Walla Walla.... Blues
I wasn't always confused, angry and frustrated about who I was and where I was going. Life used to be relatively simple and straightforward. There was a time, earlier on in my life, when everything was crystal clear, on the mark, without question--without exception.
When I think about all of this, about college, my confusion and my journey to Banana Patch, I can't help but reflect upon the town and circumstances in which I grew up. I was born and raised Michael Jay; brought into this world in the year of our Lord, 1949, conceived, weaned and nurtured in a small, ultra-conservative farming community in the corner of Southeastern Washington called.... Walla Walla.
Folklore had it that Walla Walla was the town they liked so nice, they named it twice. Actually, it was a name taken from the Walawla Indians, meaning little rivers or place of many waters. I'm not really sure why our town was named the way it was: other than a couple of small rivers in the area, and a flood now and then, there really wasn't very much water.
From a weather perspective, Walla Walla was referred to by many (who came up with this I'll never know) as the banana belt" of the Northwest. Such a reference was rooted in the notion that when in climate weather, winds and storms hit the Pacific Northwest, somehow all of it miraculously and cosmically bypassed Walla Walla.
When other parts of the state experienced the bitter cold, Walla Walla was apparently balmy and warm, hence the name banana belt." Horse Hockey. In a pig's eye. But we were, however, surrounded by the Blues, a small mountainous chain of ecological, recreational and aesthetic value to most Walla Wallans. My God, how I loved the Blue Mountains.
Sure, Walla Walla had her winters that were warmer than others, just as some days seem to be better than other days. And the winters in Walla Walla were not nearly as cold as say, Rapid City, South Dakota, my father's birth place, or say Antarctica. But a Banana Belt ... I don't think so.
Banana Patch, which would come to symbolize the beginning of the journey of my awakening, was more like a banana belt." Walla Walla was not. It was an alright town, mind you, but so were a lot of other towns. That's at least what I used to think.
Take any place; though, it really doesn't matter. Is any place better than any other place? Maybe on the surface. Maybe not. It all depends on how you look at it, doesn't it? Isn't it the attitude and consciousness you bring to it, all within the beholder's eye, the mind of the perceiver? Ho Hum....
Needless to say, however, when you're a kid on the path of maturity, growing into a young adult and spending all those years in a town called Walla Walla, the thought of becoming a lifer, (without the possibility of parole) was infinitely staggering.
By the time I graduated from high school, I (along with an entire class of high school seniors) was not ready to become a lifer." Many of us probably would have sold our souls" (had we known the meaning of the term)--sold anything--just to escape.
In any event, Walla Walla was essentially a good town: lots of churches, fine schools, good people, three colleges, one of which, I heard, was the pride and joy of the Pacific Northwest-Whitman College. Oh yes, Walla Walla was also the home of Washington State Penitentiary.
Rumor had it Walla Walla had the option of either having Washington State University or the State Penitentiary within her borders. Apparently, the city fathers and local power brokers, in their wisdom, chose the latter. Both are prisons of varying degrees.
Walla Walla prided herself in being rich in history, as well as rich in monetary affluence. There was a time in our nation's history when Walla Walla was the wealthiest" community per dollar per capita, more so than any other town or city in America. Big deal, she also had some of the poorest people living within her city limits.
A common tongue and cheek" comment that was often articulated among those of us with far less monetary resources( who found ourselves living on the other side of the tracks") was: They're richer than God.
Yes, even back then, Walla Walla had its fair share (and then some) of the rich and shameless, whose money bought them power (or at least a sense of it). We used to think there were a lot of King shits in this small country town, a lot of horses, and a lot of horses asses. But I guess every community must have a few, if for no other reason than to provide a balance.
And, I suppose, that if one was a newcomer to this fine area, or was just passing through, one would be impressed (like being smacked between the eyes with a two-by-four) of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
On the outskirts of the Walla Walla valley, you had two hills: Penitentiary Hill and Country Club Hill. And in between was a menagerie of rich and poor, good and bad, and that which lay somewhere in the midst of both.
History had it that a missionary by the name of Marcus Whitman, along with his wife Narcissa, came out West in the 1830's as Christian soldier," on a mission from God to Christianize and tame the savage beast" within the Native Americans, who held a natural deed to this land.
The Whitmans, under (what I call) the auspices of Christian squatters rights, settled upon the land which was the home of the Cayuse Native Americans, (apparently God had given Marcus permission to do so), and in their zeal to Christianize the Heathen Cayuse," Marcus Whitman, et al, ended up giving to the Cayuse a lot more than Christianity.
Immigrants and settlers coming to the Whitman mission brought with them the measles, which ended up killing off many of the Native Americans, who in turn (and who could blame them) killed Marcus Whitman and company.
