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Barry Crimmins

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Forward Observance Monday, May 26, 2008

Forward Observance

Bruce Utah Phillips (Photo- Christopher Dunn)

Today we observe Memorial Day in the United States. The operative word being 'observe.' This isn't Easter. Not a single dead soldier has ever arisen from the grave. There is nothing to celebrate about acre miles of cemeteries filled with war dead. So today, we observe.

Despite what the war machinists union (completely made up of management) wants us to read between the lines of today's endless blather, war death is neither glamorous nor glorious. But make no mistake, those who have died in, or lived through war, do deserve our compassion and respect.

Death in war is usually a grisly, gurgling and undignified departure. It is witnessed by comrades who must live with pornographic images of the demise of siblings in arms. Perhaps worse, these same survivors, aka/ combat vets, must live with having inflicted the same sort of premature quietus upon others  --  some who were their assigned enemies; some who were innocents who unfortunately lived, and so died, in the line of fire; and some who were their own fellow soldiers -- the friends killed by friendly fire.

Many of the veterans you'll see at various war glorification events today will seem to inhale much more deeply than they exhale. There is good reason for this. To inhale is to take in and hold down -- it's an act of suppression. To exhale is to expend, to release, to liberate. For many a combat vet, to exhale is to risk letting too much out-- like the truth about the horrors the vet has seen, participated in and (more or less) lived through. To fully exhale is to gamble letting those around you know that you don't take your war experiences in silent stride, like a good hero. And to show such 'weakness' is to lose the one thing this society gives you as a veteran -- that hollow label of ' hero.' Circumspect to a fault, standard-issue American heroes only speak when called upon, and then only reluctantly, and then only to echo the maudlin and generally illogical justifications for worship of the martial state. This hero stuff sure ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This Memorial Day is the first we will observe since losing a hero who was also a military veteran. His name was Bruce Phillips. You might have known him better as "Utah." Bruce may or may not have behaved heroically during his  duty in Korea. His return home, according to his official obituary, was anything but heroic -- until misfortune led him to a providential destination.

Phillips served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.

Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his "elders" with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.

One day years later, when Utah and I were killing some time on the road, he explained to me that Ammon Hennacy taught him to exhale so he could truly breath again. Once Hennacy had gotten the point across, out came the demons of Korea and in came the oxygen of life. Thus U. Utah Phillips was born. Utah spent the rest of his days carrying on in the best tradition of Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day and Joe Hill. Each time Phillips exhaled, the sacred breath of a man at peace improved the atmosphere for all of us.

In theaters, coffeehouses, bistros and union halls Utah Phillips sang and spoke of what had been and could be accomplished through collaborative and peaceful efforts. He spoke for workers rights and of his beloved Industrial Workers of the World at rallies and demonstrations for  countless progressive causes. He sang of pacifism and egalitarianism. He excoriated the villainous bosses, with a wit that was at once boundlessly kind yet pointedly acerbic. Corny but true-- his songs and stories shone as brightly as the twinkle in his eyes. He did Ammon and Dorothy and Joe proud. Woody, too!

If this country didn't have its priorities ass-backwards, Bruce Phillips might still be with us today. Like most American traveling minstrels, activists and humorists (and tens of millions of other people), he had no health insurance. Our national choice (made by a few for all of us) is to spread death and destruction abroad rather than sustain and nurture life at home. For politicians to reorder those national priorities would be to risk having their patriotism questioned at Memorial Day events. Where's a hero when you need one?
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So we lost Utah Phillips too soon, for lack of a heart transplant. In keeping with his genuinely heroic nature, he lived with verve and love to the very last. He graciously appreciated the remarkable life he had lived. He leaves a dazzling legacy of compassion and wisdom. Doing for others until the very end, Bruce Utah Phillips spent the final four years of his life helping start a homeless shelter called Hospitality House near his rural California residence. Please make a generous donation to it in his memory.

If this is the first you've learned of Utah Phillips, please get to know him better through his website, podcasts and recordings. The true work of a legend begins at the end. So learn his songs and sing them and while you're at it, add a few stories to his tall tales. Carry on just as Utah did, having a delightful time while acting in good conscience. And if you meet a haggard veteran along the way, provide the space and support he or she needs to exhale. And then tell them about a man with a heart as big as Utah.

updated: 11 years ago