My friends and I gathered one evening at the comer of Sherbrooke
and Peel, Yonge and Bloor, Portage and Main, Denman and Davie. It
was the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Posters advertising a Candlelight Vigil had been pasted on poles
and mailboxes all over the city, and we had brought candles and
prepared ourselves in a solemn frame of mind, anticipating a sad
ceremony of commemoration. There was a strong wind, and the candles,
of course, would not slay lit. We huddled between the buttresses
of a concrete office tower and used our backs, as smokers do, to
create a shelter for the reluctant matches. But as soon as a candle
was lit, either the wind or one of the raindrops that had now begun
to fall made short work of it. Some people, presumably experienced
in candlelight events, had brought large, apparently inextinguishable,
enclosed candles on poles. The area was now filling with people
for the Vigil. A man with a camera on his shoulder threaded his
way through the crowd and the rain, his chin tilted up in a distracted
way, as though he meant to show everyone how separate he was from
the crowd who were the objects of his lens. As the rain made its
intentions clear, I began to feel guilty for bringing Tom, an old
friend of mine from Peace River who has little interest in the peace
movement. “Well, at least it’s not black,” said Craig,
holding a little pool of rainwater in his palm. A man with a bullhorn
addressed the crowd. We would be marching to City Hall, where there
would be speeches and music. We began to move in two–lane wide phalanx
along the street.
A few blocks beyond, a middle–aged man and a younger man, perhaps
his son, leaned from an apartment cheerfully waving a U.S. flag
and a sign that read, “Support Reagan.” The older man
was good–looking, bronzed, wearing a fifties hairdo. He looked like
a Hollywood actor who had difficulty getting work since “Route
66” went off the air. Their reactionary good cheer and shouts
of “KGB dupes” were studiously ignored by the marchers.
A little further south, we passed a group of young men, one carrying
a large cross on his shoulder, the others trying to hand out literature
to people on the train. Since many marchers had their own pamphlets
to peddle, there were not many takers. The leader was calling out,
“Jesus is the only road to Peace,” helpfully trying to
invalidate our collective effort. The face of the man carrying the
cross was suffused with an expression that combined joy and pain
—and perhaps guilt for his pleasure in assuming his Saviour’s role.
They all were coiffed in the same style as the man with the Reagan
banner. In an attempt to replace these demonstrations with certitudes
of our own, a marshal came by with a bullhom and started yelling,
“What do you want?” Tom replied, “Oh, the usual things,
a house in the country, a good job — ”but he was resoundingly
drowned by a collective shout of “Peace!”. “When
do you want it?” asked the bullhorn man, waving his free arm
as if to cue us. “Now!” we all yelled, to no one’s great
surprise. Satisfied with our response to the litany, he made his
way down the train, where we soon heard him getting similar results
with another section. Someone started singing behind us, “We
are a gentle, angry people ...” At last, it seemed as though
we were finding a mood appropiate to the day we were commemorating.
I felt a sadness in my chest and throat as we sang to ourselves
and our audience, and though I still was conscious of the curiosity
of the trendily dressed teenagers, we had made a kind of identity
for ourselves through singing.
But it soon faded, a woman pushing a baby carriage behind us began
the “What do you want?” chant again, at the tops of her
lungs. But she added a third line: “What are you going to do
if they won’t give it to you?” Now, it’s always been strange
to me to demand peace with the same volume and anger with which
teenage kids demand to be allowed out after midnight, but this was
taking it a step further, right into the heart of our uncertainty
in the movement. Tom shouted, “We’ll break their knees!”
but this only got him a couple of dirty looks. Mostly we were silent,
left with the desire to define ourselves for the public, feeling
like a beleagured minority, more of a curiosity than the moral vanguard
we aspire to be.
A couple of guys in their thirties were standing on the corner.
“There aren’t enough problems here, they gotta worry about
what’s going on in Japan?” said one. A marshal thrust himself
into the phalanx, and flung his arms out, cutting so that the traffic
could move through. “Where are the police?” he asked rhetorically.
The rain began again, and we moved on. A taxi, driven by a woman
was trying to edge its way through the crowd. The same marshal,
his face mottled red with anger, pushed through and slammed his
hand down on the hood of the car. “Officer! Arrest this driver!”
But the cop, standing nearby, was in a dispute with two other marshals,
and barely gave a glance at the cabbie, who, aware she had stumbled
upon greater passions than she had expected from pedestrians, was
desperately trying to escape. Suddenly, the three marshals ran to
the centre of the intersection and joined hands, flung their heads
back in the rain and began to sing something. A streetcar ground
to a halt, the driver staring, perhaps wondering if it was a protest
against high transit fares. By now, the inexorable train had carried
us too far to see the outcome. And there was new entertainment.
A portly young man was running up and down, clearly delighted to
have an audience. “Peace!” “Peace on earth!”
he yelled, “Drugs! Drugs for all!”
WE trooped into the square opposite City Hall. Tom went off to find
matches for his cigarette and our candle. A folk–singer was performing
on stage, wearing calf–high leather boots and a week’s worth of
beard. He was singing about the “cycle of violence” in
Dylan’s Minnesota–cum–Tennessee twang. An incongruous fellow with
a pot–belly and a Walkman was gyrating his hips to the music. “Could
he be an organizer?” wondered Craig. At the end of the song,
the fellow lurched up to the mike and tried to say something. The
folk–singer pushed the guy roughly away, and said, “Will the
marshals please clear the stage now?”
The marshals hustled away the still bopping crazy man. A speaker
came to the mike but as she began, the clock’s giant bell began
to toll. Raising her voice, she protested the presence of nuclear
weapons and the arrest of three marshals by the police. A boy walked
by, his hair a series of spikes sealed with what looked like urethane.
“Punks!” snorted a woman nearby. “What are they doing
We wandered away from the outraged oratory and hailed a cab. Back
at my place we drank whiskey, and Craig and I explained to Tom why
the deterrence theory was flawed. We laughed a lot. After two drinks,
I knew I was feeling sad and cheated. Something hadn’t happened.
The television was on, and images from Hiroshima began to pass by.
Familiar images, the flatness of the grey ruins, the man forever
riding his bicycle slowly through the wasteland. Then we saw color
pictures from the present–day city. The people had made pretty floating
candles enclosed in colored paper and set them on Hiroshima’s river.
They were floating away, thousands of them, each one rep–resenting
a soul that had perished in that terrible event. But they also represented
the souls of all the rest of us, floating, not knowing where the
river will take us, vulnerable and hoping. We were silent, finding
what we had missed in the march, and staring at the sad solemnity
of those pretty floating lights.
Reprinted from Peace Magazine.
Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring