Well, it's been over 2 months since I last mentioned anything here (two months of working from home with nowhere to go and nothing to do, thanks to the good ol' CoronoaVirus that's got us all afraid to leave the house). So there's no time like the present to bore everyone's pants off...
"Grand" really doesn't do it justice...
It was a little over a year ago that the wife and I went to the Grand Canyon for the first time. We drove the longer, and I assumed more picturesque, route from San Diego through the middle of Arizona up through Flagstaff to Williams, Arizona. It was a very long drive and there was surprisingly diverse terrain along the way. We saw seas of mammoth sand dunes, lightly forested rolling hills, tall majestic pines right up to the road blocking everything behind, grass-covered rolling hills, and cactus-covered hills as we drove along this long, meandering path to Williams. I wish I'd taken more time to stop and take photos, but it was a long drive and stopping for photos wasn't a priority at the time.
We stayed in a Best Western Hotel in Williams - the best reviewed hotel in the area for the lowest cost (I think I'ver mentioned that I'm a cheapskate, right?). The room was spacious ad very clean. We were near an exit, so we heard a little more noise from guests coming and going than we might have elsewhere in the hotel, but it wasn't too bad. The hotel's decor was also very interesting - native American statues were in glass-cased niches along the hallways, the lobby had a display case of artifacts, there were near life-sized statues dancing in warpaint outside the hotel's Kachina Lounge restaurant, and other native American artwork throughout the hotel. It was very cool to just walk around and check out. We also ate in the hotel's restaurant both nights we were there. Affordable (for a hotel restaurant) and tasty food. But the best part of the restaurant meal was the live music, performed both nights by Omar Mondragon de Leon, a veteran musician who played covers of Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, and other artists who have slipped my mind after all this time. The Simon and Garfunkel covers were my favorites. He was also very friendly and we talked a little in the mostly-empty restaurant between songs.
We were planning to drive up to the canyon, but when we were told about the Grand Canyon Railway ride up to the rim and back, we decided to shell out a little more dough for that (it's not free to drive up to the Grand Canyon, either, though I don't remember how much that option cost). I'm really glad we took the train, though I think we might drive next time so we have more options for accessing areas further along the canyon rim. It was a lot area to cover on foot (and that's without taking any of the trails into the canyon itself).
So, what was so great about the riding the Grand Canyon Railway? Several things.
It was a train ride. And those are always kind of fun.
The terrain varied almost as much on our way up to the rim of the Grand Canyon as it did on our drive through Arizona to get there. And there were a few wild animals here and there to gawk at as the train made its way up the hill.
There was live entertainment on the train. Old west serenades galore. And on the way back down, we were boarded by bandits - one was a wee man - who were very entertaining.
And possibly best of all (and this didn't even require a ticket) there was an old west show outside the train station with cowboys and bandits and comedy and little people. Great stuff.
So after a pretty long ride, we reached the train station just below the rim of the Grand Canyon. We walked up the hill and looked around at all the shops and then made out way to the rim. And man, it's ginormous. And so deep. I'd heard tales of mountain goats and waterfalls in the canyon, but apparently they are all further east, so we didn't see much wildlife or wildwater. Still, 'twas a Majestic sight. It was also really chilly at the end of March, even though it was sunny with a clear blue sky. There was actually even still a good pile of snow in our hotel's parking lot, so it wasn't just chilly at the top.
In the gift shops, we picked up a really interesting handmade necklace for the wife with a red gem that seemed to glow when it caught the light, and a book for me (see below). We also ate in one of the less interesting, though still very crowded, fast food spots on the rim. The nicer restaurants were super-expensive. And super-busy. After walking up and down the rim (the small area near the train station) and exploring everything there was to see, we headed back down to Williams on the train. Along the way, our train was boarded by bandits (see the reasons for riding the Grand Canyon Railway as itemized above).
We headed home the next morning. Part of out post-Grand Canyon adventures the day prior had taken place on Route 66 (the part that passed through Williams). There wasn't a lot to see in Williams, but it piqued my interest enough that we decided to drive down Route 66 as far as we could to see what there was to see. And it was a weird, interesting, and colorful drive through so many small towns that celebrated its history as part of the Route 66 legacy. I was surprised to discover that I took far more photos of the Route 66 weirdness than I did the Grand Canyon itself.
When we reached the end of Route 66, we took a long circuitous drive southward instead of doing the smart thing and heading for the 10 freeway. So we drove past Lake Havasu, another place I''d never been. What a strange sight in the middle of the desert. The lake was so very blue and pretty. And the river communities that sprung up all long the river feeding the lake were an interesting sight as well.
The rest of the drive wasn't really worth detailing. There was a lot of desert that all looked the same, and we drove through a lot of small towns. And eventually we hit Interstate 8 (that had taken us into Arizona) and took it back into San Diego.
And speaking of the book I bought in the Grand Canyon gift shop...
- Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila
There were a bunch of books about the Navajo code talkers of World War II in the various shops of the Grand Canyon. But most were written about the code talkers by somebody else. Only one that I found, Code Talker, was written by one of the actual code talkers (or at least narrated to a writer, Judith Schiess Avila, by an actual code talker), Chester Nez. So I bought the only copy I could find in any of the shops (a paperback with a ripped back cover, unfortunately) and started reading it on the train ride back to Williams. I finished it a few weeks later, after finishing the other book I'd been reading before finding Code Talker (and possibly one or two other books).
Chester (as the former code talker came to be known later - not his given Navajo name) begins his story with tales of his childhood, including the unpleasant things that happened to him and his family (in sad detail) at the hands of the conquering pale faces. The Navajo people didn't have a pampered life in any way, but they were content with their rough existence.
One of the early difficult events in Chester's life was his experiences when he was sent to an Indian school. It was a cultural whitewashing that, thankfully, wasn't very effective. Chester did learn English, though, which proved helpful in the Marine. It was interesting that the primary tormetors were older Navajo children and matrons from other tribes, not the great white devil. Here's an excerpt from Code Talker that shows how bad it was.
At home I had gone everywhere and spoken to everyone. It seemed odd that at school, certain places were forbidden and speaking to the girls was prohibited.
We boys climbed up to our dormitory room on the second floor of the boys' residence hall. I looked down the long row of beds, all arranged side by side. I had never slept in a "white person's" bed, except at school in Tohatchi. Windows covered one entire wall of the dormitory. It was a long drop to the ground from where I stood.
That first night, the boy in the bed next to me woke in the middle of the night screaming.
"What's wrong?" I asked him in Navajo.
The little boy shivered, although the night was warm. "Terrible dreams," he told me. "Dead men. Indian warriors. And white men, too."
An owl - always a bad omen - perched on a lamppost outside the dormitory. Eerie hoots stirred the still night. We two boys looked at each other, eyes popping. Then we lay back in bed, looking straight up at the ceiling, trying not to move.
The next night, as I climbed into bed, the spirits of dead warriors stood vivid in my imagination. I lay awake, not daring to close my eyes.
Many children had bad dreams in this strange place that had once been a frontier fort, a place of death. The boys in my dormitory were all ten years old or younger. I hated to see them cry. Several other boys and I tried to calm their fears.
I wished my brother Coolidge slept in the next bed. But the older male students had been divided into two groups, eleven through eighteen and over eighteen. They lived in a different building. Like me, most of the other Navajo children had begun school at the age of seven or older. Some were even eleven or twelve. So there were quite a few boys over the age of eighteen, even though Fort Defiance School stopped at sixth grade. Still, there were no older boys in my dorm and no adults to comfort us children after our nightmares.
Older boys. At home I knew which kids were older by the way they looked, how tall they were, and how strong. Time, back home, was marked by the change of seasons, not by a calendar. I, like most of the children, had not known my birthday or my age. The school obtained birth dates from the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Crownpoint, in northwestern New Mexico. I learned, at age eight, that I was born on January 23, 1921.
I brushed one hand over my hair, feeling the unfamiliar bristles. I had been at Fort Defiance School for several days. I did my best not to do anything wrong, but since I knew no English, it was difficult to figure out the rules.
I addressed a boy, using his Navajo name.
The matron struck me on the back of the head with her open palm. "English only."
"Wood, uh . . . Wood," the little boy whispered to me, pointing at his own chest with his thumb.
"Woodrow," snapped the matron, giving the boy a shove.
The "English" names assigned by the school were made from sounds unfamiliar to us children. Luckily, I had the already familiar name the missionary had given to me. Other kids had a more difficult time with the foreign words that felt wrong in their mouths. But these were now their names. When asked for their new names by a teacher or matron, they struggled to remember. Punishment was immediate for those who forgot.
The half-Laguna matron gestured and spoke to a man dressed in dark-colored overalls. He carried a flat-shaped metal box and wore a belt with various tools hanging out of it. The matron's voice grew hard, and she pointed in the direction of the bathrooms. This matron was half white. The other woman who watched over the young boys in my section of the school was full-blooded Pima. I couldn't decide which one I feared and disliked most.
The kids passing the Laguna-and-white matron gave her and the tool man a wide berth. Still, one stepped too close, and she grabbed him - quick as a snake - by the back of his uniform.
