Peace March: The Long Thin Line Gets Thinner : Crippled by Funding, a Committed Core Vows to Carry On Trek to Capital

Times Staff Writer

It was 9:30 in the morning and the Great Peace March had been on the move along Stoddard Wells Road between Victorville and Barstow for an hour, having covered three of the day's 18 miles.

The line broke, and the marchers took a 10-minute rest, cheered by the rare few hours of sunshine and blue skies the morning was providing.

Difficult Days

Marcher John Pluntze, 23, stood at the edge of the dirt and gravel road, looking out over the expanse of tumbleweed, sagebrush and Joshua trees, shrugging off the difficult days they had put behind them already and the certain hardship that lay ahead on this march across America to Washington for global nuclear disarmament.

"I, for one, am going all the way. I met this adorable little fifth-grader the other night at Our Lady of the Desert Church near Apple Valley. She's just really counting on me to be in Washington," he said, fishing through his gear for his address book.

"Here she is," he said, opening the book, "Noelle Parker from Hesperia. About 60 of us went over there. We got cards from the kids to carry with us, sort of reminders of what we're doing this for. We have them with us now.

"My main goal is just to give people hope to go on and do something themselves (about disarmament). When I was in school at Cal State L.A., people were so apathetic about the arms race: 'You can't do anything. Why fight it? Just find a good job for yourself . . . ' It's not how I feel."

Pluntze sounded no different last Monday morning than most of the marchers that day. They had come through several trying days of treacherous weather, insufficient food and equipment and botched plans--all of which would soon seem soft by comparison to what was in store for them. They were on the brink of a week that has tested their hearts, minds and bodies to the breaking point.

The tortuous weather that was to come and the mounting financial crisis that was threatening to call off the whole march at any moment joined ranks and a very harsh reality has closed in on the grand dream. At week's end, the marchers and organizers appeared to be coming through renewed, resolved and determined to go on, but even that may not be enough to see them through.

Group of 5,000

This is a far cry from the well-financed group of 5,000 that were to leave a star-studded sendoff at a packed Coliseum and set off for Washington, erecting their movable monument to creative and alternative technology, "Peace City," every night as they marched, financed like the Olympics by an impressed corporate America and an admiring entertainment community.

The glitz has given way to the grassroots. The Great Peace March has been increasingly finding itself dependent upon the kindness of strangers--the common people who are reaching out to the marchers and offering food, shelter and encouragement. The lesson, a humbling one, has been sinking in on marchers and PROPeace staff, both on the march and in Los Angeles, alike.

If the Great Peace March survives its long moment of truth, it is safe to say this will be described later as "the week that was."

The marchers, their ranks thinned that day to about 600 actually walking--out of close to 1,000--spent Monday afternoon plodding nine miles through mud in pouring rain. They reached their camp, farther along Stoddard Wells Road on federal property, where a sizable advance crew had set up most of the tents and had plastic cups of hot soup waiting. The marchers drank the soup in the open, rain pouring into the cups, sat down in the mud to nurse their feet, and set about making order out of the soaking desert.

Although there were undercurrents of the exasperation and confrontations that were soon to come, with a few people complaining and questioning leadership, money, plans and equipment, the overall mood was of good cheer, with joking and encouragement for each other.

Bad weather?

"I think the Native Americans have the right idea about that. There's no such thing as bad weather," slicker-clad marcher, and sometime nuclear physicist, John Walter said. "It's all just weather."

And a lot of it. The weather that night came in the form of a storm that whipped the campsite into a shambles, kept people up all night fighting almost for their lives as they searched for and found 12 cases of potentially fatal hypothermia, all of which they caught and treated in time.

Storm and Troubles

The storm, and the troubles brewing here and in Los Angeles, brought the march to a halt. Depending on who tells it, on Tuesday morning the marchers either refused, decided or agreed not to go any farther until they had confronted their problems. They either demanded or requested answers and solutions. And they decided either to become part of the decision-making process, or, if need be, to replace the decision-making process.

The immediate crisis facing them, according to health, nutrition and survival experts on the march, was the 10-day perilous stretch of the Mojave lying in wait for them on the other side of Barstow. Because PROPeace is broke and in debt, the marchers were not getting enough food and water. Nor were there sufficient medical supplies on hand to face the dangers. Specifically, they needed sufficient supplies for each marcher to consume 3,500 to 4,000 calories and 20 grams of protein a day, another four-ton water truck and more medicines.

Suggestion to Rethink

Survival expert and marcher John Curley lectured them on Tuesday, urging those who were sick, old, parents of the young children on the march, or overly dependent on catching rides in support vehicles to rethink it.

"As of last night," he warned dramatically, "this is no longer a peace march. It's a peace expedition."

Reportedly, the message to those thinking of leaving was a loving one: help us work for peace at home; help us raise money.

Some did decide to leave, but by Thursday march director Steve Perkins was estimating 930 were still with the march, although the California Highway Patrol was estimating hundreds fewer. On Wednesday, they had decided to march into Barstow the next day. Late that night they decided to hold off one more day, and planned to make the move today, with plans still not firm about when to set into the desert.

