It was one of those first real summer twilights in Portland, just after quick summer showers darken red brick sidewalks and historic buildings, turn swaths of grass a shinier green and make everything smell fresh for a moment.
Voices created a soft, congregate buzz as people walked between the urban postage stamp parks in the Old Port.
Bicycles, parents with children, in arms or in strollers, visitors with gray hair and people wearing their youth passed through, or lingered, holding hands. It could have been a video for tourism.
Street performers walked a low wire and juggled under slender birch trees, as performers have for centuries in ancient cities. A very little boy walked around and around the empty Portland tourist kiosk next to Tommy's Park.
"Duck, Duck, Duck," he repeated as if playing the old game, duck, duck, goose you're it.
Immersed in the moment, I almost ran right into Sally Breen of Peace Action Maine, standing on the sidewalk with a sign. She is the sentinel on the public thoroughfare of our consciousness. Then I heard the bell, and then a name.
"It used to take us four hours to read the names. This time, we've been here since this morning," said Sally.
After each name was read by a volunteer reader, a bell chimed and resonated delicately, imprinting a space in the moment to remember American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the Iraq conflict.
Names on the List
There were more than 2,500 American soldiers names on the list on July 7 when Peace Action Maine began its solemn ritual to remember by name, those fallen in war. Sally and the readers, during the course of the long day, handled some angry passers-by.
Mostly, those people passed by or stopped a moment. Some stayed long enough, said Sally, to listen, and understand; to hear each name as that of a human being whose life had been taken away.
I was reminded of a brief exchange in a store where a general discussion had started about the war in Iraq.
To emphasize how America was winning the war in Iraq in spite of more than 2,000 American casualties, one person said he had read we had killed 100,000 of "them," meaning Iraqi people.
I said I thought that was one estimate regarding noncombatants, Iraqi civilians, including women and children and the elderly.
Human beings that become "other" get lost, dehumanized in the statistics of wars and political combat.
The names, their ages, and their towns continued, as people stood on line to take their turn reading names. The people behind those names were in their late teens and 20s, 30s, even 40s when they were killed in Iraq.
Iraqi civilian casualties, like the soldiers, were women and men, parents, brothers, mothers, daughters.
Marking An "X"
Two Peace Action senior citizens in the park sat at a card table with a 12-foot-square canvas spread before them. Every time a name was read, one of them made an "X." On closer look, some of the Xs had small numbers next them. Those numbers, I was told, meant that the person named had died with several others.
The readers called a name and then described the rest as, "grandmother and granddaughter," "wife and baby," along with one whole family of children. There was the name of a soldier from a small Maine town. There was a 19-year-old American soldier and a 14-year-old Iraqi kid.
". . . Edwards, 19. . . . Abbas, 19."
Whether it is an American officer or Iraqi ally, or an Iraqi housewife or doctor or toddler, it is the end of their future.
The month of July, when families, fathers, mothers and children should be strolling in the park, looking historic buildings, watching ancient jugglers, safe on a beautiful evening, too many are captured by the fear and horrors of this bloody time.
It is an era of fast-draw to violence. Israel, Lebanon, Gaza, India, all full of human beings with names and roots to the future, cut off by our human inability to find and hold sacred a common thread of humanity.
No matter how the life is taken, whether by the bloody monster or the armed peacekeeper, life that falls under violence does not rise again.
How does one stop ever making Xs and numbers on canvas in the middle of a beautiful day that should belong to everyone? Maybe if we can learn to call each other by name in life, we will know.
Victoria Mares-Hershey is director of development at Portland West. She also is a member of the Maine Arts Commission and is a founder and the director of the Institute for Practical Democracy.
© 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.