Coordinator Trip Report - Chautauqua, NY
9 - 12 July 2006
From: Bruce Gagnon
This trip report covers the period of July 9-12 as I traveled to western New York to speak at the Chautauqua Institution.
My hosts for this trip, Karen and Roy Harvey of Snowshoe Films, suggested I might consider taking the train from Maine rather than flying. I am glad I followed their advice as the trip turned out to be relaxing and incredibly rewarding.
I boarded the train in Portland, Maine and made changes in Boston and Albany, New York. I arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania about 2:00 am on July 10 and as I got off the train I noticed Karen filming me. She would film virtually everything I did during my stay.
After a sleep, Karen and Roy took me to the grounds of Chautauqua to do a radio interview that promoted my talk, set for the next evening. Chautauqua was founded in 1874 and today welcomes over 170,000 people each summer. Located in the southwestern corner of New York State, near the Pennsylvania border, Chautauqua is a 783-acre village. By 1880, the Chautauqua lecture platform had established itself as a national forum for open discussions on domestic and international issues. A newspaper is published on the grounds, reporting on the daily events, and my hosts arranged for me to be interviewed in advance of my talk. The story was published the day of my speech on “the necessity for the conversion of the military-industrial complex.”
Karen is a fourth-generation Chautauqua devotee. In fact, she and Roy live within walking distance of the heavily-guarded gates of the institution. Admittance is strictly regulated, and people are charged for each activity they wish to participate in. Karen informed me that in recent years Chautauqua has become more conservative, with the Brookings Institution and the conservative Heritage Foundation influencing programming. My talk, Karen said, would be a radical departure from standard operating procedure. Karen and Roy don’t participate much at Chautauqua anymore. They like the place the best when winter comes and they cross country ski through the deserted grounds.
Before doing the July 10 radio interview, they warned me that it might be very short, but I ended up getting about 15 minutes of radio time. I told my former Republican-military story and the talk show host’s ears perked up. By the time I said that America was addicted to war and violence the host seemed to like me.
As we walked back to their home, in the rain, Karen pointed out the Packard mansion on the edge of the Chautauqua grounds. She told me how the stately residence was built after the Packard automobile family had drained the worker pension plan. The family now gives away big grants to the arts community and other notable charities with the money stolen from the working stiffs.
Next, Roy interviewed me on his local cable TV show, and I soon learned that Karen had been broadcasting “commercials” about my coming talk at Chautauqua on the cable station, using tiny bits of previous speeches of mine that she had taped. That evening, they had a house party, inviting people to come share food at their home and talk politics with me.
Shortly after I arose on the morning of July 11, I did a half hour phone interview on a Buffalo, N.Y. radio station. It is a station now owned and run by the local activist community, called Niagara Independent Media. It also broadcasts Air America content.
From there we went to nearby Jamestown where I was to do another radio interview with local talk show host Ray Hall whose show is called “The Hall Closet.” It was to be a half-hour segment but Ray was having fun with me, and his phone lines lit up with calls from folks on the left and the right. After the first-hour he asked if I’d stay for another. I ended up being on the show for 2 1/2 hours. At the end he discovered he had forgotten to do the commercials for his sponsors. He apologized to them, saying he’d make it up to them in the future.
One young man called in to say he was enjoying the show. He said he was in the Army and had been to Afghanistan twice and was soon to go to Iraq. He said he’d talked to over 1,000 GI’s during his time in the military and had yet to meet anyone who agreed with George W. Bush. One older woman called in and suggested that Ray and I leave the country if we did not support the government. I asked the woman if she could give me one example of something that she did not agree with our government about. There was a long silence…… She could not think of a single thing.
That evening we gathered at the Hall of Philosophy on the Chautauqua grounds. The weather was threatening and I wondered how many people would show up. The venue was an open-air facility with a roof covering the seats. Large white pillars held up the roof, giving the place a feel of ancient Greece. Over 350 people came to hear my talk and I gave them all I could in my allotted one hour, covering the Pentagon’s plans for “control and domination” of space and endless war. I concluded with a call for conversion of the military-industrial complex, asking again, as I do now at every speech, why we can’t build rail systems, solar, and windmills rather than weapons for war in our local communities.
Following my talk, we went back to Karen and Roy’s for another house party. Fifteen people gathered, folks from Erie, Buffalo, Syracuse, Florida, and local activists as well. We had a wide-ranging discussion and we came to this question: What do we do if in this November’s election, and in 2008, the Republicans once again cheat and steal races across this country? At what point do we begin to organize a boycott of federal elections? Try that one on for size.
Karen and Roy woke me up at 4:00 am on July 12 for the one-hour drive to Erie so I could catch the train home. I was to get back home at 11:00 pm that night. Once again the train ride home was a pure joy. I spent much of my time reading a wonderful novel someone had recently told me about. Written by award-winning Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald, the book is called “The Way the Crow Flies.” It tells the story of Operation Paperclip, the secret U.S. (and Canadian, I learned) program to smuggle former Nazi scientists into North America after WW II. These Nazi scientists helped to create the U.S. space program, all 100 of them former members of Hitler’s V-2 rocket team.
While reading I noticed that a young man in the seat in front of me was also reading. It was right-wing writer Ann Coulter’s book, “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).” I began to ask him about the book and discovered he was the son of Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to Israel in the 80’s. The young man, now 21 years old, was born in Israel; his family moved to Ithaca, New York when he was two. He is now in graduate school. For the next four hours we debated the war in Iraq, Israel-Palestinian issues and the current Israeli occupation of Gaza, Star Wars, and much more.
At first he told me he was a moderate-conservative and gets his news from the Wall Street Journal. By the end of the long conversation he revealed to me that he had recently read “My Enemy, My Self” by Yoram Binur, which is the story of a young Jewish man who disguised himself as a Palestinian and went to live in Gaza to find out what it would be like to be a Palestinian. My new friend said the book’s author learned that the Palestinian people loved each other, took care of each other in a wonderful way, and were human in ways that he had never before realized.
We shook hands as we left the train in Boston. I told him I would write about him in my trip report. (He was very pleased to hear that.) I told him that despite the fact that we did not agree on many issues, we had for a moment found peace with one another in the midst of this violent time in which we live. I told him, that for me, being a peace activist meant that I had to try my best to live in each moment in such a way. I saw the emotion in his eyes. All I could think of was my son, Julian, who is just a couple years older than this sweet young man. They even looked a bit alike. I felt fatherly and I felt good that we had such a wonderful exchange.
I am sold on riding the train now. I will do so more often, that is if Bush does not kill the funding for Amtrak as he is now trying to do. Help us out. Demand your tax dollars be used for rails not jails…..trains not Star Wars and the illegal occupation of Iraq to the tune of $8.5 billion a month. Let’s have conversion….of the military-industrial complex — and our hearts as well.
While at Karen and Roy’s, during one of the house parties, a man gave me this quote. I don’t know where it came from. It seems to me to represent what I do on these trips. “The seed, hidden in the heart of an apple, is an orchard invisible.”
Bruce K. Gagnon