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February 24, 2003


Marching Orders

By Adriel Hampton

“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”


He knows you really never can persuade. They have to convince themselves. He thinks back how he got into these rallies, these raucous marches through the heart of the city, deciding he’d rather tear down the glass, concrete and steel canyon walls than sit silent anymore. His voice is getting louder.

It was back in September, first Wednesday, coming home from a prayer meeting. His wife calls, crying. Burnt, badly.

He rushes home, waiting on the red then gunning the station wagon hard through the turn. She’s spilled boiling water all over her chest, bra peeling burnt skin. Somehow he sees falling rubble, rubble and smoke. He’s pulling his wife out and there are no medicines. A dream brought on by too many newspapers, a dream. And he wants to scream at the night and inside he’s howling.


First time he shows up too early, too much time to think. Wanders down the pier to sit and watch a seagull edge closer to eat a rockfish on its last gasp. Fisherman down the rail isn’t watching so he sits long enough to keep the bird from its meal. The fish is tiny, would fit in a child’s hand. The ferries are going out, gliding in.

Along the Embarcadero the clumps and crowds are tearing free of the wharfs and sidewalks to converge on the plaza. On stage a labor guy is strumming a guitar, mouthing folk songs of his own making. Teenage girls are darting in and out of the crowd as the cameras click and the oldsters peer. It takes him a full hour, just standing, standing, to join. A roar, pure power, ripples miles through the crowd, forcing open every mouth. He’s singing along with the fury and the glory.


Early last year, he wrote a letter to President Bush. “I voted for you,” he wrote. He liked the plan to split INS into enforcement and administration, friendlier. “I don’t want war with Iraq.” He’s got two brothers in the service. He, too, would fight if we were attacked. Who wouldn’t.


“Five or six of us pulled a large cart to take Naomi’s body back home. All the way back I was speechless, stricken by the horrible change wrought on her.

Having fought many battles in China for four years, I thought I had seen the extremes of human misery. However, the heartrending sight of noncombatant women and children suffering tragic deaths was simply unbearable. The next day, in the midst of all the turmoil, we held a hurried funeral for Naomi in a crematory.

We must swear in our hearts never to repeat such a tragic and pitiful war again.”


He read in Hiroshima. He can’t stop reading.


“This is a human being.
Look how the atom bomb changed it.
Flesh swells fearfully.
All men and women take one shape.
The voice that trickles from swollen lips
on the festering charred-black face
whispers the thin words,
‘Please help me.’
This, this is a human being.
This is the face of a human being.”


So he marches again, wife at his side, pink and purple scar between her breasts. If they don’t want to, he can’t make them see the pain. And he’ll claw this city to the ground to stop it.

Adriel Hampton is a Bay Area writer. Quotations are from Proverbs; the remembrance of the Mobilized Youth at the National Atomic Bomb Memorial; and “Flower of Summer,” by A-bomb survivor Tamiki Hara (1905-1951).