Here, There and Everywhere

Hazel and Goliath

johnsonExcerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Interview with Hazel Johnson (Born: January 25, 1935 Died: January 12, 2011). Photo of Ms. Johnson holding her Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It started with her husband. Hazel Johnson’s sweetheart of seventeen years died an early death from lung cancer. Within ten weeks of diagnosis he’d passed away. As Mrs. Johnson began to look for answers she discovered she wasn’t alone, a significant number of people in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood were and had been dying from the disease. A high percentage of infants were born with tumors and defects. It wasn’t genetics, it wasn’t lifestyle, it was the very air they were breathing, the water they drank and the homes in which they lived. The environment was silently altering the very bodies within which they lived.

After educating herself about pollution, toxins and contamination, she put her new found knowledge to work and started PFCR (People For Community Recovery). With her leadership, things started to change. Surrounded by toxic dumps, incinerators and disposal sites, PFCR galvanized the community and successfully challenged some of the largest corporations and politicians in America to take notice and clean up the area they’d been ignoring for years.

HAZEL JOHNSON:

Let me start from the beginning. How I really got involved was my husband had died of lung cancer and at the time they didn’t know what was the cause of it. hen a few years later I heard that our area had a high incidence of cancer and I wanted to know why. We had a lot of people being ill and I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

I started making telephone calls to the health department and was fortunate enough to get in touch with Dr. Reginald Jones. He was well abreast about the area. He explained to me what was going on in the South East side of Chicago . . . about all the contaminants and things. He told me of an organization that was dealing with the environment. I made numerous calls and found out about the Environmental Action Foundation. At that time they had a young man whose name was Kent Silva. I questioned him on a lot of things, about different types of chemicals. He sent me a lot of literature so I could read up on it.

PCR (People for Community Recovery) really started in my bedroom. I did a lot of studying to see what the problem was that we were dealing with out here. When I first started a lot of people thought I was crazy. People said I didn’t know what I was talking about, because this was something new to everybody. They weren’t talking about the environment then like they do today.

In our apartment, in the attic, we have what I call angel hair. I called for them to remove the angel hair from the attic of our apartment. The kids would climb up in there and come out crying and stinging, you know, from the fiberglass. We had that removed.

After that we started fighting against Waste Management across the street because the odor was horrible . . . you had the garbage smell. I started doing a little research on Waste Management and learned how they were dealing with chemicals with the incinerator; how they were burning chemicals from many parts of the United States.

And the garbage . . . I’d never been concerned about the garbage before, until I really got involved with the environment and what was going on. This was all in the early eighties. You know, you put your garbage out and you don’t think about it no more. After I got involved dealing with the environment I got to be more concerned about the garbage and the whole recycling bit of it.

The Waste Management over there. (Nods outside.) I waited until my fifties, in July of eighty-seven, before I went to jail for stopping the trucks that were going in there. We had the media . . . we had a lot of people. In fact we had over five hundred people participating with this stopping the trucks from coming in. We had planned it. We had big garbage cans. Some people were out their barbecuing, with sandwiches and stuff. We had a party. After all the media left Waste Management called the police on us and seventeen of us decided to go to jail for “trespassing”.

When it came to court the judge didn’t know what to do, because he complimented us on what we were doing. Then he called the lawyer and talked to her in the back, in the chamber and when he came back he just said, “Stay away from the property for six months.” After that, we were next door to the property, on the expressway, with big signs and truckers and cars passing by were honking, blowing their horns and carrying on. We really had a lot of excitement going along the expressway. Waste Management called the police on us again, but there was really nothing they could do. We weren’t on their property.

We were saying how we didn’t want another landfill right across the street from a high school and everything, because of how it would affect the people.

And at Miller Manor they had some well water, which was so contaminated you couldn’t even drink it. It smelled just like a rotten egg. It was horrible! And they’d been paying taxes for water they couldn’t even use. There were about six families of older people. A lot of people didn’t believe the city of Chicago had wells, because everybody thought they had all the new system. When the EPA came to check they find out the city has over two thousand wells! After they got so much publicity for that the mayor came in and helped those people out. They didn’t even have a hydrant. If they had had a fire the place would have burned down automatically. So they went in and installed a water system and a hydrant and stuff and they started getting regular water, which they didn’t have to pay for since they’d been paying all those years before and couldn’t even use it. It made a big difference.

The media really picked up a lot of things I’ve been doing. I think that’s made a lot of these success stories that I talk about. The media participated a lot in it too. One little girl, I like her very much, her name is Deborah Nargent and she’s on ABC. She was a great help with the asbestos problem and gave me little tips of what to do and how to be successful with what we were doing.

Sometimes it gets frustrating getting folks to do what they should have in the first place. Like I’m telling my daughter and everybody right now, I am worn out. I am tired. At one point I’d never get home until ten or eleven o’clock at night. I’m working here during the day, then in the evenings we’d have meeting after meeting. Now I’m exhausted. I’m an older woman. At one point I was in the air two or three times a month, going to universities and speaking to meetings or before congress talking about the environment.

I’m on the CSI (Common Sense Initiative), dealing with the industry people in Washington. I asked my daughter Josephine if she’d like to be on the board for that because I’m tired. I don’t want to do no more running around here and there. A lot of people think that’s pleasure. To me it’s not because when I come back I’m worn out. I have to rest two or three days returning from wherever.

But I’m fortunate to say that the majority of the things I’ve fought for are real successful. When I first started a newsman from the local ABC came and asked me, “How do you think a small minority group like yours can buck up against a Multi-million dollar corporation?” I said, “You never know what you can do until you try.” About a year or two later I wrote him a letter outlining all my accomplishments, but he never returned or called saying he’d received the letter. Later on, when we were having a protest about the airport they were talking about building, he was there. I asked him, “Did you receive my letter?” He said, “Yeah, I received it.” But he made no comment on it.

