Rubac rallies for peace at the Mecom Fountain.
Rubac rallies for peace at the Mecom Fountain.
Daniel Kramer

Peace Signs

The handful of freezing demonstrators trudges through the streets of Washington, D.C., their unit leader bellowing through a bullhorn. Waving signs bearing the distinctive Lone Star silhouette, the five show no sign of giving up their mission.

Hours earlier, this group was 42 strong, comprising fresh Houston recruits in the War on War who joined thousands of others for a two-mile march and massive civil protest. But now, as the sun dips and the temperature slips below 20, the streets are clear of out-of-town activists and natives as well. This band of five is no longer battling George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq -- they're using the bullhorn and signs in a desperate attempt to find their lost friends.

At 1:30 p.m., when the sun still offered some sanctuary, the Houston travelers waded into the crowd of marchers and were immediately separated. Some segments of the group navigated their way to the designated pickup spot in the Naval Yard, the march's end point. But the familiar Light Blue Behemoth was missing in action.

It was eventually spotted beyond the maze of other departing protesters and buses. Henderson William, the stalwart driver, explained that he'd been unable to find parking anywhere near the rendezvous site.

Those who made it back to the bus organized the final search party. As night arrived, five volunteered for the sortie to seek out the remaining few, who came back with some stray souls. But three were still missing.

It was now dangerously cold, and the three marooned marchers weren't dressed for the elements. Henderson put the bus in gear and eased along the streets. He killed the rows of interior lights to help the vision of the riders -- the ones with the half-frozen faces pressed against the foggy windows, peering into the darkness.

For the passengers, the rally and march were holy experiences. They felt euphoric, like they'd found their calling. Locating their fellow travelers was proving far more difficult.

On the previous day, this trip for peace has a promising beginning.

One by one, passengers head to the front of the bus and grab the microphone. It's time for testimonials, for all 42 people to introduce themselves and tell exactly why they paid $150 each for a 60-hour turn-around trip to Washington to protest the looming war on Iraq.

Their guide and scout is Henderson William, one of the two bus drivers navigating his cargo through the former Confederacy. The older, African-American man prefers simply to be called Henderson. He captained a bus of protesters for a D.C. rally last October and requested this run because he sympathizes with the mission.

Hearing that it's time to testify, Henderson turns off his beloved Con Funk Shun from the overhead speakers and yields the floor.

The riders explain their presence. There's a Kurd who says it's Iraq's fight, not ours; a former Merchant Marine who went from gung-ho in '91 to hell-no in '01; and a University of Houston student who runs the campus Green Party.

There's a witch, an ex-con, a lawyer and several teachers.

They range in age from 13 to 76. They're white, black and brown. They have African drums and picket signs.

They want to be a royal -- no, rebellious -- pain in the ass for President George W. Bush. They've missed work and school for this trip. Some of them sit next to a lavatory that's been bombarded by 42 sets of bowels and left to stew for five days. Some are at odds with conservative parents.

They're crammed into a 50-seat bus that might be comfortable for a ride to Austin, but transforms into an iron maiden on anything longer.

This is the Houston contingent of a massive antiwar rally organized by a coalition called International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group formed in the wake of 9/11. Members joined the thousands gathered to demonstrate outside the Capitol building and in San Francisco, and in smaller protests throughout the world.

Some of them were returning from their first actions since the mass protests of the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago. Just as with combat itself, high technology has changed the nature of antiwar activism. Slick computer printouts have replaced the ink-smeared mimeograph broadsides; e-mails, Internet links, cell phones and voice mail have automated the get-out-the-word networks.

As the ride soon showed, the decades have altered other aspects of activism. While some passengers arrived over the protests of their parents, this peace effort has hardly reflected the Vietnam War's penchant for splitting families apart along generational lines. In fact, the D.C. demonstration was revealing that activism is becoming an all-in-the-family affair.

Evidence of that was obvious in the appearance of protester Gloria Rubac with her daughters -- even Rubac's grandchild, for that matter -- in tow.

Gloria Rubac doesn't look like a grandmother. The light brown hair and stamina throw you off. At the mike, the fiftyish Rubac becomes the passengers' motivational speaker, talking about how this bus is one of many, how they will show the rest of the world that most Americans don't want a war.

Seven or eight seats down, Rubac's daughters and 13-year-old granddaughter are wedged into two seats, smiling at this matron of marching. It's a rousing spiel they've heard before. They've all grown up watching Rubac fight for what she believes in. Now the rest of the bus is getting a taste.

Even before she enlisted in the protests over Vietnam, Gloria Rubac was a troublemaker.

When she was 14, she shimmied with an African-American student at a high school dance in Oklahoma City. A chaperone witnessed this affront to the state civil codes and promptly phoned Rubac's parents. She only made things worse by telling her Louisiana-born mother that one out of every five whites from Louisiana had black blood. Her father duly grounded her indefinitely, beginning Rubac's lifelong pattern of civil disobedience. Rubac soon joined her priest and a church group for an integrated sit-in at a local lunch counter. Her father called the priest a communist. But Rubac always liked him, right up until he chartered a small plane into the heart of a South American jungle and was never heard from again.

