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:sañhim" 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