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Gubanikhin, meanwhile, was no peacenik: He said he believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was right to occupy Chechnya, as it was basically a criminal country run by Islamic extremists who had to be controlled. And, like me, he was all for the Afghanistan invasion. But not Iraq. "I really think it's about oil and not about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Russia and the United States never went to war because of mutually assured destruction. That can work with Saddam too. He wants to be in power. Why would he attack someone? I think it will only cause further terrorist attacks down the road. Plus, there is no exit strategy."
Putin's interest in Iraq was much like Bush's, surmised Gubanikhin: It was all about how much oil he could get out of the deal. "It's good to be cynical," Gubanikhin added with a chuckle.
Although he can't vote in America, he said he wanted to see more political parties. "I'm really interested in the Green Party," he said.
That was Tina Gwaltney's cue. She rose from eavesdropping and handed us a couple of pamphlets titled "Broward County Green Party." On the cover was a Margaret Mead quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."
Tina, who has long, straight, grayish hair and round wire glasses, told me she lived just a couple of blocks from my house. No wonder her daughter looked familiar. I asked her what she was before she registered as a Green. "Republican," she said. "I was born in Miami and was a Republican, like my parents."
Just for kicks, I decided to test her Green-ness.
"What do you drive?"
"A little red pickup truck that has a bumper sticker that says 'Tree Hugging Dirt Worshiper.'"
"Not exactly a Honda hybrid."
"But I ride my bicycle to school sometimes," she offered with a laugh. "The kids hum the theme song to The Wizard of Ozwhen I come into the parking lot."
The school in question, I learned, was Nova Southeastern University High School, where she teaches science. Tina said she never really paid much attention to politics before Ralph Nader gave her a "shot in the arm." Being a Green, however, hadn't come easily. There was no relief from members of the two main parties: Republicans thought she was a loopy radical, and Democrats still blame her for George W. Bush's presidency. The friction apparently hasn't helped party enrollment. "Before the 2000 election, there were about eight or ten members who attended the meetings back then, but after Nader lost, it went to three," she explained. "Then we started gaining membership again, and then September 11 hit, and it just stopped. But now we're back up to about 40 members."
As Tina talked, the driver exited at Kings Highway in Port Charlotte. Only then did I realize that we had already crossed Alligator Alley and were traveling north on Interstate 75. The bus pulled into a Cracker Barrel parking lot, where the next bunch waited to climb aboard.
A middle-aged man pulled some protest hardware out of the trunk of his red Chrysler Sebring convertible. The car was festooned with bumper stickers that read "STOP THE KILLIN," "Visualize World Peace," "Attack Iraq? No!" and, as I pointed out to Tina, one for the Green Party. The tanned fellow looked like a protest veteran from the Vietnam War: The sunglasses with little American flags jutting from them were a nice touch. He climbed the bus stairs and greeted everyone, "Hey, folks! Ready for the revolution? Oh, let me take my patriotic blinders off." Then the man, who I learned was Frank from Fort Myers, took off the shades.
As the new riders climbed on, an older woman bluntly announced, "Paul Wellstone was just killed in a plane crash."
Several riders, to my amazement, asked, "Who is Paul Wellstone?" The news momentarily stunned me. It was too weird. Just a few days before that, a mass e-mail was sent on the Broward Antiwar Coalition Yahoo group urging people to send campaign contributions to the Minnesota senator who was against the Iraq war and in the political battle of his life.
As we rolled back onto I-75, Frank put some music on the bus' sound system. There was Jackson Browne's "For America," some Phil Ochs songs, a handful of John Lennon standards, and Bob Dylan's rendition of "With God On Our Side," which ends with the words, "If God's on our side, he'll end the next war."
Also coming over the speaker was Jello Biafra's version of the Pledge of Allegiance, after which he calls the flag a "Yankee swastika" and encourages the listener to be a "good Boy Scout" and "let it burn, baby, burn."
Not long before 6 p.m., the bus exited at Busch Gardens in Tampa, where 20 riders just about filled the bus. I gave up my window seat to 26-year-old Lori Hicks. She said she was a lab technician at the University of South Florida; she'd made her protest sign, which said "War = Terrorism," during her lunch break. "Everybody looked at me like I was crazy," she said. "They couldn't believe I was coming up here."