I May Attend My Own Eulogy

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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.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

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A few months after arriving in Vietnam in 1969

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’.

 

 

Welcome Home

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Bewilderment detachment; solemnly praying,
Ceremonial Presidential Wreath’s a-laying.
Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown,
Honoring the loss of Americans we bemoan.

Taps painfully playing; hearing a solitary bugle,
Accompanying the rat ta tat tat; the drum so regal.
Cascading tears bathing my flushed cheek,
The longer I stand, the more I’m growing weak.

Jo, a Vietnam Memorial Wall volunteer,
Recognizing the familiar gleam of fear,
Offering help up that emotional climb,
“Some vets don’t make it their first time.”

Pausing beside a letter, set against cool black marble,
Words piercing my heart like pieces of shrapnel.
A dispatch from Jo, to her husband, Bill,
The message passionate: my body expels a chill.

Reflections casting shadows over Bill’s name,
On the polished granite self-proclaimed.
We are weighing the wounds of war,
Comforting each other, and too many before.

Jo, Whispering, “Welcome home,” without pretense.
Feelings welling inside me with a vengeance.
Moving, moving without belonging: needing to roam,
Two decades passing; maybe now coming home.

Fourteen months of duty, then 20 years shutdown,
Jo hugging tightly: our tears kissing the ground.
Tracing names for many a veteran friend,
Too few years left; too much to mend.

A silver POW/MIA bracelet placed on my wrist,
“I’ve never taken this off,” exclaims Jo in earnest.
Col. Robert L. Standerwick Sr., the bracelet proclaims,
On the Wall a diamond, the uncertainty of his remains.

Pacing a moonlit path, painfully alone,
Endless names bathed in light: etched forever in stone.
Haunting Vietnam memories revived,
Endless names survive.

Emerging from a deathlike dream,
Eerie consciousness in an audible stream.
An unforgettable song latched in time and space,
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.”

Feeling drawn to a crying woman looking askew,
Tearing a piece of my last dry tissue.
Sharing a tender offering,
Each new song reviving memories of warring.

This woman expressing calm enlightenment,
Hugging me with abandonment.
Tears mingling in loving suction,
A reprieve of war’s self-destruction.

A hand from behind grabs my shoulder,
I know the reach; it’s from a former soldier.
Reminding me when life was bloody.
He calls out, “Welcome home, buddy.”

An unplanned march to the Laotian Embassy,
Protesting the POW/MIA conspiracy.
Needing to go not sure how or why
Must go for those names that will not die.

Faces painted symbolically white,
Carrying burning candles of spiritual light.
Singing fervent songs and chanting,
Embassy personnel: concealed–not recanting.

Waiting to hear from Lynn, a hush in the air,
Protesters listening with rapt attention.
Sharing of her father’s loss in Laos while flying,
Shear strength keeps her from crying.

Speech over, Lynn now sitting silently,
Near the steps of the Laotian Embassy.
Pushing past the Washington police,
I’m sitting beside her now, near release.

Illuminating the bracelet drawn by the dim light of her candle,
Staring into the eyes of each other, more than either can handle.
Name on the Bracelet…that of her father,
An hour and then- embracing each other.

Back at the Wall of war; seeking a touch of peace.
Nearly one a.m.; will this dream ever cease?
Time; that unforgiving nemesis,
Oh God! Release the genesis.

Three A.M. and God-forsaken,
Writing a grieving letter–twenty years and still so shaken.
Pinning it on the Wall with a twig, wet and broken,
The message is profound, the gesture…. a token.

A poem I wrote on the plane home about 6 am of some of my experiences visiting the Vietnam Wall the first time in Washington on Veteran’s Day 1979, after 20 years serving a 14-month Vietnam U.S. Army tour of duty.  As powerful as this portion is, I will present a more extended narrative of the incredible total pilgrimage to the Vietnam Wall in another post. The image is of me, and Jo as I was getting something from my backpack to leave at the Wall, photographed unknown to us by one of her friends. She mailed the photograph to me about a month later.

© 1989 Stephen Bruno

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.

 

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.