Sunday, August 07, 2022

Quick Studies

I’ve reported at least ten times over the past several years on encounters I’ve had with complete strangers that resulted in learning their life stories. I have made the case that if you’re a good listener you’ll be told the high and low points of a long life inside fifteen minutes. Nothing touches me more than making that kind of connection. It’s pure serendipity and pure magic.

It has dawned on me that a guy could make these encounters his life’s work. I may not make that commitment, but I will travel near and wide to find more life affirming engagements like the one with James Iso eight years ago at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Powell, Wyoming. He had been imprisoned there as a teenager before "volunteering" to serve in the Army.

I’ll lead with Iso because I have my notes from 2014 at Heart Mountain handy. This is a lightly edited version of my original post. I’ll follow with photographs and snippets about others I've met on the road to oblivion. Each has been the subject of a much longer blog post and I have a eleven of these chance meetings so far. Since it's clear that I won't be writing the novel you're not expecting but maybe I can corral enough strangers on the highway of life to fill a 2 inch binder.

“I overheard last night at dinner that you served in World War Two Korea and Viet Nam. Is that even possible?" I asked Iso.

He replied, “Yes, not always in uniform but always in the military.” That was a cryptic but most intriguing. Channel your inner Graham Green if you please.

James Iso at the Heart Mountain Reunion

James Iso was a spook. He boasted, “ You know we shortened the war by two years. Everybody knows about 442nd Regimental Combat Team but they've never heard of us." he mused wistfully. "We translated Japanese communications, broke their codes, and planted misinformation. In one case our forces won a major battle when the Japanese commander acted on the bogus intelligence we created.” His service cap reads Military Intelligence Service. I've got a thousand words about the man and we were together for fifteen minutes tops. Fifty like that with portraits is a book done the easy way.

Mr. Iso was bright eyed, engaged, smart and charming. He moved like a young man and wore his suit with aplomb. I asked him how old he was. He said, “Guess?” The numbers added up to old, so I demurred.

He replied with a measure of pride, “I’m ninety.”

Amy French at the Watchtower

When I photographed Amy French at the Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Her first words were. “I’m a breast cancer survivor. I just finished chemo. That's the reason my hair's so short" Strangers lead with the headline it seems to me.

Clarence Vigil in Cundiyo

Clarence Vigil whom I met in the village of Cundiyo, NM said that he refused to join Army during Viet Nam and spent a year in prison in Safford, AZ. “It wasn’t that bad.” he told me. Then he became a wilderness firefighter, a Jehovah’s Witness and one of the happiest people I've ever met. He gave me a dozen eggs and told me, "I can tell you're a nice guy." 
So are you, Clarence.

Rudy Mauldin on the range

Rudy Mauldin was the manager of big ranch near Cline’s Corner, NM.  I met him on US 285 just outside the outfit. He asked "You want to take a closer look?" I answered "Yes" of course. So I followed him through the gate to the ranch. He was bringing hay to the cattle. Rudy is a life long cowboy who had been an detective for the BLM where he investigated the theft of Native American artifacts in the Four Corners. He gave me the name of a book about one of his capers. He told me he’s gone to high school on the Pojoaque Reservation. “Because I was an Anglo, I got my ass kicked on a regular basis.”

Luis Ocejo, proud Viet Nam veteran

I met Luis Ocejo after services at the Catholic church in remote Llano San Juan. I was photographing with John Farnsworth and Steve Bundy. Luis was a pugnacious soul who told us. “You don’t want to mess with a Viet Nam vet.” Nam was still top of mind with Luis and clearly the most important event in his life.

Ken Tingsley in Hondo

When Ken Tingsley saw me photographing the Arroyo Hondo rim north of Taos he hollered, “Take my picture. I’m getting married today." I photographed him on rim and at his trailer. He poured himself two fingers of whisky, lit a cigarette and said, “This tee shirt was my son’s. He died.” He pointed to the shrine to his son in his trailer. In the center was a framed photograph of the Ken and his son taken years before. His so was wearing the venerable tie died shirt.

Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain

I photographed retired Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain the morning before I photographed James Iso. Bustos was a Viet Nam vet like Iso and Ocejo. Nam had been the most important thing in life, too. As the senior enlisted man in the Cody area he was commanding the color guard in a noon parade honoring the internees of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp. At 72 he looked like he could still deploy to a war zone. He was an imposing specimen and looked like he could still bench press 400 pounds like he did in fifty years ago. John Bustos was also to the right of Atilla the hun.

“See this rifle?” he asked. “I’m saving one round for Obama.”


Blacks Crossing said...

Is this a book in the making? If not, it should be. Loved seeing this grouping together in one blog. Master Sergeant John Bustos at Heart Mountain has a smile that would melt your heart until his statement about Obama. Odd, at best. It would be great to go deeper into any of these lives, but particularly James Iso. Many stories are in that face. Thanks for bringing these people together. Just wonderful!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks, Daryl. I love these first encounters and the stories I hear within moments of meeting a total stranger. I can never say book again without earning a derisive laugh.