Honoring Two Activist Parents
Vincent L. Guarisco
March 6, 2008
Editor’s Note: One of the cruelest acts ever inflicted by the U.S. government on its own servicemen was a 1946 experiment that put 42,000 sailors in close proximity to the detonation of two atomic bombs to test the effects on humans.
The experiment, called Operation Crossroads, harmed the health of many sailors. It also was a turning point in the life of one, Anthony Guarisco, who dedicated his life -- working with his wife Mary -- to address the threat of nuclear weapons.
In this guest essay, their son, Vincent, pays tribute to his parents and what they gave to him and to the world:
(A Son’s Tribute to his parents' many accomplishments in life.)
Anthony Guarisco: a severe Alzheimer’s patient whose memories are quickly drifting away... A WWII and Korea Navy Combat Veteran who founded and directed the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans (IAAV with AAV here in the U.S.).
Mary C Guarisco: 1934 – 2007. AAV Cofounder, Executive Secretary, Board Member, loving mother and OZ protector for us kids.
'The secret of a good life is to have the right loyalties and hold them in the right scale of values.' ~Norman Thomas 1884 – 1968
Over the years, I have written many essays on a whole variety of subjects, all of which I felt were important. But none came remotely close to hitting home as this one has.
Undeniably, the following pages are the hardest I will ever attempt to write in my lifetime. This piece has been on my computer for almost a year now -- and I cannot begin to tell everyone how many times I have rewritten it time and again.
Point blank, enough can never be said about those we dearly love and respect.
For me, it would require a very thick book to truly give my parents the honorable tribute they so wholeheartedly deserve. And, who knows, perhaps some day I will.
Having said that, I will start this off with a few things both of them would appreciate -- just a few little thoughtful things that meant so much to them and us in the family. Does anyone remember the following quote?
'I'll get you my pretty! And...your little dog too!'~The Wicked Witch of the East Threatening 'Dorothy' in 'The Wizard of Oz.'
Yes, of course we do...I think just about everyone on the planet has seen this film classic.
Well, just like everything these days -- movies, plays, music, etc. -- everything has a different meaning to each of us, as individuals. Once in a while, a Hollywood film is not only entertaining, but it captures our domestic moral quest in surreal human form.
For me, 'The Wizard of Oz' is just that, a phenomenal measure of good over evil, a valuable imperative for us to acquire the needed essentials to build character for overcoming life’s many challenges.
This movie, and its message-point, will undoubtedly continue giving long after I’m gone...and rightfully so.
I will never forget, as a young boy, the first time I watched this old family classic with mom and dad. I was trembling with fear when the wicked witch glaringly threatened Dorothy (quoted above).
Mom, with a loving smile, got down on her knees and kissed away a tear that was streaming down my cheek. Then, dad tenderly placed his hand on my shoulder as mom placed hers over my heart and whispered in my ear:
'Son, don’t be afraid, we will always be here with you...you are never alone, our hearts beat as one. There are many scary things to face in life, but your father and I will show you how to see past this to find the beauty and glory just beyond.'
Feeling much better, I gazed up at both of them (with a big smile) knowing I had found that beauty.
In the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ Dorothy had to click her ruby slippers to find her way home. Not me. All I ever have to do is simply place my hand over my heart to know 'I’m already there.'
Yes, we truly are fortunate to have had them as parents. I say this because we entered the scary land of perpetual Oz better prepared because we had wise and loving parents as our sentimental guide, blessing us with several hearts beating as one.
In truth, it turned out to be the one gift that will last a lifetime. Underneath it all -- I guess I always was a softy -- I was after all, mom’s small bundle of joy born on her birthday back in 1959.
My parents truly are to me what is best remembered in life.
As a high-strung kid always on the go, they constantly reminded me to slow down, take a good look around and enjoy the small, thoughtful things that mean so little to most.
Both took the philosophical view that happiness could not be demanded from life. They taught us that such things as inner peace and harmony and 'being loved' compiled the essential passport.
But as the years rolled by, I observed something else too. For them -- true happiness also meant giving themselves completely for a worthy purpose or cause to help others. In doing so, I now understand they both achieved a higher sphere of 'excellence' worthy of noting as they won the hearts and minds of those who had the pleasure of interacting with them.
Their mission in life was to ease the suffering of those they could. They were the voice for those in society who seemingly had no voice at all.
And their bio speaks for itself...it’s monumental! But before we get to that, I want to share a few more aspects of how they molded us kids into the people we later became.
The message we heard was loud and clear: If common sense is an idea worth having once -- is it not worth having twice?