"What's your name?" she asked.
I froze in place, watching the exchange.
The boy looked down at the floor. "Uh, uh . . . Theo . . ."
"Theodore, you idiot." The matron swatted him across the face. "Theodore." She pushed the boy away.
Gulping down tears, he scurried down the hall after his classmates.
She turned to me. "What are you looking at?"
I yelled, "Chester," at the top of my voice, then whipped around and followed the others before she could grab me. She always picks on the littlest ones, I thought.
The knowledge of constant danger sat lodged in the pit of my stomach like a rock. I tried my best to answer questions correctly, but never knew when a matron would strike. They watched, their dark cold eyes waiting for us to make a mistake, to do something wrong. I was always afraid.
Snow fell softly outside the dormitory windows. Loud whispering came from two beds away. Navajo. I'd been caught speaking Navajo three days before. The Pima matron brushed my teeth with brown Fels-Naptha soap. I still couldn't taste food, only the acrid, bitter taste of the lye soap.
Teachers at the school were encouraged to be strict, and the smaller children were frequently targeted by slaps or kicks. But the lingering taste of the soap was worse than either of those punishments.
"Why do you think the matrons are so mean?" the small, high voice,speaking in Navajo, asked from a bed to my right.
"The teachers are mean, too," said someone on my other side. "And we'll be sent home if we complain." '
"I'd like to go home," another voice said.
"It isn't right, though. They're really mean," said a fourth voice in the dark.
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As bad as the boarding school experience was for Chester, there was an even worse childhood experience in the book: The Great Livestock Massacre of the mid-1930s. It was a terrible experience that affected a lot of Navajo in a very negative way and will make your blood boil at the blatant idiocy perpetrated by government.
The summer day at Chichiltah sizzled with heat and expectations. Father and Grandma counted the days and months of summer, making sure they knew when my school resumed in the fall. Hot days filled with freedom raced by, and that back-to-school date would come too soon. But right now was free again of teachers, of that heavy feeling that I was about to answer a question incorrectly, and of volatile matrons.
I rattled the fence I'd just mended to test its strength. Good. It formed part of the family sheep corral. I stretched and sipped from a canvas jug of water.
The far-off rumble of heavy equipment, a sound not often heard in Navajo country, gave me warning. If I had known what was coming, my heart wouldn't have pounded with eager anticipation. But the sound, and then the sight of a flatbed truck carrying a huge bulldozer, was uncommon - and intriguing. l wiped the sweat from my eyes. What could it be for?
Then, in my thirteenth or fourteenth summer, I didn't connect the heavy equipment with any kind of problem. I raced down to the dirt road to watch. Navajo men dismounted from the flatbed. They worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, government employees, they said. With a good deal of sarcasm, reservation Navajos called government workers "Washing-done."
Grandmother and Grandfather looked at each other, numb expressions frozen on their faces.
The men drove the heavy-duty bulldozer off the flatbed, down a hastily placed ramp. My family and I watched. The big machine lumbered across Grandma's property, raising clouds of dust. It stopped not far from the hogan. We heard scraping sounds as a huge trench was dug. When the trench was complete - about 150 feet long and four or five feet deep - the men and machine moved to a plot of land inhabited by another family and dug another long hole in the ground. They dug three or four trenches, each on property owned by different neighbors.
Were they preparing for some new ceremony? The workers left with no explanation. I imagined a huge sing with multiple bonfires. But my adult relatives were strangely quiet.
A week or so later, the BIA men returned on horseback. My family gathered at the hogan.
The BIA workers blocked one end of the trench on Grandma's land, leaving the other end open. "You need to round up your sheep and goats," one man said. "Herd them into the trench."
Grandfather's face had turned to stone. "But - "
"Do not protest, Grandfather," one of the BIA workers said, using the polite form of address for a younger man addressing an elder. "Haven't you heard, you'll get thrown in jail?"
My stomach knotted as I helped herd all but three hundred of Grandmother's sheep and goats into the deep trench. The willing, domesticated animals moved readily into the trench through the open end. Then the BIA workers sealed that end. A flammable material was sprayed on the animals, and they were set on fire.
We couldn't believe what we were witnessing. I covered my ears, but could not block the shrieks of the animals, especially the goats, who had high, piercing cry. The stench of burning wool and flesh filled the normally fresh air.
That night, as I lay sleepless, the screams echoed in my head. Across the hogan, Grandmother and Grandfather cried softly.
Through years of hard work Grandma's herd had grown to around a thousand animals, mostly sheep, with a scattering of goats. The entire family had worked hard to build up our herd, and we were happy and grateful for our healthy animals. In Navajo country, sheep were a measure of wealth. So, despite the Depression afflicting the rest of the nation, my family had worked their way to success. I knew that Dora and I had helped. With the herd reduced by seven hundred head, all those years of labor came to nothing.
I lay in the dark, tears sliding down my cheeks. Many of the animals had been pets, greeting their humans with bleats and head butts. I missed them. And Dora missed them. Those animals deserved respect, not such a terrible death at the hands of cruel men. Finally, exhausted from the terrible day, I fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up feeling groggy, but knowing that something was wrong. Then the stench of burned livestock filled my nostrils. I dressed and went outside. Auntie was already up, working. Together my family performed the tasks necessary to care for our remaining animals. We moved like machines, unable to process what had happened.
Late that night, I again heard Grandmother's and Grandfather's stifled sobs. I overheard their whispered words to each other. They could not imagine how they would make up for their loss.
Father, working at the trading post, learned that families all over the reservation and the Checkerboard were devastated by the massacre of their livestock. Any family with more than a hundred head of sheep and goats was subject to the "reduction." The number of animals killed varied on a sliding scale, depending on how big each herd was. Horses and cattle were also killed, but their deaths were more humane. They were shot rather than burned.
The shocked families warned one another not to protest. There were rumors of arrests.
Hot, dry summer days passed while I herded the remaining sheep, helped with repairs, chopped wood, and generally made myself useful at home. Occasionally adult relatives asked me to translate Navajo to English for them at the trading post. I always liked to help. Translating was interesting, and they paid me with a stick of licorice or peppermint candy. But just as good as the candy was the respect I got for my knowledge. School was paying off.
I hadn't talked during my summer days at home about the fighting at school or about how mean the matrons and teachers could be. I just wanted to enjoy being back in Chichiltah with my family. They looked at me with pride and treated me like someone special.
Even so, at the end of each summer I lay awake considering whether I should go back to Fort Defiance. It was so much nicer at home, despite the lack of amenities like hot running water and electricity. Those comforts were nothing compared to being treated well. And at home, I knew exactly what was expected of me, so life, though physically challenging, was stress-free. At school, it was difficult to know what the teachers and matrons wanted.
Still, in the end, I always returned. Even after some years, when Dora fell ill with tuberculosis and spent most of her time in the Fort Defiance sanitarium, I went to class. A couple of years after Dora got sick, my brother Coolidge finished school. Dora, though she recovered the tuberculosis, was kept at home. So I returned to Fort Defiance. I forced myself to go, pushing the dread I felt to the back of my mind.
I wanted to make my family proud.
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There's a historical perspective of The Great Livestock Massacre in the book, too. It was probably provided by Judith Avila, not Chester. But Chester may have been aware of the government's intentions and the the politics behind the terrible decisions that were made. I'm not real sure if this was part of his narrated story. Here's most of the historical perspective from the book.
A historical perspective on the politics of this disaster doesn't soften the blow still felt by the families who were deprived of their livelihood. The program may have been well intentioned, but like many other political decisions, the results proved disastrous.
It was during the Great Depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, was president. His legislative agenda, the "New Deal," initiated many programs and public-works projects designed to help employ the needy. The disastrous livestock reduction might never have occurred if four things had not come together.
First, reservation and Checkerboard land, aggressively grazed by livestock, was less productive than it had been. Sheep were the primary animals raised, and they graze close to the ground, often killing the roots of plants. The dust bowl in the southwestern Great Plains had created a more serious problem than the problems on Navajo land, but still, overgrazing was then under the microscope of public awareness. As John Collier wrote: "The Navajo reservation is being washed into the Boulder Dam reservoir." This government project, begun in 1931, is now known as the famous Hoover Dam.
Second, the overgrazing coincided with a federal New Deal push for a huge park to be created on Navajo land. The proposal, first made in 1931 by Roger Toll, died, but was renewed when Roosevelt was elected. People argued that the park would create jobs, but it would also absorb land needed for grazing Navajo livestock. The National Park Service
decided that the Navajos could continue to live on the parkland, but they would have to retain their "quaint" ways of life, continuing to raise sheep and implementing no improvements. This would do nothing to relieve the already overgrazed conditions. It was driven home to officials that fewer animals would mean fewer demands for grass,
Third, John Collier, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, felt pressured to do something to rehabilitate Navajo grazing lands. He opposed the Navajo National Park, but proposed a stock reduction program as the solution to the overgrazing problem.
And fourth, Collier also promised to expand the land area of the reservation in return for the reduction in livestock. He wanted to incorporate lands already used by the Navajo for grazing, making their stewardship official. This would include at least some of the Checkerboard area. The idea seems somewhat contradictory, since with more land, more animals could be supported, but the land was, by then, so poor that Collier felt a livestock reduction would still be in order.
As planned, Collier's recommendation for reservation expansion lessened the vehemence of Navajo objections to his proposed stock reduction. The stock reduction proposal passed.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs jumped in, employing Navajos to execute the reduction mandate. In an attempt to make up for the diminished income from their liquidated livestock, the government also promised the Navajos an education that would lead to jobs with various New Deal public-works programs.
But then John Collier proposed the "Indian Reorganization Act," a proclamation of "cultural freedom." for Indians which basically proposed to make the various tribes into corporations administered by the United States government. The act was passed by the Pueblos but rejected by the Navajos. Still, Congress passed the act in 1934, leaving the future of the Navajos poorly defined in the eyes of the government.
Once the livestock massacre was completed, with the Navajo sheep population having been reduced from a high of 1.6 million in 1932 to only 400,000 in 1944, the promised geographical expansion failed to take place, although, to his credit, John Collier did fight to obtain more land for the reservation*. The proposed national park was also defeated, a small blessing for those who kept sheep and other livestock. Only a few Navajos were given public-works employment. And the education program that was promised - preparing more Native Americans to work on the numerous public-works projects - did not materialize for the members of the Navajo tribe, the tribe that had rejected john Colliers Indian Reorganization Act.
It was odd that in Depression times, the mutton of the slaughtered animals was not preserved as Food. Nor were the wool and leather utilized. A small portion of the meat was canned for later use, although the meat from Grandmas herd and neighboring herds was simply destroyed. Three or four years later, some canned mutton was distributed to chapter houses on the Checkerboard and the reservation.
Some Navajo families were paid a pittance for their destroyed livestock, less than three dollars per head of sheep, when the market value vacillated between eight dollars and fourteen dollars per head. Other families were never paid. I am not sure whether my family received any money for their dead animals.
There are historians who suggest that the governments stock reduction program was aimed at making the Navajos less independent and more dependent upon the "generosity" of the government in Washington, D.C. I don't know about that, but I do know that for us Navajos, the government's "livestock reduction" program ended in failure.
Historians name John Collier, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, as the instigator of the massacre. But I remember another man, E. Reeseman Fryer, who, during the New Deal, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the superintendant of the Navajo Reservation under john Collier. He served from 1936 until 1942, and was personally responsible for implementing much of the livestock reduction program. This man was especially resented. He was a white man, enjoying a position of power over the Navajo tribe.
The popular belief was that what Fryer fried was the Navajos.
The extermination went on for some six years, with different sections of Navajo land targeted at different intervals. By the time it stopped, the rain had stopped as well, and the grass continued to dry up.
The effect on the Navajo sense of community was devastating. In the time before the massacre, friends and neighbors helped one another. When someone fell sick, neighbors pitched in to care for their animals. Medicine men and women were summoned to cure both people and animals. Neighbors and family assisted by gathering together at night and praying for the sick to recover.
The livestock reduction challenged this sense of community by pitting Navajo against Navajo. Those who kept livestock resented the Navajo exterminators who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neighbors put up fences to enclose their pastures, saving them for the sheep that they had left. The year-round migration from one community grazing area to another that had always been the norm as I grew up became impossible. As a result, ties between neighbors weakened.
The toll in self-respect was also huge. Families, unable to protect their own livestock, felt powerless. And nothing could have done more to erode the local work ethic. What was the point of working hard to build up wealth, a sizable herd, when the government just stepped in and destroyed it?
The massacre killed more than livestock. It changed the dynamic between neighbors; it changed the meaning of hard work; it changed everything. .
After the Long Walk, the livestock massacre is considered the second great tragedy in Navajo history. A story now woven into oral tradition, the extermination is discussed wherever Navajos meet, so that like the Long Walk, it will never fade from memory.
* Arizona and New Mexico sheep and cattle interests opposed the expansion of the reservation, and legislators from New Mexico and Arizona fought successfully for the bill's defeat.
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Those are the last of Chester's childhood stories that I'm going to subject you to. They weren't all bummer childhood stories, but the bummers hit me hardest so I shared those. Chester also shared what was great about being a kid who could be one with nature on the reservation.
Chester talked about the development of the code with the other Navajo Marines. It's amazing how sharp these Navajo soldiers were - they memorized huge collections of data and had to pull it all from memory in real time as they sent and received messages. And there wasn't a lot of education between them - just an oral tradition of memorizing their people's history (since Navajo isn't a written language, everything important had to be committed to memory).
Although Navajo is spoken less and less frequently today, the boarding schools in the 1920s and '30s had - happily - failed in their efforts to erase the language from the minds of their students. We men in that locked room were articulate in both Navajo and English.
Navajo bears little resemblance to English. When a Navajo asks whether you speak his language, he uses these words: "Do you hear Navajo?" Words must be heard before they can be spoken. Many of the sounds in Navajo are impossible for the unpracticed ear to distinguish. The inability of most people to hear Navajo was a solid plus when it came to devising our code.
The Navajo language is very exact, with fine shades of meaning that are missing in English. Our language illustrates the Dine's relationship to nature. Everything that happens in our lives happens in relationship to the world that surrounds us. The language reflects the importance of how we and various objects interact. For example, the form of the verb "to dump something" that is used depends upon the object that is dumped and the container that is being utilized. If one dumps coal from a bucket, for instance, the verb is different from the verb used to describe dumping water from a pail. And the verb again differs when one dumps something from a sack. Again, in Navajo you do not simply "pick up" an object. Depending on what the object is - its consistency and its shape - the verb used for "to pick up" will differ. Thus the verb for picking up a handful of squishy mud differs from the verb used for picking up a stick.
Pronunciation, too, is complex. Navajo is a tonal language with four tones: high, low, rising, and Falling. The tone used can completely change the meaning of a word. The words for "medicine" and "mouth" are pronounced in the same way, but they are differentiated by tone. Glottal and and aspirated stops are also employed. Given these complexities, native speakers of any other language are generally unable to properly pronounce most Navajo words.
But the complexities of the Navajo language provide a wonderful tool for spinning tales. Our speech does not simply state facts; it paints pictures. Spoken in Navajo, the phrase "I am hungry" becomes "Hunger is hurting me."
The conjugation of verbs in Navajo is also complex. There is a verb form for one person performing an action, a diferent form of the verb for two people, and a third form for more than two people. English can be spoken sloppily and still be understood. Not so with the Navajo language. So, even though our assigned task - developing a code - made us nervous, we realized that we brought the right skills to the job.
Several white Marines who'd grown up on the Navajo Reservation and knew quite a bit of Navajo later applied to code talker school. But there were always words or syllables they could not pronounce correctly, so they didn't make it as code talkers.
There was no dissension among us in that locked room. We focused. We worked as one. This was a talent long employed in Navajo culture - many working together to herd the sheep, plant the corn, bring in a harvest. When we were children, distant relatives visited for weeks at a time, strengthening the bond of family. Neighbors cared for one another's livestock when someone was sick or had to travel, knowing their friend would someday do the same for them. The ability to live in unity, learned on the reservation and the Checkerboard, proved invaluable to our current assignment.
Day one ended, and the fledgling new code had already begun to take shape. We twenty-nine Marines had come up with a workable structure. When I looked around, relief showed on every face. We slapped each other on the back, and joked to let off steam, feeling good about our work. The impossible-seeming task suddenly looked possible. We would not let our country or our fellow Marines down.
An officer arrived to unlock the room. He collected the working papers we'd generated that day and locked them in a safe. Hearing that safe slam shut, I was again impressed by the seriousness of our mission.
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And a little more on how the code actually works, just to show you how not-easy being a code talker was.
We finished the development phase. We felt sure we had a code that even a native Navajo speaker would not be able to crack. Our classroom was unlocked, and we code talkers went out on maneuvers to test the code and to practice, practice, practice. When we saw the letter C we had to think moasi. In battle, there would be no time to think: C, cat. That's moasi. It had to be automatic, without a conscious thought process. We were to be living code machines.
Several Marine generals came to the room to listen as the code was refined. As part of the training, those men arranged to put some of us on shipboard - both submarines and surface ships - and some on land. We often spread out like this for field maneuvers aimed at practicing the code. Someone not involved with our group heard the messages, and all along the California coast troops suddenly went 'to "condition black" (a state of readiness where weapons were prepared for immediate use) thinking that the Japanese had invaded the United States mainland at San Diego. A couple of the code talkers were taken to North Island Headquarters, where they quelled the panic. They listened to the tapes of "Japanese" made by the officers and identified the language as Navajo. One of the colonels involved with the program told his superiors that the strange language was their own Navajo Marines speaking a code that they had developed. He promised to give headquarters advance warning of Future field maneuvers involving the code so that the Navajo words wouldn't be mistaken for Japanese and wouldn't cause panic.
