Friday, March 31, 2017

Mental Imprints

There are circumstances in my life that for one reason or another have clearly imprinted themselves on my mind; they reappear like a Polaroid photograph in reverse. At times, I receive a flash from the past as clear as a picture print. Unlike many memories which slowly fade, eventually dissipating like a wisp of smoke, something about these circumstances forbid me to forget them. Certain smells, actions, sights or sounds bring back those memories with the impact of a punch in the gut.

One of the clearest instances of this occurrence is the time I snatched a box of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda from the unattended back door of Bob Howell's mini mercantile. This happened in Bluff a long time ago, when I was too young to know better and too foolish to understand the ramifications of my misdeed. I had absolutely no use for the product, but the opportunity presented itself and I seized it. When I arrived home with a brand new, unopened box of this handy dandy product, my parents became immediately suspicious and soon unraveled the mystery of its appearance.

Not only was I appropriately punished for my indiscretion, I was also forced to return the booty to Mr. Howell and give him a full explanation of how it had come into my possession. From that day forward, the trademark I perceived to be "Thor's buff bicep and thunder thumper," has symbolized truth and honesty to me. Arm and Hammer also works well for indigestion, which reminds me of pain and suffering, which reminds me of deceit and humiliation, which reminds me of trust and virtue. A complicated chain of emotion to be sure, but an effective metaphor.

A more pleasant mental imprint emerges when I experience vertigo. My initial memory of this feeling was formed when I first spotted my future wife as I spun around an indoor roller rink. I was so impressed that I fell in behind her to get a better look at her . . . technique. I became a bit dizzy spiraling around the hardwood floor and keeping my eye on the prize. Flashes of light from the disco ball, high volume reverberations of 70's rock and roll and her Levi's 501 jeans caused me to experience a fatal attraction. After speaking with her, the deal was sealed; beauty and brains in the same package were too much to resist, and I was hooked. Whenever I see that woman, I become weak in the knees, light-headed and altogether messed up.

Our three kids also cause these flashbacks. When I see a young woman expecting a child, I relive my children's emergence into this world; the depth of love and emotion I have for them washes over me. When I smell baby lotion, see children laughing and playing or hear a Disney tune, I envision precious moments of their young lives.

The color pink, a sharp wit, body casts and volleyballs make me think of Alyssa. With McKale, it is homemade gift cards, wild flowers, sage green eyes and quirky smiles. The sound a basketball makes on hardwood floors, a bat connecting with a baseball, blue eyes, mud baths and, unfortunately, blood on my hands conjure up images of Spenser. The mental imprints are clearly visible, powerful and emotionally charged.

In the trading post I am privileged to work with family, friends and a menagerie of uniquely creative artists that effectively alter my memory patterns. The smells of sumac, sheep wool and juniper cause past interactions to leap into my thoughts. The feel of mohair, the texture of baskets or a sliver from a juniper sculpture conjure up specific mental pictures from my past. The taste of such things as mutton stew, salted fry bread, pinion gum and even Bluff's red dirt cause me instant replays of memorable moments of long ago.

I am not exactly sure why and how these mental imprints are possible, but they are very real for me. I am often surprised by the clarity of the visual recall I experience and the intensity of smell, taste and emotion that revisits my senses. These moments mean a great deal to me. I am hopeful my mental capacity does not fail and coat these occurrences with layers of mind-boggling dust, impeding my recall with concentrations of sticky, aggravating cobwebs. If I can keep my virtual reality system up and running, I hope to add more of these precious moments to my somewhat overloaded hard drive.

Friday, March 24, 2017


It was the summer of 1971 and the Simpson family was living in a mobile home behind what was then the Plateau filling station on the south of Blanding. Woody, our paternal grandfather, was working in Cisco, Colorado, clearing brush for the Nielson brothers.

Craig, Barry and I ran the service station, pumping gas, checking oil, repairing punctured tires, washing windows and drinking Pepsi Cola. At eleven, twelve and thirteen years of age, we were fully in charge. When one of us had a ball game or other important event, the others would sub in. If for some reason we were all gone at once, Rose and Duke took over.

Woody, whose name was actually Woodrow Wilson Simpson, was a handyman's handyman. When it came to welding, driving a Caterpillar tractor or repairing a pick-up truck, there was none better. At times it seemed he could design, build or repair anything. As for catskinning, it was said that Woody could level land so well water would run in either direction. Many testified they had personally witnessed this landscaping miracle.

After a week’s work in Cisco, Woody would often stop by the filling station to say hello and have a soda. On one particular occasion, he came home a few days early. Upon pulling his Ford into one of the fueling bays, he reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a gunny sack full of squirming, chattering critters. “What’s that?” we shouted. “Coons,” he proudly proclaimed.

Apparently Woody had found a nest of kits. Their mother had either abandoned them or been run over during the clearing campaign, so Woody, being a lover of all animals great and small, decided to adopt the whole bunch. As it turned out, they were more than he could handle at his camp trailer, so he was intent on farming them out to his family and friends. We were an intended recipient. After considerable discussion, Rose and Duke consented and we became the proud owners of a baby raccoon. Never known for our creativity, we named him “Bandit.”

Since our home had only two bedrooms, every night Craig, Barry and I rolled out sleeping bags and slept on the living room floor. When he was small, Bandit would crawl inside the bags and sleep at our feet. As Bandit progressed into full grown maturity, we realized our sleeping arrangements would have to change. While building a run to confine him, we put a dog house out in the yard and staked Bandit to a chain, which was in line with the custom of the time. Every morning Bandit would exit his new abode and pace back and forth on his chain, eventually wearing a semicircular path in front of his new dwelling.