Those staying, however, seem more dedicated, more determined, more assertive and are asking more questions, prepared, if necessary, but not yet preferring, they say, to continue the march without PROPeace.

Before Tuesday, shot nerves and sleepless nights were evident in the marchers growing suspicions. They speculated that lack of liability insurance and the accompanying problems with camping and marching permits that prevented their use of some well-traveled highways and populated areas were being used by some local governments as an excuse to keep them away from the populace. They were stung by media accounts of their problems and dire predictions. They muttered about the media, seeing them as so many buzzards waiting to get to work on the corpse.

The most common complaints and causes of tension among marchers, however, were usually related to their physical situation. There were flare-ups over the correct way to load and unload equipment on the trucks, demands from people assigned blue tents to know just why it was that the truck with blue tents always seemed to be the last to arrive at campsites. There were frustrated comments about trying to find someone from staff who could or would make a decision or knew what was going on about fairly routine matters, such as "Which vehicle are the sick riding in today?" and "Who knows what happened to my tent and could I have another?"

Demanding Answers

Now they are asking, "Who knows what happened to the money?" and demanding answers.

Of the $4 million or so raised, marchers brought in $700,000, according to Torie Osborn, PROPeace communications director in Los Angeles. Just before leaving Los Angeles, marchers were on the phones and out canvassing for money. They want to know where the $4 million went, how much is coming in now and where is it going--to pay off at least $300,000 in old debts? to pay salaries? or to go into the march?

Staff on the march have themselves fueled some of the debate, with their own charges of missed or bounced paychecks, lack of health insurance coverage (which Osborn and PROPeace founder/director David Mixner both emphatically deny) and money questions that range from wastefulness to more serious but vague accusations.

Marchers have been meeting again and again this week to discuss the march's survival, to elect their own leaders and to make some decisions.

Marcher Mary Edwards of Prescott, Ariz., was organizing fund raising in the business community, reporting a 50% success rate with merchants approached in Barstow. Parents of children were selecting representatives to go ahead to Las Vegas, organize support there and get better equipment for the children.

One of the parents, Diane Hara of Santa Monica, on the march with her two children, told a reporter: "This big machine that said it was going to take us (across the country) is not, so now we are going to do it."

To date it seems not to be a mutiny, but a transition, with the marchers taking responsibility for themselves and the shape of the march, although bad news out of Los Angeles could set off a much more decisive division.

Dorie King, who with her husband Dick has been a volunteer staff person for the past year and is now on the march, saw the transition as what the march needs.

"The marchers are becoming the driving force, making the decisions," she said, laughing self-critically and telling about when a marcher took it upon herself to move some of King's gear. "I lost my storage crates and threw a fit. I called someone a Fascist. Then I cooled off and apologized. I was taking staff privilege. Now she speaks to me."

Both King and her husband see the transition that the march is going through as a move that will leave it, as Dick King has said, "stronger than ever."

Meanwhile, the week has also been one of meetings at PROPeace in Los Angeles, sandwiched between desperate calls for money. Mixner, who has been accompanying the march, although not marching himself, has been back in Los Angeles, with walking pneumonia, raising money and striking out, and going through the on-going series of staff meetings.

They had to raise $100,000 by Friday or fold, Mixner and Osborn both said. A number of bills came due, in something Osborn likened to balloon payments, on March 1 and vendors are demanding cash or certified checks right now or they will withdraw services and goods--among them the California Highway Patrol and those providing water and showers for the march.

Beyond that, even with their scaled down organizations and scaled down plans, they will need $400,000 to $500,000 a month to get them across America. Letters have gone out to at least 500 potential marchers who were hoping to come on in Las Vegas telling them they will have to wait until Denver, at least, Osborn said. The march cannot afford the increased costs.

'People are telling me no," Mixner said in disbelief Wednesday of his efforts to raise money. "First they said, wait till you leave Los Angeles, now it's wait until Las Vegas. I can't understand it."

In the past Mixner has blamed corporate America for finding peace too controversial an issue to put money on, society in general for failure to believe in "the dream" or take a risk, regular affluent supporters of the peace movement for lack of vision and/or burnout, and more recently, negative press accounts.

Others are putting much of the blame on him, accusing him and the organization of having aimed too high, being too proud and too grand in the original concept and for having hung on to it for too long. To that are now added accusations of wasteful spending, and flat statements that the independent audit now under way had better come out soon.

Several in the peace movement confess they have been sitting on their checkbooks, wishing the march well, expecting it to fail, hoping to prove themselves wrong. Some of them are blaming Mixner, either for bad planning, or for having given the early impression that this sophisticated, Yuppie-style creature of the '80s could do without their small-time help.

Not all feel that way and merchandising wizard, jeans king and peace activist Fred Segal is one. He has been on the phone ever since the marchers left City Hall on March 1, he said, having been so inspired that he wept and came away convinced this march could turn the population around.

He too had expected to be involved in a close, advisory relationship with the march early on, met with Mixner, and never heard back, and was concerned about the way money was being spent. He does not understand, and he does not care about the accusations that are prevalent.

'What Matters Is Marchers'

"I'm not interested in all that crap," he said. "What matters is those marchers. I've been on the phone, but the problem is you've got to be straight with people. Even in a cause like this, people want to be with a winner and they know this might end."

He is not striking out, he said. Producers Tony Adams and Blake Edwards said they would come through. Segal and disc jockey Casey Kasem will run an ad in the Hollywood Reporter. Others said they'll send something.

"If they give me an argument over $500, I'm saying, hey, I'll match you. I can't do that if they want to give $100,000 of course, but with the smaller amounts, yes."

The bottom line for him, he said, is that he believes a group of people like the marchers having exposure to thousands of people across the country on the issue of nuclear disarmament is worth anything he can do to help.

"As long as they're still out there, it's never too late."

That is certainly the conviction of the marchers themselves.

One marchers in her 50s, on leave of absence from her job, walked along Monday describing the battle she is having with herself. The march is hard on her, she said, so hard that she is taking it not one day at a time, but one hour at a time, although she also said: "If I can just last until Las Vegas . . . "

The march itself is wearing her out. So is the work that must be done when they reach a campsite. She does not mind not having good food, not getting a shower every day, not having clean clothes. The loneliness is painful, though, she said. She has seen some marchers pair off, form relationships and it is nice. It has not happened for her. She has a book on peace that she brought, and she keeps turning to it when she gets down, or lonely, trying to concentrate on why she is here.

One thing does keep her going, and makes her smile: "We have a love relationship with the children who come out to meet us," she said. "Some schools have let children out to come watch us. They're so excited to see us. So, maybe the children will grow up and remember we were here."

Encounters with the people along the way seem to be what is keeping all of them going.

Moments before John Pluntze had stopped for a break and remembered his young friend in Hesperia, the marchers had passed a young black family standing in the back of a yellow pickup truck by the side of the road, calling greetings, waving and holding up placards for the marchers--"Our Prayers are with you," "God is with you."

Such encounters are visible boosts to their morale. Marchers recount such tales and, in less than two weeks, have almost developed a lore about such small events--the lady with the pizzas, the tap-dancing class that stood in the rain and danced as the marchers walked by in Victorville, the sandwiches, cookies, hot cocoa and coffee that have appeared, the invitations for a home-cooked meal and a shower, the clothes that have been laundered, the requests for autographs, the sermon about them the priest gave at Sunday Mass at a church in the desert. . . .

And Claremont. The "lesson of Claremont," they are calling it, and to start to talk of it makes some of them cry. There they were, just three days on the road and in trouble already. The broke organization that is sponsoring them, PROPeace, has not been able to purchase liability insurance and at Claremont it became a problem. Without it, they were not allowed to stay at the site they had selected.

The people of Claremont took them in. Churches and peace groups welcomed, fed and sheltered them and told them how their presence had united the community like nothing else in recent memory and strengthened their resolve to work for peace.

They had been bonding with each other ever since they started arriving at their training camp at White Oak Recreation Area in the San Fernando Valley. Now they are bonding with the people they meet along the way. People have not only been boosting their morale, they have been offering food and shelter, taking care of the marchers.

Particularly Bleak News

Earlier this week, on a day of particularly bleak news for PROPeace, when questions of folding or going ahead were being raised hourly, communications director Torie Osborn, on staff almost since the group's inception a year ago, spoke of Claremont at headquarters on Beverly Boulevard.

Swallowing hard and getty teary several times, she seemed to waver between the hope that "the lesson of Claremont" held out to them and the fear that it was being learned too late.

"I had to let go," she said, "of this notion we've had for a year: 'Every night we're going to set up this Peace City, this repository of all these dreams--of murals, of solar power, of educational groups, this alternative, unique, separate space.' We were overlooking something. There was more good will generated at Claremont, more education done regarding the issue, more determination and dedication of the marchers. . . .

"We learned there is much more of a need to interact with the community. The lesson came because of the site insurance. Not having that insurance may have been the best thing that could have happened to us. Part of all that has been going on here this week is sort of the death of the old vision, a reevaluation of it. Is it the most effective way? The goal is not to get thousands of people across the country. The issue is global nuclear disarmament."

Among the marchers, that lesson has a deep and growing spiritual dimension to it, which they occasionally put into words. Two marchers, strangers to each other, fell into line together Monday, and got acquainted acknowledging to each other how they knew so many people were waiting for them to fail. They had not failed. they agreed. If it ended that day, from what they had gained for themselves, and for what they had seen happen with people they met along the way, they knew it had already succeeded.

Said one, a young man, to the other, a young woman: "You learn the working of grace on this march. Those who don't believe in grace have left. Those who are open to it even just a little are seeing the way it works."

Free-lance photographer Jeff Share contributed to this story.

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