The new code was leagues more efficient than the "Shackle" code used previously by combatants. Once they stopped being troubled by the foreign-sounding words, the generals were impressed.
Still, some had doubts. Over and over we demonstrated the speed and accuracy of our code for various high-ranking officers. Some observers even thought the code was so accurate - word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark - that we must be cheating somehow.
That bothered us. What point would there be in cheating? That wouldn't cut it in battle. We wanted our code to work as much as anyone else did. Maybe more. But we didn't let on how much that accusation insulted us.
To see whether we were scamming, some officers separated the men transmitting from those receiving so we couldn't see each other, then posted guards by each so we couldn't cheat in any way. Our messages were still fast and accurate. Eventually the observers had no choice but to admit that our code worked.
As a further test, expert code breakers from the United States military were assigned the task of breaking our code. They tried for weeks, but not one man met with any success in breaking the Navajo code.
Finally, the Marine brass threw their considerable weight behind the code. We had earned staunch allies.
Later, new code talker recruits expanded this code, adding two more Navajo words to represent most letters and more than four hundred additional words for other military terms, bringing the code to around seven hundred words. When a code talker transmitted the letter A, he could then use the Navajo word for "ant" or "apple" or "axe." The code talkers might spell a word containing three As using each of the three words for A. This broke the pattern of one-letter-one-word, a pattern in which a code cracker might discover the symbol for E, the most common letter in English, and other letters based upon how frequently they were used. The extra letter symbols made the code even more complex and more impossible to crack, and the added words for military maneuvers and equipment made transmission even faster.
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There's also an appendix at the back of the book that has all the Navajo "words" (as I mentioned, Navajo isn't a written language, so they're really just "sounds") to English letter translations. Here's the first page with the first few letters of the English alphabet in the Appendix.
This is the final form of the dictionary, revised June 15, 1945, per the Department of the Navy. The Navajo words are spelled phonetically. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.
The thirty-two alternate phonetic Navajo spellings listed below are from Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes, Circle of Light Navajo Educational Project, pp. 38-55.
I corrected some problems with the month names.
Numerals were transmitted in Navajo, using the Navajo word for each numeral.
There are a ton of detailed battle stories from Chester's World War II deployment to the Pacific. This is an excerpt of Chester's time on Guam.
After my wound, the wounding of our squadron leader, our victory over the Japanese Banzai officer, and the seizure of the Orote Peninsula airfield, the Marines assaulted Sugar Ridge. It was July 30, 1944. The five-hundred-foot-tall, perpendicular ridge offered a clear view of the portion of beach midway down the western shore of Guam, right where we Marines had landed. It also housed multiple Japanese pillboxes, and other fortifications.
Marines made their way up that ridge, scrabbling with boots and fingernails to gain an inch at a time. By midday on the thirtieth, an Allied command post was established, about halfway up. The next day, July 31, 1944, Sugar Ridge fell to the Americans.
After taking the ridge, the Marines were able to move in close to Agana, Guam's largest city. We bombarded Agana with artillery and mortar fire, destroying many of the buildings there. When we moved in for the final conquest, we discovered that it had been abandoned.
After Sugar Ridge and Agana were taken, Chamorro natives began to come out of hiding. Hungry, they climbed the coconut palms for food. Slinging a rope around the segmented trunk and holding it with both hands, they leaned back to pull the rope taut, then worked their way up by sliding the rope up first and following with their feet. It was something to watch. Whenever possible, the Chamorros gave the Americans information about hidden Japanese troops and munitions.
Then, on August 7, we learned that the Japanese had abandoned their fortifications at Tumon Bay, just northeast of Agana Bay. This gave the Marines an opening, and we immediately secured the Tiyan airfield, to the east of Agana Bay and south of Tumon Bay. Code talker Charlie Begay's unit was badly shot up during the assault on the airfield, and Charlie, not breathing and with his throat sliced from one side to the other, was left for dead. We code talkers all felt sick about it. But Charlie somehow woke up and was taken to a hospital ship. He later rejoined us at Guadalcanal. I saw him there, and he was doing all right.
A couple of heavy japanese tanks tried to ambush the Marines as they moved farther north and east, but we Allies were not taking any more guff from those boys and their Land of the Rising Sun. We repelled the tanks and fighting pretty much came to a halt for us.
I think it was during that quiet time that a couple of us crawled into an empty Japanese bunker to take a look around. The hair on the backs of my arms prickled, and the smell of human feces soon drove us out. I thought about the Japanese who had lived for weeks - and maybe months - in that bunker. Man, the things people will go through in order to wage war.
By August 10, 1944, Japanese resistance on Guam officially ended, just in time for the arrival of four top brass: Admirals Nimitz and Spruance and Marine Generals Holland Smith and Vandergrift. We were done with Guam, except for the occasional enemy soldier left behind, who continued to come down from the island's ridges even months after our U. S. victory.
We took the island just three weeks after our July 21 landing. No one wanted any more long sieges. The Navajo code, still unbroken, had allowed United States troops to move and attack, secure in the secrecy of their plans.
In a time when black and white soldiers, and even blood supplies, were segregated, the Marines put absolute trust in us Navajo men.
Signal Corps commanding officer G. R. Lockard wrote, "As general duty Marines the Navajos are without peers...these people are scrupulously clean, neat, and orderly...They are...uncomplaining...Navajos make good Marines, and I should be very proud to command a unit composed entirely of these people."
Marine Henry Hisey Jr. remembers, "The Navajos were extremely dependable. They were the kind of guys you wanted in your foxhole, so I always tried to choose them when something had to be done." Hisey asked for help from two Navajos from his unit when he had to do night repairs of some communication wires on lwo Jima. Moving from the foxholes at night was extremely dangerous. Always on the lookout for Banzai, men fired from their foxholes at anything that moved. Soldiers mistaken for Banzai, like the unlucky code talker Henry Tsosie on Bougainville, ended up just as dead from friendly fire as they would have been from the enemy's guns. But the critical wiring job couldn't wait till morning. The Navajo men agreed to help, and the wires were successfully repaired.
I'm not saying were were heroes, but we Navajo men always tried to do our best, just like we'd been taught by our families back home.
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Here's an excerpt with another of Chester's battle memories on the Palau islands.
In mid-October 1944 - a month after our initial landing - III Amphibious Corps commander General Roy Geiger declared Peleliu secured. Although sections of Peleliu were ours, his declaration was premature. Many of the enemy still fought from the island's mountains and ridges, secure in their hidden caves and bunkers. Also, the Palau Islands housed Japan's administrative headquarters for its Pacific island holdings. And Japan's Lieutenant General Sadae Inoue, managing the Peleliu defense from another of the Palau Islands, was not about to let the men under Colonel Nakagawa give up the fight on Peleliu.
I woke up in a bomb crater blasted into the flintlike coral. No munitions noise. I'd arrived back on Peleliu, after helping out on Angaur, three weeks - or was it only a few days? - before. One day had become interchangeable with the next. I sat for a moment, eyes closed, knees pulled up to my chest.
What island would be next?
I nudged Francis. "Time for breakfast."
Francis groaned, then opened one eye.
Someone shouted, "Hey, Chief, did you hear? One of your guys brought in some Jap prisoners. Four of them."
Another Marine yelled, "No, there were half a dozen, at least."
I said nothing, waiting to hear more.
The first Marine gave Marine number two a slantwise look. "Anyway, he walked right into camp with 'em, holding his rifle. Just like John Wayne."
"We thought he was a Jap bringing in his own men," Marine number two added. "We should of said, 'C'mon over here, Chief. Let me see your dog tags.'"
The story of the code talker and his captives spread, giving everyone a good laugh. Like the Army men on Angaur who had detained me and Francis, some of the Marines thought we dark-haired, dark-skinned code talkers resembled the Japanese. At first, I couldn't understand it. In opinion, the two races - Japanese and Navajo - looked nothing alike. But later, after staring eye to eye with that young Japanese prisoner on Guam, I understood. But I never did understand why so many American thought our Navajo transmissions were Japanese. I guess Navajo just sounded foreign to them. Our language and the language of the enemy sounded nothing alike.
The Marines continued to tease us Navajos about our man who had captured the six Japanese. I really didn't mind the ribbing the other Marines often gave us. And I didn't mind the nickname "Chief." We didn't think of it as a slur. We knew we were well respected as fighting men. We laughed and joked with our fellow Marines, giving back as much as we took.
The title "code talker" had not been coined yet, since most of the Marines did not know of our secret function. But other Marines had been warned not to call us Navajos or Indians. No one wanted the Japanese to draw any dangerous conclusions. So "Chief" stuck.
Francis, the two Roys, and I ate cold military rations - packages filled with sardines, a packet of bland crackers that were neither sweet nor salty, and fruit in a can. I used my Ka-bar to open the side of the fruit can. The canned stuff was good, but I especially liked the wild fruits, like coconuts, that dropped from the trees on the islands. A quick stab of the Ka-Bar broke the coconut open. We sliced them like pineapples. They were sweet, delicious.
