In a reflective state of mind, I was thinking about my childhood in East Los Angeles, California, all too many years ago. Our single-parent family lived in the home owned by her mother, and it was adjacent to an alley. My bedroom had a private exit.
For several years, beginning when I was around six or seven years old, I would sneak out the door and walk around the city streets after everyone went to sleep. I developed somewhat of a routine walking into cafés that remained open 24 hours, hanging out around the bars, and going to the railroad tracks. It was nearly 35 years before I mentioned these explorations to an older family member who was completely surprised and shocked.
I became known by the kind waitresses who worked at the diners and bars, who would make me hot chocolate during the frigid evenings and early mornings. I could also count on a ham and mushroom omelet for breakfast. A few of the waitresses prepared a grilled cheese sandwich, which is still my favorite today. I did not give much thought to why they did this for me, and I never took it for granted.
Thinking back on it now, they must have thought I was a street urchin without a family and wanted to provide me with some nurturing and a meal. I was a scrawny, skinny unkempt kid with a mishmash of old worn clothes and sometimes slippers. During the several years of roaming the streets, I looked forward to my connection with these kind hearted women.
Other notable people in my life during these formative years were the train-hopping people with the hopes of finding better prospects on the road. They shared stories about some in their community who lost limbs trying to catch a boxcar. And how in freezing weather, they often would nearly freeze to death.
I learned how they would hide along the tracks. They’d run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold and jump into open boxcars. Sometimes, they missed. Many lost their legs or their lives.
They developed a system of signs — scrawled on fence posts and train crossings — to communicate vital information to fellow travelers. I think that they all had nicknames within their extended community, including an honorary one for me.
Becoming friends with them over time, I shared many early mornings and late evenings with this community, eating meals cooked on a campfire or over a metal barrel. I found them very generous especially given the little that they had. I was fascinated with their stories and the songs.
I met numerous families who found themselves lost in less than desirable areas and needed directions back to the nearest safe hotel or freeway. During my walks along the city streets, there were many times that my path crossed with men or women. It was friendly if we connected before. With an initial caution for a first time meeting, we nodded and continued on our way.
Sometime in the future, I may share more of my experiences on East Los Angeles’s streets. Perhaps, in my memoir.
I never felt afraid as it was a grand adventure for me. I rarely felt endangered by anyone I met late at night or early in the morning. I most likely exhibited a mixture of naïveté, curiousness, and cockiness. I imagine that’s where I developed my “street smarts.”
Years later, while dating a high school girl, I shared my experiences on the streets and with the people she derided as hobos. I said how I missed the people living near the tracks and the lifestyle.
She looked me up and down at my typical lack of fashion and said, “Well, you dress like you are a hobo, so you’ll fit in!” I must admit that encouraging her to move on to someone else was satisfying and made me miss my train-hopping friends all the more.
This is a follow-up to yesterday’s Veterans Day. I was at a small market this afternoon to pick up a few things I needed since I don’t shop as often as I used to since the COVID-19.
I was waiting in line about three 6-feet lengths from the register. There was a woman with a young boy at the register and the cashier was tallying her items.
I saw her lean down towards her son and heard her say, “See that man with the Vietnam Veterans cap. He is a Veteran, and we appreciate our Veterans and what they’ve done for all of us keeping everyone in our country safe. I would like you to go over there and personally thank him for being a Veteran and for everything he’s done for us.”
I instinctively turned around to see if she was talking about someone behind me, but there was no one there. Then I remembered I had put on my Vietnam Veterans ball cap before leaving for the store since my hair was a mess.
The young boy looked at me, smiled shyly, and then strode past those in line until he stood next to me. He looked up at me and into my eyes and said, “Thank you for being a veteran and for serving our country and keeping us safe.”
I thanked him very much for what he shared. I wanted to make it a meaningful experience for him.
When I first came back from Vietnam, like many Veterans, I was not greeted warmly. Nonetheless, over the years, people gradually acknowledged my service and I would sometimes hear a thank you for your service or even occasionally a welcome home.
Having a parent encourage their young child to acknowledge a Veteran, including walking up to me and thanking me, was a first. The only time I observed this was on a television movie. It meant a lot to me, and more importantly, I trust it meant a lot to the young boy.
I finally got up to the register; the cashier totaled up the amount, and I paid. I was getting ready to push the cart and leave the store; she looked at me directly in my eyes and said, “We really do appreciate what you Veterans have done for us.” I held her gaze a few seconds; we both smiled, and I thanked her and walked out of the store feeling somehow more blessed.
How do I spend my time on Veterans Day? I think back to my 14 months US Army tour of duty from 1969 through 1970. I browse through a few photographs that I took of some of the things I observed and photographs my friends took of me.
Although painful at times, I listen to 60s music that we played during the war, which brings back visceral experiences. Each song pulls out my heartstrings, and I’m suddenly back in the country as if I’ve never left.
Being single and with the COVID-19, I am spending this day alone in my small mountain ‘cabin’ in Cedaredge, Colorado. It is only about 20 minutes to the top of the 11,000-foot mountain. I am editing some of my novels and nonfiction books when I’m not preoccupied with reflecting on my time during the Vietnam War.
I think of some of the soldiers, military doctors, and nurses I served with and those who sacrifice their life in service of their country.
As a Vietnam Veteran, Veteran’s Day is not about having a day off to play. This is a day for me like every day, remembering the Veterans, the military people who gave the greatest sacrifice, their lives, and all military families who give so much.
I believe that I shall always be one heartbeat away with slivers of shrapnel from my tour of duty in the war in countless layers.
Having Veterans Day and Thanksgiving in November gives us the opportunity to be grateful for what we do have, including our thankful, our freedom thanks to our military personnel.
The Times They Are a-Changin’ is a song written by Bob Dylan and released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name. Dylan wrote the song to create an anthem of change for the fluid times. The ‘60s! What a significant decade of change for our country. What dramatic unforeseen life changes ahead for me.
In 1960 while living during turbulent times in racially embattled East Los Angeles, California, the White Fence, one of the most violent gangs at the time recruited me. It wasn’t that I had options about being in the gang. Nevertheless, life then was more about daily surviving all the other combined gangs. When the White Fence recruited me I knew their violent reputation even intimidated the other gangs so I embraced the process. I spent many months learning their criminal activities while initiated into the gang. I carried a Zip Gun that fired a .22-caliber bullet, and I had a large switchblade knife. I remained in the gang for two years losing my innocence once again until my single parent family moved out of the area. If I remained in the gang I can only imagine how my life would have changed.
I was first drawn into politics when John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961. Like so many other people, I was drawn to his charismatic speeches and inspirational approaches to life. Always curious, I wrote President Kennedy a lengthy letter requesting information about our military forces. I received a prompt letter from Robert McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, who said he was forwarding me boxes of military information, and photographs per the President’s orders. That was an understatement! Years later I donated all of this military material to a local library which filled up several large sections. On November 22, 1963, I had once again ditched high school, and I was back home alone watching television, when I heard about the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Like many Americans, it is a day I will always remember. I knew that this represented a major change in the country. On many levels, I experienced numerous changes.
I remember as a teenager in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, how quickly the local grocery store was empty of groceries and supplies. Most people kept their television tuned to the news which provided an hour by hour update of the impending war with the Soviets. There was fear in the air wherever you went. Daily, we all wondered how imminent the world was to a nuclear war. Any sudden flash of reflection in the sky bought our breathing to a momentary halt and our heart beating so hard we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Our teachers conducted air raid drills where they would suddenly yell, “Drop!” We were expected to kneel under our desks with our hands clutched around our heads and necks. I didn’t believe that the “Duck and cover” method of personal protection against the effects of a nuclear explosion was going to make a difference. It didn’t help that I had black and blue bruises on my knees and forehead hitting the desk from the constant drills. I simply remained seated or standing much to the consternation of the teachers. I took the time to think about how serious this all was and even without a nuclear war, how the world already changed and that it would never be the same. And, the world never was the same.
The counterculture of the ‘60s was an unsurprisingly powerful expression of a desire for cultural change. I felt this intimately, and I responded with deep philosophical thinking. In some ways, I was counter to some elements of the counterculture. Turn on, tune in, and drop out was the theme that inspired many and nearly everyone I knew. I did chew on an unlighted corn cob pipe briefly as a Freshman in high school. Nonetheless, unlike most of my peers, I’ve never smoked cigarettes, marijuana, got drunk or tried any drugs. I did grow my hair long and I still do. Recently I was photographing wildlife at the Colorado River and a Park Ranger briefly glanced at me and said, What can I do for you, ma’am? I scratched my two week’s growth of beard and replied politely, It’s sir, not ma’am. He was embarrassed and apologized. Relatively new to Colorado, I guess men with long hair is a bit uncommon. During the ’60s, I dressed in comfortable Hippy clothes which I continue to do. I’ve photographed at the iconic center of the Flower Power movement at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, California. My current Flower Power consists of a house full of plants while dancing to songs from the ’60s as I nurture the receptive plants with water.
My first car while in high school was a used 1957 Triumph TR10 4-door sedan. I remember my girlfriend’s parents purchased a new Ford Mustang 2-door convertible for her at the cost of around $2,615.00 in 1964 which was considered expensive at the time. I can tell you, given the current monthly payments on my one-year-old Toyota Camry, things have changed.
I recall that in 1965 as a high school Junior, I doubled-dated and we watched the amazing performance of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheatre near Los Angeles. What an unbelievable experience that was! For me, no concert since has come close to the excitement created by the Beatles. Music was changing in many ways and me along with it moving to the momentum and rhythm.
