Never say die! Up, man, and try
I met him exactly on August 3, 2013. A personal project took me to Rockland to photograph the Maine Lobster Festival.
I had been taking photos all morning in Rockland but I was free on Saturday afternoon, so I went for a walk around the area. I wanted to walk to Rockport, about two and a half miles away. Half the way I found an intriguing site full of American flags, POW/MIA flags and others of which I did not know the meaning, badges, slogans, statues… A dachshund sculpture, a pistol hanging from a tree next to a WWII military uniform, a garden gnome statuette and several signs displaying the word “lothus”.
It was not clear what all this was, but since there was a rather friendly sign that invited to enter, I did so.
Someone was inside the house, looked through the window and came out. I greeted him and he got back in. He left the door open so I could glimpse he was looking for something. He came out again, this time carrying a camera. He greeted me and we started talking.
He invited me in. The truth is that I am usually courageous, but not that much. I could not trust someone who had a gun hanging from a tree, gnome statuettes in the garden and a disfigured face. As an excuse I told him that I was in a hurry and that I had to go to work, but also told him we could meet the next day after the military parade Steve Marino (that’s the name he used) would attend.
Steve Marino (this is the name he used to introduce himself)
I returned the next day at 4 pm, as we had agreed. There was no one, just a note on the door saying “Rubby Begonya Radio”. The Mazda that was parked in his backyard the day before was not there. I assumed he had not come back from the parade and started taking pictures of the garden. A chair, plants, grapefruit pulp everywhere. And all those references to Japan in the shape of plants and trees.
Steve Marino loved plants. He told me that he had planted a lotus behind the house and that it began to grow and expanded into the forest. Something that apparently is not very easy, although I don’t know much about plants. I just know that lotuses grow in muddy waters. He was laughing as he told me. He seemed quite amused by the lotus invasion in the Maine woods.
Steve Marino was missing half of his jaw and there was a hole under his nose. That day he covered it with a band aid. Apparently there are wounds that never heal. He always had a handkerchief in his hand, some other hung in the garden and another little pile of them folded and ironed in his house. He explained that it was to keep himself clean, as the hole in his face kept him constantly drooling.
The house was full of radio sets, and as we moved around he was turning them on and turning up the volume. All of them were playing music from the 50’s. I tried to turn the volume down furtively, as it was very difficult to understand him. But with the same subtlety that I lowered it, he raised it again. I gave up because I began to notice that he was not deaf, but he simply did not like silence.
He told me that he was a Marine, and that he had been in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. And that it was, in the latter, where he lost a piece of his jaw. He showed me a stone he carried in his purse, but I could not quite understand if it was a stone from the beach where he was bombed, from some landing spot or just a souvenir from some of the places he survived to.
The fact is that Steve Marino was constantly talking about fortune. He had many amulets. I asked him how old he was. He laughed. He did not want to reveal it.
According to him, his years in Japan were the happiest in his life. He told me that even though the Americans were enemies of the Japanese, he never felt that and was always treated very well. He says it was the happiest years of his life, “good times”.
He invited me to come into his room. Next to his bed there was a picture of Kennedy and a Kennedy half-dollar struck in 1976 and attached to a piece of wood. Another reference to luck. He took out another Kennedy half-dollar from a closet, he gave it to me and said that I always should keep it so it would bring me luck.
He showed me memories from Japan, several kimonos, his military uniform … it was already dark and through the window of the room I could see that the expansion of lotus was bigger than I thought. On his room’s wall there was a sort of a collage with pictures, clippings and notes. He told me that it was the story of his life including the most important moments. He did not appear in any of the photographs. All of it was a collection of scraps, press clippings, book photos and some original pictures of unidentified people.
We went back to the living room and Steve offered me to eat something. Chocolate, some cookies… the truth is that I do not like them much, but it seemed wrong to refuse his invitation. I told him that I liked beer. He got some Budweiser bottles and we both finally relaxed. He served the beer on a German jar while she showed me all the candles he had piled on top of the fridge. He explained that every night he lit a candle for his mother and another for Buddha. Steve Marino was a Buddhist.
We had a couple of beers in the garden and we toasted for life, because Steve Marino, he repeated (he speaked about himself in the third person) was a lucky man. From time to time he shouted “Steve Marino go, go, goooo!”
He laughed at my tattoos and showed me one. He also said he had some more, but he couldn’t show them to me.
Stephen R. Sircom (his real name)
A bit more than a year later, I discovered through a friend a few details. On one hand, in an online obituary we found out that Steve Marino (his real name was Stephen R. Sircom) was 85 years old and had committed suicide just a month after our meeting.
Stephen was never a war wounded, or at least his face wound did not occur in any battle. Stephen had already attempted suicide at “a bad time” years ago. A reflex reaction made him turn his face at the very last moment. He saved his life but his face was disfigured forever.
Despite having served his country for years, veteran health benefits did not cover facial reconstruction. Psychologically induced injuries are not considered wounds of war. Stephen could not afford to pay for it either.