Now that Peleliu had been declared secured, we had a big mess tent, and the food had taken on more variety. So after eating our cold rations, we walked to the mess for some hot food. After we'd repeatedly gone for days without food, the more we could eat, the better.
I munched on a hunk of non-moldy bread. Wait a minute. I couldn't believe my ears. Did the mail sergeant actually call my name?
There it was again. I rushed from the mess tent to grab my letter. With all the stamps and crossed-out addresses - sending the innocuous envelope from one battlefield to another, until it finally stopped on Peleliu - I could barely tell that it was from home. But it was.
Letters from the United States routinely took eight months to reach us men on the islands. And, judging from what my family said in the few letters that had reached me, my responses took months to make it home.
I pulled a paper from the open envelope. There were only a few readable lines. The remaining sentences were blacked out. I knew requests from home for inappropriate things, like battle souvenirs, were always censored. But the reasons for much of the other censorship remained a mystery.
At any rate, the readable portions of my letter from home said things like "Hello. How are you?" and "Take care of yourself," with plenty of blacked-out lines in between. I studied the handwriting, knowing that it was my younger sister Dora who wrote the letter, in English, and who read my letters to everyone back home. l hated to have to destroy it after reading it, but those were the orders. Command didn't want to take a chance that the Japanese might get hold of our letters. They didn't want them to be able to infer how things were at home in the United States, how morale was holding up and who was in the service. The Japanese were a smart adversary, and they could surmise things about troop movements from unlikely sources. Of course, our outgoing letters were censored as well as the incoming. Still, just knowing that my family was thinking about me, praying for me, made the day grow brighter.
I joined the other guys who had letters, and quite a few who didn't. We lucky ones all read our messages from home out loud. It's amazing how similar the Navajo letters tended to be, after being censored. Pretty much all of our relatives had to find someone who wrote English in order to send a letter. Our generation had attended school, but our parents generally spoke the unwritten Navajo, not English.
l think hearing them read out loud made the men who had no letter feel almost like they'd received one, too. At least it worked that way for me. And the letter-reading session always turned into a good opportunity to talk and joke. That made everyone less tense.
I would have liked to get more uncensored news - about my family, neighbors, the sheep. When I answered a letter, I knew my response would arrive, months later, ruthlessly censored as well. No doubt my relatives were just as bewildered by the censoring as we Marines were. I pictured Dora laboring over my letters, trying to make sense out of them, trying to have something meaningful to translate for the others. But l was too busy to let something like mail worry me for long. I had to keep my mind clear. There was too much else to think about.
The 5th Marine Regiment, having taken northern Peleliu, about-faced and attacked the Japanese on Umurbrogol, or Bloody Nose Ridge, from behind. Ferocious battles followed as the 7th Marine Regiment, still attacking from the south, attempted to climb the steep ridges of Umurbrogol. The series of coral ridges seemed endless, rising from the ground like miniature mountains. The coral cut our boots and slashed our bodies when we dove for cover. The coral, in addition to making it impossible to dig foxholes, shattered when hit by Japanese fire, its shards becoming shrapnel. As the Marines climbed Umurbrogol, the Japanese easily picked the climbers off from adjacent pillboxes and caves. Things looked grim.
But another of the Army's 31st Division Regiments - the 323rd Infantry Regiment - arrived on Peleliu near the end of October. We raggedy Marines, decimated in numbers, exhausted, and clutching our sanity with shaky hands, finally left.
A month of slow and painstaking attacks ensued, with the Allies eventually gaining the upper hand. Three days before the 323rd Infantry Regiment finally took the last large Japanese stronghold on Umurbrogol, Colonel Nakagawa shot himself.
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Chester also shares some stories about other Navajo men during the war and the precautions the military took to keep the code talkers safe.
Despite the United States' insistence upon secrecy, the Japanese somehow learned that the unbreakable code being utilized by the Americans had something to do with the Navajo language. No one knows exactly how or when this information was obtained, but it has been hypothesized that a Japanese translator with the surname Goon first associated the Navajo language with the unbreakable code while participating in the interrogation of Joe Kieyoomia. Kieyoomia, a Navajo man who had survived the Bataan Death March, was questioned by Goon and tortured by his Japanese captors in their attempt to force him to crack the code. His ribs and wrist were broken, and he was made to stand naked in freezing weather until his bare feet froze to the ground, leaving blood and flesh on the ice when they pulled him back inside. It was no use. He could not and would not help the enemy. But the constant attempts the Japanese made to force him to crack the code meant that, at least, they kept him alive. Kieyoomia survived the war, still knowing nothing about the Navajo code.
After the war, I read a newspaper article about a Navajo man who'd been stationed in Alaska. He heard his Navajo language over the radio as he was flying in a military craft. He told his buddies, "These are my people talking." But he was never able to make any sense of what was being said in the Navajo code.
Several Navajo prisoners reported, postwar, that the Japanese had tried to get them to figure out the Marine's code. None of these captives were code talkers, and none shed any light on the complicated secret language.
Once the Marines realized that the code was truly a matter of national security, they began to assign bodyguards to us code talkers. I think I had two, although I wasn't actually told that they were bodyguards*. We just thought our bodyguards were buddies, guys who hung around with us and followed us - even when we went to use the restroom. Now we know the bodyguards were making sure the code talkers were safe.
If a code talker was injured or killed, one of his bodyguards had to explain to his superior officer exactly what happened. The bodyguards were expected to stay alert, and if one of them took a break, another took over. At night, with Japanese bombs blasting, the bodyguards stayed close to us code talkers, making sure we were taken care of. I guess the theory was that you could replace a fighting man, but you couldn't replace a code talker.
I don't know whether our bodyguards had orders to kill us rather than allow us to be captured. The Marine Corps has been asked if this was so, and they did not deny it. I believe that an American bullet would have been preferable to Japanese torture. At any rate, no code talker was ever executed by his bodyguard.
The 1st Marine Division was sent from Peleliu to R&R in Australia. Once again, Francis and I returned to our 3d Marine Division without that R&R. We went back to Guadalcanal, this time to make preparations for the landing on Iwo Jima.
* Later, when the war was over, some bodyguards revealed their assignments to the Navajos they guarded. I never officially met my bodyguard(s), if, indeed, l had them.
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After World War II ended, Chester's military service wasn't complete. He was called back up when the Korean War broke out. His service during the Korean War didn't involve any code talking and was much less PTSD-inducing.
We were assigned work detail while waiting for transport to our official assignments. I was placed with the other communications men, although I don't believe my superiors knew about my code talker service. The other communications personnel and I were issued M1 30-30 rifles and new uniforms.
"I haven't told my family yet," I confided to one of the other Navajo men.
"Me either," the man replied. "Couldn't face it."
"We'd better write to them before we hit Korea. Who knows what it will be like over there."
I wrote to my family, knowing that Father would resume the ritual he'd begun when I fought in the South Pacific. He prayed three times per day - morning, noon, and evening - for my safe return.
After five days at Camp Elliott, I shipped out to Hawaii!
Not a bad assignment. I admit, I had been worried about being assigned to combat in Korea. After the things I had seen in World War II, that would have been difficult duty to face. But my luck was holding. It didn't look as though that was going to happen.
In Korea, I knew that autumn would be chilly and winter would be cold with deep snow. Hawaii, with its temperatures in the high seventies to the mideighties, was heaven. It rained a lot more than it did in New Mexico, but I didn't live in a foxhole, so that was no problem. The barracks in Pearl Harbor were dry and warm.
I turned in my M1 rifle and was given a pistol, which the brass felt was easier to carry. I alternated between performing guard duty and unloading transport ships. The physical work of unloading ships was a tension-free job that proved particularly relaxing. And the beaches warm, clean, beautiful - and free of dead bodies.
My next assignment was Pocatello, Idaho.
In Pocatello, as in Hawaii, I performed guard duty - this time at a depot that sent supplies to troops overseas. It was an "all service" base, one that consolidated supplies for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. I patrolled on foot at times, but mostly by Jeep, with a partner. The depot was huge.
The war ended in 1953, but I was allowed to go home in late 1951. My discharge papers, dated November 1952, acknowledge my promotion to Marine corporal. After World War II and its bloody Pacific island battles, the Korean War was easy living for me. Our secret Navajo code was never used. Later, we code talkers learned that officers believed the war would end quickly, and they didn't want to risk the code unless it was absolutely necessary. The frantic pressure we lived with during World War II was not present in my role in the Korean War. The bodies of dead buddies and enemies never surrounded me. After my fighting in the Pacific, the Korean War seemed kind of forgotten.
After being discharged, I stood by the side of the road in Pocatello, a Marine in uniform, and stuck out my thumb. A car stopped immediately.
I was heading home.
When my ride dropped me off, I again held out my thumb. Right away, another car pulled over to the side of the road. "Where you headed, son?"
It was like that for two days and one night. Everyone wanted to know about my service in Hawaii and Pocatello and about my part in World War II. Even though I could not divulge my history as a code talker, I enjoyed the conversations.
