Sunset bison

Sunset bison
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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The right way of living

The sun burned bright and hot on the brittle grass and sang in the cottonwoods shading the sluggish Pecos River.


“There’s nothing left,” the ranger said.


We looked through the glass door at a gravel footpath meandering toward a small mound of stones. Each stone was distinct and different in hue and texture and was carried from sacred homelands far away. Each, perhaps, a representation of a people who were starved into submission, herded like wild animals and starved again under the guise of Manifest Destiny. Beyond the mound was a grassy clearing.


We had come looking for the ruins of Fort Sumner. What we found instead was Bosque Redondo, a memorial to the Navajo and Mescalero Apache who were imprisoned during the Civil War. The Navajo were forced to march through winter cold for hundreds of miles; they call it, simply, the Long Walk. Those who survived were kept in squalid conditions, provided meager food rations and housing that consisted of burrows scraped in the soil and covered with branches and hides. In the succeeding five years a third of the people died. The Apaches escaped in 1865, dispersing into the high plains of north-eastern New Mexico. Soldiers were ordered to find them and slaughter every male. Women and girls were to be brought back in chains. What this meant, of course, was that most of them were gunned down where they were found.


The ranger said Native Americans often brought stones or trinkets to add to the pile. One young man asked if he could leave his Purple Heart. He didn’t need it anymore, he said.


The ranger, a middle-aged woman, looked somber. For a moment I thought she would choke up, but finally reined in her emotions with a visible effort.


“It brings tears to my eyes,” she said, “but sometimes we have to send our loved ones to foreign countries and wage war to bring them Christianity and teach them the right way of living. And sometimes they get terribly hurt or killed.”


The three of us stared through the glass. Butterflies skipped from flower to flower. A few lazy clouds dragged themselves lazily through the turquoise sky.


I didn’t know what to say. Her words were so shocking I felt dizzy. That she meant it in all seriousness, and in this place of sorrow and remembrance—this place where the American people did the most vile and reprehensible things to the native population in order to bring them “Christianity and the right way of living”—was an affront. That she couldn’t make the connection was unfathomable.


I thought of the Iraqi man who held up bloodied hands to an AP photographer after a car bomb blew his family to bits, screaming, “You call this freedom? This is hell!”


I wanted to ask her if Jesus’ message of love and salvation was most fruitful when attached to napalm, bunker-busters and .50-caliber bullets. I wanted to ask her what gives one people the right to claim their way of life divinely inspired to the point of exclusion, expulsion or vanquish.


Lori eyed me stonily. Don’t.


“There’s nothing left?” I asked. “Not even the traces of a wall?”


She shook her head. “Nothing.”


Maybe it’s for the best. Erase it, wipe the earth clean of all its traces. Only the senseless tragedy remains, and a brooding presence.


I couldn’t shake the “right way of living” comment. Couldn’t wrap my head around it. Nor could I provide with any clarity a single reason why I shouldn’t point out the fallacies of her reasoning. Not that it would do any good, I knew. Discourse would only create conflict and strife. But silence in the face of misguided patriotism, religious intolerance and xenophobic superciliousness seemed no more than a grudging acquiescence. By not speaking out I tacitly agreed with her. And I most certainly did not agree.


We pushed through the door leading to the memorial.


“Would you like a trail guide?” she asked brightly.


“No thanks.”


We walked the path to a boardwalk that led into the bosque. Past the first scrim of cottonwoods and Russian olives a narrow platform overlooked the Pecos River whose waters I consider holy. Standing there in the dappled shade I tried letting its current wash away the anger and bitterness I felt but it could not. No birds sang nor called out. The place was silent except for the buzzy drone of cicadas.


Returning to the path, we walked past the stone memorial to the clearing. The ranger was right, there wasn’t even an impression in the dirt. Without a diagram of where the fort stood in relation to the river it was impossible to get our bearings, but imagination carried the weight of our thoughts forward so that for a moment we could see ourselves standing at the exact spot where in 1881 Pat Garrett killed William Bonny, also known as El Chivato, Henry Antrim, Billy the Kid.


My great-great uncle, Josiah “Doc” Scurlock, rode with the Kid during the Lincoln County wars. When it was obvious that defeat was all but assured, Scurlock accepted Governor Lew Wallace’s amnesty and departed the territory, settling in Eastland, Texas, where he became a dentist. I’ve seen his signature in the Lincoln County Courthouse, written while incarcerated. In later photographs he was skinny as a rail, sported a furry mustache half-obscuring his mouth, wore small round spectacles and always looked slightly amused. In many of them he faced away from the camera as the shutter snapped, an oblique and withdrawn figure staring into the distance as if seeing something no one else could see.


There was nothing here. No traces, no connections, real or imagined, only an emptiness that hinted at wounds too deep and raw to forget. I wasn’t sure what I had come for, what had drawn me to this place, but whatever it was had led me astray.


Or maybe not. Maybe the lesson was in learning, at last, the right way of living. Silence in the face of fallacious convictions and perverted righteousness only perpetuates the notion of singularity. These are not the times to be silent.


