NEDERLAND - Out on the boat he built to sail the Pacific and try to forget Vietnam's hellfire and everything he saw behind a machine gun and the world gone mad, Scott Harrison stopped beside a whale.
Two months had passed at sea. He was starting to doubt this solo "escape" he launched eight years after he fought; it had done nothing to ease his torment.
Now he looked at the whale's eye, and it looked back. It was as if the animal spoke to him:
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?" he later wrote in a journal. "You don't even know where you are going. Go back and do something good for yourself and for others."
Harrison went on to create the Carousel of Happiness, the nonprofit attraction in this quaint mountain village west of Boulder. "Don't delay joy" reads the sign outside the carousel's house, which was built by down-on-their-luck, volunteer tradespeople during the early parts of the Great Recession. It opened Memorial Day weekend 2010 and continues to annually draw about 100,000 people who pay $1 to ride every day, including holidays. Many others just come to watch.
"I've seen people weep the whole time, and they can't say why," says Burt Rashbaum, the bearded man who collects tickets.
Visitors from around the world enter through a doorway that displays the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "We have art so that we are not destroyed by the truth."
Rashbaum cranks a lever that brings a 1910 motor to life. Gears from the 1920s miraculously turn. An old military band organ plays carnival songs, and around goes the carousel, and up and down go the whimsical, hand-carved animals.
But before that, Rashbaum tells riders the story of the Vietnam vet who wanted to smile again and wanted others to smile with him. He tells how Harrison spent 26 years creating the animals.
"People always ask me, 'Is the guy who did this still alive?'" Rashbaum says to the crowd one recent afternoon. "Well, here he is! He's the guy there sitting next to the gorilla."
Harrison, 69, waves and cracks a modest grin. He still seems surprised by the carousel's popularity. It's strange to him, considering it began as such a personal project.
A dream from the ashes
It began with a music box that an 18-year-old Marine would hold to his skull between battles. The war was not what he thought it'd be as a Texas schoolboy, bored and simply wanting adventure. "When you get in combat and see people blown apart," Harrison says, "you realize the stakes are higher."
He learned that adrenaline "makes you your best animal, your best defensive or aggressive animal, but you can't keep it flowing in your system." So while comrades settled their racing hearts by looking at pictures of mothers and girlfriends, Harrison listened to Chopin from the contraption sent by his family.
"When I closed my eyes," he says, "the vision I got was a carousel in a mountain meadow, with happy people all around."
The music box stayed in Vietnam as he flew out on a stretcher. A grenade had torn a hole in his leg, but he escaped, unlike two teenaged friends near him. The pictures of Paul Christmas and Christian Langenfeld are in a memorial beside the carousel, with Harrison's words: "These two, Christian and Paul, also laugh and smile still in the hearts of many, and mine."
Though without the music box, the vision it conjured stayed with him in California. Having returned from the ocean, he started with a global human rights organization. To reverse his past of senseless killing, maybe he could try to save people.
At Amnesty International, he met the woman who would be his wife, Ellen Moore, an organic farmer and anti-war activist. For almost 30 years, they gathered reports of people being taken or tortured by their governments, and they worked to free them.
From the Rocky Mountains that they made their base in 1983, The New York Times asked Harrison how he coped with the 24/7 news of brutality. "Living in sleepy Nederland and knowing that our children are close by," he said. "Those are my own survival tactics."
But eventually, the details became too much. Every so often, through the shadows of his mind, the vision of the carousel shone.
An escape in art
And so at night, when the day's work was done and the kids were in bed, he'd carve animals in the garage he built along with the house. He'd occupy later free time by writing verses for the animals. "Gorilla / Sees your bright warm soul," reads one. "Sit, he will hold hands with you / Let the sun come in."
He'd go to the library to read silly folk tales about animals - as if a kid again, picking up his lost innocence. He'd study pictures that would influence his choices for color and expression. He'd take three to six months on each creation.
"He really, I think, tried working his way out of trauma, just by working and working so much," his wife says. "All that work, and building the house and having children, they were all ways of healing. But kind of peculiarly, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that he got involved with Veterans Helping Veterans Now."
With that Longmont-based organization, he wrote about feelings he had not yet processed. "Once you have time to think about it, this stuff comes back up as you get older," he says. "I always wondered why these World War II vets could cry over something from the 1940s, but it happens because it's still in there. So, you know, I deal with it."
So he's carving again. Now he wants to build the Council of Kindness, a quiet room in the woods where one can sit surrounded by the animals that won't be glaring, "but just looking," Harrison says, "kind of like a teddy bear for a little kid."
It is one more thing he wants to leave behind, one more thing that could guard against troubles, if only for a moment in this little, unlikely town.
"Life seems pretty complicated, both politically and in just trying to find your place in the world," Harrison says. "Even for a person my age, you still wonder, you know, what have I done with my life? Have I done enough? Hopefully, there's still a lot more to do."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332