The Road Diary, Part I
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 07 August 2003
Barefoot and Scanned in Denver 115 Degrees in the Shade Pacific Ocean My Ass The Voting Machine Geeks That Big Cross Behind Me A Flag in the Flatlands The Dead Soldier s Father Meeting Dennis
For the third or fourth time in as many weeks I am beginning to lose count I am sitting in the smoking lounge of a bar in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. My bags, new on July 1st and now well-worn and road-battered, are wandering through the system somewhere beyond my sight. My waitress, whose name was Cindy, asked me what size beer I wanted: Small, medium or large. I asked for the large, and was brought a handled flagon bigger than my head. Sleeping my way back to Boston should be no problem, as long as I have clear sprinting space to the restroom.
My laptop has that nifty Encarta encyclopedia loaded onto it, and I used the mapping program within it a few minutes ago, while contemplating my gallon of beer, to calculate how far I have traveled since embarking on this nationwide tour for my latest book, The Greatest Sedition is Silence. Encarta told me, after much clicking and a little math, that I have laid down about 10,460 miles of air and road travel since hitting the road on July 16th.
10,460. I have given speeches in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Phoenix, Denver, Nantucket, Portsmouth, and San Diego. I have ghosted through airports in Chicago and Las Vegas, and have seen the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport more than any New Englander has a right to. Before the leaves turn, I will do the same in San Francisco, Missoula, Seattle, Nashville, a whole mess of places in North Carolina, New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and maybe a few cities in Europe before all is said and done. I can t wait to see what the odometer reads once the snow flies back in Harvard Square.
The road is an education, especially when you have to pass through fifteen airport security checkpoints with a laptop festooned with campaign stickers from every Democratic candidate for President in 2004. You learn to read faces, and places, and when it is wise to wear the t-shirt that reads I m sorry my President is a moron in seven languages, and when to leave it in the bag.
I haven t left it in the bag yet, but when that metal detection wand took an extra-hard pass across my privates as the security agent read about George s idiocy in Farsi and French, I must confess to having had some second thoughts.
I spoke in Phoenix about Iraq, about the Patriot Act, about the September 11 report, about getting people motivated, about hope, about the fact that George is raising sixty zillion dollars for his unopposed 2004 Presidential campaign because he knows, and the fellows in his crew know, that he is beatable, and that he is going to need every dime of that campaign money to hang onto the job he has so thoroughly despoiled.
The hotel shuttle dropped me at the wrong terminal at Sky Harbor and forced me to do the O.J. wind sprint to catch the plane to Denver. This was somewhat murderous, as it was 115 degrees in the shade. As we hovered into Denver International Airport, I suffered a moment of disturbing confusion. I looked out all of the windows and could see no mountains. Actually, I couldn t see anything. There was a white pall that you couldn t quite call fog covering everything. It was like flying inside a ping pong ball, and the Flatirons were completely gone. You forget that a lot of Colorado is flat, and for a moment I was afraid I had accidentally hopped a plane to Kansas. I soon found out that Denver was suffering an Ozone Alert, and that the clouds had taken the mountains and hidden them.
The next four days were a frenzy of activity. I did several radio and television interviews. I spoke to a large crowd at a Methodist church in a Denver suburb, holding forth on many of the same topics that were discussed in Phoenix. I was shown an equal level of hospitality. I watched the sun set behind the mountains with a fingernail moon glowing above the orange pall beyond the peaks. I discovered the wonder of the Quiznos submarine sandwich, a delight absent from the greater Boston area to my profound detriment. I spent an hour drooling onto the carburetor of a perfectly restored 1965 Mustang outside the Rock Bottom Brew House, shown to me along with a hundred other magic details by a gearhead liberal with a gift for bringing old automotive glory back from the dead.
By far and away, the most fascinating part of my time in Denver came in a small hotel room downtown, when I sat with three computer engineering/computer software/computer security PhD s for a rollicking two-hour interview about the wide and varied problems surrounding the new touch-screen voting machines. I ve been following this story for some time, but these three super-geniuses laid it all out for me on tape. The transcription should be done next week, and when I get it out on the wires, I think a lot of people who have not yet dropped into this story will have a budget of issues to think about.
I was required to wage a small war with the incompetents at United Airlines before I could hop the plane back to Boston for a small break. The experience was augmented when I was chosen for special attention by airport security. I don t mind this. My home airport of Logan was the departure point for the planes that took down the Twin Towers, and so I am a fan of any airport security system that works to keep anything like that from happening again. I have gone happily barefoot through many of America s prominent airport security checkpoints. The fellow with the wand, though, was clearly displeased with my choice of t-shirts.
I stared out the window on that flight home at the immense checkerboard of farmland that is the American Midwest, and saw something familiar even from 30,000 feet. One of the farmers down there had fashioned his cube of cropland to resemble the American flag. Every detail was there for me to see, even as I sat only a few miles below space: Dark green stripes offset by white stripes, and a green box in the upper left corner filled with white stars.
I realized that there below me was as neat a definition of patriotism as I would ever see. Any fool can rack a flag onto his antenna. The farmer below me had worked, in all likelihood for quite a long time, to create an American flag out of the same soil that provided our food. I wondered if he knew how badly his President had perverted the definition of patriotism, and the meaning of that flag, for purposes that had no merit whatsoever. Patriotism is not defined by war and fear, except within a nation that is far down the road to defeat and ruin. That flag, I decided, belonged to everyone lucky enough to see it. Had I looked down upon it from a few miles north, it would have appeared to be upside down, signaling great distress. That flag was for everyone, and the only difference was in perspective.
