Dispatches from Atz’ is an on-going series chronicling the writings of Atz Kilcher during his time at Freedom Ranch for Heroes with the veterans of Project Healing Waters.
“I might as well tell you a little bit about my experience with disabled veterans who are part of Project Healing Waters in Wise River. It is another testimony and powerful experience in music and storytelling, in daring to share your journey, and believing that as humans we can affect each other in a positive healing way,”
Vietnam veteran Atz Kilcher is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier. Atz joined the Project Healing Waters family in 2021 during a trip to Freedom Ranch for Heroes.
Avoiding. Embracing. Fearing. Loving. Accepting.
You can avoid something or fully embrace it. If you live in fear you’re pretty much not able to feel love. Acceptance seems to be a pretty darn important starting point.
I’m sitting in the Denver airport on my way to Montana to give a humble offering of songs poems and stories to those veterans that will be attending this week’s fly fishing outing. It’s part of a wonderful organization called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. (PHWFF) I feel nervous.. So the best thing I can do right now is just accept it.
It feels a little like starting a new career at age almost 75. I’m nervous. Do I still have it? Hell, I’m damn near deaf! There are times I have trouble staying on pitch with the guitar. My voice sounds weird and my hearing aids are like a bad sound system. Poor me! Snivel snivel!
I’m sitting here thinking about aging. About time I have left. About quality versus quantity. About what I want to accomplish and what my priorities are. The words that came to me at the beginning of this writing are all choices that I have as I head down what I am calling the homestretch, towards the finish line. Actually they are choices we all have at any point in our life.
Choices. Such a simple concept. Such a difficult thing to remember, Especially for those of us who tend to react without thinking, for those of us who suffer from trauma, for those of us suffering from any type of PTSD. All of us for whom that hair trigger split second reaction is so deeply ingrained, that the concept of making a conscious choice at that point is as foreign as a foreign language.
I use an athletic metaphor comparing this part of my life as the homestretch for a good reason. I was a competitive athlete through high school and college. As an adult I competed in local triathlons, as well as in state and national cross country ski competition. To make a very long story short, growing up it was my identity, my way of feeling important and special, that I mattered. It was a way to believe I was getting my fathers praise. He seldom attended any of my events but I believed nonetheless that he was proud of me. With my work ethic, and my strength and endurance from life on the homestead, and my desire to please adult role models, I was every coach’s dream. The game is not over til it’s over. You never quit. With only seconds left, I once shot a jump shot from the corner during a high school basketball game. We were one point behind. The ball was in the air! The buzzer went off! Swish! We were now one point ahead. We went from being the loser to being the winner. I was a hero for the evening. But the reason I remember that night, aside from the fact that our cheerleaders (as well as some of the out-of-town cheerleaders), were treating me like a hero at the dance, was the lifelong lesson it instilled. Never quit. Things can change at the last minute. There’s always time for change.
One more quick athletic story. I ran the mile in high school. Another local boy named Steve Nixon always beat me by just a few seconds. He was one year behind me. We came in number one and two throughout the region. At the state track meet, by some miracle, I took the lead. This was my last race as a high school senior and I really wanted to win. It was an unbelievable feeling being in the lead. Now it was Steve who was two steps behind me instead of the other way around. As we got close to the finish line, my subconscious told me something wasn’t right. I did not belong in the lead. My place was behind Steve. I set a new personal record of 4:52 that day! Steve’s time was 4:51.5. He barely beat me, but he did. One of my inner selves who lacked faith that things can change, that it’s never too late, took over the controls. He put me back in my place! The place I was used to. A well worn rut I had been in for years. Another valuable life lesson learned! Both of those events happened 60 years ago. I remember them both as though it were yesterday!
So I have a choice. I can be depressed and sad and fear aging and death. Or, I can accept it, and embrace it. I can allow the fear and anxiety of the future to choke out any happiness and love I may feel. I can become another jaded aging person, focusing on what I no longer have, and what I can no longer do. I can give up and exude all of that negativity which some aging people possess, which people want to avoid being around A quitter. A downer. A loser. Or……?
That is the big question. The “or”.
Or, I can believe I’m still in the race. I can believe I still might shoot that winning jumpshot. Or, I can give up just before the finish line, and fall back into old patterns and listen to those negative voices. That’s about it. Two choices. Pretty simple. Now I could stop right there and believe that I have made my point. But I am the son of Yule Kilcher! A filmmaker, a lecturer, a politician, a multi-linguistic verbose and loquacious orator. A man who knew how to take advantage of an audience. Back on the Homestead in the old days, when people still had to walk a couple of miles to get to our house, it was a big deal when visitors showed up. My parents were always at their best. They would shine. They would entertain with old country grace and hospitality. My mother would get out her best smoked fish and smoked moose meat and pickled mushrooms, homemade bread and delicious homebrew. And my father would sit at our homemade table and be in his element. Talking on many subjects to an enthralled speechless audience of two or three. It could be neighbors, or visitors from farther away. It could be fellow politicians, US congressman, or state governors. That’s when he was at his best. Performing, sharing information and experiences. Motivating others to a simpler lifestyle, explaining how to be more in tune with the land and nature and to live more self-sufficiently.
As I head towards Freedom Ranch, I feel that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I used to see only rotten apples. I used to feel I was a rotten apple. I used to hope that I would roll far from the tree, and inherit nothing from that branch from which I fell. I used to wish that I was a red apple instead of a yellow one, so that no one would know which tree I was from.
But again, I have a choice. I choose to see only a beautiful thriving orchard which my mother and father began with all of their homestead ingenuity and hard work. I choose to believe I am still a sound and solid apple, still full of potential.
I carry my childhood with all of its beautiful lessons. I choose not to see the blemishes and the scars and broken branches. I choose not to see those many rotten spots in my core, which I had to stop feeding and nourishing.
I carry my mother and my father with me on this trip. What I will share with those courageous disabled veterans, is my story, my lessons, my ups and downs, my successes and failures, the winning shots, and the races lost. All of that which I learned early in life, at that simple homemade table in our Homestead cabin, surrounded by wilderness. What I will share in story and song, is choices I have made: to believe I am still a solid sound Apple. To believe I can still win the game and make a difference. To believe I still have something to offer. A choice not to give into fear, a choice not to fear the fear, but to accept and embrace it, and to recognize that only by fully accepting and embracing it as part of life can I live the remainder of my life with love and happiness, mindfully making sound choices every moment. I will end with a short story, a sort of testimonial I heard from a young man, as he told me how Project Healing Waters had saved his brother’s life.
His brother suffered from severe PTSD. The signs that he was headed for suicide were obvious to his family. Somehow, someone talked him into attending a Project Healing Waters outing at Freedom Ranch.
While fly fishing, floating down a beautiful river, in the middle of God’s nature, with another veteran in the boat with him, a miraculous healing occurred! At this point, as this younger brother was telling me the story, he was sobbing with tears running down his cheeks. He said it was partly the beautiful healing surroundings, but mostly the love and support he received from the other veteran in the boat with him. With very few words, this fellow veteran let this older brother know that he had also been there, and knew what that older brother had gone through in combat, and what he was going through now. Somehow this supportive fellow veteran sent the message that life was worth living, that the game was not over, that he did not have to listen to the negative voices, that he could push proudly past the finish line. That he could make peace with his demons, accept them, not let fear rule him.
As this younger brother sat across the table from me, tears rolling down his cheeks, telling me this beautiful miraculous healing story, such a beautiful picture unfolded. Two Veterans floating down a peaceful river, fly fishing truly in the moment. Rewiring old circuits. Erasing old tapes, recording new information. Choosing to feel, to feel it all. To accept it all. Choosing to believe that not only was the game far from over, but that they still were valuable players, still needed, with still a lot to share and contribute. I see the younger brother’s face so vividly with tears streaming down his cheeks. Tears of joy and gratitude. It keeps me going when I am down. It gives me hope and courage to believe that I am still in the game, still a valuable player, that I still have something to contribute. It helps me remember to be grateful, that I am blessed to be able to share this section of the trail with fellow veterans as we support and encourage one another, as we bravely show up to do the hard work. The hard work of not only staying in the game, but playing with enthusiasm. Believing that we are winners. That we are still valuable. Still capable of getting off that winning shot just before the buzzer goes off!
Atz Kilcher was raised on a homestead in Homer, Alaska after his father and mother, Yule and Ruth, emigrated from Switzerland in the late 1930’s. The many skills learned and required on a homestead, as well as living a self-sufficient lifestyle, helped shape Atz’s character. As an adult, Atz worked as a rancher, horse trainer and carpenter. He received his Bachelor degree in psychology and his Masters in Social Work, which he used working with troubled teens and marriage and family therapy. He served in the army in the late 60’s and spent a year in Vietnam. Dealing with his own PTSD from a dysfunctional family and the trauma experienced in Vietnam, Atz developed great empathy for all veterans and anyone dealing with any type of trauma. Although he has been a therapist and been to many therapists over the years, talking with other veterans and sharing successes and failures as well as ups and downs has been the most helpful in his healing journey. Atz is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier.