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Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
"No, really!"

My Favorite Bit of Paper Cup Philosophy

The Way I See It #76

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On the Glorious 4th, A Story of Some Americans

I moved to Las Vegas 35 years ago today. My god. Oh, certainly, I went away for about 22 years between that first residency and the current one, but it can't be denied that I have a long history here. I don't care for the place much. Not the first time and not now. Yet, recently, when a friend commented that I have the luxury of portable income and would I consider relocating somewhere that more suited me, I pondered that and said, "No, I don't think so. Not now."

Last evening I went to a birthday gathering at a local restaurant. I was not enthusiastic about any part of this enterprise. Unlike my old, drinking self, however, I worked out my resentments ahead of time and was able to arrive with a smile, a gift in hand, an appetite and a readiness to enjoy whatever came my way. I was seated so that I could see out through the broad expanse of plate glass windows, looking south. Earlier this week, running errands on various days, I noticed cloud formations that made me realize the monsoon will soon be upon us, that cloudy, humid stretch that mingles with the 100+-degree days just to make summer fairly insufferable. Yes, the storms do ease the humidity for a few minutes. Oh, we get booming thunderstorms with remarkable shows of lightning and sometimes serious flooding in the streets. Our valley is shaped like a large bowl lying on its side. I live on the downside where all liquid ends up when too much of it is applied to the desert floor. Sitting at the table in the diner, I saw the clouds finally form something serious after teasing us all day. I'd been hit with 7 or so raindrops on my windshield earlier - just enough to annoy. The winds kicked up and a few splats hit the windows. "Storm coming," everyone muttered. And then it began in earnest.

Leaving the eatery, running through actual rain now, I grinned at my friend, "You don't want to see me in a rainstorm, Girlie. All that crap I use to give my hair that just-rolled-out-of-the-sack look starts running down my forehead and neck. It's pretty bad!" We laughed, leaped gratefully into our chariot and I drove us into the mouth of hell. The storm got worse by the minute, the road and the sky taking on the same color, water hammering us. The gutters and storm drains were immediately overtaxed, deep water snaking across all lanes of the boulevard. The windshield wipers did little to improve conditions and I observed, "I can't see shit." "I noticed that," Jenn replied. I toyed with the notion of pulling over, but I feared we would be washed downstream. "Keep moving, slowly, with lights," is the advice I've always been given. We became awfully quiet for a duo as communicative as we usually are together and I finally deposited her in her driveway, watching her run up the hill with her go-box from the party and her Bath & Body Works haul we'd made earlier. "Text me when you get home. I don't mean to sound like your mother!," she hollered. "Will do!"

"Well, driving uphill ought to be better," I foolishly surmised. "And it's only 3 miles." Yow. I have never maneuvered a car or anything else through such conditions. The sidespray, when I finally thought "screw it" and drove right down the middle of the road, shot high above the roof of the car. Chunks of tree limbs washed up onto the hood, the wipers yelped "Uncle!" and I was pretty concerned about the evident strain of the monster mobile to work uphill against the torrent. As I passed through intersections, the screaming wind T-boned me, actually causing the car to sway. Had I been in my Nissan, I may have ended up in a ditch. I remembered that July of 1976, which was also tremendously stormy. It had taken Ex about a week to make friends to join in the bars at night, so I was home alone quite a lot. Once, at 2:00 a.m., I called my mother to come and collect me, terrified at the thunderstorm that shook the timbers of our home. I was 23. The memories washed over me now. With my most recent progress in AA, the continual working of my program, I have had some pleasant and poignant recollections about him and I've even managed some forgiveness for Ex.

In connection with a project I've recently embraced, I have been doing some research. The general subject is acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity which leads, often, to stories about past discrimination and bad treatment of some classes of human beings.This is material that draws me, deeply. I was appalled to learn that I am nearly completely ignorant about the struggles of some of the world's populace. Oh, I grew up in that O'Farrell clan hearing about the oppression of the Irish by the British and I certainly didn't miss any of the U.S. Civil Rights movement that played out right under my nose during my teens and early adulthood. Beyond our borders, though, I am unschooled. But there is a group of indigenous people I have learned about - just a little.

When Ex and I were very young and had just set up housekeeping, I began - at his request - weekly letter-writing with his grandmother on the reservation in Sacaton, Arizona. Ex's parents were young and modern-minded Pima Indians who worked hard to get off the reservation, and though their life was not good in the mean streets of L.A., at least they were "off". Those of us who are not natives and are not induced to live on a reservation, even if no longer forced, may not understand the drive to "get off". Ex and his siblings had never visited Arizona and knew little about their culture. They did know they were full-blooded Indians and that made them rare, if not "special". They'd all grown up being mistaken for Mexican, very common in southern California, and saying to people, apologetically, "Sorry, I don't speak Spanish." I learned from the encyclopedia and shared with Ex that his people were the Akimel O'odham, "river people", who subsisted by farming, hunting and gathering, though they are largely know for their expertise in textiles and for the production of intricately beautiful hand-woven baskets and woven cloth. It is thought the name "Pima" came from the natives' frequent invocation "pi mac" to European settlers. "Pi mac" means "I don't know". They didn't understand the language of the "visitors".

