Today I decided to promote peace in my 50-year-old U.S. Army dress uniform complemented by my peace flag to people going to the annual VegFest presented by the Cleveland Vegan Society and held at the Huntington Convention Center on Lakeside Avenue in downtown Cleveland. I wanted to reach a new audience rather than stand behind the West Side Market, my usual venue for promoting peace on Saturday mornings.
I found out the day before the VegFest that President Donald Trump would be at the neighboring Cleveland Public Auditorium (aka Public Hall) so I planned to eventually make an appearance outside the hall. After standing in front of the convention center for about 10 minutes, a woman walked toward me holding a white cane with its tip scraping the sidewalk. The vision-impaired woman, Sue, walked up to my flag but couldn’t make out the design, although she could discern it was sans stars. She asked about it and I said it was a peace flag. She was happy to hear that and she could see I was in a military uniform.
Sue encouraged me to abandon the convention center, saying I would be “preaching to the choir,” surmising vegans are strongly pro-peace already.
“I know where the Trump supporters are,” she said, referring to people waiting to get into Public Hall to see the president. “Let’s go find them.”
Soooo, my nearly-blind friend, using her cane tip, guided me to the queue of Trump fans on the south side of Public Hall on St. Clair Avenue, with the line stretching around the corner of the building.
After we cut through the line and walked near the street past the Trump fans and toward the sole open entrance to the hall, there was dead silence from the onlookers. You could hear a pin drop. Sue wryly said, “No one is thanking you for your service.” I smiled.
When we arrived at the doors to the south entrance of the building, Sue bid farewell and went on her way. It would be several minutes before people would start filing into the building.
After standing silently, but smiling, toward those gathered on the sidewalk, I noticed a man who looked familiar and after he finished a call on his cellphone I said, “You look familiar. Have you been on talk shows?”, thinking I had seen him on MSNBC or CNN. He reached out to shake my hand and said, “I’m Steve Loomis.”
Like Trump, Loomis is no stranger to controversy, having been ousted last year as president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. Many black members of the police department were upset that Loomis endorsed Trump for president and disaffected police were a factor in the detective losing the presidency of the union.
Loomis told me, Trump “loves the police. We asked Hillary (Clinton) to meet with us and she refused.” I said to Loomis, “That’s odd, since Cleveland police helped provide security for her during visits to the city.”
I then slipped in an anti-war message to Loomis, saying “Clinton’s a war monger. I think she would have started a war with Russia. She and Putin hate each other.” (When she was a senator, Clinton voted in support of President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq.)
When doors opened for people to enter the hall, I moved close enough to the queue in order to easily engage the folks, a mixture of men and women, mostly middle age or elderly. There were some children with their parents. I did not see a single black person in the line. Some of the men and at least one woman wore baseball caps with the familiar admonishment, “Make America Great Again.”
Smiling, I greeted those making eye contact with me and said “It’s a beautiful day” or “It’s a gorgeous day.” They all agreed. Some reached out to shake my hand and thank me for my service. A few times I said, “You’re welcome. I wish I could say it was my pleasure, but it wasn’t.”
One man noted that I still fit in my uniform and I said, “Well, I’m sucking in my gut as we speak. I really don’t need a belt to hold these pants up.” He and others within earshot laughed.
One elderly woman using a walker, noting my name tag on my uniform, said, “You worked for the Universe Bulletin.” Surprised, I said, “I’m flattered. That was 30 years ago.” (The UB is The Catholic Universe Bulletin, official newspaper of The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, which ceased publication three years ago.)
An attractive middle-aged woman told me her 91-year-old father was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. She said that when he was in the service he was offered an opportunity to be a cook and he jumped at the chance. I said to the woman, “Smart move. It’s better to be in a kitchen than in a foxhole.” She laughed in agreement.
A couple of men in line were Vietnam veterans. One even wore a green beret, indicating he had been a member of the army’s elite Special Forces. I noticed he had a miniature Purple Heart pin on his blazer. He was discharged early from the army after being wounded in Vietnam.
Another veteran, perhaps noting the First Infantry Division patch on my left shoulder, said he had served with MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and had spent some time at my division’s Di An (ZEE–ahn) and Lai Khe (LIE-kay) base camps. I told him I had also been stationed at those camps before being transferred to Saigon to work as editor of the First Infantry Division newspaper in the spring of 1968. It was good to find some common ground with the gentlemen, even though we have some political differences.
One smiling man said, “So you’re anti-war.”
I said, “I prefer to say I’m pro-peace. We were sent to Vietnam to kill communists and now Vietnam, a communist country, is our ally.”
“Now you’re getting political,” he said, somewhat disdainfully, though still smiling.
Several minutes later a “suit” walked out of the hall and approached me, saying, “This is a secure zone. You have two options. You can go join that group over there (on the south side of St. Clair Avenue) or stand with a man over there (pointing to a protester on the east side of East Sixth Street.)
I said, “This is public property,” referring to the sidewalk on which I was standing. My comment carried no weight with the gentleman and he repeated that I was in a “secure zone” and he again noted my two options.
I acquiesced. I shook his hand and was on my way, walking past the queue, but taking my good old sweet time, no doubt annoying my adversary, as I paused to shake hands with people who had first extended their hands to thank me for my service. I paused a few seconds to talk with a gentleman who noted that Japan, like Vietnam had been an enemy but now is an ally.
It later occurred to me that someone in the line–perhaps the man who said I was being “political”–complained about my presence to the “suit” who subsequently confronted me. My ouster didn’t make much difference, though, as I was still able to display my military service and peace flag as I walked past everyone standing in line.
But that’s not the end of the story. Here’s a supreme irony:
While standing near Public Hall and waiting for the queue to start moving, I noticed a familiar symbol incorporated into the building’s architecture.
Open the below link, then click on the photo to enlarge it. Scroll down a bit.
There are three courses of stone above the doors. Look closely at the narrow horizontal design immediately above the top layer of stone. You will see a subtle string of designs that bear an unmistakable resemblance to swastikas. “Swastika” is derived from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” It is an ancient symbol that was in use in many different cultures for at least 5,000 years before Adolf Hitler made it the centerpiece of the Nazi flag in the early 1930s–more than a decade after Public Hall was dedicated.
I don’t mean to imply, of course, that there is any similarity between many Trump supporters and members of Germany’s Nazi party. No resemblance at all, right?