Tales from the Rez
When we were little, my sister and I would play paper dolls with cutouts from catalogues or any magazine we could scrounge up or which came in the mail. Our folks could not afford to waste money on those paper doll figures sold in stores, and since the pictures in the catalogues were not printed on that thin card paper, we were always having to replenish our supply. For furniture, we’d use whatever we could find in the house and would even section out the rooms of our pretend homes with string, or small rocks from outside. I remember making couches, tables, and beds out of small boxes and covering them with some of Mama’s quilting squares. Empty thread spools were our end tables, and so on. My brother, the artist from early on, steadfastly refused to play paper dolls with us but he was often willing to make things for us, like lamps made out of sticks and cloth. We didn’t have much but we all possessed very vivid imaginations that kept us going throughout the childhood years. That and a great sense of humor from Mama and each other.
So when Christmas time rolled around, we’d be busy trying to create festive decorations with what little we had. I have warm feeling of Christmas growing up. Some of the best memories happened at church. The second week of December, the church would begin singing those wonderful Christmas hymns. Classic traditional carols that I still love to hear and sing. On Christmas Eve, the adult choir would perform, the junior choir would belt out a few songs as well, and the kids would re-enact the Christmas story–costumes and all. After the evening service, and not all the time, there would be cookies and punch (cherry Kool-Aid) and a bag of hard candy which we would guard with our lives. I still buy myself the old fashion Christmas candy to enjoy. It’s the memories that come with seeing and tasting the traditional sweets that invokes moments of happiness. Nostalgia rules at Christmas time. And I carry warm feelings of Christmas even though we didn’t receive many presents. Some years we’d have a Christmas tree, some years we didn’t. One Christmas, Mama told us that we wouldn’t be getting a tree. We didn’t have the money. I’m sure we were disappointed. We were just kids after all. But you know, we weren’t the only Indian family on the rez who went without.
However, when we found out that we would not be getting a tree, we decided a few days before Christmas that we–the twins and I–would hike into the desert to look for something that could serve as a Christmas tree. My brother grabbed Daddy hatchet and off we went. We looked at many mesquites and considered whacking off a branch, and we considered pulling out a young tree with our bare hands but in the end decided against both. As we trekked back home we noticed a bunch of tumbleweeds a wind had stacked up against a clump of desert plants. My brother joking suggested that we take the biggest one home and transform it into a Christmas tree. We shared a good laugh at first but then decided to do just that. We hadn’t had a tumbleweed Christmas tree before and we weren’t sure Mama would allow it in the house since tumbleweeds are prickly and easily fall apart. But we determined to plow through with our plans and selected the fullest one and hauled it home using mesquite branches that had long fallen to the desert floor. Mama was reluctant at first but eventually gave into our whines and allowed us to set it up in the corner of the living room where it would be out of the way. She didn’t want anyone getting stabbed by the dry prickly branches and she didn’t want to be forever sweeping sticks off the floor since tumbleweeds degrade rather quickly. I believe we used one of Mama’s smaller tubs to secure the tumbleweed. We decorated it with ribbons, tinsel and beat-up garland kept from previous years. Tumbleweeds can’t hold much weight so we had to keep everything light-weight. And we didn’t put lights on it since lights back then were not the mimi lights of today but those big bulbs. We had fun with our tumbleweed Christmas tree. We laughed and joked about it but that messy dry plant gave us some wonderful memories. It also gave us a lot of scratches on our arms and hands!
Our tumbleweed Christmas tree came down Christmas morning. Mama had had enough of sweeping up dry twigs that constantly littered the floor. So we carried our now mangled creation outside and dismantled it. Then back to the desert we returned what was left of it and humorously spoke our thanks and goodbyes. It tumbled away in the wind, leaving its memories with us.
***Thank you for taking the time to read my posts. This is my last post. At least for a while. Maybe forever. My website will go dark at the end of this month. Who knows, I may resurrect it in a year. You never know. But anyway…have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Tumbleweed Christmas trees rule!
Okay…so my dad the farmer decided that the twins and I were to be involved in 4-H when we were in grade school. It wasn’t our choice so the enthusiasm was not there to begin with. I forget what my brother’s first project was but my sister and I were signed up for Home Ec sort of things. Our first project to be entered into the fair held in town was biscuits. Biscuits made from scratch. I remember we were told to practice making biscuits for our family and anyone else who would volunteer to eat them so that we could perfect the product. We didn’t. Well, maybe just once in a while we made them for the family but since Mama’s biscuits were awesome and everyone, including ourselves, preferred them over our lame ones, practice was minimal, and we were so okay with that.
