In Rawlins, Wyoming, I met with Terry Weickum, who is running for county commissioner. He had run for city council previously, and lost by 8 votes. He said he’s quite studied on the issues of the area and likes to shoot from the hip, so to speak. “Trying to be ‘politically correct’ kills me,” he said. He is running as a Republican, but if he’s elected he said that’s where partisan politics will stop. He said if he hears a good idea, whether it comes from a Republican, Democrat, or whoever, he’ll get behind it. “Congress should run that way as well,” he said with conviction.
In Rawlins, Wyoming (pop. 9,000 ), I interviewed Dan Mika who runs the Parks Department and is on the Tree Advisory Board for the town. Mika said in Rawlins he tries to be ‘hard on grass.’ That is, he said the area topography is high desert and he is adverse to putting in grass lawns which often lead to waste and is quite damaging to the eco-system. He said the waste includes using water to merely keep the grass green and the use of chemical fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides are major sources of ground water pollution. I also met with Mark Williams, a fire expert with the Bureau of Land Management here. Williams majored in Ecology at the University of North Dakota. He said while there are some good parts to the recently passed Healthy Forest Restoration Act, it tries to prescribe a uniform forest mangagement plan for all forests in the country. He said species diversity, and so on, is different for different forests in different parts of the country, and management should be tailored to fit each specific forest region. He also said the continual building of new roads for logging, etc., are also creating ecological problems. For instance, dirty pick up trucks coming from other parts of the country have seeds of weeds and other non-indigenous plants that start to alter, and damage, the existing local eco-system.
After being interviewed by the editor of the Intermountain Catholic newspaper, we headed to Heber City, Utah where we attended a seminar by a professor from Bellerman University. Fr. George talked about the rather famous, late monk and author Thomas Merton and his efforts at promoting peace. Merton was adverse to weapons, and especially nuclear weapons. Fr. George said Merton noted that war propaganda most always has it that: The enemy’s bombs are always from “Hell,” while our bombs are always the instrument of “Divine Justice.” And as far back as the 1960s, Fr. George said Merton noted when a society was rife with all kinds of sin (drugs, violence, illicit sex, rampant materialism…), it goes into denial. And part of this denial is not being able to face the “evil” within, so the society picks a scapegoat without and calls it “evil” — so it has something to fight and get it’s collective mind off it’s own problems. Sound familiar?
We stopped back in Wendover, Utah. Our story had run in the Wendover Times, with our proposal about the U.S. Department of Peace — right next to an Associated Press article about government scientists just performing an underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test site. The article noted that anti-nuclear groups criticize these type of “subcritical experiments” as contrary to the spirit of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And more, just prior to the start of the Iraq War last year, I posed this to ABC News out of Toledo, Ohio: “What if we let the U.N. weapons inspectors into, say, Montana? What would they find? Some 2,000 weapons of mass destruction aimed all over the world?” Double standard?
We stopped back in Winnemucca, Nevada, where we met with the mayor. He said when he first became mayor 18 years ago, most streets were gravel, the downtown was a hodge-podge of residential trailers and mercantile buildings and the city government was, oh, lacking in a bit of efficiency. Now he said the streets are paved, there is a solid, consistent downtown mecantile section and a much more well-oiled government. He said a key has been having a dedicated Planning Commission, improved camaraderia between the mayor’s office and city council and good, old-fashion volunteerism throughout town. Later I was invited to Winnemucca’s Senior Center where I was introduced by the director, then I went table to table shaking hands and passing out literature. I said part of how we viewed “social security” was not just about a fund, but also about reestablishing the elderly as esteemed members of the community, as it was in the “old days,” and as it is still in other cultures. I said that in the old days, young children used to gather around pot belly stoves in General Stores watching the seniors playing checkers and telling stories. Not anymore. However I said, wouldn’t it be great if Senior Centers started reviving this a bit with, say, weekly story telling nights the town youth could attend. At one table today I met a retired social worker who has two daughters living in Fairbanks, Alaska. I gave him some extra campaign fliers to send to them. “You mean you’re not going to campaign in Alaska?” He asked. I said Liz and I would like to, but I pointed to our three young children and said of the Alaskan Highway: “Three hundred miles between ‘potty stops!'”
We’ve started to head back east and stopped first in tiny Lovelock, Nevada where we passed out a few flyers. Here we learned that the Humbolt Trail came through here bringing 165,000 emigrants in the 1840s and ’50s as part of the Westward Expansion. The emigrants named this particular valley area the “Big Meadows” and stopped here for water and grass for their oxen, before heading across the “dreaded” 40 mile desert, the most difficult leg of the trip to California. Having just been through that desert ourselves on the way back east, we stopped for some yougurt at the Safeway Grocery. Then, instead of grass for the oxen, we got some petro for the “average Joe” mobiles at a gas station that had, perhaps, the oddest name for a gas station that we’d encountered in the country: “Two Stiffs Selling Gas” is the name. I inquired inside and was told in the early ’30s a father and son started the “filling station.” Thier last name: Stiff. Well, of course.
