Indian Plume (For Crazy Horse)

Indian Plume for Crazy HorseCrazy Horse stole his first wife.  Black Buffalo Woman was married to another  man named No Water.  Crazy Horse just up and stole her and, in time, she broke his heart. This theft of the heart led to no small amount of acrimony in the tribe, with both Crazy Horse and No Water making repeated attempts on the other’s life.  Finally the Chief stepped in and made Crazy Horse give No Water two horses, and in time, Black Buffalo woman dumped him.  She was the first of  his three wives, all of which he would lose to death or abandonment.

When one drives through the Badlands, the history of that place–or places–seems to lay in wait.  In the high desert, there are plants called Indian Paintbrushes, that I’d always thought were cactus of some kind.  Evidently, they’re not.  I actually don’t really know what the hell they are, other than beautiful.

I think I keep thinking about Crazy Horse because of  the  sad trajectory of his life.  He’d lost his wives, his brother, his father and his dearest friend, Hump; and in his lifetime, he would also lose the ferocious landscape of the Badlands to the white man and the railroads.  His was a life of furious loss, despite fighting mightily to hang onto some semblance of his history and ancestry.  These things too, were lost to him.

His only solace was in nature.  Being on the wrong end of history’s loaded gun, relegated him and millions of other Indians to the shameful footnote of white America’s own  genocidal manifest destiny.

I guess the idea of belonging to a place is something I’ve always considered an idea worth fighting for.  If you’ve ever been to a country that has just lost a war, you know what I mean.  I visited Haiti in the ’80s and early ’90s and there was this despair that hung over  the place like a shawl of angry shadows.

Friends of mine from eastern Europe have told me what it’s like for your country to suddenly lose its borders.  You don’t have to travel to have this discussion; talk to any homeless person about how it feels to no longer have a tether, or a place…or a home.

In our country, we find ourselves in an economic climate where people are just trying to hang onto what they have.  The economic safety nets have proven mythic and there is a hunger in  our cities, the like of which we’ve not seen  since the Great Depression.  The difference now is that there is less continuity of community.  In the 1930s whole neighborhoods pulled together to grow gardens, and conserve rags, tin, fat,rubber and other scrap just to make it by.

It is not so different than what Crazy Horse faced.   History was moving faster than he could hope to; the wealthy taking what they want and sending men with guns to eliminate anyone that stood in the way.

This piece is called,  “Indian Plume.”

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Radio Swan

The Radio SwanToday is St. Patrick’s Day.

I never think much about my Irishness.  My parents were not the “kiss me I’m Irish” types, though they were both very proud of their immigrant grandparents, and from them learned of the ugly anti-Irish sentiments when they first got off the boat.  In the 1850s and ’60s New York–Ellis Island–and Irish men were, more often than not, conscripted immediately into the Union Infantry, where they became mostly cannon fodder.

When people would remark to my father about being Irish, he would pointedly tell them he was an American.  My father’s cultural identity was thoroughly middle-American.  He was a WWII vet who invaded Okinawa.  On days like this, I think of my father’s continuing sacrifices in this life; for family, for country.  He was always serving some purpose besides his own, he and my mother.

The minute I draw an ace of spades, the piece becomes immediately about him.  It has been twelve years since my dad died and his ghosts, fear and sense of duty, still have an active purchase on my own psyche.

HBO started broadcasting its new series, “The Pacific,” this weekend.  While driving back from Austin, Texas, I and my corner-man, Stosh made it a point to stop at a Hampton Inn, which always has HBO, to watch the first show.  Hampton Inns are a little better than most of the road hotels and you pay a little more but it’s worth it.  One night, twenty-two years ago, I woke up in a Red-Roof Inn to find a guy pissing on my bed.  The door was wide open and this guy was for-real sleep-walking or, in my case, sleep-pissing.  One swat in the head and he woke up demanding to know why I was in his room.  Eventually it got straightened out and the guy was, to say the least, penitent.

I watched the first episode of “The Pacific” with some trepidation.  My dad never discussed the War with me until the very end of his life, and even then not in great detail.  Suffice to say it had a lasting effect on him.  Every time a flashbulb went off, every time a car backfired, every time there were sudden bursts of light, I think my father revisited that dinky, ashen island full of heat, dirt, flies and death.

I take every opportunity to tell my kids of my father’s service to his country; that 60 years ago he and three million other 19-year olds saved the world.  I remind them that their Irish great-great-grandmother made passage here when Abraham Lincoln was still President.  I tell them that the Irish use language better than anyone else on the planet, with the exception of Latin writers–that’s a tie.