During high school, among the television shows I watched included Perry Mason, Route 66, Ironside, The Benny Hill Show, The Fugitive,77 Sunset Strip, and The Twilight Zone. In 1967 I purchased the first edition of the influential Rolling Stone magazine for 25¢. A rolling stone gathers no moss and neither did I that year.
I graduated from high school in California as the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper and a varsity track and cross-country runner. I entered my Freshman year in college as the Editor-in-Chief of the campus newspaper. I had so much to look forward to after graduation as a Journalism major! About two years later in 1968, prior to graduation, I was drafted. It was four months after the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. No doubt they needed more men on the ground. I held no illusions. I knew that I’d go to Vietnam. I felt that with my gang experience and street smarts I’d be better prepared to embrace a tour of duty in Vietnam, so I never thought about avoiding the draft and having someone else go in my place. The Tet campaign consisted of multiple simultaneous surprise attacks by some 85,000 troops on 100 major cities and towns in South Vietnam. This year, 2018, marks the 50th Tet Offensive anniversary. How fast time seems to accelerate. The decision to fight wars never seems to change.
In the summer of 1969, more than 400,000 people tripped out to the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York for peace-and-love. It was the largest outdoor rock concert ever performed. As a Hippy I would have made my way there. I belonged in that atmosphere! I’d have loved to hear Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane among others while embracing like-minded people. However, I was stationed in San Antonio, Texas going through the U.S. Army Combat Medic and Medical Laboratory training at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston. I didn’t have time for the self-indulgence of what I was missing. I needed to concentrate on the medical training since lives would depend on it in Vietnam. Rolling Stone listed Woodstock as one of the 50 moments that changed the history of Rock and Roll. Although I’m certain that being at Woodstock would have changed the course of my life, I wonder if it would have been as fulfilling given the changes I have experienced.
In future posts, I’ll share my experiences of my 14-month U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam (as requested by my daughter Kelly) including one of the most significant experiences I had when I volunteered for a combat medic mission in the jungle several hours from our base. I know that with the Vietnam War protests this was a turbulent time of change for people back home. I turned 21 while in Vietnam. My experiences during the war remain the most challenging, intense, powerful, and meaningful time of change in my life.
Music through the Armed Forces Radio Network was our savior. There are several songs I heard in Vietnam that still impact my soul like shrapnel through my heart when I hear them again, and I’m sure other Vietnam Veterans feel the same. The one that was very popular during the middle of my tour is, We Gotta Got out of This Place written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded as a 1965 hit single by The Animals. This song hits me the deepest with the truth that while in Vietnam I wasn’t certain that I would get out of that place. I saw many soldiers who never did leave alive. Perhaps, no one felt confident that they would survive the war. Music gave us the respite from our thoughts and fears. I can’t listen to We Gotta Got out of This Place without reliving some of the more intense experiences in Vietnam and feel the emotions rising. It takes me right back there as if it was yesterday. Click on the link below to hear We Gotta Got out of This Place.
Another song that affected us in Vietnam is, Leaving on a Jet Plane. Written by John Denver in 1966, and picked up by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1967 for their Album 1700 and released as a single in 1969 – their only No. 1 hit. I thought about leaving on that Freedom Bird and returning home nearly every day of my tour in Vietnam. When that day arrived, and the plane gently lifted off the runway filled with military personnel, there was absolute silence. When the aircraft flew beyond Vietnam airspace everyone spontaneously erupted in thunderous cheers! We smiled at each other in celebration. We survived the war. We were finally heading home. And then, 10,000 miles of reflective silence. There was a lot to think about. I thought about how much I had changed. Again, I lost my innocence. I knew that I was was not the same young man who had arrived in-country 14-months previously. I was older and tougher and younger and more vulnerable. Little did I know how much I changed and that learning this wasn’t the easiest part of returning home. Click on the link below to hear Leaving on a Jet Plane.
When I returned home from Vietnam, it was a culture shock. There were diverse changes in fashions, music, automobiles, attitudes, morality, education, politics, and behavior to mention a few. And of course, the harsh reception from the public towards Vietnam Veterans. It took nearly twenty years before I heard someone say, Welcome Home. Even now when someone reaches out to say thank you for your service, I hesitate before responding to the unfamiliar kindness. Perhaps, other Vietnam Veterans feel the same way. A song that reaches me deeply in a compassionate way is, Where to Have All the Flowers Gone. This song is by the Kingston Trio. I can’t help but think of all the young men and women who never made it home, or returned with horrendous wounds and losses of limbs, not to mention PTSD. I don’t believe any of us fully returned home. I think that each of us left parts of us there during the Vietnam War. Where Have All the Flowers Gone resonates the most in my post-Vietnam years and brings out my strongest philosophical thoughts. I wonder with my heart in my throat and incredulity in my mind, when Will they ever learn? Click on the link below to hear Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
I lived through more than my share of life experiences during the whirlwind decade of the ’60s. And not surprisingly, I remain as always, an unrepentant Hippie following my philosophical and spiritual paths. And still, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
During my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 1989 on Veterans Day, it was so intense and inspiring that I decided to write and direct a theatrical play in the surrounding park about the influence of the Vietnam War on those of us who served there and those who remained at home. I contacted the National Park Service to find out what applications were necessary.
