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Saturday, August 13, 2005

They Came to Crawford

The driving directions from Waco to Crawford, Texas, are simple.  You take the state road 6N exit off I-35 in Waco, then stay on 6 north to the junction of county road 185 where a quick left leads you west straight into town.  This stretch of rural Texas blacktop is flanked by telling welcome signs:

Creekside 9 Hole Golf
American Fireworks.  Buy 1, get 5 free.
Hogshop Cycleshop
Ceramic Statuary
Centex Welding

It's a trail that leads to a world unknown to many who live in the rest of America, the America that is "Not Texas."  This rolling ranchland may be alien even to urban Texas dwellers who live in Austin or Dallas or Houston.

It's here, in this land of dented Ford pick-ups, south-facing satellite dishes, wind-tattered confederate flags and stinging fire ants, that the handlers of George W. Bush decided to build their photo-op backdrop - the Presidential Ranch Retreat.  It's here where, far away from just about anyplace else, the 43rd U.S. President chooses to vacation and, quite literally, get away from it all.

The physically remote location seems to have been carefully chosen, seeming to offer anyone who lives here an insulation from the cold wind of reality blown from the outside world.  Belying its welcoming, lush fields of uncommonly green sage grass and low shade trees, the place seems to shout, "Private Property.  Keep out," as evidenced by the electronic fencing and grand private entrance markers notating the names of the vast ranches; the actual homes remain unseen from the road.

The world of Crawford insulates travelers in another way as they leave the shopping malls of Waco behind.  An invisible ideological cocoon seems woven around mid-Texas. Its threads consist of strong strands of conservatism knotted together with strings of distrust of all things from the outside world. Simply put, "If you're not from here, you don't belong here." But membership can, it seems, be bought. The president isn't a long-time resident of this community, having moved into his new digs on Election Day, 2000, but his picture, as well as that of the First Lady, grace a tall billboard welcoming travelers to the area. He literally gives all who enter a "thumbs up." But in reality, all are not welcome.

Leading the list of the unwelcome these days is the seemingly harmless Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother of fallen soldier Casey Sheehan, killed in Iraq shortly after the war began.  Earlier this month, Ms. Sheehan was outraged by comments made by President Bush in response to the increased violence in Iraq and its subsequent rising death toll.

"We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission."
"The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."

Sheehan's doubt about this logic had increased in direct proportion to the number of differing justifications for the war offered by the president.

And when Mr. Bush retired this month to his spread in Crawford to begin a five-week vacation, a record length for an American president, Sheehan's anger led her to follow him into the cocoon of Crawford to ask him, face to face, a simple question: "What is the noble cause you claim my son died for?"

She got as close as a chigger-filled roadside ditch a couple of miles away from the president's compound, where she was told to go no further. Sheehan complied. She went no further. She also didn't leave, setting up camp and christening it "Camp Casey" in memory of her son, kicking off a protest and media campaign that has captured the attention of a nation, and indeed, the world.

This past week, I traveled from New York to the road from Waco to Crawford with my wife, Peg, and our dog, Ben, to get a first-hand look at Camp Casey. This account is the first in a series of entries that will relate the personal stories of many other wanderers who found themselves drawn to Crawford - and their individual reasons for deciding to stand with  Sheehan.

First Stop, The Crawford Peace House

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The Crawford Peace House, the kick-off point and headquarters for the Camp Casey Protest, lies on the right-hand side of state road 185 as you enter Crawford.  The Peace House itself is an unremarkable structure, adorned with anti-Bush signs in the windows and poster board lists of American Iraqi war dead leaning against the porch out front. Another poster inside announces:

There's no war worth fighting except the war against poverty.

The house opened its doors on Easter Sunday 2003.  Located in the heart of Bush Country, its mission statement speaks of "a culturally diverse environment for spiritual growth and intellectual understanding that gives hope to humanity by providing peaceful alternatives to war."  It was the natural place to coordinate Sheehan's protest, house the people who have joined the effort, feed protesters and the press and offer high speed internet to all comers. Here shade is offered from the unrelenting August sun.  Indeed, the house serves as an oasis of many sorts.  At night, the otherwise bare, hardwood floor is carpeted with wall-to-wall sleeping bags.

As I emerged from my car, a sun-browned man of about 55 wearing a Crawford Peace House T-shirt was sitting in the back of the neighboring red van. Noticing my ePluribus Media T-shirt, he said, "Turn around and let me practice my Latin."

Whether he was guarding the Peace House and testing a stranger's motives or was genuinely curious about new arrivals was unclear.  He was certainly affable and his quick smile made me feel welcome.  I liked him immediately.

He introduced himself as Billy Kelly, a member of American Veterans for Peace.  He offered me a seat next to him on the back bumper of the open van, handed me his personal card (which was in English on one side and what appeared to be Vietnamese on the other) and easily related his reasons for coming to Crawford:

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I was with Cindy in Dallas last Saturday for a protest when she decided to come on down here and try to talk with Bush.  Bunch of us got on a bus and drove on down to Crawford.  It was really spontaneous.  Had no plans other than to see how far we could get.  So we headed out to the ranch.  Had police escort.  We got within a couple of miles and they told us we had to walk from there, so we got out and started to walk in the ditch.  They wouldn't let us in the road.  It was really hot, so some of us went back to get some water, but they wouldn't let us go back up to join Cindy.  There were about ten of us.  So she turned around and came on back to where we were and decided to set up camp.

Billy, a native of Stockholm, N.J., is a veteran of the war in Vietnam.  His bright demeanor changed as he described the parallels he sees between the early anti-war movement of the Vietnam era and the movement of today.

He told me he'd taken off from Crawford for a few days, but was back to lend his support and help out in any way he could.

After rummaging through his gear, he located and proudly displayed plastic albums of photos fresh from the developer of the first march to the Bush compound. He also showed me older images from his trip to Iraq, where he went to witness the fighting first hand.  After I asked, he shrugged and offered that he would sleep in his van for the weekend.  Turns out he wasn't the lone Vietnam vet in Crawford. Two or three other members of his organization were also in town.

He rose to change his shirt and gave me directions to Camp Casey. I thanked him and entered the house to gather my family.  Peg had signed the guest book the Peace House members had acquired to mark the occasion for their archives.

It turns out Billy's directions weren't needed because the shuttle van was about to depart for the site.  We followed the van, which had "Bush Report Card F" scrawled in white, wash-off paint on the back.  We took off down 185, passing a large monument to the Ten Commandments displayed outside the Yellow Rose souvenir shop, the only retail business I saw in "downtown" Crawford, made a right at the red brick church and traveled the final five miles of our 1,700-mile journey to see Cindy.

Part Two, Camp Casey.

Editor: SusanG (many thanks)
Photos: Peg Keeler

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