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A gathering, a declaration

By Gregory Maguire / November 2, 1982

I'm no good at mechanics. I just barely stop myself from calling Cambridge Electric to have it turn off its generators so that I can calmly change a light bulb in the kitchen. Once I sat in a borrowed car and tried for half an hour to start it by inserting the key in the cigarette lighter. The only thing I get out of this permanent ineptness is a host of stories to drag around to dinner parties.

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So I can tell a decent story if I am supplied with plenty of firsthand material. But if the conversation swivels around to politics, my self-mocking banter suddenly freezes up on me. There isn't anything funny about being politically naive. (''Don't ask me, I have absolutely no political savvy,'' I said once, and got an unanticipated laugh because I pronounced savvy to rhyme with gravy.m But to me it wasn't a joke.)

I have an interest and a concern but little ability to understand and organize what I read, what people say. Maybe I was absent the day they taught civics, I tell myself. But there's just no excuse for not being able to tell the Republican and Democratic Parties apart - I can't even keep their logos straight. I don't admit it out loud. I feel like a tone-deaf child in the Von Trapp Family Singers.

So when a friend asked me why I was planning to go to the June 12 rally for disarmament at the United Nations, I had to struggle to articulate feelings which had not quite coalesced into reasons. ''There are nineteen members of my immediate family,'' I said, ''including seven nieces and nephews, and I'm going to represent them. I think we should have a chance to live in a world which is not immediately endangered by nuclear bombs. Family life, urban life, American life, is hard enough as it is without having to suffer the anxiety of wondering if the very ground is going to be pulled out from under your feet, and, incidentally, from under the feet of everyone else you know.''

My reply wasn't very well received; I was talking to a person very knowledgeable about strategies and military policies and cold war history. To him it sounded as if I was guilty of ''starry-eyed optimism,'' to quote the former West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. But I went on to explain that my eyes were anything but starry; in being concerned for my family, I was also considering all the darkest possibilities that have yet occurred to the minds of humanity.

So I bought a ticket on a bus that would take me to the June 12 rally. I told the friends I traveled with that I didn't want to sing ''Give Peace a Chance'' on the bus. I merely wanted to be a body there, to have represented myself and my family and seen what it was all about, and to have come home again as quietly and painlessly as possible.

The pictures in the newspapers and on the evening news spoke for the rally. The reports contradicted each other, as is to be expected, I guess: it was a massive demonstration of solidarity; it was a feeble nonpolitical picnic. It marked the beginning of a historic event; it would be as quickly forgotten as Earth Day. James Taylor was the best part; he was the worst. There were a million people present; there were ''throngs'' (the New York Times headline). As history, it was debatable what actually happened.