|PEACE ON EARTH,
TURKEY ON RYE
by Rip Rense
TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
(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
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
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
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.