Today Is a Good Day to Die - Part I
By Lee Standing Bear Moore as told to Takatoka
I cannot remember when it was the first time I heard the Indian phrase, “Today is a good day to die.” The phrase was used in the context of a warrior’s desire to die an honorable and brave death. For many decades I accepted this idea, but as age and death-threatening ailments became commonplace, my idea of its meaning changed drastically."
I was born at the Bell Mission near Los Angeles and the product of a family forced to move west from our ancestral home in Arkansas. In the 1940’s, many Indian and poor people of Oklahoma and Arkansas were “encouraged” by the government to relocate to the west coast to fill wartime jobs. The mass relocation was similar to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s when the dispossessed were drawn west from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas. As John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath:
"…families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."
I learned the meaning of death as I grew up in gang-infested areas of Los Angeles County. There was little honor or bravery associated with the senseless deaths I witnessed as a youngster. The first time I experienced death was in 1956 as I sat in the emergency room of the Studebaker Hospital awaiting stitches from a bicycle accident. A boy from our school brought Jerry in with the hook of crow bar planted in his head. There was little doctors could do for him. As a 10-year old, the experience of seeing a schoolyard buddy bloodied from head to toe with gore was horrific. Jerry laid on a bench not three feet from where I sat and as I stared into his eyes blood streamed down his head across gang tattoos on his arms and dripped into a pool on the floor. He died holding my hand. As my formative school years past, shootings, stabbings, and bludgeoning deaths were nearly everyday occurrences. My heart and brain were anesthetized to death by the age of fifteen.
After I entered the U.S. Army at the age of nineteen, I became intimately acquainted with death. As a platoon sergeant during the Vietnam War, I knew death was always an inch away during the many firefights and major operation battles. As months passed in the steaming jungles, an awareness of death consumed every moment. Friends dropped like flies. A single breath often separated my consciousness from death. As a matter of self-preservation and sanity, I was forced to become a friend of death and even welcomed it on several occasions.
On May 13, 1968, a mountaintop signal site called Nui Ba Den where I was temporarily stationed was overran by two regiments of North Vietnamese Regulars. The nearly 100 defenders were slaughtered. If not killed outright, many were tortured and some taken prisoner.
After the short battle was over, I wandered alone on the mountain for several days searching for food and water and removing booby traps from the bodies of dead comrades. At one point, when NVA patrols came dangerously close to my position several times, I was ready to give up my life. I felt like there was no hope for rescue and the prospects of being tortured was consuming me. It was then that I stood against the horizon and roared at the top of my lungs, “Take me now! Shoot me now! Today is a good day to die!” My screams were heard on echoes across the 6,000-foot mountain but by the grace of the Creator the enemy had no ears. Strangely, the enemy did not take my life but allowed me to live.
It was NOT a good day to die.
Obviously, I was among the survivors but the gruesome memories haunted me for years and the faces of death are often seen in my dreams making me a life-long causality of that unnecessary and brutal war.
As years passed, I knew death many times. Family, friends and co-workers crossed life’s threshold due to illness, accidents and sometimes circumstances that were not always brave or honorable.
Regardless of my close experiences with death over the years, the meaning of the term “Today is a good day to die” eluded me. That is until just recently.
During the past four months, I had three close encounters with death because of a bad heart and blood ailments received during the war. My heart was shocked back into rhythm during the last hospital visit. I knew during these encounters that death would not take me. Over the years, the Creator of All Things visited me many times. One time as I stood in the fire circle on the sacred Manataka Mountain the wind swirled around my body like a small tornado and the night sky opened to a voice that gave many instructions. Other voices sang many songs. And finally the time of my death was spoken. I have not completed all the instructions and thus my crossing time has not arrived. Each day I am allowed to continue my path and quest is a gift.
I do not think I have ever feared death. I steadfastly hold the ways of the Beauty Path in my heart and thus fear of death is insignificant. The depth and breadth of Indian philosophy and spiritual belief has always served me well in times of crisis. Just as the water of life is not distressed by its many changes, from liquid to solid to vapor in the eternal circle, I am not afraid of my body changing into spirit. After all, the same water that appeared a the time of Creation remains on earth today. The idea that my spirit will one day join with those of my ancestors and other loved ones is an appealing thought.
My opinions and hard-won beliefs about the Beauty Way have become rock solid over the years. However, my idea of the meaning of the term, “today is a good day to die” has changed.
I now know that this term does not necessarily refer to an action such has bravery or define some abstract ideal of honor. In my mind, the term does not have anything to do with the designs of mankind, but instead acknowledges the will of the Creator in a good way.