The morning we were to take our entries up to be put on display and judged, we got up early, threw flour all over the table like we were pros and proceeded to prepare our biscuits. Dad drove us to town and there we met our 4-H leader who showed us where to place our entries. All sorts of goodies filled the exhibit tables and some looked mighty delicious. We returned two days after the judging to collect the biscuits and the ribbons we scored. My sister received a red ribbon for her biscuits and I was awarded what I deem today as a participation ribbon–a white ribbon. The white ribbon meant my biscuits met only a few standards and expectations of the project. In other words, my biscuits sucked! What the heck! I guess I met the standard of using flour. My sister was always the better cook, even in adulthood, and she stayed loyal to her twin and joined him in harassing me about my “deadly” biscuits. My brother suggested that we take my biscuits up to the canal to see if we could knock some fish out with them. So we did. We did kill any fish, or knock them out, because they sank too quickly and broke up. That day my career as a possible biscuit mogul vanished.
The next 4-H project our dad got us involved in was livestock. Lambs. We definitely did not want to do this and we moaned and whined to Mama about it but to no avail. We were to raise lambs. One morning loud hammering and talking woke us up. Men were outside helping Dad build pens for the lambs that would soon be in our care. The lambs came the day after the pens had been finished. I think the lambs were around six months old, maybe five, and they were promptly placed in the pens. Dad told us to look them over and to select one for our project. While we listened to a lecture on responsibilities and a lengthy explanation of our duties, we stared at each other and looked to heaven for deliverance. Good times were about to begin. We were to daily clean the pens, making sure they were clean and dry, clean the water pan and feeder, always provide fresh water (which we had to haul using a bucket) and feed, tame the lamb and train it to stand still and in a certain way, and on and on. Never mind we still had to attend school. We also had to learn how to card the wool and block it since that is what we would have to do for the county fair in Yuma. In order to show the lamb and to get the highest possible price for it, the body and form of the lamb had to be near perfect. Anyway, I chose lamb in pen#1, which turned out perfect for me since it was rather docile. My sister took lamb #2. It was an ornery animal and bigger than mine. She didn’t have an easy go with her lamb and was often head-butted to the ground by it. It was kind of hilarious to watch. My brother’s lamb turned out to be an escape artist and pretty darn sneaky. Or smart. It learned how to unlatch the gate to its pen, and to squeeze between openings in the boards, until Dad changed the latch and wrapped the entire enclosure with pen fencing.
Days went by and we carried on with the 4-H lambs, not really liking it but what could we do? The lambs fattened up. My brother’s lamb became the model prisoner but my sister’s lamb, though somewhat tamed, still retained its ornery personality. And it was thinner than ours. About a week before the county fair in Yuma, we three dragged ourselves outside to check on our projects and to take care of our chores. The first thing we noticed was that my sister’s lamb was all puffed out, looking like a swollen marshmallow. My brother went and got Dad. He checked it out and moments later noticed a snake track moving away from the pens. We figured her lamb had been bitten by a rattler. Not positive about that but from that moment on we called her lamb, Rattlesnake. Rattlesnake stayed puffed up that week and entered the county fair that way. But Rattlesnake was a changed creature. She was calm and steady and let the judges walk around her, touching and prodding her without trying to ram the heck out of them. My brother and I watched in shock. Rattlesnake won a purple ribbon that year. My brother won a blue for an excellent exhibition, and I won a red ribbon–improvements could be made. Yeah, whatever.
What did I learn from 4-H? I learned that I wasn’t cut out to be a shepherdess and to this day I refuse to eat lamb or mutton.
We always had a menagerie of animals on the farm. Mostly dogs, dogs that idiots dumped in the desert and since we lived way out in no man’s land, it was inevitable that they would find their way to us, which was okay since we loved dogs. Stubby stands out because he was fearless when it came to snakes. Stubby was a terrier-mix with a stubby tail, hence his name. Then there was Sweet Nothing, a small dog also left in the desert because her people were morons. My sister named the little dog after Brenda Lee’s hit song Sweet Nothing. Sweet Nothin’ kept the farmyard in order. Bossy little thing but also a fearless dog. There were many other animals that watched us grow up. A few ewes and heifers (not the human ones), always a horse or two.
