They're going to put a ribbon around the Pentagon.
In every state of the union, people are embroidering, knitting, silkscreening, tie-dying, batiking, quilting, crocheting and needlepointing pieces of cloth. Each piece is 3 feet long and 1 1/2 feet wide, and they will be sewn or tied together next Aug. 4 and brought to the Pentagon.
Aug. 4, 1985, is the Sunday before the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima.
"They're all on one theme," said Justine Merritt, the former Chicago schoolteacher and mother whose idea this was and whose life it has become. "The theme is simply, 'What I cannot bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war.' "
The idea came to her during a retreat in March 1982, when she decided she had to do something about peace and asked for a sign. She remembered the yellow ribbons that Americans strung around trees and poles during the Iranian hostage crisis and thought it would be good to tie a ribbon around the Pentagon, "the symbol of the nation's violence -- and my own. I have first-strike weapons in my heart, too."
She has embroidered four pieces of the ribbon herself. Names. Just first names, in a cloud of colors. It took her 700 hours.
She had a satchelful of pieces with her yesterday when she came to attend the National Women's Conference to Prevent Nuclear War. Some are rural scenes done with professional skill. Some are children's drawings of a house. Some are collages of denim jeans or baby bibs. Pictures of flowers. Abstract patterns and colors. Notes from songs: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," "Happy Birthday to You," a Yugoslav folk song that goes, "Oh Susanna, you are so sad and the world is so beautiful."
And Bible quotations, lines from Shelley, a portrait of St. Francis, a shopping mall, maps of the United States, maps of the world, lady bugs ("Lady bug, lady bug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children alone"), the DNA double helix, Picasso paintings, the dancing figures from Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal," quilt patterns, private signs representing some family's members and their activities.
And rainbows, turtles, whales, doves, pet dogs and cats, football fields, cooking tools, a poison ivy vine ("the least of Thy creations"), faces of friends, trees, someone's favorite embroidered blouse saved from childhood . . .
Just a dozen of them spread out together are enough to catch at the throat.
A thousand would be overwhelming.
There could be as many as 6,000, enough to enclose the Pentagon and all its vast parking lots and stream down Memorial Parkway like the merry tail of some cosmic kite.
And then some.
Merritt originally planned to ask for 40 pieces from each state, since the ribbon will have to be slightly more than a mile long to circle the Pentagon. But that was two years ago. Now she is getting 25 queries a day and sends out a newsletter to 6,000 people. The United Presbyterian Women, the Unitarian-Universalist Women's Assembly and the Lutheran Women's Assembly are making pieces.
Last July Church Women United sewed together a mile and a quarter worth of pieces, which alone is more than enough. That group represents 60 other nations, and pieces are coming in from around the world.
"I have no idea how many we'll have by August," Merritt said. "I can't imagine how many miles long it will be -- and I have a pretty good imagination."
About 70 segments were on show for the women's conference. On Nov. 11 the Peace Museum in Chicago will exhibit 250 more. The museum will become the permanent home for this flood of folk art.
"The Pentagon people were very gracious," said Merritt. "They asked if there would be a confrontation, and we said no. They wanted to know if there would be 100,000 people, and we said probably more like 5,000. They said, well, we should plan for a lot."
They have also asked that the ribbon not touch the building itself and that the exits be left open.
Though she started the project alone ("I sent out 100 letters to my Christmas card list") and ran it for some time with her mother and a friend, Alice Coleman, Merritt now has a national coordinating board and representatives in every state. Some are men.
"There are mostly women in this, but it's not a women's thing. We have two men on our board."
The big problem is going to be getting all these thousands of pieces together. Each piece is supposed to be backed, have a two-inch border, and eight-inch tie-ribbons sewn onto the corners so the pieces that aren't already sewn together can be tied.
Next May 26 the individual states will hold sew-ins to link up all their respective pieces -- far more than the 40 requested. Some state capitols may be encircled with the ribbons in ceremonies on that day.
"Some states are sending people, too," Merritt said. "Kentucky is sending 800 that we know of. New York wants to charter a bunch of buses. People write to tell me they're planning their vacations around the fourth of August."
She is worried about money. The project will require police, portable toilets, a warehouse in Arlington, and all the paraphernalia of a Washington demonstration. But there is no money except for a trickle of $5 and $10 checks. There are no grants. "The IRS has decided we're too political, so we're not deductible."
"We're asking for $2 to pay for the newsletter, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, when we send out information." It should go to The Ribbon, Box 2206, Denver, Colo. 80201.
At 60, Justine Merritt has a certain casual aplomb that allows her to sit on the floor of the Hyatt Regency lobby for a photographer without turning a hair. She wasn't always so. A native of Missouri and graduate of Northwestern, she married at 21 in 1945 ("My only concern was to get on with my personal life and live happily ever after"), had five children, taught high school English in a Chicago suburb. But she and her husband Glenn, a chemical engineer, divorced after 25 years.
The event that turned her life around was the police massacre of Fred Hampton's Black Panther group in a Chicago apartment.
"Mike Royko said in his column that God works in mysterious ways, since the police bullets were embedded in all the walls but the Panther bullets were invisible. The government later settled quietly out of court for well over a million dollars. But at the time what I thought was this: 'What am I doing teaching literature? I need to go out and save the world.'
"I saw no hope then. I was in my atheist period. She is a Roman Catholic convert today. I just had to act. I quit my job, an existential act. I had been in a low-grade depression for 37 years, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I went to Nagasaki and wrote some poems about it. But I simply couldn't deal with it."
So she went on a retreat. "This was God's idea," she said. "My part was that I didn't argue. The ribbon is a gentle reminder that we love the earth and all its peoples."
For a while she worked as a human relations consultant, but today she has no regular income. She has learned to ask for money. "Me, a school board president's wife!" She travels on a credit card and stays with strangers a lot.
"One time somebody saw my shoes were falling apart so she went out and bought me a pair of sandals . . ."