Then we fought for the lagoons to be cleaned up and they cleaned up three of them. They had over 30,000 contaminants in them. Some of the stuff that was put in there had been in so long that they couldn’t tell what it was. A few barrels had paint solvent; some had baby sharks and baby pigs that had been used for medical research, that were in formaldehyde. They had problems trying to clean it all up because whatever was down there was such a mess it would clog up the trucks taking it out. They had to go back and get more money because it took a lot longer than they’d expected. The South side of Chicago was a forgotten area. Nobody was saying anything about the South East side until I got involved.

I’ve discovered that there are more waste sites and dumps around people of color and in poor areas than in other communities; not just here, but all around the country. We’ve brought this issue to national and international attention. I went to the world summit in Brazil. e had women from around the world discussing the problems in our communities. They had people from more than a hundred and twenty five countries. It was the first time they’d ever gotten so many dignitaries from different countries to sit down and take a picture together.

Complete profile of Ms. Johnson and others at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

One by One They Died

Life of Nane Alejandrez. Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In photo: Nane holding photos of brother Tavo and Leo’s headstones.

naneOne by one they died . . . from drugs . . . from violence . . . from pain, hate and revenge. Nane’s oldest brother got wiped out when he was intentionally hit from behind on his motorcycle; his younger brother died from a heroin overdose; his uncle Pancheo was stabbed to death; numerous cousins succumbed to drugs or were murdered; and his father died from an accumulation of life-long exposure to pesticides, alcoholism and a blow to the head with a baseball bat during a gang fight. That Nane survived to tell his story is a miracle in and of it’s self. 

Mr. Alejandrez is now director of Barrios Unidos (Communities United), was instrumental in convening a national gang summit for peace and has received countless awards and recognition for his work in teaching and living non-violence. Barrios Unidos is a multi-cultural program whose mission is to prevent and curtail violence among youth, by providing alternatives such as the Cesar E. Chavez School For Social Change; outreach to youth clubs, parent groups, juvenile hall and kids on the street; and community economic development by operating a full service, custom silk screening business called BU Productions, where youth learn production, sales, marketing, design and administration skills.

NANE:

I’ve seen so many families get torn apart and so many men, especially men, go into hate and revenge and take somebody else’s life. Not thinking about what it’s going to do to the rest of the family. All the violence and anger . . . and a lot of us being brought up to not show any pain . . . to not let people know . . . so we act out, even at times when we don’t want to.

When I acted out I didn’t really want to, but I did it to show that I was looking out for the neighborhood; for the honor of my family. It felt like I wasn’t punking out. If you didn’t do nothing then someone else would think, “Oh well, kill one of those family members and nobody will do anything about it.” So the family would look at each other and say, “Who’s going to do something about it?” – That whole system of payback; trying to keep an image that causes a lot of pain. It’s easier to do that then to deal with your pain.

One thing I’ve learned throughout the years, is I wish somebody would have talked to me about pain and how to deal with it; how to not inflict pain. I learned how to numb it by using drugs and violence, which removed me from feeling it and kept my feelings busy on something else. That worked for a while, but what began to happen was the addiction started taking over. No longer was it about feelings; it was just being well. Surviving and the excitement of breaking the law and running with the home boys . . . you know . . . rebelling, not conforming. I didn’t know anybody that was dealing with it.

People would say, “It’s OK, everything’s going to be all right.” I’d say, “How do you know everything’s going to be all right, when I’m feeling like shit?! You tell me everything’s going to be all right, but that guy over there’s laughing at what he did to my family. Why shouldn’t I go do it to his family?” And then other people would just say, “Go out and take care of it.” They think, “Why isn’t he doing anything? Why doesn’t he take one of their people out?”

There’s that whole thing of not believing in a higher power. I said, “How can this God take my loved ones away? How can He allow it to happen . . . to take my heroes?” The heroes in my life were taken away in a short period of time. The heroes to me were my father, my Uncle Frank and my oldest brother.

After losing all these relatives I was still using drugs a lot of the time. When my father had his operation I was strung out and unemployed. Here I was having graduated from the university with honors and I was really down. When I went to see him in the hospital I was loaded. I went into intensive care. My aunt was there and we went into see him. There were five individuals in intensive care and you know a lot of people that go in there don’t come out. They told me he was all bandaged up and swollen and it would be hard to recognize him. I go in there and start to talk to my father and tell him how much I love him, how much I care about him, my aunts at the end of the bed rubbing his feet. I’m saying, “You’re going to be OK. I love you Dad.” Then my other aunt comes in and says, “Alejandrez is over here.” I look and say, “Wow man!” I was talking to the wrong man. (laughs) I was talking to another man two beds down from my father. My aunt let go of his feet and yelled! I could hear the rest of my family laughing, even in a situation like that, they were laughing. They were going, “Nane’s over there talking to another man.” I swear to God I felt like disappearing. If my father could talk he would have said, “I’m over here stupid!” or “Pendejo en estoy!” So I had to move from that bed to my Dad’s bed and repeat everything. That’s how fucked up I was. That’s an example of the madness. It took me about a year after my father died to really let go of that.

After all these deaths, when I really wanted to clean myself up, I was able to see a friend of mine who was clean. He’s now one of my best friends. We had used together in the past, so when I saw him clean I saw the possibility. He was looking good. I’d gotten busted and was going to court and he would show up in the courts. Every time I had a court date he’d be there supporting me.