Home was nice. Two days in my own bed, and laundry, and petting the cat, before loading up again for a jaunt to the West Coast. San Diego was the destination this time, with a brief layover in Las Vegas. As I walked off the plane in Vegas, I saw hundreds of slot machines blinking and beeping next to the gate. No big surprise there.
Sunday night in San Diego found me in yet another church before a large crowd of activists and curious citizens. Somehow, it felt good to hold forth on these matters from the pulpit. Most of my speeches have taken places in a church, under the shadow of the cross. Given the fact that Bush and his minions somehow think they have cornered the market on righteousness and the definition of Christianity, in obvious defiance of the wisdom found in the Bible, I felt like God was there with me to help set the record straight. The man said, Love thy neighbor as thyself. I never found anything in there about pre-emptive wars or the value of lying to the people. It was a comfort.
The last day I was in San Diego was, simply, wild. The Executive Director of truthout, Marc Ash, hauled me down to Oceanside, to a beach called Swamis, and threw me onto a surfboard that was roughly the size and weight of my dining room table. I had to buy a wetsuit first, by far my favorite souvenir from the trip, because the water at Swamis came down from Alaska to say hello. For much of the morning, the water was glassed and smooth. Towards the end, though, a mob of swells came roaring in called a set in my new hepcat surfer lingo and I caught the beating of a lifetime. I managed to catch one of the waves, and managed to get up on the board, and managed to ride it in. But Marc had warned me to bail before I got to close to shore, because of the rocks, so I bailed. And got rolled by the wave. And came up spluttering. And got bashed on the head by the flailing board. And got slammed by the rest of the set. And paddled out to do it again. Pacific is supposed to mean peaceful. Don t believe the hype.
That afternoon, barely able to lift my arms above my head, I was brought down to an organic foods co-op essentially a vegetarian supermarket with a nice caf on the second floor to hear a quick speech by Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. He was there when we arrived, and I plowed through the crowd to get a view. Kucinich, I saw, was sporting a sharp new haircut, and was bristling with energy. He addressed the crowd very briefly and answered some questions. The man, I decided, has sand.
As he was headed for the door, someone told him I was there. Came then the shock of my life. Kucinich stopped dead, whirled around, and bulldogged through the crowd to find me. I smiled and reached out to shake his hand. He grabbed it and hauled me in until we were basically bumping chests and nose to nose. He did not give me the standard triple-pump politician handshake, but the triple-grip old-school activist handshake. He said an incredible number of nice things about my work, and about truthout, the very last thing I was expecting to hear. He only had a few seconds before he had to head off to his next speech, but a connection got made in that caf that is difficult for me to deny. I am not the swooning type, but I felt after that like I had just come out of the hot sun. There aren t many politicians who can do that to me.
That night, several activists and I went to hear Kucinich give a more formal address at a public theater. Before he came out, the crowd was addressed by a Hispanic man named Fernando Suarez del Solar. Mr. Suarez carried in every aspect of his bearing - in his eyes and his face and his very being the most profound sorrow. His son, Jesus, was one of the first men killed in this second Iraq war. Mr. Suarez spoke to the crowd in passionate Spanish, which was translated by a woman to the side of the stage.
Suarez denounced the war, denounced Bush, and asked that everyone present reinvest themselves in the effort to get American troops out of Iraq. He described how troops fighting in Iraq are being denied standard overtime pay, despite the fact that they have been deployed well beyond normal time parameters. He announced that he would be going from high school to high school on a tour to tell the children not to believe the lies told by military recruiters, lies that caused his son to enlist and die in an unnecessary war. When he was finished, he closed his eyes and kissed a pair of dog tags he was wearing around his neck. The tags had been worn by his son on the last day of his life.
A document being handed out described an organization founded by Suarez called Guerrero Azteca, created to help Latinos whose family members have died in the war. The last paragraph reads, The immense majority of the youths in the armed forces were recruited with deceptions. They are the ones in the line of fire. They are the first ones to go into battle. They are the cannon fodder. Therefore, for the Hispanic community to support the antiwar position is to protect their children. They are protecting their loved ones from going to die in absurd wars.
Then came Dennis. He reached the podium on the crest of a great ovation, and stood silently until the crowd hushed. And he waited. And he waited. And in that silence he began to sing, softly, Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave o er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
Kucinich then slammed the podium and roared, Courage, America! Courage, America! Courage, America! before spending the next 20 minutes denouncing the Bush administration, the war, and the direction this nation is moving in some of the most eloquent language I have yet heard. There is not a single Presidential candidate in the field willing to say when Kucinich said on that stage in San Diego, for good or ill. The crowd reacted as if they were coming out of the desert to find a pool of ice-water waiting for them. They drank it up and called for more.
I learned a few things on that road. I learned that a lot more people care about what is happening than the television would have us believe. I learned that just about everyone in the activist communities I met is ready and willing to join ABBA the Anyone But Bush Association to put aside their own hard-core preferences when the deal goes down to make sure that George is unemployed in January of 2005. I learned that, despite my sense on occasion that there isn t anyone out there who feels as I do and is willing to act on it, there is an army of good people across the country doing just that. I learned that George has some tough sledding ahead of him.
I learned that Dennis Kucinich is still polling in the low single digits. The political campaign analyst in me understands this: He has less cash, a few wild ideas, and is less well-known. A lot of people think Dennis has no chance to win, and they well may be right. But I learned that, in the end, there is something profoundly wrong with a country where a man like Kucinich has no chance to win the Oval Office. The point of the exercise, I learned, was to change that.
I am off again tomorrow to participate in perhaps the greatest honor of my life. I have been invited to deliver the keynote address to the Veterans for Peace National Convention in San Francisco. I will tell them about Mr. Suarez, and I will leave the wetsuit at home. Before any of that, though, I am off to Charlie's to get the meatloaf dinner. If you need me, that's where you can find me.