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Peace Marchers Make Their Point in Las Vegas

Times Staff Writer

Thirty minutes before showtime at the MGM Grand and actor Robert Blake and several of his friends from the Great Peace March were wolfing down hot turkey sandwiches in the hotel coffee shop, rushing to catch Tom Jones’ act in the Celebrity Room. Jones’ publicist, John Moran, was with them, thumbing through his black book while they ate, offering them phone numbers of East Coast contacts in politics and entertainment, people he thought might help with money and support for the marchers’ walk across America for global nuclear disarmament. He couldn’t promise that Jones would say anything during the show; only that he would make certain Jones knew Blake was in the audience.

While they ate, a heavyset, gray-haired waitress came up to Blake, stopped just long enough to place a $1 bill in his hand and say, “Get a dollar from every waiter and waitress in this town. You’ll make it. You will get to Washington.”

Momentarily stunned and moved, they watched her disappear--she worked in another of the hotel’s restaurants, a busboy said--before they could talk to her.

Later, Jones not only introduced Blake, who was wearing jeans, a denim work shirt and a purple scarf banded around his head, but, as the house lights came on and Blake took a bow to the packed and applauding house, Jones informed everyone “Mr. Blake is here on a peace mission. He’s involved with a peace organization and it’s a wonderful thing.”

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Marcher Allan Affeldt, in the booth with Blake, whispered to Jodi Anderson, the march’s Washington coordinator, “This is great. This is middle America here. These are just the people we want to reach.”

What a day it had been.

Not only had the Great Peace March beat the odds and made it out of Barstow to Vegas, but here they were, march organizers and Blake, staying in rooms at the Desert Inn provided by Sammy Davis Jr.

“Sammy’s picking up the tab,” Blake had said earlier, chuckling a little, “and I’m afraid he thought it was going to be for 24 hours. It’s more like a week.”

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Word had come that Paul Newman had given them a check for $25,000. That afternoon they had met with Burt Reynolds, here on location filming “Heat,” and he had given them a check for several thousand. And they had gone backstage at the Sahara to see Don Rickles. Rickles had introduced Blake during his show the night before and had agreed to pose for some pictures with them. Meanwhile, offers were coming in of places to stay, in response to a request that had gone out on the radio for residents to take marchers in for the one night they could not obtain a campsite.

It actually looked like they would come out ahead.

So, before hitting the MGM Grand they had gone to see Rickles.

“I’m not seeing anybody,” Rickles had barked, before appearing in the doorway with his bad-boy grin.

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Moments later he was posing with Blake and marcher Tim Carpenter, while the three of them held the Great Peace March flag, created by artist Corita Kent, on which is written, “We can create life without war.”

Rickles Turns Serious

Serious for a moment, Rickles wanted to make clear the nature of his support: “I don’t necessarily believe a thing like this (march) can help, but it takes a great deal of courage--what they’re doing. It’s an uphill climb. I admire them tremendously, whether it’s right or wrong. They’re doing it without violence, peacefully, so it’s an endorsement because I respect their right to try something.”

Back through the dining room, where Blake caused a stir and got a few handshakes, “good lucks” and “safe trips” from tourists aware of his mission and pulling for the marchers.

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As he made his way thought the casino, Blake was singing softly to himself, “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.”

“Just another day on the march,” Carpenter said, shaking his head in disbelief and heading out through the slot machines.

Not just another day on the march. The average day on this march across America has involved no stars, no glitter, no comfort and no bucks. And, more often than anyone would have wished, no marching.

A day, or night, in Las Vegas is no more typical for the peace marchers than it is for any other citizens who find themselves there. And it was about as surreal.

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Unlike many a visitor, however, they left town Sunday having come out ahead. The marchers, who are now near the Nevada/Utah border, left Las Vegas buoyed by celebrity endorsements, about $10,000 in small contributions from townspeople and tourists, promises of more support, countless acts of goodwill and hospitality that resulted in more offers of rooms for a night than there were marchers, and a staggering supply of $2.50 “all-you-can-eat” hotel/casino brunches under their belts.

Although they did not word it that way, it was clear they left thinking their luck was changing.

‘We’re Going to Make It’

“I think we’re going to make it now,” Connie Fledderjohann of Santa Monica said. She was one of many who had been making alternate plans to buy a van and take off across the country with a few friends from the march. “You don’t hear talk any more of people going off on their own.”

