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AROUND TOWN

At Peace With Themselves

February 26, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1986. As the United States and the Soviet Union waged the Cold War, those fearful that the superpowers were going to blow each other up were demanding, "No Nukes!" On March 1, a determined band set out from Los Angeles on a 3,300-mile march to Washington. The goal: to create a groundswell of support for global nuclear disarmament.

It didn't quite work out that way. A decade later, there is no comprehensive test-ban treaty. But the Soviet Union is gone and, with it, the specter of nuclear immolation.

And, on March 1, survivors of the 8 1/2-month Great Peace March will mark the 10th anniversary at a noon ceremony on the west steps of City Hall.

About 400 hardy souls made the whole trek. Some, like Jerry Rubin, 52, of Santa Monica, are still fighting for the cause. Last month, he was arrested for trespassing outside the Chinese consulate while protesting nuclear weapons testing.

Others have moved on to other issues, to marriage, careers, children. Not all agree on what the march accomplished, but they do agree that it was a seminal event in their lives.

"For some, it's been the totality of their life," says Joe Broido, 65, of Santa Monica. "They never got beyond it." For him, it was "the experience of a lifetime, for a cause that was noble. It was a safe midlife challenge, physically terribly demanding, but the natives spoke your language and your plastic was good anywhere."

He laughs. "I went thinking I was going to be a spear carrier in a wonderful moving Italian opera." He wound up one of a ragtag group, living from hand-to-mouth, dependent largely on the kindness of strangers in towns and cities across America's heartland.

The Great Peace March was conceived by David Mixner, a longtime activist and founder of PRO-Peace (People Reaching Out for Peace). He envisioned 5,000 marchers, well funded and with a convoy of high-tech support vehicles, who would wow the media and spark a movement of millions worldwide. The reality was 1,200 marchers, many of whom would turn back--and media reports of a flop.

The $20 million he hoped for from corporate sponsorships, films and merchandising tie-ins never materialized; about $4 million was raised, $700,000 of it by the marchers themselves from dollar-a-mile pledges. Instead of a star-studded send-off before 100,000 at the Coliseum, there was a modest City Hall rally that drew about 6,000, including hecklers.

In Barstow, 10 days later, a debt-plagued PRO-Peace dropped out and the marchers regrouped as the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament, ill-equipped and largely winging it, a traveling tent city of citizens from 9 months to 79 years old. Among them were the young and angry and aging liberals who'd missed out on the civil rights marches of the '60s. Kathleen Hendrix, covering the march for The Times, described it as "a band of shepherds looking for a flock."

"We only agreed on one thing--global nuclear disarmament," says Mim Broderick, 77, of Studio City. Another marcher put it this way at the time: "We can't agree on anything, except to knock at the Porta Potti."

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Still, a bond was being forged that was powerful enough to see the participants through. Madonna Newburg, 66, of Manhattan Beach, says, "We felt that we could change the world--and we really have, because we changed ourselves."

Mary Jane Jones, 68, of Mount Washington, had always thought of herself as powerless to create change. When she refinanced her house and took a leave of absence from her county job to go, "People said, 'Oh, you're so brave.' What I always knew inside was that I was saving myself."

Strangers became family, a family that holds huggy, teary annual reunions, recalling the good war. They laugh about quickly weeding out those who thought the march was Club Med, such as the woman who wailed, "But where am I going to plug in my hair dryer?"

They remember the black church in Toledo, Ohio, a target of violent acts by white neighbors. There, they linked hands with the congregation and sang, "We Shall Overcome." They remember their exhilaration on reaching the crest of the 12,000-foot Loveland Pass in Colorado, knowing that from then on it was, as they liked to say, "all downhill."

They remember hot showers and hot meals in friendly homes. Children rushing out, bouquets in hand. Trains whistling in salute. Junk food forays. The trucker who gave the marchers watermelons. The nights sleeping in farmers' fields among the corn and the cows.

Rubin, who's often confused with the late "yippie" founder and '60s peace activist Jerry Rubin, recalls the marchers being invited to Kent State University in Ohio until "someone in the administration got wind that 'Jerry Rubin' was going to speak and they said, 'When he was here last time, he talked about people killing their parents.' "

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