Nicanotes: Conversations With and About S. Brian Willson

Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activistsBy John Kotula

None of these conversations were recorded and some I don’t even have notes for. I’m accurately reporting what was said, but not in the exact words. The photos and the comments on the photos were provided by Brian’s longtime friend Mike Hastie.

Conversation between me and Erika Takeo, National Coordinator, Friends of the ATC (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo)

It took place back about a year ago:
Erika: Do you know Brian Willson, S. Brian Willson.
John: I know of him, but I never met him.
Erika: He came to ATC today. He is living in Granada now. You got to meet him. He is such an interesting guy. Talking to him is like getting a history lesson.
John: Do you have his contact information?

This is Brian standing at the base of the large statue at the My Lai
Massacre site in Quang Ngai, Vietnam in April 2016. This was a powerful moment for Brian, as it brought back emotional memories of what he experienced in Vietnam in 1969. What he knew, which very few US citizens will ever realize, is the murder of Vietnamese citizens by the US Government was silent policy. You do not bring the enemy to the peace table by just killing military combatants. You ultimately bring the enemy to the peace table by killing innocent civilians.


Conversation between me and Brian in his hospital room at Hospital Militar where he had a recent back surgery, on May 16, 2018:

John: So Brian, all except for one “l” you share a name with one of the greatest musicians of the 60s and the title of your autobiography – Blood on the Tracks – is the same as, arguably, the best album of the 70s. This makes me wonder about your relationship to rock and roll. (OK. This may not have been my finest hour as an interviewer, but it is what I really wanted to know.)
Brian: I’ve always been into the music, but not the personalities. I love to dance, but I’ll dance to anything. Who’s playing isn’t important to me.
John: So, the title of the book isn’t a reference to Dylan or the content of that album.
Brian: No. My publisher and I must have talked about two hundred titles for the book. He just chose that one.
John: Another question. In photos from the day you were struck by the train you’re wearing a red, Saint Louis baseball cap. This same cap, or ones just like it, shows up in many photos taken over the years. What’s the story with that?
Brian: I love the game! Always have! (There is a baseball game being broadcast out of the computer as we are talking.) You mean why is a boy from upstate New York a Cardinals fan? I have a brother who is nine and a half years older than me. My mother was a Cardinals fan and they would listen to the games on the radio together. She would iron and he’d sit at the kitchen table with her. Then when I was old enough for him to play catch with me, we’d be in the back yard for hours throwing the ball back and forth and he’d tell me stories of the Cardinals, especially Stan Musial, Stan The Man. My mother liked the Cardinals because she liked him. I had no choice. Being a Cardinals fan came with my family. Yeah, I wore that cap for a lot of years. I love baseball.

The next conversation took place in a taxi on May 25, 2018.

It was between me, Mike Hastie, an old friend of Brian’s, and a young woman who is the coordinator of volunteers for a Canadian NGO. All her volunteers have been pulled out of the country for safety reasons. She is getting ready to return to Canada. The shared taxi ride is taking a while. We are caught in traffic caused by a demonstration. People on foot crowd the road moving in the same direction as us. All of them are carrying blue and white Nicaraguan flags. While most of the country’s economy is in the toilet, the manufacturers and vendors of flags are getting rich. Everyone is moving toward the rotunda that we have to circle to drop the young woman off to get her hair done. The walls along the road are covered with political slogans and graffiti: “Los JOVENES volvemos a las calles a hacer HISTORIA”, “ASESINO”, “DICTADOR”. Mike did most the talking in this conversation:
Young woman: Mike, do you live here?
Mike: No. I’m visiting a friend here who is in the hospital. You may know him. His name is Brian Willson. (The young woman shakes her head no, as Mike continues.) Brian’s a Vietnam Vet. I’m a vet, too and we’re both active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. Brian’s been an activist ever since he got out of the air force, going on fifty years now. He’s made many trips to Nicaragua. He is a hero here, because on September 1, 1987, he was protesting the shipment of arms to the Contras at the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, California. The demonstrators were sitting down on the railroad track to block the trains that were taking the weapons to be shipped to Nicaragua. There was a whole protocol. The demonstrators would tell the Navy they were going to block the track. The train would come and stop. Then the police would come and arrest them. But that day, the train didn’t stop. In fact it sped up and it ran over Brian and cut off both his legs below the knee. His wife at that time saw it happen. His stepson saw it happen. Everyone thought he was dead, but he survived. This was during the first time that Ortega was president. His wife, Ortega’s wife, that is, and some of their kids came to visit Brian in the hospital. Later Ortega awarded Brian the Nicaraguan medal of honor. They treat Brian really well when he comes to Nicaragua.
(We arrived at the hair dresser.)
Me: You getting it colored or just cut?
Young woman: Both. Highlights and cut.
Me: Have fun.

