Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Talking Snakes, Dream Machines, Miss Massey & Yo' Black Mammy

Slim Buttes, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD - Back home. Where is home, anyway? You know what it is, but how do you define it? Most would say it’s where your roots or people, or family are. This place ain’t never been home for me. ‘Refuge’ is more accurate and appropriate. ‘Home’ ain’t nothin’ but a key on my keyboard.

Returned on the same flight from Bangkok into L.A. with son, Digger, which was nice, three years after we’d flown over together for what turned out to be extended post-tsunami work, and prolonged rice diet.

After twenty-two hours in the air, and several plastic meals, I dreaded dealing with DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and wasn’t in the mood for FSA, equally nasty, thinking, ‘Those fuckers’ll probably make me miss my connecting flight again. The Chinese treat me better.’

In the past, before boarding for departure and after arrival back in the U.S., the power-tripping morons since infancy thinking they’re performing some kind of heroic American mission, rifled through all my bags, hit me with the chemical mist, and looked up my ass with their ‘Snake-o-scope’ since I popped up on their terrorist watch list, don’t ask me why. Accordingly, I didn’t bring anything that could be the least bit suspect, packing everything into one half-full carry-on backpack.

We’d learned to travel light. “Is that all you’ve got coming off an international flight?” asked the surprised Latino customs agent at LAX on a wave-through, ‘Have a nice day’, to both of us.

We laughed, saying we could’ve been smuggling a backpack full of Thai stick that some folks we knew could surely appreciate. Heading for different domestic carriers, we parted, saying we’d meet in Denver.

Unlike last year, during which time thieves sacked my home and stole EVERYTHING of value, this year everything was cool. Nothing had been disturbed, and it was only a matter of catching and cleaning up after the 16 (there was three weeks between #15 and #16, and I kept thinking, ‘It’s gotta be an even number’) mice who had taken up residence during my prolonged absence.

I opened a bag in long-term storage, and there was a momma mouse, jumping up in surprise and running with her babies hanging off her teats, something I’d never seen before.

‘Hang on everybody. We’re outta here!’ she must’ve said. One let go. Must’ve been the runt of the litter. Didn’t stand a chance. Wasn’t in the cards.

Apart from the disposal of the mice, I saw a snake, a bull snake, quite large…this long……making his way underneath the outhouse, which I was unable to prevent, trying to block his transit with a shovel, and now must warn everyone before use; ‘There’s a snake living out there,’ I tell them.

‘Don’t kill me, I’m ok,’ the thought-form in his black eyes said, serious, looking right at me, sixth sense, hesitating, rising, identifying himself, checking out the shovel in my hands with a flick of his tongue. ‘I’m a bull snake. I kill rattlers,’ he said.

It was the last comment that prevented me from chopping off his head, but I still tried to prevent him going under the shithouse, which he seemed intent to do, and which he accomplished despite my ineffective blocking maneuvers.

People usually don’t stay out there too long. It’s NOT the place you’d want to hang out with a magazine. Strange, though, that nobody has asked, ‘Is it a rattler?’ like, no need to, right? like, any snake under the outhouse isn’t a good thing, right?

I picture him curled up in a dry corner. And there’s a rabbit, who lives under the house.

“I’ve got a bunny rabbit,” I told Tom, sitting here at the table, gripping a coffee cup. “Came right up to me the other day.”

“Hungrier than hell,” Tom laughed, speaking as the rabbit, “Got anything to eat?”

Besides the telepathic snake and the rabbit, a blackish cat appeared just before sunrise the other morning, much to my surprise, and as soon as I made the least jiggling of the storm door handle, he shot like a rocket underneath the trailer like a set of eyes or the light of day should never fall upon him. That explains the missing mice bodies. And there’s mocking birds around who at night mimic the sounds of all the other birds, in addition to cell phones and a dump truck, backing up.

We were sitting around the timber frame down at the base farm, swatting flies with a couple of the Red Cloud nephews, Marcus and Ted, awaiting the arrival of a photographic team from Nat. Geographic doing something on kids and nutrition.

A photo op in the garden, where Marcus and Ted had been working. Bo and Misty’s kids were coming over for the shoot.

“It doesn’t count as a confirmed kill unless you can produce the remains of the deceased,” I told the two teenagers, showing them the body of a fly on the swatter. “Same same Snoopy and the Red Baron.”

