Travels With A Peace Flag
Lou Pumphrey writes about his travels with a peace flag, in full dress uniform
A drafted Vietnam veteran (First Infantry Division, 1967-68), Pumphrey is a member of Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace, based at a Cleveland Heights church. He lives in Shaker Heights.
As has been my wont for the past few years, I greeted people with my peace flag and army dress uniform outside the southwest gate of FirstEnergy Stadium today to watch the Cleveland Browns play the Tennessee Titans. And as usual, I cheerily said “Hi,”to people, often followed up with “It’s a beautiful day!” or “It’s a gorgeous day!’ Many agreed, but others simply ignored me. No surprise there, as some folks absolutely hate the peace symbol on the navy blue field of my red-and-white striped flag, in lieu of stars. I’m pretty sure none of the disaffected were ever in a war.
As I have done for the past several years, since the Labor Day Peace Show ended at Cleveland’s Willard Park , home of the giant FREE rubber stamp, this peacenik has done his peace shtick at the northeast corner of East Ninth Street and North Marginal Drive, across from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
In the past I have gone all three days of the Labor Day weekend to promote peace as a Vietnam War veteran. This year, however, I only went on Labor Day since the weather was chilly and rainy on Saturday and Sunday, although the sun came out Sunday afternoon.
The huge majority of spectators at the event appear to be big “rubber stamp” supporters of the military. My intent is to give them an alternative perspective, wearing my 49-year-old Army dress uniform and carrying a peace flag, to provide a counterweight to what essentially is a red-white-and-blue star-spangled dog-and-pony show that really is a public relations ploy for the military, euphemistically called the “Cleveland National Air Show”.
I cheerily greeted people going to the show and most responded politely, but several totally ignored me, as expected. Still, it wasn’t all disappointing. Several asked to have their photos taken with me. One was a woman who had walked with her female friend from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The woman who stood with me had an accent I did not recognize and I asked where she was from and she said, “Latvia.”
A woman reporter from WCPN, Amy Eddngs, interviewed me. We had something in common as I had worked as a temp at the NPR affiliate for five months in 2003. Many of the same people I had worked with then are still at the station.
Amy asked me how I would feel if the draft was reinstated. I said it would be a good thing because it would help energize the anti-war movement as was the case during the Vietnam War when the draft was in effect and applied to all men of a certain age.
I told Amy that an Indians fan took issue with my peace flag as I stood outside Progressive Field, thinking my flag disrespected the American flag. “I told him that I disagreed, that from my perspective the flag respected peace.” I said to Amy that having been in a war zone for a year imbued in me “a deep, intense, profound and infinite respect for peace that people who have never experienced war simply cannot appreciate.”
One man walked up to me and said he had read about my experience during the Republican National Convention in a last Fall’s Miami University alumni magazine, Miamian. (The photo in the issue is the same as the smaller photo on my Facebook wall. Part of the caption in the Miamian reads: “Reporters and TV news crews from around the world wanted to know his story as he stood wearing his 48-year-old U.S. Army dress uniform and holding a peace flag. His favorite memory is of Katie Couric interviewing him and putting her photo of him on Instagram.”)
Another man said he remembered seeing me at one of the Hessler Street Fairs and that he has admired my letters in the paper (The Plain Dealer, I assume) “for 40 years.” I said I was flattered he had remembered my name.
On the down side, a man walked up to me who did not have a friendly expression. Wearing a tan baseball cap with the word NAVY above the bill, he said, “There are supposed to be stars on that flag.”
I said, “The stars are in hiding. They are ashamed, embarrassed and disgusted with all the death, destruction, instability and chaos we have caused in the Middle East.”
He responded oddly, saying very seriously, ‘The world is ruled by aggressive violence.”
Referring to Vietnam, I said, “I want to get across the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace. We were sent to Vietnam to kill communists and now Vietnam, a communist country, is our ally against China. Bottom line: more than 58,000 perfectly healthy young American lives were wasted. 3.4 million Vietnamese men, women and children blown to bloody bits and burned to death by our weapons of mass destruction.”