Rubac moved to Houston in 1968 and stayed in touch with her parents until a few years later, when she went to see Abbie Hoffman at an antiwar rally in Memorial Park. Rubac's parents saw her on TV and that was the last they cared to see of her until 1989.

"I had always been a daddy's girl, until I got political," says Rubac, a teacher at Wilson Elementary and co-host of Fight Back on KPFT.

Rubac married a local activist named Alex Rodriguez, who was arrested and charged with trying to kill a cop at what Rubac calls a "Zionist fund-raiser" in 1973. Rodriguez and others who were arrested at that rally became known as the Houston Five. He beat the rap after two years.

Even after almost losing her husband, and being arrested twice herself, Rubac never quit protesting. And her two daughters were literally born into that life. She went into labor with Lucha during a demonstration in support of a farmers union, and then with Joaquina while picketing for local teachers. Her daughters, who mark their formative years by what rallies they attended, joined Rubac for the January 18 demonstration. With them was Lucha's daughter, Luchita.

After 9/11, a coalition of religious and political groups formed International ANSWER in New York, and chapters sprouted across the country. Rubac joined and co-organized the Houston ANSWER contingent for an October 2002 rally at the Capitol. By then, she had already logged eight 30-hour bus trips to D.C. rallies.

During the Vietnam protests, Rubac says, Nixon publicly shrugged off the masses who assembled outside the White House.

"But he was really peeking through the blinds," she says. "And I'm sure George Bush is, too."

"Ffun," recorded by the Memphis group Con Funk Shun in 1977, is one of the world's funkiest songs. Its infectious horn riffs propelled it to No. 1 on the R&B charts and 23rd on the pop charts. Then it faded away -- at least until 3 a.m. outside Stockton, Alabama, when Henderson plugs it into the bus's sound system.

By that time, the overhead lights are off and nearly all talking has ceased. Henderson, innocently thinking he will take this downtime to energize himself, Con Funk Shun-style, accidentally turns on all the speakers throughout the bus.

Wary passengers, who were sleeping for the first time since leaving Houston eight hours before, jolt awake to the propulsive bass and high-pitched vocals.

Fed up with the funk, a middle-aged high school music teacher fumbles his way to the front and offers Henderson his Discman and headphones in exchange for his turning off the music. Henderson objects -- he's not allowed to wear headphones while driving, and he's not giving up Con Funk Shun.

"What am I supposed to do?" Henderson pleads. He flips the song to the front speakers and turns down the volume.

Tiffs are rare, despite a 60-hour round-trip in cramped conditions that would drive less peace-loving beings to homicide. Maybe it's the number of vegetarians, or the collective hours devoted to yoga and reading up on New Age enlightenment and Noam Chomsky, but this group clicks immediately.

The journey begins around 5 p.m. Thursday at Mosque 45. Some arrive with a friend or two, others by themselves. Most are from Houston, but some have made longer drives.

The guy stroking his black beard is Ed Cavazos. He drove in from Austin. He's a 25-year-old systems administrator who sometimes feels alone in his opposition to war. Being with all these people makes him feel better, more powerful, he says.

Lori Ramirez holds the African drum called a djembe. She's from San Antonio. She protested against Vietnam, marching through downtown Berkeley with a candle while army snipers perched on the rooftops. She gave up the protesting life to raise seven kids, but now she's back.

In the hippie skirt is Kate Sprague of Nacogdoches. She started Students for Peace on campus at Stephen F. Austin.

The balding man with the glasses is Dean Tucker from Beaumont. He'll tell you everything you never knew about medical marijuana and how Hearst and Dupont got the American government to outlaw hemp. He says he's a reverend in an obscure religion founded in the Brazilian rain forest, where shamans boil vines to produce a juice called ayahuasca that allows them to heal mind, body and spirit, as well as to see dead people.

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.

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.

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:

"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.

Nine stops later, the Hernandez Debate Team and crew pour out of the Metro and begin the trek to the Mall. Behind them, the Washington Monument. Before them, thousands of protesters and approximately 12 porta-potties. On a stage closer to the Capitol, hidden by the mass of demonstrators, the Reverend Al Sharpton is speaking about upholding Martin Luther King's vision, but protesters from all over the Mall are distracted by the latest word: Speedo Man is on the scene.

Clad in only a tight-fitting red bathing suit and tennis shoes, Speedo Man hops in place to keep warm, clutching Sharpie markers in both fists, encouraging protesters to adorn his hairless torso with peace signs and antiwar slogans. Lines begin to form for demonstrators to get their pictures taken signing his freezing flesh.