Finally I just couldn’t do it no more. My family . . . my children . . . I wasn’t doing anymore talks. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’d gotten so deep I couldn’t maintain. And I didn’t want to be doing stuff when I was loaded. I hid my addiction a lot. When it got to the point were I couldn’t do that anymore I asked for help. When I asked him for support he was there. Once I got clean and got the drugs out of my system I started to feel a lot of the pain.

I think I was always a spiritual person but I got side tracked. I got more involved in my traditional ways . . . my indigenous background . . . knowing that it was OK to pray. I’d go around with a lot of Native American teachers and prayer was always there. So I started to pray and go to NA (narcotics anonymous) and they always ended the meeting with a prayer. I began to feel different. My work started coming out again and I was really happy. I was seeing the faces of children and I told myself, “If I’m going to do this I need to do it right.” I need to be clean and I can’t be backsliding. I got more involved in my work and my self. It took a long time to do that again.

I’ve been gifted, you know, in certain situations where things were going to happen . . . by me being there . . . and the respect they have for me. Because I have been through a lot and they could sense it, it stopped it from happening again. People know that this is what I’ve been talking about for the last twenty years. “Stop the violence! Stop the violence!” Even through my madness I’ve stuck with it. People my age always tell me that that’s what they admire about me . . . that I’ve always stuck with it. It’s been hard. There’s been a lot of pain. People ask, “Why would you want to stay in a situation where you’re dealing with so much pain?” But at the same time there’s so much hope . . . the smiles on the kids. They’ve got this place, they’ve got a job, people that look like themselves running it. They got inspiration that maybe someday they’ll be doing it.

More of Nane’s story, and others, at: Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

My Son Ryan

Profile of Jeanne White and her son Ryan. From Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

jeannewhiteIn 1984, one week before Christmas, Jeanne White was told that her son Ryan had contracted AIDS from a blood product he’d used to control his hemophilia. The doctors gave him six months to live. Struggling to make life as normal as possible for her thirteen-year-old son, she attempted to have him return to school as soon as possible.

She did not realize the amount of fear and prejudice that would result when the school heard of his illness and refused to allow his return. After numerous court battles, which brought he and his mother to national and international attention, Ryan was allowed back in school, only to be inundated with hate, ignorance and abuse. As a result of their struggles Ryan was befriended by numerous celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Phil Donahue and began to educate children and parents about AIDS by speaking at schools, appearing on numerous talk shows and news programs and having a movie about his life broadcast on national television. On April 11, 1990, five and a half years after his six-month prognosis, Ryan died. His funeral was one of the most publicized services of that decade.

Shortly after Ryan’s death his mother Jeanne, who had always been behind the scenes publicly, was asked by several senators to speak about Ryan to Congress in order to pass national legislation for AIDS education. She reluctantly agreed and was instantly thrown into the media spotlight. The bill, THE RYAN WHITE CARE ACT, was subsequently passed and Jeanne White became one of the most sought after speakers in the country. She founded the Ryan White Foundation and continues advocating for AIDS education and prevention with children, teenagers and their peers.

JEANNE WHITE:

A lot of times it takes a little push. Everybody likes feeling sorry for them selves over the death of a loved one. That’s kind of normal. With me it was Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch who got me going and I fought it every step of the way. Ryan was always the public speaker not me.I was just following Ryan around. Senator Kennedy and Hatch had just named a bill after Ryan called the Ryan White Care Act and they wanted me to come to Washington DC. It was too soon. We had just buried Ryan two days before and they asked me to come anyway. They knew it was going to be hard, but they said, “You know, this is the first chance that we have of getting something done for people with AIDS.” They said, “Ryan’s death is so fresh on everybody’s mind, his illness and funeral was carried by every network for the last week and a half. This is the first chance of someone being in the public eye that takes the focus off the disease and puts it on to the fact that ‘anybody can get it.’”

I said, “Yes”. I said, “No”. I said, “I can’t, I really can’t. Ryan used to do that, not me.” On the second day people from Senator Kennedy’s staff called me again. They said, “Terry’s going to be there.” Terry and others had helped me through a lot of bad times. During all the years that Ryan fought AIDS the more people I knew that died of AIDS. And I had seen so many families just like me. Even though I didn’t want to get involved, so many people helped me that I kind of felt like I owed it to them. Then Senator Hatch called me and said, “You know, we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I have twenty-three senators lined up for you. All we want you to do is tell what it’s like to watch your son live and die with this disease.”

So I went to Washington and I’m so glad I did. It made me feel good. I didn’t feel I did great, not like I wanted to. I could have done better but I knew I was sincere in what I felt and said. After that, people wouldn’t let me stop.

Phil Donahue, who was a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become a very good friend of the family. When he was in the hospital visiting Ryan he noticed all the mail and could not believe how much was pouring in. He took a bunch of the letters back to New York with him and called saying, “Do you realize these letters are all from kids?!” I said, “Well yeah, that’s who generally wrote Ryan.” He said, “Jeannie, you’ve got to continue this work. You’ve got to answer this mail.” Phil said, “I’ll hire you an assistant.” There were over sixty thousand letters! Phil kept his word and with the help of Marlo Thomas and the St. Jude volunteers, they were able to find a lady that lived close by.

I was so impressed with Ryan, so proud of him. Sometimes I’d think, “Golly, is he really my son?” To me he was just my little kid, but to the nation, he was this celebrity and hero. I hated to even think that I could follow him, his impact was so great and people listened. When I speak I’m always a nervous wreck, even though I’ve been doing it now for years. I’ve messed up a lot, but I’m me. When I introduce myself I say, “I’m just a mom. I’m a mom just like your mom and because of this misunderstood disease called AIDS, my life changed overnight.” I say a prayer every time I go out. I say, “Lord, please help me to get through this. Help me educate these young people. Help me make a difference in their lives with my story.” Then I say, “Ryan, please be there with me.” Then I have this kind of surge that goes through me and I feel like its Ryan saying, “OK, Mom, I’m with you.”

