A Texas Woman Recaps Her Recent Visit to Camp Casey:
Camp Casey: A Phoenix
My teenaged daughter and I, with one of her friends in tow, left Kerrville, Texas and made the four and a half hour drive north on Saturday, Aug 20th, arriving in Crawford, Texas at 8:30 PM. The five hours we spent there will forever be etched in our minds.
We followed the directions for arriving in Crawford from McGregor 6.3 miles to the south (highway 84 and 317), ...once in Crawford, we turned left onto West Fifth at the intersection where the only gas station in town is located. There, across from the gas station, town folk sat waving American flags from their lawn chairs beneath signs reading: "We Support Our President" painted onto white bed sheets. On West Fifth we drove a third of a mile to Prairie Chapel Road, where we turned right. Then, we drove about 5 miles on a flat, winding road past nondescript fields and pastures, so characteristic of rural Texas.
And then we saw them. Small white crosses, hundreds of them standing beside the road, each painted with a name of a soldier who has died in the Iraq War. Beside every sixth or seventh cross there was a solar luminary casting its light on the crosses. Soon we could see ahead a row of buses and campers and cars with signs bearing anti-war sentiments and support for the peace movement painted on or leaning against each one. Really the vehicles, tents, signs and banners meshed into a unified wall of strength. Anyone who has seen, firsthand or in film footage, images of the massive anti-war rallies of the Vietnam Era might think they had gone back in time when this wall of resistance first comes into view, rising like a phoenix from the surrounding Texas pastures.
For a moment my mind flashed back to memories of childhood nightmares which contained the whoosh, whoosh sounds made by Huey helicopters as they carried the dead and wounded out of Vietnam combat zones, which was captured by television cameras and broadcast in our living room night after night, year after year. Upon seeing such a strong reminder that the peace movement once again needs our support (and presence) to force the government to end this war and bring our troops home safely, I looked to the sky expecting to see helicopters overhead producing the traumatic sounds being replayed in my head. I squinted to read the anti-war signs: a picture of Bush sprouting a speech bubble which contained the phrase "Bring 'em on... except the MOMS," "Tell us why our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers are dying in Iraq in this immoral war," "Peace NOW," "Iraq Veterans Against War," and more.
We had reached Camp Casey I, named for Cindy Sheehan's son who was killed in Iraq last year. In and around the vehicles were tents and campsites and people. All ages of people, from babies and toddlers in strollers to men and women in their 80s. I pulled my car to the far end and off the opposite side of the road from the Bread Not Bombs bus.
At seeing the bus, my mind wandered back fifteen years, to Long Beach California where I first met the Bread Not Bombs peace activists group who, every Sunday, fed a crowd of between 200 and 700 homeless citizens of that city, in a park outside the City Council chambers. Until they were forced to move to a park on the poor side of town. Being outside council chambers became an embarrassing reminder of how so very many homeless and hungry people lived among us, and it was bad for the tourism industry. My children and I attended their gatherings to help cook and eat WITH the homeless folks, unlike many of the church people who came to help, but wouldn't sit down to talk to and eat beside a homeless person for anything. I was a political activist at the time, organizing homeless people and writing about the affects of poverty on children and families. I was also about as anti-war as one could be and loved every peace activist I met who was working in the Bread Not Bombs organization.
At Camp Casey I (called Camp One, for short) an organizer (everyone here is a volunteer) came over to our car to tell us to drive 3 miles further, past the secret service blocking the entrance to the first of two roads leading directly to the Bush compound, to the second location of Camp Casey. At this point, we could have parked alongside the road here and taken a shuttle van driven by women volunteers, but we chose to drive on, as I have mobility issues and needed to be dropped directly at the evening activities, of which we knew nothing about before arriving.
On the long drive up from the Texas Hill Country, we tried to think what might be needed at the site that we could bring to contribute to the efforts of the activists camped there. Food and water seemed logical. We gave the volunteer who'd given us directions the food we'd brought to donate, as he explained there was a free collective kitchen set up at both camps. Grateful volunteers, who seemed far less weary than I did after my long drive, carted off the two pounds of sliced turkey, loaf of wheat bread, bag of apples, box of strawberries, and six gallons of spring water that we had bought at the HEB grocery store in McGregor, TX with money borrowed to make the trip. Then, we began our trek on down the road to Camp Casey II, not knowing what we would find, only knowing that we MUST go, resisting the strong urge to remain at this extraordinary encampment to visit and network with those manning Camp One.
We drove on, eating the dust of the vehicle up ahead when the road was no longer paved. It had just become dark and the sky was colored in eerie swirls and splotches. Now we new we were on a quest, when just 8 hours before this we had no idea we would be making this journey. We arrived and saw crowds of people ready to leave, waiting to take the shuttle van back to Camp One. There was a huge tent with tables and folding chairs, a stage at one end and serving lines at the other, with Bread Not Bombs activists dishing up free food for all the volunteers and visitors alike. There were a couple of large Uhaul trucks and motor homes stacked behind the stage. There was a large area with row upon row of small white crosses with names of victims of this war painted on each, arranged just like Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, DC. This was named "Arlington West" and volunteers and visitors everyday work painting the names on more crosses to be placed there.
