Co-ordinator Trip Report - Florida

14 December 2004 - 11 January 2005

From: Bruce Gagnon


This report covers the period of December 24 - January 11 as I travelled to Florida with Mary Beth Sullivan for part vacation and part speaking tour.

After spending a few days with our families in Sarasota and Titusville, Mary Beth and I drove north to St. Marys, Georgia for the annual peace witness held each New Years Eve outside the Kings Bay Submarine Base. For the last 24 years peace activists have gathered at the Atlantic Ocean homeport base of the Trident nuclear submarine to hold a New Years midnight peace vigil at the gates of the installation. I've attended most of the annual events over the years and it was a good chance for Mary Beth and I to see friends again since our move to Maine. Over 60 people crowded into five cabins at the Crooked River State Park just down the road from the sub base. There we shared food and held discussions over the course of three days. Twice we held three mile peace walks through St. Marys, one of them leading us to the base gates for the New Years midnight ceremony.

From the submarine base we headed south to Melbourne, just below Cape Canaveral, where I spoke on Sunday, January 2 at the Unitarian Church. Old friends Cathy Stanton (descendant of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, prominent organizer for women's suffrage) and Smitty Hooper had arranged for me to deliver the sermon at the church. Cathy and Smitty have been two of the most loyal activists in the space coast region over the years in our efforts to protest the nuclearization and weaponization of space. The reception at the church was mostly positive, though one man stood up during the question period after my talk and read an editorial from the local newspaper proclaiming the wonders of the Cassini nuclear space mission that I led protests against in 1997. A woman stood up and said, "2004 was a bad year for us, with the hurricanes and all. We come to this church to feel better. And your talk was depressing. I wish you had not come." In my talk I outlined the growing effort of the Bush administration to move the arms race into space and concluded by calling for the conversion of the military industrial complex if we ever hoped to end war.

Mary Beth and I next visited our old home in Gainesville and spent a few days there connecting with friends. We stayed at the home of Eve and Richard MacMaster. Eve is the pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Gainesville and organized my speech at her church on January 7 that was attended by people from several different churches and peace groups. My talk at Eve's church was entitled the "Battle for America's Soul" and I raised the question what does it say about our nation's soul when weapons are our number one industrial export? It was wonderful to see old friends like Julie Netzer, Miriam Welly Elliot, and Bill Warrick (my doctor and fellow member of Veterans for Peace). Bill's wife Sally, who works at the University of Florida public radio station, taped my talk for later rebroadcast at the station. My friend of many years John Hedrick drove down from Tallahassee to be at the event. He and I had created the People's Transit Organization in the early 1980's and were successful in getting Orlando to double its funding for public transportation at that time.

After my talk that evening in Gainesville I had to leave and immediately head south because I was to speak early the next morning to the Deerfield Progressive Forum near Ft Lauderdale. As I was driving I got a call on my cell phone from Ian Johnston who has a show on the Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles. Ian had just read my article from our latest newsletter and wanted me to come on his show. So as I drove south I did a half hour live interview and took a couple of calls from listeners near the end. Needless to say, I felt like it was a good night.

My plan that evening was to drive three hours as far as Melbourne and get a hotel room. Mary Beth had already headed back to Sarasota for a couple days more visiting with her family before returning to Maine. As I crossed the center of Florida, heading west just south of Orlando, I passed through the rural part of the state that used to be part of the Everglades. Before white settlers came to Florida the Everglades, the sea of grass, had extended as far north as Orlando. At the time the Seminole Indians lived in the northern part of the state near Gainesville. Gen. Andrew Jackson, later to become president of the U.S., became famous as an Indian killer for pushing the Seminoles deep into what remains of the Everglades today near Miami in south Florida. The majority of the sea of grass was drained and turned into grazing land for cattle. Today overpopulation and development are turning these lands into large housing tracts and the newspapers are beginning to report that water scarcities are expected to worsen in the coming years throughout the state.

I often drove through this part of the state at night when I coordinated the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice. For fifteen years in that job I drove an average of 30,000 miles per year visiting our membership in every corner of the state. I'd often speak to a group in the evening and then make the long drive back home marveling at the big starry sky so visible when out in this vast countryside far from city lights. I always felt a spiritual connection to the Earth and sky as I made this drive and came up with some of my best ideas during these trips. Once having just spoken to a group of senior citizen activists in Delray Beach who had asked me what the Florida Coalition was doing to get young people involved, I kept hearing their voices as I made the late night drive. It was then that I formulated the proposal for the summer peace camps for youth that now are a tradition with the Florida Coalition.

