Drumbeats From My Father, The View From Rattlesnake Ridge

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Indian Sunset by Wayne D. King

By WAYNE D. KING, The View From Rattlesnake Ridge

“The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.” — MINQUASS PROVERB

My father was a simple man.

Born in Medford, Oregon on a Depression-era “side trip” from Bartlett, New Hampshire. 

A few years before he was born, his father had managed to land a job there after the Boston and Maine Railroad’s ridership dried up and precipitated a similar decline in jobs for their employees. The King and George families had piled brothers, sisters, cousins, mothers and fathers into two old Woodies, Beverly Hillbilly style – beds, bureaus and all – headed for hope and higher ground. 

Along the way my Aunt Nancy was born in the back seat – somewhere in Kansas – after my grandmother Charlotte had brought on her own labor by operating the hand crank on the car with my grandfather Fred at the wheel.  

Dad was born a few years later, in his family’s modest home, in the depths of the Depression. 

Eventually, even as the country endured depression, war and deprivation, the family managed to leapfrog its way back east. Their northstar: New Hampshire. There was a brief time in Taunton, Massachusetts where dad and the Kings lived in a house next door to an elementary school teacher, Bernice Dixon, with eight girls – one of whom he would later court and marry. Though he was barely a teenager then.

After finally making the last quantum leap, returning to Bartlett and then graduating from Bartlett Combined School, he went to UNH. 

His one year at UNH was an eventful one. His father died unexpectedly in the spring and dad “jumped a freight train” back to Bartlett to be with his mother.  

He never returned to UNH, instead he joined the Navy, assigned to the USS Fiske during the Korean “conflict.”  The Fiske was a destroyer that provided protection for larger ships and the years in the Navy were, from his perspective, largely uneventful except for being arrested on liberty and spending a night in jail because he got into a fight when a bar in California tried to prevent his shipmate – who happened to be black – from joining them for a drink. 

In my earlier years, he was a Barber, first in Gorham, then Conway, Laconia and Plymouth while my mom was a nurse in various hospitals in those same towns. 

In 1962 my mother started a real estate business in Campton and within a few years Dad had gotten his own license and joined her. But Dad was a storyteller, and a Barber. He liked the real estate business but missed the camaraderie of the barbershop. By the end of his first year he had built a little shop in the back of the real estate office and local folks would pop in for a shave, a haircut, good conversation, and occasionally a tip or a listing.

My UNH college friends, Kip Bates, Christopher Polydoroff, Michelle Boucher, Bobbie Boudreau, Edward Acker, and others, used to love coming north for the weekend to hang out around the dining table at our home. They lovingly referred to my Dad as “Jolly Roger.” He would laugh and tell stories that kept everyone entertained. Hanging with him was better than a night partying anywhere. 

Despite his sense of humor, my dad was not a very emotive fellow. In my entire life I only saw or heard my dad cry three times. 

The first time, around 1960, our very young family had moved to Tempe, Arizona. We were living in a small apartment and late one night I overheard my father sobbing as he told my mom that he could not find work. His barber’s license was not transferable without two years of “training” despite the fact he had been cutting hair for years in New Hampshire. Within a few days the entire family was back on the road to New Hampshirer. My mother was the hero of that story. She stood by her man, held his heart ever so gently in her hands and, I suppose, remembered that he had helped her hide her pregnancy from the administrators at Bridgewater State Nursing School when that would have meant termination of her own career. So, despite the fact that she already had a good job as a nurse in Tempe we headed back to the Granite State. 

The second time was also late at night only a few years later. My father and mother had been reasonably successful in the new real estate venture and had bought an old farm from a retired Pinkerton Detective – believe it or not, named MacDonald. Two weeks after beginning a remodeling job on the place the entire first floor of the house collapsed into the crawlspace below, just days before we were to move into “Old MacDonald’s Farm.”

We ended up in a cramped little one room cabin – more of a shack really- on the property. They built a triple decker bunk into a 6’x5’ tool shed/closet – converted for my sisters and I.  Each of us had one drawer for our stuff built below the beds. Mom and dad slept on a pull-out sofa in the Kitchen/Livingroom. It wasn’t so bad for the first month or so, but when the job of fixing the house dragged on into the winter months it was stressful both emotionally and financially. . . and cold because in their rush to put a roof over our heads they had been unable to insulate the place.  One night after Mom and Dad figured we were all asleep they had a heated and emotion filled discussion about their marriage. My dad cried when he thought he might lose her as his 11-year-old son listened silently from the top bunk in the dark.

The final time, and the only time when I actually witnessed his tears, came just a few years before he died. I was visiting my parents and had been trying to learn to play a song by Elton John called “Indian Sunset” on the guitar. My father walked into the room and sat down quietly. He had been listening and he said he had something very important to tell me. He had known for most of my life of my interest in social justice and could not help but notice my interest in Native American culture and the struggles of indigeneous people.  He wanted me to know that his father, who had died before I was born, had been the son of an Iroquois Father and an Abenaki mother, thrown together in life at an orphanage in Quebec. Both full-blooded from their respective nations. Their story is another saga entirely and will have to be told separately.