Indeed, thanks to them, we learned to accept responsibility for our own decisions in life, the well from which self respect springs.
With a tender hand, our parents taught us to always walk the path upright knowing that with each persistent storm blowing our compass in disarray usually brings a colorful rainbow trailing not far behind -- if we are patient and our vision is not limited, narrow or oblique.
Mother loved to say, 'Happiness is our own delightful reflection caressing us in our dreams, but before we can truly find it, we must first awaken and see it within.' Words to live by...
And father firmly admired a quote by Voltaire – 'Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.' A hard fact learned by him when the military industrial complex used him as a guinea pig after he served his country so valiantly. A defining moment that produced a lifetime of activism...
In addition, my parents taught us to never worry about seeing the end of the journey, but to simply enjoy the trip while traveling.
And we all laughed together when Truman Capote said, 'Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.'
Whew, both of them were so down to earth! They kept it real in every way imaginable. They loved having fun, loved reading, laughing, loved music including rock groups, such as Pink Floyd, especially their 'The Dark Side of the Moon' and 'The Wall' albums. They dug the heck out of it!
Both of them were totally 'hip' to say the least. But most important, they truly enjoyed the company of family and friends and always cherished the time we spent together.
In looking back on all the decades of wear that can sometimes grind with unsettling madness, through it all, we somehow found our own personal calling. And just as all life experiences play out in this torrid time of maniacal misgivings, our family adventure was no munchkin paradise simply filled with holographic picnic pleasantries.
Yes, we definitely had our fair share of yellow brick road madness riddled with many trials and tribulations along the way. Indeed, our great Oz forest was always laden with many masters of the universe who have consistently had one cold, callous hand on the nation’s pulse with the other on the trigger ready to destroy the world at a moment's notice.
Sadly, this has always been and probably will remain the environment in which our children and grandchildren must live.
But we were luckier than most. My parents understood empty minds are easily manipulated, so they taught us history and pushed education, which they believed was the foundation for creating a better, peaceful society and nation.
They did their best to prepare us for the many obstacles that life can sometimes put in front of us. They held nothing back from us and told us everything good or bad that we may have to face in life.
They told us true stories of how our leaders often betrayed us and how they sometimes serve their own selfish goals. They shared the truth, no matter what road that took us on.
More important, they taught us never to be fooled or manipulated into doing anything that we knew in our heart was against the high principles of our beliefs. And, they taught us to redirect our energy and knowledge into positive ways in order to create meaningful lives, not only for ourselves, but for those around us.
But the years roll by so fast, and no one lives forever.
They say the most difficult task we’ll ever face in life is losing our loved ones. This is so true.
I will never forget just before my mother passed away, she gave one final piece of advice.
As instructed, I put my head next to hers and she whispered, 'Son, always cherish the happy, little moments in life, because later on, they make a much better cushion in old age.' The next day...she passed away in her sleep.
The following day was equally dreadful. I was given the hard task of informing my father of the devastating news that mom had died.
Although, father does not remember much of anything these days, we both cried together in our terrible moment of sadness.
Before I left the healthcare facility, I glanced back at him and gave him a great big smile...wanting him to only remember this expression on my face.
And for the first and 'only' time in my life, I was relieved he was infected with Alzheimer’s disease that had erased his memories. Because I did not want him to mourn.
For mom was as precious to him as life itself. I will always believe that sparing him the grief of losing her was a gift from above.
Someone once told me that God has a special love for those kindred souls taken in their sleep. I choose to believe this is true.
And so it is, the sweet violin is now laid to rest having strung its final note. The candle has now dimmed for one great pioneer of love and truth.
Mary C. Guarisco, born in 1934 in the heartland of Nebraska, passed away in May, 2007. Mary lived in the West Arizona Desert by the banks of the Colorado River for most of her last 40 years of life.
She now rests peacefully with her parents in the oldest section of Rose Hills Cemetery located on a beautiful green hilltop in Southern California. Her headstone has the following inscription: 'Mother is Love in the Eyes of God.'
May she find peace and harmony with continued joy while dancing among the stars in God’s paradise. And may my father’s lost memories find their way through the gates of heaven reaching the one person he most dearly loved.
As I sit here blinded by tears, I must confess -- the real lesson here is not to make you feel sad or mourn, but to 'inspire.'
Both Mary and Anthony Guarisco unselfishly devoted most of their lives to many facets of social activism, always striving to better our society for a kinder, more caring and peaceful prosperity.
