Saturday, August 05, 2006

Helena, Montana, July 19-20, 2006

From a distance, Tammara looks like someone who talks to herself, pacing back and forth along the sidewalk and crying. I assume she’s upset to see the spreading field of empty boots growing on the Montana state capitol lawn in Helena. It’s not the first time someone has broken into tears as we set out the boots and shoes representing the thousands of soldiers, and the hundreds of thousands of civilians, killed in Iraq.

I know she feels these deaths deeply, not least because she’s a military spouse herself. Her husband is stationed just outside Baghdad, having joined the Army in 2003 to pay off student loans. He signed up for a job that was never supposed to take him into combat, but of course it did. Like every military family member, she has to wake up every day and deal with the reality that she may never see him again.

It’s only when I get up close that I realize that she’s talking on her headset cell phone. A moment earlier, I had heard the two guys yelling, “You oughta be put on trial for treason!” as they jumped back in their pickup truck and drove off. But it wasn’t until later that I figured out they were yelling at her, not believing her when she said she was on the phone to her husband in Iraq, and that she was doing this to bring him back alive.

“From a distance you look like my friend, even though we are at war…” So says the country/western song. But the people who seem to understand “Eyes Wide Open” the least are those who see it only from a distance, and shout or make obscene gestures as they drive by. Most of those who take the time to stop and walk among the boots and shoes, and read the names, have much less to say, other than “thank you.”

* * *

Tammara is a master at drawing people into the exhibit, engaging them as they pass by on the sidewalk. She has single-handedly gotten dozens, perhaps hundreds of people to stop and walk through the exhibit, and most of these have ended up writing postcards to Montana’s representative and senators asking them to bring our soldiers home from this senseless war. Tammara will be flying to DC and hand-delivering many hundreds of these hand-written postcards to Representative Rehberg and Senators Burns and Baucus, and I have a feeling she will make herself heard in their office.

She spent half an hour engaging a well-known local right-wing commentator in conversation about the war at the exhibit, and in the end they found they agreed on everything—the war was a mess, we never should have started it in the first place, etc.—except that he believes in following orders from the commander-in-chief, and she believes in helping the commander-in-chief make the right orders. Time will tell whether this man will change his rhetoric about anti-war protestors, or whether the Montana Congressional delegation will change its position on the war. But for today, Tammara has turned an enemy into an ally.

* * *

Tammara and Rick and their crew were waiting for me on the capitol lawn when I arrived for the 6 am set-up. They wanted to get a jump on the expected 100 degree heat, and they’d advertised this for days—with the first-ever “Eyes Wide Open” TV ads—as a 36-hour round-the-clock vigil for peace. Volunteers would provide overnight security, and the capitol groundskeeper came by to check which lawn sprinklers to turn off for the exhibit.

Soon there was a steady stream of people walking by or pulling up in their cars. Whether this was because of the advance advertising or the prominent location, I don’t know, but people in stores and restaurants would see my “Eyes Wide Open” t-shirt and say they’d heard about it. The noon ceremony has the most press of any stop on the tour, a tribute to the organizing abilities of the local sponsors.

The ceremony begins with a Native American drumming circle. Then a local United Church of Christ minister delivers an unwavering indictment of this illegal and immoral war which runs so counter to Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies.” Tammara gives an impassioned description of the suffering the war is causing from the perspective of grieving families and wounded veterans. That evening an email goes out to the local peace network encouraging support for the two speakers, knowing they are both likely to be attacked for their strong stance.

Regional TV and newspaper media provide solid coverage of the event, but the local TV station claims that the Native American drumming group walked out when it turned into an “anti-war protest.” One of the drummers did leave, but the rest came over to the exhibit and went home with “War is Costly/Peace is Priceless” t-shirts.

The vigil at dusk draws the biggest crowd all day. As volunteers set out candles and luminaries around the boots and shoes, Rich and others play locally-written folk songs about the cost of war. Over 70 of us join hands in a circle around the shoes and offer our hopes for peace.

People are still coming by at 1 and 2 in the morning. The biggest excitement of the night is when the lawn sprinklers go off, setting off a scramble to cover them with buckets while capitol security rouses the groundskeeper, who apologizes profusely for the mistake. When the morning crew of volunteers arrives, the candles are still burning strong.

* * *

A community of sorts has been created around the exhibit. It has become a gathering place, made sacred by the encounters between those who gather, with each other and with those who have died. The guy mowing the lawn comes by on his break, tosses a donation in the bucket and apologizes for the noise of his machine. A high school student is reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and talking about how we need to talk to people who disagree with us, not just ourselves. Of course, Tammara is the one actually out there doing it.

She has every reason to have one of those “Support the Troops” bumper stickers, but the ribbon on her car says, “Support the Truth!” As I park my van with its “War Is Not The Answer” bumper sticker, I see the pickup behind me has a hand-written “Liberalism Is Not The Answer” sign on the back window, and I think: that could be an interesting discussion. I’ve heard more dialog across the political spectrum here than anywhere I’ve been.

A question follows the tour everywhere it goes: is “Eyes Wide Open” a protest or a memorial? Some see it as a disrespectful—even “disgusting”—use of dead soldiers to make a political statement, and if that’s all it was, it would be disgusting. But is it disrespectful to mourn for those who have suffered the most from war, and to say we want the suffering to stop? We need places where we can come together and seek healing. Perhaps “Eyes Wide Open” is best as just such a meeting ground.


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