Chickens were always with us. They provided us with eggs. We had a variety of them. All kinds, mainly hens. I remember a particular Sunday dinner that involved chicken. We wondered about the roasted chicken and asked Mama because we hadn’t seen a bunch of feathers floating around the place. Mama kept her answers vague and tried to steer the conversation away from the main course. Well, we eventually found out that the delicious chicken happened to be my brother’s hen. But that’s reality for a poor farming family. She wasn’t laying eggs anymore and we needed the food, so Mama roasted her and it was delicious. My brother called us cannibals and left the table but only after he had enjoyed a drumstick.
And then there was Airplane and his tribe of honking bullies. Geese. Five in total. Quite honestly, I don’t recall if Airplane was a goose or gander but since Airplane was a terror, I’m pretty sure he was a gander since ganders are the more aggressive and boy, Airplane personified aggression. The entire gaggle was ferocious and not to be messed with. When visitors came they would wait in their vehicles if the geese were nearby, or they would honk for an escort. Truth. So why was Airplane so named? Because Airplane’s left wing was deformed. It did not fold all the way back and so when Airplane came running in attack mode at you, he resembled an airplane taking off.
Geese are mean. Very protective and ours were territorial as well. When evening was nearing, we’d often see a coyote or two loping around in the desert across the road, waiting for darkness to fall so they could snap up one of our small dogs or a cat, maybe even a hen. One summer evening we (the twins and I) were sitting outside trying to cool off. The day had been blazing hot and Mama’s cooking had tripled the heat inside the already hot house. The gaggle of bullies were seen floating contentedly in the little ditch. Dad was irrigating so the ditch was full of water and the geese were in heaven. But, apparently, they were not oblivious to what was going on in the yard. A mother cat and her two kittens were sauntering across the yard, just minding their own business, when a coyote began slowly making its way out of the desert and approaching the road that separated the old homestead from the desert. We were watching it pretty closely and intending on intervening but we didn’t even need to leave our rickety church rejected metal folding chairs. No, when the coyote–which had to be desperate–crossed the road and entered our yard, out came the geese with Airplane leading the pack and you just knew they meant business. Hissing and vociferously honking up a storm, and scaring the heck out of the mama cat and her kittens, Airplane and the geese gang went flying to overtake the coyote. The coyote didn’t even take a second to think about running. It just did. Airplane and the gang chased it across the road then stopped to stare it down until it disappeared into the mesquite and cactus. Then they came marching back all proud like, still loudly communicating their outrage. We thought then that they were bragging about being the tough kids on the block. Well, farm. After they returned to the little ditch and water, we three looked at each other and busted out laughing. It’s one of the funniest childhood memories I have. Good old Airplane!
The photo is not of Airplane. I doubt anyone on the reservation owned a camera back then.
Okay…I’m pretty sure this happened during some holiday vacation from school and I’m positive it was during one of the cooler months and not during the blazing hot summer. Otherwise I’d remember getting my bottom scorched from sitting on one of the tractor’s big metal fenders. And this incident happened on a day we were home and Dad was off on one of his many trips, which we kinda loved because Mama would let us sleep late and play the day away. Best times ever! Anyway, we–the five younger kids–were alone with Mama. We used to have to haul drinking water in these huge stainless steel canisters because we didn’t have a well yet. We had moved down to the eighty acres months prior to this incident but the thing was, we had to wait until we could afford all the equipment and stuff required to sink a well. Dad had built a platform from wood planks that could be fixed to the back of the Ferguson tractor where one large container could be secured. We’d go to a neighbor’s house, ask permission to get water, fill up the container, tie down the lid, and return home. We never had problems getting water from our neighbors, except for one family where the wife had the attitude of an uppity country club member. Yeah, like a third world reservation should even have uppity folks. We were all sailing the river called Life, in a boat called Dead Broke, so the attitude was unwarranted.
