By a Show of Hands, America Takes a Stand for the Hungry and Homeless

updated 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They were farmers standing by an Arkansas soybean field. They were actors doing their part on the streets of Beverly Hills. They were inmates lining the yard of a prison in New Jersey. They were, by estimate, an astonishing 4.9 million strong, a cross-country line of Americans whose number exceeded the population of 35 of the nation's states.

Hands Across America, the May 25 event that forged this human chain over 4,152 miles, was designed to bring help to America's hungry and homeless. It would become, before its 15-minute life was done, a celebration of kinship as well.

From the $50 million the organizers hope to raise, 60 percent will be allocated to existing programs for the destitute, 40 percent to help create new ones. By Thanksgiving, when the distribution begins, few will remember the gaps in the chain that was supposed to stretch unbroken. There were some hands missing, true enough. But there were more than enough committed hearts.

From along the New York City-to-Long Beach, Calif. route, our correspondents provided these glimpses:

Camden, N.J. (pop. 83,000) TV's Tony Danza arrived at City Hall in a stretch limo, already hand-in-hand with fiancée Tracy Robinson. Quickly mobbed by fans, he hurriedly signed a few autographs, gulped down an Italian ice, then found his place in the line. "Ten years from now we'll be talking about Hands Across America like we talked about Woodstock," proclaimed Tony. Well, some will. "I touched him! I touched him!" shrieked secretary Chris Hickman, 35, after Danza's limo pulled away 14 minutes later. "I grabbed his hand. Actually I didn't know it was his. My knees are weak."

"I know it's going to be chaos, but it's a chance to meet different people, and in a small place like this, you enjoy the chance to meet somebody new."
—Esther Hardy, Navajo, Ariz.

Madison, Ark. (pop. 1,238) Led by 103-year-old "Queen of the Line" Rena Whitfield, and "King of the Line" Albert Nickleberry, 96, more than 1,200 area residents, many of them senior citizens, took their places along Highway 70 west of Memphis in 80 degree temperatures. Area churches lent pews for the faint-footed, Mayor Joe Birch of nearby Hughes, Ark. brought his police to help direct traffic and Rena led a hymn sing-along ("Lord, hold my hand, 'cause I don't want to run this race in vain"). A town reception followed, complete with punch and cookies. According to organizer Charlene Sykes "Miz Rena was one of the last to leave."

"Some people say you should raise yourself up by your bootstrap; well, sometimes you need a cobbler."
—Bill Arnold, De Vails Bluff, Ark.

Baltimore, Md. (pop. 764,140) Bride-to-be Mary Ann Brulinski, 24, and her fiancé Mimmo Cricchio, 52, didn't want anyone waiting at the church after they learned that their wedding and the Hands linkup were scheduled for the same hour. So they delayed the service for half an hour and invited the entire bridal party, in full wedding attire, to the Baltimore line: six attendants, a flower girl, a ring bearer and, of course, the official wedding photographer. The latter's photos of the couple in the street will definitely "be in our wedding album," said Mary Ann after the nuptials finally were completed.

"A lot of people need a little goading, and this event urges regular folks like me to help out."
—Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues, Long Beach, Calif.

Camp Verde, Ariz. (pop. 4,750) "All you could see were people," exulted Pam Mundy, describing the scene on Interstate 17. Mundy, a staff member of the Rainbow Acres facility for mentally handicapped adults, helped organize a mile-and-a-half stretch that included 100 Rainbow residents, staff and family members, as well as 1,500 Arizona Special Olympians. There was some confusion at first. "I guess you can't synchronize your watches all the way across the country," said Mundy. "One radio station would be saying 'a minute, 30 seconds left' and the other was already playing We Are the World." Still, when it was over, "I was very pleased," Mundy said. "At Rainbow, most of our things are donated—the cars, the gas, the clothes. Afterward, some of the residents said they were pleased to be able to give something back."

"People were very much for it or very much against it. Either they said, 'I want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, can I join?' or' Aren't you stupid! You're all going to get killed.' "
—Liane Nash, Camp Verde

Desert Center, Calif. (pop. 250) This sand-locked settlement consists of one gas station, a refreshment stand, a general store and a cafe. Which means that it probably wasn't the sights but the presence of three REO Speedwagon members—Kevin Cronin, Neal Doughty and Bruce Hall—that attracted 1,200 participants.

"Only the rattlesnakes and the jack-rabbits will know if the desert doesn't fill"
—Mary Sartin, Banning, Calif.

Buffalo, Ill. (pop. 450) A plan to send seven busloads of people from Peoria to flesh out the line in Buffalo worried Mayor Ralph Fisher no end. "A physical impossibility," declared Fisher, 67, noting that his town only had two policemen and one restaurant to handle the visitors. "You know the first thing they'd have to do; then they'd be thirsty. We have no provisions for that." When the Buffalo council nixed any arrival of nonresidents through their town, a disc jockey jumped on the issue after a radio listener called to complain. Pretty soon WMAY's One-Eyed Jack had arranged for donations of Porta Potties, a medical van, and even planned for a plane to tow a banner (one caller indelicately suggested that the plane tow Mayor Fisher). Finally, three days before the event, Fisher and the council relented and okayed the invasion of Buffalo by about 1,000 outsiders. "I half get a kick out of all this," the embattled mayor said gamely. "It gives some spice to life."

"Some things in life have to continue, you can't stop for Hands Across America. We sent some money, though"
—Charles Bronson, on location in Washington, D.C.

Fremont, Ohio (pop. 18,490) A last-minute route change bumped Port Clinton (pop. 7,202) from the line in favor of nearby Fremont. That sparked a mini-feud between the towns' mayors. Port Clinton's John Fritz complained to reporters that "Fremont's dead—there's nothing there." Fremont's outraged D. Frederick Singer retaliated with a letter to the local paper listing no fewer than 18 reasons why Fremont was, in fact, very much alive. By Hands Day, however, all had been forgiven, and the mayors even managed a smile as they joined together in Sandusky County's 29.5-mile contribution to the chain. What with the turtle races the goatburqers and the mile of gowned choir sinners Fritz even admitted to having a good time—despite having missed his town's annual Walleye Festival

"I didn't think they'd actually link up. I had goose bumps."
—Tracy Selby, Columbus, Ohio

Havre de Grace, Md. (pop. 9,791) When state authorities refused to allow Hands supporters on the heavily traveled bridge over the Susquehanna river, a 1.3-mile gap in the line seemed certain. What to do? Move the line into the river, of course. A regatta of 350 yachts, rubber rafts and other boats went hull to hull across much of the river, while 77 local (and experienced) scuba divers occupied the shallows and the channel's deeper sector. "It was perfect," proclaimed diver Michael Schaech after the 17-minute successful linkup "I popped up out of the water to the very last word of America the Beautiful."

Written by Roger Wolmuth with bureau reports

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