Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: A Picture of Pale Moon
By Philippe Ernewein, part 1 of 6
Moeke asked the Indian to put his headdress back on. “Please, sir, for the picture.” Moeke learned her English when her family housed Canadian soldiers in Belgium during World War II. This was her second visit to Canada. The first time was as a war bride in 1945. She had fallen in love with Lloyd Ernewein, one of the soldiers her father, my great-grandfather, housed during the Nazi Occupation. We were in Ontario to visit the family of the grandfather I never knew. He passed away when my father was three (and my father would pass away when I was three, but I’ll save that for later).
My father, mom, and Moeke flew to Ontario from Brussels. It was July 1973. At fourteen months old, I was the youngest passenger on the plane. The intent of our visit, I’ve been told, was not to visit Doon Village, but it was that place that left the greatest impression on me. It was there that I met my first Indian.
Doon Village was a cross between a museum and an outdoor memorial built to honor both the pioneers and the people of The League of the Iroquois, specifically the Mohawks. A huge tower, Pioneer Memorial Tower, was surrounded by a field of teepees. The Ontario Pioneer Foundation hired Indians from the nearby Iroquois Reservation to play the part of the natives. They walked around the village in traditional clothing, ground maize, sold beads, and sat by their teepees.
Moeke remembers she paid a dollar to take a picture of me and Pale Moon. She still has the picture in a scrapbook along with the plane ticket from ‘73, the brochure of Doon Village, and a book about the history of the early Canadians. “It was probably part of their tourism,” she said years later, “I remember he stood next to a red caboose.”
My father took the picture. I stood next to Pale Moon mimicking his posture. Hands behind my back and looking straight ahead. His headdress started with small white feathers above his forehead and became longer and more colorful, red, yellow, black, as they stretched down his back. He had a band of blue pearls around his right arm. He wore beige pants with beige moccasins. His naked chest was partially covered with feathers hanging off his long, gray braided hair. His braids came out from behind his ears and covered his nipples like a pair of suspenders. Like Chief Seattle, Crazy Horse, and Mohawk chief Hiawatha before him, Pale Moon had his picture taken for the money.
I felt like I was part of the League of the Iroquois for a moment. I was one of the Mohawks, the People of the Flint, standing next to Pale Moon (Zinn 19). Of course at fourteen months old all I really knew was that I wasn’t standing next to my father, mother, or Moeke.
Who was I standing next to? What was his history? What might I have been thinking? What was I feeling standing next to this old and barely clad man with feathers on his head? What did I see in his eyes? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. I do know that my encounter with him left a deep impression on me. The first of a series of events that led me to America looking for Tonto.
"The Indians" (an excerpt)
by John S. Hall
One of my favorite foods to eat is called corn. The Indians call it maize. We call the Indians “Indians.” This is because Columbus thought he was in India when he first came to this land. Some people say we should call the Indians “Native Americans,” because they were here in America before us, but before us, this land wasn’t called America. It was named American by a mapmaker who never even came here. He lived in Europe and made maps and when he found out about this land, he made maps of it, and just put his name on it, ‘cause he could (33).
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: Whisky with the Lone Ranger
By Philippe Ernewein, part 2 of 6
Sometime after the death of my father and before my eighth birthday my life changed drastically. I'm not sure if anything can be more drastic than my father's death at age three, but my path changed in such a way that it was like starting over. Drastikos, severe, harsh and at the same time full of adventure and opportunity; I don't know exactly how it all transpired. I can't put my finger on the day I knew that things would never be the same. The cycle of being uprooted and replanted was about to commence.
During the first five months of 1980 I was being groomed for a new role. Slowly I was exposed to a script that was a foreign language to me, English. As a seven year old, northern Belgian native, I recognized few words: White House, USA, Hollywood, President, Pan Am, and New York City. Some parts of the script were written in code, purposefully secret. Others were invisible, simple reams of blank pages, no stage direction, no narrator, no characters, no motivation. Nothing.
My mom doesn't remember telling me specifically of our soon to be immigrant status. In March of 1980 my mom married an American and shortly thereafter we moved to America.
America. America was nowhere to be found on the map in Mevrouw Sommen's second grade classroom. Just a big, pink colored land mass about a meter to the left of Belgium. It said Verenigde Staten.
The closest I'd been to America, other than the map, was the television. Oh, the television was magic. It was America. I was going to live in TV Land. My mom took a picture of me next to the TV when I was six. I was wearing green pajama pants and a striped, long sleeved top with dark blue slippers (required for after dinner television viewing). My favorite show was on, Beertje Colargol. The flash of the camera blurred the television screen into a wall of snow; I stood proudly next to the now faded image of my furry, Winnie the Pooh-like, childhood hero. I don't remember what Beertje did. I remember there was a sidekick, sort of like the Gumby and Pokey duo, and they walked around and looked at stuff. The show was a production of BRT (northern Belgium's national television station). They walked through towns, woods, train stations, and went fishing. Whatever it was they did, they obviously set a good example because my mom let me watch them. The show always ended with the appearance of an owl. The owl would wink and say, "Slaap wel." Then I winked back and went to bed.
Beertje Colargol was the show I watched alone. Me and the TV. My mom in the background doing the dishes, taking care of my little sister, or maybe talking on the phone. She can still quote lines from the show. I just remember the wink.
My first images, my first thoughts, my first emotions about America come from watching old Westerns on television with Papie. Papie, my mother's father and my second father, was my vision of an American cowboy in disguise. He played a role in Belgium's underground resistance movement during the Nazi occupation. After the war the resistance movement became Belgium's secret police force; Papie quickly moved up the ranks. He didn't talk about it much. Maybe he wasn't allowed to. Maybe he chose not to. He did show me his badge once; it was a heavy, shiny, metallic engraved star mounted on the inside of a dark, worn leather wallet. He was the sheriff.