Mama sent the twins and me on a mission to get fresh water. Since our machines always seemed to be running low on gasoline–most often they were plain out of gas–the fuel tank had to be checked. The gas gauge had long ceased to work. My brother found a skinny stick, clean it off, and stuck it into the tank. He figured the tractor had at least half a tank of fuel in it. So with my brother at the wheel, my sister and I riding the fenders, we headed out. We were enjoying ourselves as we rode along, traveling at such a slow speed that if someone on a bike came upon us, they could have easily passed us by. Anyway, we travel over a mile to the first house but my brother refused to stop there since a girl in his class lived there. I don’t know if he liked her or not but he said it’d be too embarrassing to go asking for water. So on we went for a few more miles before my brother decided to stop……at the home of a boy who was in my grade and liked me. I begged him to keep going but with his twin egging him on, my humiliation was sealed. The boy came out to help and visit and there I was perched on the fender in raggedy cut-offs and a tumbleweed hairdo. I remember thinking it was taking forever for that canister to fill up that day. My brother secured the lid with rope, we gave our thanks, and began the slow journey home.
After yelling at the twins for embarrassing me, we traveled on, loudly singing church songs and discussing the latest gossip, which mostly involved our relatives. As we neared home, the talk switched to fast cars. Well, my brother talked about these cars like he knew all about them, which he did not. We were elementary school kids growing up on an Indian reservation where farm equipment was always breaking down and staying broken down for days, even weeks, and beat-up pickup trucks and second-hand automobiles had to negotiate neglected roads. Anyway, by the time we arrived at our yard, my brother had gotten himself all worked up about fast cars and decided he was going to gun the Ferguson and take the turn as fast as the old tractor could go. My sister and I did not object. It seemed like a fun idea at the time. The Ferguson picked up a little speed, not much, but when time came to make the turn, the steering wheel refused to budge and we continued on a straight course. Seconds after we pass the turn-off, the world went very, very lopsided. My sister was suddenly screaming and sitting very close to the ground and hanging on for dear life. I was sitting high up and also hanging on for dear life, as was my brother. The big back left wheel had come off and sailed ahead of us. Stunned, we watched it roll onward, until it wobbled a bit and then plopped to the ground. After we came out of our shock, we jump off the dead tractor and took to surveying the scene. Somewhere along the way something had gone wrong. We didn’t know what but we were pretty darn sure that if we had taken that turn the tractor would have turned over and we would have been badly hurt. Like I’ve said before, we survived our childhood by the Grace of God. As it was, we ended up all excited that we had escaped death, and yes, we truly believed we had cheated death. My sister was drenched. Our precious liquid cargo had poured out and all over her. I thought of it as revenge. But now we had no transportation and a new mission, a mission that required walking to get help from neighbors. Mama couldn’t pick up the monster wheel and we were too puny to help her. So over the cotton and alfalfa fields and the canal we went seeking help. Several farmers came the next day and put the wheel back on the Ferguson, and all too soon, we were once again rolling down the road on another water mission. The old Fergie stayed intact this time and took us on many more water missions.
So…..this goes way back to when. I learned how to drive on a John Deere tractor. Mama didn’t drive. Never learned. Other than Mama and my little sisters, I was the only one home at the time so the job of helping Daddy fell on me. He ordered me outta bed very, VERY early, saying that I needed to get up and help out by driving one of our tractors to some field. No volunteering happened here. The tractor was stick shift and I had no clue how the whole manual transmission thing worked. I mean, what the heck, I was still in elementary school and had yet to even drive a car. Daddy, as impatient as ever, barked off instructions while demonstrating how the whole clutch-gear shift thing worked, then he left to go commandeer a Ferguson tractor. He started rolling along and when he looked back and saw that nothing was happening on my end, he began hollering and gesturing at me to hurry up, which only got me more flustered and upset. That’s the day I think I learned how to swear very well. Anyway, I had no idea how the heck I was supposed to hurry it up when I still had no clue of what to do. But miracles do happen and I somehow managed to figure out how to make the clutch and gear shift work and proceeded to make painful, grinding, and jerking progress to another field. And of course, a boy who had a crush on me at the time happened to be out helping his own father in their field. Man, I like to have died when I saw him watching me, and more so when he waved to me. My hair was a massive tumbleweed, my driving embarrassing, but in spite of my humiliation, I learned how to drive stick that morning.
Anyway. The chicken.
So my father was gone, hauling something or another to somewhere and I was left to drive Mama around. That is, around the reservation, not up to town. I was still in grade school, maybe seventh grade. Maybe younger. Mama was participating in some church thing and I had to go pick her and the twins up. I forget what car we had at the time but no doubt it was second-hand and a clunker. So at 11:00 and because I’m already late, I’m flying down the reservation road at 45 mph which was pretty fast to me back then. No other vehicles were on the road but I eased up on the gas as I was nearing the main road where I’d hang a left and head down to the church. A short way from the main road two houses stood across from each other. The inhabitants were related. Cousins, I think. The Bys lived in the better house. They had a big picture window which we all envied and even though they were in their late forties or early fifties, they acted like high school lovers, sitting all close like when driving down the road in their pickup truck or big car with a bench type front seat.
