Give Peace a Dishtowel

Three weeks ago, this plot of land in Crawford was covered in trees and brush. Today, it looks like the circus grounds. A giant white tent draped with colorful banners has been erected. Four people in elaborate costumes parade in circles outside to a cheering crowd. They are dressed as Condoleezza Rice, Kenneth Lay, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, wearing black-and-white-striped prison gear with giant clay bobble-head caricatures atop their shoulders. How festive.

It's just after noon, and I'm about to sweat straight through my cowboy boots. I've only been at Camp Casey III, new home of the famously bereaved military mother Cindy Sheehan, for a half-hour and already I'm dreaming of an Oreo Blizzard from that Dairy Queen I passed back in Who Knows Where, pop. 10. After living the nightmare that is being lost in Waco--where the Baylor mascot ought to be changed from bears to "Fightin' Strip Malls"--I'd finally made it to Crawford. I knew because as I crossed the city limits, a billboard with George and Laura's giant, smiling faces greeted me. Crawford, Texas: redefining "creepy."

None of the traditional clichés for hot weather apply this day. "Hotter than Hades" does not even begin to address the gravity of the situation. Today, this sun has made a solemn vow: It will stay the course--unlike the president, who left his Central Texas ranch the morning of my arrival. Could have been the heat that drove him away. Or, as the Crawford peace protesters would like to believe, it was the heat from their vow to stay in the tiny town as long as Dubya was there on vacation that got to him.

I had pulled up to the site just as Sheehan, who I imagine some at camp would actually refer to as "Her Majesty" if they weren't such big fans of democracy, was whisked away in a station wagon. As her adoring public waved to the car, my tour guide, Dallas peace activist and co-founder of the Crawford Peace House, Hadi Jawad, discussed plans for a peace "action"--a demonstration of some kind--with a guy wearing reflective wrap-around sunglasses. "Actions" planned by guys in wrap-around sunglasses usually involve chugging Keystone and muddin' in 4x4s, but somehow I doubted that was how the war in Iraq would be resolved. Then again, if the polls are accurate, the 60 percent of Americans who disagree with how Dubya's handling the war, myself included, were ready to try just about anything, and fast.

Most of us also don't spend a lot of time really thinking about what's going on in the Middle East. Who's got time to worry about civilian casualties when Grey's Anatomy is on? I've shed more tears over Meredith Grey's relationship with Dr. McDreamy than I have over the fact that thousands have died overseas. Does that make me a bad person? Or, does it make me someone who lives in a society where it's easier to get emotionally involved in a Lifetime Original Movie than in the drama airing live on CNN every night? I was due for a baptism by Crawford.

Jawad, a soft-spoken Iraqi who's lived in Dallas for 33 years, leads me around the camp, pointing out the different groups that have set up: Code Pink, a women's peace group; the "Chain Gang," the group that put on the mini-parade earlier; Veterans for Peace; Iraq Veterans for Peace; People Just Generally Sick and Tired of War and All That Crap for Peace.

From folks old enough to remember Kent State to college kids getting their first tastes of activism, Camp Casey plays host to just about every kind of person you can imagine. Even--horror of horrors--Republicans. During a camp meeting, a guy wandered up to the tent wearing a "W2004" election T-shirt and didn't get mauled, tarred, feathered or otherwise abused. They just gave him a glass of water and a tour. Same as me, the liberal media sympathizer.

On my tour, Jawad and I come upon a gray-haired man working with a saw. A sizable pile of gold-painted wooden crosses lay on the ground next to him.

"This is macabre work, here," says Jawad, gesturing to the crosses. They're for a graveyard-like memorial at the camp entrance. One gold cross for every soldier who's died since August 2005. It's no small transition from casual Bush-bashing over a pint or four at the Old Monk to this place, I think. This girl needs a drink. Too bad Camp Casey is officially dry.

It is, however, easy to get a little bit drunk on the energy of the place. Much of that enthusiasm comes from the Crawford Peace House, a 100-year-old hovel bought in 2003 by members of the Dallas Peace Center and operated as a collective. Monthly expenses are about $1,000 just to keep the place open, and it's all funded by donations. Even before Cindy Sheehan, the Peace House was the place to see and be seen if you were against the war. It operates as a kind of embassy just up the road from Camp Casey. Even on a searing Sunday afternoon, there were about 150 peace-minded folks in town, between the camp and the Peace House, where we all meet up for lunch.

Communes give me the heebie-jeebies, cueing visions of brainwashed blond children with homicidal tendencies and women with untamed armpit hair. Plus, there's just something incredibly creepy about everyone, you know, getting along. But the Peace House was, as far as I could tell, void of scary kids and free-range pit growth. Instead, they had Belgian waffles and tall glasses of ice water.

After lunch, I meet a woman named Josie from Taos, New Mexico, which is relatively close considering many people at camp that day had come in from Washington state, Canada and the East Coast. Josie told me that in Taos, where the secretary of defense owns a lot of property, they're "always burning Donald Rumsfeld in effigy." I'm changing my vacation plans. Vegas seems pretty lame in comparison.

Then, a call comes from the kitchen: Could anyone help with dishes? My momma raised me right, so off to the house I went, where I grabbed a dishtowel and a pile of wet silverware. Also on dish duty was Gretchen, a tall blond woman from Los Angeles wearing a black, white, green and red Palestinian scarf. Crawford wasn't the first or even the last stop on her crusade for peace.

"My friend Mary and I are headed to Lebanon," she tells me. I nearly dropped my tongs. I try to avoid war zones, as a rule. Gretchen heads into them. She said they've already traveled to the Gaza Strip, but they're going back to help in civilian aid efforts. Crawford must be like a relaxing trip to the spa for those two.

As the sun set during the two-hour drive back to Dallas, I considered my dishwashing efforts. They seemed pretty silly compared to risking life and limb in Beirut. Then again, I could be spending the afternoon circling the Nordstrom shoe section. Dishwashing for peace. It may not be much more effective than sitting around and watching Lifetime Originals, but it's something.