‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.

Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.

The Tank Crew in the FIlm Fury

Above is a publicity shot of the WWII action film Fury, starring Brad Pitt (2014).

She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.

I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.

I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Above is a publicity shot from the WWII combat film Fury, with Brad Pitt.

One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.

The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.

It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

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My favorite holiday, and for great reasons

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

Thanksgiving approaches. By far it always has been and remains my favorite holiday.

For me it is the most genuine of our American celebrations. Commercial interests have not transformed it into a crass, commoditized event, though they try their hardest the day after we gather to give thanks with food, friends, and family.

It is seasonally specific. Thanksgiving dinners celebrate the North American harvest season, and with that, all of our land’s lovely fall foods. There are squashes, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, carrots, and cranberry sauce. These all taste better when blended and mixed on the plate with a big bird and gravy. Let’s not forget pumpkin and apple pie, layered with whip cream, and perhaps maybe wine or cider to add zest.

I have spent the last five Thanksgivings in Seattle with friends. It has always been a way I have let the world fall to the wayside, so I can focus on friendship, camaraderie, and celebrating all we have to give thanks for.

Two of those years were not my favorite periods, being back in graduate school and not feeling perfectly in tune with my program and the field I was studying at the time. I continue to live far from my family, so I have not been able to share it with them for decades, and during those two years, time with my family would have been nice. So for me, Thanksgiving has been about friends, actually for decades now.

Thanksgiving also celebrates a key moment in American history, marking the Union victories over the slave-holding Confederacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The holiday, despite what you may have learned from myth and school, was first declared by Abraham Lincoln in October 1863, a dark year in American history when it was not clear if we would survive the storm of violent civil conflict, slavery, and division. Lincoln’s speech is a good one, even if he may not have written the whole thing (I do not know for sure).

I also have memories every late November of losing a good friend just before Thanksgiving in 2008.

So at this time of year, particularly on this great holiday, I think of what is good in my life and the good people in my life. I hope you do too, if you find yourself in the United States, with a home over your head, and friends and family to help you remember what is truly important.

Memory’s slight of hand and time

When I was young, between my ninth and 12th years, I spent time in Huntington, West Virginia. It remains a poor place today, and it was a much, much poorer place back in the 1970s. I mean it was really dirt poor.

I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile.

I did. Despite the odds, I really did.

One of the memories from this dark time were days I and my sister were left entirely without supervision at this old-fashioned amusement park, just outside of Huntington, called Camden Park. It is an old-school park, with a haunted house, dodge-em bumper cars, a wooden roller coaster called the Big Dipper, and many other rides found in the non-franchise amusement parks that still labor on in an era of corporate amusement. (I always thought these rides would collapse because the place was so rickety.)

My father would drop me and my sister off in the morning, buy us an all-day ticket, and we’d have the Camden Park wrist band on our arms for the day. We were free to run around like bandits. I have no recollection what we ate, and no one at the park cared if two juveniles were without parental supervision for hours. Trust me, it was low-brow then, so no one really cared about such things.

I suppose this place had both a blessing and a curse. It gave me temporary freedom from time with my father. And then it forced the bitter reality to crash down when he came to pick us up, in ways I will never describe here.

I recently went back to Huntington to see what I could remember, four decades on. It is funny how memory works. It shuts down what you do not need to know. It leaves you with enough to keep you going. Yet I still remember this horrible clown and the ambivalence of both the freedom of escape and dreading of when that freedom always came to an end.

Most of all I am glad I do not remember much. That is the sleight of hand our minds can pull, because our minds are awfully powerful tools that get us where we need to go, when we need to get there.

Knowing when it is time to make a change

In 1997, I began a photodocumentary project on genocide in Rwanda, visiting two infamous genocide sites and the Kigali area. I only spent two weeks in that central African nation, but the experience profoundly moved me and changed my life.

machete color

The machete, a common tool found in nearly every Rwanda household, was the principal murder tool of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I photographed this in the backyard of a Rwandan home in 1997.

In the spring and summer of 2000 and fall of 2001, I completed the second phase of my visual exploration of genocide in the 20th century by visiting Nazi camps and Holocaust sites in seven European countries. In October 2001, I completed the project by visiting historic sites associated with the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I.

