Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

The Other Side of the Story

What happens when the hero doesn't come out better for the obstacle they overcame? A look at the tragic end of Oliver Sipple, who went from national hero to pariah before dying alone at 47.

The Other Side of the Story
Photo by Samuel Branch / Unsplash

So much of what I write are happy-ending stories. Which is ironic, considering those have never been the stories that I’ve most enjoyed listening to or reading in books. Ask my wife. For years, until she grew used to my idiosyncrasies, every movie night I rattled off suggestions she rejected one after another, until she’d finally stop me and say: Why does everything you like have to make you feel depressed?

I don’t think they’re depressing, I’d tell her. They’re real—and real life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, sweetheart.

But she made a fair point. I do, especially as the days grow darker and colder in the wintertime, have a predilection for what I prefer to call deep-think stories: the ones, when you watch them in the movie theater, that leave you sitting quietly through the closing credits, maybe with your eyes closed, maybe in tears.

This started, most likely, my junior year of high school when Mr. Sweeney had us read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in his English class (along with just about any other famous American book or play from the first half of the 20th century: The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Our Town, Waiting for Godot, The Catcher in The Rye). There was something about the portraits of human brokenness Anderson painted in Winesburg, Ohio that just felt, to me, relatable. I was an angsty kid in a blue-collar town coming of age between 9/11 and the Great Recession. Like Springsteen when he wrote about leaving Vietnam-era Jersey, I didn’t need to be convinced we were all varying levels of messed up. That life was more likely to punch you in the gut and leave you catching your breath on a grease-puddle backroad than it was to hand you a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

My senior year of college, Dr. Hauser also had us read a few stories from Winesburg, Ohio in his literature class. Afterward, I wrote an essay comparing the themes Anderson explored with the ones Ernest Hemingway did in his own short story collection, In Our Time, published six years after Anderson’s, in 1925. The stories in both of those collections are dark. They explore lost faith, war, mental health, loneliness, and untimely and tragic death. If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, you know Hemingway’s parents weren’t very happy with their son’s chosen subject matter. Life is wonderful, they argued. Why not focus on all the good in the world instead of all the bad? In a letter to his father in 1925, Hemingway defended his approach:

“I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across. Not to just depict life or criticize it, but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way.”

In some of my past behind-the-words stories, I've explained how the hero's journey is used in books, movies, music, and most forms of art and media to evoke a positive emotional response in the reader. Most hero's journey stories we're familiar with have happy endings. The stories I write for the university, or which I've written in my career, have happy endings. These are nonfiction pieces, often profiles. I'm talking to people who made it out on the other side of the obstacle they encountered.

But, while they often fascinate me, these aren’t the stories I’m most drawn to when I’m looking to understand humanity, what connects me most closely to my neighbor.

Last month, I picked up a used copy of Arrival at McKay's. That movie is a hero's journey story, though its ending isn’t a happy one. Another film I enjoy, Drive, is a variation of that narrative. The tragic hero's story: in it, the good guy isn’t all that good, but he still defeats the bad guy, though that costs him the girl and any chance he has at happiness. Early in Silver Lining's Playbook, Bradley Cooper's character has a breakdown after finishing Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, a favorite high school reading list book. In some ways a love story between a soldier and his nurse, the book could’ve ended with Frederic and Catherine, pregnant, living happily and quietly in their wooden house in the French mountains. Instead, Hemingway has Catherine give birth to a stillborn baby then hemorrhage and die on the operating table. The book’s last lines are these: “I had got [the nurses] out and shut the door and turned off the light, and it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

In early October, I was listening to the Radiolab podcast while hitting the punching bag at the gym. It was an episode from 2017 about Oliver Sipple, a name I hadn’t heard of before. Sipple was 33 years old, a former U.S. Marine who fought and was injured in Vietnam. On September 22, 1975, he was among a crowd gathered outside of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, when a woman pulled out a gun and shot at Gerald Ford but missed. Before she could fire a second time, Sipple dove toward her and grabbed her arm, potentially saving the president’s life. He held her until police grabbed her. In the press afterward, he was labelled a national hero.

In a traditional hero’s journey, his story would’ve ended right there. Man puts life at risk to save another man’s life. But, like Hemingway said to his father, most stories don’t end that cleanly. If they did, we wouldn’t believe them.