I think we’ve made a lot of progress. By “we” I mean everybody who has committed so hard to fighting this disease with education and through therapy and drugs and medical treatment. I think we’ve come a long way. The people who have to be commended the most are the people that are not here. Their lives had to be lost for us to get where we are today, to show compassion. Even though I’m tired I’m still doing it because of the Terry Burns, the Mike Callums and the family members that I’ve seen.

One day we were riding in the van and Ryan reached over and grabbed my hand and started swinging it. I looked over and said, “OK, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t want anything.” “Come on Ryan, what do you want?” I continued. He replied, “Can’t a son hold his mother’s hand? ” I said, “Come on, you really don’t want anything?” “Mom, I just want to say thank you for standing by me, for always being there for me.”

I remember that moment when I speak to teenagers. You know, we always think everybody’s going to be here tomorrow, but one day you’re going to wake up and somebody’s not going to be there. I say, “You might think this stupid old lady up here doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I do. The next time you go home from school, even if you think it’s the corniest thing you’ve ever done, write a letter to your parents. If you think you’re real cool and you can’t go up and hug them around their neck and say, ‘Mom. Dad. Thank you. I love you.’ Then write a note and put it on their pillow. Do something so that you’ll never be sorry.”

It would have been easy to be mad all the time at the people who ridiculed us, who discriminated against us, but we had to put our lives in perspective and look at what was really important and what wasn’t. Everybody saw on the news that it was this fight for Ryan to go to school, but the number one priority in our life was keeping him healthy. Second, was keeping my job at General Motors, because we had great insurance and it paid for all his medical bills. And the third part was my daughter Andrea, keeping us together as a family.

At first, it’s like, “Why?” Everybody wants to know why. Why wasn’t he given a miracle? All my life I was taught if you pray hard enough, if you believed hard enough, that you would get a miracle and you could never doubt that or you wouldn’t get one. I never thought Ryan was going to die. I just couldn’t quite understand that. I thought nobody had more people praying over them than Ryan did. I prayed, “Lord, wouldn’t it be nice to show this kid a miracle in front of the whole nation.” Everybody knew he’s lived with AIDS for five and half years. He’d been in and out of hospitals. He’s been blind twice. I mean, this kid had a heck of a life, why couldn’t he be given a miracle? When he died, it was like, “Why? What more could we have done?”

When he died I was really taken aback. I started questioning my faith. I think that’s normal. I mean, I started wondering if there really is a god? How does God let things like this happen? I see people around me all the time asking that question. “Why do young kids have to die?” I mean, anybody really, lots of other good people have died too. So then I started trying to find reasons.

After awhile it started to get clearer. “Look at all the things he’s done in his short life. He’s educated so many people. Wouldn’t we all like to say we had accomplished as much as this kid did in only 18 years?!”

I tell the kids that when I get to heaven I’m going to be angry. I hope the Lord forgives me for being angry, but I’m going to say, “Why did you have to take Ryan?” Then I say, “You know what I think he’s going to say? He’s going to say, ‘You know what, he was only supposed to live three to six months. I gave you five and a half years and you’re still not happy.’” Maybe I got a miracle. We had quite a few Christmases that we never thought we were going to have.

I didn’t want to lose my faith. I was mad at my faith. I was mad at my church. I was mad at my religion. I was mad at God. But I wanted to find a reason. I eventually started seeing things around me like the Ryan White Care Act and Elton John go through rehabilitation and get off of drugs and alcohol and I thought, “My goodness, Ryan touched more lives than I ever knew. Perhaps those people got miracles and they don’t know it.”

Michael (Jackson) was a real good friend of Ryan’s. When Michael called Ryan in the hospital once, Elton said, “With all the money that’s in this room, we can’t bring this boy back to life.” That was a real big realization to Elton . . . that he had all the money in the world, he had everything he could ever buy, but he could not buy his health. That’s why he entered rehab. When Michael called me after Ryan died, just to see how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing OK but what made you and Ryan so close?” When Michael would call, they would have long phone conversations. He said, “You know, most people can’t get over the awe of who I am, so nobody can ever act normal around me. Ryan knew how I wanted to be treated, because that’s how he wanted to be treated. I can’t trust anyone because everybody always wants something from me.” He could tell Ryan anything and Ryan wasn’t going to go blab it or tell it, you know. “I promised Ryan he could be in my next video and now that he’s gone I want to do a video for him.” He made a video called Going Too Soon, which was about Ryan.

It’s hard to talk about death. I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t really think he was going to die. I can remember him saying what he wanted to be buried in. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about it but he went on anyway, “I know you like me in a tux but I don’t want to buried in one.” I said, “OK, Ryan, what do you want?” I mean, it’s like, I’d say anything to get this conversation over with. He says, “I want to be buried in my Guess jeans, my red T&C (Town and Country) shirt, my Air Jordan’s and my Jean jacket.” He pauses, as I’m fading out, then says, “You know how people are when they’re lying in a casket and everybody is watching their eyes to see if their eyes move? I want my sunglasses on and I want to be buried in my boxer shorts.” “Your boxer shorts?” I exclaimed. He’d just switched from wearing briefs to boxer shorts and really liked them. “Why your boxer shorts?” I deadpanned. “You know that hernia I got? I want to make sure I . . .” He had a hernia that they couldn’t operate on because he had no platelets. “I want to make sure I’m comfortable.” And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re dead, I mean . . .’ “OK, just talk,” Ryan said. “You know, as a mom.”

One of the best things after Ryan died was when people talked about him. I think it was also good for me to get involved in something I truly believed in, doing something, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. That’s the easy way to go . . . feeling sorry for yourself. People didn’t let me, although that’s what I probably would have done if not pushed. But people were always talking about Ryan and people still do and that kind of keeps him alive within me.

