I had an interesting thing happen to me on my 13th birthday. I remember it very vividly as you will soon understand why. Upon waking that morning I was very excited as the usual routine on my birthday would be to go downstairs to find my Mom making my favorite breakfast and a few presents on the table awaiting my eager hands to unwrap them. I had quite a few things on my wish list so I barreled down the stairs clad only in my Carl Sagan ‘Cosmos’ pj bottoms. As I had not yet hit puberty yet they were free of the stains that would soon be visited upon them… billions and billions of them.
I think it would be an understatement to say that the scene that greeted me as I rounded the corner and peered excitedly into the kitchen as not what I was expecting.
Where the kitchen table had been the previous evening there sat a tree stump (cottonwood perhaps?). Above this stump hung 2 rawhide thongs that each ended in a large cruel-looking hook. To the left of these hook stood my mother dressed in a striking brown pants suit with what appeared to be eagle feathers in her hair. To the left stood my Dad… wearing a buffalo skull on his head. Odd start to the day.
Obviously I was little taken aback but I didn’t want to offend them after they’d gone to all of this trouble on my account so I played along. Smiling broadly and yet deeply confused I was completely unaware of my grandparents sneaking up on me from behind. Who knew that old people could be so stealthy? They held me tight as my father explained to me that although they were a mix of English and Irish he’d always thought that I was a full-blooded American Indian. I was a bit lost at this point and would have asked for some clarification had not my Grandma’s hand been tightly across my mouth. As my Dad continued he got more specific. Not just American Indian but one of the indigenous tribes from the plains. After more thought he settled on Hidatsa. “Ok then” I remember thinking to myself “will this affect the type of cake I’ll be having later?”
Indeed it would.
I was then stripped and instructed to stand on the stump and, after piercing my chest with the hooks, the stump was kicked away to leave me suspended by the rawhide straps (see pic on my pic page). Now I was really befuddled. Hidatsa? I mean I’d heard of Sioux and Crow… but Hidatsa? The physical sensation of being hung by meat hooks that pierced my chest cavity was a bit overwhelming and thankfully my Mom was thoughtful enough to hold my hand as I slipped back and forth in and out of consciousness. As the hours passed and it was explained to me that I would be hanging there until the hooks tore free from my flesh I was getting a little put-out. Again, I didn’t want to seem inconsiderate for all their efforts in putting this together but those hooks were beginning to really smart. A brief hallucination. The kitchen… a motorcycle… chicken… a jump suit… Evil Chicken Kievnievel… oh no! he’s not going to make it over the salad shooter!…
Finally my skin gave way in the early evening and I fell into the slick pool of blood beneath me. “Some birthday this is” I thought to myself. My parents and grandparents, after having nothing to do all day but mill around and listen to my endless heart-wrenching cries of agony, were visibly relieved to begin the next stage of my big day. Although I was quite ravenous after my long day of hanging in my kitchen it quickly became clear that food, let alone the Scooby Doo birthday cake I had coveted at the local Baskin Robbins, was not in the cards. It was time to dance.
Once again I was held firmly as a variety of animal skulls were hung from piercings in my chest, arm and legs (again with the piercings?! I looked like a Xmas tree if Xmas was celebrated in hell) and was told to dance. And not to stop.
At this point you must assume that my parents had at the very least gone out and bought some Native American music to play right? Nope. I would be forced to dance until I collapsed from exhaustion to Earth, Wind & Fire. That really was the last straw. I mean, I had played along to this point but did they really expect me to dance until I collapsed from exhaustion to Daydreamin’ and All About Love? They did. And so in the end I did or face the risk of insulting them.
As the hours passed I couldn’t help but see some irony in my situation as Help Somebody and Getaway played on the stereo. My Mom, on one of her many trips into the kitchen to make coffee or get a tin of cookies for my Grandparents, would always give me a little nod of encouragement or comment on one of my ‘moves’. Frankly, after 6 straight hours of dancing I’m sure she’d seen them all. I distinctly remember doing the ‘lawnmower’ to Fan the Fire, the ‘sprinkler’ to Can’t Let Go and ‘electric sliding’ through the entirety of Reasons, Happy Feelings, Side By Side, and Fantasy.
Mercifully I slipped into a sudden and dreamless sleep somewhere around midnight.
Looking back I guess the thing that really perplexes me is that the next morning I awoke in my bed to the smell of French toast. I staggered downstairs to find my parents and grandparents huddled around the table holding presents and singing me happy birthday. They tried to pretend it never happened! I sat there in my blood-soaked pajamas, from all of my still-oozing wounds, and they denied the whole thing and said I must have dreamt the Sun Dance ritual. Even when I showed them the morning newspaper clearly showing the date was the day after my birthday the four of them just looked at me like I was crazy! I even asked about being Hidatsa and they all laughed and told me I’m half English and half Irish.
My injuries were blamed on bed bugs and my Mom hurriedly went upstairs to change my sheets.
So that was my 13th birthday. From that point on I refused to play a Cowboy when playing Cowboys & Indians. I felt I’d earned Indian status. You might think I was a bit old for Cowboys & Indians by that time but in the township I lived in, due to budget cuts, they were forced to end the baseball and soccer programs and we played organized Cowboys & Indians each spring and fall. I’ll never forget winning an important play-off game with a scalping with only seconds left in the contest. But I digress.
I use to watch The Wonder Years and wonder how that little kid would describe the events of that day in retrospect. I wonder if he could make the listener nostalgic for being rubbed with a dried buffalo penis by your Grandpa as you danced naked in your kitchen. I wonder how his grown-up persona would describe the scars that criss-cross my chest and upper body.
I wonder how he’d express his searing hatred for Earth, Wind & Fire.