Reading the Sign 

What does the public think about Missoula’s peace sign?

It’s been a year pregnant with symbolism: In July the Rainbow Family made the town of Wisdom the destination for its annual pilgrimage, testing not only the endurance of Montana’s food pantries but its tolerance for differences. Weeks later, the arrival of the Hell’s Angels stressed our social tensile strength to its breaking point, demonstrating that the cadence of riot troops and the low buzz of helicopters could, even in the name of self-preservation, prove as incendiary to the local citizenry as unmufflered Harleys and the colors of an outlaw motorcycle gang. As the community licked its wounds in the sweltering aftermath and struggled for an appropriate response to the violence, the sun was turning blood-red with the smoke of forest fires that would consume our attention and resources for months to come.

As the year 2000 draws to an ignominious close both locally and nationally, it seems only fitting that one more symbol—the peace sign—should enter the fray of public discourse to highlight the wounds in our community that have yet to fully heal.

As many are by now well-aware, the peace sign, the graffito painted on a microwave reflector in Missoula’s North Hills, is slated for demolition by the end of the year by its owner, the telecommunications company Qwest. According to Qwest spokesman Russ Cravens, the now-obsolete relay station was taken out of service this summer and must be off the company’s books by Jan. 1. At the request of the Missoula City Council, Qwest has delayed its removal until a community group can perhaps engineer a land swap that would allow the city to take ownership of the 0.23-acre parcel in exchange for a location where Qwest would erect a smaller, less obtrusive antenna to meet its growing wireless communications needs.

While the reflector no longer serves as a telecommunications conduit, the peace sign still conveys powerful, if mixed, messages to residents and visitors alike. As a result, a broad coalition of Missoula residents is soliciting input from the community—comments, photos, artwork, mementos—to decipher what those messages are and help decide the fate of this popular yet controversial landmark.

The peace sign first appeared above Missoula 17 years ago during the heyday of the nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The symbol itself dates back to the 1956 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which created it by combining the semaphore letters for “N” and “D.” In 1978 Missoula voters passed a ballot initiative declaring Missoula County a “nuclear free zone,” banning any nuclear facilities except those for medical purposes. That same year, a statewide initiative barred nuclear facilities or reactors in Montana without a vote of the people, and in 1980, banned the disposal of nuclear waste.

Since 1983, the peace sign has become such a fixture on Missoula’s landscape that the 2000 Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan refers to it as “a key neighborhood landmark” with “archetypal significance for neighborhood children, who often draw the familiar symbol on the ridgeline as a backdrop for the standard scene depicting houses, trees, sun and family.”

Such warm and fuzzy sentiments are not shared by everyone. Greg Burham is team leader at the Veterans Center, an outpatient counseling center serving about 150 local veterans. Burham explains that for many Vietnam War veterans, the peace sign is an affront to the sacrifices they and their comrades made, especially those harassed upon their return.

“It’s part of our culture now, but for those who lived through it, it was a pretty horrendous experience,” says Burham, “to dream about getting back to the United States and then come back to that kind of organized abuse.”

Burham, himself a Vietnam veteran, takes no sides in the current debate—“The last thing that I want to do is have my political views get in the way of helping some veteran who may be in crisis”—but he’s heartened by the community outpouring to hear all voices.

Of course, Vietnam veterans are not of one mind on the peace sign’s meaning. Roman Kuczer, another combat veteran, says the peace sign was as pervasive in Vietnam as it was at home, with soldiers sporting them on helmets, tanks and flak jackets.

“Personally, it represented more the desire to end this thing and get the hell out of there alive,” says Kuczer. “Someone said recently that it upsets people. Well, you know what? If you buy into that, you might as well go to Germany and take down the concentration camps that are left as a reminder of what happened in Auschwitz and Dachau. Sometimes you keep symbols of unpleasant things because they have significant historic value. … This is a message to those veterans who are opposed to that symbol: They will never heal until they deal with it in a positive, healthy fashion. They can take that pain with them to the grave or they can do something about it.”

Anyone wishing to add their thoughts or comments to the discussion can visit one of many “journal” sites around town before Dec. 15, at the Missoula Public Library, the Art Museum, Hellgate High School, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, UM, Rockin Rudy’s and the Vet Center. Whether the sign stays or goes, those comments will be incorporated into a book commemorating the peace sign and assisting in the effort to create a monument, memorial or park honoring Missoula as a place of peace, tolerance, respect and reconciliation.

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