Vigiling with Dad


He tells me to park close to the vigil site, but far enough down the block to allow for a view from the street. It is noon, a spectacular fall day. The sun is edging onto the bench where dad likes to sit. We unload signs – “War Is Not The Answer,” “An Eye for an Eye Leaves the Whole World Blind.” One of them blew into the street a few weeks earlier and has a dusty tire tread across the message.

Dad is 87. It takes him a few minutes to shuffle from the car to the bench, facing Main Street in the small, conservative town of Lander, Wyoming, where he and my mother have lived for the last 30 years. I hand him a sign. Traffic stutters past in a steady stream, a lot of pickup trucks.

Another woman joins us, sits next to dad on the bench. She is a regular, every Saturday from noon to 1:00.

“Back when we first invaded Iraq, there were a lot of us,” she remembers. “Now we’re lucky if we have three people.”

I set up a folding chair, hold a sign, wait for the sun. Most people glance at us as they drive past. Once in a while we get a toot and a wave.  I wait for the middle finger, the angry shout, but this Saturday the mood seems friendly, or indifferent.

We chat about the ongoing wars, about family, marvel at the warm October day. I notice a rumbling pickup truck going past slowly, sporting an American flag and a Confederate flag waving in the wind. Was that the stink eye I saw?

A minute later the same truck comes back the other way, slower. Yup, definitely the stink eye.

“One time we had trucks and bikers park across the street and yell at us,” Dad remembers.

A woman with her young son comes by. The kid is curious, asks to hold a sign for a minute, stands next to dad.

I’m in the sun now, warming to the scene. Someone in a Subaru honks and flashes the peace sign. These days, when I visit dad, I go along with his schedule – do the errands, go to church. A few things on the To-Do List seem to take up a day. Mom died a year ago, and he is still adjusting.

It occurs to me, more than halfway through the hour, that dad’s commitment to this small discipline, this public show, looms large. It keeps him engaged, draws a line in the sand. He doesn’t have to do it. Some weeks it’s a chore, it’s lonely, it’s cold and windy. Some days he gets a lot of the middle finger and stink eye.

It is also a continuation of the social activism that has been a huge part of his life. He was one of Montana’s first conscientious objectors, was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights era, and, more recently, has gotten involved in local recycling efforts, work in Wyoming prisons, and supporting women’s reproductive choice.

It looms large for him, for his sense of self-worth, his happiness and fulfillment. He could simply hang out, let life slip by. His basic needs for food and shelter and warmth are met. But this quiet, weekly statement has weight. It’s the kind of thing that lends meaning to life. You can’t measure that, not like your bank account or your woodpile. It doesn’t matter whether it’s standing in front of a mega-load or writing a letter about the XL Pipeline or holding a sign at a public meeting.

What matters is that you stand up, and that you keep standing up. I catch the eyes of passengers going past. Some don’t register a thing. Others look hard to read the signs. Some of these people have served in the military. Maybe some have lost a friend or are dealing with PTSD today.

Perhaps our street-side gesture will change a vote in the upcoming election. Maybe a parent will go home and talk to their kid, who might be considering enlisting. Maybe someone will write a letter to the editor. Maybe, just maybe, someone will think about joining dad on the bench one week.

Almost at the end of the hour, a man strolls up.

“I did 25 years in the military,” he says. “We never learned our lesson in Vietnam. Problem is, there are evil people in the world.” We nod in agreement. “You have to do something about that. When we get into these things,” he continues, “we need to finish the job.”

“Or maybe think about another way to do the job,” dad says.

“Yeah,” our visitor says, thoughtfully. “Or that.

“You have a good day,” he says, and saunters away while we start to pack things up.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Bozeman, Montana.

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