When the sheriff and I watched television it was always a Western. I sat right next to Papie's right knee. We'd both pick a character on the big color screen under the mounted deer head that Papie had shot. He was always the lead man, seeing himself as the cowboy swaggering in the saloon, the one who could ride his horse like he was driving his white '78 Opel four-door. He was John Wayne in The Searchers. There was no disputing it; he was my leading man those days. I always wanted to be the Indian who got the most screen time. Even though this pitted us against each other, I couldn't be a cowboy. That part was taken. Anyway, I thought the Indians looked cool. Nobody walked around Antwerp, Belgium looking like that.
I remember the picture of Pale Moon and me. Papie had seen the picture and heard the story of our visit to Canada where I met Pale Moon. Papie would often say, “Look there’s Pale Moon.” He’d say this while walking down the street, driving in the car, or watching TV. “Look there’s Pale Moon.” I’d always look just a second too late. “You missed him,” Papie would say, “He was right there. I’m sure he’ll be back. Keep your eyes open.”
After dinner he usually asked me to pour him a Coca-Cola which was really one fourth coke and three fourths Jack Daniels. We'd sit on the couch together; he'd drink his Jack and me my Fanta orange lemonade. He'd surf the eight channels until he found a movie with cowboys, horses, redskins, shotguns, bows and arrows, teepees, damsels in distress, and wild west saloon scenes. We always found something to watch. There was always a shoot-out happening somewhere.
The Indians surprisingly captured Natalie Wood in The Searchers. John Wayne did what the title demanded. The long-haired red-skins hid in the crevices of Monument Valley. I hid behind the couch next to the kitchen where my grandmother, Mamie, and my mom washed dishes. Papie slowly strolled by the coffee table, next to the fireplace, fearless, confident; he knew where I was the entire time. I eagerly anticipated the ambush of a hug.
This was my reality of America. I believed these pictures, I had no evidence to prove otherwise. My step-father told me I’d see cowboys and Indians from the window in my new bedroom in Virginia. I knew JR. and Bobby Ewing had their oil empire in Dallas. I imagined the Lone Ranger and Tonto in my front yard. I couldn't wait to go to America and run around half naked and dream of ambushing Papie with hugs.
And then there was Mevrouw Sommen, my first and second grade teacher. She, more than anyone else I've ever met except maybe 2 ex-girlfriends, had an agenda to make my life miserable. Maybe she thought she was just doing her job. If the job description was to make second and third graders feel inadequate and stupid, she did her job well. Mariagaarden, an elementary Catholic school, was one block from our apartment in Deurne. Mevrouw Sommen had an army of nuns (OK, at least three) who supported her in a disciplinary sense.
She didn't like the way I held my pen when I wrote. It was modeled to be held between the tips of the thumb, index, and middle finger. "Je schrijft zoals een aap." (You write like a monkey) The nuns whipped my six and seven year old right hand when they saw my fisted hold on a writing utensil. They hit my hand, my arm, just the desk if I was quick enough. Students laughed. I despised those nuns. I wrote as little as possible.
Those Nuns and Mevrouw Sommen were the first adults I can remember that made me feel like an outcast. Although I just had a strange hold of my pen, in the classroom of all white, well-dressed, Catholic boys and girls, I stuck out. A difference that would never be noticed in years to come.
When I knew for sure I was moving to America I told Mevrouw Sommen. She didn't believe a word I said and told me so, "Daar geloof ik geen woord van." I remember thinking even at eight years old that calling a child a liar was not the right thing to do. Good-bye liar, hello truth-sayer. My new path had started to take shape. America was on the calendar.
A new culture, the culture of my TV reality. A new way of life awaited on the opposite shore. Would I be forced to rip my eight year old roots out of my native soil or could I be gently transplanted?
Good-bye King Boudewijn, hello President Carter. Good-bye Ardennen, hello Shenandoah valley. Good-bye de Schelde, hello Potomac River. Good-bye Mevrouw Sommen, hello Ms. Smith. Hello tennis shoes, good-bye Sunday shoes. Hello T-shirts with iron-on pictures, good-bye collared shirts. Good-bye Stella Artois, hello Rolling Rock. Good-bye universal first son army duty, hello selected service. Good-bye factory waffle worker, hello fast-food burger flipper. Good-bye Paul Rubens, hello Norman Rockwell. Good-bye Pieter Brueghel, hello Frederic Remington. Good-bye Urbanus Van Anus, hello Steve Martin. Good-bye Eddy Merckx, hello John Elway. Good-bye Sven, hello Bryan. Good-bye French fries with mayonnaise, hello French fries with ketchup. Hello racism, good-bye racism. Hello whatever comes, good-bye what might have been.
And what did come? A Civil War era house in the then mostly rural Loudoun County, Virginia. A quick realization that Roy Rogers didn't take short-cuts through the front yard; he was a fast-food restaurant on the other side of town.
I was outfitted in the privileged white skin uniform but didn't know the language, land, songs, stories, sports, or secret handshakes. I was in the midst of mainstream America. I was lost and didn't know how to ask questions. My mother was in the same boat. America couldn't pronounce my name and I was desperately trying to learn hers. Much thanks to my new, older brother for his loving, watchful eye.
First day of school, August 1980, my mom dressed me in my blue communion suit. My brother Bob came in the kitchen wearing a pair of Chuck Taylors, a ripped pair of shorts, and a maroon soccer T-shirt. In his best Flemish, learned on the streets of Brasschaat, Belgium before the marriage, he politely suggested to my mom that I wear something else. I could borrow something from him. My new brother achieved Sainthood at that moment, St. Bob.
The transformation had begun. I thought I was in Indian Country, dressing like a cowboy and feeling like Tonto.
