Thursday, February 12, 2009

Shadow of the whistlepig

It’s sobering to realize thirty years too late that the man you once thought you were was actually someone else. Three decades might seem a prolonged gestation period for self-discovery but some things take time or even occasionally require a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge from an outside source, however unlikely. In my case it was the finale to the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz’s book, Woven Stone, which explains the discovery of uranium near Grants, New Mexico, and the concomitant degradation to the lives of the area’s Native American and Hispanic residents, the dewatered creeks, ponds and polluted waterways, the implicit and rampant racism that ultimately reduced the local Acoma and Laguna people to a subclass of cheap labor and means of oppression through alcohol and employment conditions that left workers maimed, dead or riddled with cancer. “The American political-economic system was mainly interested in control and exploitation,” Ortiz writes, “and it didn’t matter how it was achieved.” I hadn’t expected to find myself within those pages but there I was, if only between the lines, a crepuscular if insignificant bit player identifiable to none but myself. In short, I was a hired goon, or gun, if you prefer.

Our lives cast shadows far beyond the length of our mortal spans. In some ways this is no more than the typical domino effect where a stationary object put into motion creates motion across a wider domain, or the law of physics which states that for every action there is a reaction. But to what do we ascribe the radiance behind those shadows that touch our lives years, decades, or generations beyond their genesis? 

Shadows have been on my mind of late, both of the physical and metaphorical variety. A new cell tower to the south of our home splits the night with its ranks of blinding strobes painting ghostly silhouettes against the windows, a story I’d written a year ago resurfaces and stirs emotions I’d thought hidden, I find out my actions in Grants were part of the problem and not the solution as I’d believed, and now comes word that Punxsutawney Phil sighted his shadow on the morning of Candlemas Day and another six weeks of winter is assured.

Personally, I’m ready for a recount on all charges. But like the example of falling dominoes, some things can be changed and some can’t, which leaves us the unenviable position of either accepting our newfound prone positions with blind acquiescence or to seek to determine the course of events and to discover a way to live fully within our new topography. As an aside or potential alternate course of action, and as any psychologist will admit, denial also has its pluses.

While I’m not going to deny Phil his glory, I will say that he’s been upstaged in various parts of the country. Indeed, had our own whistlepig (whom we’ll call Flint Hills Fred) showed his muzzle around these parts on the morning of the 2nd, we would have had a 50-50 chance at an early spring, if, of course, one lends credence to such foolishness. Predictions from other groundhogs around the county showed mixed results, with one in Georgia foretelling the end of winter and another in Canada, of all places, announcing the opposite. Both conclusions are entirely plausible if not, well, predictable. In a fit of rage over the effrontery of being rousted from hibernation, Staten Island Chuck, another soothsaying member of the marmot family, bit New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the hand, an act which left meteorologists baffled, Bloomberg’s hand bloody and other groundhogs cheering.

Sometimes we’re unwitting bystanders to our own destinies. Back in 1972 I was a guard at the Kerr-McGee mines outside of Grants, doing my part to keep striking union members from destroying the two remaining mines in production. That I failed to do my job, and that they succeeded so dramatically, wasn’t nearly as important as the manner in which I handled myself, it turned out. Looking back on it with my blinders removed, it’s clear that any reasonable man would have joined the mutineers in setting the dynamite, however transient the results ultimately proved. 

What conditions or demands led to the strike was never explained to the uniformed and armed misfits brought in to hold them at bay. In that climate it’s doubtful questions were even sanctioned. At any rate, most of the guards I met wanted nothing more than to be left alone, and in that they had washed up at the right location. Living quarters were squalid and cramped, work conditions brutal, hours long, and social time consisted of a six-pack and a room stripped of everything but a bed, table and chair, small dresser and a few pinups tacked to the peeling wall, plus whatever demons drove you to such a farflung outpost. And hanging over us all, or at least those whom I discussed it with, was the very real question of how we would handle trouble when, and if, it came. 

We thought we were the rule of law, standing for truth, justice and the American way. In fact, we were hired to intimidate, frighten and bully the workers whose lands and ways of life had been raped. 

It’s a shadow that suddenly darkens my past. But shadows, as Punxsutawney Phil knows, are cast by light, and light is the essence of rejuvenation and renewal. Stepping outside, I see reddish buds swelling the tops of the elms, green shoots rising from the irises, emerging insects and ragged formations of geese wending north, and hearing the meadowlark’s fluid, crystalline notes remind myself of the promise of a spring that will come in its own time, but which will come, of that there’s not a shadow of a doubt.

1 comment:

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

"Flint Hills Fred," huh?!

Positive mention of the Flint Hills always gets my attention! Thanks!
So happy it brought me to your site. Hope you and your readers visit regularly.

Our 22 county Flint Hills Tourism Coalition, Inc. promotes visits to the Kansas Flint Hills – the website is:

Best wishes!
Dr. Bill ;-)
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