Changing the world, one character at a time

Sometimes I see Eileen sitting in the South Park Blocks, enjoying the little sun we’ve had this spring. She has soft gray hair in a bun, and carries a cane. She often carries a large shopping bag. She looks like anyone’s gramma, and in reality she is, but she’s one of those great people who have a long-standing secret, and you’d never be able to tell from the look of her.

She’s a great conversationalist, for one thing. She’s well-read and well-educated, keeps up with the trends in art and technology, and if she’s a little vague about the details, she has every right to be at her age. It takes a while to get past the trivialities of the latest gallery show or a new book which shouldn’t be a best-seller, but it’s worth the effort.

One afternoon we sat together for a few moments while a small group of students were walking around carrying signs and chanting. I forget the cause. Apparently, so had they, because they didn’t seem to be working together on any given topic.”It’s a shame,” Eileen said. “If they had their act together they could get something done.”

“You knew how to do that, didn’t you?”

“We sure did. Throw in a Berrigan brother or two, get some folks out of the ashrams, and we’d really have a good march.”

Eileen is a battle-scarred veteran of the good old days of protest, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She’d take her kids with her on long marches, worked in polling and politicking from various political offices, and still strongly feels that she made a difference.

“We didn’t have these little weenie causes, either. We wanted to save lives, to make peace. We did it.”

“So what has changed?”

She pauses, listening a bit to the ragged chants and looking at the people protesting. The people protesting seem to be looking for the media, which hasn’t showed up and never will.

“There’s too much to do,” she said. “They have us going on too many fronts. Now we don’t have peace at stake …” She drifted off.

“They got us to start fighting for the same little bit of attention. The tree people, the rights people, the peace people … We started out together, now we’re all over the place.”

I asked her if she had any regrets.

“No. Not one. Someday we’ll get our act back together and understand it’s all part of the same problem, the little guys against the big guys, and we’ll … ”

She drifted off again, and I waited until she came back to herself.

“I just wish they’d learn how we did it. Does anyone here teach these kids how we did it, how we stopped the war?”

I said some people offered courses on the history and the techniques, and some of the classes were well attended.

“Well, then, I hope they pay attention,” Eileen answered. “Otherwise, we’re all going to slide back into the dark, and they’ll have us by the throat.”

Then she stood up, waved and wandered away, but not until she corrected the spelling on one protester’s sign.