By Katherine Johnson
On Sunday, I took my first walking trip in downtown Albuquerque after moving here in May. My goal was vague but in general I was hoping to get a sense of the city’s personality and style. I think I succeeded in my purpose; Albuquerque is big enough to have everything I need, and, as I am finding out, it is going to have everything I want.
Downtown on a Sunday feels abandoned and handed over to the street people that lazily loiter along the classic American road, Route 66. Route 66 in the city is now known as Central Avenue and where I spent my day was between 1st Street NW to 7th Street NW with the Kimo theater the capital of this Royal Road.
Many hours later, during the hot part of the day, I found myself in a parking lot, near the intersection of Gold Avenue SW and 2nd Street NW contemplating a wall mural that felt like it got at the core of being American, the right to vote, and how that impacted New Mexico.
Front and center in this mural is depicted Witter Bynner, a writer, Miguel Trujillo, a native American who was denied the right to vote because he lived on a reservation, and Nina Otero-Warren, whose family dated back 200 years in the area. All were instrumental in making sure that the right to vote really was a right here in New Mexico.
Soon a man came by, who looked like one of the those that loitered on Central and whom obviously struggled to walk, most likely from serious injuries. Because this is New Mexico, because this is Albuquerque, this man, took the time to stop and say, “that mural is beautiful, yes?”
I replied that it was. Being all gabby and stuff, I told him that I had just moved here and based on what I was seeing today that I thought Albuquerque was becoming a new love in my life. He smiled without replying and shuffled off a few steps. Something stopped him and he turned to me and said, “I moved here 32 years ago and I have never stopped loving this place.”
Curious, I replied, “32 years, oh my gosh, that is a long time, what brought you here?”
And with that question out came not why he came to New Mexico, but a full biography of his life and most likely his impending death. In the spaces of his story I think one can get a sense of the why: as he freely stated a great part of his life was all about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
Steven James Osborn, half French Canadian, half Chippewa who grew up on the “Rez” in Northern Michigan right up next to the Canadian border. There he learned to be a message runner, an expert tracker, the ethics of being a man from his Daddy, and to be a patriot. And for good measure he was the runt of the family that didn’t at all look like a Chippewa.
At some point, his Daddy who stood 6′ 8″ and was a full-blooded Chippewa bought the Half Moon, a cowboy bar in Dalton, MI. After buying the place and moving the family there, Daddy had to chainsaw out the old door and replace it with one he could get through when wearing his cowboy hat and boots.
Steven James Osborn, then joined the army in 1979. His first assignment, after basic training, was to track people down in Chicago in -30 degree weather just see if it could be done. He succeeded and then went to Italy where he was taught to be a killer which he said he did and was not proud about.
Later the Army sent him to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. There in I983 he got caught up in the horrific barracks bombing that killed 241 US service members and had to carry out his comrades burned bodies by hand to the ships in the harbor. He nearly started crying, in that parking lot under the gaze of the painted three on the wall. His only comment was you never get the smell of burned bodies and dead comrades out of your nose.
The rest of his career was spent being a human guinea pig in various operations designed to find limits of human endurance. One mission found him doing a low-level jump from a helicopter, without a parachute, into the Florida everglades miles from anywhere and then he had to get back out with nothing more than his wits and good luck. He did mention that you bounce hard when you hit the water.
Not surprisingly all this took its toll and he ended up with blown out knees, a fused back, and his front teeth missing. Of course, he was denied care because none of his injuries occurred in combat. Being a warrior he fought with the government in court for years. He eventually succeeded through persistence and with the help of his lawyer and good friend, Pete Domenici whose was one of New Mexico’s Senators from 1973 until 2009.
In passing, he mentioned in the early 1980s while back in Albuquerque, most likely when he was stationed here, he and an army buddy went out on the town while decked out in full uniforms because “the girls” liked that. At some point, they walked into a bar where a guy doing straight shots of tequila and multiple lines of purple peyote off the bar. They both went “Whoa, this is somebody we need to know,” and they did. You might recognize his new friend’s name: Hunter S. Thompson.
He then bid me goodbye because he had to go catch the train to LA where he going to have the cancer behind his eyes treated at UCLA.
Before he left he said he is worried about Trump because he never served and never lived a hard life. What I heard him say is a man that never faced death straight up might not be the best person to send men to die.
And with that Mr. Steven James Osborn thanked me for making his day because “I let this old vet” tell his story.
I thanked him for being so kind to me and honoring me with his life. I promised him that I was going to share his story and with that small gesture, preserve his memory.
He smiled at me, nodded his head in agreement, and then shuffled off to the train and his fate.
There, in that parking lot, I found a sacred place where I was surrounded by four American heroes, three in spirit and one in flesh. And yes, on a sunny day in Albuquerque, I found myself in love with the soul of this city.
Yeah, I do have a piece of New Mexico dust in my eye. Damn dust.
Note: After Mr. Osborn was out of sight I sought out the shade of tree and drafted the main parts of his life while everything was fresh in my head in less than 20 minutes on a cell phone. Almost nothing of that first draft has been changed; what is different is I added some introduction and a few wrap up comments.
Copyright 2017 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved