Medicine Man -
On a cold winter night in December 1973, in a cozy and rustic wood-cabin café at the edge of the small mountain town of Ruidoso, New Mexico, I enjoyed an evening with an Apache elder who had asked to join me at my table. It was a quiet, weekday night and I was the only customer in the café until the elder asked to join me.
Early in our conversation, I learned he was one of the few remaining medicine men of the Apache Nation. Given his general appearance and calm demeanor, I believed that could be so; deerskin jacket, beaded deerskin vest, headband, long salt & pepper braids, well-worn jeans and boots, and creases in his face as deep as the Grand Canyon but sanded smooth by his gentle and sincere smile and demeanor. His eyes were bright enough to cause me to think that perhaps the Universe had placed a galaxy in them to provide their sparkle. His request to join me at the table by the window that looked toward my cabin perplexed me at the onset, but I will never question his request.
As we conversed, the old man conveyed his concerns about the state of mankind and answered questions I asked about numerous topics. He was a great conversationalist with an accent common only to Native Americans. His style of communicating reminded me of my great-grandfather who had lived his entire life in a small village in southern Bavaria, at the base of the Alps.
As the evening progressed, the medicine man bestowed upon me wisdom similar to what I had bestowed upon me during my childhood by my grandmother and my great-grandparents. My wonderful great-grandfather, Ludwig Krippner, was the wisest person I had ever known and during my pre-school years taught me much about life without actually teaching. That great man, Ludwig, bestowed upon me wisdoms that in my six decades on planet Earth, only two other human beings had done.
“Men are flawed creatures, always. Me too,” the medicine man said as he began responding to one of the questions I asked. "Man was never so flawed like now, and things with man are not getting better. Man, no longer listen to things that are not about money or power," he responded, "the Spirits worry.” That comment from the medicine man brought a new seriousness to our conversation as we progressed from the idle chitchat enjoyed while getting acquainted to more serious matters.
Listening intently to the medicine man’s tales and concerns I decided that should the opportunity presented itself to ask one particular question regarding my personal mortality, I would seize the opportunity. It was a question that had lingered in my mind for almost a decade, a question for which no one had been able to provide a logical answer, the sort of a question for which one rarely sought an answer due to the complexity of the subject and, in my case, related incidents.
My new-found Apache friend expressed concerns about many matters and often referred to the teachings of his father and forefathers from whom he learned the tremendous importance of life, the value of spiritual and physical balance, and nature’s requirement for man to keep our sacred planet unscarred. From his ancestors and spirits with whom he communed, he had learned the importance of harmony between human caretakers of our planet, to which he referred to as Mother Earth. He shared his personal beliefs along with scientific evidence that the time had come to save ourselves. The teachings of his elders clarified man's spiritual responsibility to not only care for Mother Earth, honor and respect her, but that we must learn to love Mother Earth again as the ancients had always revered Mother Earth.
“For many years, man forgets how sacred our land is. Not only white man, but my people too,” he recanted in a slow and methodical fashion as though to assure I understood every word that rolled rhythmically off his tongue. “The land is a treasure many use only to make money without understanding that they are murdering Mother Earth.” Listening to him speak impressed that matters of which he spoke came directly from his soul and heart, not his brain. Perhaps that reverence was the result of the spiritual input to which he referred to when we first began our chat.
The delivery of the medicine man's wisdom was sincere and filled with concerns for the “future of all children of the human race”. His sincerity was obvious by the expressions on his face, the wide-open eyes that never stopped sparkling, the far-reaching gestures made with his out-stretched arms and hands, the emphasis on certain words, and the occasional tone of frustration as he spoke of what he and other members of the Apache tribe perceived to be mankind’s slaughter of Mother Earth.
Not all of which he spoke was new to me. Medicine Men from other tribes of Native Americans and Shamans from ancient cultures that span our globe have spoken of similar matters in documentaries I had read and watched. These wise men continue to provide warnings about the harm humans are doing to our environment and to ourselves as we work toward our undeclared, but obvious goal to self-implode and become this planet's next mass extinction.
After forty minutes, or so, into our conversation, I found the courage to bring forth the question that encroached the front of my mind periodically; a question for which I had been unable to find an answer, regardless of how often I asked that question of myself. To the medicine man across the table from me I explained how I had inexplicably escaped death on a number of occasions and pondered why, when it appeared I should have been booted out of the camp of the living by now. I explained that I continued to survive numerous potentially deadly episodes with no, or minimal bodily harm.
“When was the time you think something that happened should have been your last time?” he asked.