"Penasco Blanco Blues" (excerpt)
by Philippe Ernewein
visions of my grandfather
happy with a holster
hanging low off right side belt
holding an Apache Rose
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: The Short Bus
By Philippe Ernewein, part 3 of 6
My first days in America were spent riding the short bus to school. I sat with the severely physically and mentally handicapped children. I was the non-English speaker. Most were wheelchair bound. None of them spoke, if they did I don't remember it. I wasn't bothered too much; thanks to Edwin.
Edwin lived on the fifth floor of my apartment building in Belgium. My mom, sister, and I lived on the fourth floor. Our moms were acquaintances; Edwin had Down's syndrome. Our families would get together for dessert or mid-afternoon coffee. Edwin never came to our apartment; we always went upstairs. Edwin and I crashed Matchbox cars, threw a big soft ball, and he had an exercise bar hanging in the doorway of his bedroom. Edwin was the strongest kid I'd ever seen. He could pull up his large, awkward body and keep his chin above the bar for minutes at a time.
My little sister didn't like him because he sometimes tried to steal her shoes. I knew he didn't mean any harm. I could see in his slanted eyes that he was just being playful. There was no hate or malicious intent there. Edwin and I sometimes reached a point of frustration when he spoke in such an excited, hyperactive manner that I could not understand him. His mom would intervene, administer medicine, and our visit would be over. I only saw Edwin during those visits. I never saw him outside. He didn't attend my elementary school.
What did Belgium do with her disabled, her handicapped children? I actually never saw a wheelchair bound or disabled student at Mariagaarden, my Catholic school. Was there even a ramp at the church we visited each Wednesday?
I do know what America did with her disabled in 1980. She put them on a short, yellow bus with me and brought them to an alternative school for special instruction. Some students needed help buttoning their shirts, going to the bathroom, combing their hair, counting to ten, and identifying colors. I needed to learn a new language, a new culture. I didn't need to know how to button my shirts because in America I could wear a T-shirt to school. Going to the bathroom wasn't a problem, but asking for directions was. I didn't need help combing my hair, but I did begin to notice the many different kinds of hair America had on her head: straight black, curly blond, brown afro, dreadlocked, crimped, colored, feathered, spiked, and even shaven. I decided I wanted to wear mine long.
St. Bob taught me how to count as we played basketball on the dirt court behind our house. The number one looked like an orange ball dropping through a shredded white net. A three was a ball thrown over the house, slightly riding the fat, black electrical wire that ran from the barn to the house, and falling through the hoop. The first colors I learned were red, white, and blue.
My mother tongue did little good in Ms. Smith's third grade classroom at Catoctin Elementary. It did offer me the opportunity to correct my teacher: Brussels is the capital of Belgium, not Brugge, not everyone speaks French there, and the colors of the flag go black, yellow, red vertically, not horizontally. During lunch I would return to Catoctin Elementary from the special school and sit in the cafeteria and hope that no one would talk to me in those first months. I was only allowed to be in the "regular" class in the afternoon when they had P.E., art, and math.
I looked the part but I couldn't talk the talk yet. I wore the tennis shoes from K-Mart, I had a Hardy Boys lunch box, I even had a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. My mind still thought in Flemish and my tongue stumbled over anything with more than four letters. I was so nervous during those lonely lunch days that when I turned my head I could hear the back of my neck creak
Most of the students entered the short bus with a special side lift. I eventually helped run the lift: I rolled them up on the platform, locked the wheels, said "you ready?" (which I learned from the bus driver), pushed the cable remote and up they went. I would do this again sixteen years later as a first year, special education teacher on bus duty in Reserve, Louisiana at East St. John High School. I carried a clipboard and marked down the arrival time of each bus. Very important.
Bus 121, the short bus, brought Sheneka to ESJ. Sheneka had cerebral palsy and severe brain damage since birth. Her misshapen body embodied so much of the pain I had seen as an eight year old riding the same bus. These were the children Belgium kept hidden; in America, as a third grader I shared a seat on the bus with them. I remember not understanding very many words spoken. I just tried to read the faces and body language. The drooling mouths, soiled underwear and diapers, dandruffed hair in braids, new shoes on non-functional feet, the arm spasms, and the sad indecipherable screams. Did they have that look I had seen in Edwin's eyes? As the teacher with the clipboard I carefully noted the exact arrival of each bus and wondered how Sheneka was doing: "Is it the shirt that's uncomfortable?" "Does she have to go to the bathroom?" "Does she have an itch?" "Did someone hit her?" I remember the sad and isolated days the handicapped children had at the special school in Virginia. At least Sheneka got to attend the regular school.
When it was within reach Sheneka would sometimes grab my ponytail and pull me down to her level. She pulled it down as though she were cracking a whip. In an instant I was next to her wheelchair on my knees. She would let go and clap her hands and roll her head from side to side. It was great to see her smile, even though the back of my head hurt like hell for the next three minutes. I always told her: "I'm glad you are here. Yes I am, Sheneka, I'm glad you are here."
Back in elementary school, the bus driver of the short bus I rode spoke to me like I was an invalid. I remember the slow, loud voice that emanated from her square, heavy set body clad in tight black pants and an oversized T-shirt. She wasn't unkind. Quite the opposite really. I don't think she intended to harm me, she just didn't know Flemish. Later I would tell her there was a country named Belgium and that she had my permission to visit.
It was 1980 and I was a stranger in America. My elementary school wasn't yet ready for me to be there full-time. I first had to pass a standardized English proficiency test; so I could linguistically fit in with the natives. And where were the natives? I came to America expecting to see the Tonto I’d seen on TV in Belgium. I was told he’d be here. He was on the billboard welcoming me here. “Home of the free and land of the brave,” it said somewhere. Where was the Mohican tongue? Which bus did Tonto ride to school? Where did America keep her natives? Maybe when I rode the regular bus I’d see the Indians.