“DFS”, commented Tom, lying prone on the couch in the middle of a dog nap.

“DFS?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“Dead For Sure,” he replied. “Same same Elvis.”


We went down to ‘Fur Trade Days’, the Nebraska panhandle’s big July celebration with the parade, carnival rides, corn on the cob, Kiwanis Club grilled burgers, music, buffalo chip throwing contest and all, but had to leave precipitously after I yelled out, in the practiced manner of an experienced ‘Carny’ or ballpark peanuts and popcorn vendor, “GET YOUR GIRL A SNOOPY DOG! GET YOUR MONKEY HERE!” behind the greasy Toss-A-Ball game of chance guy who had a pack of Marlboros rolled up onto his shoulder under a dirty T-shirt sleeve, and was leaning over his counter on his forearms, trying to mesmerize a couple of gum-chewing teenie boppers.

Knock three puppets off the rack with the softballs and you get a top shelf prize – the Snoopy dog or a monkey. He turned his head very slowly, and when he saw the big grin splashed across my face and Tom laughing, he produced the nastiest drop dead look I’d ever seen. It gave me the chills.


In a Nebraska summer parade, you’re going to see some tractors. By God, there’s a ’32 Ferguson!

“Look! A Ferguson!” I shouted.

“That’s one of the old Fergusons. 1932. That was before Massa Ferguson met Miss Massey. Massa Ferguson brought Miss Massey up to Loo Avul (Louisville, KY) from Mo’ Beel, Alabama. Befo’ that, it was the Ferguson Tracta Company. After that, the company come to be known as, ‘Massey Ferguson’. And that’s because Miss Massey had her OWN damn money!

“And Massa Ferguson said to Miss Massey all whiney an’ down in his drops, ‘Miss Massey, “F’ come befo’ ‘M’ in the dictionaire.’ And Miss Massey come back wit, ‘It sho' 'nuf do, but that’s the ONLIEST place where it do.’ Annat wuzzat. And we used to get chicken behine the Big House on Sunday nights, and now alls we gets slops. Mizzmazzie wuz mean.

“Yazzuh, when Miss Massey come on board, wudden just the name of the company changed. Everthang changed. And I mean, EVERTHANG.”

Takes about a minute, fifteen, maybe twenty seconds, including the anticipated pauses behind the laugh lines. It worked well on the reservation, where a lot of Indians are racist toward blacks and whites and Mexicans, but I’m not sure about an off-the-rez audience or a combat zone.

Like poor but effective advertising, it doesn’t necessarily have to be good to be remembered. People remember some of the stupidest shit. You know what I’m talking about, like the shit Manny used to say that I can’t get out of my head decades later, although some of it was philosophical. But the point is, for the audience to never again look at a Massey Ferguson tractor without recalling Miss Massey.

The dumb, ignorant, pre-liberation, pre-Malcolm 1950s yazza massa fieldnigga jokes don’t work so well among politically correct and socially sophisticated people anymore, except among select audiences, like maybe, senate chambers.

Uncle Tom jokes work well with a contemporary black audience nearly everywhere but the Supreme Court, and the ‘uppity nigga’ jokes work pretty well with most whites, especially in the south, on talk radio, among evangelical Christians, right-wing republicans, New York, W. Virginia, Idaho, the Washington Beltway, and a large swath of the Billy Bob Bible Belt. Approval ratings in the upper 90 percentile.

I used to like the way Manny could work a crowd. Christ, he’d have ‘em in his pocket even before he spoke a word, using silence like a master orator. “Is simple,” he used to say. “Is either in the gards, or is not in the gards. Is a lot like fate…how you say it?...Garma.”

“What’s my karma say, Manny?” I asked. “What’s in the cards for me?”

“You see a crystal fucking ball?” he asked, like a drill sergeant to a basic training recruit, giving me that serious, hard-ass, sideways glance he had. “How should I know?” he continued. “What I DO know,” he continued, “is, you depend too much on luck. But you haff to, since you got little to no actual inborn, God-given talent. You gonna haff to work, Bic.”

“Shit, Manny,” I said. “Can’t you tell me something good? Did you shuffle the cards?”

“What you want me to do?” he fired back. “Lie to you? Feed you some line a BULLshit? You haven’t got what it takes to be the top. Your dad did, but you don’t. You gonna have to work!”

Well. You can imagine how that felt. I tried. I stayed on for a while longer at the monastery, with the rigors and discipline of the diet and everything…rice and chicken broth every fucking day…prisoners eat better…but in the end, I couldn’t stay away from dice with the senior abbot, slushies at Seven Eleven, and the Bad Crowd, found myself up in front of a judge, and…well…the rest is history. This was back in the ‘60s.

Manny had prophesized it. “You can hear the man say, ‘Ladies and gentlemens, introducing the next gonna be champion’….or…you can hear the man say, ‘All Rise’.

“Don’t say that shit, Manny,” I told him. “You’re gonna make it come true. Haven’t you heard of ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’?”

“Come true, no come true. Is UP to you,” he said.

Huh? Oh. Well…five to fifteen. Judge gave me five to fifteen. Said, “Considering the nature of your crimes, you can do your time in the state penitentiary, or you can take your chances in the ‘Nam.”

And I said, “That’s easy, Your Honor. I’ll take my chances in the fucking ‘Nam.”

Aiiiiiieeeeeee. She jumped up and hollered, pointing at me, “DON’T…YOU…USE… language like that inmyfuckingcourtroom! Two tours!” she bellowed, shaking two fingers at me, the veins standing out on her neck and face a volcanic crimson. “TWO TOURS!”

Bailiff turned me over to the marshall, marshall turned me over to the Military Police, M.P.s took me to the ‘Nam. The rest is history.

A lot a guys went that route. Criminals and juvenile delinquents. Instead of coming back from the ‘Nam in a zip-lock body bag, all gruesome and shit in a closed-casket funeral, they could’ve done their stretch in the pen, been somebody’s bitch, got fucked up the ass, and been back on the streets a free man.


Did my time in the ‘Nam, came home eleven times decorated war vet, wounded, scarred, betrayed, despised, looked that bitch up, and burned her house down.

They ended up pinning it on a guy from North Platte by the name of Gengerbradmon who’d previously served six years hard time for 1st degree arson and two felony counts of conspiracy to commit an act against the property of a municipality, but had committed the foolish act of openly threatening the judge in court, yelling out, when asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, “I’m gonna get you some day, you bitch,” which the prosecution said was ‘the smoking gun’ in this case, along with his pyromaniacal ‘M.O.’ They’d been watching him since his release.

Plus the motive and prior conviction, he couldn’t definitively recall where he’d been on the night of the alleged incident, and…they had gas cans, and despite his hysterically swearing to God he didn’t do it, she gave him the max, my fifteen, plus another five for contemptuously offending the decorum and sanctity of the bench, staring at him over the rims of her glasses with that grim, tight-lipped, Cheney-esque, judicial, lock-down stare.

To his credit, his parole officer and the boss of the yard maintenance crew he was working with, said he was a quiet, tidy, and reliable worker, but the missing gas cans proved to be insurmountable damaging evidence that his defense counsel failed to have dismissed as circumstantial, because he routinely skipped lunch and played lunch-hour basketball with other members of the firm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the case fell on a Wednesday afternoon, so he was experiencing a metabolic swale and fleeting imagery of getting fouled while shooting a layup while falling asleep during that particular relatively important facet of the State’s case.

The accused blurted out, “Hey! Aren’t you going to fucking challenge that?” shocking his defense back to semi waking-state consciousness. “Donnie took those cans to fill up his pickup, I told you already. I’m getting railroaded here,” he said, spinning around and looking for help in the courtroom. “This is a fucking frame job.”

He was right. Everybody in that courtroom was certain he was the perp. Even without the orange jumpsuit, he looked like the perp. In church, in a suit, he would’ve looked like a perp. Guilty, 150 percent, hands down. Everyone there was sure, except for the defendant, and me, sitting near the back.

Strangely reminiscent of my own case a few years earlier, after sentencing, the judge looked down at the file, then said, “Mr. Ginger Bread Man, I’m going to let you decide. You can serve your time in the State penitentiary, or you can serve your time in Vietnam.”

“That’s ‘Gengerbradmon’, said the defendant, correcting the judge. Then he said, "I’m gonna get you, you bi…” but stopped himself just in time from getting two tours, bringing his fist to his mouth and stifling his emotive response.

