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A Date We Remember December 7, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“We have to do something in our bodies; it not just a switch in the central nervous system that shuts them off. We have to actually dampen the spaces, the sensory spaces, in our system where the emotions are experienced. You’re doing something – with your breathing mechanism – which by definition affects your posture. It affects your relationship to gravity, when you’re walking around in this state of suppressed breath. Suppressed breath is by definition suppressed emotions, and vice versa…. and can contribute to the pain.”

– quoted from Q&A about “Emotions – Back Pain – Yoga: What do they have in common?” from Yoga Anatomy to Life Online by Leslie Kaminoff

Samasthiti (“Equal-Standing”), which is also Tādāsana (“Mountain” Pose), is something I often equate with standing at attention; like a soldier, you are ready for what comes next. When standing at attention properly, the spine is long, the core is engage, the kneecaps are lifted – but not locked – and the soldier can breathe deeply in, and breathe deeply out. There’s another way of “standing at attention” from martial arts that is a little looser in the limbs, but no less erect in the spine. I mention all of this in part, because it is the exact opposite bearing of someone who has experienced trauma and especially someone who has been attacked by surprise. The trauma, and the surprise of the attack, can leave a person hunched over and either panting, shallow breathing, and/or holding their breath – especially if they are still under attack. They are no longer ready, even if they are braced for what comes next.

I was thinking about the way we stand and move today, as I was re-reading a Los Angeles Times article about Lauren Bruner and Ed McGrath. Long story, short, Mr. McGrath wrote a book about U. S. Navy Fire Control Chief Petty Officer Lauren Bruner, who was the “Second to the Last to Leave” the USS Arizona today in 1941, when the USS Arizona was sunk during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. When he passed last September, he was the “last to return” – as the other three survivors (Don Stratton, who passed earlier this year; Lou Contor; and Ken Potts all intended to be interred with their families.)

The Imperial Japanese Navy ordered 353 bombers, fighter plans, and torpedo planes to attack 8 U. S. Navy ships in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. The 2,400-plus men and women who died in the attack were the US’s first military casualties of World War II – even though the country wasn’t then involved in the war. Almost half of those casualties (1,700 sailors and Marines) were on the USS Arizona.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy –“

– quoted from the December 8, 1941 speech to the Joint Session of the U. S. Congress by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The attack, the first of its kind on American soil, drew the United States into the war; which led to the retaliation strikes in Japan – including the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which killed between 129,000 – 226,000). The United States engagement in World War II, including the atomic bombings, led to the end of the war and, most importantly, the end of the Holocaust (thereby saving millions of lives). But the article wasn’t really about the attack so much as it was about the friendship that formed between two men and how that friendship led to healing.

What I originally remembered about the Los Angeles Times article by David Montero was how Mr. McGrath contacted a dozen survivors of the attack because he wanted to make a documentary – and that retired Fire Control Chief Petty Officer Bruner was the only person who responded. I remembered that the latter hadn’t talked about his experiences for multiple decades and that he didn’t initially talk about them to Mr. McGrath. I vaguely remembered that the Sailor was supposed to meet a beautiful woman for a first date, that never happened, and the dual images he recalled of two Sailors that he thought were OK, but clearly were not.

Oddly, I also remembered that he outlived four wives and/or significant girlfriends. Finally, I remembered being struck by how the lives of the two men changed as they continued to have conversations, conversations about life… and then, eventually, about the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. I remember thinking about finding Second to the Last to Leave USS Arizona: Memoir of a Sailor – The Lauren F. Bruner Story by Ed McGrath and reading more. There were a couple of things, however, very significant things, that I did not remember.

“My name is Lou Conter and like Lauren Bruner I was a crew member on the USS Arizona and today I am one of its last survivors. Lauren is my friend. I have this book from cover to cover, and I know how difficult some of its chapters were for him to write. I want to assure anyone who is considering to read Second to the Last to Leave, that Lauren’s story is exactly how it was, and a Hell on Earth for every crew member.”

– Lou Conter, QM3/c (Quartermaster, USS Arizona crew member and survivor)  

I did not remember how badly Chief Petty Officer Bruner was injured. How after being shot, suffering burns over two-thirds of his body – including his hands – he “spent several months recovering in a hospital before ultimately taking an assignment as a gun captain on a destroyer in the Pacific theater in 1942.” Today I was struck by how that was even possible. It was a miracle that he and four other badly burned Sailors managed to escape the sinking battleship, but that he would return to battle. Then I learned that two of the three other survivors, still living at the time of the article, had also returned to service – despite their severe attack-related injuries! How would that look – how would that feel – to return to a profession where you are required to be “at the ready” after experiencing so much? How could you stand at a attention after enduring so much?

Yes, yes, I know that not every job in the military requires one to stand at attention for long periods of time. That wasn’t the point of my question. What I really want to know is how do you breathe and how does that affect your life (and your capacity to heal).

“‘Being able to tell him what happened lifted a great weight from my shoulders,’ Bruner says now….

‘I told Ed the books so I wouldn’t have to talk about it again.’”

– quoted from the Los Angeles Times article “A Pearl Harbor survivor spent decades trying to forget it. Then one man got him talking.” By David Montero

Chief Petty Officer Lauren Bruner said that the more he talked about his life, in general, the fewer nightmares he had. I imagine that “great weight” coming off of him – a weight he didn’t realize he was physically carrying – made it easier to breathe. His friendship with Ed McGrath was like a crane that helped lift that weight. It was something neither of them saw coming… and I think healing often begins like that.

A lot of stories come to mind when I think of healing beginning in unlikely places, especially as it relates to World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of those stories is the story of the blackened canteen ceremony, which started in Shizuoka, Japan in 1945.

According to the stories, during the raids over Shizuoka (which killed over 2,000 Japanese), two B-29’s crashed in mid-air. A Buddhist man, Fukumatsu Ito (who later became a monk), buried anyone killed during the raids – including all 23 members of the American aircrew. Mr. Ito found a blackened and crushed canteen as he was recovering the bodies from the crash and every year, on the June 20th anniversary of their deaths, he would pour whiskey from the canteen on a cross he had erected in their honor.

In 1972, Mr. Ito invited Americans from Yokota Air Base to the ceremony and, as he was aging, decided to pass the torch…er, canteen to a younger man, Dr. Hiroya Sugano. Dr. Sugano, who was 12 during the 1945 raids, was inspired by his grandfather (also a doctor) to honor all who had served during the conflict – regardless of their nationality. In 1992, the ritual of pouring whiskey from the canteen and sprinkling flowers petals into the water became a ritual during Pearl Harbor commemorations.

I could not confirm if, or how, the Blackened Canteen Ceremony was offered publicly this year. However, today I think of it, Fukumatsu Ito, Dr. Hiroya Sugano, and the friendship between U. S. Navy Fire Control Chief Petty Officer Lauren Bruner and Ed McGrath. I think of the healing that came from those friendships and from the simplest of gestures – being present with someone and their memories.

“‘The Blackened Canteen ceremony is more than appropriate,’ says [Richard] Rovesk. “Our two countries need to be role models during these difficult times in this turbulent and even dangerous world.”

– quoted from the People Magazine article “Long-Ago Secret Ceremony of the Crushed Canteen Now a Staple at Pearl Harbor” by Susan Keating (published 12/07/2018)

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