As has been my routine for around a decade now, I attended the annual Parade the Circle behind the Cleveland Museum of Art yesterday (Saturday June 10th). Since I am not an official participant in the parade, I simply walk my own “parade” alone, wearing my 49-year-old Army uniform complemented by my peace flag, taking the route around Wade Oval about 15 minutes before the beginning of the official parade. My intent, of course, is to promote peace and the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace, although I wish all were.
There was plenty of fertile ground last evening, (Wednesday, June 7) for planting seeds of peace, as an event at Cleveland State University linked to Ken Burns’s upcoming 10-part PBS series about the Vietnam War coincided with the third game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena (the “Q”). Thousands of Cavs fans and some Warriors fans converged downtown to watch the game.
As is my normal routine on Saturday mornings, I stood behind the West Side Market promoting peace, dressed in my 49-year-old U.S. Army uniform and carrying my peace flag. I want to get the idea across to shoppers that some–but not nearly enough–war veterans are pro-peace. (Drafted in 1966, I was a reporter, then editor for the army’s First Infantry Division newspaper in Vietnam from July, 1967 to July, 1968.)
The morning was rather uneventful until toward the end of my one-hour gig when a man “of a certain age” walked up to me and said he was a veteran. I’m guessing a Vietnam vet. He said, “You wouldn’t be able to stand here if we hadn’t gone to Vietnam,” implying that if our military did not go to that Southeast Asian nation our enemies would take away our freedom of expression.
To his comment I strongly replied, “Sure I’d be able to be here. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had absolutely no intention of taking away our freedoms.” He said nothing and walked away before I had a chance to complete this thought to him: If the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army wanted to rob us of our freedoms, why didn’t they invade the United States after we left South Vietnam in 1973?
Yesterday (Sunday), I walked in the annual Blossom Time Festival parade in picturesque, quaint Chagrin Falls, with the parade traveling down East Washington Street from the village’s high school to the police station. There was a smattering of applause along the way and those who did not like what they saw were polite enough not to hurl insults. I took one spectator by surprise when he shouted at me, “What did you do to your flag!?” I waved at him and said, “Thank you.” On my way back up the street after the parade, I suspect it was the same guy who shouted at me from across the street, “You have to put some stars on that flag!”
On my way up the East Washington Street hill I cheerily said “Hi!” to many people who then responded in kind but there were a few unsmiling folks who rudely ignored my greeting. (Under my breath I muttered an epithet beginning with the letter “a”.) But at least I left an image in their memory they are not likely to forget soon.
As I neared the end of my walk to my car, four women sitting around a card table on a lawn complimented me on my presence and message. I took a few minutes to chat with them, saying it is absolutely impossible for a uniformed military to defeat adversaries wearing civilian clothes and living among civilians, which was the Viet Cong’s winning strategy in South Vietnam, copied successfully by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, et al. Only sophisticated espionage and undercover work can stymie terrorists. I cited two examples, the first being several years ago when a terrorist cell planned to kill as many soldiers as possible at Fort Dix, New Jersey. An informant within the cell tipped off New Jersey law enforcement authorities and state and local police thwarted the plot, aided by the FBI. I mentioned a second example familiar to one of the women in the group, which was a plot to blow up jet fuel pipelines running to JFK airport in New York City, under densely-populated neighborhoods. That plot also was thwarted by undercover work–not by our military.
It was gratifying to get such a heartfelt endorsement of my message from the four women. As I started to leave I said, “You made my day!” One of the women said, “You made MY day!” I said, “I guess that’s called a win-win situation.”
Today, Memorial Day, I again walked in the Shaker Heights Parade, for the 11th year in a row. I was hoping to walk in front of a church group as I have done in the past, but neither Christ Episcopal Church nor Plymouth Church, both in Shaker Heights, were represented in the parade. So I became the “rear echelon,” being the last person in the long-line of parade participants.
Shortly after crossing Lee Road on Van Aken Boulevard, a man walked up to me and, seeing my “Pumphrey” name tag on my uniform said, “Louis Pumphrey, you’re desecrating the American flag.” (That he knew my first name tells me he remembered my name from various very aggravating–from his perspective–pro-peace letters to the editor over the years.)
I calmly and politely responded, “Thank you! You’re very kind! You must be a Christian–a follower of the Prince of Peace!” He did not reply to my comment, simply shouting repeatedly, “He’s desecrating the American flag!” Much to the dismay of my antagonist, I’m sure, enthusiastic applause from spectators pleased with my presence and message drowned him out.