The Seeds lived across from the Bys. Mr. Seeds used to draw pastel pictures of sunsets which he believed were masterpieces. Seeds was an arrogant ass, always complaining about others. I mean, he really thought highly of himself and not so highly of the rest of us reservation dwellers.
So on this particular day, the day I was late to pick up Mama, Seeds was outside watching the non-traffic go by. Until I came flying down the road. At the very moment I appeared, one of the Bys’ free-range chickens happened to be crossing the road. It was jay-walking, really. I didn’t see it and I did not know that I had blasted right into the jay-walking bird. I saw in the rear view some feathers flying up behind me but honestly, I didn’t realize I had just pulverized a chicken.
A few days later, my dad started questioning me about a chicken I had supposedly mowed down. I honestly had no clue what he was talking about but I guess old Seeds had gone stalking over to the Bys that morning and told them what he had witnessed. He even dragged them out and over to check out the splattered evidence on the roadway. Seeds told them that they needed to call the Indian police to come down and charge me with reckless driving and for driving without a license. But the Bys refused and told their lame relative that their chickens didn’t have a license to be on the road either. Plus, they said they didn’t think the police would appreciate being called down the reservation to check on a dead chicken. So in the end nothing but laughs came out of the jay-walking chicken incident. But from that time some of my own lame relatives often felt the need to say to me, “Hey, how about the time you did a hit-and-run on a chicken.”
So…a couple of weeks ago they had reruns of the X-Files playing on TV. The SF series has always been a favorite and I’m elated it’s returning with the original cast of Duchovny and Anderson. The Flukeman (The Host)–you know, the one with the tapeworm-like humanoid–and the episode with the succubus are two favorites of mine. Awesome stuff!
Anyway, I was watching one of the re-runs when I remembered the time one of my older brothers blew through the front door swearing to the Almighty that he had seen a UFO. No little green men, just a UFO hovering low over the hills up by the river.
“Man! I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said, gesturing dramatically. “It just came out of nowhere…and it stayed there, just hovering, like it was spying on us. We all just kept watching it, holding our breath, you know. Like we were hypnotized or something. Then all of a sudden lights started flashing and spinning on the thing. Then it spun left and disappeared into the night. Just like that! Man! It scared the hell right out of us. We all just looked at each other. Then we beat the heck out of there.”
We all stared open-mouthed at him. But that lasted for only several moments. Then we busted out laughing and scoffing. We accused him of just being drunk and seeing things through inebriated eyes. And you couldn’t blame us. I mean, after all, he’d just stumbled in after a night of “howling” and from attending an all-nighter in the desert with his drinkin’ buddies. I remember Mama, a fine Christian woman, standing there with her arm folded over her chest, clucking disapprovingly at him, and shaking her head in disappointment. She didn’t believe him either. But he swore he wasn’t making it up and to this day he has not retracted any part of his story. And we still don’t believe him because that late morning when he showed up at the house, he was reeking to high heaven, and too, he had always been the most superstitious out of all of us kids. He was always seeing and hearing things that we did not. We suspect he got that irrational fear from our father, the full-blood.
Later the same day he made another appearance at the house. He was all decked out for another night of howling and had stopped by, he claimed, to see what we were all doing, which turned out to be a big fat lie as we later found out. I doubt Mama believed that either because I remember her warning him not to be drinking and getting into any car wreck. The sun was sinking behind the western horizon when we walked him out. We watched him get into his truck and drive away, all happy and waving his cowboy hat at us. His truck stopped farther up the road. By then Mama had gone back inside and we kids stayed outside where it was cooler. When his truck stopped, we all ran to the road to see what had happened. We watched him get out of his pickup, hurry to the side of the road, then return to his truck carrying something in his hand. We couldn’t make out what he was carrying from where we were standing. The truck started rolling again but only for a short distance. Next thing we saw was his taillights slamming on and the truck rapidly decelerating. Then the driver’s door came flinging open and next came our brother flying out of the cab like a bat out of hell. We wondered what the heck was going on with him. We continued watching and saw him jump into the bed of the truck and start peering into the cab through the rear window. Hands hooding his eyes and all. As he watch from the rear window, his truck kept rolling slowly forward. It must have been driverless for a good many feet before it came to a complete stop. My brother finally climbed out of the bed and quickly got back into the cab. He drove on.
