Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
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.
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.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The autumnal world in motion
Reimagining the past
Monday, September 27, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Dilemma at Ceja Pelon Mesa
Sunset caught us on the worst washboard road I’d ever encountered, the truck juddering in kidney-busting, sideways lurches and the sun a hot poker jabbing us in the eyes. Our instructions were vague at best but that was the least of our concerns; most troublesome was the fact that two biligaana were searching Navajo lands for a small house encircled with a fence and two red cars in the yard, and so far we’d only stirred up rez dogs and the distrust of the local populace, none of whom offered assistance, directions or empathy for one of their own in distress. Nevertheless we pushed on, knowing only that if we came to a church we’d gone too far, and the sun touching the rim of the world a sudden eclipse before slipping away leaving traces of fire like portents in the western sky.
About that time or shortly thereafter our parents phoned the state highway patrol to ask if any wrecks were reported on the road from Albuquerque to Cuba. As Lori would later giggle, “You guys are in sooo much trouble,” proving that no matter how old we get we are always sons and daughters and subject to recriminations.
Since Reece’s cell phone was dead—something of a joke between us brothers as he’d lauded the fact of its inclusion during the long miles of our hike through the stone forest of Ceja Pelon Mesa and the badlands surrounding the escarpment, until it was needed, that is, at which time it became evident that it was as dead as the petrified wood we walked on—we had no way of knowing this. All we really knew was that the hike had taken a toll, lasted too long, that we were now trying to find a house that seemed impossible to find, and that we were very tired, very hungry and very thirsty.
The sun’s abrupt absence allowed our eyes to adjust to the terrain. The road ascended a short rise topped by the silhouette of a metal building that could only be the church. Between the church and the last house we’d visited was a lone narrow lane cutting southward through stunted sagebrush toward a house bordered by a wire fence. Two red cars were parked in a yard cropped short by a white horse and patrolled by a black cat. No sign of fangs.
“That’s gotta be it,” I said.
Nobody was home. We sat there weighing our options as light faded. A Navajo man had asked us to notify his wife that he’d run out of gas, saying only that he was with a young man who was subject to seizures and therefore couldn’t accompany us. No name or address, not that an address would have done much good for none of the houses were marked by any identifier other than by the variety and number of rusted hulks littering the premises. I wrote a note and slipped it into the door but there was no guarantee anybody would see it in the dark.
The far ridge of Ceja Pelon glowed in dusk’s ethereal afterlight, a luminance rising from the land itself. Not a bird sang nor flew through the gathering darkness, not a mammal scurrying nor a breath of air. In the distance the twin headlights of a vehicle glinted on the paved road from Cuba to points westward, its passage soundless as if only imagined. The front windows of the house were open and we could see the faint outlines of an old couch and chair, the corner of a table. The yard consisted of packed dirt with scattered clumps of native grass the horse fed on. It utterly ignored us as had a Navajo man riding a bike much too small for his frame and a woman out jogging. Here we were on foreign soil and knew ourselves as outsiders, and also knew that we were intently watched even in the vast empty spaces between hogans and homes.
The engine ticked as it cooled.
“What now?” Reece asked.
The eternal moral quandary. What, indeed, was the limit of our responsibility? We had done all that the man had asked and more; I had even offered to stay with the crippled vehicle while my brother drove the man to his house. But I could easily imagine the wife coming home, opening the door and the note fluttering away without her notice, and the man and his ward alone on the high desert as the moon silvered the sage and the temperature plummeted. At 6800 feet elevation, in mid-September, heat escapes like so much gas, and already there was a crispness to the air.
Our options, as I explained, were all bad. We could return to the man, notify him of the empty house and offer to drive to Cuba for fuel, a roundtrip of about 40 miles, most of which were on rutted roads. We could wait longer, though by now our stomachs were threatening mutiny and restaurants in Cuba closed early, nor would there be another place to eat for 90 miles. And if we waited, how long should we wait? I tried putting myself in his shoes to weigh how resourceful or persistent I would want him to be if our roles were reversed but the exercise generated more questions than answers. Neither of us were comfortable leaving but staying was counterproductive to our own needs.
There was a chance another vehicle would come along and rescue him. The idea was plausible but far from reassuring.
“Why is it,” I asked, “that we rarely have easy decisions? Why does everything have to be so damned difficult?”
Reece merely grunted. And so for a while we waited while dusk deepened and the fiery clouds burned to ash, and then we left. Just past the church was a narrow path leading to the paved highway, which we took to save time and wear and tear on the truck. There wasn’t much to say though we both felt torn. By the time we reached the main road the mesa was in shadow and the first stars peering out.