More inspiring people at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

He Spoke Up About Bombing

Excerpt from Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest.

arnieinuniformudorn1969074In late 1969 and early 1970, Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base was the second busiest airport in the world, next to Tan Sim Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. It wasn’t the second busiest with the number of people passing through, but with the number of flights taking off and landing. They weren’t flying for recreation or sightseeing; they were reconnaissance planes and bombers – lots of bombers. They left the field weighed down like heavyweight fighters and returned like featherweights. It was methodical, like clockwork: day in and day out, hour after hour.

A few weeks after his arrival at Udorn, Dr. Leff began to get a feel for his clientele. There were three groups he attended and with whom he became intimately acquainted. The first was the United States Air Force personnel, which numbered about 5,000. The second group was the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and contract personnel (mercenaries) who were employed by Air America. The third contingent consisted of Royal Laotian Army soldiers who were wounded in the war against the communist Pathet Lao across the border in Laos, protected by the Thai military and treated at Udorn.

The U.S. was supposedly not at war with Laos, but was nonetheless bombing their villages, giving their government military weapons and ammunition and supporting the Royal Laotian Army with money, surveillance, and medical care. The U.S. Air Force was bombing villages that contained nothing but villagers. Intelligence officers ordered changes in the captions on reconnaissance pictures. When questioned, pilots would quote the party line and say they were bombing communist strongholds.

It was common knowledge on the base that their primary mission was to destroy any communist stronghold in Laos. Legality, civilian deaths, and the Geneva Convention were all collateral damage to the mission. The goal was the priority, not the process.

Captain Leff couldn’t help but get a strong whiff of these realities. His patients told him what was going on. He had eyes and ears and could see and hear the stories, the bravado from the pilots; the detached, cold expressions of the Air America personnel. On the rare occasions he visited the officer’s club, his ears were bombarded with the sickening boasts of pilots talking about how many people they had killed that day and how many bombs they had dropped on the bastards. He heard stories from the flight surgeons that did air time over Laos that made his skin crawl. He had arrived in August as a patriotic serviceman; by September, his patriotism had been bruised, bloodied and battered.

“Within three months time, I knew the war was all hocus pocus,” Captain Leff recalled. “People were lying left and right. It was all so obvious. By that time, I had made friends with a number of GIs, both stripers and officers, who had the same hit on this mess as I did. So, I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter to the Chairman of the foreign relations committee of the U.S. Senate, J. W. Fulbright. It wasn’t complicated; it just said, ‘I don’t understand. What is this war in Laos all about? How can we have this secret war?’ I never expected to hear from him. Even though military personnel are allowed to write congressional letters, I had a strong feeling that the Air Force was reading my mail and wasn’t sure if he’d even get it. I didn’t give any details. I sent it on November 11, 1969. On December 10th, I received his reply. I was shocked. It was a personal reply, not a form letter. He said he was doing all he could to stop the war on Laos and appreciated my concern. In the beginning of 1970, I sent him another letter with more detail and said I’d be glad to speak to his commission. Again, he replied and said they would take me up on my offer when I returned to the States.”

Dr. Leff had just opened a Pandora’s Box of deceit, corruption, and legitimate paranoia.

More at Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest

I Carried Them With Me

geigerExcerpt featuring Nicola Geiger. From Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

Born and raised in Germany, Nicola Geiger lived in a young girl’s dream world; a luxurious home, close friends, material goods and parties galore. By the end of World War II she was homeless, without possessions and absent her loving family. Her father, mother and one-year-old son died shortly after the war began. When she was eight months pregnant with her second child she was raped. The child died at birth as a result of the trauma. She was interrogated and tortured in Poland, lost many close friends, and her dear husband Rudolf disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Since her losses during the war, Nicola persisted in reaching out to others. Immediately after the war she worked with the International Red Cross and assisted refugees. After studying in England she moved to the U.S., met her second husband, fought against McCarthyism and became involved in the civil rights movement. When they moved on to Japan, she became active in visiting the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, waged campaigns for world peace, and fought for the rights of Koreans who had been enslaved and abused by the Japanese. When her husband died she decided to move to the Philippines. There she fought for democracy and the overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Ms. Geiger:

First of all, my two children died. One was a baby and the other was when I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and was raped by twelve Russians. The child didn’t survive. It died right after birth. Fortunately, they found me in these ruins in Berlin. A lady heard me when I cried out for help and she took me to a Red Cross hospital. Then my husband disappeared and I never knew what happened to him. My father died a horrible death at the beginning of the war, which was said to be an accident, but it wasn’t – his legs were cut off while he was visiting a factory. Friends died and the absolute, total destruction of everything from the bombing. It was an enormous amount of simply taking in the losses.

Such losses can never be replaced. You’re totally wiped out . . . your associations and surroundings . . . furnishings that were two hundred years old, furniture, everything . . . so then you realize you are totally alone.

I was very active in helping refugees after the war. I moved to England where I studied theater. I came to America at the time of McCarthyism, where you were better dead than red. I was not going to stay in America one day longer with such attitudes and wouldn’t have if I hadn’t met my second husband. He was a scientist who’d worked on the Manhattan Project. He was really an extraordinary person.

I was very involved with anti-McCarthyism and the civil rights movement. I had never been told, “This is a Jew and this is a German.” I grew up in a socialist family and my father was extremely enlightened, as was my mother. My father was a Buddhist. He sat in the room where I was born and had prepared a meditation mat next to him so I could be put beside him upon birth.