This is the exact spot where Brian Willson was run over by a 200,000
pound locomotive carrying weapons in boxcars as it just left the Concord
Naval Weapons Station. Brian is holding up his book, “Blood On The
Tracks,” which was published in 2011. This picture was taken on
September 1, 2012. The banner in the background is the original banner
that was held up at the time of the crime. The man on the right is Dave
Hartsough, who was actually holding that banner on September 1, 1987.
After Brian recuperated from the hospital, he lived with Dave and his
wife for three years in a separated apartment in their house in San
Francisco. In future demonstrations at the tracks while Brian was in the
hospital, Dave got his arm broken by the police during peaceful
gatherings to stop all trains leaving the munitions depot.

On May 17, 2018, I had this conversation with Brian in his room at the hospital.
He was in the bed, hooked up to a variety of tubes and bags, putting liquids in and taking liquids out.
John: I’m intimidated by your book.
Brian: Yeah? Why’s that?
John: The sucker is huge. It must be 800 pages.
Brian: No. It isn’t that long.
John: Well I got it here. Lets see… OK. 441, but that doesn’t count the sixty pages of photos. Those aren’t numbered. So, its 500. Look, here’s my book mark. I read all the introductory stuff. Will you sign it for me?
(Brian writes, “5/17 To John, Thanks for your support for the Nicaraguans. S. Brian Willson” Coming from him, that makes my day. Now, I’m well into the book. It is riveting, thorough and totally engaging. It expands outward from one life story, the awakening and loss of illusions of one man, to a portrait of our nation at a time when the myth of our exceptionality and essential benevolence was being laid to waste.)
John: I watched the documentary, too.
Brian: Paying The Price For Peace.
John: You say in the documentary, and I’ve heard you say before, that losing your legs was the best thing that ever happened to you. Could you explain that to me?
Brian: The only thing that is exceptional about me losing my legs is that I’m a gringo. We are conditioned to think that a gringo’s life and limbs are more valuable than the lives and limbs of people in other countries. But that’s not true. People all over the world are being killed or having parts of them amputated, because of the US’ imperialism and aggression. Anybody who really stands up to the military-industrial complex, to capitalism, can expect to pay a price, but it’s worth it because it is the right thing to do.
John: In the documentary, it sounds like you had a pretty sweet life set up for yourself in Portland, Oregon, a life very consistent with your values. Why, after all these years, did you decide to leave and resettle in Nicaragua?
Brian: There was a lot to it, but the main thing was that living in the US was destroying my soul. I woke up every morning knowing that on that very day my country was going to kill somebody in my name. I’d see a military plane that I knew was paid for by the biggest “defense” budget in the world, in history, but I’d seen what that plane would do and it had nothing to do with “defense.” At the other end was destruction of somebody who was in no way a threat to me or my country. I just couldn’t live with that any more.


This is Brian giving a talk at a private gathering in Los Angles, California in August 2012. He was talking about the recent publication of his book, “Blood on the Tracks.” During the moments that I took these pictures, he was telling a story of being in a village looking down at a dead Vietnamese mother who was holding her three dead children in her arms. Brian said, “In that moment, and it only took a second, I got it.” He said he had an epiphany that catapulted him into another world, with the overwhelming realization that he was on the wrong side. He has called this epiphany, “irreversible visceral knowledge.”

Brian’s friend, Mike Hastie, came to be with him during his surgery. He had planned to stay at Brian’s house in Granada and commute to the hospital every day. However, the political turmoil made the commute unpredictable and potentially dangerous, so Mike stayed with my wife and me in Managua. The surgery on Brian’s back was complicated, but it was supposed to be a three day hospital stay. Things didn’t go as planned and as of now Brian has been in Hospital Militar three weeks.

This conversation between Mike, my wife Deb, and me took place on May 26, the day before Mike went back to Portland, Oregon.

Deb: How are you feeling about leaving?
Mike: I think I can go. I think he is going to be all right. He’s not there yet, but everything is going in the right direction. He’s a strong guy. He came into this very fit for somebody who is going to turn 77 on the 4th of July.
John: Yeah. If there was a graph and the X axis was the extent to which the body had been battered and the Y axis was the health of the body, Brian would be way out there on both measures; healthiest body, most battered body.
Mike: It’s his discipline. There is nobody who works harder than Brian. When he’s got something he wants to do, he always gives it 100%, and that includes physical therapy and keeping himself fit.

