The guys who meet on Fridays to eat oreos and talk about war, and the things they wish they could forget but can’t

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Don LaFond is 85 years old.  Today he will put on his white cap, gray trousers and navy-blue jacket, and pin it with a Purple Heart.  He will drive a few miles from his home to a cemetery in Los Angeles, where he will attend yet another Memorial Day service to honor those who, like him, sacrificed themselves in service to their country.

Don earned his Purple Heart during World War II, in the battle for Saipan, while trying to save a buddy.  He talks about the experience in a quiet, humble way that befits a war hero, with two differences: he talks about how scary the experience was, and he talks about the experience at all.

“You never know where the bullets are coming from — over here, over there, coming overhead,” he says, pointing in different directions.  “Mortar shells, bombs, artillery. You’re frightened. Anybody who says they’re not afraid when they go into combat, they’re a big… they’re a liar.”

Open discussions about the emotions and especially the fear of war are rare among older veterans.  Don LaFond was no exception until recently.  But when I meet him for the first time, that is just what he is doing, with a roomful of other aging vets.

Five men, some in ball caps, some with canes, sit around a table stacked with Oreos and cups of Seven-Up. “It’s my pleasure to introduce Donald LaFond, World War II,” says a woman in a brown suit, motioning toward LaFond, and then, continuing around the room, she goes on, “Roy Deretich, Korea. Joe Medina, World War II.”

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Every one of these men is in his 70s or 80s. Every one fought in a war that ended more than a half century ago. And every one has been living with strange symptoms since then: constant nightmares, anxiety, emotional numbness. Most of these men had never given the collection of feelings a name. They’ve discovered recently it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

“I’m 84-years-old now, and all this stuff happened when I was in my early 20s,” LaFond says. “It makes you wonder, gee whiz, if it will ever leave your mind.”

LaFond’s white hair frames a baby-face that hints at what he must have looked like when he first saw combat as a Marine in 1944, when he got his Purple Heart.

“What I was trying to do was help another Marine. He’d got a bullet through his mouth, and it came out by his ear,” LaFond explains. “I was dragging him back to safety, and that’s when I got hit. The bomb went off and the shrapnel caught me right in the stomach. Didn’t feel very good. But at the same time, what else can you do?”

As he recovered in the hospital, Don had time to reflect on what he had done.  He was proud, and scared.  And then, the war was over. He says the military gave him traveling expenses to get back home, “and that was about it. And I said, ‘What’s the story from here? Is there anything that I have to know about after I get out?’ They said ‘No, not a thing.’ So I figured well, I’m out of the war now, so I guess I’ll just get home and get a job.”

And he did. He had a successful career designing aircraft parts, then running a real estate business. But at night, he’d take sleeping pills to try to stop the terrors that, even now, 64 years later, jolt him and wake his wife.

In the nightmares, “it’s very weird, crazy things are happening.  Bad things are happening,”  LaFond says.

The Veteran’s Administration now estimates one in 20 veterans of World War II — the “good” war — probably have symptoms similar to LaFond’s and probably suffer from PTSD. The numbers are vague, because most older vets were never diagnosed. Back when these men were in combat, the term didn’t exist — it wouldn’t until 1980. Military doctors treated men for so-called “battle fatigue,” but only in very extreme cases which were kept very quiet. For the most part, vets like Don LaFond were expected to be heroic, then stoic.

So now, when they come in to the VA for routine medical exams and come out with instructions to go to a PTSD group therapy class, they don’t quite now how to take it.

“All we do is say ‘Why don’t you try it?'” says Leslie Martin, the woman in the brown suit who directs PTSD Outpatient Services at the Los Angeles VA who runs the therapy group for older vets. “And they keep coming, and I have more and more.” Martin has watched a parade of older men (she calls them her “guys”) come to see her in the last few years. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of older vets have recently begun seeking treatment.

Sometimes Martin asks herself: why now, after all these years? She thinks there are two main triggers. First, retirement: Men who long buried their war traumas under work and responsibilities have more time to dwell on old fears. Second, because we’re at war again now. “It’s everywhere,” Martin says. “There are movies about it, it’s on television.” And it brings things up again for her guys.

So in search of some comfort, they find Martin and her Older Vets PTSD Support Group. “And they come in, and there’s something about walking in to a group where there are other people, clearly from a similar experience, and it’s sort of like: ‘Where have you been all my life?'”

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The men sit in a circle and shoot the breeze. Sometimes Martin prompts them with questions about how they’re feeling, and it can get emotional. When Sam Zavala, a big man who was a machine gunner in Korea, starts talking, he almost immediately chokes up. He describes how he felt when he first started coming to the group, a few weeks after the Iraq War started. He was recently retired, and he was having thoughts of suicide. He says he just couldn’t stop thinking about the war.

