By Susan Van Haitsma
Jewel Johnson, a 79 year-old US Navy veteran, is happiest piloting a dry-land rig. His early fascination with trains led him to leave high school and work the railroad until he was drafted at age 18. After the war, he earned a GED and went on to study the ministry. He was ordained in the Methodist Church and served as pastor of Evangelical & Reformed and United Church of Christ congregations before his retirement. In the early 1990â€™s, Mary Johnson was diagnosed with cancer, and Jewel Johnson cared for his wife throughout her treatment. She survived.
To ease his mind during his wifeâ€™s illness, Johnson put himself to work. He took a riding mower and fashioned it into a miniature locomotive. Gradually he added cars. He painted them and called his train The Happy Day press. He painted messages on the sides of the cars â€“ statements such as a quotation from Pope Paul VI, made at the United Nations in 1965: â€œWar Never Again.â€ A carved white dove holding a wire olive branch served as the cabâ€™s hood ornament. Johnsonâ€™s creation became known as the Peace Train.
This recent Veterans Day morning was not the first time that Johnson engineered his Peace Train up Congress Avenue toward the Texas State Capitol amid marching bands, vintage cars, girl and boy scout troops, Junior
ROTC units and various groups of uniformed vets. And it wasnâ€™t the first time that other Veterans for Peace (VFP) members marched in the annual parade along with the Peace Train. The train was fitted with large placards that relayed to the crowd the mission of VFP, and about a dozen VFP members carried banners and distributed several hundred invitational pamphlets to onlookers and other vets in the parade. Mary Johnson, who is an associate VFP member, rode in the caboose to oversee the brakes. All along the route, the Peace Train and its Veterans for Peace crew were greeted by steady applause.
Somehow, a crowd that applauded veterans in a truck labeled, â€œTin Can Sailors â€“ Destroyer Veteransâ€ also cheered a Navy vet driving a train declaring, â€œPre-emptive Peace On All The Earth.â€ Itâ€™s true that the Peace
Trainâ€™s cargo elicited as many expressions of plain surprise as outright approval, but there were few frowns. Not many could resist the wave of the smiling engineer in his dapper conductorâ€™s uniform or reject the hand-lettered messages: â€œWorking to Make War Obsolete,â€ and â€œJustice For Veterans And Victims Of War.â€
Jewel and Mary Johnson have long been active supporters of Veterans for Peace, and they also are members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the United Nations Association. They take part in local or national meetings of these organizations as well as their denominational gatherings. When he was in the Pacific just after the atomic bombing, Johnson was part of a patrol that went ashore at Hiroshima to pick up American prisoners of war. At one point while he was walking through what was left of the city, a Japanese citizen offered him a tangerine. It was a humane gesture in the midst of horror that he never forgot.
The Johnsons donâ€™t stop with Veterans Day; they take the Peace Train to holiday parades in small towns all around Central Texas. Children love it and instinctively climb aboard. Having served as pastor in a small
Texas town, Johnson understands the population, while he firmly speaks his mind. He frequently writes letters to the editor of his newspaper, expressing frankly and respectfully his views on war from a Christian perspective. Where he and his train go, he proudly introduces himself as a Veteran for Peace. On the side of the Peace Train cab is lettered, â€œI Thought I Could.â€
Jewel and Mary Johnson are diminutive, quiet people who act boldly and creatively. They know what war does and what it looks like. The Peace Train carries a sign reading, â€œJustice For All Victims Of Agent Orange
And Depleted Uranium.â€ The Johnsons know that their VFP chapter is named for a much beloved Vietnam veteran who died too young of liver cancer that was attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange. And they know that the youngest vet carrying the VFP banner ahead of the Peace Train this Veterans Day, their new chapter co-chair, risked DU exposure during his tour in Iraq. The Happy Day Express carries these burdens and displays them for all to see. Its crew knows that peace is a train that moves forward only when it is
powered by the engine of truth.
Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth, Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation, and is an associate member of the Neil Bischoff Chapter 66 of Veterans for Peace.