Medicine Man ---
A number of years ago, in December1973, in a rustic little wood cabin diner, in the small New Mexico Mountain town of Ruidoso, I enjoyed the good fortune of spending an evening with an Apache elder who had asked to join me at my table. It was a quiet, weekday night, and my newfound dinner companion and I were the only customers in the diner.
Upon engaging in 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 time. His eyes were bright enough to cause me to think that perhaps the Universe had placed a few galaxies in them to provide their sparkle. Why he chose to join me at the table by the window that looked toward my cabin, I will never question.
As we conversed, the old man conveyed to me concerns he harbored about the state of mankind and offered answered questions I had asked about numerous topics. He was a great conversationalist with an accent common only to Native Americans. His style of communicating reminded me much of my great-grandfather who lived his entire life in southeastern Bavaria.
As the evening progressed, the Medicine Man bestowed upon me a unique wisdom, the process of bestowing wisdom as I had experienced in my childhood. Ludwig Krippner, my wonderful great-grandfather, continues to be the wisest person I have ever known and during my pre-school years taught me much about life without actually teaching. Ludwig bestowed upon me, a wisdom that I have found in only two other human beings.
“Men are flawed creatures, always. Me too,” the Medicine Man said as he began responding to questions I had asked earlier. “Man was never so flawed like now, and things with man are not getting better. Men don’t listen anymore to things that are not about money or power. The Spirits worry.” This was the beginning of the serious component of our conversation that moved us from the idle chitchat we enjoyed while getting acquainted in that comfy little diner.
As I listened intently to the Medicine Man’s tales and concerns, I decided, if the opportunity presented itself, to ask one particular question regarding my personal mortality. It was a question that had lingered in my mind for almost a decade, a question for which no one had an answer, the sort of a question for which I did not seek an answer due to the incident’s complexity.
My new-found Apache friend expressed his concern about many matters and often referred to the teachings of his father and for- fathers from whom he learned about the importance of life, the value of spiritual and physical balance, and nature’s requirement for us to keep our sacred planet unscarred.
From his ancestors and their spirits, he explained, he had learned the importance of harmony between human caretakers of our planet, to which he often referred to as Mother Earth. He shared with me his beliefs. He explained the teachings of his elders that it is our spiritual responsibility to not only care for our planet and honor and respect it, but that we must also learn to love Mother Earth again.
“Man, for many years now, forgets how sacred our land is. Not only white man, but Indians too,” he recanted in a slow and methodical fashion as though to be certain I understood every word he spoke as each of those words rolled rhythmically off his tongue. “The land is a treasure many use only to make money, and most don’t understand they are murdering Mother Earth.” Listening to him speak provided a sense that much of what he was telling me came directly from his soul, not his brain.
The delivery of his wisdom was sincere and filled with his 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 delivered by his voice as he spoke of what he and members of the Apache tribe perceived to be mankind’s slaughter of Mother Earth.
Not all things of which he spoke were new to me. Medicine Men from other tribes of Native Americans, and many Shamans from cultures that span our globe have said similar things which I had read or viewed in documentaries. These wise men continue to provide us warnings about the harm humans are doing to our global environment and to ourselves as we work toward our undeclared, but obvious goal to self-implode.
About forty minutes into our conversation, I found the courage to ask the question I had thought of periodically, and for which I had been unable to find an answer, regardless of how often I asked that question of myself. To the Medicine Man sitting across the table from me, I explained how I had inexplicably escaped death on a number of occasions and pondered why I was still here when it appeared that I should have been booted out of the camp of the living by now. To my amazement, I explained, I continued to survive those numerous potentially deadly episodes with minimal bodily harm.
“When was the first time this thing happened for you,” he asked?
I explained how the first incident occurred when I was perhaps eight-years old, playing with friends on a centuries old look-out tower, part of the medieval fortification surrounding the town of Landsberg, my hometown in Germany. I had been dared to run across the top of the tower’s severely rotted wooden floor and I accepted the challenge and bolted across the perhaps 10-meter-wide surface. Just as I reach the other side, that rotted floor collapsed behind me and fell the two-hundred feet, or so, to the tower’s base, taking remnants of lower levels of flooring with it. I had made my dash to the other side to take my final step, hold on for dear life to the top of the tower wall and turn my head to watch the floor crumble to the earth below. I maneuvered my way around the perimeter of the wall and joined my friends who were also standing on the slim floor supporting surface and holding onto the tower’s wall. We shared a new sense of caution as we descended the ancient wooden stairs that remained, the stairs that had taken us to the top of the tower that day and numerous times in the past.
The question regarding that childhood event I followed with the strongest and most consistent memory of another unexplained survival. This incident had always been the most prominent event, and the one that brought me to ask the Medicine Man for clarification of my numerous survivals.
In July of 1966, on my graduation day, I was a horrific car crash where, after the car did several barrel rolls through the air, the front of the car struck a tree, head on, and then landed upside-down on a giant boulder. The boulder had penetrated the driver-side roof like a can opener and partially bent my Corvair in half. When the car was righted, the splayed metal of the roof resembled a giant claw trying to impale the car’s driver into the driver’s seat and permanently embed the body to that seat. The rest of the roof was flattened level with the hood and trunk, and the car was visibly bent in the middle. How did I get out of the car is the question that has lingered in the back of 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 saw a body (me) flying through the air in front of the car just before the car hit the tree. Therefore, the question remains: How did I get out of that car, in mid-air, flying away from the car that within milliseconds prior to the car striking the tree and collapsing onto that boulder?
Without obvious emotion, the Medicine Man’s penetrating eyes locked onto mine, and he asked: “And others?” There seemed a new intensity in his eyes which were now intently focused.
I explained other incidents that caused friends to express concern, but to which I gave little thought. Incidents like when I stared down the barrel of a .38 revolver in downtown Watts to only hear a click as the hammer struck either an empty chamber or a dud bullet. Then I told him about the incident, when photographing the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix race, when an out-of-control Formula-1 race car spun past me at high speed, missing me by inches, hitting trees behind me and killing the driver.
It may be worth knowing that this 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 have not experienced through their entire lives.
When I finished with my survival incidents, he looked into my eyes for a long time, without movement, without speaking. After what seemed an eternity, he reached forward, asked me to place my hands between his, closed his eyes and turned his head upward, toward the diner’s knotty-cedar ceiling, for what seemed another eternity. Still looking upward, he placed my right hand atop my left, and tightly clasped them between his hands as he faced me. 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 had the sense that his eyes were penetrating the walls of my soul.
“You are very blessed,” he finally said before pausing longer.
“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.
His serious expression 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 them all.
“The Dark Spirit remembered he missed collecting your soul when the tower floor fell to the ground at the bottom of the tower. He was again sent for you that day when you crashed into the sacred tree that still lives, and that time he smashed your car on the rock under the spirit tree. Finished with his job by smashing the car on the rock, the Dark Spirit left, thinking he was taking you with him. He made a dark line through your name on the list of souls he was sent to collect.”
As if transfixed, I listened intently as the Medicine Man continued to explain something for which I have never found an answer. Friends had shared opinions, but none really made sense. The Apache provided concepts of which I had never thought or given consideration, Spirits, and matters completely foreign to me.
“Your great spirit watches always. Even now, here in these mountains, he is watching. Your great spirit took you from your car before it was broken on the rock., Your great spirit 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 the great spirit pushed the race car away from you, into trees.”
I asked about other incidents, such as one only a few months earlier when I lost my grip while mountain climbing and slid a great distance on the mountain’s granite face to have my fall arrested about five feet before the granite wall fell away providing a free-fall of several hundred feet to the scree field below, "The great spirit holds the root of the weak tree your rope was tied to, that day, to keep you from falling over the edge."
"Why? Why, all these many times?"
“It is because your Spirit of light takes you from your car, and the Spirit holds you when you are falling, and is why you are now here still. Most humans would already be to the other world,” he said, gesturing, with his hand, toward the window. “The Dark Spirit, you see, has a great book and when he was thinking your spirit, your soul, was in his bag with the other spirits, he crossed your name off the list, and he thinks his job is done.”
I expressed my confusion and focused on the lines of wisdom etched into his face. I studied the depth and clarity of his sparkling brown eyes, and the braids that hung past his shoulders and rested 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 it is time for the other world,” he said softly. “You will go because you will know when your time is here,”
“How will I know?”
“When you know it is time, you will call to your Spirits and they will send your Spirit Guide. The Dark Spirits already think you are there, so there is no fight for your spirit, and your Spirit of Light will guide you to green meadows and gold sunsets when it is your time. You will know. But now, you have much work to still do on Mother Earth.”
In absolute amazement I watched and listened to him provide reason to my question about escaping death so many times. Though he had loosened his grip, he continued holding my hands between his and looked at me with a penetrating smile that I will not forget as long as I shall live.
“You are blessed by the Great Spirit. You are now here to make our sacred Mother Earth better for those who will still come. You are young. You must do good for other peoples and that is why you are here. You must thank your Spirit always for saving you from the Dark Spirit by helping Mother Earth and helping others who will come to seek your help.”
At some time during our conversation, the diner’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 as the owner turned and walked toward the door.
With my newfound friend, perhaps my guide, I remained considerably longer and listened intently to all he had to say about mankind's road to destruction, along with all he believed must be done to save our planet. The old Medicine Man explained the importance for me to lead a good life, to do good acts even if I do not understand, and to accept with joy when the spirit in my soul tells me the time has come for me to go and 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 with a wise woman who will help guide me toward the good spirts.
When he finished, the Apache Elder stood, placed his hands on both sides of my head. He said words in his native tongue, leaned forward and with his thumbs, pressed lightly on my eyelids and blew a breath on my forehead. I felt as though I was being put into a trance, oddly very pleasant and light. That part of the 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 felt would be my guide as I moved through the years to come.
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. Then he said good night, softly, with an enchanting smile. I walked out the front door, having left money on the table for our coffee and food. Walking toward my car, 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 old VW bus in the gravel covered parking area, I found a bundle of sage stuck into my door handle. I looked back once more, and saw my new-found friend, 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 answer and everything else he said to me, and gradually I began to comprehend the reasons he provided me for having survived all the incidents that could have, and perhaps, should have ended my life. I felt then, as I still do, fortunate to have the forces of which he told me, the Great Spirits of light, looking after me, and perhaps directing me. We know so little.
I returned to that rustic diner in the mountains of New Mexico many times after, but I never again saw my Apache friend who bestowed upon me his knowledge, his beliefs, and I believe a divine blessing he gave me at the end of our conversation.
More than four decades have passed since my evening with that wise old man and I have never forgotten the words he said to me. The following morning, I felt fortunate to have had enough wherewithal to write in my journal what I could recall the Medicine Man saying, hence, my ability to recant the words that wise old Apache sage gave me.
There have been close calls since that night and I've always simply said ‘thanks’, 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 had never given thought to immunity from severe consequences when I embarked 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.
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 have no idea of how many things and 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 said 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 diner in Ruidoso.
My life can be said to have been grand, thus far, and an honor 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 the goes beyond our existence on planet Earth, and I look forward to meeting the Spirit who, as I was told, will guide me to that next dimension. What a wonderful time that will be, perhaps the beginning of new grand adventures in the Universe.
Postscript: Medicine Man is the recount of a personal experience in 1973 while living in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a mountain village near the Sierra Blanca Ski Resort. I had seen this Medicine Man at the ski area, owned and operated by the Apache Tribe, but I had never spoken with him prior to that evening at the diner.
I recall him being present the weekend before the resort opened, and with a smoking wand of sage he gave, what I presumed to be, a blessing to the ski resort and all the equipment. When he entered the diner that evening and asked to sit with me, this story unfolded.
This was an actual life event of which I write and share, without embellishment, an experience that continues to remain unique in all the things I’ve experienced during all my numerous revolutions around the sun on this big blue ball.
With all sincerity, I can only say that I feel truly blessed. Yes, there have been additional close calls that I fortunately survived. Based on what was learned from the Medicine Man I presume I must be doing my job properly – I am still here.
There are times I wonder how long I will or must carry on. Yet, for being able to carry on, I am grateful and give thanks to the spirits who make it all possible.
At the age of seventy-three I reconnected with the love of my life (we were married once) and I am thankful! For years I traveled seven hours (round trip) to have her cut my hair as I tried to get her to get her interested in me again, round three. Finally, in November 2021, she opened that door, and we eventually took that door off its hinges. Thank you, Virginia.
The Medicine Man did say that I would find eternal love with my earthly Spirit of Light, later in life and to be patient. Patient I have been as I made numerous mistakes. The patience has paid off as I have finally learned that internal feeling that I am unable to describe that she brings to me. Thanks to our native Americans and their culture and beliefs. Thanks for helping me continue through life and helping me finally learn what love actually is.