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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Last Refuge, Part Two

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.
There's only one step down from here baby,
It's called the land of permanent bliss.
What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?

"Sweetheart Like You," Bob Dylan, 1983


The last of the vehicles in the procession pulled away, and in the emotional void that remained, many in the crowd visibly wondered what to do next. It was hardly a setting for self-congratulation. However, I think most felt a sense of accomplishment for having sacrificed half a Saturday in order to participate. It obviously didn't compare to patrolling the streets of Fallujah, but it wasn't exactly playing Chinese checkers with the elderly. This was made all too clear when we learned that a rider from Mount Clemens had gone down hard on the way to the service. He died from his injuries within a week.

Since this was my first Patriot Guard ride, I probably knew the least of anyone present. My first impulse was to take the flag someone had given me and plant it outside the church. Then I thought it looked abandoned and far too close to the ground, so I took it off its staff, folded it up, and put it in my jacket. I saddled up and headed north.

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Within a week, the Pentagon announced that two more soldiers from Michigan had died, and word circulated that the Phelps Gang would be attending both funerals. I chose to go to Morley, a small town situated between the Rapids Grand and the Rapids Big.

Matthew Webber was the fourth member of a five-man Army National Guard crew to die from injuries sustained after a roadside bomb destroyed their HUMVEE in November 2005. He clung to life at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for five agonizing months.

I travelled solo up M15 North to Otisville and made a pitstop. It was vaguely familiar territory, since I'd once taken the route in the middle of the night. I thanked my stars I had the foresight and lack of stubbornness to pack an additional layer, because my hands were close to falling off and the rest of my extremities weren't far behind. There was a patch of ominous, morale-shattering weather, and for the first time I can recall, I seriously considered turning around. Luckily, it remained a patch.

I commandeered the bathroom for what must have been an eternity to the several people who jiggled the door handle and muttered whatever it is you mutter when you walk away from an occupied bathroom in disgust. Sorry folks. Long Johns, Army socks, extry T-shirts...this is a process, not a wardrobe choice. You live or die by the tuck and the whole enchilada needs to hang together proper-like. It's no picnic disrobing down to bare feet on a tile floor that's -20 degrees and was last cleaned during the Clinton administration. And trying to...errr, find things under 3-4 layers during subsequent pitstops is no walk in the park either.

I wasn't solo for long. I pulled over to join a few PGR riders who were forming a miniature westbound posse. All Harleys, including a trike, with one chase vehicle running rear interference. I was a suckerfish in a school of barracudas, trying to hang with these guys on my torqueless 600cc Honda. I'd say 70 was the average speed, and considerably north of that on highway 127. It was impressive--the cold went away, the sun came out, and time compressed. High rev vibrato alternate reality. Time moves differently on a motorcycle; with this crowd, it just moved fast.

There isn't much to Morley; it's about the size of most towns that compel an 18-year old to join the military. A post office, a sporting goods store, a diner or two. I processed most of it with peripheral vision in about 5 seconds, since the service was held well north of town at Morley-Stanwood High School. You can only drink in so much when safety and survival are at the top of your agenda.

As we approach the school and turned right into the parking lot, I became aware of about a dozen figures off to the right chanting and carrying the telltale dayglo picket signs with the usual messages. I thought of the parody sites that have sprung up on the web--"God Hates Figs" leaped to mind, and I laughed out loud, to the extent one can laugh out loud within the confines of a helmet.

School buses were lined up tip to tail in front of the school as far as the eye could see. They carried no one. They were there to form a barrier between the protesters and the school grounds. We were ushered into the driveway and around to the parking lot by several LE types. It was flawless and highly organized, which is key when you don't want to swap chrome with those around you.

The group I'd latched onto on the way up was nice enough; the trike rider flipped his trunk open and unloaded a cooler with all manner of munchables. I felt no obligation to hang out (or probably didn't want to risk becoming a full-fledged mooch rather than a suspected mooch). I wandered off to survey the scenery. The turnout was massive. By the time I walked over to sign in, they were at the 500 bike mark and counting. A throng seemed to be forming fast near protest central. I dutifully lemminged my way over.

The counter-chanting was half-hearted and thus fully annoying. It lacked imagination, and I lacked the credentials--I can't bear to repeat myself or raise my voice. Bored, I walked over to survey the Phelpsians.

It was then that I had a revelation I'm still coming to terms with. I saw a Phelps disciple--a boy who couldn't have been more than ten. His eyes were cast downward, he fidgeted, and his hands would have probably been in his pockets if it weren't for the idiotic sign he was carrying. He was probably monitoring an anthill. He very clearly wanted to be just about anywhere else. Fishing. Playing kick the can. Doing the inside out eyelid trick. In this regard, we were kindred spirits on opposite sides of the street.

And it was at this moment that the megaphone master of ceremonies yelled out "TURN YOUR BACK TO THESE SCUMBAGS! TO PHOTOGRAPH OR LOOK AT THESE SCUMBAGS IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR PRESENCE! IT'S AGAINST THE RULES!"

Cue Jon Stewart's patented incredulous stare. WTF? Let me count the ways. Actually, I won't. Just the one I'm passionate about. In my universe, you do not degrade a child. Ever. Especially one who, while in admittedly questionable company, couldn't care less about any of the issues being yapped about. I don't think you honor a dead child by dishonoring a living one. It's that simple. My career as a counter-protester lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of four minutes.

As is usually the case, the PGR participants were outside the service proper, so I spent the bulk of the time listening to GI stories about this or that base, who's drill sergeant was the bigger bastard, etc. Some were riveting, some were just tall tales. It was remarkable that an entire town attended. I later learned that his mother knelt by the grave, quietly sang "You Are My Sunshine," and released two doves. I would not have been able to handle it. I can scarcely write the words without welling up.

--------

A few days later, I wrote a post to the PGR site suggesting that some of the language be toned down. Why not be dignified at all times? Was this not, by and large, a formation of former military personnel? Wouldn't maintaining bearing at all times be the purest form of counter protest?

My logic went like this. People, picture a tattered van wheezing its away across Nebraska at 3 AM. A child is laying in the back, unable to sleep. He is looking up at a star-filled sky, and an idea comes to him. Maybe they're right. Maybe I am being held hostage by a gang of religious psychopaths, and I need to break out of here at the earliest opportunity. Maybe serving my country is an honorable thing to do. Maybe that flag does stand for something.

Such an epiphany cannot occur if the other side of the street looks just as unattractive.

I think the post lasted an hour before it was blown away by the powers that be, which told me all I needed to know.

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