Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grateful to the Dead

We just finished a 4600+ mile trip out to Helena, Montana, to see Ben and Alise get married. I will be writing about the wedding as well as the trip. Really.

It was a wonderful wedding. It was a great trip. I really will write about what we saw and experienced. But my first post-trip blog is about the dead. More specifically, it is about the dead I carried home with me on this trip.

The return portion of our trip was a chance for me and Warren to explore, as we are often wont to do. We had some Big stops on the way home: Little Bighorn, Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore. We also had a number of Little stops on the way home, including the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor in Le Mars, Iowa, and the Dvorak rooms in Spillville, Iowa.

It was a lot of fun sharing that part of the country (which I knew somewhat) with Warren, who had never been there. It was a wonderful opportunity for Warren and me to talk, explore, and connect.

The dead, though, were always with me on the return trip. Maybe it was the talk that Father Joe (literally and figuratively: he is both Alise's father and an ordained Episcopalian priest who performed the service) gave in which he referred to the ancestors on "the other side of the veil." Maybe it was the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer for celebrating special occasions. The prayer thanks God, "who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion." It kept chasing through my head as I watched Ben and Alise say their vows - five years earlier that day, I was about to undergo a second stem cell transplant. At the time, I didn't know if I would live long enough to see my older son graduate from college. And now I was sitting at his wedding, my hand in Warren's as we watched the joy light on our children's faces.

Whatever it was, I felt the dead - some nameless, some known - with me for the duration of the return trip.

One of our stops was Clear Lake, Iowa. Clear Lake is a small town in northeastern Iowa that gained posterity on February 3, 1959, when a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens, crashed into a cornfield shortly after takeoff. The crash site, located in a farm field about a half mile off a gravel road, contains a memorial marker to the musicians, and may be visited, provided you stay on the mowed access strip and do not harm the field crops.

The field crop this year is corn, which in this part of Iowa this year is growing particular thick and tall. Even though Warren and I were there in the early morning, the sun was already hot and the air was heavy and hot as well.

We walked slowly back towards the site. The corn formed a deep channel on either side of the strip of grass. You could smell the fields baking beneath the sun and hear the corn rustling. About halfway down the access strip, I commented to Warren that these were perfect "Field of Dreams" cornfields and I expected to see Shoeless Joe Jackson emerge any moment.

Warren quickly commented, "well, if Buddy Holly walks out, I'm out of here."

Buddy Holly didn't walk out. But by the time we reached the memorial marker, it was clear many, many people had walked in. The ground around the small marker was covered with offerings - coins, glasses, CDs, music, jewelry, pictures. Some articles of clothing were tied to a nearby stake, much like Indian prayer bundles. There was a second marker for the pilot of the plane, at which there were more coins, these all neatly stacked on the crossbar of the marker.

Fifty years after the crash, people still make pilgrimages and leave tokens to show they were there and that the musicians are not forgotten.

The day before we had been in De Smet, South Dakota. De Smet became immortal as the Little Town on the Prairie after Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her youth on the great South Dakota plains. De Smet, even on a day when the thermometer was reaching 100 degrees, has a high density of small girls and frazzled mothers trekking from location to location.

One of the stops in De Smet, at which we found ourselves the only visitors, was the cemetery in which Ma, Pa, and all of Laura's sisters are buried, as well as a number of other townsfolk whose names and personalities appear in the books. In contrast to the crash site, the Ingalls plot is pin-neat. That surprised me. I thought that some of those mothers and daughters, making their trek to and through De Smet, might have left a flower, a drawing, or even a clothespin doll. But there was no sign of anything, and no indication that memorials of any type, even a rock placed on the headstone to show someone was there, were ever left.

The cemetery was quiet and empty, except for the two of us.

Two days before De Smet, we had gone to the battlefield at Little Bighorn. In the last decade, the National Park Service (and this country) finally recognized that Little Bighorn means different things to different people, especially those coming from the Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes. Those tribes were the victors at that battle and there is now a memorial to the Indian warriors who fought and died that day. The memorial is an enclosed circle; visitors enter through openings in the wall. There is an additional opening in the wall that lines up with the memorial to the US Calvary soldiers who fell that same day. This is a spirit gate, placed there to welcome the spirits of the Calvary dead into the circle.

Little Bighorn is a haunting place.

Our ways of marking death are so varied. At the site of a long ago plane crash, people still walk a long fencerow to leave mementoes. In a windswept prairie town, the graves of those immortalized in the Little House series are painfully clean, almost as if Ma had her broom out on a daily basis. And in a remote battlefield where the battle began and ended 134 years ago in one bloody, desperate day, there is a gate for the spirits of all the soldiers - Indian and Army - to be at peace with one another.

As we walked down the corn row to the Buddy Holly crash site, a pair of yellow butterflies kept dancing in the air before us, almost leading us to it, as it were. It reminded me of the closing lines of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a gem of a novel by Margaret Craven about which I have written briefly before. In the Indian village, all is still the night before the young vicar's burial. Only two residents are awake. One is Peter, the carver, who remembers that "in the old days," the soul of a man would return after death to the village in some other form:

Peter did not believe this literally. Yet it seemed likely to him that the soul of the young vicar would return to the village he had loved, as would his own, and surely it would be most inhospitable if no one was awake and waiting. Thus he dressed and sat on the top step of his house in the dark night, and hearing the rustle of some small night creature he, too, spoke softly, "It is only old Peter, the carver, who waits here, friend."

Those lines came to me as I watched the butterflies lead us to the crash site. They were nowhere in sight when we made our way back out to continue our trip.

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