by George Key
I and Tim spent hot summer days as children beneath the umbrella of a weeping willow. When heavy rains came, we sailed makeshift vessels until they were devoured by the sewer drains. Those friends from our childhood are always somewhere ready to pick up right where you left off. The bonds created in simpler times when the world was kind and the people were real, last forever.
I was out circulating the oil in my motorcycle one hot summer day. Riding in from the North Star Saloon, my bike’s autopilot latched on to the Pheasant Bar tracker beam. Once that occurs, there was nothing left to do but put the kickstand down. There were several bikes there. One of the bikes I recognized as belonging to my childhood brother from another mother, Tim Medicine Eagle. We sat at the bar near the glass door that allowed us to look out at our bikes. We swapped lies and then took them back and laughed. I nursed my Jack and sipped on the coke back until closing time.
Tim’s adjustable main-jet Bendix carburetor was spitting and sputtering as we pulled away from the Pheasant Bar headed to the truck stop at the West edge of town for our ritual late-night breakfast. Being old school, I always packed tools and parts, as anyone that rode would before there were Harley shops every sixty-three miles. Being a wrench, I not only carried parts that I might need to get down the road, but I also carried certain items that would aid with emergent repairs for other bikes that may be broken down along the way. My brother adjusted his carburetor in the parking lot after breakfast. He got the bike to run somewhat well in the brisk air that always crept along the creek beds which cut through those West-River Flatlands of South Dakota.
The ability to get yourself down the road was the norm of the American Biker Sub-culture. Even though Tim knew I could rebuild that carburetor in the dark, he did not ask for help, and out of respect, I did not offer. No words need to be spoken between brothers, for we always could hear each other especially when we were quiet. Our words came with more power when spoken with our eyes and the language of our whole selves told the rest of any present story.
He could hear from my eyes that I was proud of him for making his bike smile again, nonetheless, my body language revealed my desire to teach. When Tim cocked his head like a prairie chicken unveiling the tell-tale sign of the one-eyed squint, it was the non-verbal way of his telling me, “Okay now then cousin, what you know, ain't it now, teach me".
I let Tim know that to make the final, "dial -it -in ", adjustment it had to be done at 9:30 in the morning, on a flat paved road, traveling at 60 mph, over 120 miles, and there must be no more than five hundred feet in elevation variance within the middle 60 miles of the road test. We both nodded affirmatively knowing that meant only one strip of I-90, North of where the antelope herds grazed along the White River. We prepared for the 400-mile loop around the Rosebud.
We rode fast and hard North to I-90, then West doing the test. After the test, it was beer-thirty so we glided down an off-ramp. into a small farming community. We filled our tanks at a Sinclair gas station. There were some good old boys watching an old man change a truck tire. The cashier ran out to admire our bikes. Her attentiveness did not rub well on the good old boys. You could almost feel the holes being burned through our leathers by their green eyes. Two girls in short shorts and not much else licking soft-serve cones to death started giggling as they leaned against the tire display batting their eyes as country girls do. The ice cream cones looked inviting. The girls however we knew were nothing but trouble. So, we paid for our gas and blasted across the highway, up a dirt street. At the top of the hill where the old dirt road was severed by progress was an old roadhouse saloon. Small towns died when the freeways were built. Some locals blamed those people that used I-90 for it being built in the first place.
Our cloud of kicked-up dust laid down behind us as we pulled in. We parked them near the hitching post where locals tied their horses knowing that we would be able to see our scooters from the bar. We pushed our way in cautiously through the swinging saloon doors. The music stopped and all eyes were upon us. Slowly we made our way through the entire length of the narrow saloon to the men's room. Every eye followed us as if a string attached them to us. An old pig farmer spat his opinion of us ringing a large brass spittoon like a bell. An old unimpressed hound dog nearly lifted his head from its resting place, but then did not.
Still, not a sound but for the occasional squeak of the old wooden floor as we stepped our way to the back. There was no need to ask where the urinal was because we could smell it when we put our kickstands down. Again, we did not have to speak words, after all, we both spotted the shotgun that the bartender held under the bar in the reflection of the huge mirror in that 1890 circa mahogany bar. Parched and now noon we bellied up to the bar. The first words spoken were not of the normal, “ what may I get you”, that might be expected, rather it was, "you all ain't from around here, are ya now?"
There were tales of people disappearing in the flatlands being burned, chopped up, and either turned under a plow or fed to the hogs. Knowing the old pig farmers wearing the John Deer and Farmer Union caps most likely would not be breaking bread with us, we both ordered cokes. Cokes were safe because they did not have the opportunity to slip us a mickey. We positioned ourselves that we had each other's back and set a wide enough distance to ensure that one blast of that scattergun that the bartender controlled could not instantly kill us both. With the last frosty swallow, we heard the bartender's eyes as they simultaneously peered at the ten-dollar bill we had placed upon the bar. No change had yet to appear for the purchase of our cokes. Even though neither I nor Tim were brothers with the bartender, we understood his eyes to say, "leave that ten and walk out alive". Not that we ran, but the saloon doors fluttered till they stopped, and our bikes started on the first kick. As dust arose from the dirt parking lot, we continued our loop.
Tim's bike sounded tight as we rolled through the Badlands. The essence of Cow Pee clover brought fond memories of simpler times in my youth. Cow Pee clover, with its yellow blossom, smells much like the backside of a milk barn on a hot afternoon. Winding through the Badlands we headed South to the monument at the burial site at Wounded Knee.
