On First Avenue near St. Marks' Place in New York City's Village sits PS 122, a city school building built in 1895. A number of years ago the city decided they were going to tear that building down. That decision was unacceptable to that community. A caring group of citizens were determined to get control of the building and use it as a community center for the performing arts. Their relentless determination saw that old school building become the PS 122 Center for the Performing Arts.
It is the home of a community theater, which provides studios for sculpting and the graphic and visual arts. It provides space for day care and an AIDS support services center.
One cannot help but be energized by the positive energy generated in that building seven days a week by a wide range of very talented, creative and giving people.
On a cold, snowy Monday night, I took the 3:10 train from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station, then the subway to Astor Place to get to PS 122. That night, in one of the second floor art studios, a dramatic reading of the play "Shades" was taking place. It was written by the award-winning playwright/author, psychologist Paula Kaplan.
A very eclectic group of people crammed into this studio, not only for the reading, but also for the lively discussion, which I was privileged to facilitate, that followed.
"Shades" tells a very interesting story about one family and its' generational experience of war. The patriarch, Gerry, is a former Army Captain from World War II. The son is a former Pilot from Viet Nam who did two tours of duty. The daughter is a nurse, a social activist who marries a Viet Nam Vet. The fourth character is an African American woman who worked for the military in Viet Nam. She was injured during the war, allegedly by friendly fire. She was paralyzed from the waist down.
The story begins with Gerry sharing his reflections on his World War II experience. Over the years, he said little or nothing. Rarely did he make reference to what he saw or what he and his men were asked to do.
The plot unfolds as his daughter comes home after burying her fifty-three year old husband, who allegedly died of a heart attack. Her brother, who is in excellent health, has developed a troubling respiratory ailment. As the story develops, each of these characters shares their feelings about their specific war. Val (the sister) forces the issue.
Gerry's stories talked about things he was asked to do that were unfair. He spoke of things he saw that were reprehensible. Almost sixty years later, his soul is still troubled by them. He felt his government lied to him. However, as a young soldier, he felt those thoughts were un-American, so he buried them.
His son, Dan, under pressure from his sister Val, talked about the reprehensible things he saw done. He recounted how you were not allowed to disagree with orders, even if the order involved the massacre of innocent women and children. Dan too felt the government lied to him. He dismissed the lies (so he says) because at least he did not come back in a body bag.
Val shared how her husband would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, but never wanted to talk about it. Val's heart was troubled by her husband's silence, but she understood, even though it still hurt.
While Val was visiting her family, she volunteered at the VA so she could keep busy and focused. It was there that she met June. Listening to June's story only empowered Val more to press her brother and father to share more of their stories. It also empowered her to share the truth about her husband's death. He killed himself by shooting air into his veins thus causing his heart attack. Viet Nam had forever damaged and imprisoned him.
Dan died at the end of the story from a long illness he contracted in Viet Nam due to chemical warfare, but again the government lied.
The character portrayals were powerful. The message simple. The theme that consistently emerged was the dishonesty of our government. It pointedly raised the question as to whether or not there are ever any real grounds for a just war. And probably most importantly it pointed out that in every war there are never really any winners. Those who die are innocent soldiers and women and children. Those responsible for war usually escape unscathed to be read about in history books.
The discussion that followed was lively and ran the gamut from supporting our President in his movement towards war with Iraq to questioning the truth of the data being presented, to a number of people expressing frustration at the deception and manipulation.
On Saturday, February 15, I, like thousands of Long Islanders, traveled on the Peace Train into New York City. I started to walk down 34th Street toward First Avenue. I hailed a cab. I told him where I had hoped to go. He assured me he would do his best to get me to the United Nations. As we crawled across town, we began to talk about the impending war. He identified himself as an Iraqian American. He was very emotional about his former homeland and who the real casualties of war will be - innocent women and children. This one voice was convinced that Saddam Hussein would once again escape unharmed, while countless innocent people would be slaughtered.
We finally arrived a few blocks from the U.N. He did not want to take my fare. He was so grateful for our conversation, as I was to him.
As I walked among the tens of thousands who gathered, I was taken by people's genuineness. Many were former demonstrators from the 60's and early 70's, but there were many college age young people, and those in their thirties and forties expressing their grave concern around the possibility of war.
The mood the whole day, even though it was bitter cold, was one of solidarity with the world around respect and tolerance for people's difference. We sang, we chanted, we laughed and were even profoundly silent, but most of us left that day remembering.
As I walked back to Penn Station with hundreds of other demonstrators, it was overwhelming to think that millions of people around the world were echoing the same sentiments, "give peace a chance." There was not any violence to speak of among the marchers. There were a few acts of civil disobedience that aggravated the police, but even those instances were learning moments for us all. They reminded us how precious our freedom is. Our right to assemble, protect and express our views is among one of our most precious freedoms that at times we forget.
It was refreshing to see so many familiar faces at Penn Station. They were young and old alike, but all with the common vision that all life is sacred and violence of any kind violates that sacredness.
There were so many courageous men and women, real community activists, who made time to walk for peace. What great role models for our young people. We need more and more men and women to stand up and be counted for the things that are most important to us all.
Advocating for peace and peaceful alternatives to our conflict with Iraq is not un-American. To the contrary, it is very patriotic. The voice of non-violence is not a voice against the President or against America, but rather a different perspective in a country that was founded on diversity and the freedom of expression.
Congressman King's recent interview dismissed the Peace Demonstrations as having no value on how we proceed as a nation. You cannot dismiss over a million voices from around the country and even more importantly from around the world, urging non-violence, caution and peaceful alternatives to military confrontation.
Hopefully those who are leading will at least listen!