Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Truth and The Unexplained at the 1991 North American Indian Pow Wow

It all started with my buddy, Vincent.  

He had a hot dog booth at a Renaissance festival out at Lake Casitas.  He was always a hot dog with the ladies.  His booth had gotten into neglect because he was too busy chasing the gothic renfaire women to run the food production effectively.  He was getting threats to get thrown out of the event by the producer if the quality of his food, and behavior, didn’t improve.  

Vince knew I was a good cook, so he tapped me for the job and as soon as I saw what he was up to, I wanted to be up to some of the same.

He ixnayed the idea as my job was to just put out the food, sausages and hot dogs.
I was a moderate grill chef and still struggle today to find my perfect recipe, even though I’ve got close a lot of times.  

It was there, in that experience I learned the food business for the first time up close and personal. The cash I saw delighted my eyes and it sent my brain to motion concocting a food scheme of my own advantaging my entrepreneurialism.  

When I first heard of the production company staging the Pow wow, it was after investigating things more with my friend the mime.  He was quite a talkative fellow upon first meeting him but when he said not to get him into conversation because he would become the single most articulate fellow I would ever know. Whereupon immediately I replied, “Well, now sir, you have met your match."  It tooks almost nine hours to convince him; but I did.

He was aghast and came back later saying he was going to make me his friend, and I would enjoy his company.  Through him, I was able to get my menu to the Pow Wow.

By the time the event producer had approved my concept menu for the event, I set about recruiting my talent.  

The first thing to ensure when putting together a successful menu production is the grill man, and there was only one grill man in all of Santa Barbara, and probably for a few counties around there, who could pull off the barbeque ambition I wanted to do.  

Stevie was almost too good for the restaurant business.  He could run a crowded Friday or Saturday night full of drunks in the big order phase of breakfast ordering under the impression it would be a way to sober up quickly.  

Not just any crowded after midnight breakfast joint, but the only one in town worth getting a seat at round midnight.  He would run a crew of four and put out breakfast items fast, perfectly prepared and almost with embarrassing ease.  In fact, Stevie was probably the greatest drunk weekend late night breakfast cook in southern California in his day.

Bagging Stevie was no less than my secret weapon.  Customers will forgive bad starches and vegetables if the meat course kicks ass.  And my BBQ, despite my grill skills, was awesome and getting better all the time.  Having Stevie running my grill would only make my sauce taste better because I knew he knew how to perfectly cook the selected cuts meats: 40 cases of half chickens, our crew’s personal steaks, 50 cases of bbq pork ribs, sixteen hundred  26 ounce Tom Turkey legs and 150 pounds of beef ribs.  Several hundred pounds each at a time.  Alone.   

I’d help if he needed it, but I knew it was an insult to such a master so I relegated myself to just asking him from time to time if he wanted me to get some more fuel going.  

Yeah, I was definitely disappointed when Stevie moved back to Michigan, but sooner or later, everyone leaves Santa Barbara, because in any Paradise, there are really only a few reasons to live there.  Money usually being the first and best among them.

I knew Stevie knew I was the frontman from hell.  There was no such thing as “in the weeds” to me, and he knew it.  If you don’t know what in the weeds means, just go to a very busy restaurant and watch the waiters and waitresses.  The ones that are under the gun and running their asses off and can’t really keep up a flow between order flow, service and follow up are in the weeds.  The one or two that are making 50% more money than the rest and hardly look like they are breaking a sweat yet seem to get more work done than anyone, those are the ones who are never in the weeds.  

When I learned those level of skills, and not every service person can attain such skill - I met people who traveled the world making $200,000 a year, only working nine months a year and following the seasons and global hot spots like some strange bird migration.  

And they never, ever broke a sweat.