I planned to produce, direct, and write a play performed at the wall on Veterans Day 1990. I wrote the play and began searching for the performers. I met someone who became a friend who said she knew former Marine Ron Kovic. During the Vietnam War, he was paralyzed and struggled to understand his sacrifice and become an articulate anti-war activist.
The movie from 1989, Born On The Fourth Of July, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, and Kyra Sedgwick, depicted the true story of Ron Kovic.
My friend gave me Ron’s phone number, and I called, and he answered the phone. He was friendly and generous with his time. I described what I had in mind for the play and asked his thoughts and feelings about the project. He said that he believed that it was a good idea, and I could feel free to use his name in any supportive way.
I found many professional and amateur people interested in participating. I found a choreographer, musicians, and more.
Unfortunately, I was unable to arrange for the play logistically. Nonetheless, I met many wonderful people, including Ron Kovic, who believed in this theatrical performance and the value of embracing the warriors and people who continued life at home who all struggled with understanding the essence of war.
Published in The Orange County Evening News on Thursday, March 24, 1966 when I was selected as a Youth Day Publisher of the large city newspaper. My older sister recently sent this to me and the first time I read it since it was published. I’m sharing it unedited as part of this blog’s purpose of contributing to my memoir.
I was given an hour to write something for publication by the Publisher. It did create a bit of controversy from the school Student Government. As Editor of the school paper I was challenging them to become more compassionate and responsible and used the opportunity to share my thoughts without mentioned them directly.
Stand Up and Be Counted
“Stand up and be counted,” apparently is becoming easier said than done nowadays.
Sure, everyone was discontent at one time or another, but not everyone has, or will have the initiative to lay down the tracks enabling things to get rolling.
The reactions that I observed from the students that had a part in “putting out” this youth stay issues strengthen my original thoughts, which were, “if you want something done, go ahead and do it yourself.”
But if you don’t want to take the time, then you probably didn’t want it done seriously enough.
Through journalism ideas can not only be expressed, but doubtless projects can be, and will be obtained,
Too many people have too little knowledge or too much conformity.
This is not only evident in big government, but is also sprouting up in student government at local high schools.
Then again, what does a high school student in particular senior, to look forward to after graduation?
Let’s face it, if the senior, in this case a boy, hasn’t already been drafted immediately after his “independence” from education he must have the situation to his growing pains.
The possibility of acquiring a dependable job becomes slimmer I every passing day. Together with this, college requirements are becoming tougher.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize the type of person one will be as an adult, has a lot to do with the type of education he receives in school, of which high school has a most important part.
Some students “get away” with doing very little schoolwork. Others “get away” with dominating elections by “power clicks.”
If young people, as he occasionally referred to by adults, find it easy to get away with something at an early age, that what will become of them as they mature?
For this reason I’m glad such a thing as Youth Day is offered to many local “adults of tomorrow.”
In this way, maybe, just maybe, these problems can be sought and destroyed before engulfing the young men and women involved.
Such things as the Watts riots might be averted through more publicized announcement showing their discontent and offering suggestions to counter act this feeling of uneasiness between races.
How can the problem be solved if is not known that it needs to be solved? It can’t course.
if a person is been brought up are trained to believe something in youth, to him it is good, and anything else is bad.
The “good guy” always rides a white horse and sings, while the “bad guy” always rides a black course, as a mustache and snarls.
Real-life situations are not that simple and pose confusing problems.
With more chances for students to learn and understand the “outside” world, such as through Youth Day, much of this confusion can be averted.
On my birthday in August, I rented a small mountain cabin for several days around 11,000 feet at the top of Grand Mesa, Colorado.
The cabin was cozy and offered everything I needed. Additionally, I brought extra items to make my stay pleasurable. I enjoyed thunderstorms in the late afternoons and day time mild weather. Early morning cool weather was a respite from the heatwave where I live.
The cabin backed up to many acres of the Grand Mesa National Forest. I brought my new laptop with me to edit my soon to be published novels during the evenings. This was a very productive literary time.
During the days, I explored several beautiful lakes within walking distance from my cabin. I drove a short distance to this lake and observed a Bald Eagle chased by a hawk. Perhaps, the COVID 19 resulting in fewer people this year at the lakes.
