Spring 2005 - Volume 8 Number 2
And Then There Was Laughter
Little brown birds fluttered within a tangle of branches and leaves. Some chirped. I didn't know their names or recognize them. As I stood beside the Mississippi and contemplated, all I could do was stare at the river, its banks, and the colors of a deciduous autumn. Swirling in a gust of wind, a yellowed leaf was lifted from the rocks near the bank of the river. It flirted with freedom and then fell into the water. Thoughts wandered. The river's bank was the end of a long journey. I had achieved my dream of becoming an English teacher. The process, however, had carried me from home. Watching the leaf become smaller, I noticed the river seemed shallow and polluted. The smell of dead fish came and went with the breeze. People passed. Had somebody asked me for directions, I couldn't have whispered anything intelligible. The sky was not mine. The land was not mine. The river was not my river.
The struggle had been a long one. With the exception of a few brief years of relative security, my experience could be summed up as a life of reluctant poverty, much of it spent in school trying to remain in the place where I had been raised, trying to gain access in a fickled job market. Standing beside the Mississippi on that cool autumn day, seeing nothing familiar, understanding that the Mississippi was a vast and unknown ecology, realizing that the river was not my river, I faced the reality that becoming a teacher had taken me from my place, that I had been displaced, displaced by the necessity to provide for Sarah and Hallie, my young daughters. Though the memory of their eyes filled my heart, all I could see was an unknown river in an unknown place, a river that was fading, a river replaced with translucent images, visions seen through the flow of tears. I cried as I looked at the Mississippi. For the first time in my adult life, I could look on a river without having to worry too much about money, but the price was dear.
In 1981, despite a growing commitment to pacifism, I volunteered for a tour in the Marine Corps, thinking the experience would at least provide me with a college education. Like my father, a veteran of the Korean War, the possibility of college had to be linked to the hope of military benefits, a hope that was, for me, lost in the trickle-down politics of Regonomics that plagued the 1980s. The GI Bill that supported my father's dreams had crashed against boulders in the rapids of tax breaks for the rich. And despite my serving during the Crisis in Lebanon as part of a United Nations' peacekeeping force, my country offered me no real opportunities to escape poverty. Any opportunity for college would have drowned had I not saved on my own. So when I did gain access to post-secondary education, it was a matter of spending my savings.
Then came marriage and children. Renee and I married within our own class, both of us committed to school as a means of escaping poverty. Together, we found a rock and held on as the river of economic reality swept past. Eventually student loans had to be used to facilitate the process of maintaining a stable poverty. Year after year, we struggled, but it was our river. We knew it well, and though the struggle was difficult, we managed. Still, the economic, social, and emotional currents were too powerful. We separated after thirteen years. The three of them-Renee, Sarah, and Hallie-held on while I was swept away to another rock.
By that time, I had been in school off and on for nearly fourteen years. Despite nationally recognized publications, none of the schools in the area would hire me as a full-time employee. And this too was a matter of economic convention as universities and colleges moved more and more toward part-time labor, disposable labor, an economic testament to the disruptive nature of capitalism. With no insurance or other benefits, no real opportunity to fully support my two daughters, I let go of my rock. In a desperate search for security, I sent applications to teaching institutions across the nation and even around the world. It was the beginning of a forced journey.
Then came the offer to teach at Black Hawk College in Moline, IL. The choice was to remain in a place I had spent nearly forty years coming to know, to remain poor but stay with my daughters, or to leave my place and family, to accept a union-supported position at Black Hawk, a position that would allow me to buy clothes for my children, a position that had a good insurance plan, one that would allow twelve-year-old Sarah to replace the glasses she got at four, an insurance plan that would allow both girls to go to the doctor without enduring the stigma of Welfare coupons. I had the choice to stay poor or go on a journey that would take me from my place and those I loved. With little hope of economic security, I chose to provide our children what neither of us had been able to provide before. Swimming to the shore, I dragged my body from that river and started a journey that would take me thousands of miles from my home, a journey that would take me to a new river.
On that autumn afternoon so far from my children and my home, I stood beside the Mississippi while the tears fell from my cheeks into the river beneath my feet. In pain, I raised my eyes toward the heavens. Looking up, I saw thousands of small black birds flying south, maybe starlings. They followed a common course, moving up in some places and moving down in others like leaves in a stream, a murmur of birds changing course in relation to unknown and unseen currents in the air, currents I could never have imagined, forces beyond my grasp. The birds above, like the river below, seemed committed to some design beyond my understanding. All I could do was accept my state of unknowing. "So this is the Mississippi," I thought, "a river I don't know, a river that's not mine." The tears dried on my checks, evaporating in the breeze as the flow of birds continued above me.
There was a time when I knew all of the rivers around me, and it seemed to me that I was a part of those rivers, that I was of them and they were of me. The rivers shaped my being. Before I was even born, my mother worked in the dry heat of the Columbia Gorge, a river valley separating northern Oregon from southern Washington. She and my father worked on the Oregon side. He was doing the fieldwork for a master's degree in archaeology. She managed the ovens, cooking for the excavators. The Columbia was a workers' river, a place where New Deal programs saved countless families from suffering the economic fluctuations of capitalism. During the depression years of the 1930s, my grandfather found work on Columbia River dam-building projects. Shirt tailing the New Deal programs that brought periods of relative stability to my grandfather's life, archaeological projects became more common in the river basins where the need for work supported the environmental devastation of damming rivers and flooding valleys.