Composing himself and clearing his throat, he began again, “Your Honor,” he said, “the ‘Nam is winding down. Nixon’s bringing the troops home. You want to send me over there for the bloodbath? No thanks. I’ll do my time in the fucking pen.”

“Fine,” she said, slamming down her gavel. “Do the time. Case closed.”

They wrapped it up. Case solved, justice administered, bye bye Mr. Ginger Bread Man.

Nah. Nobody recognized me. I’d changed a lot from two tours in the ‘Nam. And two tours in the ‘Nam left me emotionally numb and indifferent to the misfortune of a Ginger Bread Man in a courtroom with a shitty and incompetent defense. Should’ve gone into the military in the first place.

Everyone but the defense counsel was focused on the proceedings. I had a briefcase and went disguised as a slightly unprepared lawyer, with the right jacket, shoes and haircut. They thought I was there to represent another case. Waved me right through security.


“What are all the airplanes for?” asked the girl from the two-person L.A. mobile news crew visiting the rez, about the two-squadron aircraft hanging from the ceiling of my trailer home.

They’d been traveling around, down to New Orleans covering post-Katrina, they said, and had particular interest in our water fight with the uranium mining in the region that people claim is polluting the aquifers and depositing radioactive heavy metals up and down the Platte River, perhaps contributing to the rising incidence of cancer among the Nebraska populace and Indians of South Dakota.

“I’m gonna give them to my sun dance brothers,” I told her. “We’ve expanded to two squadrons now, but most of the new pilots are a bunch of young punks.”

Making a big hit at the sun dance among the eager recipients, John from Wyoming, nailed it when somebody in camp, I won’t say who, Dennis, stupidly asked, ‘What are they for?’

“It’s a dream machine,” said John, like a game show host announcing what was behind door three. “It’s for little boys...grandkids…to hang from your ceiling…for your imagination.” I soon ran out of inventory, regretting not producing more for some of my bros who didn’t get one, and some of those kids running around camp.

Two-year old Ravi Frankel, who last year had received a first-edition plane, sat on his mother’s lap here at the table after the dance, and because the adults were talking, said sort of to himself, but out loud in his tiny angelic voice as he looked up at the pairs of balanced, two-plane mobiles floating above the table, “Airplanes flying…airplanes flying…airplanes flying…that’s pretty cool.”

His father got his at the dance, and of course the boy wanted to play with it. “This one’s mine, Ravi,” David kept saying.

I’ve had only two refusals in two years. Manas, my Chinese friend in Thailand, said he couldn’t have one in his showroom – company policy; and Alonzo, about ten years old, a perfect recipient. He came over here one day with Bo and sat gawking at all the planes. “Take your pick, Alonzo,” I told him. “Want one?”

“Nah,” he said, shrugging off the offer and shaking his head, looking away. His response shocked me bolt upright in my seat in wonder, casting momentary doubt on the entire project. Overall, the response has been genuinely enthusiastic. I don’t know what was wrong with him.

The project (‘The Slim Buttes Auxiliary to the Smithsonian Institution Museum History of Aviation, Sub-Orbital Flight’) began on Pine Ridge last year, continued in Thailand with out-sourced Myanmar tag team labor, and continued here again this year, right up to the sun dance, incorporating third edition structural design changes in the fuselage and landing gear, suggested by one of the Myanmar, but for which I take the credit. You’d think a man could do more with his time, but you know something?

Johnny, Virgil’s son, who is now nine, was always kind of stand-offish to me around ceremony, like he didn’t like me so much. Then, last year, I took him one of those aircraft for his birthday when I went to see his dad in Pine Ridge for help in the track-down of my stolen computer. Johnny got one of the early models, one of the first edition.

He saw me with those planes at sun dance and came running up. “I’ve still got mine, Unca Vic,” he said. “But the wings are sort of coming off.”

“You could fix it with some glue,” I suggested. “Some Elmers.”

Last week before sweat lodge, Johnny came over and sat down. “I fixed my plane,” he said. “Me and my dad got some glue and put it back together. It’s hanging in our kitchen.”


Went into the Chadron ‘Mr. Movie’ rental and made them an offer in exchange for each week’s new releases, I would return ‘Vic’s Picks’ Monday or maybe Tuesday, ‘cause I live on the rez, on a five-point scale of ‘Excellent,’ ‘Good’, ‘Okay’, ‘Sucks’, and ‘Sucks, Big Time’, plus a short sentence or two, summing up the evaluation. Or I could call it in. I’d have to get a phone.

