“Speak Truth to Power”
Saying of the Religious Society of Friends
Leonard “Red” Bird was one of the first people we met after moving to Durango in 1976; he sold us an old Scout. Earlier this month our community said good-bye to him in a stirring memorial service.
For years I held Red up as a role model. He got a rough start in life, but became one of Fort Lewis College’s most revered professors. After auditing his class on Shakespeare, a doctor friend said that Red was the best professor he had ever had.
On a clear Saturday morning a couple hundred people gathered at the College’s amphitheater for a beautifully orchestrated series of remembrances of Red’s life. My cool concrete bench was never uncomfortable as each speaker illustrated new facets of Red’s complex life. Fortunately there was much laughter to help dry our inevitable tears.
Here are some highlights. Red and his half-sister, Jan Marini, grew up in a single bedroom house in southern California. The boys slept on cots in a garage with a dirt floor next to the house. Red’s father disappeared when he was young. The day before Red’s uncle left for the military, he took Red aside and told him that now he was the man of the family; Red was only eight years old.
Describing their reasons for joining the Marines, he wrote about his tent mate Washington (a black man from Alabama) and himself. “Eighteen-year-old high school dropouts who had been in trouble with the police, Washington and I had not joined the Marines in quest of world peace; neither of us had ever given the subject a moment’s thought. Our motives were other. I had joined because I had been expelled from the eleventh grade less than halfway through the year; … because I was lost and didn’t know what to do….”
Red found himself along with other Marines in the Nevada desert before daybreak too close to a nuclear test explosion. His haunting description of a mourning dove caught by the blast was read from Red’s 2005 book “Folding Paper Cranes: an atomic memoir”. “…the torn dove flops and twitches. We smell the stink of charred flesh. Melted eyes ooze gray pus, and from the throat of this scorched, twitching dove bubbles nothing but a faint ‘sqwick sqwick sqwick’.”
That detonation made Red sterile. That was not the worst of what he would suffer from that brief atomic experience, however. In his sixties he contracted a deadly form of cancer, multiple myeloma, likely due to radiation exposure.
Red’s life took an abrupt change when he shared a tent in Japan. His tent mate suggested that he should finish high school with a GED, and then inspired him to start taking college classes. He earned his doctorate on the GI Bill.
“Folding Paper Cranes” also describes the devastation we caused in Hiroshima. I had not thought of him in this way, but someone at the memorial service described Red as a peace activist. What a change—from Marine to pacifist!
Dr. Bird was an independent thinker and activist. He looked at our society, detected inconsistencies with his beliefs, and spoke up. In order for his voice to be heard, Red made a major sacrifice. He decided to have painful and risky treatment of his cancer in order to warn us about the destructive power of the atom. More than any other reason, he wanted to finish writing “Folding Paper Cranes”.
Sometimes we need reminders of who we are, what we believe and why we do what we do. Red’s memorial service served that purpose for me. Listening to a summary of his life, accompanied by gentle flute music and followed by a beautiful dance performance, I remembered how my interest in human population started.
Fifty years ago, as a senior in high school, I vowed to dedicate my life working for peace. The obvious path was as a politician, but I realized that I lack political aptitude. Science was more to my liking, and Albert Schweitzer one of my heroes. Knowing that high population density can lead to war, I headed toward medicine to work on family planning.
Red probably didn’t plan on being a college professor when he was in high school. His sister told us that, at one time, his goal was to be a second-hand car salesman. I am glad that our first encounter helped him realize this goal—and started a friendship of more than three decades.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2011