Friday, August 26, 2005

Camp Casey, Part 1

I grew up in Louisiana, mostly. Kindergarten in Gueydan, high school in Haughton, college in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Lots of formative experiences, sex, drugs and rock and roll-wise (not to mention alcohol, Zydeco, plus a generous helping of Harlan Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson and other subversive literature). But my wife also ended up on the West Coast for seven years, and my political education moved into overdrive.
Portland, Oregon is a teeming hotbed of political subversion, where you can find matronly-looking housewives arguing Black Panther historical minutiae with young anarchists, where Ralph Nader is embraced with the messianic zeal reserved in the South for Dale Earnhardt. While there, in between generous helpings of Kropotkin and Philip K. Dick, I helped found a street newspaper (sold by homeless vendors) and a union local, served on the staff of a collectively-owned bookstore and volunteered in the quixotic 2004 presidential campaign of vegan peacenik Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Portland was like a seven-year boot camp, learning skills and cultivating passions to then be put to use in the harsher, outside world, where openly gay city council members and worker-owned bike shops aren’t the norm. Places such as northwest Louisiana.
When it appeared a few weeks ago that the momentum of political dissent in this country was shifting to Crawford, a small town just south of Waco, Texas, just five hours away from Shreveport, there was no way I was going to miss being a part of it in some direct way. Crawford is, of course, the location of the vacation home of George W. Bush, where he has retired for five weeks(!) this summer. Unfortunately for him, his respite, and no doubt his sleep, have been haunted by the vigil of Cindy Sheehan and her supporters.
Sheehan, from Vacaville, California, is the mother of Casey Sheehan, who was killed in combat in Iraq in April of 2004. Although verbally supportive of Bush at the time, she has emerged as an outspoken opponent of his war and demands a second meeting with him to discuss that opposition. Her vigil has captured the attention of the nation, and thousands have flown, driven and otherwise made their way to the hastily-organized Camp Casey in Crawford to join her.
When I decided to go to Crawford myself, I recruited my good buddy Kevin Sandlin for the trip, knowing he wasn’t working during the weekend set aside, August 20-21. He quickly agreed, although there seemed to be some skepticism up until the morning of our departure. Wanting to make the most of the trip for those spending days and even weeks at Camp Casey, I tried to get the word out that I would be accepting donations of supplies needed at the camp – bottled water, coffee, fruit, batteries. Most of this was done through personal emails, although I also sent press releases to print, radio and television outlets. The Shreveport Times and the local ABC affiliate, KTBS Channel 3, both had some coverage, too late for donations, but important for getting the word out that someone from Shreveport was undertaking this. The t.v. news segment was aired several times the evening before and morning of our departure, and many people, family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, have commented about seeing it. Never have I truly realized the power of television before this experience.
My parents donated the use of their pickup truck and a Shell credit card, no small contribution in this summer of $2.50 plus gas prices. Kevin and I got on the road about 9:15 Saturday morning, with a backpack apiece plus three cases of bottled water, two packages of Community Coffee, bags of oranges and pears, and an assortment of batteries. “Born to Be Wild” was playing on the radio, and we discussed Captain America and Billy the Kid in Easy Rider, as we headed out on our decidedly less glamorous but hopefully more meaningful road trip. We hoped Jack Nicholson wouldn’t mind riding in the back of the truck.
The drive was decidedly no-frills, with gas, food and comfort stops consolidated as much as possible. I told my wife the culinary fare would be “Slim Jims and Ding Dongs” the whole way, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. We wanted to maximize our time in the 100-degree Central Texas heat, so there was no lingering over the chicken-fried steak and key lime pie at Cletus’ Truck Stop, although I did share with Kevin my fascination with truck stops, particularly the vast array of merchandise (does a truck driver really need an impulse-buy fake samurai sword, even if it’s endorsed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?)(and did you think you would be reading the name Dale Earnhardt twice in this account?).
After five hours, one chili dog, one custard-filled donut, and one vanilla crème soda, we arrived at the Crawford Peace House. My impression of Crawford is of a tiny crossroads of a town surrounded by sprawling, Texas-style ranches. The main intersection features a handful of restaurants and gas stations, featuring George and Laura souvenirs. A few houses are concentrated here, including the Peace House just across the railroad tracks. In every way, the house is an oasis.
Crawford, and its larger neighbor Waco, are about midway between Dallas and Austin. Too far west for the lush, piney woods landscape of East Texas, too far north for Texas Hill Country and too far east for the stark, lunar beauty of West Texas. We’re basically talking flat and treeless, with very little natural relief from the ever-present, baking August sun, except for a steady, subtle breeze. Unless one had the good fortune to be at the Peace House or at Camp Casey.
The Crawford Peace House was purchased by a visionary Dallas activist named Johnny Wolf a few years ago. Knowing that the Appointed One would be spending quite a bit of time in Crawford, Wolf figured there might be a time when the opposition would need to be taken there. May his name one day be remembered with the same reverence as that given to Paul Revere, Henry David Thoreau, Abbie Hoffman and other great patriots. Because damned if that sonofagun didn’t find the shadiest spot in all of central Texas to make his stand.
The house itself is architecturally nondescript, but was bustling with activity, with tents set up to accommodate media and distribution of t-shirts, bumper stickers and literature. A modest but unused labyrinth was set near the house, its suggested serenity almost mocking our ant-like activity, with shuttles leaving for the camps, supplies being unloaded into the two U-haul trucks rented for the occasion, and people marveling at the places others had traveled from to get to this place at this historical moment.
After some brief mingling and browsing, Kevin and I caught a shuttle to Camp Casey I. For those who haven’t been following this story with the same obsessiveness I have (and why not, I’d like to know?), the original vigil was set up in a ditch at a three-road intersection, about five miles from the Bush ranch. Several tents are still set up in what has to be (did you guess it?) the only extended patch of shade within visual range. The most moving and sobering aspect of Camp Casey I is the display of 1800+ white crosses honoring the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq. This is the display that was run down by an irate local, an action which led directly to the temporary donation of a parcel of land even closer to the Bush ranch for use by the camp. This parcel is known as Camp Casey II, and its owner is either the cousin of the man who ran down the crosses or the cousin of another neighbor who fired his shotgun into the air to intimidate the campers.

To be continued...

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