When we arrived, a Marine bugler, named Jeff Key, had just finished playing Taps over Arlington West, and I wished we had arrived in time to experience that event. I sat at the information booth and signed the visitor book and read where others came from. Illinois, Kansas, New York, Florida, Ohio, Georgia.... and Texans from all over the state. I had glanced at only the last couple of pages of a huge list. A musician was finishing up his last song. It was James McMurtry, a 43 year old Americana artist from my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, whom I had not heard of. I found out from the woman at the information table a little about him. His father, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, exposed his son to what he called, "hillbilly music" by playing the records of Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff. At the house of his mother, a university English professor, he heard a lot of Kris Kristofferson records. Cash was James' first concert as a kid; Kristofferson, his second.
I was wishing I'd arrived sooner to hear him play, but this whole trip was a spur of the moment decision, as it was for so many others, as I found out later when talking to others. It had been dreadfully hot last Saturday and I just didn't think I could stand the heat, so waited until late afternoon to leave. As it was, I cooked in the car, gusts of hot air whipping my hair into my face and drying my sweat to keep me cool, not using the A/C to get better gas mileage. I didn't know what, if anything, would be happening at night, but felt compelled to come.
My 16 year old daughter, Molly and her 26 year old best friend, Amanda, walked up with our small ice chest and a jug of water, having parked in a ditch (no tires could be left touching pavement) along the side of the narrow road, just under a half mile further down from Camp Casey II. We made our way to the front row where there were about a dozen empty seats, as Steve Earl took the stage with his guitar.
Looking around the far side inside the tent I saw an enormous information booth with a banner overhead which read: Iraq Veterans Against War in letters three feet high, I saw a display of 40 or 50 handmade pro-peace/anti-war protest signs displayed out on the ground side by side for all to read, contributed by the many visitors and volunteers. I can't walk far so I sat and listened to the message of the musician, while my daughter and her friend went to see who had the other booths and what they were about. The food tables and Bread Not Bombs folks were at the opposite end of the tent which was too far for me to walk. I was sad I couldn't make it over there to see those folks and offer them a hug and catch up on what projects they were tackling these days, other than this historic event. Even so, I felt incredibly connected to, and a part of, everything I saw and heard from the very first moment I saw the first row of crosses alongside the narrow country road leading up to Camp One. I barely gave the police cars I had passed a cursory glance. I was told they would ticket any vehicle parked with wheels touching the pavement, which is why everyone had to park on the slant into the roadside ditch.
Nobody was selling anything or making money. Everyone was there to get information or give information. A few sat with laptops equipped with satellite Internet capabilities perched on their laps, allowing many others to send and receive email to loved ones. Everyone was fed for free and no one went hungry, whether at the camp for a few hours or several weeks. The spiritual atmosphere was both uplifting and serious, a blend of outrage and compassion and strength and sorrow, topped with a heavy dose of determination that one could almost reach out and touch. Many were there to give out information because they had been to Iraq, or was related to a soldier who had been there or was currently there, or had died or been wounded. Some were Vietnam vets now working for peace. Some were lifelong peace activists opposed to US military escapades globally, having worked on exposing the destruction wreaked by the US military in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Central America or other places. Everyone at Camp Casey, no matter what distance they had traveled to get there, and, no matter if they had been there only a few hours or several weeks, was energized!
I visited with those around me. A very determined man set up audio/video equipment on his chair as he perched in front of me on the ground monitoring the video display as it recorded Steve Earle on stage. Earle delivered soulful country songs espousing his anti-death penalty stance and eloquent, passionate, stories of his life growing up in Texas, and also about living now with his two young-adult sons in rural Texas, and his determination to keep them out of the military. He was witty and serious. He directed a few choice comments in anger, turning on the stage to face in the direction of the Bush compound just over a mile away. He'd finished a gig in Colorado the day before and had driven all the previous night to make it to Crawford to perform and show his support for the peace camp.
After Steve Earle left the stage to a standing ovation of about 500 people under this huge tent, the man who'd been videotaping reached out his hand to me and introduced himself. He and his wife had flown in from Santa Clara, California to Dallas, and driven a rental car down to Crawford. When I asked where they were staying, they said a man at one of the information booths, who was camping at Camp Casey, offered his own apartment in Waco to them for a few nights. The couple gave me their business card and asked me to keep in touch via eMail. His wife had closed her chiropractic office for a week to accompany her husband to Camp Casey, to find out what they could do back home to support the efforts to bring about the end of the Iraq War.