The following day he told us what had happened. With Mama disapproving of his drinking, he’d always hide his booze in a paper bag under some roadside brush and would stop and pick it up on his way out. This time, however, a rattlesnake had gotten into the bag and after he had gone down the road just a little bit, the paper bag started to rattle. That threw him into a panic and out of his truck real quick like. He watched the rattler vacate the bag and eventually slither out of the truck. He said that if the outside of the truck hadn’t been so hot, he was sure the snake would have found its way into the bed where he was. Eventually the snake dropped to the ground and disappeared into brush.
We couldn’t stop laughing. But all Mama said was, “The Lord is trying to tell you something, ——-!”
It’s a hilarious memory. We still laugh about it when we’re together reminiscing.
“I want to believe.” The X-Files.
The Zullys were not Indians (PC-Native Americans but I’m old school). Nobody knew where they came from. Perhaps someone did know but none of my relatives knew which was surprising since they always seemed to be up-to-date with the latest reservation happenings. The Zullys had no children and they lived in abandoned barracks located on farm sites of various tribal members. They were nomadic. That is, they moved around the reservation at will. Often tribal members–or one of my relatives–would go traveling down a reservation road and there the Zullys would be, taking up residence under a spreading mesquite tree right smack dab in the desert. Like I said, most times they inhabited an empty barrack but at various times, and I don’t know why, the open environment of the desert lured them out of their dilapidated abode. We once lived in a barrack so I can understand why the Zullys would abandon a falling apart heap of lumber. They were free to do as they pleased as long as it was within reservation laws and rules and as long as Indian folks didn’t mind their squatting. Indian people did not bother them. But we thought them strange for living under a mesquite tree. Gossip grew around them. Juicy gossip that had people wildly speculating and exaggerating.
Word had it that Mrs. Zully was seen several times dancing naked around a blazing campfire. True? Don’t really know. But that bit of news caught on like wildfire. Gossip also had it that Mrs. Zully was into voodoo. I don’t recall anything being said about Mr. Zully. Perhaps he was just the fire starter or the blanket-sheet tent builder. Anyway, some of us younger ones had no clue what voodoo was and the idea and image of a lady dancing naked in the moonlight was…well…quite shocking, but also sooooo frighteningly intriguing. Seeing the shocked reaction from kids and a few naive adults fueled the gossipers to greatly embellish their tales. It scared the heck out of kids and promptly inspired the teenagers–mostly the boys–to want to go out and investigate the great spectacle of Mrs. Zully dancing naked around a blazing fire in the desert. And wouldn’t you know, their last campsite was located about a mile west of Dad’s fields.
So, of course, the three of us–the twins and I–just had to trek down to check out the Zully’s campsite. Were we in stealth mode? We thought we were but in fact we were not. We sneaked around while there was still some daylight left. I mean, we were nosy but not stupid. This was the time of year when rattlesnakes were out and about. Plus, we were pretty convinced that we were voodoo safe while the sun still could be seen. Evil only came out at night, right? Anyway, when we reached the Zully’s campsite, we found it deserted. Still, we took it upon ourselves to cautiously explore the remains of the campsite, looking for voodoo evidence. Naturally we had no idea what the heck we were looking for. Someone had said that Mrs. Zully made dolls and stuck cactus needles into them. They were supposed to represent the body of a person who had done the Zullys wrong. We didn’t find any dolls stabbed with cactus needles laying around. All we found were the remains of several fires, a partially burned man’s sock, a few discarded empty food cans, and one hoop earring which none of us had the guts to touch. Voodoo cooties, you know. But daylight was fading fast so we hightailed it out of there just in case the area had been cursed with black magic.
As time went by and the voodoo scare dissipated, we made our own voodoo dolls to scare the heck out of each other. We made them out of socks and Mama’s buttons and we’d hide them in pockets, under pillows, in drawers, wherever. But Mama, a Christian lady, would not let us keep them for long and we could not stick her sewing pins and needles into them. That was forbidden.
***The Zullys really did exist, but that’s not their real last name. They did live in empty old barracks and occasionally in the desert that surrounds the reservation. And the gossip spread by superstitious Indian folks had us believing that they engaged in voodoo rituals. Did they? I don’t know.