Another bedside conversation between Brian and me at the hospital on May 27, 2018:

John: You know Mike and I are planning on working together to do a profile of you for NicaNotes. I’m going to try to tell a little of your story by writing up conversations I’ve had with you and conversations I’ve had with other people about you. Mike is going to send some photos he’s taken of you over the years. Are you OK with that?
Brian: Sure. I want to promote Nicaragua. It’s confusing right now. I don’t know what is happening or where it is all going to end, but I know this is a wonderful country. It is the people. It is a privilege to live with the Nicaraguans. Despite all the terrible hardship, it is a culture that nourishes.
John: Can I come back Tuesday?
Brian: I’ll be here. I ain’t going anywhere.
John: I know you don’t like the hospital food. Is there anything that would taste good to you.
Brian: Sure. There’s a lot that would taste good to me. I can always eat soft boiled eggs. I’ll eat them anyway, hard, soft it don’t matter, but about three and a half minutes is just the way I like them.
John: OK. I’ll bring you some eggs on Tuesday.

Editor’s Note: Most Nicaraguan and international media is anti-Sandinista and has given up any pretense of balance in favor of promoting an undemocratic change in government. Our normal Briefs section, therefore, would serve primarily to further broadcast opposition lies and propaganda. I find it more useful, to inform the anti-imperialist portion of the Latin America solidarity movement about the evolving situation in Nicaragua to publish the summaries and eye witness accounts of anti-imperialist internationalists, many of whom have lived in Nicaragua for a long time.

This week I’m reprinting with permission a post by Barbara Francis Moore from the embattled city of Granada which has been the epicenter of efforts to violently overthrow the democratically elected government. Moore writes about herself: Currently based in Granada, Nicaragua I am awaiting the publication of my first novel. I attended the University of New Hampshire where I majored in political science. I also studied photography for many years in NYC. I first came to Nicaragua 10 years ago.

The Violence Must End
By Barbara Francis Moore

One thing I felt was wrong from the start was the characterization of the police in general. So many are women. In nearly two years I worked as manager of a tienda on Calzada I never saw any harassment or aggressive behavior; not towards drunks passed out on the sidewalk, not towards street kids asking tourists for money, not towards LGBT, not towards bohemian kids with dreadlocks etc. They patrol in pairs, stopped in every week to have me sign something and were always professional, never looking for a bribe. As an American I thought this is what policing should be.

After the initial eruption I spoke with someone who has lived here for, I estimate, 20 years. He agreed completely. A week or so after that first weekend he was in a municipal building for bureaucratic purposes; an officer was sleeping standing up. He had not been able to return to his home or see his family for nine days. He said he felt something odd underfoot. He looked down and saw he was standing on a woman’s hair; she was asleep on the floor. And that was in the early days of this nightmare.

In some instances such as Palestine I would support the slogan no justice no peace but it has no place in a counterfeit uprising against a government that has delivered for the under-served; cut poverty in half, expanded education and health services, moved at a remarkable rate toward renewables and installed the necessary infrastructure that allowed the tourism sector to double in the past ten years. Let’s remember too that all of those things were done in the wake of a global financial collapse. Justice for who? And at what cost? Nine times out of ten in attempting to carry out one version of justice a larger injustice results. Shakespeare understood that. The ‘protest’ has failed to be a protest since day two, (aside from the very large ones). This is a riot, a siege, a coup d’etat. It is not even disguised as anything other than that. To reject calls for peace and demand a government that was democratically elected step aside; that’s what a coup is.

To those who claim they want democracy; that requires respect for the transition of government through the process known as elections. Ukraine was a coup. In Thailand after multiple coups they still have military rule. One coup often leads to another. As Americans, many of us despise Trump. We know he did not win the popular vote. We know the election was not perfect, it was not that clean. Other elections in the United States have had many irregularities. But we accept those results and organize ourselves for the next election.

The first dialogue was purposefully collapsed by the opposition. All the death and destruction since then is on them; they rejected peace and tried to leverage their position on the international stage using the bias of the mainstream media and the complicity of some well-known human rights organizations. The opposition has enjoyed the ear of Bianca Jagger who is on the board of Amnesty International. I’ve looked at the information and the claims that laid the groundwork to label Ortega as authoritarian and they are not at all supported by the facts. The opposition must be pressured to negotiate. Ortega has been very conciliatory. This is an opportunity to make genuine reforms.

Despite that opportunity, I predict the opposition will again collapse the process and bring about another wave of terror. I saw the expressions on the faces of the people here after the night of rampage. This violence perpetrated by the opposition (now linked to organized crime and linked to the extreme right) is not acceptable. The violence must end.