“Today is a good day to die” means that we are ready in our mind, heart and spirit to become one with the Eternal Spirit of the Creator. It means we are prepared to enter the never-ending and timeless River of Spirit to float forever. The Creator may later require our energy and spirit in the form of another creation so we may become the fodder and substance of something entirely new, return as fragment of another being or some other transformation as the will of the Creator may dictate. Who can say otherwise?
In keeping with the nature of all creation, energy and spirit never die as they are simply reformed repeatedly in a perpetual sacred symphony conducted by our Great Grandfather in heaven.
This definition of the term, “Today is a good day to die” is yet another example of the tremendous spiritual growth we have experienced because of the gift of knowledge and practice of the Beauty Path of the Indian.
Today IS a good day to die.
Today Is a Good Day to Die - Part II
Today, R. Lee Standing Bear Moore is a peaceful warrior -- a rainbow warrior. He rises up on two legs with arms stretched wide only when his family, friends or sacred mountain are threatened. Most days he spends quietly talking with members and visitors, performing ceremony, counseling those in need, or walking peacefully on the Manataka Mountain.
But, there was a time when peace and quiet were not a part of his vocabulary. Bear was a real warrior who risked his life in combat for the sake of his brothers. After leaving the military nearly forty-years ago, Standing Bear was a successful concert and event promoter who brought entertainment and laughter to crowds across the country. But, battles with performers, agents, record companies, venues, stage workers and vendors consumed over twenty-years of his life. Then, he founded a drug and alcohol abuse awareness organization that spread across seven states and helped thousands of families recover from the ravages chemical abuse. But, battles with drug abusers, enabling families, treatment institutions, law enforcement, politicians and others were constant.
If this were not enough, Standing Bear fought more insidious battles against personal fears and anger for many years. He
finally won -- to a large degree. Nowadays, it is difficult to ruffle the fur on the back of his neck. The journey from angry warrior to a man of peace is a fascinating story.
He prays often throughout the day giving thanks to the Creator and seeking further understanding of life's secrets.
Bear has suffered the pain of many battles. He has learned the good path of life from experience and many trusted elders. He has devoted his life to helping others. He has earned the knowledge and wisdom it takes to help others achieve inner-peace, peace in the community and world peace. Read "Standing Bear's Formula for Peace"
Next month, Today is a Good Day to Die - Part III will take our readers on a journey to discover how Bear made a successful transition from being a angry warrior to a man of peace.
Standing Bear emerges from a mountain-top firefight in Vietnam
By JERRY CARROLL/Staff writer
After his long-range reconnaissance patrol was nearly wiped out in an ambush, the commanders didn't know where to put PFC R. Lee Moore when he got out of the army hospital, so he was assigned in 1968 to a communication base atop a spooky sacred mountain called Nui Ba Den, a place of wind and fog a few kilometers from the Ho Chi Minh Trail
"The name means Black Mountain Lady," Moore said the other day at his home in east Hot Springs. "Chinese emperors made a pilgrimage to it once in their lifetime."
It was honeycombed with ancient tunnels of mysterious purpose and the growth was so thick soldiers sometimes discovered they were walking on the second canopy of the rain forest.
"The branches intertwined and dirt piled up on them over the years. Then you'd come to a crack in it and see the ground way below."
The North Vietnamese Army used the lower slopes and deep caves of the 6,000-foot mountain as a staging area and a place to rest its troops.
Despite his name, Moore family is of the Kituwah, a part of the Cherokee nation that arrived in Arkansas as early as the 1690s. He was a skinny 20-year-old old and his dark hair had grown to shoulder length in the hospital, but no one on the base seemed to care.
R. Lee Standing Bear Moore
He was different in another way. "I was the only trained infantryman there." A draftee, he had been a sniper with the 25th Infantry Division - the Wolf Hounds - before his transfer to the 125th Signal Battalion.
The other 100 men were communications technicians or support troops with no combat experience, including the captain who commanded the base. One day he ordered a water hole poisoned. Both sides had been using it in one of those unspoken agreements which makes life easier in war.
"He said we'd never be attacked because they couldn't survive without local water," said Moore. He told the captain poisoning the water was inviting trouble. Moore was ignored.
Moore prowled everywhere around the base and beyond its perimeters, learning the ground. Things he saw and sensed began to worry him. He stopped sleeping at night to watch and listen.
"I went to the captain and said we're being probed and infiltrated. He was a signal officer and didn't seem to think that was important."