A family of Mule Deer visited me behind my cabin on my first evening. It was great to connect with each one. I shared a special moment with this curious deer. Where I live, families of Mule Deer visit me and take naps in my backyard.
This was one of the lakes I walked to from my cabin. I hiked partly around it and loved the birds I observed including a Gray Jay that I had never seen before this trip. This was a refreshing experience that I want to have more frequently.
This beautiful Gray Jay frolicked for a long time around me. It would swoop down from a high branch and land in front of my feet. Suddenly, it would then fly to a branch on another tree and repeating this for nearly an hour. The Gray Jay allowed me to take photographs before taking flight. It was great fun and I felt like a child again exploring the forest and its critters.
It was a pleasure to walk in nature again since COVID 19 began and especially connecting with diverse wildlife. This path led around a picturesque lake. The quiet paths offered solitude with just the rhythmic sound of my shoes on the ground.
Last year when I stayed at a different cabin for my birthday, countless mosquitoes took turns biting my arms. Thank goodness I brought Witch hazel that made all the difference. This year, only one gigantic mosquito attempted to take a bite.
The cabin, which is about 20 minutes up the mountain from where I currently live, offers the opportunity to visit the area whenever I can. The owners graciously offered me a voucher for two free days to stay at the cabin, which I hope to do when the first snows arrive or in spring as the snow melts.
I, of course, brought my professional camera with my telephoto lens for wildlife and my smaller wide-angle lens for nature and landscape photographs. I have included in this post some of the pictures.
This adorable Golden-mantled Squirrel munched on the leaf as we connected and I nibbled on a snack I brought. Sharing a meal with a squirrel eye-to-eye is an endearing experience.
Although it was getting dark, I took this photograph of a Mule Deer being the lookout for the other deer family. Shortly after taking this photograph it quickly ran away from whatever it was looking at. The owners told me a Black Bear was behind my cabin before I arrived.
This Colorado Chipmunk was preoccupied eating while standing on a large rock at a nearby lake. I’m not certain what was in its mouth but the way it was enjoying the meal it reminded me of cotton candy.
I am looking to relocate to an affordable area somewhere next year with an even more accessible nature and wildlife that I can enjoy during the day while I continue to write in the evenings.
Recently I was out photographing nature and wildlife and found an unexpected cemetery located in the country. Mature trees, tall grass, brush, and shrubs grew around the stones. Each of the tombstones dates from around the middle to the late 1800s.
With fascination, I have always wandered around graveyards, and especially older ones reading the epitaphs inscribed on a monument, headstone, marker, or memorial that is a message for or a message about the deceased individual or individuals. Usually, they have the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death inscribed on them, along with a personal message or prayer details in stone relief. Additionally, I take numerous photographs.
I was admiring the stoneworking artistry of the ornamental carving face of the stone headstones and monuments. As I read the gravestone inscriptions, I imagined who they were and how they lived their lives and what eventually brought them to this cemetery. I considered the drama and tragedy they express.
While walking down the uneven rows of tombstones, I came to one that was not lighted by the sun. By using a pocket mirror to reflect sunlight onto the unlighted stone, I was able to read the inscription. Inscribed on the face of the stone headstone are my name, date of birth, and date of death on the stone relief.
Recently I was visiting the city where I was considering relocating before the governor mandated wearing masks. I walked into the Visitors Center sans a mask. The receptionist offered a free cover from a small box.
Whenever I was in public wearing a mask, I placed one on in front of a mirror to get a tight fit over my mouth and nose.
She watched me fumble with the mask with an amused expression. I initially began with it covering my eyeglasses, then having got it caught on the frames of the glasses. I lowered the mask over my nose and around my mouth.
After an awkward repositioning, I finally had the mask on adequately. During this time, I was distracted by the loud music coming from her computer. Why I wondered, she did not turn down what I thought was a music video.
Once I felt comfortable with the mask on and began asking her some questions about the area, including nature and wildlife photography opportunities, I suddenly realized that music video was coming from the cell phone that I placed on the table to put on my mask. I had a renewed appreciation of her calm, smiling patience.
In the future, I’ll bring in the mask I keep in my car, and I will place it on in front of the vanity mirror before going into a public place. Additionally, I’ll be sure to turn my phone off.
The poignant image of the mother and child at the cemetery is profound and heart-wrenching.
As a Vietnam Veteran, Memorial Day is more than having a day off. It is a day like every day, remembering the Veterans, the military people who gave the greatest sacrifice, their lives, and all military families who give so much.
I believe that in many ways, I shall always be one heartbeat away from my fourteen-month tour of duty in the war.
I am nearing completion of my science fiction historical mystery novel, Ancient Alliance, planned for publication in 2020.
On December 15, 1900, mariners in the area claimed they saw a ghost ship crewed with skeletons through the sea fog.