The first incident I explained occurred when I was eight or nine-years old, while playing with friends at the top of a centuries-old look-out tower that was part of the medieval fortification surrounding my hometown of Landsberg, in Bavaria. I had been dared to run across the top of the tower’s severely rotted wooden floor and accepted the challenge and bolted across the perhaps 10-meter-wide surface. Just as I reach the other side, the rotted floor collapsed behind me and fell the hundred feet, or so, to the tower’s base, taking remnants of lower-level flooring with it. I had made my dash and with my final step, grabbed the top of the tower wall as I stepped to the floor's support ledge and turned my head to watch the floor crumble to the earth below. I maneuvered my way around the perimeter of the wall on the narrow ledge that had supported the floor and joined my friends who were also standing on the slim floor-support ledge, holding onto the tower’s wall. Fear was obvious among the boys. We shared a new sense of caution as we descended the ancient narrow stone stairs that ascended up the inside of the tower wall. A new level of concern existed as we descended the narrow stairs that had taken us to the top of the tower earlier that day and on the numerous prior times we had played in that tower.
In responses to his questions regarding that childhood event I followed with the strongest and most prominent memory of another unexplained survival. That incident had always been the most memorable, and the one that brought me to seek his opinion regarding such events. For my edification I had also sought prior clarification of my survivals from priests, counselors, and professors I was acquainted with.
On my high-school graduation day, I was in a horrific car crash where my car did several barrel rolls through the air before the front of the car struck a tree, head-on, and then landed upside-down on a giant, jagged boulder. The boulder penetrated the driver-side roof, and like a giant metal claw, penetrated intro the driver's seat. The car was visibly bent in the middle. How I got out of the car is the question that has lingered in my mind ever since the day of that crash.
The single witness to that accident told police that he had seen my car flying through the air, and then suddenly noticed a body flying through the air in front of the car just as the car was stopped by the tree it struck.
Therefore, the question remained: How did I get out of that car, how did I end up mid-air, flying away from the car within milliseconds of the car striking the tree and collapsing onto that boulder, pushing the ripped metal of the roof into the driver's seat?
Without obvious emotion, the medicine man’s penetrating eyes locked onto mine as he asked: “And others?” There seemed a different intensity in his eyes which now appeared intently focused I explained other incidents that caused friends to express concern, but to which I gave less thought. Incidents like when I stared down the barrel of a .38 revolver in a downtown Watts robbery and only heard a click as the hammer struck a dud bullet or an empty chamber.
Another event of which I informed him took place while I was photographing the Austrian Grand Prix race and an out-of-control Formula-1 race car flew over me at high speed, missing me by inches and hitting trees behind me, killing the driver.
It may be worth knowing that my conversation with the Apache medicine man took place when I was twenty-four; far from having lived a full life but having experienced situations many do not experienced through their entire lives. I inherently took risks in some of my activities, but I did not then, nor do I now, have a death wish; I was simply enjoying life to the fullest.
When I finished with my last survival incident, he looked intensely and deeply into my eyes for a considerable amount of time, without movement, without speaking. After what seemed an eternity, he reached forward, asked me to place my hands between his, which I did. He closed his eyes and turned his head upward, toward the cafe’s knotty-pine ceiling. It seemed as though he held that posture for an eternity. The stillness and quiet was comforting and deafening. Still looking upward, I felt him tighten his clasp on my hands, held between his. Slowly he lowered his head. Upon opening his mesmerizing brown eyes and staring directly into mine, he said nothing for the longest time as his eyes continued penetrating mine. I garnered the sense that his eyes were penetrating the walls of my soul.
“You are very blessed,” were the only words he spoke before pausing longer, his expressionless face turning to a slight smile.
“A great Spirit is with you. I hear this from the ancients when I ask for help with your question,” he said as his hands tightening their grip around mine even more.
His serious expression had warmed and became comforting as he loosened his grip on my hands and continued to explain why I have been so fortunate to have had the numerous close calls and survived long enough to be at this café discussing this with him.
“The Dark Spirit remembered missing the collection of your soul when the tower floor fell. He was again sent for you that day when you crashed into the sacred tree. On that event, he smashed your car on the rock under the spirit tree. After smashing the car on the rock and thinking he had succeeded at capturing your soul, the dark spirit made a line through your name on the list of souls he had been sent to collect.”
I listened intently as the medicine man provided reasoning in respect to the spiritual world the Apache and most native American cultures believe in, explaining incidents for which I have never found an answer. The Apache provided concepts involving spirits and ecclesiastical matters completely foreign to me until that night.
“Your great spirit knows you and watches always. Even now, in these mountains, your spirit is watching. It was your great spirit who took you from your car before it was broken on the rock., The spirit also gave you speed to reach the other side of the tower before the floor fell down. Your great spirit moved the cylinder so there was only a used bullet for the hammer to strike, and your great spirit pushed the race car away from you, into trees.” I was astonished at his explanations of the events which I thought were mysterious coincidences or just sheer luck.
