WOODSTOCK – It's a place for farmers markets, town festivals, even weddings. Occasionally a haven for prognosticating groundhogs, but on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon the Woodstock Square was transformed into a microcosm of the political divide in the heart of America.
And what did we learn from this gathering of hundreds of citizens who have distinctly different views of President Donald Trump? Mostly we learned that that's OK.
A few hundred gathered around the gazebo where Spirit of America speakers treated their crowd to the red meat they enjoy: God, guns, patriotism, veterans, legal immigration, and a distaste for former President Barack Obama's administration.
Outside the Square, hundreds, and probably more than inside, marched on the sidewalks with signs proclaiming the need for equal rights, fair treatment of all immigrants, jeers about Russia and messages of peace.
American flags waved proudly among members of both groups, most of whom were smiling and energized by their like-minded fellow citizens.
I kept a low profile in a baseball cap – no political slogan, just an advertisement for a particular northern Wisconsin brewing company – and sunglasses, but you can't hide in a town as small as Woodstock. I ventured freely into both camps tweeting photos and taking video and ran into several friends and neighbors among the Trump Spirit of America gathering and among the Hate Has No Home Here protesters.
Hard to say where everyone came from, but plenty live in Woodstock and the surrounding community, and I'm willing to match it if someone can prove to me that a single one of them was paid to be there by some shadowy right- or left-wing outfit.
They were just people. People who coach your kid's Little League team. People who patrol your streets. People who cut your hair, serve you dinner, teach your children. Just people. Good people.
I ran into Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb who said that although the total crowd, I'd estimate at about 600 or 700, was bigger than he expected, Woodstock just seemed like Woodstock. Peaceful, and full of decent folks who have a wide variety of political views.
Speakers at the Trump rally, including conservative firebrand and talk radio host Joe Walsh, acknowledged the fact that those people marching around the Square were very real and Americans who have real anger, much like several years ago when the tea party launched Walsh into a Congressional seat.
Although I assume there were some exchanges between Trump supporters and protesters, I didn't witness any heated ones. As is the style in small towns, people generally smiled as they passed. I'm sure there were a few quips and middle fingers extended among a crowd that size, but nothing of consequence.
As a Woodstock resident and journalist, this was something I wouldn't miss, and I'm glad I didn't. If you're sucked into the vortex of cable TV, the world is a dark place full of righties who worship a despot and lefties who won't stop until communism is in firmly place.
But that isn't the real world, and it certainly isn't Woodstock.
As events wrapped up Saturday afternoon, I was hoping we'd all be ushered into some ballroom where Bill Murray would treat everyone to a jazzy piano rendition. Then we'd all have a toast to world peace with Andie MacDowell.
This doesn't mean that real political issues aren't significant. It doesn't for a moment lessen the importance of equal rights, the rule of law, debates over abortion or the Second Amendment, freedom of religion and the press, immigration issues or many other matters that have always been up for debate in this country.
It doesn't mean that power shouldn't be checked by the people, peacefully, at the polling place or in many other arenas. These fights are real and there are real lives at stake, by all means well-meaning Americans should be fighting for what they believe in, standing up for others, and we should be glad that they do.
But, no, I'm sorry, Joe Walsh, this isn't a "war." We're not at war with our own neighbors. And if you want to boast about a side having more respect for veterans than another, you wouldn't throw a term like "war" around so carelessly. It rang particularly hollow on a sunny afternoon from a charming gazebo.
These are disagreements, often among very decent people, hardly a war. The disagreements will continue, but at least for one afternoon I got a glimmer that most people on either side have hope.
They just have different visions of how to arrive at some American State of Nirvana that never really existed, but at least they're trying and on occasion maybe they'll recognize the times when we should all be pulling the same rope.