The train incident in a nutshell

KCBS San Francisco (Ch. 5) just aired a piece on Brian as one of a series of segments about the Concord Naval Weapons Station. It includes a recent interview interspersed with still photos from Brian’s collection and video footage taken by Bob Spitzer on the day of the assault (September 1, 1987). For anyone who doesn’t know the story about how Brian lost his legs, here it is in a neat encapsulated form: Veteran, Activist Recalls Losing Legs to Train in Concord Protest

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Occupy USA

Brian and I have visited about a dozen Occupy camps on this tour, and I captured a number of those in snapshots which I have posted online via Picasa. There is a lot more to say about things we observed, people we met, conversations we had at various Occupy sites; many thoughts that have been provoked by this movement. However, at this moment I just want to post these links.

Occupy Chicago

Occupy Cleveland

Occupy Boston (photos by Lysa Leland)

Occupy Manchester

Occupy Maine (Portland)

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Buffalo

Occupy Rochester

Occupy Albany

Occupy Baltimore

Occupy DC

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In the Studio with Amy Goodman

Brian watches himself on TVBefore we ever left home, Brian’s friend Andrés Thomas Conteris was working his connections at Democracy Now! to get Brian on the show during his East Coast book tour. He and other friends sent the book to show producers to help convince them it was a good idea. “It is almost assured,” he said, “that if you make it to New York City,” you will be on the show. But no such promises were forthcoming from the show’s producers. Meanwhile, Robbie Lepzer and Scott Christianson, who also have personal connections at DN!, made calls to endorse Brian as an important guest to feature on the show. We were hopeful, though of course we understood that any plan to interview Brian could easily be bumped by a big breaking story.

Soon after arrival at our friends’ apartment in New York City, Andrés called to tell us we should expect a call from a Democracy Now! producer, and to make sure we could be reached at that number. Finally, one day in advance, we connected with one of the show’s producers and managed to schedule an interview for Thursday, Oct. 27, just before we were to catch a train to Philly where Brian was speaking that night. We packed light and did not bring my computer. We were able to walk to the station from where we were staying and arrived in plenty of time. It was fun watching Amy on the television in the reception area, taping various radio spots and then apparently studying Brian’s book while she munched on a mid-morning snack. When Brian was finally ushered in, I got to watch the interview on the same TV monitor as it was being taped. At first he looked down a lot, apparently feeling somewhat shy, but after a while he warmed up and Amy’s prompts helped him unwind his amazing story yet again. (He’s of course been practicing his talk, having appeared at sixty-plus book talks over the past few months.) By the end of the interview, it appeared to me that Amy was really taken with Brian, and she actually followed him out of the studio with her cellphone to take photographs of him walking on his colorful prosthetic legs and getting on the elevator as we hurriedly left to catch the car they had called to take us to Penn Station. The car had been kept waiting because although we were told we’d be leaving at 11:40am, it was more like 11:55 when the interview finally ended.

We didn’t know then whether it would be aired the next day, Friday, or the following Monday. Producers asked if we could supply high-def still photos for the show, if possible, and also requested the video of Brian being run over, which had been captured by his friend Bob Spitzer on September 1, 1987. We were told by producers as we left, “Amy is keen to have that video for the show.” And so, when we arrived in Philadelphia, that was my main focus. Using a loaned computer and a loaned cell phone, I made calls to Ramsey at PM Press requesting photos to be sent and to various friends back home who I thought might be able to help us get the video of the assault uploaded (the DN! producers, meanwhile, informed me they definitely needed it for Friday). Finally it was the B Media Collective who answered the call, picked up the DVD from our housesitter, and made it happen. We are very grateful to them, to Brian’s publisher for seeing that all the still photos were sent, as well as to the show producers who masterfully combined all those visuals with the interview for the televised version of the show, and of course to Amy Goodman herself, who is simply an amazing human being. Although that coffee they were serving at the studio was pretty high octane, as described by the rockstar receptionist, I know it’s something far more powerful that drives Amy to do what she does so well, day in and day out.