In the glory of her pregnancy, my mom would swim in the Columbia, swallowing water to cool her from the midday heat. That water went to me. I am of that river. And though the New Deal dams restrict it and radioactive effluents are carried by it, I know the ancient course of that river. It flows in me. It passes through my veins and pounds its rhythms in my temples. I am of that river.
There are other rivers that shaped me as well. I knew the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia. That river had cut steep canyon walls through layer upon layer of basaltic columns. The Snake canyons were cut deep by the river in that place, making the valley closer to the center of the earth. In summer, temperatures could exceed 115 degrees in some places. I played by that river of fire. I remember feeling like it was watching me. It felt like a blessed spirit, an elder filled with compassion, an older relative watching with kind eyes, guiding me toward respect. It watched me race barefoot or in old sneakers along its edges, my feet pounding in the gray-brown silty loess, watched my feet forcing puffs of dust to rise and gently return to the earth like slow-motion splashings in shallow puddles. I learned to swim in that river. The heat forged my skin. The river was part of me. That river was my river. That place was my place.
Titoquin1 people lived near that river. In the afternoons, they would go to their sweathouses, small domed structures covered with blankets, and pile rocks and wood together. Then they would set the piles on fire. Streams of smoke would flow into the air. Once heated, the rocks would be placed inside the sweathouses. Most of the sweathouses at that time were built near rivers. As chance would have it, my family was fortunate and involved with that process. Prior to sweating and after each skin-blistering round, we sweaters would swim in nearby rivers. Sometimes it was the Snake River. Other times, we swam in smaller streams, tributaries of the Snake.
It was always hot in the summer. Grass fires were commonplace. Sometimes fires swept across the canyon and smoke filled the air. At night, the horizon would sometimes glow in flickering rhythms that would keep me awake, filled with a blending of awe and fear. No matter what I experienced at night, there was always the possibility of sweat the next day. And always we would swim in the rivers or creeks. My Nii Mii Puu (Nez Perce) uncles told me about fire fighters who had to dive into the creeks when the fires came too close.
Once in the Hells Canyon portion of the Snake River, I experienced a glorious phenomenon. In that part of the canyon, Indian people carved intricate designs on rocks, rocks polished black and shiny from the combination of water and heat in the canyon, a heat that could reach 120 degrees or more. At Hat Rock in 1996, I had been hiking the canyon as part of an archaeological survey crew. Grants and teaching positions were few and far between in English departments: achaeological work in addition to loans and Welfare helped me to support my family while I was in grad school. After a day of survey, I would swim naked in the river, which was surprisingly cold all year long, and then climb the canyon's steep sides, up from the scorching heat to where it was cooler. I had a campsite high in the canyon, up where there was a cool breeze, up where the golden eagles would hunt. It was important for me to be alone so I could pray and sing in the evenings and mornings without being held in contempt by other crewmembers. Singing traditional Nii Mii Puu songs and praying in traditional ways was strange to the all-white and mostly male archaeologists. On the last day of the project, I awoke and started my morning prayers before taking down my tent. The dawn was still; even the grass hardly quivered. As I prayed, a distant sound drifted up from the river basin. To my ears, it sounded like traditional Nii Mii Puu singing, and it grew loud enough that I could hear it quite clearly. I listened for some time as the morning drifted on, eventually having to pack up my tent and belongings. It didn't stop. Even as I walked down to the base camp, the echo continued.
In the late fall of that same year, I was talking with one of my Nii Mii Puu aunties, Audrey Redhart. She was more than eighty years old, and it was so wonderfully warming to sit by while she told stories about her family. At one point, she said her father used to ride his horse up the Snake River into Hells Canyon to find his songs. I told my auntie the story of my journey to Hells Canyon, and she nodded knowingly. She didn't have to say anything. She just looked at me and nodded. She'd heard the songs of the river. She was of that place.
My Nii Mii Puu auntie passed away after I left. Nobody told me about her leaving, which is how both she and I would want it. In my mind, Auntie is surely sitting by her wood stove like she always did in the latter part of autumn. The fire is warming. She is rocking in an old chair that creaks the time away, an old rocking chair that creaks the time away until we can be together again.
The forces that pull at us can be powerful indeed. Standing beside the Mississippi, I thought about my Auntie Audrey as the dusk consumed the afternoon. And I wanted to drink the water, but who would be foolish enough to drink from the Mississippi? And I wished for songs, but there were no songs to be heard-only the chirping of the birds as they flew south. The Mississippi did not seem to know me. I let that thought pass and returned my gaze to the starlings flowing across the evening sky. Wisps of clouds ribboned in the higher altitudes above them and the river. A brilliant red leaf gently fell from the branch of a tree and gradually descended to the water below, eventually moving downstream at the center of an ever widening ripple mark. The murmur continued for miles. I could neither see the beginning nor the end of that constant stream as it passed. In that speck of time, I knew I was near the medulla of the river. The birds had shown me the innermost core of that place, and then there was laughter. After all, it was about time to return to school. It was about time to start teaching.Endnotes 1. This is a Nez Perce (Nii Mii Puu) word for Indian. Acknowledgements
Many have contributed to this work in countless ways. In addition to the editors at College Quarterly, I would like to thank Dana C. Elder, Victor Villanueva, Erskine Carter, and Paul Lindholt for editorial advice. Of course, the essay would never have taken shape without the kindness extended by Nez Perce people.
Galen Leonhardy currently teaches English and humanities courses at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois. Prior to his current position, he taught English at Eastern Washington University, worked with incarcerated teens, and volunteered at Crosswalk, a shelter for street youth in Spokane, Washington. Mostly, Galen enjoys spending time with his two daughters, Sarah and Hallie. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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