English: the language of my new nationality, the language of my bus driver, the language my fellow short bus passengers could not speak. So I spoke Flemish to them. I didn't want them to think that I didn't want to talk to them.
"These Long Drives" (an excerpt)
by Luci Tapahonso
The middle brother is a few years older than I.
He is a father, master mechanic, and stern uncle.
Once when I was at his home, his little son came inside
and whispered into his shoulder, “Daddy, the rabbit won’t talk.”
My brother laughed and hugged his son (23).
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: Dinner in the 'Fridge
By Philippe Ernewein, part 4 of 6
During the summer of '89 an event happened that was so powerful that it was like a new instrument joining the orchestra of my soul. I’m not talking about a bass guitar or tambourine here. There was a new sound and I could hear it. Maybe it had been there all along and I was just now beginning to hear it. A calling of sorts.
At first I didn't pay much attention to it. I tended to hear other sounds. I was seventeen years old and it was summertime. For the first time I had a three figure paycheck and my own 1980 Ford Fairmont. Sometimes the sound would sneak in - after the day’s work was done in the shadow of the sunset, during late moonlit nights swimming in the lake, sipping green bottles of Rolling Rock on the Route 7 bypass bridge. I began to see my experiences as part of my path, a direction which I felt compelled to pursue. Yeah, I dare say it was a calling.
You might imagine I went on a pilgrimage to Mt. Tamalpais, meditated for seven days, survived off bread and water, chanted mantras of the Diamond Sutra, and received holy illumination - a Kerouacian Satori in Paris. I didn't. I rode my steel-framed Bianchi bicycle to the Arrowhead campsite at Festival Lakes, Leesburg, Virginia, and started my job as a YMCA camp counselor. Satori would have to wait.
The Social Services van dropped Brian off each morning just as camp was starting. The large letters on the side of van stated, "Loudoun County Child Welfare and Development." He usually ran from the van in the coolest manner possible, with a quick shuffling of the feet and the kicking up of dust. At the end of each day, "The van's here!" Brian's fun was cut short. The van was a multi-use vehicle and picked up the kids at different times, depending on availability.
From the first day of camp Brian wanted to explore. "Can we hike the creek?" There was very little vegetation in Loudoun House, the project where Brian lived. He loved to walk with his T-shirt tucked in the back of his dirty white Levis. Always long pants, no matter how humid. His bright, sun-bleached hair contrasted sharply with his dark tanned back. T-shirts were required by camp rules, but during long hikes away from base camp Brian followed my example and stripped down. He didn't always notice when I put mine back on.
I had a group of eleven other kids along with Brian. Most of them are just a blur. A few of them competed to be my helper. It was Brian who ended up being my assistant most of the time.
I didn't really know what I was doing but I loved my job. In the past the extent of my job related responsibilities had been to throw a newspaper in a yard, grill a burger and ask if it was for here or to go (and hope it was to go so they'd be less likely to complain), and ask customers in the music store if I could help them find anything.
Now I had the lives of 14 precious, impressionable, young, thinking, some rebellious, most energetic, all living and breathing children in my hands. The staff, Dave, Jen, Shaun, Bryan, were people I knew and still do. All of us, young and curious, were thrown into the experience. Sure there was training, some reading, and a loosely defined job description, but most of what we did we made up along the way. The bottom line was we all wanted to have fun.
All of us have become teachers since those days of freedom, belonging, nature, and learning. My agenda back then was scribbled on a 3 x 5 note card, soaking wet and unreadable by noon. My lesson plans today are similar, only without the moisture. I planned with as much variety as possible: hikes, crafts, art, kickball, swims, bonding games. This just seemed to make sense. Brian was my evaluator. He'd let me know what I needed to do.
So why the hell do I remember this kid so clearly? Why is he frozen forever in my mind? Did he whisper the meaning of life to me during a game of telephone? Did he take a bullet for me? No.
He was the first to look up to me. He needed me. Brian came from a fatherless home and I played the missing part in his life. That summer I began to understand what the words respect and responsibility meant.
The energy at camp between the staff and the students and pines and oaks and songs was so strong we named it Pally. Pally was the fictional character that embodied our beliefs: fun, kindness, and concern for children. He was the teenager balancing the fun, energetic part with the serious, responsible side. Pally was often quoted but rarely seen. We talked about Pally like he was one of us (and of course he was). In all his invented glory and beauty, he was like one of Plato's Forms to us, the model we wanted to emulate. I often asked myself, "What would Pally do?"
I asked that question the day I found out Brian's mother was a crack addict and his father in jail for murder. His court appointed social worker told me so. "He talks about you a lot." I biked to his apartment right after work.
Stepping over empty cans of beer and a broken chair, I knocked. "You a cop?"
"No, Brian's camp counselor."
"He ain't here, he at the blacktop."
I saw Brian upon returning to my bike locked on the railing in front of Complex 12. "What are you doing here?" Brian asked.
"You wanna grab a bite to eat? I haven't had dinner. Have you eaten?"
"I'll ask my mom if I can go." Brian ran inside and returned with a smile on his sun-burned face.
We walked to Jerry's Subs and Pizzas. The place where I used to flip burgers. He grinned from ear to ear when I said he could have whatever he wanted from the menu. I had my regular: the hoagie cheese melt with large fries. He ordered the same. We both ate our hoagies and played Galaga (a spruced up version of Space Invaders). I told him stories about sweeping the floor, scrubbing toilets clean, messing up on the register, and making monstrous, multi-layered subs complete with anchovies. Hell, I didn't know what to say to the kid. His father in jail and mother on crack. I asked him about school. He attended Douglas, a school for students who were court-involved or "at-risk.”
