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
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
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 Now the reflector is obsolete, and Qwest plans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
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
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
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
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
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
2001 by The Baltimore Sun
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