Again my adversary darkly said, “The world is ruled by aggressive violence.” I said, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” I suspect the Navy vet had learned such an observation while on active duty. (The word “brainwashed” comes to mind.)
His female companion appeared to be completely engaged with my commentary, however, listening intently but not saying anything and most importantly, did not appear to be supporting the Navy vet, who was not in Vietnam, but was stationed on a ship off the coast of Vietnam.
The less-than-pleasant conversation ended amicably, however, and as the couple walked away, I said, “We agree to disagree” and the Navy vet nodded in agreement. It was an encounter he likely will not soon forget, if ever.
In mid-afternoon a family waited to cross North Marginal Drive and the mom mentioned that she had seen me in the morning. I said that I call what I do a “labor of love.” She and her husband and their two daughters live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and were in Cleveland to attend a wedding. I mentioned my younger daughter lives in East Boston in what she considers her “year-round vacation home.”
“She watches boats sailing in Boston Harbor and planes taking off from Logan,” I said.
The woman’s husband offered to get me some water and something to eat, but I politely declined. I told the family I had eaten a large breakfast of organic fruit and that such a regimen “helps me fit into my uniform.” They smiled.
On the southeast corner of East Ninth Street and North Marginal Drive, not far from my post, was my friend and Vietnam veteran Rasheed Mustafa, who offered passersby free bottles of water and snacks, including Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. He was willing to accept, however, “free will” donations, and most people dropped a dollar or two into Rasheed’s “tip jar”.
The wind was unusually strong that day–perhaps remnants of Hurricane Harvey–and occasionally my peace flag ballooned, looking like a spinnaker on a sailboat.
I told Rasheed that if I had been on a sailboat all day with my peace flag instead of at the air show, “I’d be in Ashtabula by now.” He laughed.
It has been at least a couple of years since I did my peacenik shtick during the Feast of the Assumption festival in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, walking in the solemn procession in uniform and carrying my peace flag. The procession is always on the actual feast day, August 15th, and this year it happened to fall on a Tuesday, which was an off day from work for me.
As usual there were a lot of serious solemn faces among spectators along the procession route–and not just because it was a holy day for Roman Catholics. I suspect much of the deadpan expressions were because observers were not comfortable with my presence. The good news is that there were no insults nor criticism–and no one threw a canoli at me.
Shortly before the procession began, while standing on Mayfield Road with my still-furled peace flag, a man walked up to me with camera in hand and struck up a conversation, noting he was a Marine veteran, but had not been in Vietnam. We compared notes on our military service. A short time later, as the procession began, I walked past the Marine who had his back to me and as I passed him I unfurled my peace flag and said, “Do you think the Prince of Peace would like my flag?” He was pleasantly surprised by what he saw, judging from his positive comment.
Along the lengthy route on several side streets in the neighborhood, a few people took my photo and I asked that they circulate it as much as possible. A gathering of about four people applauded–the only people who applauded my message.
The procession ended where it began in front of Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Mayfield Road, with the main feature of the procession being a float carrying a statue of the mother of the Prince of Peace. Also on the float were several young girls wearing white dresses.
A man walked up to me and when he asked what I was doing there, I became a bit apprehensive. I explained that I was there to promote peace, that I wanted to get across the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace and that I was simply trying to give people something to think about. Turns out he appreciated my message very much, strongly thanking me for being there and then taking my photo with his cell phone.
Another supportive man walked up to me and noted that a couple of men he had been standing with told him I was “disrespecting the (American) flag.” I disagreed, saying “I’m respecting peace.”
“Let me guess,” I said to my friend. “The two men have never been in a war.” He smiled and said that was true and I said, “Did you ever notice that those who shout the loudest for war have never been in one? What a funny coincidence.” He smiled in understanding.
When I told this story to my daughter Bridget after I arrived home I said, “I’m a Christian first and an American second.”