He just completed his 800 mile handcycling book tour from Portland, OR to San Francisco, CA.
photo: Brant Ward / The Chronicle
by Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer, Friday, July 15, 2011
Gliding slowly along the back roads of the Bay Area this week is a white-haired man on a strange, low-slung tricycle powered by hand cranks. His two metal prosthetic legs poke out under his shorts to rest in stirrups, and he never musters more than 10 mph.
Most drivers have blown by in Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa counties with barely a glance. Some stare. The cyclist never notices, cranking, always cranking - and usually with a big smile on his face.
Little do they know this is one of the most renowned antiwar protesters of the past quarter-century.
He is Brian Willson, and he is on a tour to promote the autobiography he released this month, "Blood on the Tracks." It's a book 24 years in the making - ever since Sept. 1, 1987, when he was run over by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station while trying to block it from delivering bombs headed for Central America.
Lost his legs
Willson lost both legs below the knees and suffered a fractured skull that day. In the years since, he has been in demand at lecture halls and hailed as a pre-eminent voice of peace advocacy by people ranging from activist actors Ed Asner and Kris Kristofferson to Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote the foreword to his book.
But now, at the age of 70 - his birthday was the Fourth of July - and living in a solar-powered house he built three years ago in Portland, Ore., Willson feels his life is about more than peace protest.
His 440-page book traces his journey from high school baseball star in Ashville, N.Y., to Air Force captain in Vietnam to antiwar figure - and on to today, when he says his most important message is that "we have to all live more simply, because our lifestyle in America is totally unsustainable."
"After all the things I've experienced in my life, I think the neolithic village is our model," Willson said the other day as he stopped for lunch at the Sebastopol home of a longtime protest pal, Eszter Freeman. "We'd all be better off living in small, local, self-sufficient communities, using simple tools.
"The lifestyle we've had for the past century, based on fossil fuels that are disappearing and polluting our planet and causing wars, is unhealthy and killing the earth," Willson said. "There's only one ultimate solution - radical downsizing of our lives."
That, Willson said, is why he has undertaken this book tour not in rented cars or buses, but by hand-cycling the 800 miles from Portland to San Francisco, with side routes, over the course of a month.
He started June 25 and will speak at San Francisco's First Unitarian Church at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. After hitting a few final lecture spots, he will board a train July 23 headed back home.
Appeal to young
He said younger people at his book stops often tell him they didn't know who he was before seeing notices advancing his appearances. The conflicts from the 1980s over El Salvador and Nicaragua have long since given way to arguments over Afghanistan and Iraq, and though Willson still rails against war, his wider mantra of going green and questioning authority means more to some of them than peace activism.
"Brian was much more focused on Central America 25 years ago, but now he's gone deeper into the American way of life," said David Hartsough, a fellow protester in 1987 who protected Willson's exposed brain as he lay, head cracked open, on the tracks.
On Wednesday, Willson's journey brought him back for the first time in many years to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, now mostly shuttered and awaiting civilian re-use. He and Hartsough had a few hours before a book talk, so they drove up to the exact spot where Willson's life changed 24 years ago.
Visit from the law
They'd been on the tracks for one minute before six Contra Costa County sheriff and U.S. Army security cars swarmed them. They wanted to know if the man with the artificial legs and his companion were terrorists - a label once used by the military to describe Willson back when he was blocking munitions trains.
The whole thing blew over quickly. One cop called Willson "a legend when I was in school," and said he was glad to meet him.
"After all these years, to be stopped like that again," Willson mused with a small chuckle. "I mean really - after all these years?"
A trip blog, tour schedule and description of "Blood on the Tracks," by Brian Willson, can be found at:
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