Tears streamed down his cheeks as he told me that he had promised his father to keep this secret to protect his family from the racism so prevalent at the time, but he realized now that he needed to tell me. To tear down the veil of silence that had existed for all those years. 

More than twenty-five years since that day I find myself, still, trying to understand it all. I find great comfort in the spiritual beliefs of my ancestors, they saved me after I lost Alice two years ago.  I take great pride in my heritage and try to impart its importance to my son and my nephews and nieces. 

Yet, somehow, I know that it is not completely mine. I have not had to bear the weight of what my Cheyenne brother Jim calls “our pain” because I was shielded from it. Shielded by the generational pain borne by my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. 

Even though there has always been a place in my heart that sensed my connection to my heritage I have – nonetheless – lived a life one-half step, or more, removed from the pain of my brothers and sisters of native descent.  It makes me question my right to speak at all in light of the relative harm I have endured. Yet the confluence of recent events compels me to take the risk nonetheless.

The pandemic we all face has laid bare a myriad of failings and challenges we face as a nation and as a world. There is so much death and sadness and every day we grieve for the families who have endured the tragedy of lost loved ones. So, too, we grieve the loss of simple human contact, everyday expressions of love, passion, lust, friendship and camaraderie. 

In the days and weeks that have passed since the killing of George Floyd the protests across the nation and the world have signaled an awakening, a soul-searching, perhaps even a reckoning. When talk has turned to police violence or reparations, I have been torn between my support for Black Lives Matter, my lifelong personal  commitment to racial equality and the power of this moment, and the desire to remind people that the first slaves of the new world were indigenous people and that Native people are killed by overzealous or racist police at least as much as any other people.  The impacts of the pandemic are so profound among Indian nations that word is barely even able to get out from reservations roiling with the virus. Pandemics are not new to Native people. My great-grandmother’s people were nearly obliterated by one introduced by Lord Jeffrey Amherst when he sent wagons of smallpox infected blankets to the Abenaki village of Saint Francis intended to “extirpate the savages.”  Today one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges bears his name. . . 

But arguing over relative harm only divides us at a time when unity is the one best weapon we have.

The Lakota (Sioux) have an old legend that holds that we are now entering a time of the Eagle and the Condor –  when the wings of these two great symbols will call all people to come together as brothers and sisters to save the earth and the human race. Other Indian nations have similar stories as well.

Congressman John Lewis, the conscience of our nation in so many ways, said something similar only a few months before his death last week:

I believe race is too heavy a burden to carry into the 21st century. It’s time to lay it down. We all came here in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat. ~ John Lewis

There are many challenges that face us ahead and there will undoubtedly be lengthy and ongoing debate over the solutions. This is in keeping with our most cherished traditions. We must not fear vigorous debate, but we must listen to one another – and seek the place of healing. With few exceptions we have all been the victims in this story. . . But If the determination of the people in our streets demanding a more just society – people of every color and station in life – show us anything – we have also been the beneficiaries.  It is still the greatest story ever told. The one story where even men with feet of clay for a brief shining moment glimpsed a world beyond what any humans had imagined before and committed a young nation to making that journey.

As a start, we could continue that great journey by instituting a basic income as a means of tackling the most pressing of our challenges, the economic fallout from the pandemic, reparations and the savage inequality of wealth in our nation. Give every American the real opportunity to exercise the power of their purse. To defund and refund – to rebuild their communities from the ground up on their own terms – neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, town by town, state by state.

If you have read my previous appeals for a Universal Basic Income – an American Dividend- you have heard me say before that it is reparations for every American, irrespective of race, creed or national origin, who has borne the pain of a nation still struggling, yet still committed, to forming that more perfect union. 

We are still far from that day yet, but I believe more fervently than ever we are the last best hope for making it so. 

About Wayne D. King: Wayne King is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician. A three-term State Senator, 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor, now a registered Independent; he is the former publisher of Heart of New Hampshire Magazine and CEO of MOP Environmental Solutions Inc., and now the host of two Podcasts – The Radical Centrist (www.theradicalcentrist.us) and NH Secrets, Legends and Lore (www.nhsecrets.blogspot.com). His art (www.waynedking.com) is exhibited nationally in galleries and he has published three books of his images and a novel “Sacred Trust”  a vicarious, high voltage adventure to stop a private powerline all available on Amazon.com. He now lives in Thornton, New Hampshire at the base of Welch Mountain where he proudly flies both the American and Iroquois Flags. His website is: http://bit.ly/WayneDKing . You can help spread the word by following and supporting him at www.Patreon.com/TheRadicalCentrist .

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