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My Friend from the Reservation
Macky didn't always live out on the reservation. When we were little he lived out on Star Route a little over ten miles out of town. To get there you had to drive past the four corners and down along the creek, a long stretch with no houses at all where the trees arched over the road like a green tunnel, then up over a hill and down into the Old Settlement, where fields stretched off in all directions. He lived with his parents in a trailer on his grandparents land. His grandparents had a working farm that was winding down as as they got older. He invited me out for his birthday party when he was going to be nine or ten. When I got there, there were no other kids, just me. There was no cake, party favors or games, just Macky and me. We played in the hay loft and around on the farm equipment.
In the backyard of the Grandparents' farm house, chickens scratched and pecked, and a huge tom turkey strutted his stuff in self absorbed splendor.
"Stay away from the turkey," said Macky. "He'll come right after you."
The turkey and I were about the same size, so I took Macky's advice.
After a while my mom got me and drove me home. I never saw any of Macky's family at all: just Macky. He was a happy kid and we got along fine.
Some of the native American kids really excelled in school - there were Native American star players on our baseball and basketball teams, and Native Americans in the upper percentile of every class - but most approached the European-American-imposed education lightly, with a liberal dose of humor. They were destined for a life on the reservation, where they would have no need for this education. Sometimes the Native American boys would be very disruptive and had to be removed from the classroom.
When I was little, my mother was very friendly with one of the prominent women on the reservation and we went to visit them once in a while. Their father reminded me of my father - wiry, hardworking, silent - and their house was much like our house. Their mother had a loom that seemed a giant and incredibly interesting thing to me, full of colored strands, a magical thing that could make cloth. I was amazed.
The reservation was different than the town, where my family lived. There were no sidewalks. Paths were cut through the tall grass between one place and another. There was only one store. Many of the other houses were small, and instead of siding were covered with black tar-paper, with a stove pipe sticking out through the wall or the roof to vent the wood stove that they used for heat.
At some point my mom and the Native American mom must have had some kind of falling out, or maybe they just grew apart, but the visits to our friends on the reservation stopped. Soon after that the government built a large housing project on the reservation, eliminating most of the tar-paper shacks.
Sometime before high school, Macky moved to the reservation. He was not usually disruptive in school, but although he was both strong and intelligent, he did not participate in sports or excel in his studies. He had a quick wit, and if called on by the teacher was sure to get a laugh.
There was one Native American kid who was six feet tall and weighed about three hundred pounds. He was always shoving everybody around. Even the violent white jocks left him alone. I was around when a group of boys were talking about him.
"Aw, you could beat him in a fight," said one.
"I wouldn't be so sure," said Macky. "I punched him as hard as I could in the stomach one time and my fist just bounced back. He was just looking at me after." He shrugged.
The big kid new everything about professional sports. He could recite any statistic. Eventually he became manager for every team in the high school and compiled statistics on every single player.
Macky grew his hair shoulder length in eighth grade. He also grew a moustache, but it was never more than a fringe. He had this great smile - kind of a grin with teeth - and his eyes would squint as if he was laughing.
Most of the reservation kids went to the Catholic elementary school and transferred into the public high school when they graduated from eighth grade. They came in apprehensively, in a cluster, but integrated smoothly enough - at least, as much as they were ever going to integrate - about halfway through freshman year. Macky was at no such disadvantage since he had always attended public school.
As the student body separated itself into cliques, I found myself alone in mine, a target of jocks with superiority to prove at someone's expense. If I had better sense I would have laid off sports for the first year, but I had wanted so much to fit in. I was big into band, the trombone, another strike against me. After a year of towel welts, bruises, fully-clothed showers and some worse things, I was ready to find myself some new friends. The Native American boys who were not athletes had no problem with me, so I found my place with them. I still had European-American friends, but I spend much of my free time with the Native Americans.
There was a lot that we didn't have in common. I wanted to get good grades, they could have cared less. Although my family was not rich, I lived in splendor compared to them. I wanted to compete in team sports while they wanted to relax. Yet my peers of European ancestry were competitive, violent, and mean, while my Native American peers were relatively accepting, polite, and even philosophical. I guess that we shared things in common that were important to me.
Macky was part of this group, so we began to hang out together. We pooled our money to bribe an adult to get us beer or liquor and we would get drunk together. That's pretty much what we did. It was self medication on my part, I know. I used beer and other substances to escape the sharp angles of myself. Maybe we had that in common, I don't know. I don't think I have brain damage from some of the things we did, but I could be wrong.
We would take a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon to the park. I would be feeling good after three or four, but Macky would always egg me on.
"Have another one," he would say. "There it is."
In fact, he would say that whenever there was something inadvisable he wanted to see me do. For example, if I was thinking of trying to jump a little too far over a bottomless chasm.
"There it is," he'd say. "You can do it." And all the time he would be smiling that conspiratorial, squinty grin.