We took Liz’s parent to San Francisco International Airport, and after a tearful goodbye, we headed into the city where I interviewed a fascinating couple visiting from Denmark. They said the longest prison sentence in Denmark, no matter what you’ve done, is 17 years. And there is a quite comprehensive effort at rehabilitation (education, mental health counseling, and so on) while the person is incarcerated. I told the couple we, too, lean heavily toward this type of “restorative justice,” because people often don’t commit crimes in a vacuum. They either come out of disadvantaged situations, or are plagued with mental disorders, or addictive/compulsive conditions… and once these are addressed at their roots, the problems often clear up. What’s more, each life is imminently important to God, we believe, and each person should be treated with the utmost dignity — not merely left in “dead-end” warehousing in a prison. I mean, they’re all God’s kids. Right? …We then headed inot the heart of the city, taking in a bustling China Town, crossed through a “Little Italy” section and stopped for Mass at Notre Dame Church, only to find it was in French. Liz commented about how refreshingly rich in diversity San Francisco is. And after the diversity, perhaps the second most noticeable thing is: the homeless. While here, we spent a good deal of time talking to the homeless, listening to their stories. One man, John, appeared to be in his early 60s. He said he’d been homeless here the past 10 years, no family, he claimed, just an old suitcase he carried about. We had our ‘Jon’athan in a stroller and periodically I would ask Jonathon, 14 months, to “wave to Mr. John.” He didn’t. But each time I couldn’t help but think, really think, that this elderly, rather disheveled looking man, with yellowed uneven teeth, sunken eyes… was once a bright-eyed, young innocent baby — just like our Jonathan. As Jonathan and I walked the street before we met John, people stopped to wave to him, engage him in a smile… as people do. My guess is few try to engage this other John, in any way. Jonathan finally did, however. Engage “Mr. John,” that is. Jonathan, who can say “bye,” but no names, except “Mommy,” turned back as we started to walk off, waved, and said: “bye John.” God’s grace.
In Winnemucca, Nevada (pop. 8,004), a place we were pretty sure the Bush and Kerry campaigns hadn’t targetted, we did a whistle stop in the shadows of the “biggest piece of driftwood” ever found in North America. It is actually part of the trunk of a Redwood. (Why it’s in Winnemucca, Nevada? Well, you got me.) Now while I wasn’t sure about the driftwood, I told the Humboldt Sun newspaper that I was sure: “I don’t want my children growing up in a world laced with pollution, global warming and ozone holes, often from the burning of fossil fuels [commensurate with our selfish desire in this country to drive as far as we want, to stay as warm, or cool, as we want, to manufacture as much as we want…]”
We stopped at the “Historic Wendover (Utah) Airfield” where I met with Airfield Manager Jim Peterson. He has formed a foundation and is trying to restore what’s left of the now closed Army Air Base. This once “secret location” spans 3 and a half million acres of desert and was used as a training base for bomber crews during World War II. Among these was the crew for the Enola Gay, who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (“Hanger 5,” where the Enola Gay was kept, still stands here.) Peterson explained to me he wanted to restore the field to honor the sacrifices made by service people here. I told the Wendover Times newspaper that I applauded Petersnon’s efforts and said the country should, indeed, remember the sacrifices — and also remember the agony of war in general. And with that in mind, I also told the newspaper about our proposal for a U.S. Department of Peace. As part of this, we would suggest providing much more incentive for people to join the Peace Corp. I said we also believe if we mobilize much more social justice help for people in the Third World and other disadvantaged countries, more worldwide tension would be diffused. As an example, I said kids growing up in dead-end inner city situations in this country sometimes join gangs. Kids growing up in dead-end situations in the Third World sometimes join terrorist cells. “If we want to fight terrorism at it’s roots, we need to address poverty in the Third World,” I added.
We stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming, not to campaign, but to go to the Wrangler Store. (“The place all the cowboys and cowgirls go,” said a billboard.) Liz’s parents are here from New Zealand for the first time and are part of the “campaign caravan.” They have been particularly captivated by American television westerns over the years, and at the Wrangler Store Liz’s mom bought a “Buffalo Bill” shirt (she apparently hadn’t heard what I had said at the last stop, plus the Wrangler Store didn’t have any “St. Patrick” shirts), and her dad got a big, brown Stetson hat. That evening on Rte. 80, Stuart drove through the wide-open expanses of Wyoming into an absolutely breathtaking sunset — with his Stetson on, windows down and country music blasting. What a scene!