Ernie, a Man of Many Talents
Last May, my husband and I heard about Ernie through an internet search and ended up spending 5 hours with him on his Hopi reservation in Arizona. He shared a book's worth of history, a flute demonstration, a cleansing ceremony, endless personal stories and opinions and some piki bread.
The most surprising thing Ernie shared was being in a photo.
Since early in the 20th century, photography has been banned on the reservation. Only a few photographers have been cleared by Hopi leaders to share images of this very private culture. It was after spending 5 hours with Ernie that I asked about the no photo history. As if he'd read my mind, he casually offered. "You can take as many pictures as you want in my trailer."
Inside Ernie's trailer
After touring three of the Hopi villages and absorbing as many details, images and stories as my brain could hold, we relaxed in Ernie's trailer. The cozy shop/home was jammed with detailed kachina dolls, Hopi pottery and woven baskets. Ernie pulled out a couple of his handcrafted flutes and played while we looked around. He told us how his grandfather not only taught him to play the flute, but how to express himself through music.
Ernie was shy as a young boy and learned he could share more easily with the sounds of his flute than by using words. He played two contrasting pieces for us. and the last was so sad the notes almost quivered. Ernie's voice cracked as he told us that playing the flute made his grandfather's spirit very near.
Treasures to take
There are a few things we were able to take with us besides memories. We have one tiny clay pot made by a woman in one of the villages. She explained the complicated process of baking, polishing and painting the pieces. We also have 2 small feathers from the chest of an eagle. Ernie gave them to us as a gift and explained the importance of the eagle in the Hopi family. Each year a baby eaglet is taken from a nest and brought to the Hopi home. The eaglet is bathed in milk and dusted in cornmeal in a ceremony to unite the eagle as a member of the family.
The most unusal thing we were given was piki bread. Elder women in the village had spent days making these delicate sheets of blue corn powder and juniper ash. After baking on hot stone they were rolled into scroll-like shapes and given to Ernie as a gift for his flute playing at a recent ceremony. We took the bread with us and sampled it later. It reminded me of my first communion as a child. I let the paper like flakes melt in my mouth, while waiting for some kind of mysterious wonderful awareness to wash over me. Maybe I was too distracted by the strange flavor and texture for a profound experience.
Leaving Hopi Land
As we drove away from the mesas that afternoon, I scribbled down as much as I could remember. We had learned so many things about the culture and history, but I couldn't stop thinking about the personal stories. I kept picturing Ernie as a Hopi child, capturing a baby eagle, planting the harvest and dancing in the festivals. I imagined what it must have been like to be a child taken from the home to be educated in Indian boarding schools...and the culture shock of the outside world. There were good things that Ernie experienced in the world outside the Hopi mesas. He had an opportunity to meet Walt Disney, he dabbled in films for a while and he gained recognition for his flute playing. But his mother's illness called him back home, where he has been since.
I'm glad you went back home so you could use your talents to share about your culture. Since meeting you, I've tried to share your stories and thoughts with others. Just yesterday I brought a recording of your flute music to a group I gather with each week. I wish you could have seen the faces of these sweet folks with Alzheimer's as they smiled and listened and nodded...then joined your music, beating softly on drums.
A Shed in the Ozarks
I was with a few college friends when I came across Dee Warren's shed on Ink Road, outside of Eminence, Missouri. On a spring afternoon in 1977, he invited us in to see how he made his chairs.
A Tiny Work Space
Dee's shed was one of many small wooden structures. He had a few dog houses, at least one chicken coop and a couple small barns.
Sitting in the middle of all the weathered, wooden buildings, was Dee's chopping area. This was the area where he cut up the hickory and cherry and oak trees that came from his land. There was a sweet fragrance to the fresh wood scattered about.
Two Kinds of Chairs
Dee learned how to make chairs by studying a chair his father made. He made straight back ladder chairs with seats made of woven hickory bark. The rockers were his high price chairs. $35.00 for a cherry or oak rocking chair! A mere $15.00 for the ladder backs.
Dee was not much of a salesman, but he did invite us to put our names down on a list if we wanted a chair made. He said he'd call when he was caught up and had a chair ready. It would take about a year.
