At 10 a.m., it was already hot. Summer had arrived in Bluff and that, combined with the effects of global warming, had pushed up temperatures. Even the lizards were scared.
As I ambled across the porch to Twin Rocks Café in search of my second iced tea of the young morning, he sat stoically at a metal table situated just outside the entry door.
Looking southeast towards the old Jones hay farm, he didn’t say anything as I approached, did not even acknowledge my advance.
“Hey, Bud,” I said, startling him. “How ’bout a soda to cool you off? I’m buyin’.”
“Iced tea would be fine,” he replied with a barely perceptible smile.
He seemed surprised I had spoken to him at all, let alone offered a free drink. He was obviously expecting a less congenial reception.
His response made me think of all the stories I have read and been told about Native people being treated badly in border towns. Bluff is not like that, and Twin Rocks definitely is not.
Going inside to retrieve our drinks, I encountered the cashier and manager who advised me, “We think he’s drunk.”
“Any problem?” I asked.
“No,” they responded. “He’s just waiting for a ride.”
As I put the to-go cup, straw, and sugar caddy in front of him, he said, “Sit down.”
“Got a lot to do,” I countered, beginning to turn away.
“Sit down,” he reiterated, gently, but firmly.
“Alrighty, then,” I acquiesced and pulled up a chair, curious what this encounter might bring. If Twin Rocks is anything, it is interesting, and one never knows what to expect. “Another adventure,” I counseled myself.
He was a past-middle-age Navajo man, tall, maybe 6’2”, strongly built, still somewhat handsome, although a difficult life had clearly taken its toll.
He wore a black three-button golf shirt and blue denim jeans. Functional cowboy boots covered his feet, and a worn, sweat-stained cowboy hat sporting a woven horsetail band sat nearby.
His eyes were weary, and, as the staff had speculated, a tad bleary. I guessed he might have seen things most of us studiously avoid.
“I’m a veteran. Marines,” he said.
“Vietnam?” I probed, noting his age.
“How many tours?”
“One. Sometimes it makes me sad,” he said, tears welling up. Quickly controlling his emotions, he continued, “My name is Lee.”
No last name, I noted. Just Lee. “Where you from Lee?”
“Monument Valley. I know those basket weavers, the Blacks. They’re my cousin sisters.”
Having known my share of Vietnam veterans, I felt an affinity for this world-worn stranger. Politics aside, in my opinion, those who served in that conflict deserve special consideration from the rest of us who were spared the trauma.
Because I fear they may not grasp the significance of the 1960s, I have often spoken with Kira and Grange about the events of that era, including the war. For most young people their age, the 1960s are insignificant, too far gone to be meaningful – ancient history.
Like the old men of my youth who wanted to ensure I understood WWII, I worry Kira and Grange may not grasp the enormity of those years and how they continue to impact our lives.
After a time, he said, “I know you. I read those stories you write.”
Surprised and flattered all at the same time, I gave him a startled look. “Yeah, they make me feel like home,” he continued. “You have a lot of Navajo brothers and sisters, don’t you?”
“Yeah, guess I do,” I acknowledged, looking around at the Navajo staff I consider my extended family. At that point, he began regaling me with stories of the Bluff he knew from his early years.
“That place was an ice cream shop,” he said, pointing to a small shack across the street. Indicating the Historic Loop, he said, “That was the old highway, before the new one was built.
“I rode my horse from Montrose, Colorado to Monument Valley one time. Deputy Dufur threatened to shoot me when I got here. I didn’t pay any attention to him, so he turned on his lights and escorted me out of town. Kept me safe. Looked after me.”
“My grandfather taught me that you talk with your eyes,” he said, looking directly at me. “That’s how you get lots of girlfriends,” he joked. “Be kind with your eyes,” he advised.
I couldn’t help thinking that if someone had taught me that lesson 50 years earlier, I might have been awash in adolescent dates.
“Too late for girlfriends now, but maybe I can try it on my wife,” I said, “test your theory, pass it on to my son if it works.” Kindness did seem like an exceptionally good idea.
“Maybe if we were all nice to each other, we wouldn’t need wars,” he said. “It makes me sad,” he said, repeating his earlier comment, his tired eyes watering once again.
“Gotta go get to White Mesa,” I said. “Wanna ride?”
“Sure,” he nodded, so I walked over to my old red pickup truck, fired it up, drove to the café steps and shouted, “Saddle up, cowboy.”
He climbed into the cab and fell silent. As we crested Cow Canyon heading north, he asked, “You want poetry, Navajo poetry?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll bring it to you,” he assured me, “bring it to you at Twin Rocks.”
At that point, it struck me that I could have easily passed up my encounter with this exceptional man.
All too often, we move past, circumnavigate, avoid those who seem different, those we don’t immediately comprehend, and those who look like a problem waiting to consume us.
In the right light, however, these unusual individuals are opportunities rather than difficulties. As it turned out, that was the case with Lee.
“Sit down,” he had said, and I was all the better for having done so. Strange how you never know.
Looking back as he climbed out of the truck, he said, “Maybe you’ll write a story about me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.”