It was very heartwarming to experience such strong applause from many people along the parade route, especially from people of a certain age who remember the Vietnam War. However, toward the end of the parade a man holding an American flag shouted at me, “You’re a bum!”
Well, it could have been worse. He could have shouted an epithet beginning with the letter “a”.
Today I attended the 15th annual Rally for the Troops, which drew around 1,000 motorcyclists from northeast Ohio. Since the temperature was predicted to reach 80 degrees, I was able to wear my Class A dress greens U.S. Army uniform and carry my peace flag, as I did at last year’s event, also held at Veterans Memorial Plaza in downtown Cleveland.
Before the ceremonies started and when only a few motorcycles were present, a middle-aged couple walking along St. Clair Avenue stopped to ask me what I was there for. I mentioned the impending rally and that with my presence I was trying to get across the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace.
I said, “Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We are doing the same insane thing in the Middle East that we did in Vietnam and the results have been no different.”
The couple agreed with my message and the woman smiled as she walked away, thanking me for my service.
Also before the event I met young newlyweds from Warren who had stayed overnight at the nearby Drury Hotel, the former administration building for the Cleveland public school system. I explained the same rationale to the couple and the woman said they were in Cleveland for their honeymoon.
I said, “You came to Cleveland for your honeymoon!?” She smiled and said a longer honeymoon elsewhere was in the works.
I mentioned to them that I found out last week the U.S.has 70,000 nuclear weapons. The woman said defense jobs are “highly coveted.” I said, “It always comes down to money. Why couldn’t we invest in solar energy or Habitat for Humanity?” They went on their way, but I gave them something to think about.
While standing on the lush lawn near the memorial plaza, waiting for speeches to begin, a number of people took my photo. A burly man probably in his thirties, dressed like the stereotypical bad-ass biker, approached me. I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go, but it went much better than I expected. We shook hands and he thanked me for being there.
His comments indicated politicians are not to be trusted according to what they say, and that there are people behind the scenes we don’t even know about who do not have the best interests of the American people at heart.
“I like Dennis Kucinich’s idea a few years ago about establishing a Department of Peace, as opposed to our war department,” said the biker. It was heart-warming to hear such thoughtful comments from one biker. Other motorcyclists who did not like what they saw kept their peace. There were no insults or critical comments.
A tall biker from Lorain walked up to me and said “Isn’t this a great free country that you can stand here with all these people…” I interrupted him, saying, “And not be assassinated?” He smiled and thanked me for being there and my message. He is active in various groups in Lorain that serve veterans, including an organization that provides housing for homeless vets. He is a veteran, but was stateside during his years, assigned to a “steel desk in Philadelphia.”
A cameraman and Fox 8 news reporter Maia Belay spent about five minutes interviewing me. The cameraman and I recognized each other as we met last July when he interviewed me on East Fourth Street downtown during the Republican National Convention.
He asked good questions but I got the distinct vibe from Maia she did not like my answers. In one of the questions the cameraman asked about me “serving our country” and I said, “I didn’t serve my country. I served corporations. Those truly serving our country are medics, nurses and doctors who work very hard to mend as best they can the bodies and psyches of those ravaged and savaged by war. They are the ones truly serving our country.”
It was clear watching the news report at 6 p.m. Maia did not like what she had heard from me. There was about a two-second close-up of me making the bland, innocuous comment that my uniform “Is tighter than it was in 1968.” Pretty profound stuff, eh? And of course my peace flag was nowhere to be seen in the video report. Well, what do you expect? It’s Fox “news”!!!
Maia’s report, like the event itself, was your typical red, white and blue, star-spangled jingoistic, flag-waving nonsense we see so many times. During the ceremonies MC Monica Robins, a Channel 3 reporter, suggested potential adversaries of the United States ought not disturb this “sleeping giant.” I thought to myself, “sleeping?” Our military has been wide awake for 16 years, causing enormous death and destruction in the Middle East, beginning in Afghanistan in 2001, followed by Iraq in 2003.
I positioned myself after the event on the sidewalk north of the plaza to catch the eye of spectators who might not have seen my flag. Again, more photos and handshakes–and stern expressions from several bikers. I said to one man who had his photo taken with me, “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 young American lives were wasted.”
