Back in the ‘60s you could say two things about Navy and Air Force veteran Dick Underhill: he liked to do the work that nobody else wanted to do, and he was a Goldwater Republican. Today as Underhill shuttles in and out of Crawford, Texas, running supplies and tending to lists of things to do in support of Cindy Sheehan, you could still say he likes to do the work that nobody else wants to do, but you couldn’t call him a Goldwater Republican anymore.
“You have heard about PTSD, haven’t you?” asks Underhill in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon from his Austin home. “That’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Well, I have a name for something else that I call PASD. That’s Post Awareness Stress Disorder. It’s what happens to you when you’ve been raised all your life to believe the story that the slaveholders and merchant pirates who founded the USA were good people and that the government of the USA is the best in the world. When you find out that’s not true at all, it does leave you under stress.”
The foundation of Underhill’s Goldwater Republicanism was an economic conviction born out of his background as a working class juvenile delinquent who made something good of his life. Anybody, said that conviction, can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps no matter what. If Underhill had done it, so could everyone else.
But the foundation of Underhill’s economic conviction began to crack during the seven years (1978-85) that he spent working for the Parsons Corporation building the Saudi Arabian city of Yanbu from the ground up. Since he was single at the time he could travel quite a bit, so he saw the worlds of Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East. Whenever he saw extreme poverty, he heard the same formula for economic opportunity: get access to USA markets. But that wasn’t quite the bootstrap of his convictions, so he began to question his economic theories.
In Tucson during the 1990s Underhill began taking lots of courses at the community college and University of Arizona, where he learned how to outgrow his childhood textbooks. He remembers especially two courses on Latin American history. In part one, “the Spanish are the bad guys you know,” says Underhill. “But in the second part I found out what the government of the USA did.” He learned what happened to Allende in Chile and the usual list of things like that. “It destroyed my vision of what I thought we were like.”
At about the same time, Underhill started going to weekly Peace and Justice vigils in Tucson. He recalls that the vigils were originally called to protest conditions that produced illegal immigrants from Central and South America, but the vigils adapted to changing issues. At the vigils he met some folks from Veterans for Peace. “One thing I have noticed,” says Underhill. “If you are in a group that is predominately pro-peace, ask how many have lived or worked outside the US. Four and Five Star package tours don’t count. My experience is that 70 percent will identify themselves as having lived abroad.”
Now we fast forward to Austin, where Underhill moved to “follow the money” which is his way of joking that his wife found work there, so he came with her. About three years ago, he watched a film about the USA invasion of Panama.
“In my mind the invasion of Panama involved a few helicopters. Our guys chased Noriega into a building and they played loud music until he came out. Then we hauled him off and threw him in prison forever. But I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.” In the film he saw a story of an illegal invasion in which thousands of civilians were killed, thousands more displaced, entire apartment complexes burned, all in the name of a “drug war.” For Underhill the film portrayed a military preparation for the invasion of Iraq, a proving ground for war technologies such as the newly made stealth bomber. And all of it neatly tucked behind glossy media management so that Americans could coast along on the lie.
“I saw that film three years ago,” says Underhill, “and I haven’t been off the cell phone since.” Which brings us back to the Dick Underhill who likes to do the things that others don’t. For the past three years, Underhill’s cell phone has been ringing with movement business. If a bus is coming to town on a national tour. If a speaker needs a place to stay. All those things that need doing, Underhill tries to get them done. And although Underhill is very active in the Austin chapter of VFP, he had nothing to do with a national office decision to bring the 20th annual VFP convention to Dallas. That decision had more to do with a need to rotate regions and, oh yes, the fact that George Bush lived here (”for tax purposes,” quips Underhill, “because Texas has no state income tax”) and kept a summer home nearby.
About 100 days before the convention was to open near Dallas, Underhill was asked to take over the work of coordinating all the details. How much time did he put into that job? “I worked as long as I could stay awake,” says Underhill. One detail, as we know, was to invite Cindy Sheehan to speak. “I had quite accidentally run across someone who recommended Cindy,” recalls Underhill. “So we tied that up, but no one knew about her plans to visit Crawford until the day before she arrived at the convention. As soon as I got her email about it, the first thing I did was to contact the Crawford Peace House and ask them to get ready.”
The Crawford Peace House was set up by a farsighted peace activist from Dallas named Johnny Wolf. He purchased the building in the Spring of 2003 for just this kind of eventuality. He knew the Crawford Ranch would draw activists, and he wanted a watering hole for them to stop at along the way. “We’re not going to let them turn the town into a three-ring circus,” said Crawford Mayor Robert Campbell to the Dallas Morning News when the news of the Crawford Peace House was announced. “If they want to protest, let them go to Washington.”
That was long before Cindy Sheehan made up her mind to find out where Crawford was so that she could confront the president of the USA at his summer home and tell him to stop using the deaths of soldiers like her son to justify further war in Iraq.
There were some folks who encouraged Underhill to move the entire VFP convention to Crawford at the last minute, but he reminded them that Crawford was not an easy place for lots of people to eat on short notice. “There’s only one blinking light in that town,” says Underhill, “and it’s about eight times brighter than the President.” So the VFP worked out a caravan that would be led by an Impeachment Tour Bus. A couple veterans stayed with Sheehan in Crawford, and you’ve probably heard what happened next.
What you don’t see so much in the tip of the tremendous iceberg that Cindy Sheehan has thrown in front of the President’s war cruiser is the long years of preparation, the weekly vigils in Tucson, the courses in history, the film festivals, the fund drives, the chores and newsletters that finally fuse enough people together that they can move in under Cindy Sheehan and make sure she stays afloat as long as it takes.
Even Underhill thought the scene looked pretty desolate when he passed through Crawford Sunday afternoon (was that just two days ago?) and saw this one lonely tent pitched against the Texas prairie. Although by that point Underhill knew that the Crawford Peace House had thrown open its doors and CodePink had mobilized its network, “It didn’t look too powerful.”
“But you know what?” says Underhill, pausing for a while at home between his support trips to Crawford. “I think this has shaken the whole globe. I have a friend in Germany and he says it’s on television there. This has blown wide open.” Tuesday morning campers watched ABC camera crews hang through the rain to get dawn shots for the evening news. Something about Cindy Sheehan is bringing out the poetry in everyone’s imagination.
“And you know if we had anybody else out there, nobody would care,” he says. “This is all about Cindy.” And Cindy is all about Casey (May 29 1979-April 4 2004). Not in his name, Mr. President. Not. In. His. Name.
Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Greg Moses