Friday, January 20, 2006
The ghosts of 1953
Very few people, except us old folks, remember the summers of 1952 and 1953 when a disease called Polio silently knocked down our friends, siblings and even the President of the United States, a few years earlier. It was a horrible disease to be singled out by, as it left its victims crippled or confined in an Iron Lung for the rest of their lives. It struck without warning and how the virus was spread was and still is a mystery. It struck with all of its might in the months of July and August. The polio epidemic created hysteria in all of our parents and for want of anything else to do some did not allow their children to attend carnivals, circus’s, the city pools and anything else where people gathered. I had friends, brothers of friends, a girl down the street, relatives all attacked by the vicious virus. Some were left with braces, others with casts and some nothing at all. All of those attacked, that I knew of, were about my age. My parents packed us up in August and we headed for the mountains, away from the sweltering masses in our little rural town of 4,000, away from the virus, hiding from the ravages of Polio.
Legion Lake, in Custer State Park, The Black Hills of South Dakota was where we landed. It was about an hours drive from my fathers Sawmill and he would commute a couple of times during the week, bringing bookkeeping work for my mother and to stay overnight or the weekend. We stayed in a rustic cabin on the mountain. I always waited anxiously for word that he was joining us as it would mean we would be eating out somewhere or attending a play or just going for a long drive and I could be mesmerized by my fathers tales of the gold miners that used to inhabit the area.
A summer at Legion Lake was like a dream come true for a wee lad of 10. “Back in those days” we ‘wee lads’ were allowed to roam free with but a promise to come back for lunch and not to do anything bad while we were gone. Heaven. My brothers were much older than I was and always quickly ditched me to do things that a little guy around would only ruin. I was also known to tell on them when they did bad things. There I was, alone with only a beautiful lake and fishing, mountains, timber, horses and lots of animals to keep me company. A child’s dream, I think. There was also Andy, whose parents ran the place and the tourist kids that would arrive from time to time to carry on the adventures and dreams and there was Badger Clark.
Mr. Clark was the poet- Laureate of South Dakota. He eventually decided to live and write in the central Black Hills in a simple cabin, near French Creek, made of logs by and nicknamed “the Badger Hole.” I had visited Mr. Clark several times but only with my brothers as I was not allowed to go alone, not because my mother was scared of Mr. Clark but rather scared of me. I had a pretty good reputation, by this time, of badgering [no pun intended] people for hours on end. She was sure I would be able to, single-handed, give him writers block. I’m sure I would have, as I remember being fairly intense about this time.
During the end of our stay, I remember one very hot August day when I was very bored. There was no one to hang out with, Andy had to work, no tourist kids were in camp and my brothers had managed to dump me, so I decided to visit Badger Clark. I wouldn’t let him know I was there. I could sneak up on him just like an Indian Brave and watch him and my mom would never know. Mr. Clarks house was just a short trail up from my beloved Legion Lake. Like a brave Sioux warrior I walked up the edge of the trail, ever mindful that even the smallest crack of a branch on the ground could give my position away to the dreaded soldiers of General Custers 7th Calvary who would surely capture me. They would haul me, by my feet, with a rope tied off to a nearby tree and begin to interrogate me to find the rest of my raiding party [my brothers]. I was sure that I would not be able to stand it when they put the red ants on my body. Maybe if I gave up their positions, the soldiers would cut me free and let me go. It was best that I didn’t get caught. Suddenly I was confronted by two people, walking the trail back from Mr. Clarks house. I panicked and dove into the underbrush except there was no underbrush only grass. I remember feeling naked. The man stopped and reached down and picked me up and inquired as to if I was hurt. Captured!!!! I was mortified, humiliated and a disgrace to my race. I hung my head in shame but the people left and I was again alone wondering why I had not been shot?? My mission was all that counted and again I was on my way to Mr. Clarks house. This time I vowed to not be taken alive, and shortly the house was in sight. Mr. Clark was sitting outside on a home made wooden chair. His white hair, long pointed goatee, and western dress made me sure that I had stumbled on some type of high level meeting. Maybe this man was really General Custer and I had stumbled on war strategy being relayed or planned. The man and woman listening to the man with the white hair were staring intently at Mr. Clark and were hanging on his every word. I couldn’t hear anything that was being said and I needed to get closer. Silently I was slinking through the brush and tall pines and with each step getting closer and closer, now hearing mumbling and an occasional word but I needed to get closer. It was dangerous work but I kept myself under control as I approached the side of the house. Then I was there and edged towards the corner so I could better hear the secret conversations but the air was silent. What happened, where did everyone go, had I been discovered? My heart was pounding in my ears, my hands felt cold but my shirtless body was soaked with sweat. Every nerve in my body was trained on the silence. I slowly ventured a peek around the corner. Just as I looked, I felt the barrel of an 1873 Springfield “Trapdoor” Calvary Carbine, being poked in my back. It must be a Calvary lookout that I had not seen. I was dead! I let out a war hoop [of sorts] and flew towards the trail, bending over as I ran looking for cover along the way. I looked back only once and noticed an old man, waving a cane or a stick at me and laughing loudly. My “Keds” couldn’t propel me fast enough. I never revealed this story to anyone as discovery would mean I had failed plus I had not obeyed the orders of my superiors and would be subject to the worst forms of torture [my fathers belt] when I got back to camp. This was to be a very silent reconnoitering mission. I never saw Mr. Badger Clark again as he died about 4 years later.
A Cowboy's Prayer
(written for Mother)
Sun and Saddle Leather
Badger Clark Memorial Society
Oh Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I loved creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.
I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I'm no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street,
Just let me live my life as I've begun
And give me work that's open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high.
Let me be easy on the man that's down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town,
But never let 'em say I'm mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that's done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me down the long, dim trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.