Stevie always admired that about me, but that didn’t mean he was always in the mood to buy me a beer.  Guys at the top of their game don’t always enjoy the company of other players from other games at the top of their game.  But, he knew how to work as a team member, and if I could get him to be the team leader with the rest of the cooking crew like he did with his own crew at the restaurant on State Street now only represented by the tree it was originally built around, I could be the front man who had made a thousand dollar tip all over again, several times over this time.  And Stevie trusted me to make sure he saw his solid, sweet share. For the record, trust about the money is one of the most important ingredients there will ever be in the restaurant business.

The venue was as magnificent as could be offered in Southern California.  Lake Casitas.  The shining watery jewel established long ago with over thirty miles of beaches thirty miles from the beach.  

But first, a few things about the Pow Wow itself.  It is the largest gathering of Native Peoples of the North American continent on the continent.  Tribes as far away as the great north tribes in the Arctic Circle participate.  It is about as important a Native Indian spiritual gathering as it gets.

In fact, the North American Indian Pow-wow is so important and so spiritual, some rules are set down by the native indians everyone who is not one must follow or they will be asked to leave.

Really, there are only two that are majorly important.  One is, the medicine men from all the tribes come to the site three weeks before the event occurs and begin drumming native percussion instruments.  Continuously, for all three weeks.  

As the head medicine man explained it to me, it was to cleanse the land of the white man’s evil spirit and call the Great Father to them to bless the land for the time that his children would be there.  The second rule was in the center of the entire event, a site designed to hold 250,000 people, was a giant circle described by a perimeter of bales of hay.  

No one but indian dancers were allowed into that sacred space.  So even regular tribespeople were forbidden.  This again was for spiritual purity reasons, as was explained to me, so only the dancers, who would call and be filled with the great spirit of the Great Father would keep the area pure and sacred for the Great Father to enter.

Noble indeed. I had no problem accepting these two basic rules and instructed my crew to observe them without exception. Joel scoffed a little, but the cold look from Stevie, who took shit from precisely no one, straightened out the giant man.  I reminded them of this several times before arriving at the actual site during our meetings at the smoker builder’s home for briefings on the menu, production and service methodologies and other necessities.  

I had this planned down to every detail, and my select crew wondered why I was being so specific and repetitive on every detail to the point they came close to complaining.

When I explained to them how much we were going to make and how narrow the window of opportunity time there was to make that kind of money in, they kept quiet and were very attentive from that point forward.

Never being one not to set my team up for success, I spent my mornings and evening for two weeks before the event shuttling back and forth equipment and supplies, and coordinating with my meat, vegetable and fruits suppliers on delivery. All I really needed to do after that was focus on storage, production and collecting so massive an amount of cash in such a short period of time, a pit boss in a big casino in Las Vegas on a weekend night would have been impressed.  

Nonetheless, I knew the challenge particulars they need not be bothered with.  For example, in those days, there was a balance of the number and type of food booths for a particular type of event that is more or less followed today.  Many of these booths were professionals on ‘the circuit’ going from one festival, fair or event to another, making a pile of cash on the weekends and taking the week off for the most part. They do that for the good weather and take the winter off to travel to warmer climates.  

Nowadays, these markets are saturated with little original food and as they say in this business, “things have gone carny.”  

These seasoned pros watched newcomers like a hawk but also knew it was a tough business to crack when 40 people were standing in line; each expecting only five minutes in line to pass before they had their food perfect. That was what I was training my staff to do, and establish reputation to as able to accomplish a great standard for further opportunity. 

Making several hundred dollars an hour, hour after hour, for the greater part of daylight and often into the night, two days in a row, was a big thing to ask of a crew of four, so I had picked men who were not afraid of going the distance.  

If we brought home a ribbon besides a beautiful stack of cash, I would be assured I was in the hunt for prime location booth space at the next large event, and have my little food business ready to make me thousands every couple of months or so. Between that and my regular writing jobs, life would be perfect for this science fiction writing Santa Barbara beach bum.

Oh yeah.

So when we came out to the site a day before everyone else was to arrive to set up and get hands on familiarization with the location, site and setup, the first thing we heard was the thing I had been hearing night and day for the last two weeks getting my preparatory working trips done.  

The spirit drums, beating and beating and beaten by the medicine men of the great tribes of North America.  It was a sound that would be going on for the entire event, open or closed, and would be the last thing to finish when all was concluded two weeks hence.  The drumming sound was pierced here and there by the sounds of the spirit shouts, songs and cries of one or many, depending frankly, on how the Great Spirit drove them.  

We were a good two hundred yards away, and the constant drumming was an act of tolerant compassion for my men. Soon our ears adjusted and we were able to go behind our tents down the hill and they were almost silent.  My men were ready and our space was also.

I asked them if there was anything I had missed to take advantage of the experience of the team.  All of them said things were fine as they saw it except Stevie.  “We should clean things up really sanitary,” he said.  It wasn’t a request, and we all turned to, spraying, wiping, and spraying and wiping some more, until as much sanitation and shine that could be given to everything in our work space was given.

We were just finishing up when a native indian man approached our booth.  I walked over and smiled and said hi.  I thought it was a sign of good luck to have a native come up to us to talk.  Everyone else smiled too as I greeted him.  He was polite but seemed deeply concerned.

My men picked up on this and gathered around as I engaged him asking what was wrong.

“My son is lost,” he said.  “I have looked for him everywhere and cannot find him.  He is nine years old and just over four feet tall.  Can you help me look for him?”  

Without hesitation we agreed, and I asked him where he had seen him last, and he told us.  Then I asked him where he had personally searched.  He replied simply, “Everywhere.”

The solemnity of his response put a game face on every one of us of deep concern.  Having led marines in the field before, and having been through soul gates before, I knew giving orders making simple sense that could get the job done was the only thing to do.  So I pointed out to each man and described to each a quadrant, bearing,  area and radius to search with some quick hand signals to communicate between each of us over the noise of the drums.  

Then we went to work.  

We looked everywhere. The boy's father seemed as relieved as he could be considering his level of worry.  But I'd known native indian people since my youth in the deserts of New Mexico. One thing I knew no matter what tribe or area a native indian comes from, they are resolved people if nothing. 

The white man slaughter and displacement didn’t teach them this; they learned it surviving millenia in harmony with the open earth.   Some of my stories to come about my experiences with different native peoples you wouldn’t believe had I not experienced them firsthand, and I cannot underestimate the influence they have had on my whole life.  

The hand signals were delivering no good news, and we went way, way afield and did not find the little boy.  We did not give up and soon it was clear we needed to regroup, rethink and retry, because our efforts were giving us no results.  

I spoke with my men and we agreed that we had searched well and had missed nothing.  It was time to get professional help, I suggested, and they agreed the Sheriff of Ventura County needed to be called in for professional help where our well intentioned and considerable amateur efforts had failed.

I told this to the father and the earnest support of my men told him we felt it was the best thing to do, but for some reason, be it his beliefs or whatever, he refused the help of law enforcement.  Not questioning him about this was abrupt and obvious because his refusal was so resolute and certain it was crystal clear we were not to do it.  He was the boys father.  We were on indian land for all intents and purposes. His word hence, was law.  

I looked around at my men and they got the jist of what was transpiring and looked at me with that face that says, “Well, what the heck do we do now?”  I thought a moment, and then tried to strike a balance.  I told the man, “We will search once more, but another search or continuous searching might not be fruitful with just five men.  The wise thing is to get help.  More eyes, more feet, more searchers.  What we will do is search again, as carefully as we did before if not more carefully, but if we don’t get results on the second pass, we will go to the medicine men council of drums and ask for help from them, and rely on their wisdom to guide us as to do what after that.  Will you agree to this?”

He agreed, and my crew, already tired from hours of work for me and their regular jobs, looked at me with some thankfulness in their eyes as they knew it was risky for searchers in the dark without proper equipment and lighting.   The resolve to try to find the child did not leave their eyes, and I took confidence from their resolve and we struck out again, this time reversing our assigned areas and directions to make sure we had not missed anything in what we covered before.

We were out another forty five minutes, and had no results.   I knew we didn’t miss anything.  That look was in my men’s eyes when I signalled them back in.  

The father was clearly in anguish, but I kept him as calm as I could through the whole thing, and keeping him focused on his search technique so that anguish would not flourish.   There was nothing to keep him from going there though, so I did what a leader does with the distraught; direct them to their next task because a leader knows only getting the job done, one way or the other, is going to move them past where they are no matter what may come or what has already transpired.

We moved over to the spirit drum circle and stood respectfully by for a few minutes while the medicine men, in almost a trancelike state, barely noticed our arrival and presence - if they did at all.

I waited patiently, looking at the great white medicine man who led the drummers. He was shouting, singing and beating - and it was clear he had been doing so for days.  I wondered how to reach out to him.  It seems a big protocol screw up to just go up and address him, but in a sense, it was a missing child and thus an emergency.  So I looked at my men and they looked back at me with those eyes we’ve all seen that say, “Don’t look at me.”

I realized it was on me, as it always is with leadership.  People who don’t lead - and for that matter don’t follow that well either - just don’t get this.

I walked up to the great white medicine man and stated clearly so I could be heard over the drums, “This man’s child is lost.  We need your help.”  I stepped back, figuring that should get the message through.  He looked at me with that wild look you see in native eyes from time to time, and he kept on drumming.  

I had put it out there, and nothing was happening.  We weren’t getting anywhere, it seemed.

I waited a few more minutes out of respect, and then went to the father of the missing boy and told him to step forward with me to be better seen.  He was hesitant until I flat out commanded him and reached out so he knew I was going to ‘help’ him forward if he didn’t come, so he moved up with me near the man in white, who was drumming harder now than ever it seemed.

I stepped up to the medicine man again and this time, put a little Marine in my voice and said, “This man’s son is missing.  We need your help!”  Then I added, “Your people need your help!”

I couldn’t have put in any clearer, and frankly, I spoke with a warrior’s tone.  I knew bone deep when a child in in trouble, there is no time for ceremony - there is only time for action. That is when the voice of command must be used.

Or was there time for ceremony?  I was thinking in white man’s terms.  He looked at me in a way that I knew he had finally heard me, and he shouted above the drums, “We will ask the Great Spirit for help!”

He whooped and wailed spirit warrior cries, I assumed, because they sounded somewhat like what I had once had to cry aloud as well.  One knows the tone and intent or one doesn’t.  

The other medicine men whooped and cried and sang and drummed louder and the drumming grew with such force I couldn’t stand near it and like some force was pressing against me, I slowly moved back to my men.  The father stood where he was.  My men looked at me like, “WTF is going on?!?”

I leaned over to them and semi-shouted, “They are asking the Great Spirit for help.” 

They looked back at me like I was crazy, and I held out my hands, using body language to get across to them, “What the heck else am I supposed to do?  It’s their land, legally, their laws apply.  If they feel like calling on the Great Spirit’s help is what they are supposed to do, what the hay do we have anything to say about it?”

My boys seemed to get the message, but they didn’t like having to wait more.  But I looked at them like they better, and they straightened out and waited patiently. Several minutes passed, and then, all of a sudden, the medicine man in white pointed one of this drumsticks at the father of the boy, who immediately dropped his head in his hands to weep.  My heart went out to him, but I stayed where I was. I didn’t know what do otherwise do.

Then, after several minutes passed, while the father weeped, the man in white pointed at me with one drumstick and gestured me over to him.  I advanced and leaned in to listen to the medicine man.  “We have asked the Great Father to help us find the boy.  Go, and find him now.  Go!  And take him!”, the man in white commanded me pointing to the father who was clearly collapsing.  I have since learned about this strange emotional vulnerability present in many native cultures not present in my own.  I wonder sometimes if this is a price of the spiritual life.  I wonder still.

But I did what I was ordered to do, and walked over the father and took him by the arm and led him by my men, repeating what the medicine man had told me and added, “Let’s go!”  It was an order, not a request, and my men fell in quickly, and when we got far enough away from the drums to make it easier to hear, I told the men to take the first search pattern we’d tried and look again, very carefully. They moved off without complaint, but there was this wierd look on their faces like it was the Twilight Zone live and they all had parts in the play.

Our path took us alongside the great circle of hay bales that was the sacred circle the drums were calling the Great Spirit into.  As the distance between us and my men increased, I watched my men looking at each other while I held the father in a strong grip to steel him as best I could.

A leader looks at the looks his men are giving each other when they don’t think they are being watched in order to get glimpses of insight into morale.  They were resolved, but doubt was climbing.  I looked at the father and spoke with as much confidence as I could muster in terms I hoped would be meaningful to him.  

“The medicine man says they have called upon the Great Father for help, so we must believe he is with us now,” I told him.  He looked at me like a child who hoped the pain would go away soon.  I was affected down to my marrow, and turned my eyes outward, determined to the core to find that child.

Joel Watson, the great giant of a blacksmith/iron worker/welder whom I had partnered with to build a great flying saucer sized three tiered smoker to handle the majority of the vegetable menu at one station was about fifty feet ahead of us.   He looked into the great circle and sang out, “Hey Art, take a look over there and tell me if you see something.”  

We all turned our gaze to where his arm was pointing, and people, I am telling you from the time I was a young man I could see a highway exit sign twice as far away as anyone and had earned the nickname ‘eagle eyes’ as a boy scout, but I only saw a small dark blur like a whiff of black smoke in the center of the great circle.

Then, it suddenly became clear to us all and it was Joel who cried out, “It’s him!” The father who had been coming along with me stopped and would not move. Joel took off toward the center of the circle and I cried out suddenly to Joel, “Joel!  The circle!!  Don’t step in!!” He halted himself at the last second and barely kept himself from entering.  “It’s the kid!”, Stevie cried out in amazement.  “What in the hell?!?”, Jim said, adding, “Where did he come from?  We looked there already four times from the boundary.  There was nobody or nothing in there.”

Jim looked at Stevie all confused, and Stevie, who as always steady as a rock, just held his arms out like it was beyond him.  The father collapsed where he stood as my men yelled at him, “It’s your boy!”  “He’s over there!”  “He’s in the center of the circle!” “Go get him!”  

I leaned down to the father who was in some sort of daze, and grabbed him up, telling him, “You boy is in the center of the circle.  You must go get him.  I shook him a little to bring him around because it was the only thing I knew to do as we were all amazed and a little stunned because of it.    He responded slowly and I repeated myself until he realized what he had to do and he staggered forward toward the circle, tried to leap over it, stumbled, fell and recovered his footing as we all encouraged him and pointed him in the direction of a boy about four feet tall in dark clothing standing frozen still in the center of the circle.  

The man ran to his boy and they embraced.  We were cheering and shouting and giving each other slaps on the back and high fives and whooping it up until the fatigue and relief from the stress kicked in and we all calmed down and stood still as we watched the father and son holding on to each other like they were never going to let go.  They stood there for the longest time and we couldn’t get their attention with our choruses of “Congratulations, see you later, my name’s Stevie - we’ll be here for the next two weeks - come by for some food on us!”  

They never turned or made any indication that they heard us, but we were ecstatic despite our fatigue and walked back to our booth space, sitting down on the counter tops and having a soda and a smoke.  

We all looked at each other for a long time and nobody said anything, until I asked, “What the fuck just happened fellas?”

They had no response, but everyone of us started shaking our heads back and forth and then we busted out in incredulous laughter.  “Who the fuck knows,” the giant Joel with the strength of a lion and the gentleness of a lamb.  “But I do know one thing.”  “What’s that?”, Stevie asked.  “We sure don’t fucking understand what just happened, but we all saw it and it turned out ok?,” Joel replied.  

“Yeah, whatever it was, it’s certainly ok!”, Jim said.

“Yeah, thank goodness for that,” I said, adding, “but that’s a helluva way to get things started for us at this North American Indian Pow-wow.”

Maybe that’s the native indian way things get done.  

Before the festivities commenced, we were all to receive a blessing from The Fireshaker, the medicine man of the local tribe in Ventura county who were the hosts of the event.  When it was my turn to get the rain of fire dropped over me as his way of blessing people who were to work at the event, he looked at me and my men and stated unequivocably, “You are the men who found the lost boy.”  

I smiled and replied, “Oh, the medicine men in the drum circle must have told you, huh?”  “Who are they?” he replied, giving me a strange look like he had no idea what I was talking about.  Then he lit the dried bush in his hand shaking a cascade of hundreds of burning embers the size of a bb around me like a death shroud; none of them touching me.   It was like a robe of fire completely enveloping me.  

*      *     *


This inexplicable experience stayed with me for some time through the next two weeks, though I tried to focus on managing, producing and serving my employees and customers as the crowds extended into lines of up to 75 people at a time.  It wasn’t until some time on the fourth day of festivities did I get into the groove of what we were doing and start to look at things as if they were real again.  Stevie just yelled out to me so the rest of the crew could hear and have a good laugh, “Welcome back!”

The rest of the festival was amazing to experience, though truth to tell, it all felt anticlimactic in a way compared to the strange beginnings.

Not even the nearly flawless native indian woman who ran to a place only I could see in her doeskin dress to dance the mating dance for me, surely one of the highest honors a man can experience in the native way of being a human being snapped me completely out of it.  The fact I had a case of potatoes left over, of the 180 we had smoke baked in my hands, a long series of 20 hour days and countless cups of coffee and endless plate shuffling, coal turning and cash counting might have had something to do with it.  

Not even meeting the famous Chief Iron Eyes Cody, the indian from the most poignant environmental commercial ever broadcast brought me back to earth.  I had noticed the Eagle, Globe and Anchor on his native stockings and introduced myself as a marine and we had a fine BS session about our days in our beloved Corps.

Not even the blue ribbon for best barbeque from Dick Wixon enterprises, the producer of the event brought me back to earth.  I never saw the ribbon because Stevie had said Joel Watson stole it, jealously coveting it for himself.  

Stevie later agreed with me before he left Santa Barbara and moved back to Michigan that Joel wasn’t capable of winning his own blue ribbon anyway.   It made me feel somewhat better, despite my ego bothering me that only I had made it possible to win.

Not even the 9100 dollars in cash I took home in seven rolls the thickness of a roll of paper towels brought me back to earth.  

Nothing ever really brought me back down to earth from that experience.  It was a mystery that I could not explain to this day; though I must have told the story a hundred time trying.

Some things I guess we are not meant to explain.  And that is bothersome to me as a master writer.  We are the experts of description and that is our power - to create understanding for others.  That is the purpose of communication.  Along the way, if you are going to become any decent kind of understanding manufacturer, and be authentic, you have to become a truth seeker.

But all I can say about this strange event I experienced with Stevie and all the other witnesses was that it was true. I don’t know how it could have possibly happened. Maybe that is just the way the Great Spirit works, and as a white man caught up in a native indian experience, maybe that’s just all I need to explain.  To you or me.

Written by
Arthur Hermansen
The Lone Comic
September 9, 2015

#Indian Pow Wow

Truth and The Unexplained at the 1991 North American Indian Pow Wow / Copyright 2015 / The Lone Comic / All Rights Reserved

Post a Comment