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For weeks Las Vegas had loomed as an elusive mirage before the marchers who had been stalled and stranded in a harsh desert after their debt-ridden sponsoring organization, PROPeace, had pulled out.

The people left behind in Barstow on the edge of the Mojave had no money, supplies, equipment or organization. The only thing not in short supply in their dusty campsite next to an auto graveyard were reports of their imminent death. Making it across the desert to Las Vegas became not so much a milestone as a monumental achievement to them, a sign that they had survived, were alive and were going to make it after all.

New Organization

“We really did rise out of the ashes in Barstow,” said Carpenter, a marcher and member of the board of the the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament, the new organization that has replaced PROPeace. “There really was a spiritual, moral rebirth that went on out there.”

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In the rebirth they say they have become a people’s march, a true grass-roots movement, rather than the high-tech, slickly run, Hollywood packaged and touted surface creation that PROPeace often seemed to be. An image with no substance, most involved now say, that proved to be its downfall.

“Maybe it was all for the good,” Robert Blake had said at a press conference in Los Angeles after the marchers had left Barstow and were crossing the desert. “In order to resurrect it as a people’s march, maybe it had to go belly up in a junkyard in Barstow.”

Now they are in the desert again, on their way to Utah, but belly up no more.

Day-by-Day Headache

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That is not to say anyone expects it to be clear sailing over the desert and through the Rockies to Denver--and points beyond. Marching and site permits alone are a day-by-day headache, causing delays while agreements and liability waivers are explored with private citizens and federal and local officials.

Allan Affeldt has estimated that it will take about $200,000 in cash or kind to see them to Denver, a figure they fall short of by at least $100,000. In general they project about $2,000 to $3,000 per day to get the march, at its current size of about 500 marchers, organizers, support workers and advance people, to Washington.

They are still doing without much equipment, such as portable showers. Many of the vehicles, such as buses and vans, are old and need constant repairs. And the status of other items, such as the kitchen truck, still with them but under a lease held by PROPeace, are still being negotiated.

They have been building support among individuals and organizations. Locally, Fred Segal, fashion merchandiser and businessman in Santa Monica, and David Stein, a real estate investor in Orange County, have contributed office space, helped fund raise, (Segal, for example, ran a full-page appeal in the Hollywood Reporter with radio announcer Casey Kasem) and tried to negotiate some equipment for them.

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Church and peace organizations have also been rallying, offering endorsements, small donations, contributions of food, typewriters, volunteer work. At one meeting in Los Angeles organized by the Southern California Ecumenical Council and the Unity in Diversity Council about 30 people came to see what was needed.

Within the organization there has been seemingly endless debate and meeting-upon-meeting in the three “town hall” tents. Out of it has finally emerged a double system of government, a board of directors legally responsible for the corporation that consists of three former PROPeace staff members, Carpenter, Affeldt and Dan Chavez, lawyer for the march, and four elected marchers. It will handle national media and fund raising, Carpenter said. In addition there is an internal structure dealing with march policy and government that consists of three town councils plus an extra for “family town,” formed by marchers with children.

The marchers describe themselves as a family, but are quick to say they are not simply “one big happy” family. They have their factions, described by one marcher as “the anarchists, the vacationers, the purists, the pragmatists.” The pragmatists get accused of being publicity hounds and in danger of falling for the glitz PROPeace indulged in; the purists of being ineffectual.

They disagree on fairly substantial matters. About 100 people went as individuals, without the march’s endorsement, to demonstrate at the Nevada Test Site, protesting a nuclear explosion. Some committed acts of civil disobedience there, and entered guilty pleas and served six-day sentences. Although many thought that was the wrong way for the march to go, the protesters were welcomed back to camp with a party last Tuesday.

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Another group has taken off for Big Mountain in Arizona, where federal authorities are about to forceably relocate thousands of American Indians. Again the marchers are in disagreement, with some concerned about diffusing themselves with too many issues, and others insisting that not only is it appropriate to take a stand at Big Mountain, it is directly related to the purpose of the march, since the disputed land is the site of large uranium deposits.

And there are the hangers-on and latecomers, many looking like old flower children, and a few appear to be from the far fringes of society. They are the ones the camera crews head for, and they are not, with few exceptions, official marchers. It is an uncomfortable situation for the marchers who are only too aware of the irony of having their people’s march, their groundswell grass-roots movement be exclusive or seem elitist.