On December 26, 1900, the Hesperus arrived as usual on the lee-side of the main island to find no one waiting on the jetty. There was no light from the tower for the first time since it was built a year before.
Mystified, the skipper sent a man ashore to find out why, and he soon returned with the news that the lighthouse was deserted entirely – all three beds and the front door seem to have been left as if just for a moment. The lamp, throughout, was working correctly, the reflectors were polished brightly, and the oil reservoir was full to the top. In one room, they found a slate where Ducat, the head keeper, had made his last log entry, dated December 15, and timed 9 a.m. But the men had disappeared into thin air.
All remained ominously mysterious. To this day, what happened to the three lighthouse keepers remains one of the sea’s unresolved riddles. Or is there an unimaginable explanation?
When I was an Executive Director of a mental health agency in the California mountains, a brother and sister came to talk with me about their elderly mother, “Mary.” They felt that she needed to be institutionalized or kept in a long-term care facility. They expressed concern about her cognitive ability and safety.
“My God, she talks to the birds, and I think she believes they talk back to her.”
Her brother nodded his head in agreement.
They showed me some legal documents from their attorney. If I agreed that their mother was unable to adequately care for herself, and sign the papers, she could be committed. I was wondering how genuine their concern was and if there were ulterior motives. Either way, I wanted to ensure Mary’s well-being. I told them both that I would visit with their mother and report my decision back to them soon.
In the next few days, my new administrative assistant and I drove along the winding mountain road until we came to the address I was given. I had not called ahead so that we could observe the situation without any preparations from Mary.
The secluded older home was set on a beautiful, clean, clear water lake and nestled in a forest of towering pine trees. We walked past a well-kept front yard. I knocked on the door, and after a few minutes, a tall thin woman with kind eyes and a welcome smile opened the door and looked at us curiously, but she didn’t say anything. I explained that her children were concerned about her. She was dressed in warm winter clothes. I explained that we were asked to see how she was doing. I introduced myself and my assistant. As she looked us over carefully, she was obviously in some deep contemplation.
After a few moments, she apologized for her lapse in hospitality, and she invited us into her home.
“Come, have a seat at my kitchen table while I make you some of my hibiscus tea.”
We followed her through the comfortable living room and sat at her large cherry oak dining table with a pedestal.
Her home was immaculate with everything in its place. The typical family portraits hanging on walls and knickknacks on the shelves.
“Oh, dear!” She exclaimed.
She turned off the burner under the teapot where the water had evaporated.
My assistant and I shared a subtle glance. I knew what she was thinking as she was troubled after listening to the family members stating their concern and was leaning toward my signing the legal documents. The teapot only increased this certainty.
Mary filled up a different teapot with water, turned on the same electric burner, and encouraged us to try her carrot cake she had baked earlier while the water heated. Each of us was given a generous portion of cake while she took a smaller slice. I was not surprised that the carrot cake was delicious.
“Although unnecessary, it is lovely of my children to be concerned about how I am doing. They are delightful children. I’ll always think of them as my young children even as they have grown into adulthood.”
After a few moments, Mary got up and poured the three of us tea and brought us sugar.
“How do you like living in the mountains without nearby neighbors, and have you ever felt lonely.”
“I love living here. This is my home. Oh, heavens, no, I have my friends who visit with me frequently.”
Again my assistant and I shared a curious glance.
“After we finish our tea, I would like to show you my pride and joy, my garden.”
I can see why she loved the garden; the landscaped garden was so peaceful and beautiful with a variety of plants and small trees. Every detail was impeccable.
Almost as soon as we sat in the three comfortable lounge chairs, the birds arrived. During the following two hours, these included Steller’s Jays, Scrub Jays, California Thrashers, woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, Dark-eyed Juncos, nuthatches, and Northern Flickers. The tranquil melody of songs was inspiring.
“I don’t see any birdfeeders.”
“Oh dear, I never feed the birds as I know they have plenty of food provided by nature.”
As we enjoyed the beautiful garden, more birds came to replace the previous ones. From the interactions of Mary and the birds, it became evident that she did not need to feed them to encourage their visits.
“If you excuse me for a moment, I want to welcome my bird friends.”
With that, Mary walked around the garden, addressing each bird who seemed intently on connecting with her. It was clear that there is some communication between her and each bird. When she called to the birds, they arrived singing and responding to her softly communicating with each one.
“Is there is something else I can get for you?”
I looked at my assistant, and she shook her head no, and I said that there wasn’t anything else that she could do for us.
I asked if there was anything we could do for her since she did live alone. She said, not really. She thoughtfully mentioned that once in a while, she had become rather forgetful about things like a tea kettle boiling over, and occasionally why wondering why she walked into a room until a few minutes later, she’d remembered why.
After several questions about her living conditions that I asked as unintrusively as possible, she shared about her early life and her love for her children. She had been widowed for several years.
