"Not Just For Young Boys" by Marco M. Pardi mpardi.com
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"I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity." Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
In the mid-1950's I attended college prep school at Gilmour Academy, an all boys residential and day student school on 144 acres in Gates Mills, Ohio. Bequeathed by a multi-millionaire to the Catholic order The Congregation of the Holy Cross, it was run by Brothers of the Holy Cross. The quality of the education was unparalleled in that region; the curriculum I experienced as a Sophomore was almost identical to my university Freshman year when I returned to college almost ten years later. Most of the teaching Brothers were college instructor material; some were just turds in black wrappers.
Dominated by a massive Tudor mansion, complete with sunken garden and gatehouse, the estate was surrounded by a high fence and included roughly one fourth the acreage in forest surrounding a small lake. A dirt road ran through the woods, making the circuit of the lower half of the estate.
In those years the student body was small; of 100 or so Freshmen, about 30 would make it to Senior class. Still, one might expect to encounter someone on a walk along that road through the woods. Morning or evening, I never did. I was glad for that. The fence kept out the deer in the area, but many other species had established homes before the coming of the black robes. They seemed to accept me, though I recall no meaningful conversations with them.
Some years later, after returning from some overseas military assignments, I was based at Ellsworth Strategic Air Command base on a plateau nine miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. A major hub in the nuclear arsenal, the policy of having one third of the heavy bomber force in the air at all times provided transportation to other areas on frequent occasions when my particular skills were required. My two years at that base were divided among B-52 bombers, Minuteman missile complexes, and the nearby Black Hills.
Rapid City was a town you had to be born into. Of the two main streets one was a mixture of bars and saloons that seemed at times to take themselves seriously. After all, tourist season was rather short in an area that got -55 degree windchill and whiteout blizzards blowing sideways. Most of the young people had left for university elsewhere, probably never to return. The most active place, thanks to the Air Force, was what appeared to be a huge barn converted into a bar/dance floor. The urinal in the men's room was a long, oblong feed trough at which six men could line up abreast and salute. In fact, I'm reasonably certain the phenomenon called Line Dancing originated in the second row.
Yet, there were opportunities for other activities. On a day off I wandered into a small community theater just to get my mind to a different place. Voices from an off stage room drew me into a group of people, but my attention went immediately to a large German Shepherd sitting at the side of a striking young woman. The Shepherd's eyes never left me as I clumsily introduced myself as someone curious about the troupe. As greetings, questions and answers floated about I slid down near the Shepherd and spoke reassuringly to him. Only then, as his companion leaned down and addressed me, did I realize he was a guide dog for a totally blind Lakota (what Europeans called Sioux) woman. (She never wore the dark glasses so common on sightless people.) She called the Shepherd Tonka, short for Tatonka, the Lakota word for buffalo. By the way, Europeans misheard Lakota as Dakota, thus giving us the Dakota Territories and eventually North and South Dakota.
Within the next few days, she having told me that she recognized a good person in my voice and my attitude toward Tonka, we became friends and the three of us would drive out of town for a few hours, Tonka settled on the parcel shelf behind the front seats of my English sports car. Over time this became a bit more difficult as cold weather kept the convertible top up. But Tonka was a sport.
We drove southeast of Rapid City to Badlands National Park, an area of 244,000 acres. Largely eroded clay, it gets 16" of rainfall annually and temperatures from -30F to 115F. As in all national parks, guide dogs were allowed and trails were differentiated by difficulty. Wanting solitude, we chose the more difficult trails, Tonka and I keeping a sharp eye for rattlesnakes. Here she told me of how her recent ancestors pursued buffalo among the gullies and canyons, not losing their way despite the maze they had entered, immersing themselves in Wakan Tanka, the forces that permeate and animate the universe, connecting the buffalo, Man, and all of nature. But mostly, she was silent. She was serene.
We went there several times, walking the arroyos at different times of day, eating the lunches we packed. Although I had been friends with young people who had various disabilities, this was the first time I was with a totally sightless person. I had questions I did not quite know how to frame. But, as she was curious about my name, I explained to her I was born in Rome, Italy and, with British grandmothers, did not look "Italian" to most Americans. She caressed my face, saying that while people assured her she was beautiful (which she was) looks didn't matter. I also explained that I knew next to nothing about American Indians and their history with the invading Europeans, my focus in life being to return to Italy one day.
She then explained (seemingly sensing my gestating question of why she would enjoys walks in the outdoors) her gradual loss of sight, culminating at around age 10. The Indian Health Service, a feel good paper exercise, had examined and "treated" her but largely wrote her off to tough luck. During the years when America was developing a Civil Rights conscience, almost entirely focused on what were then called the Negroes, American Indian populations, especially on reservations, sank deeper into squalor, alcoholism, domestic violence, and a newly defining disease - diabetes. Now 20, and an honors graduate of high school, she and her family had been searching for a university ready and willing to accommodate her disability, and scholarship money to enable that dream. She explained that, although she could remember pictures of the Badlands, those really were just background to the feel of the earth, the sound of the wind in the arroyos, the scent of the wildlife - plant and animal.
One of the Minuteman nuclear ICBM complexes to which I was assigned was fairly close to a place called Bear Butte. One could look out from the Soft Support building - topside, and see the densely forested mount rising suddenly out of the plains. Readers to this point may have noticed that I have not mentioned this young woman's name. As I write this I want to keep that; it has far more meaning than a label such as Dick or Jane. So, I will tell you how I saw her: Serenissima - most serene.
As we conversed through the hours and days Serenissima spoke of Bear Butte, telling me its Lakota name - Mato Paha, Bear Mountain, and its Cheyenne name - Noahavose, Good Mountain. Of course, we drove there.
Here she recounted the young Lakota boys, emerging from the sweat lodge to begin their hanble ceyapi, their "crying for a vision" as they ascended the mountain to seek the help of the sacred wakan, the beings manifest in Wakan Tanka, to gain the vision that would define the shape of their lives and their responsibilities henceforth. As we climbed the steep mountain I thought again of that dirt road through the Gilmour forest, the boys in their dorm rooms dreaming of their CEO jobs to come, and my calm but vaguely expectant presentation of myself to Nature.
Struggling at one point in the climb, Tonka pulling ahead, Serenissima brushed the 9mm semi-automatic holstered in the small of my back. She slightly smiled, but asked no question. Tall as me and with a trim but capable build, her raven hair glistened as we moved from shade to sunlight and back.
We reached the top and she sat cross-legged, something I could never do, while Tonka surveyed the world with what seemed like a sense of peaceful completeness, a mirror of Serenissima herself.
As I came to realize the fullness of the sounds, scents, temperature and the feel of the earth she turned her smile to me and said, "Visions are not just for young boys."
"Some minds seem almost to create themselves, springing up under disadvantages and working their solitary but irresistible
way through a thousand obstacles." Washington Irving, The Sketch Book, 1820