The Rip Post


PEACE ON EARTH, TURKEY ON RYE

by Rip Rense
(originally published in The Los Angeles Times.)

I was gnawing on a $6 turkey sandwich the other day at a local eatery---wondering why a turkey sandwich cost $6---when he walked in. He was at least six-feet-three, but seemed taller. He had a flowing, handsome gray beard a good foot long, and wore a suit with tiny black-and-white checks, topped off with a pastoral Panama hat. He moved with stately grace, rather the way I would imagine John Muir moved. Or Aristotle. He looked well into his 70s.

I stopped eating and watched him move from table to table, gently interrupting lunch customers with a baritone entreaty of some sort. At one table, three middle-aged secretarial types gave their heads quick, fearful little shakes without making eye contact. At another, a businessman regarded him with surprise, then scowled and shooed him away. At a third table, a lone young woman gave him a brusque, "No, thank you!"

I assumed the stranger was asking for spare change. I was debating whether or not to give him any---that Panama looked new and expensive---as he approached my table. His voice was deep and rich, his manner humble, and. . .benevolent.

"Pardon me, sir," he said. "Would you like to buy a plan for world peace for 25 cents?"

His hand clutched a few dozen pamphlets.

"Well, sure," I said. "I think that's worth a quarter."

His head dipped and nodded slowly, for emphasis.

"It sure is!" he said.

I gave him a quarter, and he thanked me and moved on. I glanced at the pamphlet's title: "A Prescription for World Peace and Prosperity." Inside were reprints of letters sent to then-President Reagan, then-President Bush, former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez De Cuellar, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Each letter explained, in different wording, the author's plea for---and notions on how to achieve---world peace. The ideas were often inarguable, if short on specifics.

"We must stop meddling and interfering in the internal affairs of other nations," he wrote to Reagan. (That one fell on deaf ears.)

The letter to Bush (senior) read: "The function of national government is prosperity, with happy, healthy, industrious families in a cooperative international family of nations." (Bush might have done well to pay attention to that prosperity stuff.)

To Perez De Cuellar, the author quoted General Douglas McArthur's denunciation of war:

"I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting." He wrote to Gorbachev: "There is nothing basically wrong with a human being or nation that a little adjustment will not correct, but we have to be willing to adjust." And he advised Boutros-Ghali: "Fear should not be our motive in thinking, acting, and destiny."

Each letter was signed "Stanley Arthur Grovom," which, I assume, was the name of the gray-bearded stranger. I looked up just in time to see the manager of the restaurant confront him and suggest he take his pamphlets elsewhere. You know---Get lost! We don't want any of that world peace crap around here!

I made a note to stop eating there.

And I sat wondering about the stranger as I watched him lope off through a parking lot and disappear around a corner down his own private highway. I wondered what had induced him, in his twilight years, to turn into a Johnny Appleseed of world peace pamphlets.

I remembered another guy who had approached me, many years earlier, with a similar theme. It was on a brisk, wind-swept day in 1979---during the holiday season---in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, high above the choppy blue Pacific. Here was a bright-eyed imp of a man in a beige suit and brown tie who introduced himself merrily as "Victor Uman, the Celestial Visitor from the Planet, Wisdom." He had spied my reporter's notebook: "Are you writing down the great inspirations for future generations?" Victor asked, standing in that edge-of-the-world strip of verdant quiet and repose. "You know, my friend, when you make your work a pleasure, life will yield its greatest treasure."

Victor was also a good 70, although he gave his age as "between 20 and 150." He spoke mostly in rhyme. "My slogan for today's time is 'Stop crying, but never stop trying!'" he said, and "May it be a time of reason, in every land and season. May higher ethics evolve, for every problem to solve." Victor gave me a cassette entitled, "The Celestial Visitor From the Planet, Wisdom," which contained a skit he had written about the day the world achieved permanent harmony, and his "Seven-Point Message for Building the Peace of Mankind." He left me there, amid those seemingly deathless palm trees, declaring "If you make every day Thanksgiving/ Then you can enjoy living/ For a thankful soul/Attains a most harmonious goal!" And he disappeared down his own private highway.

I remembered yet another time, when my friend Bernie Beck and I ran into a salty-looking white-bearded old guy on the Huntington Beach Pier one night. One look at us and the old boy seemed compelled to speak. The scene reminded me of a verse from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:"

I pass, like night, from land to land
I have strange power of speech
The moment that his face I see
I know the man who must hear me
To him my tale I teach
. . .

This ancient mariner regaled us with nothing less than a lecture. He must have spoken for a half-hour. The topic? I suppose you could say it was "world affairs." He was clever and bitter. The recurrent theme with which he knit the lecture's salient points together was the word, "rat." As he acerbically, even poetically, assailed all the was wrong with the world (greed, chiefly, was his target), he would somehow always manage to get back to the word, "rat."

The most spectacular example came as he was cursing domination by power-grubbers, using the blanket label, "royalty." "Royalty!" I remember him shouting, a craggy finger pointing out toward the dark ocean, "Roy-Al-Ty. . .Roy! Al! Ty!---take the first letter of each syllable, and what have you got? Rat! RAT!"

They all stood together in my mind---Appleseed, who had interrupted my turkey sandwich with wishes of world peace, the Celestial Visitor and his message of long ago, the Ancient Mariner and his dissertation on "rat." In the poem, the Ancient Mariner is cursed to spread a message that boils down to "be kind to animals" because he had once, on a whim, fired an arrow into an albatross. I pondered the albatrosses that had led these men to spend their last years bestowing messages of empathy and cooperation on strangers.

I thought it would be nice to somehow send them a message back for their efforts and concern, especially on behalf of all those people who never listen to them, never buy their pamphlets, who frown and shoo them away or kick them out of restaurants. That message, I think, would be, "thanks."

And although I concluded that buying a pamphlet for a quarter probably wouldn't really have much of an impact on world peace, I figured that at least it might help keep one good-hearted old gentleman in sunny Panama hats.

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2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.