As I went, I found myself automatically looking for evidence of rainfall, or the lack of rainfall. In summer, in Texas, people watch both the sky and the on-line radars, hoping for the sight of clouds. Storms, hopefully sans tornadoes, may give you the extra half-inch of rain that will keep your crops or your pasture alive. Most of the huge tracts to each side of the highway were shaved close, but the few fields that hadn 't been mowed all too often showed plants that looked as though they 'd been scissored out of brown paper bags.
I turned west out of Waco onto Highway 84. A few miles outside town, official highway signs let me know that this was the George W. Bush Parkway. The land was mostly flat and open all the way to McGregor, where I turned left onto 317; here the land began to roll slightly, and the patches of trees thickened. A few miles further on and I saw a set of silver grain silos and a brick building on a low ridge, and moments later, found myself entering Crawford, Texas.
To your right, as you enter Crawford from the south, is a sign, perhaps four by six feet, a photo of a smiling and waving President Bush, Mrs. Bush at his side. As I drove by, I glanced in my side view mirror and saw something else on the back of the sign: a rather faded poster proclaiming Crawford the home of the Crawford Pirates. Small Texas towns are inevitably very proud of their high school sports teams --Azle and Springtown, the two towns near where I live, aren 't shy about letting you know how much they appreciate and support the Hornets and the Porcupines. I found myself wondering if the faded Pirate side of the sign had originally faced outward, and been preempted when the President moved to town.
Western White House not withstanding, Crawford is still a very small town. Small shops in old brick buildings, a single restaurant visible on the main drive, small wood-sided, slightly Victorian houses visible down the side streets. Lots of trees.
The main intersection is dominated by the Yellow Rose Emporium. On a flat-bed trailer in front sits a Liberty bell and two magnificent Ten Commandment tablets, perhaps five feet tall each. A sign below the tablet proclaims "Let freedom ring. " I parked half a block down the street. Having read the emphatically pro-Bush Crawford.org website before I came, I wondered if I should perhaps cover up my Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker, then decided it would be both hypocritical and maybe a tad cowardly. I also thought it would be insulting to the people of Crawford. My experience with small-town Texans is that if you are polite and courteous, as befits a guest, they will be equally polite and courteous, as befits hosts, even if they strongly disagree with your politics.
Inside, the Yellow Rose was an unabashed and shrewdly commercial shrine to the President. His picture was everywhere and Bush souvenirs of every description were stacked high on wide tables. Childrens ' handwritten letters to the President were taped to the counters. A display on a door featured pictures of Crawford labeled "Then " and "Now " and showed empty buildings transformed into new stores, restaurants and community buildings. A little deeper into the store, one wall was hung with a huge tapestry of an eagle backed by an American flag; in front of this were life-sized cardboard cutouts of both Bush presidents and both First Ladies, and in front of that was a set of chairs. As I watched, a dad and his kids sat in the chairs while Mom took pictures.
At the front counter, small stick-on magnets featured pictures of orange road signs that proclaimed No Stopping, No Parking, No Photos. When you see these signs, it seems, it means you 're nearing the Bush ranch. I asked the young man at the counter how you 'd get to the ranch, and was told to turn right just outside the store, then right again by the Lutheran church. "But you may not be able to get near it, " he said. "Lots of people down there now. " I thanked him, signed the "For Our President " guest book, then bought a magnetic car ribbon that said "Support Our Troops: Bring 'Em Home Safe! " For quite awhile, I 've been looking for a ribbon that included that last phrase, though I found it interesting that the "Bring "em Home Safe! " section was detachable.
Outside, across the street, a lady sat in the hot sun, surrounded by Harley motorcycles and signs that declared "Mr. Bush, Stay the Course! " and "I Honor Casey & All Veterans. " I took a few pictures of her, crossed over to her side, gave and received a polite "Hello " and took a few pictures of both the Yellow Rose and the huge banner stretched between the grain silos that proclaimed this "Bush Country. " Then I put my newly-purchased ribbon, intact, on the back of my van right above the Kerry sticker and headed for the Lutheran Church.
The prescribed right turn led to a narrow country road, no different from the dozens of FM roads up by where I live. A few miles down, woods closed in from either side, the branches arching overhead. Any shade at all is a soothing benediction during a Texas summer; I sighed when the trees thinned and became pasture land again. It was then that I saw the first indication that there was something a little different about this area. A helicopter flew overhead. Driving, I couldn 't use my binoculars, but it didn 't look like a standard military helicopter, though the long silhouette of a mounted gun was plainly visible.
Two long curves further ahead, and parked cards began to line the road, tilted into the steep slope of the bar ditch. I joined a long line that led to a hot, red-faced deputy sheriff who stood in the center of the road right in front of the gateway to the Broken Spoke: I later learned that this was where the President had gone the day before to attend a fundraising barbecue.
The deputy told me that he was sorry, but he 'd been told that no more cars could go past this point. I don 't argue with Texas law officers, especially those who are just following orders, so as directed, I turned around, drove a few hundreds yards down the road and gently eased my van into the ditch. Then loaded with hip pack, camera and binoculars, I headed back afoot.
As I passed, I asked the deputy how far it was to the demonstration. "About a mile, ma 'am, " he answered, then added, "They do have shuttles going back and forth. You might be able to get a ride from one of them. "
Sure enough, a few minutes, later a silver van decorated with bright lettering that asked, "Mr. Bush, Why Won 't You Talk To Cindy? " headed in my direction. I waved and it stopped. The driver was a cheerful blonde lady who thought that no one should have to walk that far in that heat. I got in and she drove on, stopping to offer a ride to the next people she saw, a husband and wife who were both Bush supporters; a quarter mile on, we came upon another husband and wife, the wife carrying a large placard in the shape of a white dove with a splash of red paint on its breast. I and the Bush supporters waved them in and made room for the dove, careful not to crush its outspread wings.
A few moments later, we reached Camp Casey. I 'd had a vision in my mind of a straight road, with perhaps a small tent or two and a few protesters. The reality was triangle marking the intersection of two narrow roads, one leading on to the Bush ranch, one out into flat pastureland. Along the edge of the second road was a surprising number of people, canvas chairs, stacks of coolers and food, signs and placards of every description. On the third edge of the triangle were long lines of small crosses, marked with the names of Americans who 'd died in Iraq.
What astounded me were the variety of organizations represented: veterans, Code Pink, the NAACP, Gold Star families and people of every kind. The young woman in pink, with pink dyed hair. The middle-aged lady with her hair dyed bright green. The vet who 'd served in Iraq who, with his bushy beard and camouflage headband, looked much like the Vietnam vets who protested thirty years ago --except they usually were in wheelchairs or on crutches instead of equipped with a straight-bar prosthetic leg. I 'd expected perhaps twenty people; there seemed to be nearly ten times that much.
On the other side of the road leading to the Bush ranch were some Bush supporters, including a family with kids that held up signs that said "Sheehanistan. American HATERS Welcome. " They were sincere, but polite; the only placards I thought were true low blows were those showing pictures of Cindy 's son, Casey, and declaring "He died a hero! " He did, but it 's equally as valid to call him a victim of the man who far too readily took this country into war, and I thought the use of his picture an inappropriate slap in the face of his mother.
The triangle itself was the territory of the local law, five or six officers sporting the soft felt western hats worn by all Texas law officers other than city police. With arms crossed, they leaned against their parked cars, chatting among themselves and periodically scanning the triangle to make sure everyone behaved themselves.
Along the Camp Casey ditch, Cindy sat by the side of the road in a low chair. I didn 't talk to her, because so many other people wanted to, but I talked to her sister, Dede Miller, a smiling, short-haired woman who cheerfully called herself Camp Casey 's "comic relief. " Despite her modesty, she struck me as the kind of person who 'd be an invaluable ally in a tough situation. I also talked to other people --the folks who 'd driven down from Dallas and up from Houston, the folks who 'd come from Washington state and Oklahoma --and the two members of an ABC crew who seemed mildly insulted that I 'd watched CNN instead of ABC the night before and so hadn 't seen their Camp Casey footage on air. I even saw a small smirkingchimp.com sign, but I never could find who it belonged to in the constantly shifting flux of people.
When I said I was thirsty, a volunteer told me to help myself from the coolers. I chatted with her for a moment, and the conversation turned to the President 's trip down the road the day before to lunch on barbecue and thank contributors. "You 'll love this, " she said. "When they came by, his escort pointed M-16s out the windows at us. "
Well, the Secret Service does need to protect the President, but since this is the excuse always used to keep any form of protest far from his sight, the folks at Camp Casey were a bit contemptuous of the overkill. (Al Queda 's terrorist leaders are evil, but not stupid; if they really wanted to assassinate the President, why bother to infiltrate a protest group? It would be much more effective to find the most Caucasian looking recruit possible, dress him in an expensive suit, wingtip shoes, a Yale tie and a W '04 button, send the RNC a $20,000 donation in his carefully chosen, WASP-sounding assumed name, then wait for him to be invited to dinner at the White House.)
A long string of cars eventually came down the road, carrying people of both political persuasions. Someone said that a rally was about to start, and someone else fired up a loudspeaker. I was hot and tired and I had animals at home that needed to be fed and watered, so I hitched a ride with a family wearing pro-Cindy maroon T-shirts. We talked on the way back to my van, agreeing that while all wars are bad, in rare occasions they may be necessary. Iraq is not one of those wars.
I 've always been proud of the fact that while Americans have never been afraid to go to war, we have also been singularly reluctant to got to war. That 's why I so dislike this president. I understand why many of the people of Crawford like him; he 's made their home world-famous, boosted the local economy and I 've no doubt that when he comes to the Crawford restaurant and sits down for pancakes and sausages with his admirers, he 's both charming and likable. But I 've always been suspicious of charmers. Such people too often use their charm to avoid the consequences of their actions, to manipulate people to get what they want with little thought of the cost to others. Bush is such a man, and it was heartening to see so many people who can look past the facade.
I clambered into my elderly van, eased my way out of the bar ditch and headed home, hoping that Cindy and her supporters would be blessed with cloud cover, cooling breezes and perhaps a small rainstorm, sans tornados. I know she 's already blessed with extraordinary courage and determination.
As I headed north from Waco, past the dry but enduring stretches of pasture, I was reminded of perhaps the most powerful anti-war poem I 've ever read, Carl Sandburg 's "Grass. "
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Sand is as enduring as grass. The sands of Iraq already cover the bones of those killed in a thousand wars. We need to find a way to end this conflict, and stop feeding them the bodies of Iraqis and young, self-sacrificing Americans like Casey Sheehan.
Cathryn Sykes is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Springtown, Texas.