I came back from Austin sick as a dog. . . Z-pack, liquids, green tea, and a couple of days off. . . I just worked enough to finish this one.  The swans are like beautiful and fatal ghosts of death for me, black flowers floating on an icy and mortal sea.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Black Swan

The Black SwanSome years ago, I made a few pieces all with different kinds of “Ace of Spades” motifs.  I had planned a big series about my Father, whose nick-name was “Ace.”  I stopped after making six of them.  The ones I made were terrific, but emotionally brutal to get through.

My Father loved games of chance–blackjack, poker, and the Lotto.  He often bought 15-20 “Quick Picks” a day.  He was a child of the Depression, the Irish Sweepstakes, and “Policy,” a game more known by its other name, “Numbers.”  He had a gambler’s optimism to the point of being delusional about the Lotto.  I once tried to explain the math to him, since the State of Illinois basically made the numbers racket legal and called it Lotto in 1973.  I surmised that my Dad had spent, conservatively, a couple of hundred grand on Lotto Tickets between 1973 and 1997.  He wouldn’t hear of it being a sucker-bet, noting that in the mid-’80s he’d once won five grand.  When I tried to explain the long-term calculus of this, he told me to mind my own fucking business.

The Irish are superstitious this way–raffles, pools, games of chance– we’re suckers for it.  It’s not an accident that bookmaking is legal in Ireland.  We believe in the vagaries of luck.

My father and I had a complicated relationship; I put many gray hairs on his head.  I got in an immense amount of trouble; the only one of my siblings to do so.  I rejected the Catholic faith that he and my mother held dear.  I hated school and authority, and thought my teachers were mostly dip-shits (with a few exceptions, I wasn’t wrong).  I only wanted to draw pictures and be left the fuck alone.

My father and I often battled at the dinner table.  He would tell me that at my age he was off fighting a war and I didn’t know a goddamn thing about the world.  My father invaded Okinawa in WWII; a bloody, bestial engagement in which Americans took the islands inch-by-bloody-inch in some of the ugliest warfare ever engaged.  I never knew.  My father did not discuss the war other than to say I had no idea.  He was right.

At the end of my dad’s life, when he was in hospice, I would visit him every day and try to have conversations.  It was difficult given that he was on a morphine drip.  He would often tell me there was a Japanese soldier in the hallway.  I thought maybe my father was mistaking one of the doctors for the soldier, but he said no.  He kept insisting there was a Japanese soldier lurking in the hall.  I asked him why he thought he was out there and my father replied, “To forgive me.”

The day my father’s ship, The U.S.S. Noble, approached Okinawa, he saw a number of black swans lolling on the waves miles off of Okinawa.  He remembered this is when he started to be afraid.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hell’s Songbird (For Doc Holliday)

Hell's Songbird (for Doc Holliday)John Henry “Doc” Holliday was one of the West’s more storied gunfighters.  He was an ill-tempered motherfucker who was perpetually drinking and swigging laudanum for his tuberculosis.  He was by turns a dentist, a gunfighter and a professional gambler.  He was a Southerner who was bored by dentistry and soon discovered his talent for games of chance, particularly faro and poker.  He was well-educated, fluent in French and Latin, and often dropped clever non sequiturs in French to annoy fellow gamblers who were under the impression that the droll and elegant Doc was “high-hatting,” or condescending to them . . . he was.  Doc had little tolerance for the ignorant.  These altercations often turned into gun battles, which Holliday never lost.

He was a fearless gunfighter.  A longtime friend of Wyatt Earp, Doc was present the day the Earp brothers decided to settle the hash of the Clanton-McLaury gang, setting off a war between the Earps and the Clantons that was long and bloody, and killed a dozen men on both sides of the feud.  Doc Holliday threw in with the Earps, largely because the Earps allowed him to gamble and settle his accounts in blood with impunity.  Doc ran with a sharp-tongued whore named Big Nose Kate, who was at once his only love and his tormentor in equal measure.

In the splendid film, Tombstone, Holliday is played with a doomed and elegant élan by Val Kilmer whose portrayal, most Western historians agree, is probably the closest to the character of the real Doc.  I’ve never been a big fan of Kilmer, except in this film.  His Holliday is a sweating, tubercular dandy of carefully measured eloquence and lethal intent.  It is a performance for the ages.  Holliday, half-dead, listening to heartbreaking Chopin nocturnes, and nearly killing a man over his ignorant dismissal of them, is a wonderful moment in a really underrated film.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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