Friday, September 02, 2005

Camp Casey, Part II

Hello, friends. Here is the promised second part of my adventure in Crawford. I didn't realize that I would finish the writing of it with such a heavy heart, but our beloved New Orleans has been dealt a near-fatal blow. I'm still sorting things out in my own head, and will hopefully have some commentary to share soon, but I think I can speak for every intellectually, socially and emotionally conscious Louisianan when I say a real part of our soul has been bludgeoned. For those many of us living paycheck to paycheck in Bush's America, New Orleans is our Mediterranean, our Caribbean, our Africa, our multicultural Mecca in the most literal sense, a place of renewal, adventure, escape, engagement. We always knew its beauty was fragile, but I don't think we realized its near-demise would be aided by the hubris of our very own Shakespearean monarch. I don't know what the rebuilding process will be like, but rest assured that it will rise again, and it won't be anything like Phoenix.

Camp Casey II’s most prominent feature is a very large white tent, the kind a Southerner would most likely associate with an old-fashioned tent revival meeting, altogether not an inappropriate metaphor for its most recent utilization. The tent is large enough to accommodate a stage, several rows of fold-out chairs, and several more rows of tables with chairs around them. The back of the tent is dominated by a row of rectangular tables piled with food and drinks. Although the first weekend of the vigil featured hastily-prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it’s now to the point where a Dallas caterer and Austin’s Food Not Bombs contingent have joined forces to provide a spread fit for an army of peaceful, nonviolent rage. I personally dined on organic roast chicken, a salad of Romaine lettuce and fresh vegetables, ripe cantaloupe and iced orange juice. There were also cold cuts, various salads (tuna, chicken and potato), watermelon, coffee and tea, desserts….
A full-length “Mothers Say No to War” banner hangs behind the stage, while info tables line the sides of the tent. Most prominent are those related to the military: Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, the G.I. rights Hotline. Also prominently displayed and represented were Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. That city, one of my favorites, seemed to brought the largest non-Texas contingent to Crawford.
We had arrived at Camp Casey around 4:00 pm, still a blazing part of the day. Although I wouldn’t describe the conditions as pleasant (get back to me in late October), the tent definitely made them bearable until the sun set. There were still a couple of hours to kill before the program of speakers and music started, so we killed the time with eating, meandering, reading (still some of the early pages of Camus’ The Rebel, the analytical classic by the man whose life of compassionate, non-dogmatic, radical humanism rivals that of Gandhi, and whose premature, romantic death rivals that of James Dean, or (dare I say it?) Dale Earnhardt). (Parker sees the pitch, he connects, it could be! It might be! It is!, the grand slam of postmodern critically relativist cultural analysis, Camus, Gandhi, James Dean and Dale Earnhardt in the same sentence! The bar has been lifted, the gauntlet thrown down, a new day is dawning!)
I assume there is a program of speakers, if not music, every evening. I know that Marcia Ball, piano and all, had played the evening before, and Joan Baez played the next evening, after we back in Shreveport. Before our evening’s musical entertainment (that sounds regretfully superficial, but it’s past 11:00), there were several inspiring, motivating, humbling speakers sharing their thoughts and experiences. I’ll just try to encapsulate a few:
Kim drove from Homer, Alaska (literally the end of the road, according to my road atlas). She owns a store there, in that pristine Kenai Peninsula town of 3946, and she let people know that she was going to Crawford, and that she would provide materials for people to make messages of support. There were profound statements of rage, of grief, of Bob Dylan quotes, all delivered by Kim, who drove what looks to me to be roughly the same distance southeast to Crawford as it would be to drive northwest from, say, Columbia or maybe Venezuela. Speaking of Venezuela, did you hear what…., no, stay focused here.
Jeff Key was a walking recruiting poster for the Marines. Six foot three at least, cap at the correct angle on his shaved head, red Marines t-shirt with military-issue pants and boots, perfect posture, handsome smile. All that, and openly homosexual. A veteran of Iraq, he was now stationed at Camp Pendleton with the Marine Reserves, 17 months after intentionally violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Key has written a play about his experience, which he performed later that night, as we were heading back east. He said, “I will never kill an innocent person for oil, period.” He said the Iraqis he met reminded him of the Alabama dirt farmers in his family: simple, proud, devout, caught in the middle between forces they have no control over.
Tamra Rosenleaf is from Helena, Montana, and her husband is due to deploy to Iraq in November. George Vaughn and Rhea Parker are from Germantown, Maryland, and their son’s ship barely escaped a direct hit from a missile fired Jordan. Dante Zapala is from Philadelphia, and his adopted brother Sherwood served in a unit searching for weapons of mass destruction. He was killed by shrapnel from an exploding building.
Charlie Anderson lost five members of his battalion fighting in what he calls Operation Iraqi Plunder, bringing nothing but death, pain and bloodshed. His marriage has ended since his return. Juan Torres is from San Antonio. His brother Daniel was killed in February of this year. It was his second deployment, because of the stop-loss policies implemented by the Pentagon in response to sinking recruitment numbers. Michelle Deford is from Salem, Oregon, and she lost her 37-year-old son in Iraq. She is now an active member of Gold Star Mothers for Peace.
These were just a few of the speakers on one night’s program at Camp Casey II. Their grief and confusion were so palpable, so much more authentic than the flight suit and the freedom fries and the smart aleck looking for wmd’s at the press conference and the call for crusade and the incessant intoning of freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom is slavery freedom freedom freedom freedom ignorance is strength freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom war is peace freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom is why they hate us.