Chatting in the Shed
He didn't bother to clean off the work table that he sat on while he told us about his work. As he spoke, I looked around at the layer of saw dust and shavings that covered the scattered tools and materials. I hoped he was careful with his cigarettes in this tiny flammable shed.
Dee's Past Work
Dee seemed glad to have the break while we chatted. He wasn't overly enthusiastic about his craft.
It turns out he had only been making chairs for 4 years. He'd lost his thumb working at a nearby sawmill and was no longer able to do mill work. When we drove by the mill later I wondered if he was relieved to be done with that kind of labor. Hopefully he was givevn some kind of compensation, because he told us he was averaging about 75 cents an hour making chairs. That's how much I had gotten paid babysitting as a teenager.
If you're still around you 'd probably be nearly 100. Hopefully you've had some good retirement years rocking in one of those chairs...softened with a cozy cushion, maybe. I can't tell you how many times I've thought about your chairs and scolded myself. "Why didn't I put my name on the chair list?" I could have been rocking in one myself!
Welcoming, despite the signs
I drive by this house in Richmond, Texas at least once a week. I've noticed two no trespassing signs, but they are half hidden behind the multi-colored zinnias and marigolds.
I can't help but notice the colors when I drive by. The lot is an oasis in a somewhat sad little neighborhood. The flowers and plants are so well tended and cheerful. And almost always, I notice two people bent over, tending or planting flowers. Sometimes when I drive by they are taking a break on the porch or sitting on the two white wooden chairs under the huge tree that shades half the yard.
I ignored the sign.
One day I ignored the signs and pulled the car over. The two were watering flowers and seemed a bit startled when I walked up. I'm not really sure what I said. Some quick babble about how I drive by their yard every week and just wanted them to know how much I love seeing all their wonderful flowers. I was so afraid my words sounded corny and insincere, but their looks of concern were replaced by huge smiles.
Irma and Dennis
We introduced ourselves and Dennis proudly showed me his favorite flowers. The tractor tire displays were my favorites, reminding me of the "grandma yards" in my childhood.
Irma said it was okay for me to take some pictures with my phone, but she mopped her face and implied they were too dirty to be in photos.
Thanks Irma and Dennis
You took a break from your work to share with me a little while. Recently I drove by and saw your whole yard cleared of plants. Hopefully you got paid well for your flowers. It must be hard saying good-bye to all that color. But I've seen you out working since, so I'm sure the flowers will be back!
Preschool Teacher Days
Over 30 years ago, I was a teacher needing help!
A good humored policeman came to the rescue!
16 Two-Year Olds!
My "teaching job" at a California preschool is one of the most challenging jobs I have ever had. My assistant Fiona and I found many ways to wear the children out to make sure they slept at naptime. A good long walk in the morning with the guidance of a long knotted rope could do the trick. Or better yet, a trip to Turtle Rock Park!
One morning at the park...
We let the kids race up and down the hill and pick wildflower weeds. We gave them a good picnic lunch and sat the 16 kids on the hill to wait for the preschool van.
Where's the van?
We waited for an hour, but it never came. Fiona and I told stories and sang songs, but the kids were no longer amused. Two-year olds who have been properly worn out for naps don't all sit and doze. They were getting second winds and wouldn't be cooperating much longer. I raced off in search of a payphone, only to realize I had no dime. I found someone to loan a dime, but (as was often the case back before cell phones) the pay phone was broken.
I glanced across the parking lot and noticed a policeman who had just pulled over a Volkswagen bug. I waited for him to finish his business and confronted him about our problem. After I promised him I wouldn't make him tote 16 two-year olds in his squad car, he offered to take me to the school for help.
Where'd they go?
I rode in the police car to the school, only to discover the van driver had just left for the park. "Would you like me to take you back to the park?" The policeman asked. As we cruised towards the park, I pictured poor Fiona trying to coral 16 cranky, nap craving tots. But when we arrived at the park, Fiona and the little guys had already been picked up. "Would you like me to take you back to school?" The policeman laughed. "Or would you like to come fill out an application for the police force? If you're going to drive around with me all day, you might as well get paid."
So thank you, patient Policeman! You were kind to transport me back and forth and you were also kind not to lecture me about how I handled the situation. I thought I was a responsible, quick thinking caregiver at age 23, but I cringe at how I left dear Fiona with 16 children! In fact now that I think about it, things would have worked out much better if I had never spotted you. But it would have been a much duller story.
