It was just about dusk on a warm September Saturday night and
the locals were beginning their ritual drag of the strip. Having little
to do, young people cruised in their vehicles, honked at one another,
and spent their hours burning gas and wearing out tires in a seemingly
endless parade. Folks came from Geary, Hydro, Eakley, and Arapaho,
all outlying communities, to cruise Main Street, Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Benoit stepped out of his one-room house, which sat on the corner of
an alley that ran midway between Main and Franklin. He was ready to
sit in his small front yard and watch the parade of cars and pick-up
trucks as they drove up and down the strip. He unfolded his aluminum
and nylon lawn chair, sat down and popped open a can of Coors. He leaned
back and admired his new Nocona cowboy boots as he took a sip of beer.
wasn’t really interested in watching kids cruise. After all,
that’s not why he had come to this small western town. He had
taken a job at the university with the personal desire to see, meet
and get to know Indians. He was part Indian, but he was part everything
else as well, and all those parts had become pretty confusing. He thought
that a little time in a small country town might be good for his soul.
He had realized in the month that he had been in Weatherford that culture
shock was taking his mind off the clamor of urban life. In fact, he
suspected that it was just plain taking his mind. Gone were the hustle
and bustle of clockwork, the rat race, and the endless demands of graduate
school. Gone was the ceaseless drone of machines that provide the buzz
of large cities. Gone, too, were many other nameless ills that turned
human beings numb and made their lives seem pointless and petty. Weatherford
was a different place. The small town had a slower pace and an austere,
quiet way of life. Here was dust and wind and weathered looking faces
that tell of nature’s severity in a droughty land. Here was where
Robby had come to “put it all together.”
finished his beer and was reaching for another when the baby blue,
1957 Ford pick-up wheeled into the parking lot beside the Gulf Oil
service station which faced his house. The full moon had made its ascent
over the horizon, and it was casting its faint light upon the occupant
of the pick-up. The door of the cab opened and out stepped Cletus Packingstone,
a giant of a man, a Kiowa Indian who had come to town for his own Saturday
was from Burns Flat, where he lived with his sister Marie. He had recently
come back to Oklahoma after serving two tours in Vietnam with the US
Marines. Cletus was tall, but he was quiet and unassuming, and rarely
seen in the company of other people. During the day he worked as an “oilie” roughneck.
It was physically demanding work and often quiet dangerous. In fact,
one time, Cletus had barely missed being struck by a loose chain, used
to guide a drilling bit, that nearly cut another man in two. However,
at the risk of his own life, he was able to pull the man to safety
without getting hurt himself. When the foreman asked him if there was
anything he would like in repayment for the deed, Cletus simply asked
to work a double-shift, with overtime. It seemed like a rather unusual
request to the foreman, considering that most men would choose a day
off with pay, but Cletus was using his money to help fund Marie’s
education at the university and to pay for his own Saturday night events.
He liked to dress up, drive to town, cruise the beer bars, and shoot
pool -- alone.
was no mistaking Cletus. No one else who lived in town and no one else
who came to town on Saturday night dressed quite like Cletus dressed.
It was no less than flamboyant. He would always arrive in town at about
sundown, clad in cowboy attire. Not that wearing western clothing was
unusual (after all this was western Oklahoma - cowboy country), but
Cletus dressed like a Hollywood cowboy after the style of Tom Mix of
silent movie fame. He always wore a wide-brim Stetson with a thin lizard
skin hatband, a white cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons on
the placate and cuffs, and black embroidered piping around the pockets
and the yoke of his shirt. His shirt collar was decorated with a silver
arrowhead point on each end, and he wore a bolo necktie with a large
Navajo turquoise tie piece and silver spikes on the ends of the tie.
His pants matched his shirt, white, with black piping around the pockets,
and mother-of-pearl buttons on the flaps of his back pockets. He wore
a dark leather belt, and a large belt buckle of silver and turquoise
designed to resemble a cluster of peyote buttons. The finishing touch
of his outfit was a pair of very expensive Tony Lama snakeskin boots
with silver tips and heels. He looked every bit the drugstore cowboy.