"School sucks, I hate it, I'm always in trouble."
I pictured Brian in the classroom, probably sitting most of the day at a desk, being asked to work on dittos, and listen to lectures. “Why does school suck Brian?”
“We don’t do anything. Just sit all day.”
At camp he was the kinesthetic learner, using hands, body, feet. He was a star. He was in his bliss. Dammit, he was a great kid. At school he'd get punished for being the non-traditional learner that he was. Expecting Brian to sit through a lecture and take notes (and possibly learn something from it) is like asking a fish to ride a bicycle.
"I wish you were my teacher."
How did I get through high school? I sat through the lectures and notes and tests knowing I was missing big chunks of information. I failed algebra because the entire class period was sitting, just sitting, nothing else. Quiet, obedient sitting. Sitting like Mr. Smith did at his desk in the front of the classroom. It seemed like he had retired already and was just waiting for the years to catch up.
Why was Brian struggling so desperately in school? Was it because he didn't have that valuable dinnertime conversation with adults or because he didn't have dinner?
No, I don't think I was having these thoughts at age seventeen in Jerry's Subs and Pizzas. I vividly remember thinking how incredibly sad the situation was. Some of these thoughts would be compounded and sadly validated a few years later reading Kozol's Savage Inequalities and Death At An Early Age and McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler.
My mom noticed my red eyes when I walked in the kitchen to tell her I was back. "What's the matter?" I started to cry again uncontrollably. I felt helpless. She held me. Leaving Brian at the projects felt like perpetuating an evil. "You are taking this job very seriously. It's not your fault that things are like that." Soft spoken motherly words, as always, made sense to me. At that moment I decided I would do all I could not to be part of the problem. I didn't want Mr. Smith to be Brian's teacher. Brian wanted me to be his teacher and I wanted him to be my student.
"Your dinner is in the 'fridge."
"Penasco Blanco Blues" (excerpt)
by Philippe Ernewein
and Mamie, my mother’s mother,
sticking her head out from the kitchen
holy angelic Vatican Pope believer
making sure our cups are filled
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: Visions with Ginsberg
By Philippe Ernewein, part 5 of 6
I met Allen Ginsberg shortly after I stepped out of my 1980 baby blue Ford Fairmont with red and yellow and green flames painted above the bald front tires; I had just read Howl for the first time. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Whitely, would have called the poem a run-on sentence like she did of so many of mine. The lines of "who" and "holy" in Howl were the mantra I'd been looking for. This is the way I sometimes thought. I need to say that the sky is more than just blue; I craved comparison, contrast, connection. Ginsberg gave me that meaningful connection to the expressive written word.
There was a line of about ten eager poets, wanna-be poets, hipsters, curious students in front of the theater in Williamsburg, Virginia where he was going to read. Mr. Ginsberg was in the foyer graciously signing copies of his books: Howl, Kaddish, Reality Sandwiches, Planet News, The Fall of America, White Shroud. The twenty-seven year old poet who wrote, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," was now a sixty-six year old with a black tie, white shirt, and gray beard.
With On the Road in my rucksack, I was looking for Carlo Marx (Kerouac's name for Ginsberg in the book). The Portable Beat Reader had just been published; Penguin re-printed old books with fresh, glossy covers; Francis Ford Coppola was working on the film; there was a Beat revival in the works. Others were looking for Carlo too, I could see the starry literary lights in their eyes gazing at Ginsberg. I was in the colonial district, near the campus of William and Mary; this wasn't Times Square 1947. Nobody was looking for their next fix, nobody was stealing your coat from the coat check, no triple x skin flicks. Just tourists gawking at people dressed in clothes from the eighteenth century. Still, I admit to searching, in my mind at least, for Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise, Benzedrine, spontaneous prose, wisdom, a poem; I was secretly looking for the "fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (Kerouac6).
It was On the Road that made me get in my car and drive three hours to listen to an old man read poetry. It was that book that showed me the printed word could be exciting, passionate, controversial, real, obscene, moving, honest, and silly.
Dr. Otis Douglas taught Freshman Seminar at Longwood College, Fall 1990. My first college class, 8:30 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. The class was designed to assist us with the transition from high school to college life. Few students showed up. Dr. Douglas didn't really want to be there either. He had far more important things to do like build a boat (I saw it once in his garage), write a book on how to beat Vegas at Blackjack, and teach upper level math classes. Douglas was the classic white-haired, absent-minded professor. He had a lot of theories, one of which I remember: "Some people know that they don't know, others don't know and they don't know that they don't know. Those folks are really screwed."
We hit it off and instead of class had breakfast together on a few occasions that first semester of my Freshman year. It was during these informal, private meetings when Douglas would ask seemingly unrelated and probing questions. "Where were you born?" "Do you write letters?" "What would you change about your high school experience?" "Can you work a table saw?" I’ll never forget the quick and uncensored answer I gave Douglas when he asked me what the last book was that I had read.
"I've never read an entire book," I admitted.
"Wow, never read a book, bright kid like you, never read a book"
I remember that as the first compliment I ever received from a college professor. He said I was a "bright kid.”
He continued by saying that if I ever want to read one I should check out On the Road.
I made it to the library later that day. There I found On the Road: a Pictorial Journey Through America with Charles Kuralt. Interesting, I thought, Dr. Douglas is suggesting the first book I read is one with lots of pictures. He got a good laugh out of that later and wrote the word Kerouac on an index card.