In part, this essay is a small tribute to honor their legacy, their lifetime achievements and hard work. But it is also a heartfelt plea for you to see the higher mission in life by not just taking, but giving back that which we all at times take for granted.
This is the essence of what they stood for.
Anthony Guarisco enlisted in the Navy in 1944, serving one year of WWII in the Pacific and the early days of the Korean War. It changed his life forever.
In 1947, Anthony was attached to the 32nd Destroyer Division and conducted Special Forces combat operations from Fusan, Korea, to the Manchurian border, aboard the USS Buckley, DD808.
But before his Korean experience, the full impact of nuclear weapons became part of his big picture at Bikini Atoll in 1946 in 'Operation Crossroads.'
For those of you not familiar with this hideous event, Operation Crossroads was a series of two 23-kiloton plutonium atomic bomb tests in which the U.S. government used 42,000 of its own uniformed citizens as guinea pigs.
Each bomb was twice the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima. My father was six to seven miles away from the B-29 airdrop of 'Able,' which exploded at 520 feet above a target array of 80 vessels.
Troops entered the lagoon immediately after. Damage assessment took several weeks, then 'Baker' was detonated under water, producing a radioactive mushroom cloud 6,000 feet high.
My father had been two to four miles away from ground zero on LST388. Within a few days, post-Baker, he experienced what is now recognized as a radiation sickness. He remained in the lagoon 67 days within a mile of the epicenter of both explosions.
Upon his return to Pearl Harbor, my father was ordered aboard the hospital ship USS Haven for examination, evaluation and treatment for skin rashes, and severe symptoms similar to influenza.
It’s worthy to note, LST388 was too 'hot' with radiation to enter port so, after transferring the men, a decision was made to sink the ship outside of Hawaii.
In 1948, he entered Hines VA Hospital in Maywood, IL, with the same symptoms plus a swelling resembling elephantiasis from the knees down.
Interestingly, my father found himself in a room with three other Crossroads vets at Hines with similar radiation symptoms: bone deterioration leading to a leg amputation, complete hair loss, fever and welts.
After treatment, therapy and release, his spine began to progressively fuse from Ankylosing Spondylitis and persisting urological disorders. In 1979, my father helped formulate the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) as an organization. Later, he became national research director.
Among my parents’ studies was the Stanford Warren Papers on Operation Crossroads that contained one of the big smoking guns of the nuclear weapons industry.
Working with then Illinois congressman Paul Simon, they participated in the original writing of PL9772: legislation that allowed atomic veterans to enter any VA hospital for treatment.
Anthony and Mary Guarisco established outreach to atomic veterans in Canada, Britain, and Australia and they founded the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans (IAAV with AAV) in the United States.
Working with Greenpeace in 1984, they organized a cross-country tour for veterans, widows and children to many major cities, which culminated with joining other radiation victims worldwide.
The action drew national attention to the Nevada Test Site and the beginning of major opposition to all atomic testing. In 1986, IAAV made contact with the Soviet War Veterans Committee in Moscow and my father returned several times, afterwards.
Mary accompanied Anthony, who testified numerous times in the U.S. Congress and the parliaments of Canada and Great Britain.
In fact, California Sen. Alan Cranston, then chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, recognized that AAV was 'extremely instrumental' in the groundbreaking 1988 legislation that granted presumption of cause-effect to all atomic veterans.
Anthony spoke out at anti-nuclear demonstrations in the U.S., Netherlands, Canada, Japan, Germany, UK, and former USSR. Both Anthony and Mary organized with other radiation victims from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Four Corners Uranium Mines, Southwest Desert Downwinders, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Commonwealth Edison of Illinois.
Much of their work was with other veterans' organizations, such as Veterans for Peace, Veterans Peace Action Teams, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
They collaborated with Agent Orange fighters like Maude De Victor, a courageous famed whistleblower.
In 1986, IAAV organized the 40th anniversary reunion of Crossroads veterans in Chicago. In that same year, my parents worked with the Great Peace March.
In 1987, they attended the first Global Conference of Radiation Victims in New York City. Anthony has been a member of the Radiation Victims Roundtable in Washington, D.C. since 1983 and they both coordinated with the National Committee of Radiation Victims.
With such groups as Citizens Against Nuclear Power and Weapons and People Against Radioactive Dumping, Anthony (with Mary’s assistance) has spoken out against nuclear power and weapons, and nuclear waste dumping from Zion, Illinois to Ward Valley, California.
They are both known as an anti-nuke activists throughout the Southwest. Moreover, in 1984 they staked a claim for a placer gold mine dead center on the site of U.S. Ecology’s (USE) planned nuclear burial ground, in Ward Valley -- an action that was instrumental in stopping USE dead in its tracks.