“I had too much time on my hands, and everything started coming to me, all the time I was there. I was there nine months, in combat. And I was very fortunate to be able to come back… Very lucky.”

Zavala grips his hands together and shifts his weight in his chair. “It kind of bothered me that I was able to come back and…” It takes him a very long time to finish his sentence. “We didn’t all come back. I was just one of the lucky ones to come back.”

As Zavala talks, people in the group nod and listen quietly. When he falters, they nod and listen too. Zavala composes himself and apologizes. “You come down here and you can talk to the guys,” he says, trying to explain why he feels more comfortable talking to this group of older combat veterans like him. “You don’t have to go into details. When you go into details, maybe you lose track of what you really wanted to talk about.”

“I figure that we’re different, compared to the regular person that hasn’t been in combat,” agrees Joe Medina, a slight 84-year-old with a trimmed goatee who fought in World War II. Medina is still a little skeptical of the group therapy process, though. After 60 years of silence, he says it’s hard to talk about this PTSD stuff.

“Not too many people know that I come to meetings,” he says. “People think it’s a weakness. I don’t want to be classified as such. Macho thing, I guess.” But Medina says he does have fewer nightmares since he’s come to meetings.

Don LaFond, the one with the Purple Heart, wonders out loud if his own nightmares will ever stop after all this time. Still, he says he takes every chance he gets to tell younger veterans, ones just coming out of war now, about his support group.

“At least, they know about it. Nobody told me about anything,” he says. “I want them to know about it.”

(You can hear the radio story I originally did about Don LaFond and his friends for Weekend America here:

http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/05/22/old_ptsd/ )

The Inaugural Benedictionator

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a cool old person who’s already in the history books for leading the way from Selma to Montgomery,  not to mention all the rest of his momentous civil rights work.  But he gets an extra point today as a cool old person, for demonstrating the stealthy rhetorical power of the goofy rhyme.  In case you missed it (but I know you didn’t), I’ll let him speak for himself:

The male actress who helped make San Francisco gay

Jose Sarria and his alter ego

Jose Sarria is 85. When I met him he was wearing a man’s polo shirt and dangly silver earrings. He lives in the Mojave desert, in a manicured mobile home park, with his fish, and a collection of cuckoo clocks, dozens of them, which are all just slightly too slow or too fast and chime at different times throughout the hour. “They say people who collect clocks are afraid of dying,” he says. “But i just like clocks.”

Jose used to live in San Francisco, where he was not a drag queen (a term he despises), but what he calls a male actress. He dressed up in women’s clothes from an early age, and his mother, a devout Catholic, thought that was just fine. Her friends would bring him their high-heeled shoes, which he kept in a special closet. He started singing in cabaret clubs for toursits in San Francisco after World War 2, wore black leotards, a strand of pearls, fake eyelashes (because an admirer had once told him he had “talkative eyes”), and loafers. His signature high-heeled capezios came later, when a house wife recently back from a shopping spree in Europe fell in love with his voice and gave him her shoes. He could hit a high C, and specializes in arias from Italian Operas, with words he’d rearranged for laughs.

A portrait of the artist as a young woman

A portrait of the artist as a young woman

When he was growing up, there were gay people in San Francisco, but no gay community. “Everybody was for himself back then,” he says. Police would frequently raid the nightclub, called the Black Cat, where he would sing, because it was a known gay hangout. The result was a closeted, secret world, that drove Jose crazy. When he saw a man he knew to be closeted at the Black Cat, Jose would sing songs about coming out, and stare right at him. “Why don’t you wake up and look in the mirror and say ‘Good Morning Louise’?” he’d tell them. “Just because you shave with a man’s razor doesn’t mean you’re a man.” Jose hated the idea of having to lead a double life, whether it was his, or someone else’s.

By day, Jose was a shoe salesman. He persuaded his boss to let him hold special sales on Thursday nights, where he would close the blinds and invite male cross-dressers in to peruse the women’s shoes that came in enormous sizes. The boss agreed– otherwise, those pumps would never leave the shelves.

Jose gets mail from around the world now– notes from fans and old friends, invitations to parties and speaking engagements. If the invitation is addressed to Jose Sarria, he comes as a man. If the letter’s addressed to the Empress Norton, he comes as a woman. (Jose named his alter ego after the non-existent wife of a San Francisco legend, who called himself “The Emperor Norton,” but was really just an old miner who lost his marbles and lived in the streets of San Francisco, after the gold rush.) When the invitation is ambiguous, Jose calls the host and asks about the attire. If the host doesn’t care, Jose might come as a little bit man, a little bit woman: a scarf, a strand of pearls, a fur piece, and a men’s suit. He calls that the Jose Special, but he only wears it if the host gives him permission, he says. “I would never violate the dress code.”

