Peace Signs

Third–generation activist Luchita Rodriguez and her friends find the missing rally bus — and a fresh, family-style fight against war in Iraq

Henderson swings the bus around at about 6 p.m., pops open the cargo doors and the passengers insert their luggage and weapons -- their handmade posters: "This country is going to hell in a Bush basket," "Texan against war." They pile in, and by the time the bus pulls out onto Old Spanish Trail, the new acquaintances are already talking.

And they never, ever seem to stop.

Boudreaux: A near-death experience changed his life.
Courtesy Stephen Boudreaux
Boudreaux: A near-death experience changed his life.
Ben Wagner, with The Houston Coalition for Justice, Not War, does his day in front of the federal building.
Monica Fuentes
Ben Wagner, with The Houston Coalition for Justice, Not War, does his day in front of the federal building.

Long-distance travelers may be accustomed to in-flight entertainment, and the Light Blue Behemoth brings its own promise of tedium-busters. Somewhere in Alabama, eight tiny overhead TVs begin flickering with images: Palestinians in headdresses are throwing rocks at Israeli tanks.

Rubac explains on the bus mike that this video details the awful conditions the Palestinians are subjected to under a brutal Israeli occupation. The soundtrack is an avalanche of Middle Eastern percussion mixed with undulating Arabian chants. There is no dialogue, only scenes of young Israeli soldiers firing bullets and tear gas into crowds of young rioters. Other videos carry messages of Arab antiwar groups and the American military's use of depleted uranium in the Gulf War -- activists say it left a radioactive sheen over Iraq that still causes deaths and birth defects today.

Hours of discussion among riders eventually mesh into a predictable antiwar vocabulary that, if compiled into a handbook glossary, would read something like this:

Sanctions: The harsh U.N.-imposed penalties that have not so much as pinched Saddam Hussein, but have slaughtered over a million innocent Iraqis. Lack of medical supplies is killing children, who rot away from malnutrition and disease.

Expense: The price, in billions, of invading and rebuilding a foreign country; also, the cost of reforming domestic health care and education, as well as creating jobs.

Oil: Black viscous subterranean liquid used for fuel, considered by some leaders to be worth paying for in blood.

North Korea: A land absolutely devoid of oil.

Soldiers: Disproportionately black, brown and poor white, who fight in wars so rich, old Caucasian men can get richer.

Homeless: Three million of them; 23 percent are military veterans (see "Soldiers").

Depleted uranium: Highly radioactive substance used to make bombs and tank-piercing bullets in the Gulf War; related to Gulf War syndrome.

Birth defects: (See "Depleted uranium").

Nuclear attack: Something that Saddam Hussein would never pull on America. Unless, of course, America attacks first.

The media: General Electric, Westinghouse, AOL Time Warner.

Stephen Boudreaux, 47, dons his reading glasses and pops open a New Age manifesto called The Power of Now. Short, with close-cropped gray hair and a gray-and-brown beard, Boudreaux looks like a wise gnome. A gnome with a thick New Orleans brogue.

A few years ago, the shipping company risk manager lived in The Woodlands with his wife and two daughters, enjoying the standard spoils of suburbia. One day he descended into the dark empty hold of a supertanker, which was like a sensory deprivation chamber. Boudreaux walked right off an unseen ledge and was almost killed by the 20-foot fall.

He says he actually saw words float past his eyes from some cerebral netherworld: Life will be different after this.

Five surgeries, 53 days in the hospital and 18 months of grueling physical therapy later, Boudreaux started slow: He quit drinking and smoking. About a year later, he and his wife quit each other.

He moved out of his family's "three-bedroom house with all the crap."

"After I got divorced, I went out and got all new crap," he says. Soon he realized that the need to acquire more crap was one of the major problems with society. So he got rid of all his crap -- moved it into a friend's house so that one day his daughters might use it, should they require additional crap. Boudreaux sold his house and moved to a 30-foot sailboat docked in Kemah. Now he lives with only the essential crap: clothes, dishes, radio, laptop. No TV.

He looked at his country after 9/11 and saw that it was reacting to a tragedy by restricting its citizens' personal freedoms, and using violence at home as an excuse to wage violence abroad. That was a 180-transformation from '91, when he roamed the waters of the Persian Gulf as a captain in the Merchant Marines. Back then, Boudreaux got off on war.

"It was all about making money and all about having a war you can claim as your own, since I missed Vietnam and all that John Wayne kinda bullshit," he says.

He looks at the folks around him, the young and old on the same crusade, and he thinks about those words he saw at the bottom of the dark cargo tank.

"This might be a way of making amends," he says.

Atlanta stretches on forever, and there are traces of snow. The bus rolls past Turner Broadcasting System and Coca-Cola headquarters, past Augusta and on into South Carolina. Henderson makes a pit stop in a gas station that sells jars of pickled eggs and cans of green boiled peanuts. This town of Santee is called "sanity" by the locals.

After the passengers load up on overpriced bottled water, chips and sweets, they stroll out to the parking lot for stretching and sunshine. Two young riders bang away a trancelike rhythm on bongos, as if to summon peace, and perhaps rain.

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