Instead of driving west into Utah, then up to Idaho, we drove north to Montana in a spontaneous change of plans wholly inspired by a coloring book, Bucky Thompson and the Redskins. As my dad now saw it, we were somehow bound to honor the unspecified deeds of a few or maybe several unnamed individuals of vague and generalized historical significance. When asked where we were driving or to whom we were supposed to feel indebted, my dad would only answer with, “You’ll see,” and a smile that anticipated what was no doubt going to be a big payoff.
Minutes turned into hours and hours turned into…well, more hours. Entertainment was desirable and necessary, but seemed perpetually elusive, like the face of an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon. 20 Questions, Slug Bug and a game of I Spy that ended with my sister, Michele, hitting me (she got mad because the only things I would ‘spy’ were things inside the car. “Stop picking ‘headrest’. Idiot.”) Eventually, we took to humming the theme songs of television shows.
By the time my dad and I started in on what my sister termed to be the ‘kajillionth stupid’ rendition in a row of the Bonanza theme, my dad suddenly announced, “Here we are!”
“Here” was Crow Agency, Montana and the Custer Battlefield National Monument.
Women folk in tow, my dad and I hurriedly walked toward the visitor center. A recording boomed from speakers that surrounded the predominantly empty parking lot, describing the scene of 1876 as “a horrible stench,” adding that “news of the Custer massacre brought out rage and a demand for vengeance from the populace back east.”
And it was this phrase ‘a horrible stench’ that brought about something rare: my enthusiasm for learning had risen from its crypt of indifference. Who, what, where, when, how much blood, all of those questions required answers, detailed answers, right now; I could only hope that every one of those answers was chalk full of cool action sequences. I asked my dad for details of what had become known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
“Well, this is the place where General Custard fought a ton of Indians,” my dad explained. “Custard’s men fought hard, but there were too many Indians and they got killed.”
“How many Army guys died?”
My dad shrugged. “A thousand or somethin’. Sounds like a lot, but there was something in the neighborhood of ten thousand Indians.” Immediately, I scanned the Montana horizon for any indication of housing tracts, apartment buildings, even mobile home parks, but there was nothing. Whatever neighborhood that had been home to 10,000 Indians had been torn down long ago.
Once inside the visitor’s center, more accurate information was delivered via the press of a button located beneath exhibits of miniature battlefields and artifacts encased in glass. Through the recordings, I learned that, in reality, a total of 268 US soldiers had been outnumbered 5:1 by the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne.
My dad and I looked upon the miniature battle of Little Big Horn, strewn with miniature bodies and miniature sorrow. “They sure were brave,” Dad said. For several seconds, I watched him explore a thought, a deep(ish) thought as evidenced by his biting the inside of his lip and chewing a hangnail from a nicotine-stained index finger. “Ya know, I bet they woulda won if they’d’a had better guns.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “and helicopters.” For that, I got a pat on the back.
Next, we satisfied our cultural morbidity with a view of the actual battlefield.
At the end of a paved road, we paused at the memorial: a granite obelisk listing the names of those that perished (well, the good guys, at least). I looked up and down each of the monument’s four sides, scanning a first name here and a last name there. I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder and, as I turned, I saw a rare look of solemnity on his face. For the first time I could remember that didn’t involve him listening to a Marty Robbins song, my dad actually seemed choked up. He looked down at me with pursed lips and the slightest of nods, then turned us both around to soak in Little Big Horn.
As we took in the landscape of yellow hills that had once been drenched in blood, I did the only thing I could think of to honor the men that my dad felt such kinship to: I began humming a slow, maudlin version of the Bonanza theme in the style of Taps. When finished, this received a second pat on the shoulder from my dad. Touching wasn’t employed often in my family, so those rare times really stood out.
“This is lame,” Michele said, then left to wait in the car instead of “glorifying a murderer” whom, at the time, I took to mean Sitting Bull. With my mom back at the visitor center to fill her purse with free pamphlets from the rack of local attractions, my dad and I walked to the exact spot where Custer and his men perished. My dad took this in with as much a sense of pride and valor as any 20th century non-veteran can affect. As for me, all I could think of was the possibility of an alternate ending.
What would it have taken for the battle to have ended differently? I mean, if someone, say, a small boy trained in Special Ops, had gone back in time with modern weapons, all of those soldiers might still be alive. Imagine the look on Sitting Bull’s face when me and my elite team of commandos of some sort of branch of the military that wasn’t important right now came swooping in with our time machine helicopter, machine guns blazing, flame throwers flaming and grenade launchers…grenading. Imagine the explosions and the…
“What are you smilin’ about?” my dad asked.
Embarrassed by the truth, I put on a wholesome grin and said, “Oh,…um, because the Army guys are all in Heaven, now.”
“Well, not the Indians,” my dad scoffed. “They believe in some happy huntin’ ground.”
Hmm. Well, if my dad’s hunting trips were any indication, then I imagined that the Indians happy hunting ground was not only ripe with fish and game, but with flatulence, dirty jokes and Igloo coolers filled with a seemingly endless supply of Coors.
Back on the road and heading west, I began to look at my coloring book, Bucky Thompson and the Redskins, a little differently. The Indians that Bucky met seemed so much nicer than the ones that my dad said “killed all of Custard’s men for no reason.”
I decided that after getting their own land and living in real houses with bathrooms and radios, the Indians must have begun to realize how wrong they had been to attack Americans. After all, the Americans just wanted to be free.