We didn’t actually see the show ourselves until we returned to the Democracy Now! studio the next day to pick up Brian’s personal dog-eared copy of Blood on the Tracks which he had left behind, at which time we were also gifted with multiple copies of the show on DVD. We were of course delighted to find that they had devoted the whole program to Brian. We again had the brief pleasure of interacting with Amy who told us as she was running out the door that she had been promoting Brian all morning. Why? Well I suppose because she also believes, as Brian would say, we are all connected.

As serendipity would have it, Brian’s favorite baseball team (from childhood), the St. Louis Cardinals, wound up winning the World Series the same night. He went to sleep with a big smile on his face.

Click here to watch Amy Goodman’s interview with Brian on Democracy Now!

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From Cleveland to Western Mass

After much anxiety on all sides (due to the known difficulty of finding the train station plus a combination of train lag and sleep deprivation), Art Dorland graciously delivered us to the Amtrak station in time to make our 5:50 departure. On the other end, Brian’s good old friend Karen Fogliatti met us at the Springfield station.

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Western Mass

During our short stay in Western Massachusetts, Brian’s old stomping ground, we were based in the small town of Montague with friends Ricky Baruc and Deb Habib, whom Brian has known for many years and whom I met in 1997 when I first visited Brian at the straw-bale house he had just built in Wendell. Ricky and Deb have a small farm and an educational endeavor called Seeds of Solidarity. Deb is an amazing organizer and founder of a huge annual Garlic Festival in the town of Orange. Farmer Ricky has a strong spiritual nature that drives him to continually work to deepen his relationship with the cosmos and to explore his inner self. Rick and Deb’s son Levi was just born when Brian left Western Mass in 1999 to move to the West Coast, and although it’s been twelve years it seems like it was overnight that their baby bean sprouted into an incredible human being with a happily grounded presence and his own unique sense of style. During the afternoon, we got to visit their amazing home, a work in progress that features an indoor composting toilet system, passive solar (a connected greenhouse) and many other amenities and artistic touches. Along the road into their farm are signs decorated with graphics and quotations marking fields and greenhouses named for famous peace and social justice activists. When Brian suggested we move in with them, Rick and Deb happily agreed.

Regrettably, there was just one day, Sunday, allotted for book events in Western Mass, but we made the most of it. First of all, Brian and I caught up our sleep, walking up just in time for a 10 o’clock Sunday brunch, certainly in the top ten of all the potlucks I’ve ever attended! Then Deb and Ricky delivered us to the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts. The New England Peace Pagoda (the first of its kind in North America) was established as “a visible form of prayer for inseparable peace in the world and within the minds of all humanity” by monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order. Brian was deeply honored by being the second speaker whose words would grace the new temple after its recent dedication on October 2 (the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi) which had featured an address by the Christian pacifist John Dear. This was a momentous occasion, because of the new temple’s long history. The New England Peace Pagoda was inaugurated in 1985 but the accompanying temple was burnt to the ground by arsenists immediately after being built and its resurrection has taken many years. Brian was introduced by Sister Clare, whom I remembered from a ceremony I attended at the pagoda with him in 1997. The energy in this venue was quite incredible, to say the least, and led to an inspired address and Q&A, followed by many book sales. I wandered the grounds to capture some images of the pagoda, temple and gardens.