But Cletus was a full-blooded Kiowa Indian, raised in an Indian community
and a practicing member of the peyote church.
the local folks, Cletus appeared as a humorous oddity, dressing up
like a cowboy in an old west parade. They would pass him by and giggle
to one another and mock him when out of his hearing with phrases like, “that’s
one retarded Indian,” or “he’s a crazy red niggar.” For
Robby though, Cletus was the first “real” Indian of the
west that he had come in contact with, even if it was only to view
him during his Saturday night visits. In Cletus, Robby saw a stoic
man of the plains, and imagined him to be a master horseman with mystical
qualities. He pictured him as someone from whom he could learn a great
deal about Indian life and the spirit way. Unlike others in the town,
Robby hardly noticed that Cletus drove an old Ford truck and drank
himself into a stupor on most weekends. To Robby, Cletus was the incarnate,
assured, and readily identifiable Indian that he wanted to become.
Robby felt, after all, that that Indian part of himself was boiling
to be freed from that cauldron of doubt in which he drifted from one
place to another, from one experience to another, while never stepping
on the earth long enough to feel her reassuring touch. Although born
in a small New England town, Robby was an urban raised product of TV
and middle-class aspirations. He was educated, mannered and somewhat
arrogant, with a quiet self-conceit. He liked control, and believed
he could handle any situation that confronted him. And, like most know-it-alls,
he was afraid of himself, which is probably why he felt the things
he did when he saw Cletus Packingstone.
Cletus closed the door of his pick-up and without even noticing Robby sitting
in front of his house, stepped toward Main Street with his head cocked
slightly back, and his arms swinging at his side. He crossed the street
and walked into the first place that served beer.
He remained in the tavern for about thirty minutes or so, and then moved on
to the only bar in town with a pool table, in the alley south of Main.
Cletus went into the bar, walked over to the pool table and racked the
balls to play. He wasn’t a pool shark; he wasn’t even good
at the game, for that matter. He just liked to play. He played game after
game, by himself, until late into the night. He drank beer after beer,
occasionally washing it down with a pint of whiskey, if he brought one
with him. But he always played and drank alone. Often, other drunks in
the bar would taunt and cheer him on when he faced a particularly difficult
shot. Most often he would miss, but he seemed oblivious to the crowd of
jeering and hollering cowboys who would tell each other what Cletus did
wrong and how they would have taken the shot. And if someone approached
his table and put a quarter on the rail, Cletus would finish his game and
quietly sit out. He never played with anyone. Off to himself, sipping on
his beer, lost in his own silent thoughts, he waited until the table once
again came open. Then he would play another solitary game, sometimes two,
blurry-eyed and tipsy, until he had his fill of everything, and then he
would leave the same way he came. He would put away the pool cue, stand
straight, cock his head back and stroll out of the bar headed for his truck.
In the quiet of the night sky, after the cruising parade had faded for the
evening, Robby thought about his grandmother telling him that she was the
sister of the Turkey Clan Mother of the Onondaga. The story was told so
long ago that it faded in his memory. He had no idea what she meant anyway.
He shifted his thoughts to the present and to Cletus Packingstone, who
was a living full-blood of a nomadic tribe of the plains. He had learned
something of Cletus from his sister, who was a student in one of his classes
at the university. She told him about his returning from the war and how
he seemed distant even though he took care of her and treated her well.
He didn’t have a wife or a steady girlfriend, but she reported that
he would, on occasion, visit one of the Indian social clubs in Clinton,
reputed to have a steady flow of loose women and cheap booze -- at least
that’s what the man who owned the service station had told Robby.
The man also said that he didn’t like Indians because they “got
everything handed ‘em by the government, and decent folk have to
work for a livin’!” Robby dismissed the dig on Indians living
off the dole as just another frustrated redneck who hadn’t fully
realized the American Dream and had to blame it on someone. Besides, he
knew that Cletus roughnecked and was a decorated war veteran, hardly the
image of a slothful welfare chiseler.
Robby knew a different Indian in Cletus, one more noble and compelling. He
didn’t know why his image was any better or worse than the redneck’s,
and it never entered his mind that neither image mattered to Cletus or
to any other Indian. But it was important to Robby because he was certain
that he understood Indians; he was sure he did - he was part Indian himself,
and, besides, he was an educated man. And it was that native part of himself
that he felt could somehow deliver him from the terrible isolation and
alienation he sensed whenever he pondered the shabbiness of his own existence.
He felt that he had been a stranger in his own life for a long time, but
now he could grasp something real, something alive and untamed, something
not caught in the contemptuous self-deceit he knew as being “civilized.” For
Robby, Cletus Packingstone had become a voice in the wilderness of modern
life, a noble hero who would show him the way out of his own knotted despair.
