own according to treaty-the white man’s treaty for what that was worth). Others as well that he could relate to easily enough since they were brethren. A few “tree-huggers” and “do-gooders” who seemed to have had the extra cash to do so were something like professional protestors once he found out their political resumes.
A lot of oddly funny things would occur along the route like the time they were deep in the treed and nothing else part of U.S.1 and he needed to go to the bathroom, the “men’s restroom” out on the road where no stores or gas stations were within sight, had asked somebody to hold his ever present VFP-dove emblazoned flag and he ran into the woods, into a unseen small creek and got his sneakers all wet (they didn’t dry out until later the next day so he had to wear his alternate pair). Some break areas would have gas stations, restaurants, or diners, which had toilet facilities and some not. Some places would gladly let the walkers use their facilities others not (some of the latter showing a real capitalist instinct even about bodily functions would require a purchase, small or large, before allowing use of their facilities. Bah!)
And so it went for Fritz those several days on the road. Talk, endless talk trying to get a take on who was walking and why, then quiet up front with the Buddhists to see if he could channel some positive energy out of his dismal fate of late (that effort in itself a cause for remark given the fire in his head, his disquiet), and then the breaks, the rest stops, the lunch of mostly peanut butter sandwiches (he, a lifelong devotee of peanut and jelly sandwiches, by the end would pass up that delicacy for granola bars and the like). The end of the day’s walk and the inevitable wait for supper (all timed for 6 PM to give the hosts their proper preparation and set-up time) and the evening program. Then an early bed. So it went until that final day sadly walking pass the Kittery Mall (a place where he had many times with Loretta, waiting patiently or impatiently depending on his mood) on the final leg toward the Portsmouth Naval Base on the Kittery side of the river for a final hour long vigil where as in the previous year they were met with indifference or scorn by most workers driving off to their homes after their shifts were over. Went away unaware that Fritz and his crowd did not want them to lose their well-paying union jobs with benefits, a well-deserved luxury these days, but to change what they were making, making more socially useful things instead of military weapons and the like. Enough said.