Back in line, it was February 1992. Ginsberg was twenty feet away from me. I held my Pocket Poet Series #4 in my sweaty hand. I never pretended it was October 1955, San Francisco, the Six Gallery where Ginsberg first read Howl with the now mythical Kerouac in the audience with a gallon of red wine yelling "Go!" Part of me might have been thinking that, but Ginsberg's gray beard told me it was the nineties. Howl was now in its 48th printing. No more obscenity trials to stop that press. Today his poems are even anthologized. He sat at a small card table with big glasses and shiny skull playing the role William Carlos Williams played for him - old, wise, teacher, poet, mentor.
I look back at old journals now and trace the events that led up to my encounter. The spontaneous prose of Kerouac (and later the nature writing and poems of Gary Snyder) showed me something that I didn't know was allowed in writing. They showed me you could just write your mind on paper. Not always good or great, maybe never, but just getting it out was valued, encouraged. As Kerouac suggested in his "List of Essentials, "write what you want bottomless from the bottom of your mind” (Charters59). Writers were allowed to scribble and just let the pen go. Ginsberg said, "My poetry has always been a picture of my mind moving" (Illuminated Poems 17). This made sense to me, they were saying that it was OK to make mistakes. Quite the opposite of the advice that every teacher had given me up to this point. I started keeping a journal and tinkering around with poems clearly as a result of breakfast conversations with Dr. Douglas and his literary recommendation.
After reading the correct version of Dr. Douglas's recommendation, a girlfriend bought me a biography of Ginsberg by Barry Miles (the second book I ever read). This increased my appetite to learn more about the Beats. All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I was reading for pleasure. This led to road trips. Specifically the Lower East Side, Ginsberg's stomping grounds. I wanted to see the buildings he described, the people he saw lurking in the alleys, the coffee shops he frequented.
Journal: October 28, 1990, 23:50 EST
i've been dreaming of meeting w/ allen ginsberg/ these dreams are being fed by my reading of his biography (by b. miles) and the fact that i will be in NYC in a few days/ if i do or if i don't meet him it is all the same/ no expectations and the best will happen/ maybe i'll meet the next ag/ i am writing an article on homelessness while in NYC for school magazine/ i also got my 35mm camera loaded with b&w
Learning English at age eight made me feel like I was always behind, a slow reader. Reading was always such a chore. In fifth grade I lied and said I read Little Women. My book report was copied from the back of the public library hardback copy, not the school paperback version. I remember in the biography Ginsberg says he is a terrible speller. Miles also writes that Kerouac was French-Canadian and didn't learn English till he was eight. Poor spellers and late learners, I could relate to this.
Journal: October 31, 1990, 21:41 EST
Dito says "everything is sick, wild, crazy, the 50 yr old Chinese man was feeling me up, he was sick man, i had to be carried back, down off the hills." Dito is wired, his heart beats in double time, asking two questions per second while answering three, "did you hear drugs are taking their toll?"/ quick notes of phone conversation with westcoast, l.a.
Dito was part of my campaign to meet Ginsberg. I knew him through a friend. He was a model and musician, and more importantly, a friend of Ginsberg. Dito had visited Farmville, Virginia earlier that year which was an event all unto itself. He stumbled out of a white Ford Taurus Rental with a bottle of wine in his hand, a tight white shirt, blue jeans, black shoes, Derby hat, and a blue boa around his neck. He told me that he wasn't sure if Ginsberg would be in New York when I was there. I was informed by Dito that if I did meet him I should drop his name because Ginsberg really liked him and had photographed him naked. Dito said he'd call and leave a message for Ginsberg saying a college kid wants to interview him for a college magazine. "He'll remember your name."
Journal: November 1, 1990 16:32 EST
going to NYC and i've been having dreams again/ this time about me and tom waits walking down fifth avenue/ people are telling me to be careful in the big red apple i am going to NYC and my mother believes i will probably die/ maybe i'll just go to NYC and not return/ i'll pretend that i'm dead/ i'll find some apartment near allen ginsberg's and hope that through some holy intervention he becomes my teacher and i his apprentice/ maybe not/ secretly i am going to write, write, write about what i feel, about what i see, trying to convince myself that the location of one's soul really doesn't matter in relation to writing, it's where the imagination can take you, whether it's next to some hobo on st. mark's place or the honorary guest at some dinner in some king's honor/ all i want to do some days is just write and some days i don't want to do anything except read.
I had two addresses of where my hero-poet might be living: 206 East 7th Street and 122 East 12th Street. No one answered the doorbell at either place. This led me to Hyde Park and the Kiev Restaurant on Second Avenue and 7th Street hoping I'd have that chance encounter with the Dharma Lion. This was the place of Jewish Delis and Eastern European restaurants; surely I would see the poet laureate eating a knish or maybe a pirogi. Of course, in a city of 11, 546, 382 people the odds are...well they should be obvious.
I did meet some interesting folks in coffee shops and a hungry street person named Mike. My first published piece resulted from my meeting him at the Penn Station. He gave me great lines like "Northern Georgia's boring, you sit on the porch, two hours and no cars, not even a person. New York City, now here it moves."
Back to Williamsburg, after a ten minute wait in line I got to Ginsberg's table. There he sat with a black ink Parker pen in right hand and the words of Sunflower Sutra swirling all around him. I kneeled down. "Hello, who are you?" "Philippe Ernewein, it is a pleasure to meet you." After asking for the spelling of my name, he drew a quick sketch of a simple human skull with a snake rising above it. The serpent's tail led up and became a flower. In the middle of the flower, complete with five petals, he wrote the word "AH". I remained kneeling and in awe watching the hand that wrote the poems Green Automobile, A Supermarket in California, and The Lion For Real. A woman behind me, carefully observing our encounter, leaned forward and inquired what the letters “A” and “H” meant. Ginsberg looked me in the eye, took a deep breath, and said "AH". In a deep diaphragm sound said it again, "AaaaaaaHhhhhhhh". And again "AaaaaaaaaaHhhhhhhh". I didn't even ask the question, but I was happy he was answering it. For a moment I could see the "fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww' (Kerouac 6)."