IMAGE: Don’t laugh but I made it just minutes ago. I kept with our tradition and used a sock.
Claustrophobia is generally defined as the abnormal fear of being in narrow or enclosed spaces. Like airplanes, elevators, MRI machines, tunnels, movie theaters, windowless rooms, caves, and so on. According to various medical articles I’ve read, about 5% of the US population suffers from claustrophobia. Claustrophobia can swiftly trigger panic attacks. I should know, I’m a claustrophobic.
So what do I figure caused this phobia of mine to pop up and plague me later in life? Pretty sure it was the near drowning ordeal I experienced in my younger years. But before I begin the sharing, let me inform you that I’ll be using the initial D to refer to my childhood friend, the friend who nearly caused my drowning. No grudges, she’s still my friend.
D’s family was the poorest of the poor and that’s saying a lot considering we were all so poor those days. They were not tribal members. They weren’t Native Americans, just poor like the rest of us. They lived in abandoned barracks or structures that were on the verge of falling apart. Structures no longer used by tribal members but remained situated on their farms. Everyone knew the family. They own no car but would catch a ride or walk to their destination, and they attended our church and schools. D’s family was part of our community at a time when her race was not being accepted in various parts of the country.
By the time I was five, I could swim very well. Irrigation ditches — from the Main Canal to big canals, to little ditches — crisscrossed the reservation so drowning was always a danger. By the age of ten or eleven, I was a proficient swimmer. D was the same age as me. She didn’t know how to swim but wanted very badly to learn. It was the best and most fun way to keep cool during the brutal summers. So after church one summer Sunday, D came home with us, and we all headed up to the big canal that was running full. That would be my little sisters, the twins, who are a year older than me, and my confident self. I had promised to teach D how to swim. At that time, the canals had dirt banks (except for the Main Canal which was cemented) and where the water ran swift, the banks eroded away, providing a shallow part that allowed weak or non-swimmers to sit and stay cool in the water while the hot sun turned us all into toast. No sunscreen back then, and what the heck did we know of the damaging UV rays from the sun? After a long period of procrastinating, D plucked up enough courage to walk slowly into the deeper area just to get a feel of the bottom. She tightly gripped my hand for reassurance and support. A little way down her feet slipped and she went down and under. It wasn’t that deep but once she went under she went straight into full panic mode, taking us into deeper waters. I could still touch the bottom but like all possible drowning victims, D started climbing all over me, pushing my head under over and over. I’d pop up for air only to be jammed back down. I tried fighting her off but she was heavier and her terror made her much stronger than I during those moments. My body was simply an object to climb on so that she could keep her head above water and survive. I was rapidly losing the battle. My vision grew darker, my thoughts began to go, as I struggled to reach the surface and air. I remember that frightening experience and the helpless feeling to this day. Even writing about it racks up the anxiety. I may have to take one of my pills just to settle down. Anyway, my sister yanked D to safety and my brother pulled me up and out.
I truly wanted to sock the heck out of my friend but all I could do at the time was stay flopped on the ditch bank, coughing and gasping for air. After I recovered, I yelled at D, and stomped home. I refused to play with her for the rest of the day.
I never really forgot the incident. It just became another childhood memory, until I grew older and something triggered the phobia. They say claustrophobia is considered a symptom of an anxiety disorder. This is a fact for me, as my family and friends can verify. I’m a classic claustrophobic! No spelunking for me…ever!
So….Fury was a horse. A horse from HELL! A gelding that fooled me into thinking he would be a placid ride. Black as midnight, and probably a direct descendant of Daredevil (if Daredevil existed outside the legend), the horse the headless horseman rode in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, now that I look back on it. Rearing up and bolting down the ditch bank like a bat out of hell just because a farmer plowing his field honked at me. Our neighbors were friendly so I don’t think it was the farmer’s intention to spook old Fury but he did, and away we flew, hooves throwing up dirt and me hanging on for dear life. No matter how hard I jerked back on the reins, or how loudly I yelled, “Whoa!” (which only seems to inspire Fury to pick up more speed), or how much I begged God to stop the crazed animal, Fury continued tearing down the ditch bank like he was on a suicide-murder mission. I wonder if the farmer laughed or thought I was showing off, which I definitely wasn’t.
