Tuesday, July 23, 2002

My Life As a Leaf

The other day I was thumbing through the latest issue of Southwestern Art magazine when I noticed an advertisement for a bronze sculpture. The sculpture looked interesting, so I paused to have a closer look. The ad showed three men sitting beneath a monumental bronze of a canoe, with Daniel Boone in the bow and a Native American man paddling in the stern. The ad included the following text, “Near the end of his life, Daniel Boone was quoted as saying, ‘My life was like a leaf on a stream.’” I nearly shouted out loud, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s my saying.”

Many years ago, I decided that I had very little control over my fate, and that the title of my autobiography, should it ever merit writing, would be, My Life As A Leaf. The title refers to the feeling that my life has generally taken a course similar to that of a leaf which has fallen into a stream. I am carried along by this uncontrollable force, which sends me tumbling over rocks, swirling in eddies and bouncing from shore to shore, with no ability to stop or even slow the process. It didn’t take long to realize that Dan must have had the thought before I did. Well, okay, it took a little longer than I care to admit, but I eventually arrived at the appropriate conclusion.

I often feel the pull of the current as I go about my daily routine, trying to convince myself that I have some measure of control over what happens. The pull reminds me that I actually have no authority at all. That point was reinforced late one evening as I jogged along the Bluff bench road and had a large truck fly past me. Since the road is narrow, the truck came fairly close and I began thinking how lucky I was to have avoided a collision with that large mass of steal and rubber. Almost immediately after my close encounter, I noticed a stinkbug with his back side sticking up in the air.

The truck had obviously affected the bug as well. In response, it simply stuck its fanny in the air; apparently thinking that the truck would notice and be sure to leave it alone. I am confident that I have engaged in similarly vain attempts to protect myself against forces that are about to impact me. Although I generally don’t stick my rear in the air, like my friend the stinkbug, I have often failed to understand the magnitude of things that have just entered my life.

One such thing was making the decision to move back to Utah. At the time, I had no idea that I was destined to become an “Indian trader” in Bluff. That was one of those parts of the stream that sent me uncontrollably tumbling and swirling for a long time. Having grown up in this area, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on its land and people. In fact, I had none. As it turned out, it is the people of this land who have had the greatest impact on me.

On many occasions these people of the Desert Southwest have shown me new and unexpected ways to look at things. When my daughter Dacia was young, my Hopi friend Stewart periodically invited us to the kachina dances at Moenkopi. I tried to accept Stewart’s hospitality whenever possible, and would take Dacia, a bag of flour and a box of oranges to the ceremonies.

On our first kachina adventure, Dacia and I got up early and arrived at the old village about sunrise for the bean dance. Stewart ushered us into his grandmother’s home to meet the family. His grandmother was of advanced age, as was the village. The Hopi villages are some of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States, and are a testament to the tenacity of the Hopi people. Stewart’s grandmother lived in a single room, with a wood burning stove in the center and the table, bed and other furnishing neatly placed around the interior. When I stepped into the room, I immediately noticed that there was no running water, and no bathroom facilities. Poverty, was my first thought. A short while later Stewart took us outside and showed us a tree with a metal pipe sticking out of it. Water flowed freely from the pipe. It appeared that the tube had been stuck into a spring and that over many years the tree had grown around the outlet. Stewart, however, explained that the tree was the village’s water source, and that although he was unsure how it worked, he and the other members of the community were happy to have the water giving tree.

We returned to his grandmother’s home for the start of the ceremony, and I began to notice more about the people and the structure. I realized that this little room was built of love, and had virtually everything the old woman needed. I noticed melons under the bed, and a curtain hung for those moments when she needed privacy. I also noticed that the woman’s children and grandchildren exuded love and tenderness for her. I began to see that my initial evaluation had been terribly wrong, and that this woman lived in a state of extreme wealth; wealth that we as part of the Anglo culture frequently fail to understand in our quest to accumulate more and more material things.

As the dance began, one of Stewart’s aunts asked to hold Dacia. I of course agreed, because I sensed the kindness and gentleness in the family. Dacia looked a little concerned as she sat there watching the mudheads spill out of the kiva. I reassured her that everything was okay, and she snuggled down into the woman’s lap. I believe that is as content and happy as I have ever seen her. As the dance progressed, I remember feeling the warmth of the old woman’s family around me. I also remember feeling that I had stepped back in time a century or two, and was experiencing something important, something large.