That evening, Brian had a second speaking event at the Second Congregational Church UCC of Greenfield, preceded by a vegetarian potluck. Folksinger and political satirist Tom Neilson warmed up the crowd, accompanied by vocalist Lynn Waldron. Introductory remarks were delivered by Louis Battalen, one of 27 librarians honored with a 2003 New York Times Library Award when he was director of the Arms Library Association in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Among the other luminaries in attendance were long-time activist Frances Crowe, writers Wesley Blix and Rob Riggan, nonviolent communication trainer Karen Fogliatti and social-change artist Josh “Waffles the Clown” Dostis. Unfortunately, since so many books were sold earlier in the day, only six were available for the Greenfield talk and it was only due to the nonviolent nature of the persons in attendance that fistfights did not break out. A few people signed up to obtain books later through the Solar Store in Greenfield. Special thanks to Karen Fogliatti for helping arrange this event.

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3 days in C-Town

OCT 12 – We arrived in Cleveland in the wee morning hours. Due in at 12:59 AM, the train was an hour and a quarter late. The approach was beautiful, over a bridge suspended just above an inky Cuyahoga River surface reflecting the colorful lights above. The chipper good humor of Janet, who met us at the station, belied the lateness of the hour. Our subsequent impromptu tour of the city included a 2:30 AM visit to the site of Occupy Cleveland, where 40 or 50 people were bedded down in a close-knit tent city. A couple of middle-aged African-American men waved at us from their sleeping bags. A few people stood on the sidewalk chatting amicably with the five uniformed police on site. Janet assured us that the police were there as friends; their own salaries are on the chopping block so they have generally been supportive of the occupation. A young man with unruly hair walked over and leaned in for a quick introduction to Brian. Janet continued to orient us as we made our way over to the Cleveland Heights home where we would spend the next four nights (thank you Peggy!).

Brian and I woke up to rain, feeling well rested after sleeping in (still on Pacific Time), but a little out of sorts because the power was out. We were we determinedly traveling without cell phones and there was no working clock to be found anywhere. Our own little travel clock had apparently been knocked off track by being squished into my overloaded backpack (no way it was 5:30, AM or PM!). It took a walk in the rain to find out from neighbors why the power was out (trees being trimmed) and what time it was (close to 1:00). After updating Brian I ventured out again for coffee and to rent a car for two days so we could at least get out to do some computing during the morning hours, as our host’s router had broken down just before our arrival.

Revolution Books in ClevelandBrian’s premiere East Coast book talk was held that evening (Wednesday, Oct. 12th) at Revolution Books in Cleveland Heights, located at the corner of Mayfield at the lower end of the Coventry Road business district. As we approached the figures milling out front of the store, a tall thin man wearing a ball cap and spectacles greeted us. “Do you remember me?” he asked Brian. Turns out it was Brian’s ex-brother-in-law from West Virginia, the ex-husband of one of the sisters of his first wife. They hadn’t seen each other for 32 years; he had learned about the event through one of Brian’s facebook friends. The small space was filled by starting time and Evie Morris warmed up the crowd with a song as volunteers squeezed in a few more folding chairs. I counted 25 people and about half that many book were sold—not a bad kickoff. We met a few of Cleveland’s stalwart activists that evening, including MJ Muser, a wonderful organizer who was integral in setting up his three Cleveland events, all of which she would attend. This C-Town leg wouldn’t have happened without her!

OCT 13 – Early the next afternoon, MJ picked us up with Mike Fagan, our volunteer driver for the day. The first destination was the Amtrak station, where we hoped to pick up our tickets for an early morning departure on Saturday. We wound our way from Cleveland Heights through Little Italy, around museum row, and made a quick stop at the lakefront (Lake Erie that is) on our way downtown. All along the way MJ pointed out historical landmarks, festival locations and other cultural attractions, and entertained us with stories about local political actions and Cleveland activists. Mike’s valiant effort to get us to the Amtrak station turned out to be a wild goose chase, as the station is only open from 9:30PM to 1:00PM. So we moved on to Occupy Cleveland, where we spent a lovely hour hanging out and chatting with fellow 99ers. We learned that the occupation was small but stable, with numbers fluctuating every day. It was a fairly diverse group. Some people were working during the day and sleeping there at night. General assemblies and small marches were happening every day at regular times. Plentiful donations of food and drink were evident and there was even a roll-your-own tobacco station. The Cleveland occupation was receiving regular media attention, from independent videographers as well as professional journalists. One young spokeswoman, who told me she quit her day job to help organize, flashed the BBC t-shirt she got when Occupy Cleveland was featured on the international network’s “Have Your Say” call-in radio show.