Sipple was overwhelmed by the subsequent media attention, though he wasn’t interested in doing interviews. In a fervor to find out what they could about him, journalist Herb Caen was tipped off by local politician Harvey Milk that Sipple was gay. And he was. But, even though he was living out of the closet in San Francisco, Sipple hadn’t told any of his family in Detroit about his lifestyle; they were a traditional, blue-collar family, and he knew the trouble it could cause for them and him. Despite this, Caen outed Sipple, and the national news picked up the story. It destroyed Sipple’s life. When he called home, his mother hung up on him. His family refused to take his calls. In distress, he wrote President Ford a kind and serious letter, asking that he help him. An excerpt from Sipple's letter reads:

“Mr. President, it is a very hard thing to have your mother and family not want to have any contact with you. I know that your schedule is heavily occupied, but I respectfully request that you take the time to see my family or at least call my family. The telephone number is...I love my family, and I do not want to be separated from their love and companionship. Your help will be gratefully appreciated. Respectfully, Oliver W. Sipple.”

To defend himself and argue his privacy be respected, Sipple retained a lawyer, who organized a press conference for him. In that press conference, Sipple read a statement to the media:

“I believe in human life and I think that this country stands for human values...including life and freedom. I am first and foremost a human being who enjoys and respects life, but I feel that I...that I feel that a person's worth is determined by how he or she responds to the world in which they live, not on how or what or with whom a private life is shared.”

Ford never did call or write to his family. Sipple’s father, an auto plant worker, refused to acknowledge him afterward and closed him off from the family. He prevented his son from attending his own mother’s funeral. Many in the gay community in San Francisco also blackballed Sipple, claiming he attempted to go back in the closet during a time when they were dying fighting for their rights. If he refused to be a gay hero, Sipple would be no hero at all.

In his despair, Sipple turned to the bottle. For the next decade, he spent most of the disability check he got from being hurt in the war in bars. He gained weight, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and eventually died alone at the age of 47. His body was discovered by Wayne Friday, one of his few friends. A former police commissioner and pillar in San Francisco’s gay community, Friday gave an interview before his death in 2016 where he reflected on what happened to Sipple. Radiolab hired actor Gordon Pinsent to read a transcript from the interview, and I highly recommend you listen to the audio starting at 55:00.

Here are a few excerpts from that interview detailing Sipple's last days, his death and funeral:

After this thing with Ford, it really fucked his mind up. Sipple was a broken guy after that. The whole thing worked him. The publicity of it all and the fact that everyone knew he was a faggot, you know. He said to me a couple times, “I went to the Marine Corps and I got hurt. And now what I am known for? For being a faggot.” And I'd say, no, you're not. You're known for saving the president's life. You won't be known for what you did in bed, for Christ's sake. But he would get drunk and he'd start bemoaning that. I'd sit there in the bar with him, and I'd talk to him about it. Hey, man, it is what it is. But he was just—he was just—down to nothing...
I remember it was raining. It was pouring fucking rain. Bruce called me at my office over at the DA's office and said, “Wayne, will you do a well being check on Sipple for me?” And I said, why? And he said, “Nobody's seen the dude. He hasn't been around for a while.” So we go out there together, and it was raining, and I'm ringing the bell, ringing the bell, ring...he doesn't answer. I notice on his door, there were these little stick 'em things, post-its. And he'd befriended this little old lady who lived next door, they kind of looked after each other. And she'd left all these little notes. Bill, call me. I can't get a hold of you. So I rang the manager's bell, and it was a little Filipino guy. I showed him my badge and I said, you've got to let me in. And so he did. And the door opened...and I knew what was going on. It's the smell. It's the smell you never forget. It's a sickening, sweet smell. Bill was sitting in the chair. He was bloated. He was bloated out real big. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels sitting there, and the television was still on. The coroner told me he'd been dead about ten days, as near as they could figure. God, I didn't know he was only 47. I thought he was older than that. Anyway. I got the guy to open the door for me. And the minute he did, I said, close it. And then I had to stand there and wait for the coroner.
I remember it was over here at the Campbell Funeral Home on Market Street. And then we buried him out in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. And I remember it was, it was very small. The casket wasn't opened. The funeral was just, I mean—there were more media there than anything else. I've seen him buy drinks for more people than were at that funeral. He could have been buried in Arlington if they'd made an issue out of it. I mean, shit, there he was, this national icon, a gay whatever, and...there were just a few people out there for the funeral.

Like my grandpa taught me, sometimes there’s no need for commentary. You make your own call on what you see and hear. Suffice it to say, not every story has to end well to make you feel something. There’s sides to every story. And it’s good, sometimes, to take a moment to peek on the other side. You may find something more real there. Something more human.

Listen to the full episode about Oliver Sipple from Radiolab:

Oliver Sipple | Radiolab | WNYC Studios
In a flash of heroism and humanity, Oliver Sipple saved a life and became something he never wanted to be. 

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Jamie Larson