Monthly Archives: August 2014

This summer sculptor Chris Wagner and I had a great time working with Bill Keys, a World War II veteran who turned 90 while we were doing his portrait. We loved the change of scenery, packing up our gear and heading out of the studio to meet Bill at his apartment. We loved sharing the birthday cake with him and enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation while we painted and sculpted, not least because Bill told great stories about growing up in rural Clatskanie, Oregon, during the 1920s and 30s and about living in a beautiful Portland retirement community for the past ten years. In celebration of the stories you don’t expect to hear when doing portraits of combat veterans, I’ll relate a quick three.

The Mystery of the Squaw’s Black Hair

Bill told us all about an old woman he knew around town, a Native American named Ellen Mitchell (a rather un-squaw sounding name to my ears) who had lived longer than anyone around and still had jet black hair. “She was full-blooded Indian,” said Bill, “and there were rumors everywhere about how she kept her hair that way.” The town hairdresser denied helping her, claiming she never set foot in their establishment. And Ellen kept to herself, had nary a friend. So what was her secret, we asked. Witchcraft?

After Ellen died, the neighbor who settled her estate discovered her trick while sorting through her effects: hand prints in the chimney behind Ellen’s wood stove. She had been “dying” her hair with soot.

The Long Lost Throw

Bill had been working since age six, running alongside a milk delivery truck picking up and dropping off bottles. But his ambitions revolved around baseball, and as a teenager he happily found a way to combine that with a paycheck, letting the government subsidize his habit. In the late 1930s, he lied about his age to join the Army, lured not by the thrill of guns, guts, and glory, but by the promise from the local regiment that he would play catcher on their ball team.

Apparently Bill was a heck of a catcher. As we worked on his portrait, he told us in detail how he honed his ability throw fast and accurately over the pitcher’s mound to nail would-be base stealers at second base. He practiced all the time to refine his technique before the US entry into World War II put a stop to his focus on baseball. And he still laments the loss of that big throw thanks to a sniper who fired a bullet from the Leaning Tower of Pisa through his upper right arm during the 1945 Allied invasion of Italy. (See our previous post for more on that.)

The Dinner Harem

To hear Bill tell it, life in a retirement community sounds like the college dorm life he never had… female friends sneaking down the hall after hours to avoid spreading rumors about who’s sharing late-night wine with whom, along with the occasional intimate conversation, what Bill calls “playing house.”

Living with a lot of people their own age, and usually free of spouses, it seems Bill and his neighbors navigate the same social questions college students do, chief among them, “Who should I sit with in the dining room?”

Bill said he hangs out with five ladies who all live on the same floor as he does. He jokingly refers to them as “my harem.” After his wife died, Bill actually married one of those ladies from down the hall. He told us she was the most beautiful 80-year-old woman a person can imagine, and he treasured her offer to play house with him for a while. “We shared three good years before she died,” he said.

Chris and I met the ladies from the dinner harem during our evenings working with Bill. We usually started at 5:30pm, and worked on his portrait for three hours until the summer light left us, which kept Bill from his dinner routine. The ladies would come by to check up on us, curious about our progress on the portrait and ready to set Bill’s stories straight with their own points of view.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

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From left, painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on a portrait of Bill Keys at Keys’ Portland, Oregon residence. A former Army scout, Keys was twice wounded and earned the Silver Star in Italy during World War II.

 

This article gets its title from a film. In Uncommon Valor, a Marine goes back to Vietnam and Laos to rescue his son ten years after he went missing. The story celebrates a small, fictional group of courageous combatants doing the right thing even after everyone has long ago abandoned the larger mission (keeping the Vietnam domino from falling to Communism). Released in 1983, the movie helped popularize the POW/MIA issue, one of many loose ends hanging off the hem of that war.

This portrait project sometimes feels all about loose ends. Working since January with veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, my partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, and I have become used to talking through the complicated echoes of those wars, the PTSD and marriage troubles and annoying exchanges with doctors at VA hospitals.

So a couple months ago it came as a mild shock to run across someone whose story of heavy combat is the opposite of complicated, a man who doesn’t talk about his combat experience as a series of negotiations about how to do the right thing in a swirl of competing tactical, political or cultural necessities.

Ninety-year-old Bill Keys is a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, a man who lied about his age to get into the Army as a teen, and who helped liberate Italy from the grip of Fascism, earning a handful of medals along the way.

This man was shot by a sniper firing from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No joke. Shot through the upper right arm. I measured the exit wound and painted an image of it. I measured the scars on his belly, too, from the incident that followed a few weeks later, in 1945.

Bill recovered from the Leaning Tower wound in time to rejoin his platoon in northern Italy and resume his duties as a scout, going around at all hours searching out German pill boxes and fox holes to give intelligence to his platoon on how best to defeat them. He snuck behind enemy lines with a partner, Herman, who spoke fluent German and somehow talked several Germans into surrendering.

On one of those excursions, a German machine gun nest got the better of Bill and Herman. Several rounds tore through Bill’s midsection, taking out his lower ribs, splitting open his belly, and dumping his intestines onto the ground. Herman hit the dirt and played possum while Bill rolled onto his back and used a handkerchief to wipe off his intestines, threading them back into his belly. As the German machine gunner lifted his weapon over the sand bags to change position, Bill (holding his belly closed with his left hand) used the toe of his right boot to steady his rifle muzzle. He shot the machine gunner between the shoulder blades and, when two other German soldiers poked their heads up to see where the shot came from, he killed each of them, too. One handed. Gut-shot and bleeding. Fifteen more Germans surrendered on the spot. Bill’s platoon came forward with stretchers, carrying him and Herman to safety. As soon as they made it to the triage area, Herman jumped off the stretcher with thanks to everyone for keeping him unscathed, while Bill underwent the first of many surgeries and the start of a two-year convalescence. He never saw Herman again.

I believe the story. I’ve read the citation that goes with Bill’s Silver Star, framed with other medals on the wall, and I’ve talked with a number of people who agree this act deserves another, bigger award. One reporter for the Oregonian is helping make Bill’s case for the Medal of Honor. All the right words are there: “ignoring his own wounds” and “singlehandedly” and “Nazis” and “liberated.”

The word “hero” never came up in our time working with Bill on his portrait. I’m sure he would have ducked the term, the way any honorable public servant would. Yet his story is so heroic, so good-versus-evil and so Rambo, were it part of a movie it would stretch even Hollywood’s cartoon limits of credibility. We’d have to cast a young John Wayne or Clint Eastwood and get Frank Capra to direct. We’d have to employ an orchestra with a big string section and audition an array of square-jawed men with short hair cuts to read solemn speeches about sacrifice for the country.

By contrast, when we work on the portraits of our Vietnam vets, to call their stories “complicated” is to barely scratch the surface. And so far, our conversations with Iraq and Afghan vets sound much more like our Vietnam era vets than like our representative of the World War II generation.

It’s easy to go too far and make sweeping generalizations from these encounters. We must remember the people who fought in World War II who came back with serious shell shock or who did things they’d rather forget, some never living down the crippling fear that caused them to freeze instead of firing their weapons, even to save their comrades. And of course Bill himself has simplified his story, long ago packing away any misgivings he had about his time in Italy.

Our cultural memory of World War II has allowed him to do so. In that war, men stormed beaches and hunted Nazis in the night. There were battle lines that moved in favor of the good guys, and it’s obvious who was the good guys. World War II was a sweet spot of maneuver warfare set between the entrenched attrition of the Great War and the hopelessly complicated anti-insurgencies that followed. Bill is the aging embodiment of that sweet spot, and that’s how we portrayed him.

Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.