I was very involved in the civil rights movement during the fifties and sixties and I worked a great deal with children in theater in order to empower them. I find theater to be a tool that is very useful. During the Vietnam War I continued in the civil rights movement. We lived in Philadelphia. There were sit ins from Baltimore up to Washington, women strike for peace and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. I was really involved with my whole heart then. When my husband went on sabbatical we went to Hiroshima Japan where he did research on atomic bomb victims, whom I worked with as well.

The Japanese had resettled two provinces in Korea and brought Koreans to Japan as slave laborers. In 1905 America and Japan made a treaty in which America took over the Philippines and Japan took over Korea. The Koreans were very badly treated, so I worked a great deal with Koreans in the Hiroshima area and in Kyoto after my husband died. I worked extensively with the Japanese peace movement and with the liberation people in Korea. For a couple years I moved to the Philippines because of my health. I lived with European journalists there and entered into the movement to oust the Marcos regime.

There was never a time when I wasn’t involved. It hasn’t been from an intellectual place. It really came from my own deep understanding of what life is about. The work I did was because I wanted to be in this world. I wanted to live in that light which takes away the occasion of all wars cruelty and control. I really understood, through my Buddhism, that I am the one that must work on myself . . . my ego. This is what I successfully did, in great part because of my experience with suffering.

Two of the major exercises which were brought to me when I was young, were to go over my day at night and decide what was harmonious and what was not. My parents did not speak of bad and good; they spoke of harmony and disharmony. They presented it in a way, because I was very small, that I was very much empowered. If I had done something, thrown a stone or fought with someone, I could go to that person and make it right or more accurately, harmonious.

My parents always used the bell. (She rings bell) The bell was used for settling down. My mother was not a Buddhist, but she saw how its values worked and she and father’s parenting was always together. There was also an enormous group of friends with whom we’d celebrate the change of the year. People would come together. Every weekend there would be music and poetry. It was an extremely interesting and wonderful life I grew up in.

I don’t really know how I managed to survive (the war), but I can tell you what happened. When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I thought, “I can change the world!” Don’t we all think that? I was nineteen when my father died on September 6, 1939, just six days after the war began. Then there was the attack on Poland and a few of my friends were killed. Then began the registration of food and nobody could travel on trains. Everything was regulated. My father was against Hitler and had voted against him in the election. Did you know he came into power with only thirty-three percent of the vote? A year after Hitler became chancellor he assassinated five thousand people, many who were homosexuals, gypsies (and political opponents). Five thousand people in two days! They were all rounded up.

When these things happened I really understood that I had no power; that I had been living in a fantasy; thinking my life could make a difference. I really understood that I was quite powerless, even though I knew many important people. I could go to them but they could not help me. I couldn’t say, “Let’s stop the war.” Then from my own view of the world, because of Buddhism, I really grasped, not so much understood, it really was a grasping, that I was responsible for myself and how I would live and what I would do in the midst of all that was going on. From 1943 on, when the totally destructive air raids came, I really lived day to day.

Why didn’t I have any feeling of revenge? I think this is fascinating. I thought it was futile to do so. I felt that to have these emotions were only hurting me. They didn’t give me any peace. I had feelings, not so much of revenge, but of anger and more anger. I wanted to lash back. But I began to understand very quickly, to grasp, that that would only hurt myself. I had to fight to really center down and my bell helped me with that. I centered down and did my Metta practice every day. Metta is a Buddhist meditation for loving-kindness. That was the thing to do. In many ways it’s a great mystery that I could do it. I think it had something to do with all the wonderful people I’d encountered through the years. The German people were not bad people. The people I’d been born in to were fine people. In human kindness and helpfulness I encountered many wonderful people.

So, I did my Metta practice. I didn’t deny my grief. Indeed, I felt it! I tried to commit suicide on my birthday on August 3rd, 1945. I took pills and my friends with whom I was staying came back home after I’d taken them. Luckily they’d forgotten something. I don’t speak of it very often. I was tired. I was so tired of knowing about evil. I was so tired that I wanted to rest forever. It’s really amazing all the things that went on around the world.

When I recovered, woke up and was back in the present, I was really grateful that I had lived! My time was not yet up. Indeed, I realized that I had a task. And each time someone died that was close to me; I carried them with me in their spirit. It’s like they’re marching with me. I’ve demonstrated and manifested in my life what most of the people who died would have done.

Post Script: Nicola Geiger died peacefully, after a long illness, on July 31, 2006.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

My Mother Was Murdered

Excerpt featuring Lee Mun Wah. From Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

lee-mun-wah“Your mother’s been murdered!” The woman who gave you birth is dead. Her life intentionally ended by another man. This was the cold reality Mr. Lee had to face in 1985. Feelings of fear, anger, rage and revenge soon replaced the numbed existence of shock. Instead of letting these intense, understandable reactions control his life, Mr. Lee searched for answers. He began to reach out, to confront and explore the ingrained, unconscious attitudes that lead to hate and violence, and discovered a way to shift the imbalances of power, heal the wounds and open our hearts.

As a seminar leader, speaker and filmmaker, Mr. Lee’s work has been highly visible, effective and utilized throughout the nation. His first film Stolen Ground, about racism towards Asian-Americans, won special merit at the San Francisco International Film Festival. His second video, of a weekend encounter group for men, The Color of Fear, won the 1995 National Education Media Award for best social studies documentary and has been used in thousands of organizations and businesses to deal with and discuss prejudice, bias and race. 

LEE MUN WAH:

I was born in Oakland, California at a time when people were living in mixed neighborhoods. I had a real glimpse of what a community could look like with all different ethnicities. My parents were very poor, though as a child I didn’t know that. Some of the distinct things I remember were that there were very few Asians in my classes and very few or almost no Asian-American or African-American teachers. When I noticed this consciously it became a real loss.