A Sweet Looking Woman
It was January 2009 and I was strolling with my family near some shopping stands in Qufu, China. I saw this little woman pushing her bicycle fruit cart towards me. We made eye contact and she smiled sweetly.
She reached out to show me her winter melon. It was sunny, but bitter cold and I had no desire to nibble a juicy fruit.
I later learned that winter melon is actually a vegetable and not even sweet. But that's not the point. I was more intrigued with the sweet lady than the food.
Since I was a child, I've been able to fumble along using gestures and facial expressions when visiting other countries. I'm also spoiled by the fact that most people who deal with tourists speak a tiny bit of English. The melon lady and I jabbered quite a bit with each other, in our own languages. I don't think either one of us tried very hard to understand the other.
Handing over the Melon
The woman quickly sliced the melon in a decorative fashion, then stuffed the bagged veggie in my hand. I laughed nervously and shook my head no. I reached into my pocket and produced a small coin. The sweet woman was insulted. I blabbered in English that I had no more money. ..which was true. She stomped her foot when I tried to hand the fruit back.
An Angry Sweet Lady
A few shop owners nearby were enjoying the show. So was my husband as he clicked the camera, not offering to help. I shrugged and apologized and handed the melon back. She whipped her hands away and we both watched the melon splat on the street. The little woman was furious, stomping and hollering...I will never know what!
I heard snickers from the growing audience as I backed away from the enraged melon woman. I used my most apologetic gestures and shrugs. I tilted my head and revealed my empty pockets. How could I gesture these words, "I didn't drop that thing! You made that happen on purpose!" So I turned and escaped back towards the tour bus.
I didn't look back, but I could hear the woman yelling. Was she jumping on her bike to chase me? I made it to the bus and collapsed in a seat and felt a little confused. Should I laugh or be furious... or ashamed that I had been an obnoxious tourist. When Don finally climbed on the bus I was annoyed. "Why didn't you come to my rescue? Is she still looking for me? Where were you!" He rolled his eyes. "I was paying her off. I did save you."
So thank you, Melon Woman.
You were no sweeter than your melon, but you taught me a lesson. You can't count on playful gestures and smiling faces to really communicate. I think we both thought we were charming each other, but neither of us ended up happy. I'm sure I failed in the diplomat department. I should have humored less and respected more.
Al and Daisy, the Quaker Parrot
Daisy and Al had just returned from a month sailing in the Keys, when I met them.
Both seemed to be in good moods.
I saw Daisy first.
Actually I heard her. She was squawking nearby as she nibbled on crackers in a fat oak tree. A squirrel was threatening to steal her treats and she was causing a commotion.
I put down my Bahama Mama and went over for a look. Al obviously loves it when people inquire about his sweet friend. He had her do a few tricks and she happily toddled around the table and dock railing.
I had my own turn to hold Daisy while Al told me the story of adopting her from a shelter, eight years ago. "The family who owned her had kids who liked to bang on her cage with a broom." His big grin returned when he described Daisy's favorite adventures which of course included sailing. He insisted he has never had to worry about her flying away.
Thanks Al! You helped me have fun imagining what it would be like to travel with a tiny companion. You are quite a bit cooler than some of the guys you see on Harleys with stuffed bears on the back! But mostly, it's always nice to hear about an animal being given a better life. Sounds like you both are actually pretty lucky to have each other.
January 11, 1979
I only have a vague memory, so I was pleased to run across a diary entry.
My biggest thrill of the day was picking up a 70ish lady walking down the middle of a snowy side street in U City. She wore a huge fur coat and a purple hat covered in pinkish feathers. She scooted slowly along with the support of a broom. I asked her if she needed a ride and then gave her one to the bank. She slowly got out clinging tightly to the door. I felt a wave of compassion as I reached across to her, "Here, don't forget your broom."
Thank you dear lady in pink feathers! I had a lot on my mind that day. I was getting ready to start student teaching and I was dreading it. I was worried that I had would hate it and end up wasting my 4 years of college. You were a nice distraction that day. You made me stop to think about someone besides my self. I remember you as older than "70ish"... but I was much younger then. I hope when I am your age I'll grab a broom and use it proudly if I need it!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers