Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD - I didn’t stop with those Tiki Gods. Those were produced in high school and given to friends, two-inch wooden carvings to be worn around the neck. My inspiration came from a magazine ad, and I thought at the time, ‘Hell, I can make my OWN DAMN Tiki Gods.’
With the enthusiastic encouragement of my art teacher, I tried a half dozen oil paintings, but the brush stroke on canvas fell far short of my concepts and ability. I did some sculpting, weavings, and a big-ass clay monkey that appeared in the yearbook, with me looking like a true, sure enough geek.
Was the art there all along, in hiding, waiting to come in off the bench, or was it strictly the encouragement of a teacher that guides us in a particular direction? I don’t know. If my physics teacher were just as nurturing, would I have become an atomic scientist?
The atomic scientist future dissipated in the face of my grades, so my guidance counselor suggested that I might have a promising future in the war that was raging at the time.
As a helicopter medic in Vietnam, I practiced my work as an art, though hurriedly, probably stopping some guys from bleeding to death, and making others laugh on their way to the hospital. I never administered morphine. The guys who asked for it didn’t need it, and the guys who needed it never asked. I told them all, ‘Everything is going to be okay,” even when it wasn’t.
Snagging cameras in the ‘Nam, I sunk from medicine to print journalism, opting for the Sunday feature section, as opposed to hard news, which seemed cruel, cutthroat, and satanic. In the end, I produced thousands of photos, some exhibits, some awards, and later in TV, some commercials, a few feeble, short bullshit films, and the nightly news.
Then there were about a half dozen colorful ‘box delta’ kites, including a gigantic twelve-foot wing-span ‘Bat’ that flew over Luken’s Lake, Lake Michigan, seven states, and could lift a small child off the ground.*
Along the way, there were gardens, landscaping, stone masonry, a 700 ft. Robert F. LaFollett Memorial River Walk on the S. St. Vrain in Colorado, ceramics, triple-deck tree houses, igloos, scary luge sled runs that sent at least one mother of a five year-old into hysterics, really fun but dangerous swings (ask Bob Luckett) over water and frightening ravines, and snow sculptures of crashed cars and an eleven-foot Bigfoot, the stuff that dads do.
When they became old enough to verbalize their thoughts, my kids demanded I quit the saxophone. Within the family, I was totally outnumbered, 6-1. Mack, our German Shepherd, didn’t care for it, and El Negro Frijole, ‘Black Bean’, our cat, didn’t appreciate my music either. When they saw me picking up that horn, they’d look at me sideways, lay their ears back, and leave.
Between Bigfoot and tenor sax, there was a dozen years in the classroom at three universities where I honed a stand up comedy act before captive audiences in three different disciplines. One spring, in a communications class with the windows wide open, we listened to a robin for 45 minutes.
On another occasion, I took a Black History class to the DuSable museum and a rib joint** in Chicago, and had a hard time creatively explaining the crumpled roof on the university van. The story involved a State Street underground parking garage with a low clearance.
There was a whole line of people behind us honking their horns, until all those Negroes, some of whom were interior linemen on the football team, piled out and told those folks hollering back there to shut up and back the fuck up, which they immediately did after locking their doors and rolling up their windows.
For a final exam in a creative writing class at a different institution, we all met at a Mexican restaurant, drank tequila and ate combo platters, laughing and drinking and enjoying ourselves since the administration demanded that classes meet for finals, even if there wasn’t one. It was an artistic expression, even if it wasn’t.
Then once during a meeting of the 40-member university senate, my position being secured by the need to have a representative ‘person-of-color’ on that policymaking and governing body, I really did fall asleep, my head on the desk, and by virtue of leaning too far forward on my chair, which was on rollers, the thing flipped out from under me, sending me to the floor in a great crash, momentarily stunning all of the assembly.
I had no recourse to recover from my embarrassment but to leap to my feet and shout, “I’M AGAINST IT,” then calmly reposition my chair and sit down. After their initial shock, everybody laughed, not sure of what had happened, except for the person just behind me who saw the whole thing, since everybody was already listening to one of the Deans, who was Chair of the meeting, and in an odd situation of uncanny circumstance, accepted my declaration as a motion, and announced, “So moved. Do we have a second?”
That’s about all I can remember of twelve years in higher ed, except that it had an unreal, boy-in-a-bubble quality to it. Apart from the robin’s song and the comedy, there was little art. It was more like a presumptuous, pretentious racket.
Up here on the rez, I produced mostly ceremonial items; staffs, cedar bags, drums, drumsticks, shields, several sweat lodges, six pipes, nearly a half million in grants, three squadrons of airplanes, and a book.
Of 88 drums, about four, maybe six of them were good enough to make it through all four rounds of a Lakota sweat lodge. The one I kept for myself got stolen. Of the 493 shields I produced over a decade, I was happy with two or three. The rest were just circular artwork with feathers and beads. The one I kept got stolen.
Sometimes I still make a drum if I can find a good cottonwood log and have a buffalo hide show up, but mostly it’s just tales now, the words magically appearing on a computer screen.
*The Bat’s life ended in Slim Buttes, across the White River in a tree in an ancient burial ground. I never retrieved it, leaving it’s color to be faded by the sun, it’s wings ripped and shredded by the wind.
**Maybe you can imagine a scenario of twenty-six African American university students trying to figure up how much they owed toward a shocking $450 food and drink bill with an automatic 15% gratuity, which nobody anticipated, leaving several of the students pale as the bill went from hand to hand, each one declaring aloud, “All I had was such and such, and a coke.”
They spent more time name-calling and arguing amongst themselves over the bill than they did eating the meal. It was really quite humorous. All I had was the baby back rib platter and a coke, and when they looked to me, that’s what I told them. The bill was eventually paid by one unfortunate plastic-carrying student, who angrily exclaimed as he signed off on the bill, “All y’all damn niggas better pay me back!”
As we spilled back onto the street, I recall almost everyone leaving the place angry and bitching. The sour mood was amplified on the two-hour trip home by the crushed roof of the van, repeatedly banging against the metal inner liner each time we hit a crack, bump, or pebble in the road, making it sound like we were traveling in a bass drum.