I asked about other incidents, such as one that occurred only a few months earlier when I fell while mountain climbing, slid a great distance on the mountain’s steep granite face and had my fall arrested five feet before the granite wall fell away, providing a open space free-fall of several hundred feet to a scree field at the mountains base, "The great spirit holds the root of the small tree your rope was tied to, to keep you from falling over the edge."
"Why? Why, all these many times?" I asked, quizzically looking into his sparking eyes?
“It is because your Spirit of light takes you from your car, and the Spirit holds you when you are falling, that is why you are now here still. Most humans would been taken to the other world already,” he said, gesturing, with his hand, toward the window. “The Dark Spirit has a great book and when he is thinking that your spirit, your soul, was in his bag with the other souls he took that day. He crossed your name from the list, and he thinks his job with you was done.”
I expressed my confusion and focused on the lines of wisdom etched into his face, studying the depth and clarity of his sparkling brown eyes, and the silver and black braids that hung past his shoulders, resting on his buckskin jacket.
“You have a long life to live. You will have other times when you think you are finished, but you will not go to the other world. The time will come when you are old, and you will know when it is time for the other world,” he said softly. “You will go joyfully because you will know when your time has come to join the other stars,” the medicine man said with a comforting smile.
“How will I know? How will I go to the other world and not have the dark spirit take me to the dark world?” I asked, expressing my confusion with the new concepts I was learning from the wise, old Apache.
“You will know when it is time, and you will call to your Spirits; they will send your Spirit, your guide. The Dark Spirits already think you are with them, so there is no fight for your spirit. Your Spirit of Light will guide you to gold sunsets when it is your time. You will know. But now, you have much work to still do here on Mother Earth.”
In absolute amazement I watched and listened to the reason the medicine man provided in respect ti the question I have had since my youth, questions about escaping death so many times. Though he had loosened his grip on my hands, he continued holding them between his and looked at me with a penetrating smile that I will never forget.
“You are blessed by the Great Spirit. You are now here to make our sacred Mother Earth better for those still to come. You are young. You will do good for other peoples and that is why you are here. You must thank and honor your spirit for saving you from the dark spirit by helping others who will come to seek help from you.”
The information he provided me was a relatively short, but deep explanation that answered my question, as well as a directive in respect to expectations of me in the future. I clearly understood I had a mission to complete which I summarized as living a good life and help others in need.
At some time during that night's conversation, the cafe’s owner walked to our table and set a big skeleton key in front of the old man. Nothing was said. There was a nod of understanding from the medicine man’s head. I offered to pay and received only a smile and head shake as a response from the owner as he turned and walked out the door.
With my newfound friend, perhaps my guide, I remained much longer in the cafe' than usual and listened intently to all he had to say about mankind's road to destruction, along with all he and the Apache nation believed must be done to save our planet. The old medicine man explained the importance of me leading a good life, of me doing good acts even if I do not understand why, and to accept with joy when the spirit in my soul tells me the time has come for me join the others who are no longer with us. The wise man informed me that my life on earth will reach its highest state of joy late in my life. accompanied by wise guides who will have helped guide me through the years, and toward the good spirts that have departed before me.
When he finished, the Apache elder stood, placed his hands on both sides of my head and said words in his native tongue, leaned toward me, and with his thumbs, pressed lightly on my eyelids as he blew a breath on my forehead. I felt as though I was being put into a trance that felt very pleasant and light. That evening, sitting in the diner with the medicine man's hands cradling my head, was the most physically and spiritually soothing part of my conversation with the man who I believed had become my guide for years to come, aiding me in navigating life's journey even though we may be miles apart.
When he placed his hands on my shoulders, I sensed he was done. With an upward nod of his head, he gestured me to rise, and said good night, softly, with an enchanting smile. I walked out the front door, having left money on the table, knowing it was not expected. Walking toward my cabin, I looked back, through the window where we had been seated, and watched the medicine man walk to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. Upon reaching my cabin door, I found a bundle of sage stuck into my door handle. I looked back at the café once again, and saw my guide, perhaps an extension of my spirit, sitting where he had sat with me, drinking from his glass. I did not return to ask about the sage. Some questions are best left unanswered.
The answers to my questions that evening were an unexpected and amazing experience. The words spoken by the medicine man have resonated within me throughout my life and continue to do so. I inherently understood his answers and all else he said to me, and gradually I began to comprehend the reasoning he provided me for having survived all the incidents that could have ended my life. I felt then, as I do now, fortunate to have the forces of which he told me, the great spirits of light, looking after me, and perhaps directing me, while protecting me from the dark spirit. We know so little.
I returned to that rustic café in the mountains of New Mexico many times after, but never again saw my Apache friend who bestowed upon me his knowledge, his beliefs, and I believe a divine blessing at the end of our conversation.