After two days on the road and the intervening night in Salt Lake City, I arrived at Coolidge's house in Albuquerque much more quickly than I had dared to hope. I thanked both God and the Holy People that my part in the Korean War had held none of the gut-wrenching fear I'd experienced as a Marine fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
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Chester was proud to have been a Marine and, despite the government's many abuses of the Navajo people throughout his life and before he was born, he was proud to be an American. He was also very affected by the events he lived through in World War II. His PTSD (before that diagnosis was a thing) was pretty bad. But he didn't go to a military shrink to receive treatment. He got help the Navajao way - from a medicine man.
Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signal officer, had half-a-dozen code talkers with him when he invaded Iwo jima. He said that without them, the Americans wouldn't have taken the island. Iwo Jima was the only battle in the Pacific war where Allied casualties outnumbered Japanese casualties.
On World War II Pacific island battlegrounds, Marines gained the reputation that defines them today - fiercely loyal, fiercely determined, and fiercely lethal combatants. Living examples of their motto semper fi (shortened from semper fidelis or "always faithful"), Marines looked out for each other. And we code talkers, with our secret mission, shared an additional, immeasurable bond with one another. We watched out for our fellow Marines and for our fellow code talkers.
Code talkers took part in every Marine battle in the Pacific War. Each of the six Marine divisions had code talkers. We talkers trusted each other without question, and our fellow Marines sought us out for special assignments.
Sergeant Dolph Reeves, with Radio Intelligence, recalled, "During our beach assault and island operations, Navajo talkers were worth their weight in gold and were thoroughly professional...Their contribution to Marine operations in the South Pacific were probably unmeasurable."
George Strumm, 25th Regiment chaplain, said, "Of course their task was dangerous...They were most courageous in all their duties. The sacrifice for freedom given by these very brave men was incredible. I feel that all the Marines respected them very highly, including the Officers."
Davey Baker, attached to a Marine Special Forces group, stated, "Most Marines and Army personnel never had a clue what the 'coders' were and what a major part they played in our war. If God alone may know, they saved thousands of American lives, yet their tale has been hidden by the very role they played."
When the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, did not lead to Japan's surrender, the Allies knew they must employ drastic measures. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. When the Japanese military still refused to surrender, Tokyo was bombed on August 13 by 1,600 United States aircraft. The bombs were not atomic, but the devastation was extreme. Emperor Hirohito finally admitted defeat.
American troops studied the destruction of buildings, land, and people resulting from the atomic bomb at the Nagasaki site. The devastating explosion was something never experienced or even anticipated before, and American scientists felt its impact needed to be studied. The men sent their observations back to the United States via Navajo code, some of the final transmissions of the war.
After the halt of hostilities in the Pacific, the Fuji Evening, a Tokyo newspaper, admitted, "If the Japanese Imperial Intelligence Team could have decoded the Navajo messages...the history of the Pacific War might have turned out completely different."
The Japanese enemy populated my dreams, continuing to plague me even when I was awake. Our invasions of hostile islands played like an endless film in my head, with me and my buddies exposed to enemy fire as we struggled toward the beach.
When my time at home had passed the half-year mark, I finally broke down and told my sister Dora about these unwelcome visitors. Then I told Father, Grandmother, and Grandfather. The dead Japansese wouldn't let me sleep or function normally during the day. All that blood I had walked through had stained my mind. Just as the island fighting had trapped us soldiers, never letting us get away from the battles, keeping us scared twenty-four hours a day, the devil spirits of my dead enemies now trapped me, never letting me enjoy any peace. My family agreed that if things continued as they were, the Japanese would eventually take me away. I needed a ceremony. They would put up an Enemy Way.
A hand-trembler performed a diagnosis. Although I knew it was the Japanese who plagued me, the hand-trembler was part of the ceremonial protocol.
Grandma brought me to the hand-trembler's home. The trembler, who could be either male or female but in my case was male, held an unpolished crystal in his hand while chanting in my presence. He asked questions, which I answered as accurately and as honestly as I could. The trembler concentrated on the crystal until he fell into a trance. His hand began to tremble. He saw the cause of my nightmares revealed in the crystal. This was important, because the trembler would prescribe q specific ceremony, one that would address the causes of my problem, not just the symptoms. His understanding of both my symptoms and of human psychology in general led him to make a diagnosis. He told me which healing ceremony l needed in order to get back in balance.
"I will select a fine singer to perform your ceremony," Father told me. The hand-trembler had diagnosed my problem, but the singer, or medicine man, was the one tasked with fixing it.
The four-day ceremony chosen for me was one of the "Bad Way" ceremonies, one that would rid me of an evil presence.‘ The hand-trembler had determined that the cause of my problem was evil, not good, It involved ghosts, chindi, left behind when the Japanese who were haunting me had died.. Every person has at least some kernel of evil, and the chindi is composed of everything that was evil in the dead person. The specific ceremony chosen, called a sing, like the ceremony my father was attending when I arrived home from the war, was one often performed for children returning from boarding school or men returning from war, the "Enemy Way."
Originally the Enemy way ceremony was created to destroy the ghosts of the monsters which had plagued the early Dine, monsters which had been vanquished by Changing Woman's twin sons. In more modern times, the Enemy Way is used to destroy the ghosts of any enemy or outsider, consequently restoring balance and allowing a return to the Right Way, the Good Life.
We Navajos see ourselves as composed of two bodies, the physical and the spiritual. The two are inseparable, and life according to the Good Way requires that they be in sync, and that we be in sync with our world. Traditionally we worry more about living life according to the Good Way while we are on this earth than we do about an afterlife. I can't remember any mention of an afterlife in the Navajo Good Way, other than references to the chindi left behind by the dead. When someone died, their chindi could stay behind in the form of a coyote, or could simply remain in the place where the death occurred.
The diagnosis of the hand-trembler had told me what I would need for the ceremony. The sing would require something personal from a Japanese person. This was called the "scalp" but could be a few hairs from a Japanese head or a scrap of clothing worn by a Japanese person. That kind of thing wasn't easy to find on the reservation, but we were lucky that some of the Navajo soldiers, as I mentioned earlier, had cut hair and clothing from the dead Japanese and sent the items home to be used in ceremonies. The items were purchased by medicine men who utilized them as "scalps" in the Enemy Way ceremonies.
Father asked for advice from friends and neighbors, eventually choosing a medicine man to perform the Enemy Way. Traditional Navajo ceremonies, with their accompanying historical stories, chants, and sand-paintings, are complex. To perform a chant that might last from four to as many as nine nights, a singer must memorize prodigious amounts of material. Although a medicine man or singer might study and learn: several ceremonies, many specialized in a specific one. Thus, a specific "sing" or "way" often had a limited number of preferred singers.
It was the medicine man's job to help me figure out why the enemy continued to plague me. Knowing the "why" became the first step to overcoming the problem. Then my body and mind could be cleansed, leaving me free of my Japanese tormentors and bringing me back to the "Good Life."
Father talked to the medicine man at length, telling him about my problems. The medicine man gave Father questions to ask me, and Father relayed the answers back to the medicine man. He told him how my visions grew stronger at night, until they veiled the rest of my world.
In preparation for the ceremony, my family butchered a goat and several sheep. They would feed the people who came to the sing. Wood was chopped, and the ingredients to make mounds of fry bread and tortillas were purchased. The family hosting or "putting up" a sing never knew how many people would attend. Traditionally, Navajos were supposed to take part in at least four sings during their lifetime, so often people heard of a sing and traveled to find it. Of course, people close to the family came. But many others, even people my family didn't know, heard about me - the returned Navajo Marine - and came to lend support and help me reenter the Good Life. Everyone brought food and news to share. And they broughthozoji: kindness, compassion, and goodwill.
On the first night, the ceremony was performed near the home of the medicine man. The last night it was held at Grandma's home, and on the intervening nights at a location between the two. The young woman who led the Squaw Dance portion of the sing rode on horseback, carrying the prayer stick - or rattle stick - from one location to another. Several men and boys, also on horseback, accompanied her.
Squaw Dances, part of the Enemy Way sing, are so named because the young women who participate in the dance pick male partners from the audience. After each dance, the male bargains with the female, arranging a price he must pay to be released from the dancing. The price - always minimal - is paid, and the young woman chooses another partner. The dance is very popular.
At Grandmothefs home, a large fire in a shack provided a place for cooking. My female relatives prepared the food, and everyone who attended was welcome to eat. At night, most of my female relatives slept in the cook shack, and the men in the hogan. Other families camped on the ground overnight, sleeping on sheepskins and blankets. No conjugal relations were allowed during the days of the ceremony**. Everyone was supposed to concentrate on the purpose of the sing.
The pot drum, an integral part of the sing, was made of pottery and filled with water. Taut buckskin, stretched over the pot, was punched with eye- and mouth-holes. The drum-with-a-face represented the ghost; who were beaten into the ground as the drum was played for the Squaw Dance songs.
Dry paintings, or sandpaintings, were created on a skin placed on the floor of Grandma's hogan***. Several men, over a period of hours, painstakingly created these paintings from various finely ground colored sands, charcoal, and corn pollen. The hataathliii supervised their creation. Every line had to be correctly placed.
