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Stimson Bullitt

April 20th, 2009

The last time I saw him was at his Harbor Steps apartment. I think it was mid 2008 and I was considering returning to Cambodia. Earlier that year, underfunded and unsure, I’d asked him if I should even start the first leg of the journey I’ve embarked upon. His response epitomized him. He said, “Go for broke.”

I won’t claim to be remarkably aware, for it wasn’t until he asked me to take some photos of him that I learned who he was. Before that, I knew him only as that that 80-something year-old I saw at the climbing gym. Later, I would have a chance to hear him speak in public, enjoy the excellent cooking of his wife, Tina, and enjoy the company of them both. As climbers do, informally.

Among his achievements are the development of the Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle, which created 1,300 homes and connected First Avenue with the waterfront. His political activism won him a place on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” These are only two items on his CV; others have done a more thorough job listing his accomplishments–try googling his name.

Stim was also wounded in World War II, a story he began to recite to me on that last afternoon. In reflection, I think this story may have been a retreat to familiar ground for his near-term memory was going.

20090504_stim_007On an attacking landing craft bound for the shore of Leyte, Stim was injured by a piece of shrapnel. At the time, I believe, he didn’t realize it for a fellow soldier was worse off from all the incoming artillery and mortars. He picked the guy up and carried him through the pilot house, to take him below where medics were stationed. He remembered in detail how the gunfire and explosions fell into a lull, even the sound of the engines drifted away as he stepped inside the pilot house. Sun lanced through the windows and he could see dust motes drifting in the air; it reminded him of afternoons at his grandparent’s house. And then, he said, the war came rushing back to him as he saw the headless body of the landing craft pilot. Shrapnel had decapitated him.

Stim chuckled then. He said that day he received physical proof that he’d taken part in the war. And though the piece of metal in his shoulder slowly rusted away over the years, his memory didn’t fade. I found his description vivid.

20090504_stim_011To glimpse the inner workings of a someone like Stim, whom I saw as both wizened and a perpetual teen, was enthralling for me. But what I felt in every moment was an admiration for someone who acts upon his convictions about civil rights and social change. He even, in spite of the war drum’s beat, publicly defended the rights of Japanese-Americans who were interred all across the west coast. Some of those people were my relatives. For someone like me, to spend time with a man like him, it was inspiring.

Lu and I attended his memorial at Town Hall–where I saw him speak several years ago–and afterward went to the Stimson-Green mansion for the reception. It was the old family home and may, though I’m not sure, have been the source of the memory Stim had of the dust motes in the air.

Hearing other people’s stories about Stim, his child hood, his adventures in the mountains, his professional achievements, and simply who he was as a person brought a smile to my face. It was well done.

(Below: Stim with Tina and Alex Bertulis)

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