My work on this difficult topic ended shortly after, in 2002. My photos have been published on my Web site and magazines, and they were displayed in numerous photo shows in the Seattle, Wash., area. My photos and stories continue to draw thousands of visitors every week to my Web site, which I will continue to publish as a free on-line resource for the public. I hope these images and stories will be useful for those who want to learn about crimes against humanity, how they occurred, and what forces motivated the perpetrators of these unspeakable acts.

As a photographer and documentarian, I moved on to other projects–focussing on the human potential for goodness. I am still keeping my content online to inform anyone who is doing online research. I still get notes from the public, around the world about this work. Images also can still be licensed to media organizations, publishers, and individuals.

Finally, I will make a personal note about this project. It began in a dark place, not long after the massacres of Hutu moderates and ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. On that trip in June 1997, I developed malaria, which in part led to my decision to leave the country.

In November 2001, soon after my trip to Turkey photographing Armenian genocide and cultural sites, I visited Netherlands. I travelled to Camp Westerbork, the main deportation center for Jews in occupied Netherlands in World War II. The camp was the staging ground for the deportation of mostly Jewish civilians to death camps in Poland and other concentration camps in Nazi Europe.

I suffered a strange and painful relapse of malaria at the camp, and had to visit a hospital that night for care. This was not a coincidence, as I recently realized. The physical and psychic journeys had taken their toll, and it was clear I needed to put this project behind me.

In 2002, I tossed a small item, a piece of an electrical transformer I found at the death camp Birkenau, into the Puget Sound, as part of my ritual ending a stage of my creative life.

In 2002, I tossed a small item, a piece of an electrical transformer I found at the death camp Birkenau, into the Puget Sound, as part of my ritual ending a stage of my creative life.

In June 2002, I marked the end of this journey by donating my entire collection of more than 50 framed black and white and color framed photographs to the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center of Seattle, Wash (now called Holocaust Center for Humanity). My hope is that the pictures will continue to provide insight for the Holocaust studies and human rights education the center provides to residents of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest.

As I now look back on this project, from its start almost two decades ago, it is good to remember what I learned, and it also is valuable to realize when change is good and you need to move your creative energies in new, and also positive, directions. Always.

My ode to my former home, Alaska

In August 2010, I packed up everything I owned and headed south to my new life, back in the Lower 48. Leaving the Great Land (Alaska) was among the most bittersweet things I have ever done. I cried. I sighed. I thanked the fates for giving me such amazing experiences and friendships.

Rudy Owens Leaving Alaska

Taken in August 2010

Because of circumstance or design, I followed the exact same path returning to my old home in Seattle that I took coming up. I drove the Alcan Highway from Anchorage to the turnoff to Haines. At Haines I took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Prince Rupert, B.C. After being humiliated by some overzealous Canadian border officials (that was funny, since I personally knew the head of that border post from my last job), I drove to Prince George, B.C., on Highway 16, Yellowhead Highway. From that junction, I took the Highway 97 again south, back to the Canada Highway 1, and turned off for the border at Sumas, Washington.

Every place I passed brought back memories of my trip up in August 2004, when this adventure in my life began. It was pouring rain as I rolled back into the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. And thus the new chapter in my life began, and I started a new journey.

I wrote this poem on the ferry ride. I still look at it from time to time when I want to connect with the feelings that only Alaska created in my heart. Thanks again, friend. I appreciate every moment we spent together.

Missing Alaska
Aug. 23, 2010

Waves of sadness, tears of sorrow
Emotions tapped, I fear tomorrow
Leaving Alaska, heart hangs low
A land of rawness, joy, and woe
Mountains strong and beauty sweeping
Oceans teaming, rivers streaming
The bears and wolves I loved the most
Cruelly hunted, I heard their ghosts
Ketchikan, Kodiak, Kaktovik
Kotzebue, Barrow, Anchorage
Skiing trails pure perfection
Running Arctic, path to heaven
Moose abounding, daily sitings
Ravens, eagles, seagulls fighting
Running races, feet alighting
Found my stride, crashed, time abiding
Then life aquatic, laps and polo
Westchester walks, though mostly solo
Missing dearly Chugach mountains
Always lovely, next to heaven
Sharp memories that still cut deep
I’ll guard them close, forever keep

Who is that kid in the photo

I recently obtained a childhood picture of me, dating from the time I was about 1.5 to 2  years old. I do not really know when it was taken, but I know where it was done, just outside of Cleveland.

From Long Time Ago-3

I had never seen this photo before. I do not have many pictures of that period of my life. That is because technology for consumer cameras was note widely dispersed. My family used Polaroids and a crappy Kodak Instamatic. My adoptive parents also were lousy photographers with no storytelling sensibilities. Mainly I think there was so much going in their lives that was sucking their time and energy that capturing “happy times” on film was a waste of time.

Half of the pictures from this time of me are in black and white. None are well composed. They exist as an afterthought. There was no clear intent to capture the story of my family or my childhood.

They were more holiday and event pictures. They likely were meant to be put in an album and provide a mirror to lives of what a middle-class American life should be like, not what it was actually like.

This one picture, however, was different. I am engaging the camera. I am wearing overalls, something that my adoptive parents liked to dress me in, maybe because they were German-Americans.

I have an innocence in this picture that I have never seen in other pictures. I actually have a decent haircut. About five years later I would go somewhat feral and wear long, unkempt hair, particularly after my parents divorced and things went amazingly sidewise. I looked a bit like a heavy metal rocker in a tiny body.

However in this shot, the hair is tidy. My ears stick out. And you can see my nose is big and will soon grow bigger. I have the physical traits that I carry with me today. However, I became a skinny kid and stayed thin my whole life, when it appears I could have gone a little chubby.

The man in whose lap I am sitting on an outdoor lawn chair is my adoptive father’s father. I never knew we were photographed together. My adoptive grandfather died in my childhood, when I was less than 4, and I have almost no memory of the man. The dog is his Brittany spaniel, who I remember more, actually.

This was about three years before things went truly off the tracks for my family, with my father at the center of the storm—the storm itself. I am left to wonder, what did my adoptive grandfather think of this child in her arms. Did he know who his son was, and what he had in store for his adoptive grandson, me, and his adoptive granddaughter. Did he really care about me, someone who was not related to him biologically.

I will never know the answers to these questions. All I can do is wonder and think about a moment in time I never knew happened until a few days ago.

A travel journal, from Tok to Whitehorse

Sunset on the Alaska Range

The Alaska Range in the evening

In the summer of 1992, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Sitka, Alaska. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Just before I began that seasonal position, I was able to tour south central Alaska, all by, yes, hitchhiking. It was perhaps safer back in the day, though there was always a risk that the driver was a character with a dark past and a possibly psychotic future. I did meet some strange and colorful folks on the trip I took. In less than two weeks, I hitched from Haines, to Valdez, to Homer, to Anchorage, to Denali, to Fairbanks, to Tok, to Whitehorse, and finally to Skagway, where I caught the ferry back to Sitka.

I copied down a section of my travel journal from that adventure. What transpired is, to my best ability, faithfully captured. In Alaska and the Yukon, you just can’t make some things up. The people and place are just beyond the imagination. I begin my journal entry just after I was dropped off about 30 miles from Fairbanks, under the arctic evening light, surrounded by nothing but mosquitos and open sky and empty road.

Thursday May 28, 1992:
I spent 45 minutes waiting. At around 10:45 p.m., I was still hoping for yet another ride, with residual evening light still around me. It came in a Grateful Dead branded, red VW van. I said hello to Scott, a 21-year-old drug user and snowboarder and his mellow dog Wilson. Scott was leaving Alaska. He had enough of the work on a boat. He did the black cod run and quit. He had hated boat work. He said he threw up all over the place.

Scott had a few stories and was easy with his smiles. His ratty, shoulder-length brown hair and stubble made him look a bit like a Dharma bum. He said two wanted criminals, who supposedly had murdered three teens, almost killed him a few days back. He talked about the suicide of his friend too.

We drove past Delta Junction and started looking for campsites. He said he had to get back to the border crossing at Sweet Grass, Mont., to make a court date. He had paid $700 in bail after the border guards took apart his van and found 65 hits of acid in a deck of cards that came with the bus when he bought it, he claimed. The whole experience bummed him out, he said. Now he was smoking the last of his Alaska Thunderfuck weed and cleaning the van up. I didn’t want to hit the border with him.

