Bad ass bikers witness a uniformed veteran with a peace flag

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.

As usual, a mixed reaction among sports fans: The Indians Home Opener

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.

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.

On a cold day, Lou gets “cold shoulders” from some Browns fans, warm appreciation from others

Even though it was pretty chilly on Saturday, Christmas Eve, I decided to once again promote peace to folks heading to First Energy Stadium for the final home game of the Cleveland Browns. The team hosted the San Diego Chargers.

As usual I took the Blue Line Rapid Transit downtown and after leaving Tower City I unfurled my peace flag, which I’m sure gave pause to motorists and pedestrians who noticed my aging field jacket with the six medals the Army presented to me upon my honorable discharge at the Oakland Army Depot in California in July, 1968. I also wore my embroidered military cap indicating Vietnam service with the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division (“Bid Red One.”). My intent was to get across the idea that some war veterans are pro-peace. Not all of us are cold-blooded killers at heart.

While walking down West Third Street toward the stadium, a vendor manning a hot dog/snacks cart at one of the corners said, “I like your flag.” I said, “Thanks. I wish everyone did.”

Some time later, one of the fans going to the game also said he liked my flag and I gave the same response, adding that “I wish it flew over the White House.” (Makes sense to me, since the current president won the Nobel Peace Prize. Try to stifle an ironic smile here. Ah, I knew you couldn’t!)

It was not an impressive crowd going to the game in terms of numbers, perhaps because the Browns were 0-14 for the season. One disheartened fan going to the Christmas Eve game carried large white sign with black lettering that read, “Instead of coal, I got Browns tickets.” (No doubt his heart was gladdened at the end of the game, since the Browns beat the Chargers 20-17.)

As had been the case in previous peace promotion initiatives, several people shook my hand and thanked me for my service, supplemented with mutual “Merry Christmas” greetings. A few people said, “God bless you!!”

For the first time ever, a young man shaking my hand said, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” That seemed a bit odd, as I hadn’t lost an arm or a leg in Vietnam. Maybe he meant that I had “sacrificed” two years of my civilian life to be a soldier.

It was gratifying that many of those who liked my presence are veterans and that a few of the young men who shook my hand are on active duty in the army. One served with the Big Red One in Germany. A young woman veteran said she had served in First Infantry Division at its stateside headquarters at Fort Riley, Kansas.

One smiling big middle-age black man came over and gave me a bear hug, saying he had been in the Marines. As an Army veteran, I said as he walked away, “We were on the same team. We just played different positions.” He smiled,

One attractive middle-age woman was effusive in her appreciation as she shook my hand. After a few seconds of talking we instinctively embraced and as I kissed her right cheek I said about my effort, “I call this a labor of love.” She again squeezed my hand as she walked away.

In the interest of full disclosure, several people again ignored my greetings, as if they were deaf. Oh, well. At least no one said anything rude or critical. The medals, including a Bronze Star, on my left breast pocket might have discouraged voicing of unpleasant comments.

Before the game began, one middle-age man standing about 15 feet away asked why I was there. I said it was to “promote peace to people going to the game.

“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 perfectly healthy young American lives were wasted.”

The gentleman offered me a ticket to a club seat in the stadium, but I politely declined, as I would rather watch the game in the comfort of my home.

I was a bit taken aback when the man said he had twin sons in the army who recently graduated from the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, New York.

I asked if his sons were assigned overseas and he said they would soon be deployed to a U.S. Army base in Korea.

I said, “That’s good. There’s no war there…not yet.”

The dad smiled and softly said, “Yeah, not yet.”

Meeting a fellow “Veterans for Peace” traveler

Once again I fed my addiction to promoting peace by standing about a hundred yards from the southwest gate of FirstEnergy Stadium for about three hours yesterday (Sunday, Nov. 27th), to greet hundreds of fans going to the New York Giants-Cleveland Browns football game.

As is often the case during such gigs, something extraordinary happened as I stood wearing my 50-year-old U.S. Army field jacket, complemented by my peace flag.

Among the hundreds of fans walking by was a man named Jim Smith, from Port Washington, NY, on Long Island. Pointing to the Veterans for Peace button on the right breast pocket of my field jacket, he said he also is a member of the organization and served in Vietnam as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. Jim said he was in town not only for the game but also to visit his son who is an air traffic controller in Oberlin.

I asked Jim when he was in Vietnam and he said he was there in the early ’70s. I said, “Aw, you missed out on the Tet Offensive.” He said he hears that comment a lot from other veterans who were in country during that historic attack.

Jim is the author of “Heroes to the End,” a compilation of his Stars and Stripes stories. He gave me his business card which mentions, along with authorship of his book, that he is board chair of United Veterans Beacon House, which provides housing for homeless veterans. Jim also is a veterans advocate and member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in New York.

