I wasn’t there to see it, but I’d think that Dec. 7, 1941, was just like most other December days up in Bingham Canyon. I’m sure it was cold, and I’m sure families were stoking their coal burning stoves for warmth. I’m sure there was snow on the ground. Eagles and hawks likely flew overhead. I’m sure jackrabbit tracks could be seen along the hillsides. The hills were full of jackrabbits, especially around the lower part of the canyon where I grew up next to my grandparents in Leadmine, just past Copperton.
The day surely began for them just like any other winter day. Get warm. Tend to the furnace. No school that day, so off to church or work. Start preparations for dinner—my grandma was always cooking and baking as long as I knew her. Read the Sunday paper. The basic routine then. Then the bad news came. A tragedy occurred that would keep this day in my family’s memory forever: My mom’s younger brother Donald had been shot in the gut right next door.
It was in the house just across a small field from my grandparents’ place. Donald and a friend were playing with a gun, and the gun went off. Just like that, he was down and bleeding badly. He was young and in bad shape. An ambulance took him to a hospital in the valley. In a couple of days, the newspapers came by, took some pictures and ran a nice story. They show Donald with tubes hanging out all over the place while he performs his role as the smiling victim of a gun accident bravely answering questions for a curious public.
With that day, all hope of me owning a gun ended. Any time I ever asked, my mom pulled out that paper or simply recited the story about the shooting, and I could put away the hopes of owning my own gun away for another year.
Eventually, when I was 11 or so, she let me have a BB gun. I didn’t like shooting birds, but all the boys with BB or pellet guns shot birds, so I joined in. I was pretty good at it, too. But it bothered me. My mom, ever a softie, didn’t appreciate that my aiming skill was being used to harm innocent animals.
One day a larger bird, a starling, was perching atop a telephone pole in a perfect silhouette, not even budging and maybe 30 yards away. Nothing to it, I thought. But I had grown very guilty over shooting birds, so I aimed straight into a tree below the pole and fired. There was a rustle in the tree, then a light thud. I looked to the pole, and the starling was still there minding his business. I tried not to kill one bird and ended up killing a different bird I hadn’t even seen. I was hopelessly bummed. I took my BB gun to a field and broke it into pieces.
I never fired any gun for several years until, as a young teenager, I went rabbit hunting with a neighbor kid. He had a couple of .22s, and off we went. We never even came close to hitting a rabbit. But, eagles were easier to hit. We came on them as they feasted on a dead lamb. His shot startled them and they took flight. My gun was a single shot. I led one of them with my gun and fired. I must have grazed him because he fell into some scrub oak. I felt like King Kong—for about a second. Then it struck me that I’d done something more wrong again, but this time worse than anything I’d ever done before.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the bird as we approached. Then he moved a bit, then finally managed to become airborne. I felt relieved since I hadn’t killed it after all. I also felt deep shame. Several years passed before I saw another eagle fly over the Oquirrhs.
By then I was 19 years old and working on the college track gang at the Kennecott mine. It was great work. I loved being on the gang, hanging with the same guys all day long, telling lies, swapping sandwiches, working hard and learning to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember everyone on the gang, but there was my cousin Joe Mannos, Dave Evans from Midvale and Mike Frasier from Magna. I especially remember Dan Brentel—a true-blue Bingham Italian—and his best buddy, Joe Miller from Herriman.
Those two guys took me under their wing. Dan and Joe were Green Beret Vietnam veterans who graduated from Bingham High School six or seven years before I did. They served together in Vietnam, Dan returning with a Bronze Star and Joe a Silver Star. I spent days and days with them learning how to “nip” and how to properly swing the spike mall. I learned a lot about Vietnam, too.
Their stories launched my lifelong abiding curiosity about the Vietnam War. One day, Dan told me he was in a Vietnam PX, and he ran into Jimmy Martinez. “He never came home,” he said, explaining that only after he returned home himself did he learn that Jimmy Martinez had died in Vietnam. Jimmy’s story, along with that of fellow Bingham boys LeRoy Tafoya and Tom Gonzales begins on page 24 of this issue.
That very summer, out there on the dumps, I saw an eagle fly overhead for the first time in several years. I was overjoyed. A tear fell on my cheek. I like to think that I saw that eagle return on the same day Dan told me about Jimmy Martinez.