We found a spot and set his van up for crashing. He stretched a cot across the front cab, where I crashed. He had the bed. Outside the van we could hear the hum of thousands of mossies. Some picked us off inside the van too. I slept roughly, waking at 3 a.m. with a chill and scrunched in my tiny compartment.

Friday, May 29, 1992

Tok Welcome Sign

Tok, Alaska, welcome sign

I awoke exhausted at 6 a.m. Scott made us pancakes and eggs. Delicious stuff. We hit the road at 7 a.m. and rolled into Tok. We stopped at the North Star restaurant, where I made my first stop crossing the border two weeks earlier. The woman at the counter remembered me. The hot shower was a delight, followed by hot coffee.

Scott was cleaning his van. He told me he planned to get to Beaver Creek by the end of the day. I told him I had more miles to cover. He promised he would pick me up if he saw me.

I was on the road by 10:30 a.m. A sky blue V-8, Ford F-150 pickup pulled over. The driver, Bill, said he was a geologist and miner from Whitehorse and offered me a ride all the way to his home. Score!

First we bummed around town looking for maps where he wanted to stake claims. He showed me a pure gold nugget hanging from his neck. We hit the road an hour later, with that F-150 cruising at high speed. He loved to floor that puppy, even after the State Troopers pulled him over and gave him a $60 ticket.

Bill was about 35. He studied mining formally for three years at a university. He loved his work, staking claims and prospecting with his father. He smiled and laughed a lot. His Canadian “ehs” rolled frequently from his lips.

We were searched by the Canadian border service guards and let through. Once in the Yukon Territory, we stopped at Beaver Creek to collect some “shit” that he and his dad had accumulated. This included a snowmobile and buckets of other gear for his prospecting work.

Off we went again. We travelled through Burwash Creek, Gold Nugget Creek—places where he had prospected and worked, he said. If was as if the entire Elias mountain range was his own private domain. He knew it well.

We stopped again at a restaurant of cranky, large female friend named Rebecca. She had acne. We ate date cake and drank coffee. That’s all I ever seemed to do up here: eat sweet food and drink cups of coffee to stay warm and awake.

It was a beautiful drive on a lovely day. We stopped again to pick up even more stuff at an abandoned miner’s cabin. This time torch rods, wood, tools, and lanterns. Off we sped again.

We rolled into Haine’s junction at 6 p.m., just in time to meet his cousin at a local bar. There were about eight guys drinking beer and smoking. They ranged between 35 and 60. They looked a bit unkempt, but tough. Not the kind of guys to tussle with in a bar fight.

His cousin was drunk. He slurred out curses in his greetings. What happened next was pure Canada. Drinks and bullshit and bushels of “ehs.” We got out of there in 45 minutes, only to spend another 15 minutes at the mobile home of still another cousin. Finally we headed to Whitehorse.

Bill’s Ford was leaving smoke in the road as we sped way over the speeding limit. We passed through magnificent scenery of soft mountains and spruce forests. It reminded me a lot of Montana. Bill thought the same.

A scene near White Pass, Alaska

Near White Pass, the high country

Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, has about 90 percent of the territory’s people. It is a semi-industrial town, lying at the col of the valley. Bill took me to a spot by a campground on the highway out of town. There I waited 20 minutes. Right when I wanted to bag it, a green truck stopped. I met Rudy of the Yukon Security Forces.

I asked Rudy about his accent. He said he originally came from Holland. We started talking, and Rudy began with his army service stories, when he was stationed in Indonesia on Java and Sumatra between 1945 and 1949. He described his army days like a Vietnam vet. He loved it there, eating native food and re-enlisting to serve in a company where he was the only European.

He talked about handguns, which he didn’t carry. He said he’d carry one if he can use it. Shoot first, ask questions later. That was the way it worked in Indonesia, he said. He had orders to clear villages, to stop enemy columns from entering an area. It left him changed.

He said his first wife couldn’t understand what he felt. He said in the early 1960s he knew America could not win the Vietnam War. He told me that he is never going back, even though it was his favorite place in the world. Now he lives in his second favorite place, the Yukon.

I got off at the campgrounds, which were swarmed. A bunch of yahoos played loud music and drank beer. Typical Canadian. I got to sleep at midnight.