It was true that she was becoming forgetful, and I believed Mary required help to make sure she was more careful about things like not letting her water boil over on the stove. Also, I thought someone to help her shop, provide light housekeeping, and keeping a nurturing eye on her would be necessary. Although she was fiercely independent most of her life, Mary felt that her children would be relieved with her receiving a visiting caretaker.
On my recommendation, she remained in her home with a visiting caretaker. I believe that Mary flourished rather than forced to live in a restricted environment. I’m confident that the birds also benefited.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wondered why we fondly share all the meaningful remembrances about someone after their death rather than when they were alive. When I read about celebrities and others and the beautiful statements made about them from their peers, I can’t help but think it would be great if this information we shared in their eulogy was told to the person while they were still with us.
As editor of both my high school and college newspaper and a Journalism major in my first years in college, I know that newspaper morgues have prepared obituaries that can be updated and put out quickly when a well-known person passes on. I understand the value to family and friends in the general public to be reminded of the person’s qualities and things that they did to make a difference.
It seems to me there’s something missing with this process when the person isn’t around to hear these heartfelt sentiments and how much of a difference that may have made.
I wonder what would happen if we shared with people in person, how much they mean to us, and what a difference they make in our lives.
Years ago, I took 15 people on 50-foot houseboat personal and spiritual retreats to Lake Powell in Arizona year-round. On one trip returning to Prescott from Page, Arizona, I was driving a large van on an isolated two-lane rural road with several of the retreat participants and no other vehicles in sight for miles. I was driving rather fast on the long straight flat road, and I continued looking farther up the road for safety when I noticed some movement.
I slowed the vehicle down without waking the passengers in the back. The person in the front passenger seat and I were mesmerized by what we observed on the road in front of us.
I pulled to a stop and observed two beautiful Collie dogs, each one facing the opposite direction of the road. In the middle were many sheep crossing from one side of the road to the other. There were no people anywhere to be seen.
It was an amazing sight to observe these two majestic dogs independently shepherding the sheep across the road, standing defiantly against any vehicles that could harm their flock. The focus and intensity of their herding instinct reminded me that domesticated dogs are decedents from wolves and use the circling and grouping moves I observed in the Collies.
It wasn’t until the last of the sheep crossed into safely that each of the dogs took one long look down the road and then followed the sheep.
The Collie facing our van looked me straight in the eyes, and I don’t believe it was my imagination that it had a twinkle in its eyes and a half-smile as the Collie jauntily continued its way towards its responsibility with the sheep.
The experience touched my naturalist’s heart and soul.
After an extensive evaluation process including submission of my writing style and photography ability, I received an email today that I am now one of their freelance contributors & photojournalist for Western Colorado’s leading monthly news magazine for adults 50 and older with over 50,000 readers each month.
My first paid job was in high school taking action photographs of county-wide high school sports events and writing an accompanying brief news report for a large newspaper.
I am currently editing several fiction and nonfiction books and a coffee table photography book with 2020 as the publishing date.
Since I was drafted out of college at the height of the Vietnam War which deterred me from my journalism major, this Freelance Contributor & Photojournalist brings me back full circle to my first passion.
Early Writer – I was writing short stories on an old Underwood typewriter by the time I was four years old. In junior high school, I wrote two plays, Old Glory and Adelante! I was asked to have these play presented to the student body while given some director responsibility.
Avid Reader – I began reading at a very young age. Throughout elementary school, I read novels in class and ditched school to spend hours at the library near my home.
Editor in Chief – I was the editor of both my high school and college newspaper.
Rebel – I created and wrote articles and satire for an ‘underground’ newspaper I had the U.S. Army distribute in Vietnam during my fourteen-month tour of duty. I was nearly court marshaled and ordered to stop after two issues.
Columnist – For several years, I wrote a weekly Southern California newspaper column on diverse subjects.
Magazine Publisher & Editor – I published and edited a monthly literary, photography, and art magazine for several years.
Writers’ Conference Director – I organized and directed two national writers’ conferences in Oregon and Washington.
Writers’ Group & Workshop Instructor – I created and taught numerous writers’ groups and workshops, resulting in publication for some participants.
Daddy, why are there names on the wall?
They are Americans killed during the Vietnam War.
Daddy, why do the people touch the wall?
To touch the wall is to touch the dead.
Daddy, why are the people crying?
The dead are touching them back.
I wrote this poem at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Veteran’s Day 1989 during my first and most significant visit. I watched many people at the Wall tracing names, touching names, and staring off in reflection. After experiencing the same for myself as a Vietnam Veteran, I wrote this poem at 3 AM. I pictured my daughter, Kelly, as the child asking the questions.
Blessings to all of the veterans of all wars, their families and loved ones, MIAs, and the ones who gave their lives.