Could be I was a little bit too much of a source of entertainment for Macky. He had a nickname for me. He called me, 'Tom the Bomb.' I felt like a bomb waiting to go off a lot of the time.
There was even more disruptive behavior from the Native American boys in high school than in grade school. One time this one kid kept smart mouthing the English teacher. The kid was a smart kid - I think he holds some kind of public office today. Anyway, he kept mouthing off and the English teacher picked him up, desk and all, and moved him to the front of the room. We didn't get much done that day.
One time, Macky had a 12-inch Bowie knife in study hall. He sat in the back and threw it down the aisle, trying to get it to stick in the door. He did this several times until the study hall teacher came back, took the knife away and took him to the office. I didn't mind that he threw the knife. I was pretty confident he wasn't going to miss and stick one of his classmates with it. I just thought it was a pretty dumb thing to do. If I remember aright, he admitted as much later.
About halfway though senior year, I quit self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs.
"I don't drink or smoke anymore," I told Macky.
"What good are you?" he asked, but said he was kidding when I looked hurt.
Macky made it through high school, unlike a few of the other Native American boys, and graduated with me and the rest of the class. Our graduating class was to consist of twenty-six students, but four of the Native American girls and one Euro-American girl got pregnant, so there were only twenty-one of us there to accept our diplomas there in the gym.
After high school I beat it out of that town as fast as I could. A few of my classmates did the same, but many of the Native Americans settled down to life at the reservation and many of the Euro-Americans settled down to jobs at their family business or farm.
I went to school for Music. The first year was an eye opener. There were people like me everywhere. There were good musicians everywhere, many of them better than I. It was a hard adjustment to make. I grew my hair down to the middle of my back and returned home that summer to work construction with one of my European-American friends whose dad was a home builder. That would be my last summer at my childhood home.
I worked hard, carrying buckets of mud up the ladders as my friend and his dad built the chimney, or pushing aside my fear of heights to carry sheets of plywood across the rafters.
One day my friend's dad hired another construction company to set up the concrete forms for the foundation. While they were setting up the forms, my friend's dad had me dig a trench through the clay with a mud hoe for the floor drain that was to be in the laundry room. After watching me dig with that mud hoe for eight straight hours, the other company tried to hire me away, but I wasn't going. I wanted to see that house go up.
Working in the sun all day turned my skin brown, and my long hair developed a big red streak. I kept it in place with a leather string around my forehead. When it was time to wire the place, my friend's older brother drove up from down state. He was not pleased with my appearance.
"Why don't you get a haircut?" he said. "You look like a reservation Indian."
"What's the matter with that?" I asked.
For the rest of the time the older brother was on the job, I was relegated to digging post holes with a manual post hole digger around twenty acres of land near my friend's family home. They intended to get a couple of beef cows. I didn't care. It was all work to me.
On the hottest day, I saw a bunch of Native American kids jumping off the breakwater into Lake Superior. Lake Superior water is cold as hell, usually never warmer than fifty degrees. So I joined them. I probably looked like them with my hair and tan. I jumped in and it felt like that ice water would stop my heart. It was great. I came up gasping as the tourists smiled down on the natives from the ferry boat.
Macky came into town driving a Dodge Challenger 385 Magnum with seventies on the back and sixties on the front. The car was ridiculous. It could lay rubber for a hundred yards, easy. He would step on the gas and the acceleration would press you back into the seat. We spent the night partying and talking. He had a job laying concrete pipe with a crew. His job was to go down in the trench and help guide the pipe into place.
"Isn't that dangerous?" I asked.
"Yeah, you have to move pretty fast sometimes," he shrugged. "It pays good."
I told what I was doing and he said he was glad I was still playing the trombone.
The next day he went back to his construction job in Minnesota and I went back to my construction job in our home town.
A few weeks later Macky was in town again. The Challenger was in the shop - it seems it had too much torque for its own drive shaft and kept twisting off the universal joint. The local mechanic who lived not far from the reservation was able to re-tap three out of the four screws that held the U-joint onto the drive shaft.
"Now, take it easy on this," said the mechanic. "It's not one hundred percent."
Macky paid him in cash and we got in the car. He pulled out of the driveway and floored it. I could feel the skin being pulled back on my face as we accelerated for perhaps five seconds. Then he let up on the gas.
"We were just going a hundred," he said.
We spent that night partying, too, and once again he headed back to Minnesota and I went back to my job.
The next time I saw Macky, things weren't going quite as well. He had wrecked his car and was broke and marooned in our town, and he had stolen a few dollars from a mutual acquaintance under hilarious circumstances. I bought beer and drove him out to the reservation where we sat around and partied.
My last recollection of him is sitting in a big overstuffed chair with a beer in one hand and a fourteen year old Native American girl on his knee. He had his big arm around her shoulders and she was embracing his neck and kissing his face. And he was smiling that smile of his.
Despite some of the things he did, he was a good guy and there was no harm in him. Wherever he is, I hope he is okay, not in jail, and smiling that smile.