Ami, I think it was, said they already put their picks up there over on the wall by the new releases, and I told her, yeah, but those were just the employees – those aren’t professional critical evaluations, and she asked me what qualified me to be a movie critic, and I told her that I was a screenwriter, and she asked me if she’d know any of the movies I’d worked on, and I asked her if she’d ever seen ‘Scarface,’ and she said, ‘SURE,’ and I asked her if she remembered the line, ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ and she said she had, and I told her, yeah, when the Columbians are at the door, and in the original script, it read, ‘Come and get it, you Columbian Mother (and then I whispered so none of the other customers could hear) fuckers,’ and I came up with, ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ and we shot it both ways, and……….mine made the final cut!

“Turned out to be the most memorable line in the whole movie,” I added, “like, ‘I think we need a bigger boat,’ and ‘Frankly, my Dear, I don’t give a damn.’”

She extended her hand and gushed, ‘Geeez, let me shake your hand. I’ve never met someone who’s worked on a movie.”

She said she’d have to talk to her boss, and…yeah….“you’ll, you know, still have to pay for the rentals.”


Black Mammy

Ever work with tar? Roof adhesive, officially, on the label. That’s ‘Black Mammy’ to you folks in Kentucky. I climbed up on my roof today at midday to affix my solar panel permanently to the roof, thereby making theft of the panel virtually impossible.

‘They’ll need a ‘saws-all’ (which, actually, isn’t beyond the capability of a Pine Ridge thief,) I thought, applying the tar with a putty knife and getting it all over my hands, which I had originally intended not to do, being careful at the beginning, but up there in the sun not even halfway through the chore, I became more and more careless until at the end I was just gooping it out and trying to spread it as evenly as possible.* If you’ve ever worked with the shit, you know what I mean. Gas’ll take it off.

I’d never heard the term, until Craig Lee came up here from Kentucky and nonchalantly mentioned applying ‘Black Mammy’ to a skateboard surface during a conversation about design and materials. ‘Does he know who he’s talking to?’ I thought, and then, like a fool, I had to ask him what it was, although I had a sixth sense.

From what I’d always known, a black mammy was a big, fat, Aunt Jemima plantation house negro who raised the white folk’s kids, so chosen for such a role by her girth and repugnance, and thus posing no sexual threat to the lady of the house, nor the natural and proper order of things.

Any boy from Kentucky would know they was talking about tar.

Back when Craig was running the mice out of the greenhouses, he took us (Tom Cook, Henry Red Cloud, Ernest Afraid Of Bear & me. What a crew, huh?) over to a party one time down there (in Kentucky), one of his good ole boy buddies, and about the only thing I can remember of the event was; they had a black jockey out in front, and everybody there but us was seriously overweight and wearing bibs.

Ernest, who had wanted all his life to pray with his pipe at Niagara Falls, sat all night in a chair in the kitchen, while Henry Red Cloud and Tom Cook seemed to chat amiably with the local boys. It was hard for me to relax…kept waiting for them to break out the nigger jokes, which surprisingly didn’t happen, even as the night wore on and they became increasingly intoxicated. I think Ernest was uncomfortable, too. You know, sixth sense.

That was back in the late ‘90s, I think. Maybe 2001 or 2. The Old Man wanted to see Niagara Falls.


Now, you might be thinking, ‘What the hell was them boys doing way down in Kentucky? Niagara Falls is in New York.’

Well, it’s true. Niagara Falls is in New York. And we seen ‘em. And then we went down to Kentucky, because it was part of the loop.

Then we came back home, and that’s when Ernest began joking around about his imaginary girlfriend who kicked him out of the house. He was ‘in the doghouse’, he said, tossed his clothes out in the side yard, he said, for being gone for two weeks when he told her he was going after milk.



*right about then, talk about coincidence, I heard this long shrill whistle. Looked up and saw a mother eagle sailing along high overhead with her baby flapping and flapping behind her. She was telling him to relax and glide on the current. He caught up and made a move at her, which she repulsed with a wing flick in his face, threatening talons. As they sailed out of sight, I was sure she just wanted my attention.

How did I know it was a mama eagle and not a dad? I could tell, y'know. Sixth sense.