Betty and I had dinner last night with friends and we talked travel and places to visit, and the red rock country of the four corners area of the American southwest came into the foreground of our discussions and stuck in my mind all night and into this morning.
It was 1963 and I had turned 16 and my father sent me up to St. Michaels, Arizona, a patch of private ground in the middle of the Navajo nation. I rode up with a bull hauler in a semi-truck loaded with dry ewes for slaughter at the kill plant owned by old family friends. The bull hauler and I drove north through desert, mountains, canyons and plains all night, thunder and lightning and hail, boulders crashing into the highway from the ragged red cliffs up above. It is hard for me to imagine the drought Arizona is having now after living through the summers of 1963 through 1966 when hard rain was plenty.
We arrived at dawn as a damp hint of mist hung on the chilly country dotted with piñon and juniper trees. Scruffy pups ran alongside the road, woofing at the semi tires as the bleats of frightened ewes bounced off the rust-red rocks perched alongside the muddy bar ditch. I recall sitting in the cab, looking out over the harsh land that at that moment was covered with summer grasses. I recall wondering what the Navajos thought of us driving into that valley with a load of ewes, the three bullhorns on top of the cab, each one clarion-blaring, waking everyone up.
After breakfast, the truck driver headed back south to his and my home in the Sonoran desert but he didn’t make it five miles before he went to sleep and rolled that semi. We hurried out there and looked at the crushed cab, the mangled trailer.
The man who ran the kill plant at St. Michaels also owned that truck. He growled and gruffed and huffed and swore he’d mated with a female diamondback and then he disappeared on a seven day drunk, and left his two teenage sons and me to run the plant.
Early the next morning we rose before the early orb peeked over the red ridge to the east. We got in the cab of an Army green Ford pickup. Our frosty breaths created momentary ghosts as we chugged down a tire-worn track and picked up the butchers. They lived in hoogans, the octagonal type, not the newer square hoogans one now sees out on the red, sandy land the Navajos call home. The butchers stood in the dark at each dwelling as we arrived. They wore Levi jackets and old cowboy boots, and wore scarves tied around their graying heads.
We got out and spoke, “Yá át ééh,” and shook hands. Back then, Navajo men did not squeeze hard in a hand shake. I had been forewarned that they did not grip like I had been taught, “like a man,” so though I didn’t like it, I kept my mouth shut. I remember two names particularly, Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie. My friends referred to these men as “chiefs.” They were probably born before the 20th Century rolled into its own so I recall wondering what they thought of riding in the back of a pickup as the dawn chill slapped their brown, wrinkled faces.
At the kill plant we tied the legs of the dry ewes and then the butchers came in and slit their throats, capturing the blood in shallow pans for making blood pudding. I looked away and thought of the mountains off to the west. Later we watched as Chee Begay, Charlie Yazzie and the others skinned and severed and cut and pulled and cleaned the carcasses that then went into a big walk-in cooler where we hung them on hooks that moved back and forth on wheels that fit into tracks on the ceilings. Each of us got to don a white meat cutters jacket that hung down to our calves and we thought we were pretty hot stuff. I did anyway.
Later in the day, we loaded 55 gallon barrels full of the remnants of the offal, not the offal itself, the guts and stomach were all things that could be stewed and fried and sauteed. What was in the barrels was the contents of rumens and reticulums and guts and intestines, half-digested browse and the makings of manure. It had a particularly foreign smell and I held my nose. The butchers, including Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie, got in the back with the muck drums and we went to the dump north of Window Rock.
My two friends decided I should get the hang of disposal, so they ordered me to dump the barrels. The scent clambered up my nose and my stomach began to retch. By then the heat was up and the big green blow flies were already circling around, buzzing and diving, as were the meat bees, whose black and yellow bands emanated a ghostly glow in the afternoon light.
The younger of my friends giggled and pulled out a Winston and lit it up with a fancy metal lighter he pulled out of the front of his Levis. He took a long drag and told me to smoke it as I dumped the barrels. I took a drag off the cigarette. The smoke burned my mouth and nose and lungs as I held my breath and turned the barrels over and watched the miasma of leavings slither down the red dirt bank. I choked and almost vomited. Chee and Charlie laughed right then. My other friend came over and handed me a pint of VO and even though I didn’t like the taste of whisky, I took a pull. When I swallowed it, the flavor, or should I say the gnash, of the whiskey caused my torso to shiver and my spine to clack. Chee and Charlie laughed again, almost as if we were friends. I shot them the finger and called them Navajo names I had learned that day. Words I will not repeat in this piece, even if I knew how to spell them. They stopped laughing and grinned at me, or was it sneering, and then they turned away as if to look back over the red ridge to our west and the valley that they called home.
We took them back to their hoogans and yelled,”See you next week,” but they didn’t really answer, just waved their hands back at us without turning around. As we bumped back to the kill plant I thought about those two chiefs, Chee and Charlie, and wondered what they were chiefs of, and wondered if they’d led raiding parties that raped and murdered white women and then I counted in my head and decided they hadn’t been alive long enough. I also suspected I had deeply offended them by calling them names, but when I voiced my concerns, my two friends said, in unison, “Don’t worry, they are only just a couple of old Indians.”
Later that week the three of us were called on to deliver mutton carcasses, some of which had been split in half, to trading posts in Lukachukai, Window Rock, Fort Defiance, Ganado and Chinle…all Navajo towns, and on into the Hopi mesas at Mishongnovi, Shongopovi, Old Oraibi, where the 800-year-old pueblos crammed up against each other. I imagined there were like 19th century New York City high rises. The sharp smell of mutton got beneath our fingernails and on our skin and made me wish for my mother’s hamburger and TV dinner kitchen.
The whole time I was there, the rains boiled up every afternoon and punished the land. We got stuck in the reefer truck, broke an axle on the Army green Ford trying to pull the reefer truck out of the muck. We got in fights, every day, two ganging up on one, the arrangements forever changing. We went back and picked up the pre-dawn butchers again when another bull hauler in another semi delivered a load of dry ewes who bleated as if they knew the end was nigh.
Once, coming out of Window Rock after we went into town and chowed down on burgers and fries and chocolate malts, we slowed. A harsh thunder storm had just forged on into New Mexico as we passed a wagon drawn by two blue roan mares. A thin Navajo dressed in Levi pants and a blood-red velveteen shirt with a huge silver and turquoise squash blossom sat on the wooden seat. He wore a red head band that kept his gray hair in check. I yelled, “Stop, stop, that looks like Chee Begay.” My two friends just laughed, “Naw, that ain’t Chee, it’s just some old Indian.”