It was soon after dawn on the San Rafael Hills and I was on my own, when I saw looming out of the thick mist a lone figure. Luckily his back was toward me and for a split-second I wondered whether to creep away.
I realized it wasn’t a man at all, but a cutout figure of one. But not just any man. A long, lean, dangerous man. And not just any long, lean, dangerous man, but Clint Eastwood. And he was in a smoldering pose made famous by “A Fistful of Dollars.”
He stood there on the crest of a hill overlooking the steep-sided valley and ready at the drop of his famous hat to ride into the township of La Cañada and root out the corroding vice behind that all-too-innocent façade.
A few weeks ago, I took the same hike and saw the figure had gone. Instead, on his knees, was a man trying to put the pieces together of something that had obviously been brutally vandalized.
He turned out to be the artist, whose first name is Justin and likes to be anonymous. We chatted sadly for a while and I told him of another work, now almost part of me, that has the same goal of making art an integral part of everyday life.
This is the Children’s Bell Tower in Bodega Bay, where we lived for many years. It is a memorial to my 7-year-old son, Nicholas, who was shot 18 years ago in an attempted robbery while we were on a family vacation in Italy. My wife, Maggie, and I donated his organs and corneas to seven very sick Italians, four of them teenagers.
The story caught the imagination of people all over the world, one of whom was Bruce Hasson, a San Francisco sculptor, whose pioneering skills include melting down firearms confiscated by the police and turning them into bells, a symbol of giving.
He suggested we build a memorial of bells and announce it in Italy, where little Nicholas had become a national hero. The Italian weekly magazine, Oggi, promoted the idea, and bells started to arrive — in the end 140 of them, many with a story attached, a child who died waiting for an organ transplant, a mother who was saved at the last minute by a donated heart.
The centerpiece is a magnificent bell cast by the foundry that has been making bells for the papacy for a thousand years and blessed by Pope John Paul II. Without ever taking a penny for his time, Bruce designed, built and maintains the tower which is in a place of wild beauty, an open wind-swept area. I think of it as a little piece of Italy’s soul by the Pacific Ocean.
Justin and I have exchanged emails and recently he wrote that he had repaired the cutout but with a small difference. The next morning, again early and again on a day thick with clouds, I went to see it and my heart gave a leap. Clint’s right arm was now outstretched and in his hand was a bell.
A plaque on his back invited anyone who went there to ring the bell and commit to becoming an organ donor. In the last 18 years tears have come into my eyes many times but I have rarely sobbed. I did that day, however, when I rang the bell and thought how proud our son — gentle, thoughtful Nicholas — would have been to be part of bringing people together in such a helpful way.
Another week or two passed, and I took the trail again. Clint had disappeared and this time there was no trace of any pieces. No one seems to know what happened.
But before it disappeared, this simple cutout had left a message: In one stroke a figure that had at first looked like a threat, then pure destructiveness, had become a symbol of hope. It also left an invaluable lesson: at every moment of the day we all have choices.
REG GREEN is a La Cañada Flintridge resident. Visit www.nicholasgreen.org.