Brian at Visible VoiceWe caught an early dinner on our way to Visible Voice Books in the Tremont neighborhood. The cozy space was filled with about a dozen people. At least half of those bought a copy of Blood on the Tracks, and a quarter (including me) enjoyed the wine-tasting that was offered, a benefit for Veterans For Peace (VFP). I also enjoyed browsing the great selection of other books on display, collecting ideas for future reading. In the audience were Art Dorland and Mike Ludwig from the local VFP chapter. Art was one of our unofficial hosts, having received and delivered a box of books for this evening’s gig and volunteered to take us to the Amtrak upon our departure. The two vets lingered afterward to drink coffee and visit with Brian and I before giving us a lift back to Cleveland Heights.
After the talk

OCT 14 – We started our day with hot cereal, coffee and computing before hooking up with Cleveland rockstar activist Leatrice Bard Tolls, who was basically at our beck and call for the afternoon and charged with getting us to the evening gig on time. We returned our rental car around 2 o’clock, and then Lea took us to Tommy’s, a local institution with an extensive menu listing 101 different combinations of a few basic ingredients, i.e. baba gannoush, hummus, veggies, cheese and bread, and a few different kinds of meat. There we met up with Charlie Mosbrook, local folksinger extraordinaire. I’d been noticing Charlie’s CDs and open mic advertisement over at Phoenix coffee for the past three mornings and knew he would be singing at Brian’s book talk that night. Charlie was an Ironman triathlete and marathoner until a debilitating spinal cord injury changed his life in 2010. Despite this devastating physical setback, Charlie managed to channel his adversity into a burst of creativity when he found that his singing and songwriting abilities remained very much in tact. It was interesting to watch Charlie and Brian (whose pinched nerve pain had made a nasty comeback after he overdid in Chicago) slowly making their way to Lea’s van together, both walking slowly and painfully with the help of their canes. The two enjoyed getting to know each other during a relaxing couple of hours at Lea’s place while she and cooked up a few dishes for the evening’s potluck before heading over to Paul’s Community Church in Ohio City for Brian’s third and last Cleveland gig.

Charlie Mosbrook

Charlie Mosbrook

The St. Paul’s event was good but strangely emotional. By that time I was feeling, as I told someone later, “like these were my people and Cleveland was my town.” I felt a wave of sadness during my intro as I expressed my appreciation for the people we’d met during the past three days, and then, as Brian unfolded his story, he seemed to want to speak about the heaviest of his experiences, and choked up several times in doing so. It is interesting how the energy of a place seems to impact Brian’s talk on any particular night. Although he always relates the same story, he doesn’t have a formula and doesn’t read from notes but rather speaks from his heart, so it’s always a little different. On this particular night, factors such as an empty stomach (since he declined to partake in the potluck) and the deeply soulful singing offered up by Charlie Mosbrook just beforehand undoubtedly affected his mood as well. All in all, it was another successful event with a turnout of about 30, strong responses from the diverse audience, and 12 to 15 books sold. (I thought it was going to be a simple matter to get exact numbers, but others have been in charge of ordering and selling books, so it hasn’t been so easy.)

