Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Returning to Wisconsin

(note: the photograph with the Smokey's birthday cake is of, from left to right, Joy, Jennifer, and Buddy.)


On August 5th, I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, to join a peace walk from Camp Douglas to Fort McCoy, about 22 miles. The plan was to walk for three days, from August 7th until August 9th. The walk, titled simply "Walk for Peace," was organized by Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago-based group that had organized last year's "Witness Against War" walk from Chicago to Saint Paul.
Although this year's 22-mile walk didn't quite as big an adventure as last year's seven-week-long, 500-mile trek, I was looking forward to participating in it. I especially looked forward to another visit to Tomah, Wisconsin, the boyhood hometown of Frank King, the artist who created the comic strip "Gasoline Alley." I also looked forward to a reunion with friends that I had made on last year's walk. I was excited about walking with a group again. Although I walk nearly every day here at home, I generally tend to walk on my own. It can be hard to find walking companions for long adventures. And, of course, I was looking forward to another visit to Fort McCoy.
My first trip to Fort McCoy resulted in my failure to achieve my goal. I had gone there, hoping to meet with members of the Wisconsin National Guard. I wanted to give them copies of the letter that I was carrying. One of the main points of the letter was that the federal authorization to deploy the National Guard overseas had expired. The authorization was given by Congress to the president in the War Powers Act of 2002. The legislation was subject to the sunset provision, and it was not renewed. Hence, there was no legal authorization for deployment.
Despite that, the 32nd Red Arrow Brigade Combat Team of the Wisconsin National Guard was deployed to Iraq this year. It was the largest call-up of Wisconsin National Guard since World War II.
So, last year, before the big deployment, thirteen of us tried to walk onto the grounds of Fort McCoy, to talk to the soldiers and to let them know that they had options. This is something that their commanding officers should have told them but probably didn't. We also had an important phone number for them: 877.447.4487. This is the number of the GI hotline. People are there who can talk to members of the military about options that they might have to deployment. One of those options is to apply for conscientious objector status. There are many other options to deployment that members of the military can pursue.
Many members of the National Guard have been sent on repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is very difficult for their families. I met one woman during the Witness Against War walk who said to me that her son was on his fifth deployment.
"I just want him to come home," she said.
And, once the soldiers are demobilized and return home, they still have a lot to deal with. Many suffer with post traumatic stress disorder. Some are left with physical disabilities or with traumatic brain injuries.
For some information on a creative way of telling the stories of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, take a look at the Winter Soldier presentations at the Iraq Veterans Against the War website (http://ivaw.org/wintersoldier.)
Unfortunately, our group of thirteen was arrested before we could meet any soldiers. The police confiscated my stack of letters, and I never saw them again!
On the last day of the walk, a group of about 50 arrived once again at the gates of Fort McCoy. This time, I had no expectation of meeting with soldiers. But I still brought with me cards that gave information about the GI hotline (it's always best to be prepared for the unexpected). Nine of us crossed the street and walked to the Fort McCoy gate with the same result. We were met by cops, not soldiers. We were arrested and processed and four of us, who were called "repeat offenders," were delivered to the Dane County Jail in Madison, where we spent a night. We were released the next day. The other five members of our group were issued citations and were immediately released.
So... before I got tossed into the clink, I did have fun in Wisconsin. I saw the Tomah Historical Society Museum and received a personal tour from the lady at the desk. She showed me the exhibits of Frank King's cartoons and charcoal drawings. They were really quite impressive. Frank King was very skilled in his use of pen and ink and charcoal. His pictures were very detailed. "Gasoline Alley" was a very famous comic strip because it was the first (or at least one of the first) in which the characters grew older, just like real people.
I also had fun at the Mill Bluff state park, where we camped for three days. I learned how to tend the campfire, adding logs or paper or sticks to make the fire bigger and to give it more air. And I was lucky enough to be at the Mill Bluff State Park on Smokey Bear's 65th birthday. I had always thought that his name was Smokey The Bear. But I found out that wasn't quite accurate. The word "the" was added in 1952 by songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollin. The purpose of adding the extra word was to fit in with the rhythm of the song. Of course, everyone was confused and thought that Smokey The Bear was the bear's name. The National Park Service has been engaged in a (losing) campaign to educate the public about Smokey's real name for more than 50 years. Anyway, the birthday party was fun. It was attended mostly by a Boy Scout troop that was camping out at the park. There were a few grownups there, as well. We got to eat birthday cake and to have our pictures taken with Smokey Bear. He didn't stay very long and he didn't eat any cake. Everyone got party favors. I got a ruler with the words: "A rule to prevent forest fires... 'Smokey's friends don't play with matches.'"
On a more somber note, we also had a vigil during the evening of August 6th to remember the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The vigil was held at the park, in a large shelter. It was organized by a group from LaCrosse. The stories were very horrifying and sad. The fires that these bombs created were massive, and many people died.
Oh boy.
We can't use that sort of weapon, ever again.
We need to pressure our government to dismantle all of them. We need to pressure all governments to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons.
Remember.
Smokey's friends don't play with matches.
And they don't kill people with atomic bombs.

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