San Francisco Examiner, Image Magazine, October 18, 1987
I sit next to the sleeping, bandaged patient. Tears burn my eyes, as they have repeatedly over the past five days. Partly, they are tears of relief. My friend, S. Brian Willson, is lying here alive.
But there is more to these tears than relief. I have seen a train tear the legs off Brian’s large and powerful frame, seen it rip his left ear from his face, seen it smash a gaping hole in his head. Earlier today, Jesse Jackson said, “Brian has spilled his blood to stimulate us to a higher level of consciousness and moral resistance.” I know of others who see it far differently. One letter to the Examiner described Brian as a “vigilante,” who carried out an act of violence.
People want to know the who and the how of Brian Willson. Who would let himself be run over by a train? How did this man, in the course of his 46 years, find his way to those tracks? When did the journey begin that would lead to this?
This is my answer, an account of Brian Willson’s odyssey offered by one who shared much of it.
The early years don’t tell enough. Brian, born on the 4th of July, 1941, and reared in tiny Ashville, New York, would say that he didn’t get where he is by adhering to his strict, Baptist upbringing or by following his father’s profound anticommunism.
Brian was a lean, six-foot-two-inch high school jock offered a minor-league baseball contract by his still beloved team, the St. Louis Cardinals. But he wanted something more than baseball. Exactly what, he wasn’t quite sure. The FBI was a possibility. So was becoming a Baptist preacher. At age 23, with a B.A. in sociology from a Baptist college, he entered law school at American University in Washington, D.C. in 1965, his second year, he helped process prisoners at the District of Columbia jail, and asked to take up residence in an unused cell, where he lived for ten months.
Something moved him, briefly, late in 1965, something that he did not understand. On November 2, Norman Morrison sat on the ground several storie3s below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office and poured gasoline over himself.
Anguished over U.S. involvement in far-off Vietnam, Morrison, a Quaker, set himself on fire and died. What caught Brian’s attention when he read about it was the fact that Morrison grew up near his hometown, that they had attended the same high school. In fact, Brian remembered him, though Morrison was older. But at the time, Brian dismissed the act of self-sacrifice as misguided, even insane. Worse, it was a waste since it didn’t stop the war, which Brian supported like most Americans then.
By 1968 Brian had tired of law and earned a master’s degree in correctional administration instead. His Baptist faith had waned, and he had married Julie, a practicing attorney.
These are the dry facts of his life. They don’t begin to explain what led to his act of resistance, what put him in harm’s way, what lets him now say from his hospital bed, “Well, now maybe I’ll get some wring done.”
How is it possible, so soon after, that he can talk with equanimity about the gravel the surgeons removed from his brain during the long hours of surgery? Or express concern for the driver of the train that took his legs? “I wonder what he’s going though? I’ll bet he’s in shock, too.”
The answer, I think, lies in the experience of war. What I saw five days ago was as ugly as any act of war, and I am reacting to the horror of it. but Brian, like so many tens of thousands of others, has already been exposed to war, has already gone through the process of denial and guilt, has had to conquer his rage to regenerate.
The horror of war. In 1969, Brian Willson went to Vietnam.
Air Force Captain Willson, who arrived in Vietnam under fire, was responsible for security of the air base he was assigned to in the Mekong Delta. In order to do his job, he felt he needed to understand the culture and history of Vietnam, to understand the people. He made repeated trips to the base library, reading everything he could. One day, the Vietnamese librarian slipped a note into one of the books asking Brian if he would like to come to her home for dinner. He gladly accepted. After dinner, the librarian’s grandfather led the family in a beautiful ballad. Brian’s new friend translated.
They were singing “Ode to Norman Morrison.” Brian wept.