A gathering, a declaration

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.

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.

So, when I returned I was questioned: what did the schlemiel see at his first rally?

How do I know what it was all about? I told them what I saw. At the block where our contingent was waiting to join the parade, a willowy elderly woman carried a sign that read ''Great-Grandmothers for Peace.'' It took her fifteen minutes to get from one curb to the other side, such were the ''throngs.'' I wondered how much living she had gone through, and what had brought her to the curb with such a sign. I hoped that she made it safely home to say to her great-grandchildren, ''I was getting you a present in Manhattan today.''

The rally did not render me miraculously clearsighted, cogent, or articulate. I was not brained with the fiery sword of enlightenment. But even I had a place there: it was a gathering for everyone. Even the politically naive.

Boston poet David McCord once said, ''We suffer from . . . apprehension in the blood.'' I am inclined to feel that he is right; the specter of nuclear annihilation is so vast, so overwhelming, so much larger than individual lives and generations and cultures and histories, that it sometimes looks as though we had been reduced to a gibbering shambles of a people. Some of us tend to remember the Puritan belief of predestination with a certain embarrassment, because we are fonder by far of the next century's offerings of enlightenment and equality - yet we render ourselves almost impotent by the gargantuan problems darkening our lives. ''Nuclear war is inevitable,'' those of us wail who are sorry and scared and paralyzed.

I have no answer for the friend who was appalled at the implications of the June 12 rally, who saw it as starry-eyed idealism, dangerous optimism. I can't answer him about choosing between unilateral and bilateral options for disarmament - and I won't admit that I only recently learned what those terms mean. The Declaration of Independence came before the Constitution; the Constitution is still being amended as we work out our beliefs. The June 12 rally was a declaration, and the working out of that belief - when and if it is accepted by a majority of our citizens - will be the job of the politicians and the people together.

Six months ago I spent twelve dollars on a bus ticket and got no funny stories out of the trip. But I got a present for my nieces and nephews. The present is my statement to the government: I believe that human life should be preserved so that in all its fullness, complexity, and mystery it may be lived out with security. My statement is not so unusual as a present, I admit - some half a million (or a million? or more?) people came to New York that day to say the same thing for their kids. It has been a popular item this year, that statement; it's bigger even than hula hoops or yo-yos were when I was small.

And it's getting bigger and bigger with each month that passes. It's plain I'm going to have to pay attention and learn more than I reckoned on.

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