The flow in that part of my stream was cool, comfortable and serene, and I felt fully satisfied as I bobbed along. It was then that I realized just how happy you can be with a few melons under the bed and a family to care for you. I knew that something significant had passed overhead that I didn’t fully understand; much like the truck passing over the stinkbug.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Eternal Struggles, or Canine Reasoning

Sitting in a sweltering high school gymnasium during the recent fourth of July celebration was turning into a truly uncomfortable lesson in patience and stamina. The gym was cramped and crowded, and the seats were hard, so I was having a tough time sitting still. As I observed two young women boxers wailing away at each other in the center ring, a bead of sweat formed, then rolled off the end of my nose onto the bleacher seat in front of me. It just missed my son Spenser. I observed him watching the "battling babes" and noticed a look of dismay on his face. I said to him, "It's not a pretty sight when women fight, is it?" He shook his head in disbelief, then gave me a questioning look when I told him that it was even uglier when a woman thrashed a man. As understanding set in, Spenser's eyes rolled upwards. He turned back to watch the fight, choosing to ignore me rather than chance another lesson in male/female relationships.

After losing my son's attention, I focused on the next set of combatants; two strong young men who beat each other about the head and shoulders for three rounds. When the war ended they staggered together, hugged and patted one another on the back as if all was well with the world. In one case, respect had been gained by force, in the other humility had come with a beating. I guess what my wife says about men and boys is true, "To teach 'em anything worth knowing you first have to hit them between the eyes with a 2 x 4, just to get their attention." My mind began to wander back to the trading post, and I remembered what my dear friend had said to me the day before.

"What are you guys still doing here in Bluff? You must be gluttons for punishment! It is hot and dry, you work long hours for little pay and you are missing out on all the action a city can offer. If you were putting all this time and effort into a business anywhere else, you guys would be millionaires." As I mulled over what my friend had so eloquently and longwindedly said, I knew that he was partially right. I also knew that he would not accept the truth in its simplicity, which was that this is a chosen exile. This business and lifestyle are what we love. It is as much a part of us as we are of it. The idea of abandoning Bluff and Twin Rocks Trading Post is not even an option. Although there are those fellow Bluffoons who would happily provide a generous going away bash should we decide to depart, we are here for the duration.

I looked my friend up and down as he awaited an answer. I cleared my throat, hitched up my drawers and told him a story. When we were children growing up in Bluff, there was a big old dog that would come visit our home about once a month. He was friendly, lovable and affectionate. This adorable mutt would hang around for a few days as we pampered him with love and spoiled him with leftovers. Before we tired of playing with and indulging our canine friend, he would leave us for an unknown destination. We looked forward to that dog's visits with great anticipation, and worried about his well being until we saw him again. For years the dog would show up with regularity, and irregularly when he needed medical attention such as porcupine quill removal. He seemed to have an affinity for porcupines. I guess he knew the consequences and the cure. We found out later that we were not the only family this gallivanting critter cozied up to. It seems that the dog had a string of contacts that took care of him wherever he chose to settle for a while. The point is that the dog chose to live this way, and when you understood his lifestyle, it didn't seem half bad. His routine had been established, his comfort zone was being maintained and he was perfectly happy.

The sound of a bell brought me back to the fights. I heard the announcer "Don Palmer King" say that they were looking for a two hundred pounder to fight their reigning champion, "Scoot Something-or-other". It seems no one was courageous enough to take on this masher of lesser men. I stood up and began to make my way to the ring. I would show this Goliath what a forty something feller from just North of the Navajo Reservation was made of. Why I had grown up in the sticker bushes, sharp rocks and scorching heat of Bluff, Utah. I sparred daily with a wiry, fast as lightning female and had held up well so far. I could surely take on this foolish youth, and teach him a thing or two in the meantime. From out of nowhere came my 80 year old father-in-law and my 13 year old son. They easily escorted me out of the building and down the street. "Why, you two saved that boy a real whoppin', " said I. Grandpa Clem mumbled something about wondering if I thought I could survive a collision with a Mac truck, and Spenser began an "Illusions of Grandeur" speech. Maybe there would be a fight after all; I think that I could take them both.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Melvin and the Orange Shirts

Today is the first time in my almost forty-four years that I have experienced a genuine panic attack. No, it wasn’t caused by an adverse business cycle or a terrorist threat, it was something much more fundamental; Melvin has changed his routine. Lately I have weathered the bad economy, the war, the peace, the slow tourist season, fugitives from the law, hanta virus, and a variety of other disasters, but I sure wasn’t prepared for this.

