Barbara Cummings was home in San Diego Monday, listening to an Air America radio broadcast, when she heard the tale of a woman who was coming here to join Cindy Sheehan in her growing protest against the war in Iraq.
The woman on the radio had a son who had signed on for a second tour of duty in the Army after losing his job. In two weeks, he is scheduled to ship out to Iraq. Cummings jumped on the phone and called her friend, Gloria Polk. "I asked her, 'Are you following the Cindy Sheehan story?' And she was."
The next day, the two retirees hopped in a rented minivan for the 22-hour drive to the heart of Texas.
Today, Cummings found herself in front of the Crawford Peace House, a gathering place for protesters, holding a hand-lettered sign. She was directing a stream of cars descending on this normally sleepy town to a dirt parking lot adjacent to a nearby high school football field.
Polk, meanwhile, was at the wheel of her blue Dodge Caravan, shuttling protesters up to the roadside campsite near President Bush's 1,600-acre ranch where Sheehan has been holding her defiant vigil for more than a week.
"We're both here because of our grandchildren," Cummings explained. "It feels like a word-of-mouth thing. Everybody I meet is saying they had to be here."
While the antiwar activists buzzed around the Peace House preparing for a scheduled rally, more than 150 flag-waving marchers made their way toward Sheehan's camp to show their support for the war. Also, a lone demonstrator drove a pickup truck blaring country music with a large American flag flying from its bed. A sign on his door read: "Texas Is Bush Country."
James Vergauwen and his wife, Wynell, preferred to stay put next to their Harley to make their point. "I'm just here to let the president and the troops know that there are people here who do support them," said James Vergauwen, who wore a cap emblazoned "The price of freedom is not free."
"I don't agree with the president about everything. I just wish Cindy Sheehan could spend one hour in the president's shoes making tough decisions."
Several hundred antiwar protesters converged on Crawford today, and many of them had similar stories. They believe that Sheehan, a 48-year-old mother from Vacaville, Calif., whose son was killed in Iraq last year, has magically ignited a struggling peace movement with her quiet, but defiant protest.
"It's just a miracle what's going on here," said Bill Mitchell, who lost his son, Michael, in Iraq on April 4, 2004 -- the same day that Sheehan's son, Casey, was killed. Along with Sheehan, he has protested the war for more than a year and helped organize other military families in support of their cause. But often it seemed that no one cared. "We've worked so long and hard to get our message out," he said.
Ray McGovern, a former intelligence official turned antiwar activist, came down from Virginia to support Sheehan. "I think Cindy has lit a spark where Americans can identify with the human costs of the war," he said.
While Sheehan's protest has received the aid of public relations pros, political operatives and even a television spot since it started last Saturday, many of the people drawn here said it was because of her simple but compelling story. Sheehan is the grieving mother of a fallen soldier and she wants the president to explain to her why .
"I'm here just to support this lady and show there is support for getting out of Iraq and stopping this maniac from doing what he is doing," said Lawrence Reuben, a Vietnam veteran and a helicopter technician, from nearby Benton, Tex. "Why can't the president just stop and talk to the woman and say, 'Lady, I know where you're coming from. This war is not going the way I intended.' "
At the Peace House, a small wood-frame cottage just across the railroad tracks from this town's only traffic signal, things were humming. Outside, the parents of fallen soldiers were doing interviews with reporters while volunteers prepared signs, sold T-shirts and buttons and offered food and water to protesters.
Before Sheehan's arrival, the house, established in 2003 by Dallas peace activists, had $121 in the bank and its phone cut off because of overdue bills. But once word of Sheehan's protest took flight, money began to flow in. A woman from Italy paid for a large party tent, coolers and a generator. Other strangers sent checks and made deposits directly into the group's PayPal account. In one week, the house has amassed enough money to pay off its $40,000 mortgage.
"I've been walking around with my mouth open and in a daze for the past two or three days," said Kay Lucas, the Peace House director. "It's a blessing, a miracle. It's like the parable of the loaves and the fishes. The money and the phone calls and the letters of support have all been phenomenal."
Lucas said that the staff of the Peace House sent an e-mail to Sheehan once they learned that she planned to come to Crawford. Since her arrival, the house has been a sanctuary, a place for Sheehan and other protesters to take a nap, a shower or a break from the roadside camp.
At Camp Casey, the name given to Sheehan's encampment, a caravan of cars drove by her as she stood wearing a straw hat in the blazing sun, fighting back tears as she acknowledged her supporters. She wore a T-shirt bearing her dead son's picture. On her left ankle was a small tattoo that read: Casey '79-04.
Before long, she climbed onto the back of a pickup truck to address her supporters, who applauded loudly. She smiled humbly but her words were uncompromising.
"Who knew that the beginning of the end of the occupation of Iraq was going to start in Crawford, Texas, last Saturday?" she said. "Who knew that America would finally stand up and say we're sick and tired of this [expletive]? Bring our troops home."