Monday, July 18, 2011

A Day at Stand Down San Diego

Yesterday, my didgeridoo took me to Stand Down San Diego, which is a three-day event offering sanctuary and services to homeless vets. Back in 1981, a group of Vietnam vets organized Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, now Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), to help their comrades sleeping under bridges and in the streets and parks. VVSD maintains a rehab center and emergency shelter and offers a range of other services for vets in need. In 1988, VVSD launched the first Stand Down. About 1,000 vets and more than 3,000 volunteers were there for Stand Down this weekend. There are now some 200 Stand Downs throughout the US.

The co-founder and driving force of Stand Down is Jon Nachison, a former soldier turned psychologist who has been working with vets for about 30 years. (That's Jon, in the white tee-shirt, banging the djembe.) I first ran into Jon at a NAMI San Diego Walk in 2010. He was playing a Swiss hang drum in front of a table he was manning. I had my didgeridoo.

Two months later, I summoned up the nerve to take my didge to a drum circle just north of San Diego. Jon was there with his hang drum and his djembe. In nothing flat, I was merrily honking away, and have been a drum circle regular ever since. In May, Jon organized a Drumming Out Stigma event underwritten by the County. I was there with my didge.

A couple of months ago, Jon invited me to join him and his fellow drummers at Stand Down. I penciled in the date, not knowing what to expect.

I showed up yesterday morning, the third and final day of the event, and went to get checked in. I was fairly inconspicuous, holding a didgeridoo nearly a foot taller than I was, with a smaller didge in a carry bag slung over my ahoulder. I couldn't walk two feet without being stopped and asked to demonstrate "Big Boy." Very auspicious start. I managed to get about half-way to the check-in station, when I heard a familiar voice call my name. It was Annette, a fellow NAMI San Diego board member. Another good way to start the day.

I spent the next hour walking at random, getting stopped every two feet to honk my didge, getting into conversations, thoroughly enjoying myself. Funny thing: I probably encountered some of these very same people on the streets and pretended they were invisible. Likewise, many in their shame, literally shrink into the shadows, invisible. It was a brilliant sunny day. We were out in the open, visible. We liked what we saw.

I'm a journalist. My natural instinct is to ask questions and get stories. But today I was a guy with a didgeridoo. The people around me were fellow human beings enjoying the same sun I was. I didn't ask about their lives, about where they had been sleeping a few days before or where they would be sleeping that night. This was about today. About enjoying each other.

I finally made my way to the stage. Jon and about ten other drummers, plus a guitar player, were setting up. I recognized three or four from my drum circle. Jon gave us very simple instructions: We finish together. That way, it would look like we'd been rehearsing together for months.

Jon began pounding away on his djembe, the others joined in. I let out an exuberant "whoop!" on Big Boy. We were underway.

There is no way to describe the sensation of being surrounded by ten expert drummers. Like being outside in a thunderstorm without getting wet does no justice. Neither does getting stampeded by a million buffalo. Elemental forces washing, whooshing, all over you, through you, banging, pounding, pulsing. And there I was offering up my devotion of primal rumbling, punctuated by shrill yelps. We finished up way too soon, an hour later, but I knew what I was going to do the rest of the day.

Random walking, getting stopped every two feet.

About an hour later, I found myself in a massage station. People were on tables, receiving all manner of the healing touch, from chiropractic crunching to gentle laying on of hands. Next thing, of all things, I'm being asked to play my didge, this time softly, as part of the vibrations of healing. Of all things, one of the women, Beth, happens to mention she uses a didge in her practice. That's my cue to produce my "Little Boy" didge out of the bag and hand it over. Next thing, the two of us are quietly vibrating away. Beth has been trained as an opera singer. This is turning out to be a very interesting day.

All too soon, it's time to wrap things up. It's early afternoon. Graduation is about to get underway, and I need to obey my need to go home and crash. At the same time my iPhone rings. Funny thing. No one stops you if you're yapping into a phone, even if you're toting two didgeridoos. In this manner, I make it through the crowd and out the gate.

Stand down is a military term signifying a time to lay down arms. But many of our vets find it impossible to leave the battlefield behind. Decades later, the Vietnam War still haunts. More Vietnam vets have fallen to suicide than have fallen on the battlefield. And those who have served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan are materializing on the streets faster than our Vietnam vets. A good many have served multiple deployments - layering trauma atop trauma - only to return to a recession economy that has no use for them.

"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

And they will know no more war in their brains.

VVSD site

60 Minutes video of last year's Stand Down


lizabeth said...

John, I don't know if this idea has any value or not, but I watch the TV show "Mythbusters". When they need to show tests on urban streets they go to what used to be Ft. Ord at/near San Francisco. There are houses there. Now falling into disrepair. Homeless vets, unused former soldiers houses---somehow that just seems wrong to me.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. This makes so much sense that I'm sure idiot higher-ups have prevented this from happening. I'm sure military bases can also be used for a zillion rehab-type programs. Imagine the equivalent of a Civilian Conservation Corps made up of vets in need.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
I fondly remember the couple of times I chanced upon informal music groups part of a festive gatherings. Great fun, such a lift to the spirit. Something about the natural spontaneity , the percussion leader to the players, the response of those gathered around, the leader to the response, between the players, the wonderful playfulness of it , the building up, the holding back of pace and the peaks and troughs … just infectious.
The second time was a touch different, where half of those playing were 'volunteers' from those gathered around. A joy to see how everybody held together, something naturally universal about it.
I suspect there must be a term for it, percussion troupe with leader orchestrating the flow of sound between players in relatively freeform interlplay, playing with build up, abrupt stops, change in pace and so on.
Hopefully there'll be another time.
I can imagine you would have had a very happily exhausting, and reflective, day

Like the photo, at first half glance I thought it was of a painting as you are given to doing, like an impressionist. And on second look too!