[sixties-l] Fwd. Montana fight over peace sign

From: Ted Morgan (epm2@lehigh.edu)
Date: Mon Mar 12 2001 - 20:42:41 EST

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          Published on Sunday, March 11, 2001 in the Baltimore Sun
          Townsfolk War over Peace Sign
          by Carol Susan Woodruff

          MISSOULA, Mont. - A blizzard nearly blinds me as I scan the hill
    just north of downtown.
          Then, squinting hard, I catch sight of it: the huge, crudely
    painted peace sign that for 15
          years has comforted and inspired me, filled me with nostalgia and
    defined this town I call

          I'm trying to fix the sign in my memory. By spring, the sign will
    be gone, a quirky footnote in
          the history of this quirky little town nestled in the northern

          The sign adorns a 40-square- foot microwave reflector owned by
    Qwest Communications.
          Unknown locals have repeatedly scaled Waterworks Hill, which is
    mostly public open
          space; ignored a "No Trespassing" sign; braved 6 feet of
    chain-link fence and three strands
          of barbed wire; and, suspended by ropes, painted the universal
    symbol for peace.

          I've always cheered them on. At 48, I'm a member of the "Question
    Authority" generation.
          The rebel spirit still stirs within me, as does the craving for

          In 1993, the phone company gave up constantly repainting the
    reflector. The effort had been
          costly. At roughly $1,000 a pop, the liability was great: Some day
    a renegade Renoir was
          bound to get hurt. Now the reflector is obsolete, and Qwest plans
    to level it. It's offered to
          sell the surrounding quarter-acre to the city for $99.

          Trouble is, the sign has become part of our local culture. Two
    neighborhoods have, in their
          joint community plan, labeled it a landmark. Some people even
    claim to have moved here
          largely because of the sign.

          A drawing of the symbol and its creators graces locally produced
    coffee mugs. School kids
          routinely capture the image in their artwork. And a recent
    informal survey of Missoulians,
          conducted by the Missoula Peace Project, showed that 65 percent of
    the respondents
          favored keeping the microwave reflector as it is.

          The sign is highly popular, but not universally so. Debate over it
    has swirled for years. Is it
          art or graffiti? A landmark or blight? A symbol of protest or
    goodwill? Mere mischievousness
          or a monument to malefactors?

          When Qwest first raised the possibility of dismantling the sign,
    letters poured in to the local
          newspaper. The comments included: "It is a silk purse made from a
    sow's ear." "Only in
          this backward town would people condone graffiti and vandalism."
    "I would not
          underestimate the powerful impact on our children of being raised
    and educated under a
          sign of peace." "It is offensive to this WW2 veteran who knows
    that 'Nam should not have
          happened but has little patience with flower children."

          But here's the letter that slayed me, that I would've written if
    only I'd taken the time:

          "Every time I look up and see this 1960s symbol of peace, a smile
    comes to my heart,"
          wrote Vietnam veteran Ron Williams. "I remember a time in my life
    when I was young; full of
          energy; and naive enough to believe that all things were possible,
    even peace. Then, for just
          a moment, a long-forgotten feeling comes over me; my body relaxes;
    it is the late '60s once
          again; and I have come home to my new hometown of Missoula, where
    diversity and
          acceptance are the norm. There even seems to be room for me."

          Such is the power of symbols; each of us reads into them different
    things, based on our
          age, our experiences, our particular demons. On this snowy
    morning, I'm sitting in the
          downtown office of architect and City Councilman Jerry Ballas.
    He's a former ROTC cadet
          and combat engineer in Vietnam. Ostensibly, our topic is the peace
    sign and surrounding
          land. But, really, we're talking about his demons.

          "It's a symbol of protest," Ballas says quietly. "It's a constant
    reminder of those times when
          I came back from serving my country and didn't feel like there was
    any appreciation at all for
          the efforts that we had made. It's a constant reminder of that
    time period when there was a
          lot of strife going on, not only within the country but within my
    own mind."

          The sign represents trespassing and vandalism, he adds; it defiles
    a landscape we
          Missoulians want to protect. Wasn't it just six years ago we
    passed a $5 million bond issue
          to pay for preserving open space? I can see his points. Heck, I
    obey laws, have helped paint
          over graffiti on public structures and love unfettered views as
    much as the next person.

          Still, I want the sign there. Call my viewpoint "situation
    ethics," "situation aesthetics" or a
          circumstantial respect for squatter's rights. This much is sure:
    When I hold my thumb to the
          northern skyline and imagine the sign gone, my spirits sink
    through the soles of my boots. I
          feel older, disillusioned, a resident of a town becoming too
    upscale and mainstream for my

          I long for the days when we all lived in modest homes and drove
    old pickups, when a peace
          sign seemed to sum up who we were.

          Ballas looks forward to the sign's demise. I don't. We do agree,
    as most folks do, that the
          tiny parcel around it should become public open space. Maybe it'll
    be a peace park. But it
          won't be the same.

          Leveling the sign will help bring him closure, he says. But I
    don't much believe in such a
          thing. I think we all must come to grips with our pasts as best we

          We must file away painful, even horrific, memories and re-examine
    them only when we're
          feeling particularly strong - or masochistic. We can bury our
    dead, never our memories.
          Somehow, we must ride on, with our pasts bringing up the rear.

          Today, with his brown plaid shirt, wire-rimmed bifocals and gray
    hair, Ballas looks like
          somebody's dad - like somebody who, 30 years ago, wanted peace as
    much as I did but
          had a different way of fighting for it.

          He certainly doesn't look like my enemy. But that's how I once
    would've seen him. He had,
          after all, voluntarily joined a war I thought pointless, unjust,

          It would've tickled me back then to know I'd someday live in a
    town overlooked by a giant
          peace sign. This one cropped up about four years after I moved
    here. It actually stemmed
          from the anti-nuclear, not anti-war, movement, Missoula Peace
    Project spokesman Jim
          Parker tells me.

          But whenever I see it, I remember protesting the Vietnam War: the
    high-school moratorium
          in Bethesda, when, to show our opposition to the war, we students
    earnestly vowed to "stop
          business as usual"; the march in which hundreds of thousands of us
    amassed beneath the
          Washington Monument, filled with anger and brotherly love but,
    most of all, hope; and
          another march on Washington, when we lined up in the rain to shout
    out the names of
          soldiers killed in Vietnam inscribed on signs we clutched to our
    sodden chests.

          As a rainbow arched over the Lincoln Memorial, we felt fate -
    maybe even the spirit of
          Honest Abe himself - smile on us.

          Rarely since those days have I felt so alive. And maybe never
    since then have I believed I
          could make big changes in the world. Now I content myself, as I
    imagine most aging Baby
          Boomers do, with making small changes and trying to hold on to the
    things that count.

          Carol Susan Woodruff is a free lance writer who grew up in Be
    thesda and now lives in
          Missoula, Montana.

                                  2001 by The Baltimore Sun

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