After the last speaker, as the sun was setting, everyone gathered at the more modest display of 250-300 white crosses as Jeffrey Key the gay Marine played “Taps” on his trumpet, followed by the singing of a couple of hymns. It was an utterly fitting, moving transition.
After a brief pause, the evening’s musical entertainment commenced, provided by two native Texas sons, James McMurtry and Steve Earle. McMurtry is the son of Texas literary lion Larry McMurtry, and has been toiling in the country-folk coal mines for many years. I remember seeing him at a free show in a little café in the University of Texas student union just over 16 years ago, tall and rangy, laconic, a man of few spoken words, many sung. I think I still have a cassette of his Too Long in the Wasteland from that time, but I just hadn’t kept up otherwise. The show was understated for the most part, his lyrics moving assuredly through the landscape of post-prosperity America, its trailer parks and convenience stores and high school parking lots, always three-dimensional, always outraged, yet resigned, as well. The highlight was a song that I believe was titled, “Tough Around Here,” encapsulating the whole Bush plan for transforming the entire working class into cannon fodder for the new feudalism.
Finally, we were treated to Steve Earle, in one of the strangest serendipities of the whole trip. When my wife and I were planning the summer, one of our big plans was to attend the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, August 19-21. Though I was excited about Todd Snider and Kasey Chambers and Taj Mahal and Joan Armatrading, Steve Earle is always a good reason for me to travel across the country. Finances and logistics just didn’t work out, however to a Steve Earle-less summer. Yet one of the rumors flying around just before we left for Crawford was that Steve Earle and Joan Baez were going to be around the same weekend we were.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me Steve Earle is the ultimate political troubadour, less inscrutable than Bob Dylan, less earnest than Phil Ochs, more musically complex than Woody Guthrie, more rootsy than Rage Against the Machine, more country than Ani Difranco, more prolific than Billy Bragg. Did I mention that he just got married, as well?
The night before we left, a friendly but somewhat skeptical neighbor remarked that he and his family were going to Texas the same weekend, but it was to have fun. I answered in all seriousness that I had every intention of doing the same, that I’m one of those weirdos who finds things like this fun. I think Steve Earle must be similar to me in that respect, because he was spending his goddamn honeymoon in a field in Central Texas playing for 300 non-paying customers. He had literally married alt-country sweetheart Alison Moorer two days earlier, played the Folks Festival (interestingly enough, staged by the same folks who do the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon) the night before, and drove through the night and day to get to Camp Casey II.
Earle’s The Revolution Starts…Now was recorded in the Spring of 2004 and conceived very much as a document of dissent, against the war and the Bush Administration. Such albums (or books or films or paintings) are often utterly necessary in trying times, but often run the risk of didacticism and irrelevance after their “moment” has passed. Guernica is perhaps the greatest example of an artwork that both freezes a moment in historical space and time and transcends it. While I won’t make the case for Earle’s album in terms of pure timeless quality, I believe it falls into the same category, and selections from it made up much of Earle’s set.
He began with a rambling introduction to a cover of Eric Von Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” famously covered by Bob Dylan on one of his early albums, accompanied by a rambling introduction completely out of character for today’s silent sage on stage. He was accompanied by Moorer on “Comin’ Around,” which features Emmylou Harris on The Revolution. The older “The Devil’s Right Hand” was prefaced by Earle’s explanation of his changing position on gun ownership in his own household. He said that such a change of heart was often derided as flip-flopping in the last presidential election, but that in the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s referred to as changing your mind or coming to your senses.
Steve Earle and Billy Bragg provide the most profound, often self-deprecating, always funny and erudite political commentary between songs of anyone in the business these days, and Saturday night in Crawford was no exception. It ranged from Eric von Schmidt on Custer’s Last Stand to Stephen Ambrose on Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny to Joan Baez’ performance at Woodstock, and always framed the following song that deepened its resonance, as if the setting and the mission and the moon so orange you just wanted to stick a straw in it and suck it dry weren’t enough already to send a depth charge of pure, mainlined collective selfless righteousness all the way down your spine and into those lower charkas.
“Rich Man’s War” could have been the call-to-arms anthem of the night’s previous speakers, while “Warrior” captures the dark side of the recruiting-poster romanticism, the feral predator who hates those who send him to war while simultaneously thanking them for the endless opportunities. Finally, “The Revolution Starts…Now” had everyone on their feet, exorcising the despair of the last election, making us all realize that our journey to the post-Bush era, replete as it is with danger and ambush, was taking a bold leap forward, in a field in Central Texas, on a muggy August night, surrounded by strangers.
That’s what I took away from Crawford, a sloughing off of the timid political leaders whose focus-group moral outrage always stops at the Wall Street edge; a throwing off of the expectations of the corporate media, who insist on running any antiwar leader through a button-down gauntlet of American Enterprise Institute/Brookings Institution/Kennedy School of Government Skull and Bones fraternity brothers hazing rituals before determining their worthiness; a casting off of any temptation to fall into a Karl Rove/Swift Boat house of mirrors, letting my patriotism and support for the troops be impugned by those who just want warm bodies for their charnel-house petroleum imperialism. We are the majority, my friends, and Cindy Sheehan and the other mothers and fathers and wives and children of the murdered and the maimed and the emotionally shattered have not sacrificed in vain. We are evolving, my friends, and the Bushes and Roves and Rumsfelds and Cheneys, and all that they represent, will soon be consigned to the tar pits of history.


Blogger Noma said...

God, I hope you're right.

And you're a helluva writer.

8:09 AM  

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