Early one morning around one or two, Moore hurried to him. "I asked for permission to open up with the .50 calibers, but he said, "Wake up the camp and I'll have your ass.'"
Looking back, Moore says he wishes he had gone over the captain's head. "I knew what Charlie was planning." He did take his misgivings to as many people at the base as he could. "They pooh-poohed it."
He heard the first mortar shells come out of their tubes when the attack began sometime after midnight. "Fumpf." Moore was about to earn a Silver Star to go with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart with three clusters he already had.
The base generators exploded when the first rounds landed and then the enemy was through the wire and dropping satchel charges outside the bunkers where Americans sat bolt upright in their cots wondering what was going on.
Dark from the sun, barefoot and wearing only black silk skivvies with his dark hair down to his shoulders, Moore thinks the two North Vietnamese he saw assumed for a split second he was one of them when he opened the door of his hootch with AR-15 cocked and ready. The hesitation was fatal for them.
He also thinks his appearance helped as he dodged through the battle, helped by his knowledge of the ground. "I wasn't wearing boots, I was skinny and dark. The Army figured afterward they hit us with two regiments - 400 men." The captain died early in a firefight that turned out to be part of the Tet offensive.
Moore never saw an American with a weapon in his hands during the firefight. He saw three being tortured but was powerless to help, and found eight or 10 Americans, weaponless and hiding under a rock overhang. "I told them to stay there and play dead."
Moore never found out what happened to them.
He made his way to an ancient pagoda on the top of the mountain used as a base command post. "Everyone was already dead." He had taken a M-79 grenade launcher and two bags of grenades off a body and climbed to rocks where he could look down on a helipad where the NVA had set up a mortar position and command post.
Firing directly would have given away his position, so Moore fired the grenades straight up into the air. The first of the 30 or so grenades he got off killed the colonel leading the raid and two lieutenants. The enemy fired wildly at the rocks hiding him.
"There was a lot of confusion going on with them." Then they melted back into the jungle.
Daylight came and the realization that, as far as he could see, everyone was dead and many of the bodies booby-trapped. "I resigned myself that I was going to die." Moore sang his death song and found a high place and screamed for the enemy to come and get him. "Today is a good day to die!," he roared at the top of his lungs.
Later after hearing of this, five American Indian brothers gave him the warrior's name by which he is known today - Standing Bear.
Another day and night passed without food or water before the wind and clouds lifted and choppers could land with hundreds of troops to retake the base. A handful of survivors - Moore heard there were 18 - emerged from caves.
The North Vietnamese were long gone. By then, he admits, "I was pretty much crazy in my mind."
They found Moore on the other side of the mountain top. "To them, I must have looked like something out of a nightmare." He begged not to be transferred off the mountain and doesn't make any claim this was rational. When an officer agreed to this, he moved his bunk to the middle of an ammo dump. "I said to myself, if Charlie comes again, they're not torturing me."
Craziness began to show in other ways.
Once he leveled his M-16 for 30 minutes at a bird colonel in shiny boots and a starched uniform with razor creases who flew in and criticized the dead men and the poor showing they had made.
"I told him he was eating and drinking and lying in bed with two women while men were dying on the mountain. The noncom with him started to reach for his .45, but I told him he'd be a dead man. Afterward, my top sergeant smacked me in the mouth and said I was going to Leavenworth Prison, but nothing ever happened."
After several months, they got him off the mountain on a ruse and refused to fly him back. "The first night in the middle of a base with 14,000 men and all these tanks around me, I shook in my cot because I was scared. They thought I was nuts."
After he got back to the United States, Moore married, had two daughters and a career as a concert promoter, handling shows from Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty to opera and gospel in the south and midwest. The bottom fell out of that market in the 1980s because of rising insurance costs and stars deciding to do their own concert promoting.
So Moore founded a non-profit drug and alcohol awareness organization with $17 and says six years later it had an annual budget of $1.4 million.
"I worked seven days a week for seven years without a day off before I burned out." He knew it had happened when a client came in and Moore knew the whole story even before he opened his mouth. "I'd become hard."
He has had bad health in recent years and hasn't been able to work. His heart acts up and he's got diabetes. There is still shrapnel in his body working its way out and he thinks he suffers from the effects of Agent Orange.
Still, he does a lot of volunteer work - he recently advised a national organization of chaplains on Native American spiritual beliefs - and looks like a man who had gone through the storms of life and come out the other side pretty much intact.
"I owe everything to the Creator," he said.