Each painting was used in a ceremony involving me, then destroyed afterward. The medicine man told me things I needed to know in order to recover from my bad visions. These things were secret, just between him and me, so I can't talk about them here.
The traditional scalp shooter was hired. He fired at the Japanse items - the "scalp" - that the medicine man had provided for the ceremony, using a sling similar to the one I had played with as a boy, except that this sling was made from rubber and buckskin instead of string and the tongue of a shoe.*****
The sing was a success. Hozoji was exhibited toward all who attended the ceremony, just as tradition mandated. I reentered the trail of beauty. For a long time afterward, my dreams and visions of the Japanese subsided.
** Whether or not this restriction was actually observed is questionable.
*** Some families putting on a sing build a ceremonial hogan, separate from the hogan in which the hosting family lives. This was not done in my case.
**** Scalp shooters often employed a rifle rather than a sling.
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As with any good biographical book, the middle of Code Talker is full of photos. Here are a few of them.
I was also planning to talk about the last couple of trips to Disneyland we took in February and March, our recent trip to the Salton Sea, and some other stuff, but this has already been more blathering than anyone wants to read in one sitting. So next time.
I went to the San Diego ComicFest on Saturday (March 7) for the first time. It has apparently been around for 8 years, but I don't think I'd ever heard of it before this year. The only reason I knew it existed this year is because I received an email from the new incarnation of the Mysterious Galaxy book store - which is now located in Mission Valley and will only ever see my shadow darken its doorway if they have a very special guest author stop by (I'm sure it's still a lovely store - it's just sooo far away now).
It cost me $25 to to gain entrance to the ComicFest exhibit hall (a smallish room with maybe 60 vendors on folding tables). None of the vendors had anything very current. The vendors all had a real swap meet feel. Loads of old books, comics, magazines, video, toys, lunch pails, cereal boxes, etc.
I didn't even get a lanyard and a cool pass for my $25 (as one does with the ComicCon). Just a cruddy wrist band.
Mysterious Galaxy did have a booth with at least three authors crammed behind a small folding table piled with paperbacks. Greg Bear was the only one of the three authors that I've read (I mentioned the final book in the War Dogs trilogy a while ago, which I was surprised to discover is his most recent novel). I should have brought my War Dogs novels with me for him to sign...but I didn't. Or maybe my tattered, but well-loved, Infinity Concerto paperback.
Another missed opportunity.
The real reason I went to the ComicFest wasn't to see Greg Bear, whose books I have admittedly enjoyed, because he wasn't signing a new book and I feel weird about asking an author to sign a bunch of old books without buying anything new from him.
The real reason was to see Mike Kunkel, the creator of the great Herobear and the Kid comics, The Land of SokMunster book my kids loved as young 'uns, and many other child-friendly delights (like a super-cool Shazaam). I came across Mike several times at the San Diego ComicCon, both in a booth for his company, The Astonish Factory, and just hanging out at the Con (before I swore off the overcrowded nightmare that the San Diego ComicCon has become for good). I've always thought Mike seemed like a super-cool guy, so I was looking forward to seeing him and buying anything he was selling.
A secondary objective was to locate copies of American Gods: The Moment of the Storm issues #8 and #9, which I have been unable to find ant any of the local comics shops I've been to.
Alas, 'twas not to be. Mike didn't come to the ComicFest, despite being on the talent roster of the ComicFest web site. It took over an hour to ascertain this information (not because there was that much to see - I was just convinced he was sitting behind one of the 100 or so tables arranged haphazardly around the hotel and I was somehow missing him).
After circling a few times, I finally looked him up on the ComicFest web site, found his assigned table location (which meant nothing to me) and asked one of the volunteers manning the Exhibit hall where the location actually was. Three stops later, we found someone who knew what the location code meant, but this person also knew that Mike hadn't arrived to claim his space and it had been given to someone else.
So that was disappointing, too.
Nor was there any sign of American Gods: The Moment of the Storm. All the comics for sale were either much older than this 2019 book or were in the superhero genre (Marvel/DC). There were a few interesting artists that I might have been inspired to open my wallet to, had I not been so bummed about missing out on my primary con-jectives, but I didn't bother.
I had to find something to make the entire experience somewhat worthwhile, though, so I bought Emeli some patches I found (her latest thing is acquiring iron-on patches to put on a denim jacket). Only two vendors were selling patches - one was the RatFink table, something you'd have to be pretty ancient to remember (sadly, I remember RatFink).
Emeli had no interest in RatFink (because she had no idea what RatFink was). I did find some random patches being sold by another of the more garage sale-ish vendors, so I showed a bunch to her and she chose three that she liked: a diamond, an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom patch that looks like something that would be worn by a Disney cast member, and a Space Explorer girly-astronaut patch (the word "Space" looks more like "SpRce" on the patch, which I didn't noticed until Emeli pointed it out to me at home. Oops). Probably not a purchase worthy of the admission price, but at least it was something.
I also took some pictures of a few of the people who were dressed up - I saw a really impressive Mandalorian costume when I arrived, but he must have been on the way out (I arrived in the early afternoon) because I didn't see him again by the time I'd started snapping photos. There were a few Avengers that were easily recognized, a whole lot of random costumes I didn't recognize, and even a giant dude dressed as Thor. I wish I'd worn my Fat Thor costume, that would have been a funny contrast to giant Thor.
I think the most noteworthy aspect of this "convention" was the venue - I parked in the back (the first open space I found) and felt like I'd wandered on to one of the sets for The Walking Dead. It was a Sheraton hotel, but was very decrepit and creepy. It wasn't quite as bad inside the hotel, but still...not impressive. But I guess if it had been held in an impressive hotel, they probably wouldn't have been as keen about the hundreds of overweight, balding (male and female), smelly nerds that I saw wandering around. One of whom was me.
There's one last thing that I found noteworthy enough to take a picture of - these metal handmade sculptures that were for sale in the exhibit hall. They were pricey, so I didn't get one, but very cool. Star Trek, Star Wars, Disney characters, Samurai, dudes on motorcycles...they had it all.
So that's about all I have to say about the ComicFest. It was my first visit, and will likely be my last visit.
The Cubicle of Extreme geekishness, relocated
I've updated the comics on the wall of my new cubicle a couple of times since November. That's right, it's a fancy new cubicle...which is, admittedly, pretty much the same as the old cubicle. The only real difference is that I have a better view now - I'm not on the ground floor anymore, so I can now see much more of the parking lot outside (I didn't say it was a view of anything good, I just meant that the visibility of the great outdoors was more prevalent from the new digs). It's also making my fat old butt walk up and down stairs throughout the day, so that's probably a good thing.
I've added a few toys and rearranged some things, but it's pretty much the same mess as the old cubicle.
Here are the most recent comic sets I've had on my cubicle wall:
I had Alex Ross's Marvels series from 1994 on the wall a couple of months ago. The covers and interior art of these books is what sets them apart from just about any other comic book series, especially a vast, vast majority of those published by Marvel (or DC). If Norman Rockwell had painted sequential art and done a superhero book, this is the book he might have created. The period of the art is very Norman Rockwell-esque, and the art itself is perfect for the time period and really well done (as Alex Ross's art always is).
The four-issue series has plastic semi-transparent covers with the series title that overlays the unmarred book covers. And the books' covers are heavy card-stock - rare amongst the offerings of Marvel (or just about any comic publisher, really). Except for Marvels issue #0. It's a short origin story with several Alex Ross character pages and promo art following the story. No card stock or special cover.
Marvels includes just about the entire stable of Marvel superheroes (the Avengers, DareDevil, Spider-man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, etc) with a premise that's very similar the X-Men films of the 2000s - the unavoidable mistrust the public develops when super bad-guys arise and are only defeated by superheroes - and is presumably similar to the X-Men comics, but I've never read an X-Men comic, so I can't say for sure.
Marvels is also really similar to George RR Martin's WildCards novels that were published several years before Marvels (starting in 1987). WildCards is a darker - and more adult - look at people with mutant super-powers (originating from aliens, if I remember correctly) and people aren't especially enamored of the mutants in these stories, either.
So I guess I'm saying this is a tired trope that's been done over and over. But Alex Ross's art makes any sequential art story amazing. I have the first issue of the new Marvel comic that's only partially Alex Ross's work, but I haven't taken the time to read it yet, so I can't opine on that one.
I followed up Marvels with one of the many Star Wars comic book series from Dark Horse in my collection (before Marvel took back the license and started flooding the market with a million Star Wars titles). I don't have much to say about these issues other than the covers were pretty sweet - as one would expect with Alex Ross cover art. Yes, the same Alex Ross I just praised relentlessly did at least a few of these covers.
The story takes place sometime shortly after the events of A New Hope.
Dark Horse put out a ton of these "in-between" books that take place in the spaces between the films. I need to dig out the Star Wars Infinities comics one of these days - an awesome twist on Star Wars with "what if..." alternate storylines.