Even with the Houston contingent's signs with doves soaring victoriously amid the outline of the great state of Texas, the group is almost immediately separated. One small faction inches slowly toward the stage to see former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark and former King Kong captive Jessica Lange.

Speakers haven't even finished when the crowd decides to begin the two-mile march to the Naval Yard. The Houston contingent has now split into four or five groups, lost in different points of the march, which runs from Independence to Pennsylvania to Eighth to M. The chants segue into each other -- "Hell, no, we won't go, we won't fight for Texaco!" becomes "Drop Bush, not bombs!"

Spectators in shops and pubs along the route smile and wave and flash peace signs. On the balcony of one apartment building, five college Republicans have summoned their collective wit in order to display a sign reading "Hippies go home." What they don't notice is the peace and Amnesty International banners two floors over their heads.

On Pennsylvania, a few smug old-timers sport banners proclaiming their support for the troops.

Houston's diehards soon discover a devious plot -- this one by Big Media. Demonstrators insist the turnout is about a half-million strong; wire services go with the meek "tens of thousands," a term that will be used by almost every newspaper. Protesters call it a conspiracy.

Whatever their number, marchers conclude at a housing project whose only economic development appears to be Club 55, Home of the Miss Black Nude Beauty Pageant.

Houstonian Njeri Shakur, 51, feels at home here. She says she was part of illegal evictions from Allen Parkway Village and lives now in "the barrio." She feels a solidarity among the downtrodden. Incredulous to see hardscrabble government housing in the nation's capital, she asks a D.C. cop, "Are these the projects?"

She can't believe it. The cop says Hell yes, we've got some hoods here, too. He invites her back for a custom tour.

Shakur, who co-hosts Fight Back with Rubac, is here with her 25-year-old daughter, Lauren Syrus. She'll probably come back, too, for every protest she can. Shakur has spent her life among the poor and working-class people whom she says are the expendable souls of the American war machine.

Growing up lost in the system, it's easy to understand why these folks would buy the idea of a new life in the armed forces, Shakur says. They hand their lives over for the promise of college tuition and to be all they can be. But some never find what they expect, she says. They return from war more lost than before.

Syrus and Shakur realize they are among the lost souls as other protesters board their buses. As the two wait in the cold by the housing projects for the missing Light Blue Behemoth, they have no idea how they'll make it home.

Around the corner, they spot Rick Brennan, 26, a high school history teacher. An hour has passed since the 4 p.m. pickup time. Brennan and Syrus decide to search the streets for the rest of the crew.

Forty-five minutes later, they're still gone. Shakur walks two blocks to where at least she can wait in a sliver of retreating sunlight. Other demonstrators are finding their groups without any problem, and slowly the mayhem subsides as the caravan of buses makes it way out of D.C. Shakur is left in the cold, now worried about her daughter.

Twenty minutes more go by, then she hears it, God speaking through a bullhorn: "The Houston bus is at Sixth and Penn…The Houston bus is at Sixth and Penn…"

Shakur sees the rescue party break through the remaining crowd of protesters. Syrus and Brennan aren't with them, but they soon turn up. The group rejoices when they finally spot the Light Blue Behemoth on a side street. They fling themselves on board, crashing into their seats, spent and shivering.

Rubac takes the mike, and the passengers take stock. They realize that Moyer, his fiancée, Claire Jacobs, and their friend Ryan Saunders aren't there. Stranded in a strange city, the three Lee College kids have no cell phone and no emergency numbers to call even if they could.

Boudreaux implores the riders to look out their windows. Henderson kills the lights and creeps forward, turning onto a street lined with cafes. Jackie Carpenter zips up her coat and rushes into the cold, poking her head inside the cafes. She hopes to find them sitting in a cozy booth, sipping steaming mugs of hot cocoa. No such luck. She darts across the street through traffic, checking the cafes there. Same story. She returns to the bus, bringing in icy gusts of air with her.

Henderson continues down the street, makes another turn, circles back to Sixth and Penn to see if somehow they knew to go there. A red light stops the bus and riders idly glance at what looks like a sculpture planted on a concrete stoop outside a closed shop.

Suddenly it comes alive. The dark mass splits into three bodies who throw their arms up at the bus.

"Wait!" passengers shout. "It's them!"

Henderson brakes to a halt. The three students dash to the open doors and the sounds of passengers clapping and cheering.

All that's left is the 30-hour ride back home. Even though the excitement of the rally is behind them, they remain buoyant. They're coasting on the afterglow of contributing to one of the largest antiwar protests ever. It's a high they ride all the way to Houston.

At 2:30 a.m., they finally unload outside the mosque on Old Spanish Trail. It feels more like a beginning than a conclusion, however. They'll talk about this trip to anyone who will listen and especially to those who won't. They're trying to do much more than prevent a war. In their minds, these 42 people are trying to change the world.

They rode a bus to D.C. to do it. And if necessary, they'd probably ride it to the ends of the earth -- if only Henderson would take them there.


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