Regarding football fans streaming to the stadium, it was rather disappointing that so many people, mostly men, were rather rude. It’s not that they said things that were rude. It’s just than when I greeted them cheerily and with an upbeat comment, such as “It’s a beautiful day for football,” they would ignore me. Same applied to many women, although not as much. Still, several people reached out to shake my hand, thank me for my service, give me fist bumps and a couple of men gave me the popular “guy semi-hug”. All this was appreciated but what was much more appreciated were bear hugs from a couple of sweet young things who loved my message. I told both women, “You made my day.”

As I was walking toward the stadium before the game, a middle-aged couple walked toward me. After they were about ten steps behind me, the man turned and shouted “God bless America!” I shouted back, “Peace on Earth!! He said nothing and kept walking.

Several minutes later a man on a bicycle with an American flag attached to the back fender pedaled up West Third Street away from the stadium. He did a double-take after seeing my peace flag circled around toward me and yelled, “It’s great to be in America!”

Once again I shouted, “Peace on Earth!”

After all, it is the season.

Lou at Browns Game, Just Before Election Day

On Sunday, November 6, two days before the general election, I wanted to promote peace yet again to the hundreds of football fans walking toward the southwest gate of FirstEnergy Stadium to see the Cleveland Browns play the Dallas Cowboys. The day had an extra dimension, as a man holding a Trump-Pence sign and handing out political leaflets stood nearby hawking his wares, much like the “carnival barker” characterization sometimes ascribed to Donald Trump.

So many people, men and women of all ages, reached out to shake my hand that you would think I was running for office. Still, many, many more ignored my friendly greetings, acting as if I were not even there. Oh, well. I gave them an image they will not soon forget, and gave them something to think about.

There were a couple of unnerving moments. A man wearing baseball cap with huge gold letters “NRA” embroidered above the bill walked over toward me and I feared he was going to give me hell for wearing my army dress uniform and carrying a peace flag.

That was not the case. Turns out he also is a Vietnam veteran, from Dayton, and he had basic training at Fort Benning, as did I, then went on to Fort Polk, Louisiana for advanced individual training as an infantryman. He subsequently received orders to join the Americal Division in Vietnam where he was a “grunt.” He said he was involved in only one firefight. Upon seeing some rustling of jungle foliage, he and his squad members opened fire into the leaves, only to discover “we had killed a bunch of apes.”

Toward the end of his tour of duty, the veteran contracted jungle rot–skin ulcers, on his face and feet–and was flown into Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, then received successful treatment at a nearby military hospital.

I surmise the man enlisted in the army when he said, “I was 20 and didn’t know any better.” I said, “I was an ‘old man’ of 24, drafted in 1966 . I bought into the government’s rationale for being there, that South Vietnam was our ally, North Vietnam was trying to take over South Vietnam, and therefore we had a moral obligation to defend South Vietnam. Then I found out years later that (President Lyndon) Johnson lied about one of our ships being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.

“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 perfectly healthy young Americans sent to early graves. Wasted lives.”

The fellow Vietnam veteran and I were “on the same page,” and I was pleasantly surprised to hear him tell me had had taken part in anti-war demonstrations after he was discharged from the army. My fears about the NRA supporter were unfounded.

The second somewhat unnerving event was noticing a young man to my left, who, without saying a word, extended his right hand to me that held about an eight-inch hunting knife in its leather sheath. He wanted to give it to me. I assume he had tried to get into the stadium with the knife but was turned away by security personnel after a metal detector discovered the weapon. I politely declined his offer. He thanked me for my service and walked away. Then a horrific thought came to mind: that the young man might want to use the knife to field dress me on the spot. Another unfounded fear.

A few people asked to have their photos taken with me, including a young woman from Indiana who works with veterans at a soldiers’ home. She called me “sweetheart” a few times during our conversation, which brought more sunshine into my sunny day.

Another woman went out of her way to shake my hand and thank me for my service, adding “I have a son in the Navy.” At first I thought I did not hear her correctly since she looked way too young to have a grown son. I said, “Pardon me?” She again said, “I have a son in the Navy.” Amazed, I said, “Did you get married when you were five years old?” She said, “About that.”

A smiling middle-aged man walked over to me and when he began talking, I detected what I thought was a brogue in his speech pattern. Turns out he was not from Ireland but from northern Scotland, now living in Toronto, so his accent was a “burr.” He appreciated my message and suggested that we all get along with one another. I said, “We’re all children of the same Creator.”

I told one woman that I also have a peace flag flying from my house and that mine is the only one on the street. I said, “I wish every house flew the peace flag–including the White House.”

Now, back to the man trumpeting the Trump-Pence storyline. As the number of fans dwindled after the 1 p.m. start time for the game, I walked over to the man and said, “Trump said he ‘loves war.’ If he loves war so much, why did he get five deferments during the Vietnam war?” The man denied the Trump quote and I said, “I saw the tape on TV of Trump saying that.” The Trump supporter then pointed out World War II General George S. Patton said the same thing about war and I said, “Patton didn’t get five deferments.”

The Trump supporter said nothing and I left for Tower City to catch the rapid for my ride home.

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