“Well, you dress like you are a hobo, so you’ll fit in!”

Freight Train © 2010 Stephen Bruno

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.

 

 

‘We Appreciate Veterans’

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.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

scan0033

A few months after arriving in Vietnam 1969 © Stephen Bruno

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’.

A village I photographed on the way to a combat medic mission 1969 © Stephen Bruno
A building I photographed on the way to a combat medic mission 1969 © Stephen Bruno
Donating food to local mission medic mission
Coming To barracks after 10 miles run around base to escape the effect of war
In medical lab after a few months in country

Children in Need

Community-empowering approach is helping kids and families transform their own lives.

This morning, I watched the historic news when I saw an advertisement about sponsoring a child for $50 per month with World Vision. There are so many children throughout the world who live in poverty.

I’m reminded that during my 14-month US Army tour of duty in Vietnam, I sponsored a child in Korea through World Vision by having $50 deducted every month.

https://www.worldvision.org/

Born On The Fourth Of July

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.

http://thewall-usa.com/

A Renewed Appreciation of Her Calm, Smiling Patience

mask1

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.

 

 

One Heartbeat Away …

Memorial-Day-Mother-Child

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.

“My God, she talks to the birds, and I think she believes they talk back to her.”

American Robin 2020 © Stephen Bruno, Cedaredge, Colorado

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.

 

I May Attend My Own Eulogy

20160706102246189768

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.

“This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

18-07-10-00297

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.

 

Transformed by Perspective, Interpretation, and Compassion

Decisions 2019 © Stephen Bruno

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.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone” – The Kingston Trio

My new acoustic guitar 2019 © Stephen Bruno

I had a guitar in the early 1970s, and I was teaching myself how to play while a counselor at a free clinic in California. After guiding a young man from committing suicide, I loaned him my guitar for inspiration. It must have worked as he never returned it, and I felt he needed it more than I did.

It is 49 years later and time for me to follow that initial passion of mine. One goal is to learn how to play meaningful songs on the guitar and lead the diverse groups that I teach in singing folk songs, including some of my original songs telling relatable stories and fusing some with other genres.

Yesterday I purchased an acoustic Breedlove guitar and took my first one-hour lesson. An injury to my shoulder and surgery on my thumb creates an obstacle that I am embracing. Yes, and being 70 years old while learning how to play the guitar perhaps poses another challenge.

I believe that my passion is greater than the challenges, and in time, I will be joyfully singing along with the people in the gatherings while playing the guitar.

The Opposable Thumb

 

The day after thumb surgery 2019 © Stephen Bruno

Perhaps you’ve heard about the opposable thumb that we humans share to a degree with all primates. I have known this relationship with primates since I was a child. Of course, as a naturalist, I understood the importance of the opposable thumb. However, it took an unexpected injury to learn just how significant our opposable thumb is to us, humans.

One morning I awoke intent on performing my countless routine tasks and getting out in nature to photograph wildlife. I quickly realized that whenever I moved the thumb of my dominant right hand in a specific direction or touched something too hard, I experienced intense pain.

I can’t recall having a trauma that created this unexpected situation. I had recently moved to a charming small mountain town and for the first time in many years had to shovel snow on my driveway. I thought maybe that was the cause, but I don’t remember the thumb being painful soon after the snow shoveling. I can’t think of anything that had occurred within a few weeks of the pain that I had done to create this condition.

I could not easily turn the key on and off my vehicle, write using a pen or pencil, brush my teeth, open jars, and at least twenty other normal activities. It soon became apparent that how this occurred was not as important as how it had suddenly and dramatically changed my life.

The intensity of the pain was distracting, to say the least not to mention how restrictive my life had suddenly become. I’m certain that if any of you have experienced what I’ve described some of this is not new to you. Each day I am amazed at the new tasks that I could no longer do without pain.

This month I had surgery on my thumb, and I continue to encourage healing. I remain optimistic in my prognosis.

Throughout all of this and in spite of the pain and definite limitations, the majority of my thoughts are a wondrous curiosity about the power and influence of our opposable thumb and how vital it is in our daily life. How could I have missed this obvious awareness?

Perhaps, it’s true that we don’t fully appreciate something until we no longer have it. I will look at other aspects of my life that I’ve taken for granted with equal dismissal.

Unapologetic Hippie

Stephen Bruno while photographing wildlife and nature.

I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. 
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken

Recently I visited the local medical office which included a nurse drawing blood for routine tests.

