They came from Loup City, Neb., and Adams-Morgan, from Palo Alto, Calif., and Harlem. They carried 25,000 banners, stitched, pasted and painted. Yesterday at 2:05 p.m. they tied them all together in a miles-long ribbon that encircled much of official Washington with a gentle message of peace.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, thousands of people surrounded the Pentagon, the Ellipse and the Capitol with their streaming cloth ribbon in an event so subdued and serene that it defied description as a protest. There were no antinuke placards, no exuberant chants and no celebrity speakers. Indeed, the banners spoke for themselves -- the creations of people around the nation depicting the things they could not bear to lose in a nuclear war.
There was a fuzzy teddy bear peeking from beneath a patchwork quilt, stitched by an Arlington woman from her son's baby blanket. Bright green poison ivy formed the border of another banner. "I shall miss the least of Thy creations," it was inscribed. There was a boldly colored chicken, complete with baby chicks, signed simply, "Toby Feltus, Hughesville, N.Y., Age 6 years."
No matter what treasure was depicted on the banners, their creators had a single message: no more war. "As a parent there is no greater moral issue than having a world for my children, and demonstrating that peace can work," said Mark Buchsieb, a 39-year-old real estate agent from Columbus, Ohio, who flew in for the day with his wife and 7-year-old daughter Molly.
The event, which came to be known as "The Ribbon," began with a bespectacled, 61-year-old grandmother from Denver who came up with the idea, as she went about her morning prayers one day in 1982, of encircling the Pentagon in a ribbon of peace. Justine Merritt took out her Christmas card list and wrote and asked friends to join her in the effort. They thought it was such a good idea that she began traveling by bus from town to town, her way paid by donations, to spread word of the ribbon.
Her journey ended yesterday at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. As the midday sun glinted on the Reflecting Pool, she looked out on a line of people linked by banners stretched toward the Washington Monument and far beyond. "I'm not going to cry, I'm not going to cry," she whispered, as she cut the ropes on a bunch of helium balloons and set them aloft to mark the final linking of the ribbon. "I'm just going to pray for peace."
Organizers said they covered "every inch" of the ribbon's planned route from the Capitol, west along the Mall and around the Ellipse, across Memorial Bridge and then around the Pentagon. But if a few inches were bare, no one was going to quibble. "The ribbons were so warm and beautiful, and it's been such a neat day," said Kevin Queally, one of the event's coordinators, at the Pentagon. "I'm not going to get hung up on the logistics."
According to police estimates, the ribbon brought 15,000 people into the streets of Washington. Some participants carried two banners, many of which were sent from all over the country by people who did not attend. The crowd was much smaller than the throngs that turned out for antiwar rallies in years past, but this event lacked nothing in the way of diversity.
It drew secretaries and homemakers, many of whom had never been to a rally before. It drew senior citizens and little girls clutching dolls, prison chaplains bearing banners made by inmates and one self-proclaimed "Pete Seeger groupie." It drew nuns and teachers, an Ithaca, N.Y., fireman and a machinist from Buffalo, who took flak from the guys back at the plant when he told them why he was going to Washington.
Vivian Dixon, director of a center for the homeless in East Harlem and one of the few blacks in the crowd, was a little bit surprised to find herself at the Pentagon yesterday. "Where I come from there's a war on every day, people fighting for food, fighting the landlord, fighting for welfare," she said. "There's no time for one more fight for peace." But she decided it was important to come because "we need this money our president is spending on bombs for food to put in the mouths of our people."
On the Mall, William Barry, a physician from Kalamazoo, Mich., looked slightly out of place in his gray pinstripes and said he would have felt just as out of place there 15 years ago when the issue was Vietnam. Back then, he was a physician, treating pilots on an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. Back then, he thought the protesters were "communists." But he is active now in nuclear arms protests because, he said, "my three children deserve a chance to grow up."
That was the reason why many in the overwhelmingly female crowd said they were there. "How many wars have we fought while the women have sat home waiting patiently for their men to come back?" Sheila Anderson, a mother of six from Canfield, Ohio, wanted to know. "History has taught us that we must do something, and now the women are going to move out in front to make peace."
The group brought its message to a Washington almost bereft of politicians. Congress had fled for its summer recess and President Reagan was still on his way back from Camp David. Many wondered, as did Lois Morrissey of Omaha, whether "this message will be taken to heart by the lawmakers, especially the president."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who carried a banner, thought that it might.
"Many people will try to put it down as soft . . . a women's thing," Schroeder said. "Yet in three years, the idea of this woman from Colorado has bloomed so that now they can encircle 15 miles around this city. It says to the power structure . . . that everyone isn't just interested in being Rambo. Many believe that nuclear arms are going to wipe us all out . . . If this network and these links stay together, you could see a lot of political repercussions."
Others joined in her prediction. Large demonstrations, said Jane Spurny, an elementary school teacher from Longmeadow, Mass., "are the only way to change things" because politicians want votes. And Jessie Wilson Orzech, a 10-year-old from Kennebunk, Maine, put it very simply. "I came because I think the president will get softhearted."
Some pointed to the fact that the ribbon was drawing a different sort of person than protests of the past. "We're not people who demonstrate and make headlines," said cardiologist Tom Richtsmeier, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, a town of 40,000 people and 72 nuclear reactors. "We vote. We pay taxes. We're just normal people."
And the ribbon seemed to galvanize them all. "I retired from the peace movement and activist scene years ago," said fashion consultant and one-time model Audrey Keller, of Palo Alto, Calif. "But this touched me. It is personal. It reaches right to the heart of every human being."
So too did the speeches of two survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who spoke through translators to the crowds at each site. Fumimaro Maruoka, who hid in a schoolhouse that crumpled around him on Aug. 6, 1945, told of encountering the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb, in a Smithsonian warehouse last week. "I never could forget that sight . . . I just cried," he said on the stage at the Pentagon. "We can never coexist with nuclear weapons. With all our might, we have to struggle to achieve the complete peace."
Yesterday, some said, was a beginning -- a mellow day on which folk singer Pete Seeger crooned "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and families brought their kids to wiggle their toes in the Reflecting Pool and stroll among the banners. It was a day for fathers and daughters to share apple cider on a sloping hill at the Pentagon and for teen-agers to sunbathe by the Capitol. It was a day for people who didn't know each other before and would never see each other again to embrace on the Mall.
The pieces of the ribbon, untied moments after they were linked, will remain part of the peace movement. They will not go back to their creators, but will be parceled out for exhibitions at museums and the United Nations and for use at rallies all over the country.
When it was all over, Seeger mused, "I'm sure some people will say we're all well-meaning dupes. Long live well-meaning dupes."