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Then and now, marchers speak their peace

At a Ventura beach, veterans of 1986's Great Peace March from L.A. to D.C. gather for a 25th anniversary celebration. There is a lot to reminisce about, and a question is raised: Could such an event happen today?

August 08, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Elizabeth Ungerleider from Vermont poses at a gathering of veterans of 1986's Great Peace March from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The 25th anniversary of the event drew about 150 campers to Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura. There was a lot of reminiscing -- and some wondered if such an event could even happen today.
Elizabeth Ungerleider from Vermont poses at a gathering of veterans of… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Sitting in her dome tent with her weekend clothes crammed into plastic drawers, Barbara Cone Milazzo scanned the oddly young faces in her well-worn copy of the Silver Thread, reminiscing.

Of course, yearbook-gazing is par for the course at a 25-year reunion — but this wasn't the kind of event where people crack up about the time someone put a cow in the principal's office.

Milazzo was one of 150 or so campers gathered at Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura for the 25th anniversary of the Great Peace March, a near-disastrous, often exhilarating nine-month anti-nuke trek from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

Photos: Peace on their minds

At 47, Milazzo, an animated woman who runs after-school programs in Mariposa, Calif., has never attended any of her high school reunions. But she seldom misses get–togethers for the marchers, and the 25th — drawing a crowd from around the U.S. — was a must.

Nearby, someone played a guitar. Over at the food tent, there was laughter as a crew of ex-marchers prepared the evening's burritos, suitable for both vegetarians and vegans. There would be campfires, singalongs, yoga classes, slide shows, trips to town, and quiet moments when middle-age marchers with kids and mortgages would reflect on what spurred them to trudge on.

For many people, it was a frightening time. The United States and the Soviet Union had engaged in nuclear brinkmanship for years. In 1983, President Reagan developed his "Star Wars" initiative, calling for development of an anti-missile system in space. "Nuclear winter" — a theoretical long-term toxic darkening of the skies after a nuclear attack — had tapped a deep vein of fear.

Milazzo remembers a recurring nightmare about a nuclear blast. "I was paralyzed with fear in high school," she said. "The arms race made everything seem pointless."

A couple of years later, she was in a health-food store when she saw a blurb about the upcoming march in Whole Life Times. Many miles hence, she was the group's security director, succeeding a by-the-book military veteran and a woman whose approach was "too metaphysical" to maintain order among hundreds of tired, footsore activists.

About 1,800 marchers set out from Los Angeles on March 1, 1986. In a couple of weeks, the event's organizers announced they were broke. Support vehicles were repossessed and the march stalled near Barstow, on a bicycle motocross track next to an auto junkyard. Most people went home, but about 500 of the original group stayed and, after marathon free-form debates, incorporated as Peace City, with a mayor, city council, finance department and press office.

There was a dentist with a chair in his van and a team of mediators to work out disputes. Old school buses were converted into rolling classrooms for children whose parents were marching. An impromptu comedy troupe tried to keep morale up, but it was a tough task; the punk-clad anarchists, for instance, bristled at the thought of name tags, let alone authority. At the reunion, more than one camper wryly noted that one of those young anarchists now teaches second grade.

For days, the crew at the beach swapped stories. There was the nine-day stretch of 90-degree days and 20-mile hikes with no showers. There was the epic storm that had marchers seeking refuge amid the stench of an abandoned fertilizer plant. And who could forget the wonderful cakes the children would gobble down when the group crossed state lines?

At points, they suffered the cruelty of strangers — mostly taunts of "Get a job!" or "Go to Russia!" In a few Nebraska towns, laundromats and grocery stores shut their doors when the marchers approached.

But more often they were surprised — shocked, even — by the goodwill they received from poor people, struggling farmers or just folks who showed up to take their pictures.

At the beach, Karen Doherty, chopping tomatoes for dinner, recalled the box of Snickers a good Samaritan provided outside of Barstow.

"They could have been bars of gold," said Doherty, a resident director at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

On Nov. 15, 1986, about 400 of the original marchers, accompanied by thousands of fresh recruits, reached Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Pete Seeger led the crowd in "This Land is Your Land." Though the world did not disarm, the group had succeeded on a number of fronts: walking 3,701.4 miles, drawing international attention to the cause of peace, and, individually, expanding their lives.

"I learned I could stand on my own two feet and take care of myself," said Julia Ziobro, now a technical writer in Bellevue, Wash. "I was 18 and that's how I left home. My dad thought I was crazy and my mom slipped me a hundred bucks."

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