Ex knew that, though tiny, his tribe had a hero to brag about - one Ira Hayes. Hayes was born in Sacaton in 1923 and was said to be a shy, sensitive and quiet young man - almost "distant" - who read at a very young age and easily mastered the English language that escaped many of the Pima. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Ira set his sights on becoming a United States Marine. After the War, the much-decorated corporal was often portrayed in art and film, for he became an American icon on Iwo Jima when he and 5 other Marines planted the U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945. His return to civilian life, though he was revered and much-celebrated, was troubled.  Asked by a reporter how he liked the pomp and circumstance after President Eisenhower declared Hayes a hero, he hung his head and said, "I don't." Attempting to return to a normal civilian life, Hayes racked up 52 arrests for public drunkenness and spoke often of his "good buddies who were better men and wouldn't be returning". He  was found dead, choked on his own blood and vomit in January, 1955. He had just turned 32, and died of alcoholism and exposure.

I knew a bit about the Ira Hayes story, and had seen pictures of him, but researching last week, I saw a photo that took my breath away. It would seem to be the type of picture taken when a recruit graduates from boot camp. I'd never seen this photo before. It looks so much like Ex at a similar age that I burst into tears and they slid slowly down my face for a long, long time. Ira lacks only the long braids worn by the young man in 1971. Ex wanted to enter the Marines like his tribal and American hero. I was a war protester and convinced him otherwise. Today, just for today, I am rethinking that. Maybe . . . Despite their physical resemblance, Ex was not related to Ira Hayes, as far as we know. If the family had any claim to those bragging rights, I'm sure we would have heard it at some time. Nevertheless, in a population so tiny that six degrees of separation is likely reduced to two degrees, I am reflecting today on some of the tragedy and pathos that befell these two men who tried to assimilate and never completely succeeded, despite their mighty efforts.

I asked Ex early in our time together why his last name (which would also become mine) was so English-sounding. He had been taught that if one's name looked something like this "daghim 'o 'ab wu:saƱhim"   and you were the census taker on the newly established reservation, you might also say, "Yep, sounds like Smith to me."  Would the reader join me in a tip of the hat to some Americans who may not seem so very American?

In my ears right now and I'd be pleased if it was in your ears, too:

Blog post dedicated to the memory of Anthony Curtis Goodwin


  1. A fine tribute to Ira Hayes, Anthony Curtis Goodwin and to yourself for having the courage to make this journey.

  2. @ Mike ~ I do thank you, Sir. This was a tough one with a good payoff. I feel good about it. It was the best I could do with what I had at the moment. And I'll sleep well tonight.

  3. I'm pretty cynical these days and because I have little regard for American culture and politics I often wish some sort of magic ticket to an isolated corner of the world to live away from the madness. Then I hear about real American heroes like Ira Hayes and my perspective is restored for at least a short time.

  4. @ BeachBum ~ Oh, yeah, friend. I'm as cynical as it gets. My well of feeling for these Pima men goes to how hard they worked [you don't know my ex-husband's story, but trust me, please] to get away from where "we" insisted they exist, to come out and be productive, only to land back at the feet of King Alcohol. Though Ira was a hero, it seems, my story is less about his military performance than about the tragedy of a damned people.

  5. All I ever knew about the Pima Indians I learned in grad school. I can't even remember why we learned about them, other than for some reason, that group of people in particular were at high risk of both alcoholism and diabetes. It is sad that is true, but impressive when one stands up and fights for our country so fiercely. Well, impressive when anyone does that, but in particular when there are other obstacles to overcome.

  6. Ira Hayes was portrayed by Tony Curtis in a not-bad movie about his life made in the 1960s.

    I'm of the understanding that reservations are considered "sovereign" territory . Yes, Indians were forced to live there, but as a way of hanging on to that sovereignty. That's what Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and all the other Indian wars were about. Before the arrival of Europeans, all of what's now the United States was considered sovereign territory, at least by the Indians themselves if not the Europeans. Those reservations are now all they have left. Ever since the 1920s, Indians have had a kind of dual citizenry. They're both American citizens and citizens of their tribes and the reservations those tribes live on. I'm telling you all this to point out some Indians WANT to live on those reservations. To leave is to give up that sovereignty. Obviously, they may prosper more off a reservation, which is why many do leave. I'd probably leave a reservation myself were I an Indian, but I can understand and respect those who do stay.

  7. @ CramCake ~ As I understand it, the predisposition to alcoholism affects all indigenous peoples in North America. I've heard it is due to the very recent (relatively) introduction of alcohol, brought by European and other explorers.

    PBS did a marvelous piece about the Pimas who have the world's highest incidence of diabetes and related conditions. That was likely your grad school focus. The small hospital on the reservation has a world class kidney dialysis center for such a small group of people.

  8. @ Kirk ~ Hayes was portrayed in a few films, as I understand it and portrayed himself alongside John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima.

    As usual in such matters, Kirk, you have a really good grasp of the reasons and details for things and I think you do about the double-edged-sword kind of decisions some Americans face. To my understanding, now in the days of Indian gambling, many more people want to remain on the reservations than in the past. When Ex's parents left, some years following WWII, there was no such incentive to stay. Their annual checks for water rights were shrinking as the U.S. government planted less and less cotton, there were no jobs to be found and social programs were not abundant. What a tough call to make! I know this: I never heard Ex or his siblings say even once that they wanted to live on the reservation or even go see it.

    If you look at Ex's name in my original post, you'll know who his mother's favorite actor was.

  9. Oh, I didn't even notice that.