During the procedure, she noticed my shoulder-length hair, beard, and loose-fitting clothes.

She asked with a measure of innocence and curiosity, “Are you a Hippie?”

I smiled and responded, “Yes, I’m an unapologetic Hippie.”

I still favor long hair and casual, often unconventional, dress including tie-dyed shirts with peace signs. I continue to wear a beard and long ago gave up my Birkenstocks sandals. I gave them to a woman to share how it felt to ‘be in my shoes.’ I adopted a strict vegan diet based on unprocessed foods, supported animal rights. and I practiced holistic medicine all of which I am recently revisiting.

I would have attended the 1969 Woodstock Festival near Bethel, New York, from August 15 to 18, 1969, which drew between 400,000 and 500,000 people if I was not already serving my 14-month tour of duty in the U. S. Army in Vietnam.

Some hippies “sold out” and became part of the materialist, culture. I’ve done my best not to sell out. I still embrace the Hippie values of peace, love, compassion,  idealism, and Zen philosophy. I believe in trade or barter and sliding scale fees.

Like Frank Zappa, I avoided drugs and preferred the “natural high,” through photography, writing, listening to music, dancing, camping, and other natural activities.

I am old enough to have earned every wrinkle in my face, puffy eyes, scar on my body, all the silver in my receding hair, and nose marks from my eyeglass frames.

And yes, I remain an unapologetic Hippie.

 

Loving My New Home Town

img_2765

Historic Downtown Cedaredge 2019 © Stephen Bruno

I love the charming small mountain community with its three blocks of historic downtown, one traffic signal, minimal traffic, two banks, a community art center, shops, restaurants, Cedaredge Town Park, and about 2,266 residents to mention a few wonderful things.

Cedaredge Town Park 2019 © Stephen Bruno

It has been a little over a month since I relocated to the Cedaredge, Colorado at an elevation of 6,264 feet, and my friends have inquired about how things are working out. They know that one of the primary reasons for moving to the mountains was that as a wildlife photographer I wanted to connect with and photograph the diverse wildlife and nature.

Mule Deer Buck 2019 © Stephen Bruno

Continue reading

Wildlife Print Adoption

2017 © Stephen Bruno

I created this blog, Curious Wordsmith, to share my miscellaneous musings, writing, and more in thought-provoking, intelligent, informative, humorous, and entertaining posts. Curious Wordsmith is now the foundation for my memoir.

I’ve been rather reluctant to write a memoir although I have had some fascinating experiences to share. I finally agreed to write a memoir when my daughter implored me to write about my experiences when I was in the US Army stationed in Vietnam for my 14-month tour of duty. She especially wanted my granddaughters to know what it was like for me in Vietnam.

It wasn’t that much of a stretch to think about including nonmilitary experiences which of course are the greater part of my life. With more time available since I recently withdrew from all my social media except my websites and this blog, I’m going to write blog posts more frequently.

As most of my faithful blog readers are aware, a year ago this month I moved from Prescott, Arizona to Grand Junction, Colorado. In a few days, I am moving to the small charming mountain town of Cedaredge, Colorado. Moving in the winter can have its challenges. However, I can’t think of a better season to cuddle up in my Pendleton shirt jacket with a hot cup of tea and edit some of my books in preparation for publication next year.

In my current home, I had mounted some of my framed wildlife photographs to enjoy and share with friends and visitors. Soon after I found my new home in Cedaredge, I knew that although I had these framed wildlife photographs for quite a few years, they were not going to come with me this time. In the past, I’ve had offers from fine art photography lovers to purchase my prints from my photography website or when I had gallery shows. This time I knew that I didn’t want to sell them. I wanted to gift them to people who felt drawn to the images and who would receive pleasure having them in their home.

I wasn’t quite certain of the logistics in sharing the framed prints on my wall at home and who would receive them. It’s been fascinating to observe the process of how each print finds a home. The people who adopted my wildlife prints include a FedEx driver, a Reiki Master Teacher who recently graduated from one of the certification classes I taught, a family that receives my Life Coaching, a grocery delivery driver from Safeway, GrubHub delivery driver, pizza delivery driver, and a house cleaner. Now all of my framed wildlife photography has found a caring home.

It has been an unexpected pleasure in learning how my wildlife prints have found the right family home where they truly belong. I believe that this is the beginning of a tradition that I will continue.