During the Earle performance I opened a box of strawberries and offered them to those sitting around me and in back of me. After the performance I visited with them to learn who they were. One was a doctor who'd closed his practice in Denver for a month to come be a volunteer at Camp Casey. Another man behind me was a Science teacher who came for the weekend from a distant Texas town. Someone else near me was a retired fireman, who had come in his RV to volunteer. Then, there was Antonio, who came up from the back to join the group with whom I was visiting. He came armed with three flutes: one Irish, one Native American, and a Recorder. One of the group was playing a mandolin and Antonio chimed in playing a beautiful melody on his Irish flute. Antonio, I learned, was a man who was an organizer of a peace group in New York City. His father was killed when the second tower was hit at the 76th floor. His father was an insurance agent working in an office on the 90th floor. The name of the peace group in NYC to which he belongs is Families of Victims of 9/11 For Peace. He told me he gets very upset when he encounters folks who think the War in Iraq is justifiable and necessary retaliation for the 9/11 tragedy. He does not believe anything we are doing anywhere in the Middle East is making us safer here in the US, but rather, will incite MORE terrorist acts against us. He quoted a line in one song Steve Earle sang earlier about our government supporting Israel as they bulldoze the homes of Arabs, whose children throw stones at armed Israeli soldiers, in retaliation. I agreed with him that our government supports regimes who perpetrate heinous terrorist acts daily, and how sickening it is to hear Bush talk about his commitment to wipe out terrorism.
Now, about the Marine: Jeff Key. At midnight, he performed on stage a one-act play, named "The Eyes of Baghdad," which he wrote from the journal he kept while serving in Iraq. It is indescribable what this performance was truly like, but this is what I can offer. This tall, unassuming fellow from Georgia, who'd joined the Marines at the age of 34 after the 9/11 tragedy, made each of the 150 or so people who had stayed for the play after most left when the music was over, .... cry, laugh, feel rage and fear, and come to know on a very personal level who he was and what his experiences in Iraq had been. His job on his tour of duty was driving a special humvee-type vehicle to transport a group of fellow Marines in the combat zones. He also was the company bugler. He started out by explaining how frightening it was to fly on military planes which were older than he was and more often than not, malfunctioning and always breaking down. From there his story, infused with more humor than expected, detailed some very moving anecdotes, which made one feel as if they, too, had been with Key in Iraq. His explanation of the practice by US military personnel of referring to all Iraqis as "hajji" was priceless. He said (and I'm paraphrasing) that it is similar to calling Vietnamese "gooks" …because in reality, "hajji" is a term of reverence, used to address someone who has made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, and when used by soldiers who are sent to kill, it just ends up making US soldiers look stupid in the eyes of their victims.... or something like that. I'm sure ALL in the audience had wished he would repeat it a second time... he said it with perfect cadence, very fast, and the whole thing seemed to just roll off his tongue in a tangy, Georgian drawl.
When his performance was over, at least half the audience stood in line to thank him, and/or hug him and talk to him. For me, I wouldn't have missed seeing his performance for anything in the world. It was so moving and enlightening.
We were tired and it was late. After 1:00 AM. We discussed the possibility of sleeping in our car, as we had come prepared with blankets and pillows. But my daughter said the car, where it was parked, was at too sharp an angle for us to attempt to sleep. We wanted to see Camp Casey in daylight, take pictures, paint a few crosses for the Arlington West project, and learn how we could help force an end to Bush's War. We considered driving further north to my brother's ranch and sleeping a few hours and driving back to Camp Casey, to stay a few hours, before making the long drive home. Molly's first day of school was Monday and we had to do laundry. We counted our money and discovered we had $22 and less than a half of a tank of gas. It didn't take long to realize we had to go straight home, with gas costing $2.50 a gallon and it being a four and a half hour drive back to Kerrville.
As everyone was crawling into their tents, bedding down on lounge chairs, walking back to their rental cars to get to the closest motels in Waco, or stepping into their RVs, we drove off into the still of a Texas night, glad we came and sorry to be leaving. My daughter and I, and her friend, all knew more upon leaving Camp Casey than we knew upon our arrival, mostly about ourselves.
We had gained personal strength from being in this place. We knew it was a good and powerful thing that we had come and witnessed this historical event. It was important to be counted as one of the thousands who had already come to add support to a vital endeavor. We knew we must now find a way to speak out in our own community against Bush's immoral war in Iraq, despite the fact that where we live is 99.9 percent war mongering Republicans.
I urge all who CAN make it to Camp Casey, even for just a few hours, do so, no matter how far you must travel or by what means. The experience will impact your Life in ways you cannot imagine, no matter what, if any, "special event" is happening. For my musician friends, grab a guitar, go there, and sign up at the information booth to perform. The volunteers there need your voice and talent.
Joan Baez was to perform, and did, at 6:00 PM on Sunday. We wanted to stay to see her perform and hear her message, but just couldn't, as we would've gotten home too late for Molly's first day of school on Monday.
Another thing we realized as we drove away, past the giant sleeping peace vigil of Camp One, past the solar luminary STILL lighting the long row of small white crosses, stuck in the dirt by the side of the road, that greeted us upon our arrival: we would be back to Crawford, TX BEFORE the entire camp marches on, and moves to, Washington, DC as part of a huge anti-war protest, which is expected to draw worldwide participants, on September 24th at the Capitol.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE,
Texas National Organization for Women (NOW) Member