The Geriatric Protestors
They came with their oxygen tanks, their extra cardigans, and their signs. Some were wheeled out, and some shuffled slowly with the aid of walkers to sit heavily in the chairs the young people had set up for them minutes earlier on the corner of Miller and Camino Alto. Every Friday afternoon at four found them here—protesting faithfully for peace in the California sunshine. Most of them had started in the sixties, during Vietnam, and had been protesting ever since.
I crossed the street to the group, and a woman with deep smile lines and bright coral sunglasses greeted me cheerily as I neared, "Hey sweetie, come sing with us."
I sank into a chair beside her and she pushed a worn camp-style songbook in my hand opened to "This Land is Your Land."
"We always start with this one," she said in pleasant throaty tones, as she tapped the title enthusiastically with a thin finger. "It's such a good one, doncha think? I'm Judy, by the way."
"Karvy," I replied. "Nice to meet you. How long have you been doing this, Judy?”
She cocked her head to think, and replied without irony, “Long as I can remember, I suppose.”
The guitar player began to tune up and a man of about a hundred and five—who looked as if he'd been poured into his seat—began cutting impressive riffs on a harmonica. It was a small group, maybe twenty seniors, all with their hopeful signs raised to the cars that passed. People slowed and waved to them with smiles and peace fingers out of their car windows, honking in support. It warmed my heart. It seemed as if this was a planned route on Friday afternoon for most of these cars, just to support the elderly protestors.
We were about ready to start singing when construction workers behind us began jack-hammering. The woman with a guitar walked over and waved her hands, and they stopped to listen, and she told them there was a peace protest about to happen and could they keep it down till it was over. To my surprise, the workers took off their hard hats off and nodded respectfully at the woman and the group and apologized meekly, going off to work on a different side of the building.
Order was restored and the instrumentalists counted off. The woman with the guitar picked an extraordinarily low-key with notes you had to growl (or just be aged) to reach. Every eye brightened, and every toe began to tap as they sang out in gravelly tones full of conviction—
"This Land is your land
This Land is my land
From California to the New York Island—"
With the tempo we had taken, and the way we were singing it with a chorus interspersed between each of the six verses, I could see immediately this song was going to take at least fifteen minutes. I wondered as they sang with unflagging perseverance how these people did it—protested their entire lives, I mean—without wanting to give up, without looking at the world and wondering if they'd die before they'd see the peace they'd spent more than half a century trying to bring forth into the world. I wondered if they every second-guess whether peace was possible for humans; as I watched them singing cheerily, I somehow doubted it, and wondered if I'd still believe the world could change when I was in my nineties and if I'd still have enough hope in my heart to call anyone to another way of being.
I looked around. There were no "anti" signs here, no reminders of the ugliness that one had only turn on the news to see. No, these protestors were looking forward, looking ahead...as if they had one foot in the new world already and were simply trying to get us to follow them through...trying to leave what hope they could behind when they were gone.
One of the oldest ladies I'd ever seen was pulled out a little from the group to catch cars coming from the other direction, I asked if I could take her picture and she answered sweetly, "Well, alright. My hand gets a little shaky though." She tried to hold her knobby peace fingers still enough not to blur the picture, and I assured her it was just fine. Her hand-painted sign read "May Peace Come to Our World."
As I turned, they reached the final verse and sang with a climax of conviction and enthusiasm:
"Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me."
The song ended, and the passing cars cheered. The elderly folks grinned at each other and waved their signs and frail peace fingers—my throat grew thick as a young girl with solemn eyes responded, leaning out her car window to raise peace fingers to the skies.
And I understood.