Christmas Magic

Christmas 2006 © Stephen Bruno

Yesterday I took a break from packing and then visited a nearby restaurant for the first time.  A waitress in her 30’s came and took my meal order to go and kindly offered to bring me something to drink while I waited.

After a while, she returned and began a friendly conversation. I learned that she was from Tennessee, which explained her accent. She added that her husband and children were still there while she was staying with her father in Colorado who was ill and challenged with cancer.

I could tell that she deeply missed her family in Tennessee.

“I’m glad I’m sharing the holidays with my father, and that he is not alone now. We are very close.”

We talked more about her father’s health issues and how she flies back home for a quick visit whenever she can.

“I could never leave my father alone for long while he goes through his illness. My father does not have family or friends or anyone in Colorado to take care of him, and even if I could afford to pay someone, I would never do that. He is family, and I need to do what is right by being here no matter how long.”

She became busy with other customers and then returned with my meal telling me that she added an extra amount of salad for me.

I looked deeply in her eyes with compassion and connecting with her essence, and I asked her a question.

“Do you believe in Christmas magic?”

“I do believe in Christmas magic,” she said without hesitation.

“I believe you have some Christmas magic coming to you.”

“Really?”

“Yes, you have earned it.”

“What’s your name?”

“Stephen.”

“I’m Kate. It is nice to meet you.”

With a parting glance over my shoulder, we smiled with our connection and nodded in spiritual understanding.

Given what I know about sharing Christmas magic, I knew that this was one Christmas she would remember for many years.

Embracing New Adventures

They are packing and are moving to Cedaredge with me.

The end of this year and the beginning of the new year brings many adventurous changes in my life and hopefully for yours. I’ve always told friends that the only fear I have is remaining the same tomorrow as I am today. Perhaps, this is why I’ve been a risk-taker my entire life.

I’m moving very soon from Grand Junction, Colorado to my new mountain home in Cedaredge, Colorado where the Grand Mesa’s southern slopes meet the Uncompahgre and Gunnison River valleys. The charming mountain town offers friendly neighbors, orchards, and access to dozens of trout lakes. I love that the town has only one traffic signal and just a few historic downtown blocks of diverse small businesses.

Late fall brings bushels of apples on the town’s many trees. The large apple tree in my backyard brings dozens of deer to nibble on the apples. I look forward to connecting with them and taking some photographs to share. This past October, I attended the annual Applefest held at the Cedaredge Town’s Park within walking distance from my new home. Applefest brings over 20,000 people and it is free to attend. I had an amazing time visiting the over 200 vendors, wonderful music, and tasting the delicious food.

Cedaredge genuinely feels like stepping into a Hallmark movie with a sense of community, natural beautiful surroundings, and a wonderful quality of life. Yes, I know, I’m a hopeless romantic, and I do enjoy the Hallmark Christmas movies this time of year. I can believe in experiencing the magic of Christmas. Seriously, wouldn’t you want to have this pleasure? Moving to Cedaredge means I can have the pleasure all year long.  I believe in sharing community with compassion. Today I arranged to volunteer as a server for the Cedaredge Christmas dinner this year. Over 300 people are expected. The cost is a donation but not required. The dinner location is within walking distance of my new home.

Just 15 minutes or so from the town on the Grand Mesa Scenic Byways there are old-growth forests, aspens, meadows and 300 beautiful lakes that lead to the Grand Mesa mountain. I’m planning on taking countless color digital and black and white film photographs of wildlife and nature throughout the four seasons to share. This is one of the reasons I wanted to move to Cedaredge.

One immediate change is that I am honoring my values and principles and I am closing out my Facebook accounts effective today. For a while now, I have been concerned about the direction the Facebook company is moving. From the company’s reactions rather than responses to the community’s trust concerns, I do not believe that Facebook will institute necessary positive changes anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’ll share on this blog, the same positive posts I have on Facebook.

I am encouraging my supportive friends on Facebook to connect and follow me by registering on this blog. You’ll receive an email notice every time I share a new post on the blog. You can now view photographs that I have frequently posted on FB for many years on my photography website at Stephen Bruno Photography. My newest photographs are in the Recent Photo Shoot gallery. The benefit is rather than a select few images I’ve posted on Facebook, you can now see many more images from my photo shoot.