This trip to Florida was a hugely emotional one for me. I lived in Florida for 30 years but always longed to return north to the seasons and cold that I grew to love when I was young. My favorite places to live, growing up in a military family that moved frequently, were the cold weather ones in South Dakota and Germany. Our visits to family in Maine and Connecticut in between our moves were always thrilling for me -- especially in the winter. But Florida is really where I became an activist, where I developed my skills working with the United Farmworkers Union, and where I cut my teeth on the space issue. So my time in the state was crucial in my career as an organizer. Now visiting the state once again brought back a flood of images and memories of peace walks that I organized, demonstrations, conferences, and visits to family and friends.

My talk to the Deerfield Progressive Forum on January 8 was well received. It was held in a clubhouse at a huge senior citizen condo village that houses over 10,000 people. Essentially a city unto itself, this village of retired folks is just one of many in south Florida where peace groups are sprinkled as progressive activists from the north retire and create groups so they can stay involved.

My next stop was to St Augustine, several hours drive north on I-95. Here I went to the home of 94 year old activist Peg McIntire, a woman who became a second mother to me during the 20 years we worked together. Peg, long a leader in the Florida Coalition, was one of our most effective activists and has been arrested several times at the space center in Florida protesting various launches of military rockets and space craft with plutonium on-board. Peg arranged for me to speak at her Unitarian Church on January 9 and expertly led the service herself. A lively discussion was held after my speech and I was pleased that Peg felt good about the reception.

Next on the reunion tour I drove further north to Jacksonville to speak to the Wage Peace group there. Jacksonville is a conservative Navy town and a tough place to be a peace activist. Here I saw Mary Claire Vanderhorst and her husband Bill Quinlivan, dear friends from the Florida Coalition days. Al and Wendy Geiger were there too. Al had given the Florida Coalition land years ago north of Gainesville to be used to build a permanent peace camp instead of having to rent one each summer. Another Florida member had donated money to build a meeting hall and now the Florida Coalition works to use the place as a center to teach a culture of peace in the state.

My last event was on January 11 as I headed south again on I-95 to Delray Beach. Here I was to speak to the Delray Citizens for Social Responsibility, another senior citizen run peace group that was founded in 1981 and continues today even though the ageing process is taking a toll on its membership. I probably have spoken to the Delray Citizens more times over the last 20 years than to any other group. Led by Eleanor and Irving Rempell, it is always like coming home to be with these folks. Old friend Nat Kaplan was too ill to come to my talk but familiar faces like Bobbie Graff, author of a new book on the McCarthy period, were in the audience.

It has been hard for many of these ageing veteran activists to now see America become the promoter of endless war around the world. You can see the pain in their faces as they see a life of work for social justice and peace be destroyed by the Bush administration. In my talks to the Deerfield and Delray folks I told them that they were needed now more than ever. I suggested that they consider gathering up hundreds of senior citizen activists and occupying the offices of Florida senators Bill Nelson and newly elected Mel Martinez to protest the war in Iraq and talk of privatization of social security. I asked them to imagine the reaction of the media and the public to legions of elderly risking arrest in order to speak out. I even promised Eleanor Rempell that I'd come back to join them if they did it.

The new senator in Florida, replacing retiring Democrat Bob Graham, is Republican Mel Martinez from Orlando. I have known Mel for many years, we coached our sons' Little League baseball team together back in the 1980's. Mel, born in Cuba, is a nice man but has always been a political opportunist who was willing to strike any deal to advance in the conservative Florida political machine. He and I used to argue endlessly about Cuba politics while pitching batting practice to our ball team. He became the Chair of the Orange County Commission and then was appointed by George W. Bush to be his cabinet secretary at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington during his first term. Two years ago I ran into Mel in an airport and told him I was sad that he had chosen to join the Bush team. "You have to do what you have to do," he told me. Political expediency was always his watch word.

So that was my visit to Florida. It was good to see old friends but the hot weather in January reminded me why I had long wanted to move back north where the seasons change. My trip to Florida turned out to be over 1,600 miles long and brought tears to my eyes more than once. But it was a good chance to say to my old friends that even though I have moved north, I am still with you all and will always be. Keep resisting dear friends. I love you all.
 



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