I was born into a very alive, dynamic family. I always thought that all Chinese families were like this. It wasn’t until later that I realized my father was a very unique man who really believed in going out in the world and creating what you wanted. He influenced me greatly in that way. My mother was very warm and personable; very intimate and in that way created my sense of family, of being close to people.

A lot of these life experiences prepared me, without my knowing, for the type of work I do now, when I talk about the country having a national relationship. It’s about how a family treats each other. I don’t think it’s just a sense of family, it’s also part of our Asian, Chinese culture . . . that we’re there for one other . . . that we respect and honor each others needs . . . the warmth, security and safety of a family . . . being up front and honest . . . trying to be a good person in the world and with those you meet. A number of people have that in there culture as well, but I don’t think many have made the connection of family into a larger community, in a global or workplace perspective and I think that is the missing link.

The American thing is often, “Me, me, me!” Business is first and task oriented and not loyal to workers. When business is down or they’re “restructuring” and they lay you off, they’re actually saying, “You are no longer needed, the company is more important.” It isn’t about taking care of the people who work for you but about having them compete with each other. I don’t run my family or workplace that way. And when I go out into the world that’s something I work for, to change that paradigm.

I don’t think you can legislate an end to racism. You have to have a change of heart. That’s why I talk about a relationship. It’s the only real connection we have. Often, we don’t act until there’s a crisis. What we need to realize is that the crisis is happening every single day and there’s always something you can do to address it.

We’ve never understood culture in this country. We think it’s the food, the costume or the holiday, but we don’t touch what it really means to us on a spiritual, emotional, ancestral way. When the American Indian tells us that it’s not enough to pass the sage around the room but to really understand where that comes from. To understand the relationships and the way we treat each other; that it’s really expressed in our movements, in what we don’t say, the way we hold each other, the way we wait for and acknowledge one other. We don’t take the time to really look, to really experience. Americans want everything fast . . tangible. The American Indian is right when they say, “You want my customs, my rituals and my land, but you don’t want me.” What we do is we use people and cultures. We use them when it’s convenient, for a service, for artifacts. Rarely do we take the time to understand how we relate to each other.

We don’t look into the realm of what we don’t know. I think that’s the part I’m talking about. When I do workshops I have people look around the room, listen to silence; listen to what’s not being said, to bodies that are talking all the time. We usually don’t listen to the nonverbal, to the energy in a room, to the impact of our ancestors that have brought us to this place. We are very present and future oriented but don’t pay enough homage or respect to the past. When are we open to learn from other cultures . . . to integrate values from other cultures? When companies say they’re multi-cultural or multi-racial I ask them to name one cultural factor they’ve integrated, that they see as practical, as useful, that they use every single day.

The turning point for me (after my mother was murdered) was when I wrote a play in which I acted out facing my Mom’s murderer. It also helped to look at the context from where it came. I tried to find and talk to the man who killed my mother, to no avail. On the day we finished The Color of Fear he was sentenced to life in prison. He’d killed four or five other women in addition to my Mom. Before that I had continued trying to contact his family. It turns out that some of his relatives lived in a home we’d been renting. It was really shocking. I talked to the woman who lived there and she said a cousin of hers had killed someone as well. When she went to his trial she had to leave because all she could see was “The little boy I’d grown up with”. She told me, “You may never know why he did it.”

Had my mother not been murdered, I’d never had made the film (The Color of Fear). I began to really see and sense that perhaps there was a meaning to this. It serves my healing and in many ways it’s healing for this country as well, because surely if I can go through this then others can open their hearts and have compassion as well. I’m not so sure hatred or guns or bars do any good . . . it only makes fear larger. Fear is not something you can protect yourself from, you have to walk through it.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

A Sister’s Promise

imagesInterview with Nancy Goodman Brinker. An excerpt from the book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

Susan G. Komen was married, with two small children, when she was given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. She fought a valiant fight with every known treatment at the time, until her body could withstand no more, and died in 1980. Before she passed away she had her younger sister, Nancy, promise to find a cure for the disease that was afflicting so many women across the country. Nancy thought the world of her “big sister” and though she was in the depths of despair, and “utter hopelessness”, she promised “Susie” that she would do everything within her power to find a cure.

Two years later, Susie’s little sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and brought breast cancer to national attention, becoming the largest private nonprofit group in the world devoted solely to funding breast cancer research. Since 1982 the foundation has raised over 100 million dollars! Over half a million people now run in their annual 5K “Race for the Cure” in cities across America. They were instrumental in getting the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp for Breast Cancer Awareness; have galvanized the undergarment industry to provide labels on their clothing which advocate breast self-examinations; and inspired countless well known politicians and celebrities to publicly speak about their personal encounters with the disease. 

NANCY: I came from a large extended family. My mother has been my greatest role model. She was very close to her family. She weathered losing so many she has loved. She was the only child in a family where there were several uncles and aunts. Many of these uncles and aunts were more like older brothers and sisters, because she was an only child. My Mom had nine aunts and uncles combined, who had a total of four children between them.

Mother ended up being a caretaker and very close to these uncles and aunts. Except for one or two, she literally nursed them all until they died. I use to spend a lot of time with her when I was growing up, taking care of some of them, going to see how some were doing; watching her suffer many losses and then of course my sister. Mother always had the most optimistic attitude, you know, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She lost her mother when she was only twenty, so she taught me about loss. I still find it so very sad.To tell you the truth, even now I don’t know if I have learned to really deal with it. There must come a point in your life where you never stop grieving but you just take action, you just go forward.