I met Allen Ginsberg shortly after I stepped out of my 1980 baby blue Ford Fairmont with red and yellow and green flames painted above the bald front tires; I had just read Howl for the first time. After the two hour reading where I sat front row I didn't want to leave. I had questions. "Who was Lorca?" "Was that the same Ezra Pound Mrs. Whitely made us read in 10th grade English class?" "Where did he buy his harmonium?" I hung out.
The auditorium slowly cleared out. Eventually there were just a few of us left. I had started a conversation with Brian, Ginsberg’s personal assistant, when Ginsberg returned from backstage. This was my chance for conversation with the sage, the teacher I had been craving.
"Hi, we met earlier. I'm a friend of Dito's."
A slightly glazed look was followed by, ""Dito, yeah, OK. We're going to a vigil for AIDS awareness, do you want to come?"
I followed him and became part of his entourage. For the next hour and a half I was within talking distance of my secret hero. I took notes on index cards and snuck in a few questions. Mostly I just listened to my teacher, poet, mentor. My Dharma lion for the night.
Was Ginsberg the visionary I’d been looking for, my Tonto? The one who could see through the tangled web of America’s contradictions? Was it the poet who sat high in the watchtower to observe everything more clearly? Could you see the Indians from up there? Tonto sure as hell wasn’t in Colonial Williamsburg. I did feel I was closer than ever to knowing where he was. The deconstruction took a few steps forward.
"Visions with Ginsberg"
From Jeff Johnson's letter (Thank you Jeff, where ever you are)
the apprentice for a night
of William Carlos Dr. Williams
(even the sea dies)
(the ozone hole will grow,
god will fall in)
I walked slowly next to him
"do I contradict myself?
very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large,
I contain multitudes"
the great sage Ginsberg
says do not follow my path to extinction
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: 20 Miles of Dirt
By Philippe Ernewein, part 6 of 6
The road into Chaco Canyon is twenty miles of dirt. Off Highway 44, three miles east of Nageezi, northwestern New Mexico, there is County Road 7900. It is the last marked road until Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. After 7900 there is no asphalt. Endless bumpy washboards, eroding sandstone, the driest desert dust, wild Reservation dogs, sage chewing cows, dread-locked sheep, and withering disabled trucks decorate the road. The road leads to what some people call the center of the Anasazi culture, a rich collection of prehistoric ruins, roads, and artifacts dating to between 800 and 1200 AD. Some call Chaco the Earth Mother Navel; I called it home for most of 1996.
The condition of the road often depended on the individual who last graded the road. "Oh, if it was what’s his name the road is probably worse than before." The bumps in the road were like miles of fast-food restaurant parking lot speed bumps. Slow down, take a look around.
Most people inside the canyon are happy the road is unpaved. Most people outside the park think this is un-American. Sometimes the road is impassable. The mud season requires chains to get through and then there is the arroyo about seven miles outside the canyon. When the arroyo runs it can sweep away cars with the greatest of ease. An Army Corps of Engineers constructed concrete slab covers the dirt road where the arroyo crosses 7900. The concrete covers what would otherwise be a pool of quicksand after rain. Instead of sweeping cars away, it would just swallow them. There is a sign for those entering the canyon: do not cross when water is present.
During the six months I spent as an interpretive park ranger, the arroyo was wet about four times. Each time was reason to celebrate for those on the inside. Reason to turn around for those entering the canyon.
The arroyo stretched through Navajo Nation like a deep scar that was never stitched up. When flowing it looked like a main artery pumping blood through the veins of an old storyteller. It gave life to the landscape.
Jack, a stocky, beautiful Navajo in a National Park Service maintenance uniform, would go and watch the arroyo when it was flowing. The lines on his dark face showed the squinting he'd done most of his life under the desert sun. The seven mile trek from residence area in the park to the arroyo was an event. Usually after a heavy downpour, the arroyo’s flow was the calm after the storm. Jack would pile his whole family, three daughters and his wife, into his 1982 Chevy Impala. Carol, his eldest daughter, would come to my trailer and invite me to follow. I never turned down the invite. I would follow in my 1986 Pontiac Parisienne station wagon. I didn't have a worry in the world with my hair in the wind and a bare foot on the gas pedal. Fajada Butte, the major landmark in the park, would shrink in my rearview mirror as Jack would hit speeds of sixty or more. "The faster you go, the less you feel the washboard." Two white General Motors family cars barreling eastward into Navajo Nation to see water flowing in the desert.
A road Lieutenant Simpson walked down in 1849, under orders from the US. government, seeking a city of gold. A road William Henry Jackson photographed in 1888 before heading to Mesa Verde. A road 8,354 Navajos were forced to walk under Kit Carson’s orders to Fort Sumner in southern New Mexico in 1864 (Tapahonso 7).
Jack parked about fifteen feet from the flowing mud and sat on his hood. The girls always threw rocks and got their feet wet. Jack's wife sat in the car and listened to static and words about God on the radio. I looked at Jack and wondered if he was a medicine man.
It was mostly a quiet outing. Other Navajo residents could be seen from our spot observing the water. I got the courage to ask him a question one evening as we watched the temporary river, "Is it passable today?" "Right now it is passable, but soon it wouldn't be." Hesitant to question him like I was of my grandfather Papie, I spoke, "A Ford Escort would get swept away in a second, but a Ford F250 would wade right through." Jack looked at me and laughed at my American automobile explanation. "I seen big truck get stuck, a mobile home too, like Karen and Lou have."