As Cletus stepped from the bar, he rounded the building and turned toward Main
Street. He could see Robby’s outline in the lawn chair in front of
his pick-up. He stopped for a moment when he reached Main and took notice
that the air was still as he drew in a deep breath before crossing the
Robby watched as Cletus walked across Main and appeared to be heading right
towards him. As Cletus moved past the tailend of his pick-up, Robby became
aware that Cletus was looking directly at him and was indeed coming to
where he sat. Robby tensed for a moment and tried to reassure himself that
everything was “okay.” But the sight of Cletus’ large
physique looming in the moonlight before him was quite unsettling. For
just a moment, Robby’s head buzzed with the thoughts of wild drunken
Indians on the warpath; Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn; and the
uncontrollable savage mind of the red man. He didn’t like those thoughts,
but he couldn’t shake them. It was the fear of the unknown, and he
tried desperately to compose his thoughts before he betrayed himself.
Cletus took a few more steps and was now standing directly in front of Robby.
Robby clenched the arms of his chair and slowly lifted himself out of his
seat to face Cletus. The two of them stood for a few silent moments peering
into one another’s eyes. Then, ever so slowly, Cletus raised his
head, tilting backwards and stared intently into the moonlit starry night
sky. Robby hesitated for a second, but also looked up to ponder the heavens.
The two of them stood there at arm length, peering into space. At last
Robby relaxed, and just stood there, calm and serene, savoring the moment.
Neither said anything, nor did either make any motion toward the other.
Finally, with the stealth of a cat, Cletus turned and walked toward his
Robby stood quietly, still looking heavenward as Cletus returned to his truck.
Cletus opened the door, got in and sat down behind the steering wheel.
Robby’s gaze lowered to the moonlit pick-up, seeing clearly the silhouette
of Cletus sitting upright between the windshield and rear window of the
truck. He thought about how large and noble Cletus appeared in the moonlight,
and he imagined him mounted on a painted pony, sitting on the crest of
a high butte, overlooking the wide expanse of a moonlit open prairie.
As Robby was captured by his imaginary world of Indians on horseback out on
the plain, Cletus simply sat in the cab of his ‘57 Ford pick-up truck.
He peered out the windshield and mused for a moment about his brief, wordless
encounter with the young man who was still standing and quietly looking
skyward. Cletus glanced upward himself as he reached his right hand toward
a gym bag on the seat beside him. He pulled a pistol from the bag, raised
it to his head and pulled the trigger. In the same instant, Robby’s
image of the plain’s horseman, the proud warrior, the icon of all
that he thought to be “Indian,” died with Cletus’ last
There was no Kiowa drum beating, no throng of mourners from the community,
and the Weatherford Daily News had only a line on the bottom of the front
page that read, “Burns Flat Man Killed Saturday.” The story
was the talk of the town for a few days or so, but no one really had much
to say of any importance. The oil field service that Cletus had worked
for sent Marie some flowers and a sympathy card, and Robby attended a quiet
memorial service with her.
The warm September days waned, and were replaced by autumn’s chill. Robby
hardly noticed the season’s change until the western wind blew in a foretaste
of a bitter winter. Robby felt himself cower against the wind, as though he
was being pursued by an angry demon. He felt the cold creeping into him and
heard the wind singing its wintry dirge. He spent the entire fall and winter
scurrying from one warm spot to the next. Wherever he went the biting chill
stayed in him. He longed for warmth.
Throughout the winter Robby thought about Cletus. He thought about his quest
to discover “Indians,” and why he had come to Weatherford.
He thought about countless other things until they whirred around in his
head like clutter being caught up in a cyclone. He sensed a loss within
himself, accompanied by disappointment that he wasn’t able to glean
any understanding of all that was swirling in his mind.
But, in the early spring, tired from a winter of fruitless thinking, Robby
felt warmth. A new wind blew in a new feeling. For the first time in many
years, Robby felt a peace. He realized that Cletus, in his own way, had
helped to save the part of himself that he had struggled to discover. He
now understood that whatever Indian that existed in him, Cletus had helped
to keep it from becoming the grotesque and distorted image that had begun
forming in his mind when he thought about being a real Indian. Robby had
come to understand that Indians do not imagine, nor think their way through
life, but they live as other human beings do. And, as humans, Indians have
no special exemption from the tragedies that befall the most common of
Robby recognized and felt all these things in one afternoon, in early spring,
while sitting in his lawn chair in front of his house. From that moment
on, Robby, a descendant of the Turkey Clan of the Onondaga, could not live
in pretense or complacency, without remembering how Cletus Packingstone
chose not to be a part of coyote’s world anymore.