As it turned out, this omnipotent Christian God, as taught by Marcus to the Cayuse, apparently not only could not cure the disease of measles, He couldn't raise them from the dead after they died from it, like Jesus raised up ole Lazarus.
All the Cayuse could do is hopelessly and helplessly watch their women and children suffer and die, as Whitman and his God stood around giving what medical and spiritual advice and aid they could, watching the entire drama unfold.
Ironically, and many years later, a bronze statue of Marcus Whitman was erected and stood in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and it wasn't until the 1990's that the statue returned home and stood proudly in Walla Walla. I guess folks around these parts looked upon Marcus Whitman as some sort of a religious folk hero. Hell, they even named a college after him. What a crock.
No statue was ever erected in Walla Walla in honor of those Native Americans we displaced" and drove away from their heartland in the Walla Walla valley, a land to which they held natural ownership by virtue of their being here first. And, whenever I bring it up, nobody wants to talk about it.
Struck by a sudden attack of collective conscience for our multitude of transgressions (a small token of our appreciation to the Native Americans, mind you), throughout Washington state, we named many of our cities and towns after Native American tribes and their tribal chiefs--but only after we exterminated most of them first. What a trade off. Seems fair, right?
Walla Walla became a shining example of this conscience-clearing warehouse of Native American nomenclature. Still, I challenge anyone to find a single Walla Walla or Cayuse Native American in Walla Walla today.
I often found it curious and ironic that when we white folks killed a bunch of Native Americans in battle, it was a victory" for the calvary and for America. When the Indians kicked ass and won a battle or two, is was called a massacre. (Oh well ... some things never change.)
When I often reflected upon this whole Native American/White-man thing (and my country's abominable "manifest destiny" policy), it would make me personally embarrassed and ashamed to be white or Caucasian or whatever you call it. I came to look upon Marcus Whitman as a poor misguided ole' soul, lost in the sea of spiritual ignorance.... Guess he's in good company, huh?
When I think of Walla Walla, I am often reminded of those good times in my early teens, when in the summer of my youth as I was preparing to enter the 8th grade, my parents took me and my brothers in their old '47 Ford to a really neat place, called Wallowa Lake--oh, I'd say about 120 miles southwest of Walla Walla, in Oregon country.
This beautiful, pristine, spacious, mountainous wilderness area and lake was often referred to as the little Switzerland" of America, and it wasn't just the locals who gave it this name. I only tell you all of this because the Wallowa wilderness fathered" a very great Native American chief in the middle 1800's.
Dad rented us this cabin on the lake, while he worked in the area as a salesman so he could pay the mortgage on the house back home, feed and cloth all of us--oh, and pay for another night's lodging--if he had a good day selling.
This particular day, as I was looking around inside the cabin, I found this piece of writing on the wall in one of the rooms. I was so touched by it that I wrote it down myself and carried it with me for a number of years.
And, when I found myself reflecting upon Walla Walla, Marcus Whitman, the Native Americans and all of it, I would be reminded of those words that I found in that cabin, of that Great Native American Chief, Chief Joseph, chief of the Nez Pierce, when he said:
"If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers.
The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born free should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat?
If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper ... Let me be a free man--free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade, where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself--and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
I guess the Native Americans had their own sense of deep religiosity which we assumed had no redeeming value to us or them. How mistaken and misguided we had become. America was so caught up in her own intolerant, religious self-righteousness, that she could not go beyond the boundaries of her own prejudice, beyond the boundaries and personality of Christianity to that place within all of "us" where we were truly one. Ho hum.
Another thing happened that particular summer before my 8th grade at Wallowa Lake. I had been thinking about running for vice-president of my junior high school and I needed a speech. I told my Dad about my intentions and how I thought I had a snowball's chance in Hades" of winning (I was never allowed to say the word "Hell" in front of my parents, but Hades was okay).
Dad, in his usual, positive, encouraging manner, said "Son, if you want it, you can have it."
But Dad," I exclaimed," I've never written a speech before, let alone gave it in front of 700 students, will you help me?"
Dad wrote me a speech that weekend which was short and to the point, that got your attention right at the beginning, and kept your attention right to the very end.
In fact, it was the first time that I came to realize how good my Dad really was at speech making and communicating. And the fact that he took the time to write my speech and give me encouragement only solidified my love and respect for him.
So, I memorized it. Scared shitless, I spoke it before the student body, got a standing ovation, and won the election. As time moved forward, I would hold many more student body offices throughout my junior high and high school years, along with being involved in a variety of legitimate, extracurricular school activities.
I only tell you this story because this experience was the beginning of my feeling more comfortable about myself and in speaking in front of others. I felt like I was beginning to fit in. Thanks, Dad.