There are no arroyos in Virginia; I was far from the place I used to call home. I was Whitey in Indian Country; a place that I had been dreaming about since first grade - sitting next to Papie's right knee, the Westerns, the Indian on the mesa tops. I was on the television screen now with no antenna in sight. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I knew I had a lot to learn and even more to forget. That's why I came to the desert after all. I taught high school for two years east of New Orleans in port town called La Place. I looked in the mirror one morning in my double wide trailer and I hardly recognized myself. I needed a break. I knew teaching was my calling. I just changed my venue from East St. John High School to the ancient ruins of the Anasazi, from a portable classroom to Pueblo Bonito. Without this early sabbatical the calling might have become muted, the burn-out irreversible.
Jack did have a system for evaluating the running arroyo. If you could walk to the middle, the water wasn't much past the knees, and you could remain standing then it was passable. Jack's daughters would laugh at me as I tested their dad's theory. Most of the time I would just end up swimming in the river of mud. There was downstream evidence of a few cars and trucks that didn't heed the warning sign, or test the flowing water properly.
After about half an hour of sightseeing, Jack and his family returned to the park. I would remain behind and park my car in Jack's spot. I'd listen to Dylan's Desire, smoke an Amish cigar, and wonder about the beautiful possibilities of the arroyo as metaphor.
One night when returning to the park with Carol the arroyo was in full swing. We had visited Mesa Verde, part of the prehistoric Anasazi network, eighty miles north of the park. I was amazed Carol had never been there. "I just never had a reason to go there," she said. I used Jack's rubric: parked the car, walked out to the middle, checked the current to see if it would move me. It seemed passable. At thirty miles an hour the wagon parted the river. We made it to the other side. I later found out I was missing a crucial component to his system. When it is raining, as it was on the night in question, there is a different system. Jack informed me the next time he saw me, "Do not attempt, wait for rain to stop."
My duties in the park included managing the Visitor Center, leading tours of the ruins, collecting fees, patrolling back country trails, and giving a weekly evening talk.
It was during those fireside talks at the campground that I was back in front of the classroom. Most of the people camping in the park attended. The groups varied in number from ten to sixty people. The fire pit was east of the campground at the front of a sandstone cliff decorated with petroglyphs.
There I would tell my story of moving to America, my expectations of cowboys and Indians, the kindness of my hosts, the Navajo, the mystery of the landscape and ruins of Chaco, the importance of the oral tradition. The regular script included the research I had done on the encounters between the indigenous peoples and first explorers to the area. Most of the journals of the surveyors, photographers, and frontiers men discounted the stories the natives told. There was no scientific evidence, no proof of the giant spider woman who created that mesa, no evidence that this is a turtle's back we are living on, no eyewitness accounts that the coyote put on human clothes and signed that treaty, no way of really knowing that "The ladder is the way through the smoke hole" (Snyder 125).
These were just considered to be tall tales by the non-natives. The stories were truth for the Ancestral Puebloans - only told around the campfire, the sun well on her way to the winter solstice position, and the daily work finished. I had to suspend my Western way of thinking. I had to kill my image of Tonto and re-educate the Lone Ranger.
I was patrolling a back country trail in late July when the ghost of my grandfather appeared on the edge of Chacra Mesa.
"Penasco Blanco (White Rock Point) Blues"
by Philippe Ernewein
Frederick Remington’s light and landscape
vision of my grandfather
happy w/ a holster
hanging low off right side belt
holding an Apache Rose
I gave him
in memory of my love
how can I thank him
offer him all I have
and we walk together
like we did so many times before
in Old World Belgium cowboy films
over 16 years ago
he related to the cowboy
the John Wayne
me the natives
with their heads turned toward nature
long locks and exotic ways
(exotic to me anyway)
sticking her head out from the kitchen
holy angelic Vatican pope believer
making sure our cups were filled
looking ahead to the move to America
he knew I would be closer to the Indians and he the cowboys
the house in Virginia he sat in the yard
I was his waiter
coke on the rocks was slight diluted whisky
the drinks were free and tips gracious
we didn’t need to watch cowboy films in America
America was outside and still is
now I sit in the western desert, Chaco Canyon
San Juan Basin, rural NW New Mexico
in shade of Anasazi decorated cliff walls
petroglyphs of circles
swirls of carefully etched meaning
and it is here where I saw Papie galloping
on a brown horse
full circle vision
a dream-like walk brought me here
he looks at me
and we both know our part.
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: Postscript
by Philippe Ernewein
Pale Moon was a reminder. Papie was Tonto. Brian was my first student. The short bus was compassion. Ginsberg was my sage. Chaco was salvation. Teaching is my calling. The classroom is my home.
Talkin’ Tonto Deconstruction Blues: Works Cited
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Ginsberg, A. (1956). Howl and other Poems. San Francisco: City Light Books.
Ginsberg, A. (1996). Illuminated Poems. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Hall, J. (1996). Jesus Was Way Cool. New York: Soft Skull Press.
Kerouac, J. (1957). On the Road. New York: The Viking Press.
Kozol, J. (1990). Death At An Early Age: The Deconstruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in Boston Public Schools. Boston: Harperperennial Library.
Kozol, J. (1992). Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. Boston: Harperperennial Library.
McCall, N. (1995) Makes Me Wanna Holler. New York: Vintage Books.
Means, R. (1997). Where White Men Fear To Tread. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Smith, H, Ed. (1997). Anthology of American Folk Music. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Snyder, G (1971). The Back Country. New York: New Directions.
Snyder, G. (1974). Turtle Island. New York: New Directions.
Snyder, G. (1992). No Nature. San Francisco: Pantheon Books.
Tapahonso, L. (1993). Saanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.
Waits, T. (1997). Tom Waits: Beautiful Maladies. New York: Omnibus.
Whitman, W. (1992). Leaves of Grass. New York: Vintage Books.
Zinn, H. (1995). A People’s History of the United States (1492 – present). New York: HarperPerennial.