Next year is the time I plan to publish several novels, nonfiction books and poetry, and short stories that I’ve been working on for an eternity. Well, at least it seems that way. I know that I have more wrinkles, less hair, and more bags under my eyes than when I began these books. The beautiful charming mountain atmosphere, wild critters, and friendly people can contribute to my creativity and productivity.

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.

~Gilbert K. Chesterton 1874-1936, British Author

Not Exactly My Finer Moments.

Mallard Duck, 2016 © Stephen Bruno

Many years ago, I was the Publisher and Editor of the Arizona Literary Review, a monthly literary, art, and photography magazine. Today I was sorting through some of my papers for better organization when I found a copy of the June 1992 issue of the magazine. It was a bit of nostalgia to look through Arizona Literary Review.

While looking at this June issue this morning, I valued high-quality literary, art, and photography that people submitted. When I created the magazine, I imagined that it would eventually reach across the country. I had no idea that people as far away as Paris, France would subscribe and send their submissions, including well-established authors.  As a writer, artist, and photographer It was a pleasure providing opportunities for contributors to be published, some for the first time. Decades later, I happened to meet a neighbor who reminded me that I published his photography in the first issue of the Arizona Literary Review. This visibility started his professional career, and he became a renown photographer.

I read an article in the issue that I wrote in my column, From the Publisher & Editor titled, I Fell in Love with Marie Antoinette, about imagination, creativity, and sometimes not taking ourselves too seriously. I would like to share this with you in my blog post as I believe there is still some relevance.

When we fall in love, I believe that the latent characters who normally reside passively within our psyche suddenly emerge. Our emotions intensify creating illusions of reality. Romantic songs play “just for us,” and the world revolves around our immediate needs and desires. You know the sense when the flowers are brighter, the air is crisper, and the birds sing sweeter.

With creativity, passion is also aroused and inhibited, equally often without satisfactory resolution. The quality of this relationship to creativity determines how we share our passion. Sometimes it is expressed by writing, photography, painting, dance, or music.

There are moments when I can recall a furtive glance by an inquisitive squirrel; the whooshing sound of wind embracing the tall pines; the distinctive aroma of summer blossoms, and cherished memories for a high school sweetheart. The haunting words and melodic rhythm of the 60s song, We got to get out of this place, revive the indelible melancholy and mania for my 14-month tour of duty in Vietnam. Then these memories vaporize just as suddenly.

My passion is to understand how this lingering tenderness in such sensorial experiences manifests itself in unrestricted drawing, painting, writing, and photography. I feel drawn into and captivated by this intimate involvement with my raw emotions in an undefined desire for creativity.

The arduous process of establishing an authentic relationship with creativity is an intimate, passionate process. Having our work published is a collective external experience. Poetry, fiction, photography, music, dance, and drama caress the heart soul and spirit. As an artist, writer, and photographer I appreciate the creative depth from others who also enjoy these mediums.

Relationships real or imagined are a wealth of resources for story, character, and plot development. Several years ago, I indifferently requested a book on Marie Antoinette through a popular book club. To my astonishment, I identified with her struggles, dreams, losses, adventures, letters, and trauma dramas.

I began writing a historical novel reflecting on the essence of Marie Antoinette.  The positive elements of her life and personality that are less known. Sometime during that year, I fell in love with Marie Antoinette and rediscovered my creative passion soon after I published the Arizona Literary Review. Many years earlier as Editor-Chief of my college newspaper I produced the weekly publications with great enthusiasm, but without as much passion.

I believe that we stimulate our inspiration when we experience the unusual in the familiar. In my thirties, at an airline terminal, I sketched on an imaginary drawing pad the divergence of passengers waiting to board a flight. I observed their mannerisms, conversations, and facial features which I committed to memory for later retrieval in one of my novels.

Startled out of my reverie of character sketching, I heard the last few words of my flight’s departure announcement in the loudspeaker. Reaching for my portable art bin, I remembered that the drawings and art supplies were imaginary.

Feeling chagrined, I hurried past all the passengers to the front of the line along the tarmac towards the America West Airlines aircraft so that I could get the window seat that I preferred. At that time no one had assigned seating. Unlike at many airports today, everyone walked along the tarmac and climbed the mobile stairs to board the aircraft.

Consumed with my recent creative energy and overly stimulated imagination, I climbed the portable stairs leading to the aircraft’s forward cabin ahead of the other passengers. On the aircraft at the top of the stairs, a uniformed Flight Attendant politely greeted me and asked to see my airline ticket. With a curious appraisal of me, she suggested that this was not the correct aircraft that I wanted. Trying to nurture me through my confused gaze, she said that the flight I wanted was on the other side of the aircraft.

