I am glad I rode the Cyclone. Honestly.
But never again. Let me just repeat that. Never again.
Bill (and many others) obviously get a huge thrill and adrenaline rush from riding roller-coasters – but I am more than happy to get my rush from 75 minutes of being onstage alone with six wooden crates.
We drive away from Brooklyn over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge – a beautiful feat of engineering – and I watch the New York City skyline receding behind us. Were we really there? It was all so brief! I didn’t even get a chance to visit Katz’s Delicatessen – (where the famous scene took place in the film ‘When Harry Met Sally’ – with the unforgettable one-liner: ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’) Next time.
At Swedesboro, New Jersey, (where yes, the King of Sweden once paid a visit) I sit in a family diner while Bill visits his new granddaughter, Sage, news of whose birth came through as we got back in the car after my Cyclone adventure. (As I’m in a diner it would seem churlish not to eat – so I do – but I’ll spare you the details this time- but it’s good – especially the… no, I’ll spare you the details ).
Bill returns glowing with grandfatherly pride and joy, and then, while driving through New Jersey, says we really should listen to local lad Bruce Springsteen. Bill has maybe a dozen or more of his CDs in the car and we turn the volume up. Loud.
Then a night at home to do laundry and stretch my legs before Monday’s long drive out west to Indiana. Which is going to take 11 hours.
This time I’m travelling with the third member of the Center on Conscience and War, Jake Short – easily the most nattily-dressed peace activist I’ve met by a long chalk. We are in a hire car – a big white Durango, which eats up the miles first on the Pennsylvania Turnpike then on the Ohio Turnpike.
How to describe the Ohio Turnpike? A few four-letter words should suffice. Flat. Long. Very. Long. Dull. Oh – and did I mention it’s flat ?
And so straight. It seems to go on forever. I long for a curve in the road, however slight, or a hillock on the horizon, however small – just to break up the monotony. We arrive at our destination, Manchester University, at 9pm. It’s dark and it’s pouring with rain – the first rain of my trip.
Manchester Uni is affiliated to the Church of the Brethren, one of the US churches with an historic peace testimony – and so, one of the churches whose conscientious objectors in WW1 would be able to get exemption from combatant duties. This university was also the first uni in the US, and indeed in the world, to have instigated a Peace Studies program – established in 1948 – so it feels exactly the kind of place I should be performing my play at.
Next day, the rain is still pelting down non-stop. We have lunch with two Vietnam-era COs, one of whom was given a 3-year prison sentence – and both of whom are now living in a small intentional community: self sufficient, living simply, growing crops, and not earning enough to have to pay tax – their way of protesting at current military spending.
Then straight after lunch I’m asked if I will take a class on ‘Theatre and Society’. ‘Erm, if I can wing it, I will,’ I answer. ‘I’ll probably end up mainly talking about my play.’
‘Oh that’s fine,’ the teacher assures me. ‘I’m sure that anything you have to say will be of interest.’ How trusting these Americans are.
The play takes place in the Wine Recital Hall. (Wine? When did I last have a glass of wine? Not since this tour began, I know that)
It’s small and has an excellent acoustic. A young Palestinian student who describes himself as a software technology student with no interest in theatre whatever, operates the sound perfectly – and has questions for me afterwards provoked by the play: as to how one can maintain a peaceful stance when being constantly oppressed and attacked. I think I know what he’s referring to.
In the Q and A Jake asks how many COs there are in the audience today. A number of hands are raised. One man says later he felt very moved that this was asked, observing that usually the question put to public gatherings is ‘how many veterans are here today?’
It’s only an hour’s drive to the next day’s venue, at Goshen College, which is affiliated to the Mennonites. This college has a railroad running right through the middle of campus – giving students who are late to class the excuse that: ‘Sir, a very long freight train was passing and I couldn’t get across the tracks.’
But that excuse won’t work anymore, alas. The college has recently built a walkway tunnel under the tracks.
Professor John Roth welcomes Jake and myself into his office, which is crammed full with shelves stuffed with fascinating books. There are also over 200 pieces of what John describes as ‘Amish kitsch’ – all kinds of little models, ornaments, memorabilia. I wish I could spend more time looking at all the books and all the ‘kitsch’. But there is work to do.
The performance will take place in the Umble Center – I can’t help thinking of Dickens’ Uriah Heep – “ever so ‘umble”. The auditorium is like a mini-Olivier Theatre and probably the most perfect space for the play yet on this tour.
Scheduled for just before Easter, Professor Roth suggests I might be performing to an audience of one – himself. In the event it’s nearly full and it’s possibly one of the most satisfying performances I have given. I love the space. And Dillon hits the sound cues to perfection.
(Thus far I’ve had a Zimmerman and a Dillon running sound on this tour. No Roberts or Bobs yet, though.)
After a night in the Roths’ lovely home, it’s time to settle into the Durango again for another 11 hour drive back to base in pouring rain and surrounded on all sides by maniacal drivers in huge trucks. Jake has to concentrate fiercely and is well and truly exhausted by the time we reach home.
All this being cooped up in a car for so many hours (I commented to someone after the show yesterday), gives me no chance to do my usual exercise. But I just saw you do the play, he replied. That looked like a pretty thorough work-out to me. He has a point. There’s no question my 75 minutes is extremely aerobic.
It’s now Good Friday and we all have three days off. I am being put up in Quaker lodgings in Washington DC, William Penn House (he whom I saw atop his column in Philadelphia) – so that I can do some sightseeing and have a little down time.
Easter Saturday provides glorious sunshine and I take in the National Mall and many of the nearby memorials – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson – as well as the WW1 and WW2 memorials, and the very poignant Vietnam and Korean War Veterans memorials.
Martin Luther King Junior’s memorial is hugely inspiring and I feel a thrill so many must feel when I stand on the very spot from which he gave his unforgettable speech: ‘I have a dream’.
There is so much food for thought here amongst these memorials, so much to contemplate. War. And peace. Violent conflicts and the inspiring attempts at non-violent outcomes.
But there is also the famous cherry blossom of the hundred plus trees round the tidal basin. Not quite at its peak but still beautiful – and the subject of countless thousands of photos, a good few of which end up on my iPhone.
Easter Sunday, and a visit to the National Air and Space Museum beckons. I remember vividly the excitement of the first moon landing when I was just 12 years old. Here is a chance to relive that experience – and see just how small the lunar module actually was. And how small the command module was, that brought the three men safely back to Earth, all the way from the moon.
I find it strangely moving. And of course, the famous words: ‘A small step for a man; a giant leap for mankind…’
I walk back out into daylight and the National Mall – refreshed, stimulated and rested – and ready for the next leg of my tour… ‘A small tour for an actor; a great adventure for Mike Mears…’