Melvin in his orange shirt.

The trading post is really just a large fish bowl, and Barry and I swim around in it almost every day, peering through the eight large windows that look out on the town of Bluff, and watching the world go spinning by. For thirteen years I have been at the trading post, and during that time, there has been one, and only one, thing that I can count on, day after day, year after year. That one thing was that Melvin would be poking around his yard, fixing whatever needed to be repaired and always, always, wearing his orange shirts.

The trading post is oriented to capture the winter sun, and Melvin’s property is just south of the store. So, from the day this place opened, my view has been directly into Melvin’s yard. I have known and been friends with Melvin and his wife, Betty, for as long as I can remember. They were residents of Bluff when Rose and Duke delivered me here in the winter of 1959, and they have remained in the same location ever since. Their children are my friends. Some of my earliest recollections are of Melvin and Betty, and my memories of the trading post are directly tied to Melvin wandering around his yard in those orange shirts.

As is the case with many small towns, the residents of Bluff are fractious. We fight all the time, but stand together whenever somebody needs help. I believe it’s a little like a large dysfunctional family; we argue about everything, but Heaven help the outsider who threatens our internal security.

When Kira was just a few days old, the trading post caught fire, and I was amazed to see the entire town here helping put out the blaze and carrying our possessions to safety. At least I think they were carrying those things to safety. From that time to this, I have not worried much about the quarreling, since I realized at that moment it is a necessary part of the town’s character.

Melvin, however, is never contentious; never controversial. He is respected by everyone, and is a little like that old E.F. Hutton commercial; when he talks, people listen. I think he is the most universally well liked person I have ever known.

Melvin & Betty's place, just across from Twin Rocks Trading Post.

I estimate that Melvin must be in his early 70s, because he retired from the Utah Department of Transportation several years ago. It is his work with UDOT that accounts for the orange shirts. For what was probably 30 years he and his crew were directly responsible for building and maintaining the roads in our part of the country. The orange clothing kept him visible and safe through all that time. Apparently the shirts became so much a part of him during his working career that he simply kept wearing them when he retired. I have often thought it must have taxed Betty to keep him in those shirts, but somehow they have managed.

He is tall, well over six feet, thin, and slightly stooped as a result of a bad back caused by many years of hard work. He is exceptionally talented with machinery and anything mechanical. In fact, I think he is capable of building and fixing almost anything. Some of the things he has created to solve problems on his small farm are nothing short of amazing. There is a pump mounted on a tractor chassis, an old tractor with a pipe hoist sticking out the front, and a variety of other inventions scattered about his yard.

When you talk with Melvin, you should be prepared to hear a string of adjectives that, coming from anyone else, might seem offensive. Coming from Melvin, however, they seem natural, and are not the least bit intrusive. If fact, they seem to make him more human, and have the effect of endearing him to you even more. The words are simply part of his conversation, and are as essential to him as any other word in his vocabulary.

The thing that has me worried is that I have seen him wearing a blue shirt twice this week. They were different blue shirts to be sure, one solid blue and the other checked, but definitely blue and not orange. Since I have been gone two days between the first sighting and the last, I am concerned what may have happened in my absence.

When I first noticed the change of attire, I mentioned it to his son, Billy, in the hope that Billy would speak with his father and quickly remedy the instability. Since Billy also noticed the change and had expressed concern, I thought the issue might be resolved by the time I got back home. But here it is the morning following my return from Salt Lake City and already I have spotted Melvin in another blue shirt. That’s when I started to panic. I am not sure why the one constant in my life has suddenly changed or what effect it will have on me, but I know I’m worried.

A few months ago Melvin was having what appeared to be serious health problems, and we all began to wonder what we would do if we lost him. It was truly frightening. Over time, however, we became more comfortable with the thought that everyone has to go sometime and that, if Melvin passed, we would just have to deal with the loss. None of us, however, is prepared to cope with the sea change that may result from this color variation. Dealing with nature’s natural occurrences is one thing, but this has turned our neat little world upside down.

