The Story Behind the Song (2 of 9): Picture of an Indian

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?

When you wake up one morning, reach for your guitar and a pencil, and six verses and a chord progression flow out of you, you might be on to something. It's what every writer hopes for: an uninterrupted pouring of emotion that shapes itself into a song without much toil. No song worth singing goes unrevised, but having a strong first draft certainly helps the process. 



When I wrote the first draft of Picture of an Indian last January, it had been a very long time since I actually looked at this picture--and I mean actually looked at it. But that winter morning, it's what I woke up thinking about. Maybe I had a dream about it or about my grandfather, maybe not. The reasons why you write songs at particular times is part of the mystery of writing that I don't think I'll ever fully understand. 

I slumped off to my desk, still a little groggy and spilling my coffee and wrote the line "there's a picture of an indian wearing a suit and tie". I took another sip and went on describing the picture. That messy free write unlocked conversations I had with my grandfather I hadn't thought about in years. 

Sergeant Keith Marshall John Reitz served two tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. He was a mechanic. 1 of 10 children, he grew up dirt poor in the city of Rochester on Genesee Street. After receiving a letter stating that the draft would reopen, and his number was next on the list, he decided to enlist so he would have his choice of assignment. He died in 2003. I was twelve years old. 

At his funeral, I remember a newspaper clipping from Stars and Stripes, the US Army paper. The title of the article was A Musical GI. It described how my grandfather, a troubadour ever since he could play the guitar, was a popular entertainer and morale booster. He taught me many of my first guitar chords. By the time he was 24, he had done two tours in Vietnam and had two young children at home. As I grew older in the years since his death, I learned that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the ghosts from the war haunted him his whole life. He was spit on by protesters when he got off the plane, and the things he had seen and done weighed heavy on him. It was an unpopular war, even for the soldiers who fought it. He ceremoniously burned his uniform out of anger towards the actions of those he fought for at home and the shame he felt that so many had died for an unfinished questionable cause.

My grandma tells a story about a motor cycle gang called "The Rebels" that used to hang around a bar called the Blue and White my grandfather used to sing in regularly. They were a group of hard sons-of-bitches that were traveling tree surgeons. They worked, drank, drank some more, and carried their debauchery on to the next place.  The story goes that one day, the Rebels decided he was so good that he should be a famous country singer. And if it was the last thing they did, they were going to get him a record deal in Nashville. After feeding him many drinks, they convinced him to get in the car and took off for the south. They made it as far as Kentucky before getting arrested and my grandfather had to hitch-hike home to my bewildered grandmother who was still waiting for him to take her to a movie. When she told me this story, it was too good not to write into a song.

Since college I've often compared myself to my grandfather. Compared to him, I haven't had that much to worry about. My job in life has been "do well in school", "get a good job", "be a kind, compassionate person", and "do what makes you happy." His was "stay alive", "get home", "provide for your wife and kids", and "figure out how to live a normal life again." To me it seems like he had to grow up a hell of a lot faster than me. I don't understand sacrifice like he did or my grandmother does. Their youth was full of trial and tribulation, horror, worry, and hard work. It took him a long time to recover from what he experienced and no one in my family is sure that he every completely did.

Before I became a teacher, my life consisted of reading books, playing the guitar, and drinking too much beer largely on my parents' dime. Even in my fourth year of teaching, I don't know if I feel like a man yet. At times I feel like I'm a grad student with a bigger budget and dog. Will it all change after I'm married with kids? Is that the mark of manliness? 

Perspective is a funny thing. I'll never know the true answer, but he may have been wondering the same thing about himself, whether its if he'll ever reconcile with Vietnam or if he he'd ever be as much of a man as his father or grandfather. It's part of coming of age I guess.

So that's the song: a tribute to an admired grandparent and a young man's meditation on becoming a man himself. 


There’s a picture of an Indian wearing a suit and tie

He had a high and tight like an army man and a sparkle in his eye

He got tired of kicking beer cans on the streets of the 585

Traded eight years to Uncle Sam to fix trucks in Vietnam


There’s a picture of an Indian with a guitar on his back

He serenaded soldiers when they were taking flak

He was featured in Stars and Stripes and awarded some medals

But the only prize that he brought home was a suitcase full of devils


What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty years old and didn’t know if you’d get home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?


There’s a story about an Indian getting drunk on whiskey

One day a gang of hardened men carried him off to Dixie

Nashville was where they would make him a star

But the only stages they put him on were the spinning stools of bars


What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty six years old when your wife said don't come home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?


All the stories they told me

At the kitchen table or fireside seat

I’m as old as you were then

And what have I done? Oh what have I done?


There’s a picture of an Indian wearing a suit and tie

He’s leaning on a pool table in the legion hall

A gentle smile brings you to the sparkle in his eye

Despite everything that he’d seen he never let it die


What do I know about sacrifice? About Hard times?

You were twenty years old and didn’t know if you’d get home

How long did it take you to finally feel like a man?