During his tenure in the house, Bandit had developed a fondness for the yellow tabby cat we called Tigger. That’s right, T-I-double Ga-Er. Tigger, on the other hand, realizing there was no future in the relationship, had no love for Bandit and consequently avoided him at all cost.

Noting that Bandit’s mobility had been circumscribed, Tigger began sitting just outside the perimeter of Bandit’s walking path, licking her paws and tempting him with her considerable charm. That drove Bandit crazy, and he tried every conceivable trick to reach the feline. It was, however, no use, the cat always stayed just beyond Bandit’s reach.

One morning we looked out the kitchen window to see how Bandit was getting on and noticed he no longer paced at the end of his chain. Instead, he had withdrawn a few feet and was pacing a short path back and forth. It was clear the cat, was about to make a grave miscalculation.

Assuming Bandit was, as always, at the end of his rope, Tigger strolled out and sat down; just inside the worn semicircle. Bandit continued to pace until the cat began preening. Sensing Tigger was not paying attention to her surroundings, Bandit streaked out, scooped up the cat and held it like one lover holds another. Tigger, too startled to howl, spit or scratch, wilted in Bandit’s arms.

Unfortunately Bandit was also shocked by his success, and after momentarily holding the cat firmly to his breast decided he did not know what to do with his captive. All those months of anticipation had given way to an uneasy climax and unattainable circumstances. With no other alternative, and knowing he would never hold her again, Bandit gently released his captive. Surely his heart was heavy as the cat scampered to safety.

When the trading post is slow or work difficult, and I start wishing for something different, I often think of Bandit and wonder what I would do if I actually got what I desired.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Founders Day Festival

The small community of Bluff, Utah, is deceptive. What seems like a sleepy little town of 255 people is actually a beehive of activity, creativity and possibilities. When Susie and I moved back here eight months ago, it was with the idea of going into semi-retirement and enjoying the opportunity to work again with the creative artists of the Four Corners. In reality, there has been scarcely a quiet moment, mainly because someone keeps thinking of something new.

This time it was Barry who came up with the notion of holding an annual Founders Day to celebrate the arrival of those hearty Mormon pioneers who reached the banks of the San Juan River on April 8, 1880. After reading accounts of the original missionary party that made a nearly impossible journey known as the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition he began talking with some of the early promoters of the Bluff Fort. This skillful recreation of the original settlement was built in Bluff to educate the public on the settlers’ accomplishments.

The elders of Bluff Fort recognized the potential of creating a homecoming celebration to invite the descendants of the pioneer LDS families to gather. As Barry talked to other Bluffoons (our affectionate term for ourselves in Bluff), people suggested the celebration should be expanded to include the original residents of the area, the Ute and Navajo descendants who still call Bluff home.

It was agreed that early April was both historically accurate, and a chance to kick off the busy tourist season in style. By April, all the local restaurants and motels have reopened after their winter hiatus. 

I am Rick Bell, and I have spent most of my life as a historian and museum consultant in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is the home of the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby. It is a commonly held belief that the success of the Derby these past 143 years is that it is “the right race, at the right place, at the right time.” Timing is everything, and the potential of Bluff’s first annual Founders Day held in early spring began a community conversation.

A volunteer committee met to talk about ways to create a true celebration of native and pioneer heritage, and soon the ideas began to flow. At one point, I rather flippantly suggested that Twin Rocks conduct a “Guinness Book of World Records” event to establish the frybread-eating champion of the world. While the folks at Guinness will have to wait, we have created a grand program of Frybread Speed Eating, Cook-off and the much-anticipated Frybread Fling (a test of skill and aerodynamics to solve the question of who can throw a piece of frybread the greatest distance). Bags of Blue Bird Flour and other considerations are offered as prizes.

What began as Barry’s original idea continues to grow. Founders Day events will start at 10 a.m. with the Bluff Street Parade, with elders of the Navajo, Ute and Mormon communities serving as Parade Grand Marshals. Daylong activities at Bluff Fort will feature demonstrations of traditional crafts and family reunions at the pioneer cabins. Meanwhile, a wagon will circulate around town offering tours and commentary on the distinctive stone pioneer homes of Bluff.

Upstairs at the Bluff Fort Coop will be the site of an art exhibition sponsored by the San Juan School District. At the nearby St. Christopher’s Mission, an open house and homecoming is being offered by this irreplaceable local institution. Food vendors from around the region have been invited to set up stands near Bluff Fort to serve their favorite recipes.

At the conclusion of the parade at noon, the White Mesa Ute community will conduct a traditional Bear Dance in an open area just west of Twin Rocks Trading Post. Members of the audience are invited to join in the dancing. At Bluff Elementary School, Navajo students and elders will tell stories and conduct a Song-and-Dance.

The Frybread Festival, held on the porches of Twin Rocks Trading Post and CafĂ©, will be the centerpiece of the afternoon activities. In the evening, the Business Owners of Bluff (the BOBs) will sponsor an evening movie presentation at the Bluff Community Center. “More than Frybread” is a satirical mockumentary on a mythical national frybread competition. Once again, life imitates art.

The best thing about the Founders Day festival is it all came together so easily, with each group taking charge of their own activities and budgets. Also, every event during the festival is offered free to the public. Come on down.

The greatest irony is that Barry, the originator of the Founders/Frybread festival, will not be here to attend. April 8 is also Barry’s birthday, and many months ago, Laurie had secured tickets to see “The Lion King” in Salt Lake City. Since this is the best theatrical presentation I have ever seen, I strongly urged him to go and enjoy himself.
Hakuna Matata, Barry, Hakuna Matata.