WALKING THE LINE BETWEEN PEACE AND WAR
“All the matter and difficulty of being alive in a place of peace and a place of war.”
A note by the editor.
John Eden’s art is human life condensed in forms as clean as an ideal. And the light they reflect will never depart. Eternity is the challenge of any art. My blog’s reality is the opposite: based on moments, moods, displacements, coincidences, it “traces and contains something unruly, energetic, improbable.” My friend Fiona Connor just sent me these words about her most recent art piece. They also work for The Kite. I would only add that the tail of my Kite has become a long string of collaborations, fragments recalling each other. They often oddly crack like pomegranates and the red bloody juice of an artist melts into the veins of another artist. There is no explanation, my gratitude is the glue. RA
CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL
By John Eden
At the end of WWII, my father accompanied the first group of American scientists into Hiroshima just days after the atomic bomb blast to measure that city’s unimaginable devastation, seeing firsthand, the burn victims and the phantom human forms that were seared onto its city walls. Similar to what I saw displayed secondhand, thirty-five years later when I visited Hiroshima’s Peace Museum at ground zero.
Like Saving Private Ryan, my mother’s oldest brother waded onto France’s bloodstained Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion as a ‘replacement soldier’ and then fought his way throughout Western Europe. He said that he walked all the way to Germany with a M-1 rifle in his hand.
He’s gone now, but every time he tried to talk about those horrific experiences (the smells & images), he would choke up and say something like ‘I’m no hero, I was lucky, and that’s all. The ones who didn’t make it are the real heroes and I can’t get those ghosts out of my head. I just tried to stay alive.’ He believed his success in staying alive grew out of his boyhood hunting experiences that might appear counter-intuitive. His Oklahoma country-boy father taught him to always target the animals that were bunched together, because the odds of ‘bagging your dinner’ were mathematically higher. He figured that German soldier would have learned the same basic hunting skills, so his thoughts were always to ‘stay apart and not to bunch up.’
To Examine Critically: Stay Apart, Don’t Bunch Up and Question Everything
To observe, to live inside oneself, apart and separate; it’s what I believe writers and artists need to do, and that has been my calling for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a small Southern California town that skirts the extreme northern fringes of the San Fernando Valley, just north of where the Interstates 5 and 14 meet. The Newhall-Saugus area has now been eclipsed by major development projects within the Santa Clarita Valley and the art world knows it as the unlikely location for Cal Arts. It had been a quiet farming community until the never-ending real estate boom that started there in earnest in the mid ‘40s, but during my early childhood it was still mostly open farmland surrounded by hills that were riddled with mining caves dug by Chinese migrants searching for their American dream.
Escape, Escape, Escape
Up until the age of 16, most of my weekends were spent exploring our valley’s arid surrounds, but with a driver’s license, wheels and a few bucks for gas my life changed forever. Roads out to the city and the beach became El Camino Real, points of teenage interests connected together by circuitous routes washed down, first with bland AM radio that soon gave way to Madman Muntz’s audio tape cartridge players that poured out more dangerous FM album sounds by The Animals, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones at will, and like Kerouac, I was ‘On The Road,’ moving forward and yet compulsively glancing backwards too.
If I were asked what defining moments in my formative years put me on the road less-traveled, I would have to say it was the archery accident that took place when I was twelve and my time spent in the U. S. Air Force during the Vietnam war.
I had been given an archery set for Christmas and during the following holiday weeks I would spend most of my time roaming ‘Indian-style’ around a nearby dry riverbed that snaked its way through our valley mostly shooting at imaginary targets. My mother’s family connection with Eastern Oklahoma’s Choctaw tribe has instilled a lifelong interest in Native American culture and at age twelve I was all about being Ishi, ‘the last wild Indian’ in America.
On one occasion an older neighbor boy came along hoping to try archery for the first time. Early on, he suggested we play a game where the boy holding the bow would yell ‘look out’ and the other boy would duck down to let the shooter fire the arrow over his head at an imaginary bad guy. The major problem with that suggestion, besides just being a really bad idea, was that neither one of us were skilled enough with the bow to perform the maneuverer safely.
It was my bow; therefore I went first, after yelling the warning he ducked as planned, so I pulled back the arrow to release, but the arrow’s tip fell off my bow hand. I had to reset the arrow and go again. In the confusion, he must have thought that I had already released the arrow, because he stood up just as I let go of the shaft, it thrusting point blank into his eye. His doctor said later that he was ‘lucky to be alive,’ but having lost one eye, he would go through life visually impaired, with no depth perception.
From that moment on, I carried the hidden indelible stain of that boy holding his bloody hand over his punctured eye, permanently etched into my mind’s eye and all the gut-wrenching anguish associated with doing such a terrible thing. There was nothing I could do or say that would undo the pain and damage that I had caused him and his family. Looking back, I’m sure we both suffered from PTSD syndrome, but at the time, therapy for such things were nonexistent. This traumatic experience made me a natural pacifist, not wanting any more virulent images in my head, like the ones I knew my uncles and father brought back from World War II. Perhaps, they were heroes —I knew, I was not.
Will we be heroes of our own lives, or will we merely be swept along by our own particular circumstances?
That to me is the primary question that I had to come to terms with. We can’t control what life throws at us, but we can control how we respond to those adversities. During the Vietnam War, all young men of draft age had to register with the Selective Service for possible military duty selection. Some made the decision to evade the draft and others were granted various deferments thereby avoiding military service all together.
Shortly after graduating high school, my father suggested I join the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army or Marines, which certainly meant fighting in Vietnam. Having taken an Aviation Science class in school that stoked my interest in flight, I mistakenly assumed that by enlisting in the Air Force proactively, I would be trained in a non-combative air support role with skills that could be used later in civilian life. But like my ‘Auld Da,’ Murphy’s Law mandated that my initial duty was to be a Military Air Policeman.
My first stateside assignment was to guard SR-71 Spy Planes and the B52 Strategic Air Command long-range bombers. These B52 aircraft were somewhere in the air over the United States 24/7, armed with nuclear bombs and were missioned to destroy whole cities in the case of a nuclear war. This policy was known as Mutually Assured Destruction (or M.A.D.). Before being cross-trained into my final job as a base photographer, I walked a mosquito-ridden flight line in the rice-paddies of Northern California as an M-16 toting “AP” waiting to be cycled on through to Vietnam while guarding those deceptively beautiful nuclear-armed aircraft, all when the end of the world seemed so palpable and real.
Breakdown And Conversion
Working the nightshift on the flight line was grueling; exposure to the elements for 8-hour shifts took their toll, especially on cold winter nights. I kept wondering about which city the aircraft I was guarding was designated to target. I was haunted by what the devastation might look like and if I was in any way culpable. On one hand, I was not a fan of anti-democratic hegemonies around the world, but conversely, I really hated how our politicians and their military counterparts allowed so many of our young soldiers to die without any long-term goals or endgame plans in mind. It all seemed so unconscionable.
My fear of becoming part of some dark historical event was looming large and my psyche was compelled to push back by way of exhibiting extremely erratic behavior on the flight line in a nuclear weapon zone. The behavior was noticed, a breakdown really, and I was sent to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Truly, I could have just gone along with the program, but I sensed it would have been the end of me, as I was.
I was diagnosed with manic-depressive tendencies, but not severe enough to be discharged. It was then, that I was cross-trained into photography and my future path was clear. I think I had learned from my archery accident a micro truth: if something feels wrong, don’t give into the impulse to go along just to get along. More recently, a macro truism has presented itself: one generation’s truths do not necessarily transfer on to the next.
- Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way, Penguin Books, 2005