Parting shot at the Barking Spider: Becky, Lea, Brian & MJ

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Occupying Chicago

Just Say NoWhen setting up the East Coast book tour, the Chicago piece just slipped through our fingers, mostly due to lack of organizing time, but the way our schedule unfolded, we ended up spending one night there anyway. Serendipitously, with a nationwide occupation movement underway, and our train scheduled to leave late in the afternoon, we were afforded some time to visit the occupation being staged at a perfectly symbolic spot in downtown Chicago — in front of the Federal Reserve Building on the west side of La Salle, the Bank of America Building across the street, and the Chicago Board of Trade perpendicular to that on the south side of West Jackson. A high-end Anne Taylor women’s clothing store occupies the first floor of the B of A building with window displays lining the north side of Jackson. Large American flags decorate both sides of the front entrance Federal Reserve. A small but determined and diverse group of up to 70 people were out there holding signs, taping interviews, and making a percussive ruckus on plastic buckets, one large plastic kettle drum, and the metal barricades lining the street. We hung out at that intersection between 12:30 and 2:00 PM, observing, chatting with folks and taking photos. While we were there a large group of mostly African-American folks wearing blue shirts printed with “Accíon AHORA” paraded through the occupation on the Bank of American side of La Salle carrying signs protesting forecloses. They crossed Jackson and then boarded a yellow school bus on the other side. We found out later that there were several additional occupations happening simultaneously in different parts of the city, and although we didn’t witness them, we were told that marches were happening a couple times a day, some being routed down Michigan Avenue where we were staying. Click here to see my Chicago Occupation photos.

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The Empire Builder

Amtraking from Portland to Chicago, two days, two nights, October 8-10. Border Patrol came onto the train at White Fish, Montana. Why? Our train car porter told us the Border Patrol has jurisdiction within 30 miles of the border, and that they regularly look for “illegal immigrants” at this stop. I wondered where they think these “illegal” human beings are coming from and going to? Is it simply a matter of the overarching components of Homeland Security seeking any excuse they can to throw their weight around, here a train stop in the middle of virtually nowhere but within 30 miles of the border with Canada? So, they have “legal” authorization to search any human being they don’t like for some unexplainable reason, or perhaps based on racial, ethnic or cultural prejudices provoked by certain “suspicious” appearances or “features.”

We ate each of our six meals in the dining car, invariably paired with others at a table where we could almost be assured of enjoying an interesting conversation, along the scenery along the rails, ranging from politics of the USA and/or the world, to work/hobby interests, to vacation plans or experiences, to the varied quality, price and taste of Amtrak food, actually not so bad. Because we had a sleeper, all meals are included in the price of our ticket, a great feature of going by train in style. Here’s a small gallery of that leg of our journey. [photos by Becky]

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We’re off!

east coast tour departure

Our lovely friend Marcia Meyers gave us a ride to Union Station and saw us off.

It was a rushed beginning. Despite my promise to pack light, my suitcase is stuffed to the max. Happily, Brian’s painful pinched nerve, which a week ago had threatened to cause us to cancel the whole East Coast tour, is finally easing up somewhat, enough that he decided not to bring a wheelchair along. This is a great relief and makes us both feel a little lighter as we embark on our trip.

Endless details had to be taken care of in getting ready for our house/dogsitter, Shawn. Not unexpected since we were preparing to be gone for seven weeks (’til Thanksgiving!), but finally, as Marcia and Brian moved to the car, I had to leave the dirty dishes in the sink. At the last minute, Shawn experienced a breakdown on the way to our place, delaying his arrival until after we left home. He arrived just soon enough to be able to touch base with him briefly, via pay phone, just before boarding the train.

A glorious, sunny day after a week of rain, it was an auspicious beginning for our long journey. We start out skirting the Columbia River, on the Washington side, with spectacular views of the gorge on our way to Spokane where our train hooked up with its sister from Seattle, forming the Empire Builder. Our car is the last one on the train. Destination: Chicago.


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Brian wraps up So Cal tour on 9/11

Brian Willson poses with Los Angeles veterans and friends

September 11, 2011. Veterans For Peace at Arlington West memorial next to pier in Santa Monica, California. L–R: Michael Lindley, Ron Kovic, Frank Dorrel, Becky Luening, S. Brian Willson. Photo by Myla Reson.


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