Years ago, when I lived in the mountains in Southern California, I owned a house in an area called the Valley of Enchantment. It certainly was enchanting for my Miniature Dachshund companion, Quincy. You may have previously read my blog posts about Quincy and his adventures, and by popular request, I am sharing another of his true tale.
The two-story structure had a wood deck that looked out the back door and wrapped around one side of the house above the basement, leading to stairs that climbed to the street where my vehicle was parked.
One cold crisp, cloudy winter afternoon, I observed Quincy beginning his “morning constitutional” along the deck on the way to the stairs when he suddenly stopped and looked up towards the driveway beyond my view.
I slowly peeked around the corner and saw a large Mastiff dog quickly and jauntily unrestrained presence stopping at the top of the stairs surveying the deck and Quincy with a curious tilt of his massive head.
Dachshunds were bred to flush out Badgers and can be fearless with other animals. Nonetheless, Quincy was about a quarter of the size of this self-assured Mastiff.
Each of them found their center of gravity and squarely facing each other from a distance. A decision to call the bluff and with an air of confidence, the Mastiff began to slowly descend the stairs leading straight to where Quincy held his ground. They each stepped forward five paces, their toenails clicking on the wood deck with every step. Each of them must be thinking, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”
After a while, the low deep growl of the Mastiff broke the silence. Quincy stood his grand, silently breathing heavily and bound by a personal code of honor to protect the homestead. It was difficult to tell who was standing their ground best for several minutes until the water vapor from the heavy exhaling cleared the air.
Then, my unusually large Great Dane, Bruno, (yes, I know I he was my namesake – and, he never complained) came from behind me unbeknown to Quincy and locking eyes with the Mastiff. Long seconds passed.
When the Mastiff slowly began backing up the stairs, Quincy became bolder and started barking as he moved forward. The Mastiff glanced at Quincy like the morsel he could be but never lost eye contact with Bruno, who was so intimating he didn’t need to move or to make a sound. I was curious to learn what was going to happen next.
Quincy chased his adversary back up the remainder of the stairs and halfway down the street. When he returned to the deck to see me standing there alone, his chest was so puffed out, I thought it might burst from pride. He never knew the influential support he received from Bruno, the Great Dane.
Nevertheless, from that day forward, Quincy effectively chased away every big or small animal, including a large coyote. To watch the dramatic change in him, you’d think he was backed up by a pack of wolves.
Years ago, I was interviewed on television news stations by reporters after someone killed themselves, especially if the individual was a teenager or younger. My background included directing a suicide prevention hotline and counseling people who were experiencing suicidal thoughts in a clinic setting.
One reporter frequently interviewed me. She was always very professional and directed her questions about what people can do to prevent suicides and how to help loved ones when a suicide occurred.
She was one of those reporters you probably have seen with her hair coiffed, perfect attire, attractive in the classical TV personality way, and always expressing a professional attitude.
Uncharacteristically after an interview on camera, she pulled me aside away from the television crew.
“I don’t understand how someone can become so distressed and depressed that they want to kill themselves. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
I shared my thoughts behind the reasons that people can become so despondent that they view suicide as their only reasonable alternative.
“I don’t think I will ever understand how someone would throw away their life when there were always alternatives and possibilities and support to help them move forward in their life.”
She described her idyllic childhood and acknowledged she was unable to relate to suicide as a means of reacting to stress.
I offered her my years of professional experience working with people who had reached their mental and emotional limits and viewed suicide as their last resort. I could tell that she was unable to relate to their desperation. She was interpreting their behavior from a more intellectual perspective.
A few months later, I was again interviewed by the same reporter after someone in the city committed suicide. She was as usual very professional and objective in her television interview questions, but I sensed something was different.
The interview took place in my backyard near a paddock where our horses lived, and she asked if we could walk around the paddock and away from the camera crew. I was curious about what she wanted to talk about. I waited patiently as we silently walked.
“I get it now. I understand how someone can reach such a level of despair that a person does not feel it’s possible to ever get past the feelings of desperation and helplessness.”
She then haltingly described a recent personal experience that shook her to the core resulting in her feeling for the first time in her life suicidal. It was an amazing transformation of this always professional person who prided herself on perfection, now privately exhibiting her vulnerability in all of her honesty and sensitivity.
I supported her moving beyond her traumatic reactions and finding ways to embrace the changes necessary so that she could move forward in a natural, grounded direction.
The next time she came to interview me about a young person who had killed herself, I noticed that her interview approach was different. There was a depth of compassion and understanding that had not been there before. Her questions had changed, and her responses, while still professional, were more personal and meaningful.
We never spoke about how she was different, and we didn’t need to have that discussion. It was a life transformed by perspective, interpretation, and compassion. Every interview with me that followed, she asked more in-depth questions, a meaningful eye connection emerging from her soul, and the partial smile that she shared with me said it all.