Despite the paralysis in my father’s spine, my parents performed Direct Actions against continued nuclear weapons testing and production, and he was arrested at the Nevada Test Site on three separate occasions.
They organized with the American Peace Test, SANE/Freeze, Infact’s G.E. Boycott, and other organizations, making outreach to individual veterans and groups. Anthony and Mary also developed new ties with atomic veterans in the National Association of Radiation Survivors.
AAV also called for an action at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) on Nov. 11, 1991 -- Veterans Day. Another successful project was Nobody’s Wasteland Atomic Veterans Camp and Desert Tortoise Refuge that eventually stopped USE at Ward Valley for good.
Media work included interviews on Donahue, Good Morning America, Latenight Detroit and Studs Terkel, author of 'The Good War.' They helped producer Robert Stone with historical material on Operation Crossroads for 'Radio Bikini,' which was nominated for the 1988 Oscar for best documentary.
Anthony was inspiration for photojournalist Jim Lerager and is featured in Lerager’s 'In the Shadow of the Cloud.' My parents' activism has been quoted in newspapers in Japan, Korea, Latin America, USSR, and elsewhere.
New Zealand’s equivalent of '60 Minutes' produced a segment about the alliance and the New Zealand occupation forces of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. AAV developed the atomic Veterans History Project that entailed a video production demonstrating the involvement of atomic veterans -- in their own words.
Just last year (2007), well-known author and media critic Norman Solomon paid tribute to my father in his newly published book, 'Made Love, Got War.' In addition, Solomon is a past spokesperson for IAAV/AAV, and on more than one occasion has said my father gave him great inspiration.
He also offered kind words to me for my mother’s loss and acknowledged how hard she worked and that she was always kind to him and everyone with whom she came in contact.
But as I said before, time catches up with everyone. And as their health progressively got worse Anthony and Mary Guarisco both retired from activism in 2001, closing IAAV/AAV.
In 1935, Will Rogers said: 'We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.'
I speak for my whole family when I say we hope that all those clapping on the sidelines will read this essay and become inspired enough to actively participate in doing everything they can to improve our nation and society.
I like what Bob Dylan said, 'I think a hero is someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.' I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Sadly, all things must end, and that’s the ultimate price for living. Undeniably, I say again, this is the hardest essay I will ever attempt to write in my lifetime.
I once read: Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives. How true.
Fortunately, nothing fell short in that department for my parents. They both lived life to its up-most fullest -- always sharing their love with everyone around them, always eager to laugh, to have fun and always thoughtful and kind in putting the needs of others before their own.
In every element of living, both Anthony and Mary compassionately gave life 'one heck of ride!'
I will not even try to hide the fact that a box of empty tissues is sitting right next to me by my keyboard. And would add, it’s a good thing its made of mostly plastic...or it would have surely rusted by now.
The following is pure emotion for me, but I feel compelled to share my final thoughts with you -- My parents were my best friends, my dream makers, and their combined love kept our family 'binder' as tightly woven as one magical book.
For that alone I will always be grateful.
Each time I gaze upon the polished, black granite marker that contains a tile picture of my mother, it takes my breath away. I am momentarily frozen as I lose myself in the stillness of it.
And for a while, time virtually stands still for me as I embrace the memories we shared together.
As I see my own reflection blend with hers, I slowly close my eyes and feel a real sense of spiritual togetherness in this quiet holy resting place.
A feeling that is also extended in the same way as I sit with my father holding his hand, even though he does not remember I am his son. But I know he’s my father and that is enough.
Yes, I weep with a real sense of loss for both of them. But it uplifts my spirit to know deep within my soul that I am never alone, never lonely, because in my heart (beating with them) is the essence of who they are. And that will always flow inside of me.
A kind of 'conscience gathering' held dear for what is best remembered in life.
I’m honored to have shared my deepest, most inner personal thoughts with you, and hope that all who read this will keep a special place in their hearts for two great mavericks for hope and change.
May it move everyone to step forward before it's too late -- move away from the sidelines -- and become the heroes we always knew we could be.
Let us all continue to inspire everyone around us in a time that inspiration is greatly needed. God bless...you all.
Vincent L. Guarisco is a freelance writer from Bullhead City, Arizona., a contributing writer for many Web sites, and a lifetime founding member of the Alliance of Atomic Veterans. Reprint permission is given as long as article content is not altered or changed and credit is given to the author. Replies welcomed at: [email protected]
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