A Fistful of Hope
By CHRIS SMITH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It wasn’t an easy decision for the family of Nicholas Green, the Bodega Bay boy whose violent death at age 7 set in motion a global revolution of compassion, to uproot and leave Sonoma County for La Cañada Flintridge in Southern California.
But the Greens have done well down there. Eighteen years after a gunshot fired by highway robbers in Italy struck Nicholas in the head and his parents made the anguished decision to donate his organs to seriously ailing Italians, the family lives a couple of miles from a rugged, hillside park alongside the Glendale Freeway.
Nicholas’ father, Reg, who still writes and speaks often about the dramatic effect his son’s story has had on organ donation, starts many mornings by driving to the San Rafael Hills and taking a cardio walk.
One morning earlier this year, something startled him. Through the mist, he spotted an imposing figure in a flat-brimmed hat.
Green, 83, thought of turning back on the trail. He was glad he didn’t when he realized this wasn’t a real person but a plywood cutout of a cigar-chomping, pistol-slinging Clint Eastwood in the poncho he wore in the 1964 spaghetti western, “A Fistful of Dollars.”
The silhouette was a piece of public art, placed by who knows who for the amusement of northbound drivers on the Glendale, State Route 2. Green liked it, too.
But as he approached the spot weeks later, he saw a young man picking up pieces of Clint. The cutout had been shattered.
“It was really as though somebody was in a rage about it,” Green said. He spoke by phone from the home he has shared since 2004 with his wife, Maggie, daughter Eleanor, who was 4 when her brother was shot as they slept on the backseat of a rental car in Italy and is now 22, and twins Martin and Laura, 16.
He said he approached the fellow who gathered the pieces, and they talked. Green learned he was the artist who’d made and placed the figure of Eastwood.
The fellow told Green he prefers to be known only as Justin, he is 31 and ever since moving to L.A. from Oregon in 2006, he has been impressed with how intense civilization and the scrubby remnants of the Wild West coexist in that part of the state.
Justin had also placed cutouts of John Wayne and Gene Autry in open spaces visible to freeway commuters. He couldn’t fathom why someone had destroyed Clint Eastwood.
Green told him he appreciates efforts to make art a part of everyday life, and he mentioned a piece especially close to his heart. He described the tower of 140 bells that stands alongside Highway 1 in Bodega Bay as a memorial to his son.
He told the artist that Italians opened their hearts to his family, and many signed up as potential organ donors after Nicholas was shot and his organs transplanted to seven patients in Italian hospitals. Previously, not many people in Italy had considered becoming organ donors.
Green recalled there on the hiking trail that the Children’s Bell Tower in Bodega Bay was designed by San Francisco sculptor Bruce Hasson, who’s previously melted confiscated firearms and transformed them into bells. The tower’s centerpiece is a bell that was cast in a foundry that has made bells for the Vatican for 1,000 years, and that was blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Before they parted, Nicholas’ dad and Justin exchanged email addresses. Not long afterward, the artist wrote to alert Green that he had remade the cutout of Clint Eastwood, with a small difference.
Green returned to the hiking trail and what he saw nearly buckled his knees.
In the new cutout, the gunslinger wore no gun. And his right hand was no longer resting by his belt. It was extended straight out to the side.
And it held a bell.
On the back of the silhouette, Justin had affixed a block of text reciting the story of Nicholas Green and how it had inspired many around the world to consider making the gift of organs that could save or restore the lives of others.
The artist also wrote: “If you are inspired by Nicholas’ story, ring the bell and commit to becoming an organ donor today. Visit http://www.nicholasgreen.org for more details.”
Reg Green said he stood beside the new figure and cried as he hadn’t since Nicholas was killed. “Sobbing is not a thing I’m going for, but I could not stop,” he said.
A pair of hikers came upon him and asked if he was OK. He gathered himself enough to recount the tale. Then they rang the bell.
On Dec. 15, Green returned to the hills and hiked back up in preparation of visiting the cutout with Steve Lopez, the great columnist with the Los Angeles Times.
And the piece of art was gone. Someone had carried it off.
Green would like for it to be returned, but he knows quite well that sometimes things that you treasure in life are abruptly taken away.
The lesson left to him by the transformation of a menacing gunslinger into a symbol of hope: Every moment of every day, we all have choices.
(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)