December 6th, 2017
“Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
“The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
-John Lennon, from the song “God”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We were riding in a cramped bus through the December darkness along the Ohio Toll Way. We were all on our way to Washington, D.C., for a political rally to support a clean Dream Act. Fifty people were crammed into tiny seats, and for most of the ride I was surrounded by loud talking and music. I sat next to Ron, an older gentleman with a pony tail and a bad left knee. His knee caused him great discomfort during the bus ride, as there was no room at all to stretch out or move his leg. Sometimes Ron would painfully get up and walk toward the back of the bus, where he would stand for a while. I stayed in my seat and stared out the window, watching the shadows of the landscape flow past me in the moonlight.
Moonlight is conducive to remembering and dreaming. This wasn’t my first bus trip to D.C.. I had been on a similar bus almost eleven years ago, tracing the same route eastward through the night. It was in January of 2007. I was with a group from Peace Action Wisconsin. We were going to the Capitol to protest against George W. Bush and the Iraq War. On that earlier journey, the bus had been filled with anti-war activists of all varieties: aging hippies, Che Guevara wannabes, radical feminists, Vietnam vets, and the Skinheads for Peace. The two skinheads were my favorites; they dressed just like their rightwing comrades, but they were totally against the war. There was one other person on that peace bus who was important to me: my son, Hans.
As I sat on this newer bus, I thought about Hans. He had been sitting next to me on the trip we took eleven years ago. He was nineteen at the time. His memories of the journey are different than mine. He claims that I conned him into going to the peace demonstration. I remember him whining that I was going to Washington, but he wasn’t. In any case, we both wound up on that Peace Action bus. We both sat there for hours on end, alternately observing the scene and attempting to catch some sleep.
The population on this week’s bus was different from the one I took all those years ago. Ron and I were riding with a group of high school students from Racine, Wisconsin. They were mostly Latino, and they were all somehow affiliated with YES, Youth Empowered in the Struggle. YES works to promote social justice issues, primarily the rights of immigrants. The students had all the hallmarks of youth: boundless energy, intense idealism, and a total inability to focus. The few elders on the bus were excited about the rally, but we also exuded a sort of melancholy. As Ron stated, “This isn’t our first rodeo.” We had all been places and done things. Some of the kids probably had never even been out of Racine before. Did having a mix of old and young mean that we had experience versus enthusiasm? Maybe experience combined with enthusiasm.
A multi-hour bus ride gives a person a chance to engage in lengthy conversations. Ron and I did just that. Ron told me about his time as a pastor in the Church of the Brethren. He also went to law school and worked as a corporate lawyer. I told Ron about my time at West Point and my years as a Army helicopter pilot. We talked about our families. Ron told me about how he very nearly joined the military back in 1967. He changed his mind after speaking to a high school classmate who had just returned from his first tour in Vietnam. Several of Ron’s friends had gone to Vietnam, but he didn’t. Ron spoke with a certain amount of sadness because those separate paths divide him from his friends, even today.
In the pre-dawn hours we stopped for a break at a rest stop in western Pennsylvania. The students went to the bathrooms, and then sat down in small groups to chat and to gaze intently at their smart phones. I wandered aimlessly past the closed food kiosks, and I stood by the main entrance, simply grateful for the opportunity to stand for a while. Elliott was there too. Elliott is a thin, young man with glasses and an infectious smile. He was the captain of the bus, although he shared that duty with Valeria, a young Latina from Racine. Neither Elliott nor I had any desire to get back on the bus just yet, so we struck up a conversation.
Elliott and I talked about the rally in Washington. I told him about how Hans and I took this same path a decade ago. I told him about the crowds there, and how Hans spent his time in the museums while I stood around listening to leftwing rhetoric. I frowned when I mentioned the aftermath of the journey. I told Elliott about how, just two years later, Hans joined the Army, and how he went to Iraq in 2011. I felt a wave of sadness when I told him that Hans killed people in the same war that I wanted to end. The irony was bitter.
Elliott listened. He said that we can’t expect that this demonstration will get us all that we want. We might not get a clean Dream Act. Our efforts may be for naught. Then he said,
“But what is the alternative? Do nothing?”
He went on, “I want us to succeed. I want to be smart and get results.”
I want us to succeed too. Both Elliott and I realize that this long trip may not achieve that. However, we both also know that it may be a catalyst for other things. We may succeed in ways we don’t understand and that we can’t imagine. Sometimes, the intention is the most important thing. Sometimes, we just need to try.
Much later, after the rally was over, and we were all walking around in the dark near the Tidal Basin, we stumbled on to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The lighting made the image of MLK seem heroic. I was astounded by the detail in the stone. I could even see the veins in King’s hands. I read some of the quotes in the wall behind the stone carving. Martin Luther King had not achieved his dream during his lifetime, but he hadn’t failed either.
A dream achieved is no longer a dream. It is reality.
I’m home again. Hans called me on the phone last night. He wanted to tell me that it was snowing like hell down in Bryan, Texas. He said that Gabi, his bride-to-be and a Texas native, loved it. I could hear her laughing in the background.
Hans asked me, “Where did you go?”
I told him, “I went to Washington for another demonstration.”
Hans sighed, “What was this one about?”
“Immigration. We were trying to keep undocumented kids from getting deported.”
Hans said, “Yeah, they should have a law that lets people stay here if they got brought to this country when they were little.”
“Well, yeah. That’s what we were trying to get Congress to do.”
There was giggling in the background again.
“Well, Dad, I just called to tell you about the snow. Talk to you later.”
Hans remembers our trip to D.C.. He wants his own kids. He has his own dreams for them.