Writer’s note: This column is a sequel to the November 8, 2010, column “War? What War?” in which Uncle Whitt chastised Ace for his foolish claim that we were a nation at war. Unfortunately for Ace, he fares no better this time around in an encounter with another neighbor.
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I found a parking place with twenty minutes still left on it at the side of the courthouse, and hurried out front to catch the peace protestors. With a little luck, I could finish up and get back to the car before it was time to put another dime in the meter.
Three people were standing on the sidewalk, holding hand-lettered signs and waving when a car happened to drive by. I didn’t recognize a couple who appeared to be in their seventies, but my heart sank at the sight of the third one, who was all too familiar. Ms. Carrie Higgins, my former third grade teacher, now a feisty octogenarian. “How’re you doin’, Ms. Higgins?” I said. “What’s your sign say?”
She turned, saw who I was, and held her sign up so I could see it. “You can read it yourself by now, I expect,” she said.
“Give Peace a Chance,” I read, and nodded. “We got a news tip that you folks had some pretty controversial messages,” I told her. “Guess it was accurate. That’s certainly provocative. What has the public reaction been to your sign?”
She considered. “We’ve been coming out here almost every Thursday for nine years, Ace, so your tip is a trifle tardy. But to answer your question, a lot of people wave at me as if I’m a distant cousin by this time. Other people give me a thumbs-up or make the peace sign, which is encouraging.”
“How about negative reactions?”
She laughed. “We get some of those too. Once in a while somebody scowls and jerks his thumb down. One gentleman raises his middle digit each week as he drives by. Some people crank their windows down and yell for us to move to Iraq if we don’t like it here.”
“Why did you laugh?” I asked.
“I laugh because their reactions baffle me,” she said. “Really, now. ‘Give Peace a Chance’? How can that be objectionable? Can you explain that to me?”
“Well, it’s political, isn’t it?” I said.
“I’ve often thought about what Colman McCarthy said about politics,” she answered. “He said the true definition was ‘Who decides where the money goes.’ And in that sense, it’s certainly political. Do these bitter, angry people really endorse killing women and children, destroying cities, diverting a trillion dollars away from health and education and employment and research and what all, and bringing home horribly wounded and mentally scarred sons and daughters as their return on their tax dollars?”
“I meant political parties,” I said. “They’re probably Republicans, and you’re criticizing George Bush’s war.”
Ms. Higgins gave a ladylike sniff. “The last time I looked, Ace, Barack Obama, a Democrat, was president. Mr. Obama has increased the military budget every year he has been in office and has escalated the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are as opposed to his policies as we were to Mr. Bush’s. I’m an equal-opportunity peace advocate.”
I glanced at my watch. I still had about four minutes.
“Maybe they see your protest as unpatriotic,” I offered. “If our country is at war, you should support the war.”
She gave me an appraising look, and I squirmed. For a minute I was back in an old high-ceilinged classroom with an oiled wooden floor. “If the war is unjust, am I obliged to back it anyway?” she asked.
“Uh, it’s our country ....,” I began, and stopped.
“If the war is bankrupting the nation and robbing our children and grandchildren of their future, am I obliged to support it?”
“Well, Ms. Higgins ....”
“If the war is alienating millions of people overseas, turning them into our enemies, and making us less safe in the long run, am I obliged to support it?”
“Well, you know, uh ....”
“If I surrender any moral sense I have, and any critical thinking ability I have, I’m simply a slave of the state, not a free and responsible citizen,” she declared with some passion. “Are you seriously suggesting that loving your country enough to try to persuade it to halt a disastrous war is unpatriotic?”
Actually I was, I guess. But I stole a glance at my watch and breathed a quick sigh of relief. “I wish I had more time to talk with you,” I told her, “but I think I’ve got enough for a story. If I don’t leave now, I’m liable to get a parking ticket.”
“That’s a convenient excuse, Ace,” she sighed. “I’m afraid you haven’t changed a great deal in forty years. When are you going to grow up?” And she pivoted and resumed waving her sign at cars as they drove past.
© Tony Russell, 2011