I write this some fifty years after the fact. I still do not understand all of the dynamics. I hope I never do. My eyes were innocent and I want them to always be.
One of my very early friends was a dark-skinned girl named Peggy Garfield. We walked to and from school together and played together in the Kindergarten playground. We always met somewhere on the trail to school that passed through the sagebrush. She usually took the western trail, the one we kids labeled “The Horny Toad Trail”, and I took the one just east of that. Somehow, we always hooked up together.
The Horny Toad trail was so-named because a person could always catch a horned lizard along the way. I didn’t know a single kid who had never caught a lizard: we all were adept at capturing the little flat creatures that resembled a triceratops in the most minute form possible. The Horny Toad Trail may have had it’s ending along the same trail I took to school, but it had it’s beginning in “The Indian Village”.
The Indian Village was a small parcel of dusty land that housed the Toms (a group of wild Shoshone boys that terrorized the rest of us school kids), the Garfields, and a number of other Paiute or Shoshone tribal members who chose – for work or other reasons – not to live on the McDermitt Reservation. I understood little of this. Peggy was my friend, everyone was afraid of the Toms, and noone talked about that little dusty section of town at the end of Bell Street and the beginning of the Horny Toad Trail.
Peggy once bragged to me that horny toads “would spit blood from their eyes”. I didn’t believe her and cited every evidence I could from my small, sheltered life. She was brazen and sure of herself, and she mocked my innocence. “You have to make them mad,” she told me.
Years later, as an adult, I witnessed a horned lizard “spitting blood” through its eyes. Damn! They really can do that!
Once, Peggy and I were both late for school. We hid behind a dust bank along the dry creek bed, debating what we should do. I was of the mind that we should curl up in a ball and just die. My parents would be mad and the principal would be mad – and Miss Smith or Mrs. Butts (First Grade teacher) would be mad. I couldn’t abide anyone being angry with me. Peggy, however, had a more pragmatic view of life. The adults would be angry, but we would survive. Therefore, we went on to school. And survived.
I asked her once or twice if I couldn’t just walk all the way home with her along the Horny Toad Trail. Both times, she looked at me like I was an alien. “You don’t know nothing,” she said. “You can’t come into the village. You’re white. I’m an Indian. That’s just how it is.”
I accepted that from her, but it didn’t stop me from wondering why. My 6th birthday was approaching and I asked my mother if I could invite Peggy to my birthday party.
My mother deliberately stopped whatever she was doing and looked hard at me. She seemed to understand what I wanted. Peggy was my friend, maybe my best first grade friend. But it was not possible. Even though Peggy only lived a block away on Bell Street, she lived a world away. She lived on the Reservation. I was white. Even if we were to bend the rules and invite her, her people would not reciprocate. Whites and Indians did not mix.
I cried. I did not understand.
Once, when I was walking home alone, along the streets instead of on the trails, I had the sense I was being followed. The Tom boys were behind me. I didn’t know their names. They were older than me, wore their hair in long braids, and they beat up white kids for no reason. I was alone. I was nearing the Dog Lady’s house – she had high red board fences that kept her wild dogs on the inside, but they always went crazy with barking when kids walked by. I never teased them – how cruel! – but she accused every kid on earth of teasing them. Tom kids approaching from behind and Dog Lady on the left.
Then they were beside me, around me, and laughing. One of them lightly slapped my back. They laughed. “Coup!”
Me? The slap was hardly a slap, more of a touch. Years later, I would understand they were merely counting coup. Young Shoshone braves trying to make sense of their world in an all-white world, counting coup on frightened white children. That light tap on my back erased every fear I had of the Tom boys. They weren’t so tough. They didn’t mean any harm.
Peggy and the Toms faded away after about 2nd or 3rd grade. I never saw any of them again, although my heart has searched for Peggy since. Maybe their families returned to McDermitt. I don’t know.
I was in 7th grade when Wanda Brown came to school. She was 16. She’d lived in McDermitt her entire life, and had dropped out of school after 3rd grade. She was as wide as she was tall. Shoshone or Paiute, she hated everyone who was white. Rumors flew. She kept a knife on her person.
She did, at that. She showed it to me. Strapped to her inner thigh. It was long and sharp, probably 4″ long. She kept it for “protection”. She knew how to use it, she assured me. I was 12. I was innocent. She liked me, for whatever reason. Maybe it was because I wasn’t afraid of her. I wasn’t afraid of her skin.
I let her know I wasn’t afraid of the knife. She wouldn’t use it on me.
She granted me that. I was too simple. Too innocent. She didn’t even try to taunt me, but she let me know that my innocence had a price – not now, but somewhere down the road.
Virie. I’m not even sure I spelled her name right. She lived on the Duckwater Reservation and she was a poet. She received a scholarship from an Ivy League college. She was as wide as she was tall and she was beautiful. She was older than me and graduated in 1972? 1973? I don’t remember. She liked me and I liked her. She had none of the hardness of Wanda or Peggy, but all of their wisdom. She was a Medicine Woman, if I were to guess.
The end of this is that I wish I could have been real friends with Peggy and Wanda. 1960-1970 was not the right time for an innocent white kid like me to make friends with kids from the Res. It still hurts my heart.
I wanted Peggy to come to my birthday party. I really did.