“It’s causing us a problem. They could really hurt us,” said Jennifer Looney, on the march with her toddler son, explaining that if the march was to have any success at all in changing public attitudes and actions about nuclear weapons, it had to reach and convince middle America.

Today and Friday the marchers will reluctantly deal with the problem. A census will be taken, the last having counted 517 either on the march or working for it doing fund-raising or organizing support in Los Angeles and other places. New laminated photo identification badges will be issued, and marchers will be required to sign new contracts with the organization, Carpenter and Affeldt said. Some will refuse. They will be asked to leave, although there is little that can be done to stop people from falling into the line of march or camping near the campsite.

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Not all who have come are unwelcome. People have been showing up ready and willing to march, some of them claiming they had been accepted by PROPeace. The aim has always been to enlarge the march, which was originally intended as a movement of 5,000. About 1,200 left Los Angeles March 1, and people dropped out as the collapse of PROPeace grew increasingly evident.

“The bottom line is money,” Carpenter said of increasing the number now. “Our first obligation is to the marchers who are already here.”

One recent phenomenon has been the return of marchers who left.

“The only thing worse than being on the march is being away from the march,” Affeldt said, quoting another marcher who had returned. Some thought they had left for good, and discovered, like Randy Rosser of Lafayette, La., “There’s no place else I belong.” Others, like Dick Edelman, a psychiatrist from the Los Angeles area, on the march with his wife Ann, needed a break from the “constant gab, gab, gab” of all the meetings while they were stalled.

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Kitt Horn, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war who heads the march’s security, quit it cold, disappointed and disillusioned. He is back.

“We’re still experimenting,” he said. “We’re still making some drastic mistakes, but the bottom line is, we’re a family and we love each other. This family is going to Washington.”

So what difference does it make whether they reach Washington? America loves underdogs. It may very well help these people along the road. What, in the end, does any of this have to do with global nuclear disarmament?

Franklin Folsom of Boulder, Col., Great Peace March board member, former Rhodes scholar, writer, and, at 78, oldest marcher, does not hesitate for an answer.

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“I thought it had a practical possibility of success,” he said of his initial reaction. “The difficulties are unimportant. It is forcing a focus on an objective--the end of nuclear war. The existing peace organizations have not succeeded in persuading Congress (to vote differently on related issues). They’ve done good work, but they need help. This can act as a stimulus in every existing peace organization.

To which Carpenter and Affeldt later agreed, and added their desire to have the peace organizations coalesce on a common agenda.

“David Mixner (who founded PROPeace and conceived the idea of the march) was right about this. Make it simple: The bomb is wrong. We do not want the bomb,” Carpenter said.

“One way of bringing about social change,” Affeldt said, “is by bringing about a certain level of consciousness, awareness of an issue. In the early phase, people simply know, ‘there are people out there.’ In the second phase, it’s who we are and why we’re here.

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“Whether we get to Washington or not,” Carpenter said, “each day this march remains viable we are effecting change.”

But is it worth the constant effort required to get permits to walk and rest, to get watered and fed, to keep the trucks running and insured, to just get through one more day, one more mile?

Is there not something better, something more effective they could be doing with their time, something better for nuclear disarmament?

No one seems in a better position to have considered such questions than Dan Chavez. He was there the day PROPeace went down in Barstow, standing among the tumbleweed in the desert in his suit and tie, taking part in any number of bizarre meetings going on among clusters of distraught people standing in the wilderness lamenting their fate. And he was there in Las Vegas when they hit the Strip. In fact his parents had driven up from Los Angeles to see it all happen, proud of him and proud of the march they said.

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He had been constantly on the go, back and forth to the campsite, the Desert Inn, the future sites and Los Angeles. One morning he stopped to consider the question, standing in the hot sun in a gravel parking lot, shirt and tie in place, two nylon briefcases in hand.

Worth the effort?

“If I may go back to my own personal history for a moment,” he said, he could provide some insight. " My grandmother--her name was Yayu--set out with five kids when she was 25. She walked from south of Mexico City, crossed the entire desert on her way to the United States. She did it herself. It took her 12 to 13 years . . .

“She taught me when you make a commitment to one thing that requires sacrifice and overcoming obstacles, you do make a change on the environment. And she did. She gave us this life in the United States. I know that in the same way these fine young people are going to make their impact. And I’m personally glad--this march makes me close to my grandma. I know from personal experience that sacrifice is change.”

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