With a slight half-smile, she pointed to the last of the passengers on my flight who were on the tarmac walking to the other side of the aircraft. I couldn’t help myself I and asked if she was sure that this aircraft was not my flight. Once again, with a measure of infinite patience and smile, she said that she could assure me with absolute confidence that I was not going anywhere on this aircraft.

Continue reading

Cross Between a Saber-Tooth Tiger and a Fire-breathing Dragon

Stephen Bruno

When I was in the first grade in elementary school in East Los Angeles, I had a serious accident outside the classroom. My symptoms included a nosebleed, swelling, bruising, crooked nose, black eyes, trouble breathing and a “cracking” sound when touching my nose.

I was rushed to the hospital by the school nurse who had me hold an ice pack on my nose. In the ER the doctors examined me and diagnosed severe facial fractures that included a broken nose, a septal perforation, and a deviated septum. They decided that I required immediate surgery.

I was prepped for surgery, given a local anesthetic and quickly brought to the operating room. The surgical nurses positioned me on my back, and I remained awake for hours watching several otolaryngologists working on my nose. Whenever the local anesthetic wore off, I let them know, and they provided more help that I appreciated. The operation was all a surreal experience especially since I was only six years old.

After the lengthy and intensive operation, a surgical nurse and several orderlies brought me to a post-surgery recovery room for monitoring. A splint was made to hold the nasal tissues in place until it stabilized and to protect the nose from accidental bumps when I slept and help it heal normally.

The next day, the nurses brought me to a children’s ward for recovery. The ward was a large rectangular open room with many children my age and a little older lying in their beds. Thirteen years later I was reminded of this setting after being drafted and sharing a similar large room with wall-to-wall beds during Basic Training at Fort Ord, California. The doctors told me that I would remain in the ward until I began to heal for several days, weeks or longer.

The kids could tell by the bandages on my nose and the sterile strips of gauze hanging out of each nostril that I recently experienced nose surgery. Of course, after the anesthesia wore off, I was in a lot of pain and continued to receive pain medication and antibiotics during my stay on the ward.

I began to get to know each of the kids in the ward out of curiosity and the means of distraction from the ever-present pain. Eventually, I found out that each of the children in the ward had a terminal illness and most of them had lived on the ward for months and some longer. It didn’t take long for me to feel humbled by their tragic medical circumstances while I only had a broken nose that required healing. I didn’t know what my nose would look like after the surgery and recovery. However, I knew my life was not in imminent or probable danger from the nose fracture.

I was very impressed with each of the kids and how they handled the challenges of immense pain, isolation from their family, countless medical tests, and insufferable boredom. I learned a lot about myself and other people that have lasted a lifetime from this experience that transcended the surgical trauma and recovery.

When finally, I was released from the hospital and sent home for more weeks of recovery, everyone in the children’s ward including the nurses shared a heartfelt sendoff. It was a bittersweet time given that some child abuse issues were waiting for me when I returned home.

During my recovery at home, there was still considerable bruising as well as swelling, and I had to make sure that my head was elevated, especially when sleeping or lying down to prevent further or prolonged swelling of the nose. I had to continue with the long strips of gauze hanging down out of my nostrils to soak up the blood. I imagined looking like a cross between a Saber-Tooth Tiger and a fire-breathing dragon. Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids and especially some of the boys I talked with the most.

I still have a deviated septum, and my nose never quite looked the same. I have received comments like, “Your nose is an interesting conversation piece.” Although I am uncertain of exactly what that means, I have gracefully adopted my new nose.

After more of my recovery, I gathered up all my classic plastic green army men soldiers with a few military vehicles and accessories. I asked my mom to take me back to the children’s ward and wait in the lobby. Talking with the nurses who kindly remembered me, I was sad to hear that some of my newfound friends had died from their illness since I last saw them. It was too heartbreaking to give the toys in person, so I arranged with the nurses to anonymously share the gifts with my remaining friends and to see that everyone received something to sustain their playfulness during the countless boredom.

Frequently over the years, I’ve thought a lot about my time on that ward and each of the kids. We shared life and death conversations only young children with a terminal illness can have. It certainly puts into perspective the traumas that we must face when we think of what others must endure, and I began to embrace unconditional compassion as a lifestyle to the best of my capacity.