Here’s a story I did about Jose, and his role in turning my hometown and his, San Francisco, in to the gay capital of the world. It’s a real audio file, so don’t be discouraged.

Why is San Francisco Gay?

The old man at the Las Vegas airport

Photo by biskuit

I was walking into the rental car center at the Las Vegas airport, when I passed a small old white-haired man, dressed up in slacks and a Navy Blue sports jacket and one of those tweed old-man caps, about to board the shuttle to the terminal, and, presumably, fly back home. He was listening intently to the cell phone pressed against his ear. He was trembling. His nose and cheeks were red, and tears ran down his face. He was crying.

My first guess: lost everything gambling. Or, just received news that his wife died. There are many reasons to cry; who knows why he was. But it’s rare to see an old man doing it, and it broke my heart. I felt an actual pain in my chest. I watched him, and started to choke up too. My instinct was to follow him, which I did, but only for a second. He had, at least I tell myself he had, someone on the other end of that cell phone that could help him better than I could.   And anyway I didn’t want to embarrass him.  So I turned back toward the Alamo rental car counter, and got on with my business.

There is no end to the sad things in the world, but that man quietly crying as he boarded the shuttle bus was, at least given my temperament, the saddest. I was told recently, by the elder patriarch in my family, in a fight we were having about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that caring too much about other people’s problems can come off as condescending if you don’t really know them and you can’t really help them. When I was a kid, a little restaurant opened on Caledonia Street in the town where my mom’s boyfriend lived. When we walked by, it was always empty. When we walked by, I would watch the owners, an older couple, through the window. They would lean on the counter, look like they were trying to look busy, and also like they were trying to avoid the undeniable failure of their dream. I begged my mom to go inside and buy something. I felt an actual pain in my heart that lasted a few hours. “You care more about strangers than your own family,” my mom said. And it was probably true.  When I was old enough to have money of my own, I spent too much on things I didn’t need and food I didn’t like, in shops and restaurants like that one on Caledonia Street.

I try to reason with myself that it can be condescending to presume I have any idea what the inner dreams or tragedies of strangers might be. It’s easy to care about someone who hasn’t had a chance to hurt your feelings, or destroy your image of his nobility and good intentions, but what is that care really worth?  Put the same care toward the warty, annoying people you love and know and live with, and it will be more help, I remind myself.  To allow a stranger’s plight to break your heart runs the risk of trivializing that person– his free will and ridiculous or wonderful stories of trial and error and hope and laughter and dignity, blah blah blah.  So I try to give people more credit than that.  But that old man, with the hat and the tears and the cell phone, I just hope he’s okay.

The sidewalk astronomer

John Dobson is 92, and so is his pony tail

John Dobson is 92, and so is his pony tail

John Dobson used to live in a Hindu monastary. Before that, he worked for the Manhattan Project at UC Berkeley. He is the grandfather of “sidewalk astronomy,” which is exactly what it sounds like. He puts his hand-made telescopes in his little red wagon, rolls them on to the N-Judah train in San Francisco, gets off at 9th and Irving, sets the scopes up, and waits for the curious people to stick their eyes on the view finder and gasp at the beautiful moon. Here’s a story about him, and sidewalk astronomy.

http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/05/19/stargazing_on_the_sidewalk/

old man moon

old man moon

Cool old person dispatch from Philly

Cool old person alert, courtesy of our Philly operative.  Little info is known about him yet, but I approve of his white tufted hair and his display case

Cool old person alert, courtesy of our Philly operative. Little is known about him yet, but I approve of his white tufted hair and his display case. Will update as information arrives

This update just in: He’s a butcher at the Italian market in Philadelphia. He’s cool because he said “This sausage is fresh.   We just made it.”  And because he rung us up by using a pencil on butcher paper.  And because he works with his wife.

Tyrus the kiteman

Tyrus and his kites
Tyrus Wong is 97 years old. He flies his homemade kites with his daughter and anyone who happens to stop by on the fourth Saturday of every month, on the beach in Santa Monica. (He’s the man in the fishing hat pictured at the top of this blog). When the wind isn’t cooperating, he passes out coffee candies. He designed and painted many of the background landscapes for the movie “Bambi.”

He is unsentimental, funny, kind, and an inspired artist.

Here’s a story I did about him:

http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/06/26/kiteman/