Once there, we stopped to reflect for a while as memories upon the untold truth of Yellow Bird and other friends from the 1973 civil rights protest. Subsequently, those reflections turned to the bitter taste of our disgust resenting the lies that are still taught at schools in textbooks. The prairie grass was so tall that all we could see of the buffalo along the way were those distinct humps one might find on the backside of an old nickel. Many cobwebs can be blown out as the wind cleans our minds from anxious thoughts. A good long ride can prove therapeutically beneficial.
A human being whose shared wisdom I did not grasp until well after his death continues to inspire me. Some of his wisdom remains the foundation of my life's journey. current existence, and passion for what I am called yet to do. We knew him as John Fire. He was John Fire Lame Deer, a medicine person and the Indian Council leader of my hometown. Some elders spoke poorly of him saying to me, " Don't listen to him, boy, ain't it, you know, he's just an old drunk, he don't know nothing, you know? Ain't it?"
John was misunderstood by many. My redirection toward helping others through ministry and counseling was partially inspired by John Fire. It took the right moment to understand the true lesson, for it was up to me when I would hear his message. To listen is one thing, but to hear is another. John said that to be a good medicine person, you must experience everything life has to offer, how else can you expect to teach or heal others?", he was truly a seeker of visions that made a great impression and fundamental base of what I have become and provided me a clearer view of who I am today. I recall the elder describing himself and his duty, "I'm the Spirit's janitor, all I do is wipe the windows a little bit, so, they can see out for themselves". These teachings were but two of many.
Much truth of wisdom lays dormant until we are gifted with the true message empowered to understand the rest of the story. John saw diabetes and addiction were two major problems that were destroying the Tribe. He was experiencing what he needed to be a good medicine man. Alcohol played both fiddles. His teaching fueled my passion to utilize my wisdom collected from having been there and done that to teach. Moreover, to become that janitor that wipes the windows of troubled human beings just enough that they might see out for themselves. Being charged with the duty to convey the wisdom so that the message can survive mainstream resistance is an honor leading to peace as we fade.
Tim's son was to be a medicine person. This was told to Tim in a vision before his son was born. When you looked into the eyes of his wife Kathy, you could see that this truth brought her pride with honor. Kathy and Tim lived in the camp known as Antelope directly across the road from the University that honors their namesake Spotted Tail,(Sinte Gleska). Sinte Gleska was a visionary leader that believed the way to preserve Lakota culture, language, dance, song, and ways of life were through education.
Catching a bite of freshly fried pan bread, on our way out the door we rolled East continuing our loop. Our intention was to be riding when the sun dogs kissed the moon bringing the stars to dance with the fireflies. The lighted tails of the fireflies were especially viewable while riding the stretch between the Oak Creek and the Eastern rise of the Jordan Valley. It proved an amazing full sensory experience watching the complete transition as the sky opened revealing the love that God had for us. If not for taking the time to appreciate God's touch upon the canvas of the universe, we might become detached from what is truly most important.
Little white crosses littered the way, marking each the death sites of individuals. Often mislabeled, by those not knowing the truth, as drunken bums walking into traffic. This was another fallacious misrepresentation spun to benefit the oppressors. Many of the markers evinced the influence of superstition upon the traditionalists. There was a belief that evil spirits followed you as close as any shadow cast when the sun was high. To destroy the evil spirit one could, in theory, dart in front of oncoming traffic. If done just right, to a point of near-miss, then the individual would be rid of this evil. Whether accident or suicide becomes the perceived conclusion, either way, that pain would no longer be the power of the evil spirit. The superstition became a tool of ethnic cleansers, excusing away the tragic accidental elimination of non-conformant undesirables.
At the base of the final rise out of Jordan Valley, we detoured North up Rocky Raccoon Road to the township correction road where we stopped at the one-room schoolhouse where my maternal grandfather had acted as schoolmaster about the time Sitting Bull was murdered up at the Standing Rock. We continued over to the North County Road riding South downhill into Winner, (our hometown), we could see the moon reflecting in the placid waters of the municipal sewer lagoon.
Now nearly home, we geared down quietly in respect for the dead children. Passing the cemetery, we could clearly see the headstones in the moonlight. I flashed back to the sounds of many military gun salutes from the disposal of unopened, non-viewable remains. Children killing children, ponds of the machine exposed the common enemy that united locally the Lakota and the non-Lakota. Richard Nixon did great things for the unification of a previous divisive cultural clash. One of the first sun dances since Washington declared them illegal was a collaborative protest of the War in Viet Nam. Both the Indian council and white council along with merchants, civic leaders, and guests from politically influential Eastern civil rights concerned families supported the ceremony. Our family stood proudly in support quite tired of the body count. Next to me stood one of the loves of my life and to this day dear friend Elizabeth. She now is a nurse at Fort Meade Hospital sandwiched between a seventh calvary cemetery and Bear Butte, a sacred Lakota holy ground.
As in everything in the universe, the most powerful forces come to us as circles, and that that geometry is prominent in Lakota culture, history, and way of life. So, to end this reflective narrative as the loop closes full circle back to where it began as we roll on to Main Street, our hometown, Winner. We find ourselves, full circle, putting our kickstands down in front of the Pheasant Bar, where we keep our eyes on the world from our barstools.