Friday night I landed back in Austin after a week in D.C. I was not prepared for travel back to our old stomping grounds. My wife and I lived in D.C. for five years while I worked on Capitol Hill, and in a lot of ways it still feels like home. I made the mistake of watching CNN on the JetBlue flight into Dulles; OBAMA–Transition to Power dominated their coverage. Surrounded by epic monuments, interesting, earnest conversation, our old friends and the evidence of coming Change, I started to question our decision to leave.
In the depths of nostalgia, I somehow thought a walk to the White House would be a good idea. Thank goodness. At the White House, I met Robin.
I’d walked by Robin’s display several times while living in D.C. but never paid too much attention. It’s a large, yellow plywood pair of signs with stenciled letters that say things like “Say no to nuclear weapons or have a nice doomsday!” Photos of the victims of war and other violence pepper the displays, and whomever stays with the display sits between them to keep the cops from hauling them away. It’s a lonely vigil.
As I walked by the signs for the umpteenth time, Robin said, “Hey buddy.” We struck up a conversation. It turns out I’d been passing him by without saying hello for years…around 16 years.
My grandparents used to live outside of Amarillo, Texas, across the railroad tracks from Pantex, the final assembly point for U.S. nuclear weapons. Across the dirt road from their house was the Peace Farm, about 20 acres of land used as a base by anti-nuclear activists protesting Department of Energy activities at the plant. Robin used to live there.
Robin and his friends manned that lonely post out in front of the White House for 25 years. Out there in front of the heart of Americanism, they sit through rain, heat and freezing cold to keep the reality of war visible in a town that loves to pretend it’s a glorious, manly, pain-free adventure. Not many people appreciate having their fantasies torn to pieces. He told a joke, and then admitted he tells jokes to keep depression away. The lines of his face and the lack of expressiveness on his brow hinted at years of fighting a long defeat. Yet here he was, in the cold, politely waving away offers of warm coffee. Heroism…not the flashy kind, hinted at through edifices dramatically lit at night, but the kind that fights on after one’s hope of victory died.
We shared a “terrorist fist jab,” and I left. On the way to the Metro stop, I passed the American Legion headquarters. “For God and Country,” the inscription read. Sometimes you betray one to serve the other.