THE sign hanging around Louise Ward's neck says it all: Happy Birthday, Jon
1/15/65 - ?
Mrs. Ward - mother of Army lieutenant Jon - is one of some 4,000 people standing in their own flickering candlelight outside the White House, counting down the hours to possible war. As they wait apprehensively so does all of Washington, and indeed America: The day Mrs. Ward's son turns 25, President Bush's withdrawal ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam Hussein expires.
Crowds sometimes form outside the White House in times of stress like this, and each one brings its own mood. The night after Pearl Harbor was attacked - Dec. 7, 1941 - hundreds gathered around the White House, in a spontaneous display of support for America and its government.
Twenty years ago, during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, thousands pressed angrily around a White House ringed with buses, like settlers' wagons circled against attacking Indians. These crowds harshly opposed America's leaders as well as their policies. This time, too, the crowd defines itself, and people like Louise Ward and Phyllis Minton help it do so. They are quiet and understated in manner but firm in conviction; so is the crowd. They want peace and ask that the world's leaders have the 11th-hour vision to obtain it; so, too, does the crowd.
``The people don't want war,'' Mrs. Ward says softly. ``We don't think that's the way to settle disputes.
She adjusts her sign: It pictures a winsome little boy, now grown to be an artillery lieutenant ``near the front lines'' in Saudi Arabia, his mother says. From Milwaukee, she is among several hundred members of the Military Family Support Network who came to their nation's capital to stand a six-hour flag-and-flashlight vigil on the White House sidewalk in support of peace.
Ms. Minton, a friendly gray-haired woman with a cousin in the Persian Gulf, came to the White House with a different group - more than 3,000 people who earlier had attended an evening prayer service at the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church.
``I just wanted to be with some people who thought there was some other way'' than warfare of settling the dispute over Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, she says. That way is prayer.
``Prayer is not a last resort, but really a first resort,'' Ronald Haines, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, earlier had admonished an overflow audience at the newly completed gothic cathedral. Speakers express hope that through prayer the world's leaders would yet discover a peaceful solution.
Such affirmations of the power of prayer helped set the tone for the later White House vigil. Only a relative handful on the White House sidewalk lustily chanted antiwar slogans like ``no blood for oil,'' and then relatively briefly; most were supportive of peaceful settlement but not disrespectful of America's leaders.
Similar demonstrations for peace, of various moods, were being held across America as the Jan. 15 midnight deadline neared. On Jan. 14, demonstrators blocked streets in downtown Chicago, and other demonstrations were staged in Minneapolis and San Francisco.
On the night of Jan. 15, demonstrators held evening candlelight vigils on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill, and elsewhere throughout America.
But it was to Washington that America looked, wondering whether President Bush would order immediate attack and hoping to see news of some last-minute diplomatic success. As Americans wondered, Washingtonians held vigils and prayer meetings in an atmosphere somber but not entirely devoid of hope.
In the brick Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church, five blocks from the White House, several hundred people held an all-night prayer vigil; after initial addresses and hymns it soon swung into the singing of the old civil rights theme song, ``We Shall Overcome.'' Softly, hesitantly, the voices began, gradually swelling to full volume and confidence.
Hands reached as if from memory for neighbors' hands; by the third verse virtually every hand in every pew was joined to another, the long lines swaying back in forth to the rhythm of the song. ``We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace...,'' they sang. ``We are not afraid, we are not afraid....''
Later, Mary Hardie, a suburban Marylander newly arrived from San Diego, said: ``It was a reminder of 25 or 30 years ago'' during the height of the civil rights movement. ``I was just very moved.''
She would have been moved, too, by the letter that ``Tim,'' an American paratrooper in the Saudi Arabian desert, had written to third-grader Andrea Klein of the Jefferson Elementary School in DeKalb, Ill. ``There isn't any fighting going on here yet, and I hope there won't be,'' Tim told his little pen pal. ``We always tell you kids not to fight, and us adults go and do it. That's kind of dumb, don't you think?''
Louise Ward, Phyllis Minton, and Mary Hardie would agree. They hope their prayerful vigil will help to prevent such fighting.