My first writing mentor was Leonard “Red” Bird, a professor at Fort Lewis College. In the second half of my freshman year, another professor recommended, based on the strength of a story and paper I had written for her class, that I take Red’s Creative Writing class. Creative writing was a senior level class, and normally required a couple of prerequisites, including Advanced Composition, which I had not yet taken. But the other professor talked with Red, and convinced him to give me a try.
The first day of class, he made a point of stating that Creative Writing was a difficult senior level class, and that everyone in the room should be at least a junior — with one exception. He looked at me when he made the exception, so everyone immediately knew I was the young ‘un of the bunch.
I did well in Red’s Creative Writing class, as I did in every other writing class that I took in college. I was struck by the power of Red’s writing, in particular two poems from his book River of Lost Souls, “Walter Mitty” and “The Mourning Dove.” Last night, over twenty years after he personalized a copy of that book for me, I did a Google search for “The Mourning Dove” appearing with “Leonard Bird” and found that the poem has evolved.
“The Mourning Dove” is about Red’s experience as a young Marine in 1957 at Yucca Flats, Nevada, the site and date of an above-ground atomic bomb test. The Marines were told to huddle in a trench only four thousand yards from ground zero as a seventy kiloton bomb was detonated and the shock wave rolled over them. I remember Red telling us how the Marines were asked to line up after the detonation, and they filed past a Geiger counter. If they clicked too much, their uniforms were dusted off with a broom. If they still clicked, they were told to destroy their uniforms.
I know that even in 1985, nearly thirty years after the event, Red was still haunted by it. But evidently he found peace in his third trip to Japan, when he visited the International Park for World Peace in Hiroshima in the early nineties.
He chronicles this in a new book of prose and poetry, Folding Paper Cranes: An Atomic Memoir from the University of Utah Press. Evidently, a documentary has also been made by Kurt Lancaster, which includes Red reciting some of his poetry.
I find it interesting how the story of a young Japanese girl folding paper cranes has become such a source of healing for so many people. Of course, in Hiroshima, I’m sure the story holds the greatest power, because it was a symbol that helped the city rebuild. But it offers healing for other tragic events, as well. Paper cranes were also an important part of the healing for Oklahoma City after the bombing in 1995. Lannette and I have a golden crane hanging over our bed as a reminder of our trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and of how the city has healed in the ten years since the bombing.
Lannette was two blocks away from the Murrah building when the Ryder truck exploded in front of it, and she moved away from there only a few months after that, before the city had built the memorial. As a result, her final memories of Oklahoma City were of chaos and destruction, rather than peace and rebuilding. Until she went back, nine years later, she was not able to see the results of the rebuilding effort. Until she went back, she was not able to start healing, and the crane in our bedroom symbolizes that healing.
I’m glad to see that Red has found his own source of healing in the cranes, as well. Though I have not read the memoir, I know the man’s work, and I’m sure the memoir is well worth having.