MISSOULA, Mont. - A blizzard nearly blinds me as I scan the hill just north of downtown. Then, squinting hard, I catch sight of it: the huge, crudely painted peace sign that for 15 years has comforted and inspired me, filled me with nostalgia and defined this town I call home.
I'm trying to fix the sign in my memory. By spring, the sign will be gone, a quirky footnote in the history of this quirky little town nestled in the northern Rockies.
The sign adorns a 40-square- foot microwave reflector owned by Qwest Communications. Unknown locals have repeatedly scaled Waterworks Hill, which is mostly public open space; ignored a "No Trespassing" sign; braved 6 feet of chain-link fence and three strands of barbed wire; and, suspended by ropes, painted the universal symbol for peace.
I've always cheered them on. At 48, I'm a member of the "Question Authority" generation. The rebel spirit still stirs within me, as does the craving for peace.
In 1993, the phone company gave up constantly repainting the reflector. The effort had been costly. At roughly $1,000 a pop, the liability was great: Some day a renegade Renoir was bound to get hurt. Now the reflector is obsolete, and Qwest plans to level it. It's offered to sell the surrounding quarter-acre to the city for $99.
Trouble is, the sign has become part of our local culture. Two neighborhoods have, in their joint community plan, labeled it a landmark. Some people even claim to have moved here largely because of the sign.
A drawing of the symbol and its creators graces locally produced coffee mugs. School kids routinely capture the image in their artwork. And a recent informal survey of Missoulians, conducted by the Missoula Peace Project, showed that 65 percent of the respondents favored keeping the microwave reflector as it is.
The sign is highly popular, but not universally so. Debate over it has swirled for years. Is it art or graffiti? A landmark or blight? A symbol of protest or goodwill? Mere mischievousness or a monument to malefactors?
When Qwest first raised the possibility of dismantling the sign, letters poured in to the local newspaper. The comments included: "It is a silk purse made from a sow's ear." "Only in this backward town would people condone graffiti and vandalism." "I would not underestimate the powerful impact on our children of being raised and educated under a sign of peace." "It is offensive to this WW2 veteran who knows that 'Nam should not have happened but has little patience with flower children."
But here's the letter that slayed me, that I would've written if only I'd taken the time:
"Every time I look up and see this 1960s symbol of peace, a smile comes to my heart," wrote Vietnam veteran Ron Williams. "I remember a time in my life when I was young; full of energy; and naive enough to believe that all things were possible, even peace. Then, for just a moment, a long-forgotten feeling comes over me; my body relaxes; it is the late '60s once again; and I have come home to my new hometown of Missoula, where diversity and acceptance are the norm. There even seems to be room for me."
Such is the power of symbols; each of us reads into them different things, based on our age, our experiences, our particular demons. On this snowy morning, I'm sitting in the downtown office of architect and City Councilman Jerry Ballas. He's a former ROTC cadet and combat engineer in Vietnam. Ostensibly, our topic is the peace sign and surrounding land. But, really, we're talking about his demons.
"It's a symbol of protest," Ballas says quietly. "It's a constant reminder of those times when I came back from serving my country and didn't feel like there was any appreciation at all for the efforts that we had made. It's a constant reminder of that time period when there was a lot of strife going on, not only within the country but within my own mind."
The sign represents trespassing and vandalism, he adds; it defiles a landscape we Missoulians want to protect. Wasn't it just six years ago we passed a $5 million bond issue to pay for preserving open space? I can see his points. Heck, I obey laws, have helped paint over graffiti on public structures and love unfettered views as much as the next person.
Still, I want the sign there. Call my viewpoint "situation ethics," "situation aesthetics" or a circumstantial respect for squatter's rights. This much is sure: When I hold my thumb to the northern skyline and imagine the sign gone, my spirits sink through the soles of my boots. I feel older, disillusioned, a resident of a town becoming too upscale and mainstream for my tastes.
I long for the days when we all lived in modest homes and drove old pickups, when a peace sign seemed to sum up who we were.
Ballas looks forward to the sign's demise. I don't. We do agree, as most folks do, that the tiny parcel around it should become public open space. Maybe it'll be a peace park. But it won't be the same.
Leveling the sign will help bring him closure, he says. But I don't much believe in such a thing. I think we all must come to grips with our pasts as best we can.
We must file away painful, even horrific, memories and re-examine them only when we're feeling particularly strong - or masochistic. We can bury our dead, never our memories. Somehow, we must ride on, with our pasts bringing up the rear.
Today, with his brown plaid shirt, wire-rimmed bifocals and gray hair, Ballas looks like somebody's dad - like somebody who, 30 years ago, wanted peace as much as I did but had a different way of fighting for it.
He certainly doesn't look like my enemy. But that's how I once would've seen him. He had, after all, voluntarily joined a war I thought pointless, unjust, terrifying.
It would've tickled me back then to know I'd someday live in a town overlooked by a giant peace sign. This one cropped up about four years after I moved here. It actually stemmed from the anti-nuclear, not anti-war, movement, Missoula Peace Project spokesman Jim Parker tells me.
But whenever I see it, I remember protesting the Vietnam War: the high-school moratorium in Bethesda, when, to show our opposition to the war, we students earnestly vowed to "stop business as usual"; the march in which hundreds of thousands of us amassed beneath the Washington Monument, filled with anger and brotherly love but, most of all, hope; and another march on Washington, when we lined up in the rain to shout out the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam inscribed on signs we clutched to our sodden chests.
As a rainbow arched over the Lincoln Memorial, we felt fate - maybe even the spirit of Honest Abe himself - smile on us.
Rarely since those days have I felt so alive. And maybe never since then have I believed I could make big changes in the world. Now I content myself, as I imagine most aging Baby Boomers do, with making small changes and trying to hold on to the things that count.
Carol Susan Woodruff is a free lance writer who grew up in Be thesda and now lives in Missoula, Montana.
© 2001 by The Baltimore Sun