There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Outrageous Hero on the bus

Finished Maureen Collins Baker's "Outrageous Hero: The B.T. Collins Story." This book is more a sister's remembrance than a biography.

"As a biographer, I make no claim of impartiality, although I have traveled the country, watched miles of videotape, and conducted over 300 interviews before completing my brother's story. I have written to let you know B.T. Collins. I have written to honor heroes, and to preserve our memory of his kind of American. I have written out of love for my brother and for my country."
B.T. Collins served two tours in Vietnam, first as an artillery forward observer and finally as a Green Beret. It was while leading indigenous forces on June 20, 1967, in a firefight that a South Vietnamese mercenary tossed him a live grenade. The resulting explosion cost B.T. his right hand and right leg.

Baker's description of B.T. during his time at law school works for any period of his long career in public service:
"He was both deadly serious and frivolous; things mattered terribly or not at all. His behavior was unthinkable, yet totally without pretense. Somehow, people knew immediately they had to take him exactly as he was. Among the many lessons learned in Vietnam was the necessity of being pure. In combat, all men are laid bare. In the terror of the moment they are stripped to the soul and beyond. He would remain faithful to that essential truth and, in so doing, became, according to one of his professors, 'One giant breath of fresh air in a bullshit world.' "
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on B.T. time working for Gov. Jerry Brown -- the yin and yang of the governor and B.T. who were so different and yet fit so well together.

My favorite example of B.T.'s style of leadership came during his time in charge of the California Conservation Corps. His "troops" were going to fight in a war on the Mediterranean fruit fly, which threatened to devastate California's agriculture industry. The CCC crews were tasked with harvesting infested fruit after it had been sprayed with Malathion. CCC workers became concerned about the health hazard they faced.
"B.T. chose a highly unusual method of allaying their fears. He drank a glass of Malathion. He drank a glass of Malathion, diluted to same strength used for spraying. He drank a glass of Malathion in front of them, after assuring them that he would never put them in harm's way.

"Soldiers understand: Never ask your troops to do what you wouldn't do yourself."
B.T. Collins served in both Democratic and Republican administrations in Sacramento. It was one of the compelling things about him. He came to serve. It didn't matter which party was in power.

B.T. Collins died on March 19, 1993. He was 52. Are there any men like B.T. alive today?

I highly recommend this book. It's a fine read, especially if you are already familiar with B.T. Collins.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He died of colon cancer 10 years after chugging a glass of poison.

Think about that.

Hundreds of the desperate and impoverished kids who he forced to spray said poison without saftey equipment are today suffering from a range of cancers and auto-immune disorders, and suing in a desperate effort to force the State which betrayed their trust to at least fund an impartial study to determine what the still largely unknown effects of this poison were.

He was no hero. Telling 19 and 20 year old desperate kids to expose themselves to poison or hit the skids was a sleazy thing to do