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

Driver Henderson mashes out his cigarette and steps inside the bus to honk the horn. I'm leavin', this means. With or without you.

On a bus chock-full of protesters, the question is never whether -- but only when -- a guitar will appear. The answer comes outside Burlington, North Carolina, from the back of the bus. Scott Freeman, 29, is wedged between a window and the lavatory in a deceptively deluxe seat. But being so close to the toilet, it will become the ninth circle of hell on the trip back.

With no Con Funk Shun to be heard, Freeman seizes his guitar and his chance. He gets busy with a series of original protest songs sung in a raspy, captivating moan. With long, stringy brown hair half-hidden under an Austin City Limits cap perched backward on his head, torn jeans and only half his front teeth, Freeman looks like the homeless narrator of a song written by a friend of his:

Armed with signs, Houstonians besiege the Capitol.
Jackie Carpenter
Armed with signs, Houstonians besiege the Capitol.
One protestor gets FĂĽhrer-ed up.
Stephen Boudreaux
One protestor gets FĂĽhrer-ed up.

"I sure could use a break today / Just give me some money and I'll go away."

Freeman rocks back and forth, closes his eyes and tilts his head skyward while he sings. Those around him lean in, straining to hear the words over the loud hum of the bus and the chatter up front. Some brace for the unbearable, but he delivers a delightful set.

By the time the bus hits Richmond, Virginia, it's dark and the natives of the Light Blue Behemoth are hungry. A few have sustained themselves with makeshift rations. Brian Bridewell, whose unruly blond coif could earn him a living as a Billy Idol double, fortifies himself on peanut butter and jelly (no preservatives, of course) spread on tortillas.

Amy Basha, who didn't tell her mother she was going on this trip but whose Palestinian father and younger sister will be at the simultaneous rally in San Francisco, munches from a bag of suspicious puffed morsels called Veggie Booty.

At a Denny's about 100 miles from D.C., waitress Shelly bites her tongue as passenger Jackie Carpenter interrogates her about vegetarian entrées. Basha slips away for a few minutes to call her mother, who thinks her 25-year-old daughter is visiting a friend in Austin. Basha wants to come clean.

She's not the only one whose views conflict with her parents'. Some parents have sent their kids off on the bus with a give-'em-hell grin, and others have all but threatened abandonment.

Dustin Moyer, 19, went from football jock to questioning the meaning of life in the philosophy honors program at Lee College in Baytown. He grew up in a family who believed you never criticize your country. A lad with size 13 shoes and an even broader mind, Moyer now wrestles with lofty moral issues that eluded him in his early incarnation as the asshole who loved to taunt nerds.

His college program has taken him to seminars on philosophy throughout the country, and Moyer keeps his old hotel key cards in his wallet as a sort of dogmatic diary. He'll soon have another addition to the collection, this one from Arlington's Crystal City Hyatt.

As part of the $150 protest tour package, the riders will sleep four to a room. When they wake on the morning of the protest, the outside temperature has plummeted to 18 degrees.

Riders assemble at 9 a.m. in the Hyatt lobby to find their first major logistical glitch: Somehow, 42 people are supposed to cram onto a shuttle to the metro station seven blocks away. It doesn't happen.

Those who make it to the shuttle's doors first ease inside and are whisked away. The rest grab their signs, bundle up and start walking in sunny but stark cold weather.

Soon, the sight of Houstonians in a subway station is enough to incite panic. They know the art of mass protest -- not mass transit. Are there tokens? Do you need correct change? What color train do you take? Where do you even board it?

A kindly D.C. metro cop sees the throng of befuddled Texans and demonstrates how to purchase a ticket. The passengers stampede through the turnstiles and take the stairs down to the platform.

"People get ready, there's a train a-comin'," sings Arnoldo Hernandez, 39. He's here with his 17-year-old son, Chris, a student at Jersey Village High whose classroom debates on war have caused more than one teacher to send him to the office.

The younger Hernandez says his teachers are suckers for jingoistic rhetoric. When President Bush took office, issued his refund bonuses and told the American people to go boost the economy, one of Hernandez's teachers dragged her family to Disney World. She boasted of this immensely patriotic act to Hernandez's class. Hernandez thought she was an idiot.

"What if he told you to shoot your kids because this country was running out of food?" he asked. Bam! Straight to the office.

The elder Hernandez grew up being called a "wetback" while learning about all the great things white people did for this country.

"I didn't believe the bullshit that they taught me in history," says Hernandez, who served four years in the army. So he found alternative histories, including a book called Lies My Teacher Taught Me, which he gave to his son when he was 12. The two have batted around philosophy ever since.

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