The current comics in my cubicle aren't actually comic books. They're sketchbooks I picked up over several years from the San Diego ComicCon: Laurie B's Pure Heroine (that's "Heroine" as in a female hero, not the drug). Most of these have an extra little sketch inside where Laurie signed them. The back covers are equally awesome
(or even more awesome, in this case) as the front. These are very awesome and treasured memories. Laurie's an amazing artist and a very nice person.
Sadly, my boycotting of ComicCon also meant not seeing the familiar faces I had come to know and looked forward to seeing each year. I don't even know if Laurie still makes the trip down from Canadia for ComicCon anymore.
Here are a couple of new doodles I've done: one of the first steam locomotives, The Rocket, Olaf the snowman, and a really not-great Belle sketch. My doodle skills are atrophying more and more each day as I fail to pick up a pencil and create anything interesting.
Emeli's skills, on the other hand, have surpassed mine even at their peak in the enthusiasm of my youth. Emeli is so skilled that she's been commissioned by several people to do sketches. But, unlike me, she's not limited to working in graphite/pencils. She also paints, can sketch flawlessly in pen, and can even etch out amazing creations with scratch boards. Here's one of her amazing sketches.
(Yeah, I know it was a while ago.)
And speaking of things that happened in December...Christmas! I didn't post anything festive in December at all. My suckage knows no bounds. But better late than never, right?
Anyway, Christmas was spent in the least Christmassy place on Earth: at home in San Diego. Our well-decorated Christmas tree was festively decorated from mid-November to early January (the best thing about a fake tree: it never dries out and decomposes in your living room) and we did eventually put up some exterior lights and decorations, but Christmas just isn't Christmas without being surrounded by extended family and having snow to play in. I'm hoping to have a real Christmas in the snow with gobs of family next year. That said, I did get some sweet Christmas loot: a clock that runs backwards (this from the office Christmas party white elephant gift exchange - now running in my cubicle next to my Math clock), a sweet wooden watch (the band and exterior of the case are wood - the rest is metal) with exposed gears (under glass, of course) that self-winds when worn (and dies quickly when not worn/manually wound), and some Clark's shoes that I'd long admired but never ponied up the dough to buy.
But enough about my Christmas loot...
I made my triumphant return to Harry Potterland a few months ago (the first visit since December 2016 - around 3 years later). I'd been jonesing for some Butterbeer and...well, just a visit to Hogsmeade1. Harry Potterland was not at all crowded on this visit. I walked right onto the Hogwarts ride and on to the Hagrid roller coaster without any wait. To be honest, this was a little disappointing in both cases because there's so much fun stuff to look at while you wait, but it feels weird to stop and soak it in when people are shuffling past you as you gawk at the scenery (not to mention my own family that was complaining about the frequent stops to soak in the scenery).
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We were also in time to catch the Beauxbaton and Durmstrang performers. Unsurprisingly, all the performers were different from those I saw in 2016 (I would often see the same performers in 2016 when we visited throughout the year). The Hogwarts Choir was singing when we arrived, but we only caught a little bit of their performance as we were wandering through Hogsmeade. We did hear a snippet of the Christmas songs they performed. Hogsmeade at Christmas is great.
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The Three Broomsticks, my favorite over-priced place to eat in Potterland, was equally uncrowded on this visit. We walked right up to the house elf taking orders and we were able to sit just about anywhere we liked. We decided to site in the back by the impressive antler collection. I tried the Holiday Feast (turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and a veggie - which was only available during the Christmas season) and found it delicious. Maybe not as delicious as the Bangers and Mash I'd had on the previous visit, but still very good. The Butterbeer was every bit as delicious as I remembered and I'm craving it as I sit here writing this.
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Before we left, we watched the Christmas light show on (actually "on") Hogwarts castle. It concluded with a fireworks show and was really impressive. I don't remember seeing anything like that in 2016.
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We also looked around at the British section of the European streets where The Walking Dead "ride" is nestled right in the middle of Baker Street. It's funny that The Walking Dead is located here, but I guess it had to go somewhere. I didn't see Sherlock's shadow this visit, but I could have just missed it. I was being rushed along by people who were less concerned about seeing what was there than getting to the next thing to not look at either. We did see a bunch of characters around the park entrance: Scooby Doo, Shaggy, Fred, Velma, Daphne, Lucille Ball, Dracula, and BettleJuice. I'm sure there were others, but those are the ones I remember.
Also notable, there was a guest in an orange velour track suit who was posing with characters throughout the park, dancing with them, battling the transformers, etc. that we ran into several times throughout our visit. I wish I'd taken a picture of him on one of the many interactions. So weird.
And there were, as usual, the loud New Yorkers yelling back and forth to each other in the New York section of "main street."
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Speaking of The Walking Dead "ride", it was a little different from what I remember 3 years ago. The only definite difference was the removal of the crashed, smoldering helicopter (on the roof of the hospital). It seems like there were others, but there aren't any that I still remember specifically.
There wasn't a single person ahead of us or behind us.
Despite the complete lack of crowdedness, I still I took too many photos that didn't turn out. The Universal employees in the main line area room (just before the "ride" actually begins) shut me down and stopped me from taking more than a couple of photos in that room and the photos in the hospital hallway never trun out very well for some reason. It was weird to be alone in that room (other than the Universal employees). Just a little creepier than normal.
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In other non-Potter news, I also rode the new Jurassic Park ride for the first time. It's an amazing feat of engineering and special effects, but I missed the death and mayhem of the Jurassic Jungle Cruise (the previous version of the ride). The dinosaur-containing aquarium is great. It was a chilly day, so I'm glad I didn't get drenched (as I was warned by the Universal employees that I would - the end of the ride is a very tall log flume). I suspect that's a way to sell buttloads of rain ponchos, because there were a lot of people in ponchos. Admittedly, the guys at the front of the boat did get really wet,
There were also many other opportunities to get damp on a cool day throughout the ride - spitting, splashing dinosaurs aplenty. It would be a nice cool ride in the summer.
I almost tried the Transformers ride for the first time, but it was having mechanical problems. So after waiting in line (without moving) for about an hour, I bailed on that one. Maybe next time.
We also rode the ever-fun Studio tour. The tour guide was okay, but not as funny as some we've had in the past. And there was one big difference (I think there were actually a few changes, but this one was the best) - Norman Bates was hanging out at the Bates Motel (I think he was putting a body in the trunk of a car) and then came walking toward the tram as we stopped to take photos. As he drew nearer, we could see that he was holding something hidden at his side. And then he reached the car ahead of us and savagely attacked one of the passengers, stabbing her forty-seven times, sending plumes of blood and viscera over the other passengers in the car...
Just kidding. Norman Bates was there, but nobody was stabbed. He did have a big kitchen knife and chased after the tram for a while, though.
Before we left Universal Studios, I picked up a few tasty Hogsmeade treats from Honeydukes. I wanted to try a few things I hadn't gotten on previous visits, so I tried fudge flies and butterbeer fudge. The Fudge Flies were milk chocolate, so not especially great, but the chocolate was good quality and tasty, nonetheless. The Fudge was super rich and creamy and so delicious. I'm craving that now, too, but I'll probably try one of the other fudge flavors next time instead. I also bought a Ravenclaw house tie and a chocolate frog in the shops outside the gates (Universal's Downtown Disney). I bought the frog, with it's forgettable milk chocolate frog to get the wizard card. The chocolate frog is cheaper in Downtown Universal, but...also smaller and much less fancy than the wizard card you get in Honeydukes - so that was a disappointment (I only remembered there was a difference after the fact).
December Darling, Meg & Dia
In non-Universal-Studios-related Christmas news, I ordered the Meg & Dia Christmas Album, December Darling, from their web site. I bought the Dia Frampton Christmas album in-store (Target, as I recall) when it came out a year or two ago, but December Darling was nowhere to be seen anywhere but online. I guess that's the new order of things2.
There wasn't much of a CD liner, just the front cover fold-out with the lyrics inside and the 2 photos of Meg & Dia on the front and back. That was slightly disappointing. The photo-filled, insane rant-filled, or at least multi-page something-filled CD liner books are one of the main reasons I still prefer the physical media over the digital downloads.
The album is mostly just Meg and Dia (mostly Dia, I'd say) singing traditional Christmas songs. I love Dia's quirky voice, so this album was a treat for me. There are also some original Christmas songs on the album which were also nice.
Here's one of my favorites from the CD, Dia singing Let it Snow.
I was also going to blather about my extra nerdilicious cubicle, but I've lost interest.
Next time, possibly.
1 I often also miss New Orleans Square at Disneyland and maybe even Disneyland's Main Street the same way when I don't return for months or years at a time - and then I remember why I let my Disney annual pass lapse after too many overcrowded visits.
2 I am still getting all my music on physical media, tough. I'll be super bummed if my only option is digital music at some point in the dark and dreary future. I guess I'll have to resort to buying old CDs, the same way I'm buying old records these days. Speaking of old records, I just got a Pseudo Echo record that I bought on Discogs.com. Sadly, there were multiple versions of this record sold in 1987, and I received the wrong one, or at least not the record I thought I was ordering. No Funky Town for me!