Melvin is the lynchpin of this community; the keystone. What if these non-orange shirts signal that he is going through a rebellious phase, and what other changes are in store for us? Who will help us dig the grave when one of our community members dies, who will calm us when we quarrel about wastewater disposal or planning and zoning, and what will we do without the consistency of Melvin’s orange shirts? I am worried that the town is moving into a period of instability, which may result in civil unrest. Nothing seems sacred anymore.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, July 1, 2002

Spider Therapy?

The other day I was cleaning the glass show cases in the trading post when I noticed a spider creeping behind one of the wood carvings. Polishing the glass each morning is a part of my regular routine, and at times I find it almost therapeutic. Some people drink coffee to start their day; I clean the glass. I have been doing it so long that I can make the display cases sparkle without even thinking. There are times when I believe this makes me a good candidate for a job at Wal-Mart. In fact, every time I’m in a Wal-Mart, I find myself wondering how I would look in one of those stylish blue vests.

The Pond in Bluff, Utah by Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The spider broke my glass cleaning trance, and started me thinking about the appropriate response. In the past, I might have quickly smashed it and continued on with my job. Over the last few years, however, I have become more aware of the Navajo perspective, and find that it influences the way I respond to certain things.

Once I curbed my initial impulse to grind the spider into the glass, I began thinking about spiders in the Navajo culture. For example, Spider woman is very important to the Navajo people. She is responsible for teaching them the art of weaving, and also played a significant role in directing the hero twins, Monster Slayer and Born for Water, to their father Jo hona’ai, the bearer of the sun. Spider man taught the people to make their traditional loom, and Navajo parents often rub spider webs on the hands of their young offspring in the hope it will make the children good weavers.

As you might guess, all this tradition makes spiders extremely important to the Navajo. Therefore, one must be careful not to offend these crawly beings. Keeping that in mind, I resisted the urge to terminate the spider and went about my cleaning duties. Not five minutes later two women walked into the trading post. I continued to polish the glass as they browsed the merchandise. Outside the hot wind was gusting, and a small whirlwind began to spin across the gravel parking lot.

Despite protests from her partner, one of the women dashed outside and into the dust devil. As her hair flew in every direction, I turned to Barry and asked, “What does it mean when someone gets caught in a whirlwind?” Barry indicated that it is okay if the wind is spinning to the right, but that it’s bad luck if the whirlwind is spinning left. He also said that they can suck the life out of you if you don’t keep your mouth closed as one passes over you.

This particular dust devil was moving clockwise and, although she was smiling broadly, the woman’s mouth appeared closed. Barry and I concluded she was going to be all right. The dust devil daredevil’s companion gave us a look of concern and hastily exited the trading post, intent on helping her friend avoid additional risk.

It was at that point that I began to realize how the trading post culture had become ingrained in me. I am sure it happened slowly, gradually building up over the years, but I hadn’t really considered the extent of the accumulation. The point was driven home barely a day later, as a thunder storm moved across the valley.

The last few weeks have been extraordinarily hot in Bluff. Some visitors and residents hinted at 112 degree temperatures. My mind doesn’t work well with extreme numbers. To me it is either hot, really hot or, “Honey, grab the kids and let’s go to the pond; I can’t take this heat any more" hot. We had been in the let’s go to the pond phase for several days when the storm clouds began to roll in. In fact, we had been to the swimming pond just hours before, but that hadn’t fully cured my heat prostration.

Little by little, the clouds began to release their droplets, until it became a full blown downpour. I found myself standing on the porch with my hands raised to the sky. Jana was standing next to me wondering what I was doing with my hands in the air, and Grange was peeking out the door thinking we had both lost our minds.

As my palms became drenched with rain, I remembered the words of Stormy Reddoor, the self-proclaimed great grandson of Sitting Bull, who took me out in a storm one afternoon and said, “When the rains come, lift your hands to the sky, capture a little of the moisture, spread it on your face and give thanks.” There I was, soaking wet, rubbing the droplets on my face and giving thanks. Stormy hadn’t told me whom to thank, so I just thanked everyone.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post