A woman I would guess in her mid-40s, along with a young woman who appeared to be her daughter, shook my hand and was all excited because her soldier son would be coming home in a few weeks.
I asked where he is stationed and Mom said, “He’s in Italy right now.” I said, “Oh, okay. Good. That’s safe–unless he gets in a bar fight.” They laughed.
I can take comfort in the belief that those attending the event will remember my uniform and peace flag–especially Fox 8 reporter Maia Belay–much, much longer than they will remember the words of the speakers.
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.
Fortunately, the first Indians game of the 2017 season to be played at Progressive Field against that other Chicago team, the White Sox, was today–a Tuesday–when I was off work. Still, I wasn’t sure I would be able to promote peace before the game since it was raining when I awoke. However, the rain stopped by mid-morning so I decided to head downtown via the Blue Line Rapid Transit, wearing my embroidered black baseball cap indicating I am a Vietnam veteran who served with the First Infantry Division, complemented by my 50-year-0ld U.S. Army field jacket with my six medals pinned to the left breast pocket flap. On the right breast pocket is a black and white Veterans for Peace button. My constant companion in such initiatives, of course, was my peace flag–a white peace symbol on a navy blue field, with the rest of the flag composed of horizontal red and white stripes, similar to the U.S. flag.
I positioned myself about 2 p.m. at the northwest corner of East Ninth Street and Carnegie Avenue to catch the eyes of pedestrians as well as people driving vehicles, which was around two hours before game time. I was pleasantly surprised to have one elderly man walking by say he was happy to see me and my message again, apparently remembering similar appearances last year at the same location.
Two young sailors wearing their blue uniforms with the blue and white flap at the top of the back of the uniform, topped off with their white caps, approached me. They were not smiling and I was afraid they would take issue with my peace message. As it turned out, both men gave me hearty handshakes and thanked me for my service, apparently comfortable with my “peaceful” presence.
About a half dozen young people asked me to be part of a group picture that a passing stranger took with a cell phone belonging to a woman member of the group. I asked the sweet young thing who owned the phone how the photo turned out and if my peace flag was in it. She showed me the photo and the flag looked terrific, thanks to a breeze that kept it horizontal and easily recognizable.
Two young men, from Minerva, Ohio, south of Canton, stopped to thank me for my service and chat. One asked me what I thought about our air strikes in the Middle East and I said those attacks have killed a lot of civilians and all they do is generate fresh hatred of the U.S. among survivors of the strikes. I said, “What we’re doing in the Middle East is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline,” a point I made to veteran reporter and author Katie Couric on East Fourth Street last July during the Republican National Convention. https://www.instagram.com/p/BIDSuBgg4Yg/
One middle-aged man bent down to take a close look at my six medals and said, “You must have seen a lot of action.” I said, “Well, you get a lot of medals when you’re in a war zone.” (One of the medals is a Good Conduct Medal. Only the military would give you a medal for behaving yourself.)
A number of people were annoyed by my presence, not acknowledging my cheerful greeting: “Hi!! Beautiful day, eh?” Two words popped into my head after their lack of response: Trump voters!!
Around 5 p.m. I headed back toward the Terminal Tower to catch the rapid home. While passing fans standing in a fenced area on a sidewalk in front of a Prospect Street restaurant, three middle-aged folks–two men and a woman–reached out to shake my hand and thank me for my service.
I said, “Some people have asked me, ‘Where are the stars for your flag?’ And I said, ‘They’re in hiding. They are ashamed, embarrassed and disgusted by all the death, destruction, instability and chaos we have caused in the Middle East. If I had my way I would make the peace flag the American flag. We need much, much more peace, civility, tolerance and mutual respect in our society.”
None the three replied. I think they were a bit taken aback by the passion in my voice during my commentary, and perhaps even disagreed with replacing the stars and stripes with a peace flag. Oh well.
A few minutes after I left the trio I was walking down a narrow street on my way to the Terminal Tower when I noticed a woman at the end of the street look at me and stop in her tracks. As I approached her, the very cute middle-aged woman said, “I took your picture with a Sikh during the convention last summer.”
I was quite surprised she made the connection, since I was wearing my Class A dress greens army uniform during the hot weather rather than my field jacket, but I think my peace flag reminded her.
I said the Sikh gentleman, who lives in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, and I, “were promoting peace and tolerance.”
It is a message even more urgent today.