More than four decades have passed since my evening with that wise old man, yet I have never forgotten the words he said to me. The following morning, I felt fortunate to have had enough wherewithal to write into my journal my recollections of my evening with the medicine man, recanting the words that wise old Apache sage said me night before.
There have been close calls since that night and I have always simply said ‘thank you’, glance up to the sky and reflected back to that night in the mountains of New Mexico. Perhaps that is my way of offering a prayer. I do not believe I have taken greater risks since that night; risks I would have not taken otherwise. I never gave consideration to the ideology of having immunity from severe consequences when embarking on risky adventures. I simply lived life as I would have anyway, without continuous thought of the wise man’s words on that night. Through it all, I continued to survive. Good fortune or the Spirit of Light? Only the medicine man may know the answer to that question. That disclaimer aside, I will state that I am thankful for the good fortune I have had throughout my life and for the spirits protecting me from whatever may adversely impact my future.
There is no doubt I have done good things for mankind, for friends, for people I did not know, for my family and for Mother Earth. I do continue to remember being told that there were things that still needed to be done but continue to have no idea of how many, or what those things are, just that they are. As told that evening in Ruidoso, I will know what to do and when to do it and I will know when my tasks and responsibilities have been fulfilled.
As I have verbalized throughout my life, "there is no such thing as a free ride". I passionately believe there is a price to pay for being saved from the Dark Spirit. I further believe I continue to repay this obligation in some way. To this day, I am grateful for being able to pay that price, for having lived the long and healthy life I have been allowed to live and to have received the blessing from the Apache medicine man in that little café in Ruidoso. I also met the woman I was told would be my guide, and as he declared, she has offered guidance when I needed guidance, and will come into my life when there appears to be a need for guidance.
My life can be said to have been grand thus far, and it has been an honor and joy to endure. When I am done, I will look forward to being guided to that next dimension, wherever that may be. I believe there is a continuum that goes beyond our existence on planet earth, and I look forward to meeting the Spirits who, as I was told, will guide me into that next dimension. What a wonderful time that will be, perhaps the beginning of new grand adventures in the Universe.
Native American philosophies, such as I learned from other Apache during that winter in Ruidoso, is that when our spirit departs our body, it becomes a star in the Universe. No matter the direction I must take, I am grateful that I will not be dealing with the Dark Spirit, and I will continue making my contributions until my end on Mother Earth, as it was suggested or embedded into my soul by the medicine man.
Postscript: Medicine Man is the recount of a personal experiencewhile living in Ruidoso, New Mexico, in 1973, a mountain village near the Sierra Blanca Ski Resort. I had seen this medicine man at the ski area, then owned and operated by the Apache Tribe, but I had never spoken with him prior to that evening at the café. I recall him being present the weekend before the ski resort opened, and with a smoking wand of sage giving what I presumed to be blessings to the ski resort and all the equipment. When he entered the café that evening and asked to sit with me, this story unfolded.
This is an actual life event of which I write and share, without embellishment, an experience that continues to remain unique in all the things I have experienced throughout all my revolutions around the sun, on this big blue ball to which the medicine referred to as "Mother Earth."
Since approximately 2017, I paid a number of return visits to the villages of Hovenweep where the Anasazi resided for hundreds of years, dating back to 300 BC. Personal interest in the culture, the architecture of the ruins that remain, the photography of one of Mother Earth's move beautiful desert locations, and a pleasant feeling I get when I am there, continues to draw me back. In 2023, I was given the opportunity to teach a course on or early, pre-white man ancestors at the University of Utah. To teach that course properly, I needed to return to the ruins to gather the right visual material for this course, and to look beyond all I have read on this early native culture. Perhaps this is the mission that the Medicine Man referenced during that evening's conversation in the Ruidoso café, fifty years ago; educate the world of the ancient ones who are the heart and soul of the Americas..
With all sincerity, I can only state that to this day, I feel truly blessed. Yes, there have been additional close calls that I fortunately survived. Based on what I learned from the medicine man, I presume I must be doing my job properly, and I believe I am still receiving guidance from both, the medicine man who I have not seen since the end of that winter's ski season, and from the woman guide who comes in and out of my life. One thing I am happy to be able to say, I am still here.
There are times I wonder how long I will carry on. Yet, for being able to carry on, I am grateful and give thanks to the spirits who make it all possible.
After three-fourths of a Century, I finally feel whole.
The medicine man did say that I would find eternal love with my earthly Spirit of Light, late in life and to be patient. The patience has paid off as I feel that internal feeling which I am unable to describe but which warms my being and brings a smile to my face that I believe to be similar to the smile that came to the medicine man's face after he finished searching my soul.