I honestly don’t know how my mother has dealt with all the losses in her life, particularly one uncle who she loved very much and was like a brother to her. That was the one time I really saw her fall apart. It took her a long time to get over that one. I saw her crying in bed, grieving. Ordinarily my mother is compassionate and full of feelings, yet also stoic and able to go on. This one took a lot of her . . . this one uncle’s death. He loved, supported, helped and listened. He was just wonderful to her. He was gentle and kind and I think that he rounded out her life, gave her the comfort that a parent would give a child. He was her mainstay.

She had a supportive family with all her uncles and aunts around. She was an only child so I think she was a little more used to being alone then some of us are. But this one uncle’s death was very sudden and it was tough for her. She weathered through it. She is a very special person, my mother.

Loss was a part of our life. We’re Jewish and mother had lost family in Germany during the war. I wasn’t old enough to know about it when the war was going on per se, but I knew to the extent that we had relatives who were lost in Europe and the war. We talked a lot about that and how precious life is.

When Susan died the thing that helped me the most was focusing all of my energy on fulfilling her dream and last request, which was to cure breast cancer. I had to do this in her memory. I really wanted to do it. We had been through such a siege.

Luckily, I had met and married a wonderful man just after having gone through an awful divorce. I think focusing all my energy and working as hard as I could on the Komen Foundation, raising my son, and being a wife, helped me get through a lot.

I don’t really remember anything specific that people said or did, except one person who helped a lot. He was a Rabbi that we had in Peoria at the time. We went to see him towards the end of Susan’s illness. We wanted to know how to deal with the children and how to deal with her. He told me what to say and how to say it. He said, “Don’t lie and tell her everything is going to be OK . . . she’ll be OK. She is not going to be OK. What you have to do is learn to be sympathetic and it is awful, you don’t know why it is happening. You wish it weren’t happening. You don’t know what to do about it. And that you love her very much and you’ll be there till the end and do everything you can.”

As the years have passed I don’t think I miss her any less. I probably miss her more. I’m getting older and would love to have my sister with me. We were best friends. I think in one way your circle of friends and people narrows, it doesn’t grow it narrows. What’s important in my life now is different then it was. I have learned that there are very few people in life who love you unconditionally. I think sisters are like second mothers if you will. There was unconditional love there. We could say anything we wanted and be totally frank.

In a lot of ways the Komen Foundation has fulfilled a lot of what we had hoped for. It’s funny. I’m not a person with supernatural beliefs but we have always said that we have a Komen angel and it’s Susie! When things start to go wrong she’s there, something turns and it goes right. I can’t explain what I mean but believe me it’s there. I don’t believe in angels in the traditional sense, but I do believe in angels. I don’t know what it is, but there is some spiritual holdover. It’s certainly not in the normal body, but there is something to this and I just can’t quantify it. I have felt her presence on several occasions, so I know it’s there. I don’t know how to describe it to you.

One day I was driving in my car, looked up and there was golden light everywhere in the car. It was like a shower of golden light and I knew she was there. It was very, very interesting. In fact, I was driving down to one of our big Komen events, one of our big luncheon events. It was about four or five years after we’d started and I just had this feeling. It was amazing. There have been other times, particularly at the Races for the Cure, when I felt she was there watching. She’s there, sitting up there watching. I don’t mean to say it’s a different world or inhabiting a different world.

There have been many times when I have almost quit this work. I’ll say, “I can’t do it anymore, it is too hard.” Then something will happen, something very satisfying will happen. I have asked for guidance, “Show me what I am doing.” If I listen and watch the cues it always happens that I find what I am after. There is something very spiritual about this work. There is something almost other worldly about it.

I think it is God’s will and I think there is a lot of randomness in life too. I think that if you are chosen to do something or if you put yourself in the path of being chosen to do something, somehow the circumstances all fall into place. Then you have an obligation to do it. I have been very well fed. I am well taken care of. There is no reason for me to do anything else. There is no reason for me not to do this. I must do it. For me to spend my time at anything else would be wrong, just not right.

Just playing and having a life of leisure is not my style. But it isn’t that it is just not my style, it’s also the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t given the opportunity to do what I do without a reason.

Sometimes I get back a lot from the work and other times I don’t. But it isn’t what I get back from it, it’s what happens, it is how well I do my job. If I do my job well and at the end of the day people’s lives have been saved and we have moved along, then I feel good. It keeps refueling the reason for why I’m here. It’s like I am on a mission.

I don’t understand why Susan died and I lived through my cancer. I have no reason to understand it, except that she was born premature and for some reason her immune system may not have functioned as well. I may have been given a longer period of time to do this work. I don’t know. Believe me, there were times I wish I could have fought her battle for her. I think I was diagnosed with this disease to unfortunately understand, on a very personal level, besides everything she went through, what it was.

Looking back there are few regrets. I wish that I had had a little more time to be, well . . . I would have liked to have had another child. At the time they advised me not to. With breast cancer they weren’t suggesting that people go on and have more children. Today it would be different. I missed out on a lot of things with my son when he was young. He’s turned out, thank God. There are times I wished I had had a little more time and hadn’t had to stay up all night worrying about things. I have been so intensely involved in my cause.

I have some wonderful friends, but I don’t think I’m particularly popular on a personal level. I think people like me, basically view me as strong, you know? But there are things, that because I am an agent of change, I’m not the person you would just call to go play with. My friends are wonderful and they tend to include me, but I know they don’t think of me as being a cozy person. I’m intense about everything I do. I’m sure they feel uncomfortable. I wish I were more low key. I’m just not. No matter how hard I try I’m not wired that way. So I try to cope and handle it, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for me.

On the other hand I’ve learned to not be afraid to take something on that seems impossible. My father was my role model for success and achievement. With enough commitment, courage and persistence, especially persistence, you can overcome almost everything. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. I’m not. I have largely been successful because I surround myself with extremely bright people who are much better at everything then I am. Don’t be afraid.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

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