My high school years were spent attending a mission boarding school on the Navajo Reservation. I returned home only for Christmas and summer vacation. I think it was the summer of the end of my junior year that I had the misfortune to encounter that terror named Fury. I hadn’t been home for more than a few days when I went outside to find my father and an older brother saddling up a horse. I had ridden horses before and since they had a black horse ready to go, I ask if I could ride it. Did they mention the name of the horse? No! Or its temperament? No! So on I got and the horse and I headed out at a gentle pace. The reins were loose in my hands, even when we climbed up the incline of a smaller ditch and made our way to the larger canal that carried water to the fields. So far so good. Just before we reached the irrigation gates I wheeled the horse around to begin the journey home. The horse was just walking and I was thinking I was really cool riding a horse on such a great morning, then the honk blasted out. Total and instant whiplash! Like the one old Ichabod Crane had suffered in Disney’s cartoon movie when his horse spooked and took off like a bullet. I don’t care what I tried, that horse just kept on running and I held on for dear life. He stopped running only after he had expended his energy. I had nothing to do with his stopping.
I made it home a total wreck and dismounted all wobbly like. My dad, the cowboy, praised me, “Wow, I didn’t know you could ride that good.” They had been watching the entire scene believing I was a great rider. Traumatized, I went into the house and when Mama saw my ashen face she asked what was wrong. I told her what had happened and then broke down crying. Wrecked nerves! Mama wasn’t happy. “They let you ride Fury?”
Fury? What the heck?
“That darn horse bucked Sweetie off just two weeks ago. What is the matter with those men?” And when my dad and brother came in, Mama bawled them out. My brother thought it was soooo funny. He left the house laughing. He thought I was showing off. Well, I wasn’t. I was so traumatized that I didn’t ride a horse for years, not until I went to Sedona and my daughter talked me into going on a trail ride.
A long time ago, on a reservation 5 hours from Tucson, if you go by way of Gila Bend, nobody had air conditioners. Swamp coolers, yeah, but no AC. I think only a few stores in town ran air conditioners. I know my family sure didn’t have AC, and the summer heat was sweltering. Still is even today. We had the canals to cool us off during the day and swamp coolers that chugged out barely cooled air, if that. Sometimes when the heat was ridiculously stifling, we’d place ice cubes in front of the cooler and sit directly in front of the tray of ice to cool off. A waste of time! Never worked! We were all skinny back then and I’m kind of thinking the heat had something to do with that. The weight just rolled off of us in rivers of sweat!
My dad grew alfalfa in one field and cotton in the other. Canals were all around us — this is why we were taught to swim at a very young age — and when the fields were irrigated, the night cooled off considerably. Those nights we slept on a flat bed trailer under the stars. We’d haul our mattresses out to the trailer, taking a pillow and a blanket with us since the early morning hours often turned chilly. Howling coyotes scared us and loud bull frogs annoyed us but come the hours before the sun rose, a small herd of wild horses with their young came to feed off Dad’s haystack or in the alfalfa field. They came silently, like phantoms, but one of us would wake to a sound and nudge the others awake. Sometimes they’d be so close to where we were sleeping that we could smell them. We’d watch them feed and interact with our heads kept down and our mouths tightly shut. It’s a very fond, beautiful memory. They were magnificent creatures that came from the distant mesas (some might call them hills and not mesas) flowing away from the treeless mountains. They’d traveled through the desert to get to the farm. We never saw them during the daylight hours, not even when we hiked the hills or explored the desert, and they didn’t come every morning. Sometimes we wouldn’t see them for weeks but we were always in awe when they appeared. I wrote about them in my novel Falling Stars.
They stopped coming after a few years. We don’t know what happened to them, what kept from from visiting our fields. Human encroachment, I suppose. Isn’t that always the case? But I keep thinking that maybe their leader, the stallion, was a wise creature, and for some reason I believe that their disappearance from our area occurred after a few men trapped a mare in the early morning hours. The stallion waited and neighed frantically in the desert for her. She broke her neck trying to escape, attempting to hurdle a fence to race for freedom. She was put out of her misery with a single shot and the stallion quickly vanished.
I remember that too. The memory is one I wish I could permanently erase from my mind. My mother and I cried over that, as did my sister. My mother taught us to love and respect animals from a very early age. She often reminded us that happiness and sadness were companions but if we were strong we could overcome the sadness and be happy again. The image of those early morning visits, of those wild horses, especially of their young, remain vivid in my mind today and I am thankful for that.