Thursday, November 24, 2005

Saved by the Bell

One hot summer afternoon, I sat on the porch of Blue Mountain Trading Post, swatting flies, telling lies and swigging Snapple Iced Tea with Ezra Begay, an activity that had become one of my favorite past times. Ezra lived a mile or so down the narrow, two lane highway that led south to Bluff; at the Fred and Audrey Halliday place. He, and his sweetheart Sarah, inhabited a small blue house on the Halliday farm, and were responsible for ensuring that the farm's equipment and outbuildings remained free of undesirable varmints and critters. The Hallidays lived in town and had previously employed Ezra as a laborer. Ezra, however, was past the heavy lifting phase, and was enjoying the life of an easygoing agricultural caretaker.

Ezra and I first met in 1976, when my family opened Blue Mountain Trading Post, which was located about halfway between the Halliday farm and Blanding. Earlier in the year I had begun noticing this thin, slightly bent and stately Navajo man hoofing it up and down the highway on a regular basis. Sarah would trail along behind her man in typical Navajo fashion. As Sarah's bones and joints began to stiffen, I noticed them walking together less and less. Ezra, on the other hand, never slowed down. After I had gotten to know Ezra, he often told me that he was used to walking and enjoyed it a great deal. One hot, dry day Ezra stopped into the trading post and asked for a glass of water to moisten his parched throat and check out the new business. That was the beginning of our friendship.

Rather than just give him water, I did him one better and gave him a bottle of the Snapple Iced Tea we kept in a small refrigerator behind the counter. I liked Ezra instantly; his voice was slightly cracked and he spoke in the manner Navajo people often reserve for Anglos. I later discovered that Ezra had been a Navajo Code Talker in World War II, and spoke rather fluent English when he wished. He seemed to get a kick out of replacing his P's with B's, and using a heavy nasal twang when he spoke to "pink folks". As we became more familiar, we would speak broken English to one another and laugh out loud.

Historical time frames have always given me trouble, and the one thing I do remember is that I don't remember dates very well. I believe Ezra and I were perched on that porch sometime in the early 1980's, maybe July or August. This would have been just before Ezra became ill, moved back to his family in Kayenta and died. Anyway, there we sat visiting about his overseas adventures and the conflicts he found between military culture and his own traditional beliefs. About then, a large, dented Chevy conversion van pulled up, and a small, grizzled old gentleman popped out and scooted up on the concrete next to us.

It was apparent Ezra was not impressed with this bandy rooster, because he downed the remainder of his iced tea and excused himself, informing me that Sarah was waiting at home for him. As Ezra exited the porch, he shot me a look of distrust and headed down the highway. I thought about that look as I focused on the man standing with his face to the glass, hands shading his eyes, studying the interior of the store through the large picture window. The old boy removed himself from the pane of glass, sat down and focused his gaze on me. He began asking questions about who I was, how long I had been there, whether I owned the place and the source of water for the building. His last question threw me a little bit, so I asked what water had to do with anything.

The little troll-like character shot a stream of tobacco juice out onto the graveled parking lot, narrowed his eyes and squinted in my direction. "I'm a witcher," he stated with a cocky air of satisfaction. The statement struck me as extremely funny. Not being able to help myself, I snorted with laughter and asked him if he was a warlock; like the ones on "Bewitched." He was not amused! "I have witched more sweet water wells in this country than any man alive," he said with disdain. "I learned the art from my granddaddy in Oklahoma, and if there is water down there I can find it."

I explained to the man that we were on a well, and that it was tainted with iron. We used the well for everything but drinking water, because it was nasty and intolerable to the human palate. The man smirked and said there was good water below us, he could sense it. My opinion of him, and his senses, thus far was that they were both running contrary to the natural order. "Mister Twister" must have noticed my look of disbelief, because he jumped out of his seat and said, "I will prove it to you boy!"

Jogging to the back of his van, the ornery old cuss threw open the doors and began talking to himself and rummaging around for something. The side windows of the van were tinted, so I could not see what was going on back there. It did not take long before the man re-emerged from the hidden interior of the van with the tools of his trade. He was carrying a white plastic hardhat and what can only be described as a "witcher". It was a metal bar approximately 3/8" in diameter. It had once been about five feet in length but, was now bent in half, with both ends flared out at 45 degree angles. It looked very much like a metal Y.

When the man displayed his headgear, I asked him why he needed a hardhat. He said that, for some unknown reason, the witchin' rod worked in reverse for him. Instead of being drawn down to point out water, the end of his tool would be thrown violently upward and to the rear, causing it to make extreme contact with the top of his head. I looked incredulously at the little magician, thinking he must have taken one too many blows to the noodle before he figured out he needed protection.

After the short safety lesson, the man donned his bumper guard, grasped the "witchin rod" with his palms upward and elbows bent inward, almost touching, and positioned himself on the north side of the trading post. He stood briefly in that position, concentrating, and then, as if in a trance, began a counterclockwise rotation. Just as the man's inner compass found the northwest corner of our property, facing downhill and away from the trading post, the "witchin rod" jumped up and smacked our hero squarely on the head. Another snort escaped my nasal passages, and tears of amusement began trickling down my cheeks.

My family will be the first to tell you that I am a born skeptic; I do not believe in anything I cannot see, touch or taste. Taking anything on faith is extremely hard for me. I was thoroughly amused and intrigued by the antics of my new acquaintance, and began to follow him away from the front of the trading post. Every so often, the metal rod would reach out and touch the crown of his plastic encased head and redirect him towards our goal of "sweet water". It was very funny. We were nearly a hundred yards down slope when the comic character and I heard sleigh bells tinkle.

Spinning on my heels, I sprinted back towards the trading post, cussing at myself for not heeding Ezra's warning look and my own skeptic nature. Luckily for me I had attached a set of sleigh bells inside the store's screen door. Dad brought the bells home from an auction he had attended, and I thought they would make an excellent early warning device to let me know when someone entered the store. I was much younger then, and could move fairly quickly. I rounded the corner of the porch and came face to face with a female duplicate of the "Pied Piper" I had so recently been following.

The little troll-like woman was frozen in time, with the door that had given her away held slightly ajar and a look of alarm on her face. By this time I was angry; angry at being led down the garden path and angry that these two con artists had almost accomplished their goal. I could hear the man coming up behind me and turned on him with a glare and an oath. He looked past me and gave his woman a look of resignation. She dropped the door, turned back to the van and they both loaded up and drove away.

Breathing hard and still upset, I realized there was nothing I could do because no crime had been committed; just a near miss and an exaggerated feeling of stupidity. The next day Ezra stopped by on his way to town and asked about the man he had left me with on the porch. I told him the story, which he thought was extremely comical. From that point on, whenever Ezra would see me he would smile broadly, rub the top of his head in a circular motion, moistly press his tongue to the roof of his mouth, click it and exhale. That is one of the ways a Navajo might express pain and suffering.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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