And yet I remained silent. On the way back to the car I stopped at the visitor center and bought a new biography of the Kid. The ranger and I exchanged pleasantries while she tendered my change. By the time I reached the car I felt despicable, as guilty as the soldiers who watched the atrocity unfolding at Bosque Redondo and did nothing at all to stop it.


7 comments:

Jenni said...

Horrible acts have been committed throughout history in the name of religion. Not just Christianity, either, but since I am a Christian, and I know what the Bible says, those are the acts I find most appalling. How can anyone justify bringing "the right way of living" to someone else by force? Wasn't it God who created man with free will? He could have created us all to automatically love and obey Him, but He wanted us to have the choice to do so. What right do we have to force our beliefs on anyone else and try to take what God has given away?

As for the current war, I don't know what's right. At first I thought it was necessary for the protection of our own nation. Then I began to doubt if that was really so and whether we were really accomplishing anything over there or if it would all go to hell again as soon as we left. Now I want the war to end and our troops to come home, but perhaps that's a selfish desire on my part since my son is serving in Afghanistan.

Since Caleb was deployed, I have been reading up on Afghanistan. I feel like I should know more about it so I can have more form more informed opinions about what role we should have, if any, over there. It seems the people of Afghanistan are as divided and confused on that matter as my own thoughts are. Reading accounts of the atrocities committed by the Taliban against their own people and the oppression of the Muslim extremists, I feel nothing but compassion for these people who have suffered so much, through the hands of so many even before Taliban rule. Isn't freeing them from that evil a noble thing to do? But is that really what we're trying to do? Or will we try to force our own ideologies and agenda on them, becoming only the latest in a string of oppressors? I'm more confused than ever. I don't know what the best course of action to take is. But I do know I can pray for our country and for our troops serving overseas. And I also pray for the people of Afghanistan and the entire region, that they can be free of poverty and oppression and violence, and also free to choose.

Jenni said...

Horrible acts have been committed throughout history in the name of religion. Not just Christianity, either, but since I am a Christian, and I know what the Bible says, those are the acts I find most appalling. How can anyone justify bringing "the right way of living" to someone else by force? Wasn't it God who created man with free will? He could have created us all to automatically love and obey Him, but He wanted us to have the choice to do so. What right do we have to force our beliefs on anyone else and try to take what God has given away?

As for the current war, I don't know what's right. At first I thought it was necessary for the protection of our own nation. Then I began to doubt if that was really so and whether we were really accomplishing anything over there or if it would all go to hell again as soon as we left. Now I want the war to end and our troops to come home, but perhaps that's a selfish desire on my part since my son is serving in Afghanistan.

Since Caleb was deployed, I have been reading up on Afghanistan. I feel like I should know more about it so I can have more form more informed opinions about what role we should have, if any, over there. It seems the people of Afghanistan are as divided and confused on that matter as my own thoughts are. Reading accounts of the atrocities committed by the Taliban against their own people and the oppression of the Muslim extremists, I feel nothing but compassion for these people who have suffered so much, through the hands of so many even before Taliban rule. Isn't freeing them from that evil a noble thing to do? But is that really what we're trying to do? Or will we try to force our own ideologies and agenda on them, becoming only the latest in a string of oppressors? I'm more confused than ever. I don't know what the best course of action to take is. But I do know I can pray for our country and for our troops serving overseas. And I also pray for the people of Afghanistan and the entire region, that they can be free of poverty and oppression and violence, and also free to choose.

tom said...

Jenni -- Thanks for your honesty. I was opposed to the war with Iraq because it was obvious then and more obvious now that the whole thing was a lie foisted on us by Prez Bush and his evil cohort Cheney. Afghanistan was where our target should have been.
But, as they say, times change. Afghanistan should be either left to rot or bombed to ashes, but either way we should pull out and wish them the best of luck. Their freedom is going to come from themselves or not at all. And if we're there to help them from the Taliban, then where do we stop? Africa, parts of Indonesia, we could wage war on just about every nation if we want to do away with oppression.
I no longer believe America is the world's cop. I don't think we can afford it nor do I think the return is worth the investment. Our sons and daughters are worth more alive than anything in those flea-bitten countries.
Here's wishing your son a safe and speedy return.

Bill & Vikki said...

Wow. Your writing is so powerful! I have to say, I agree with you. I have an extremely hard time understanding people like this ranger. What a great piece. I have, also, always wanted to visit Fort Sumner because of Doc. How sad that nothing is left. But, as you said, perhaps it's for the best.

tom said...

Vikki -- It's always refreshing to hear from you. There was so little left of the fort that the only images I managed were of the stone memorial, the main building and a butterfly I saw that was new to me. Sad, but maybe appropriate.

Scott said...

Extremely well done Tom. I hope everyone that reads this stops and thinks about the issue of "the right way of living" and what it means to force someone to live your viewpoint of "the right way of living."

Jenni said...

I think I've pretty much come to the same conclusion as stated in the second paragraph of your response. I recently read a book called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Rellinger. I agree with the idea presented in the book that we can do more to promote peace and discourage terrorism through humanitarian efforts than through military action.