By Bruce Mastracchio
East Greenwich. Our little town had it all. So much so that many people lived their whole lives there, rarely leaving town. If they did go on a trip it might be up to Providence, or down to the beaches. But, I can recall comments made about, and by, people who never left the town, never mind the state.
Many quahauggers, for instance, went to work on the water in the morning, came in, went to their favorite bar or club, and then went home for dinner, watched TV, went to bed and then repeated the process day after day, year after year.
They had all they wanted, or needed, in a 16-square-mile area and it was good enough for them.
Other tales concerned those from other towns, who packed bags for overnight trips when they went from Woonsocket to Westerly, a distance of about 60 miles. People thought it was inconceivable that one would drive 100 miles in a day! A thousand in a day! Fuhgeddaboudit!
Though through his veins coursed thousands of years of history, the blood of barons and castles and, maybe, that of Caesars and their Roman legions, his soul was different. In his soul, there was always a deep affinity for the Red Man of the American continent. The American Indian. The Native American. He didn’t know why. He just knew it was there.
On Saturday afternoons, buried deep in the dark bowels of the Kent or Greenwich theaters, he watched Western after Western where the White Man eventually triumphed in the end. But he never cheered when the inevitable happened. When the cavalry came to save the day, he just felt sad about it all.
Instead, he felt deep in his heart, deep in his soul, a sorrow for these indigenous people, who were here first and were constantly cheated and lied to, wronged beyond all reason and made to pay even when they were in the right.
Maybe it was a natural compassion for the underdog. He really did not know. He just knew it was there and that, someday, he hoped to do something about it.
Surprisingly, it was basketball that provided the spark. A basketball magazine, actually. The Converse Company’s annual to be specific. That tome put out an annual tribute to all the college and high school champions in the country that year.
He used to read it religiously. They had a team picture of every high school champion in every state and every class.
While musing through that year’s edition he stumbled on it. South Dakota Class B Champions, Oglala Pine Ridge High School. The funny thing was the names of the players were different.
There were NO Smiths or Jones or Johnsons. No Italian names or Irish or Polish.
Instead the names read Standing Soldier, Yellow Boy, Iron Horse, Ghost Bear. Indian names! Oglala Pine Ridge was a school for Native Americans!
The Coach’s name was Gustafason. A white man. A Swede.
He had an idea. He made a plan. He called the coach. He was determined to see it through. Do something. True to his nature, when he said he was going to do something, he did it.
And thus came the plan that led to an end-of-the-summer adventure.
The Summer of Marvin Ghost Bear.
He had read a book earlier that year. It dealt with a man who dyed his skin and changed his identity. Then he went down South and tried to see what life was like for people of another race. The book was titled “Black Like Me.”
The book gave him an idea. It gave him a plan. It would fit into the trip. It would make this trip an adventure. An adventure of a lifetime. And, it did.
Unlike others in his town, he had traveled, flying across country at 12 years of age to visit relatives in California. Basically though, that was it. That trip was in an airplane. This trip would be more than 1,500 miles! He didn’t have a car. He didn’t have much money. He did have his thumb!
His eight-week summer job had ended. He kissed his mother goodbye, hoisted his small travel bag, and headed up to Main Street. It was there that he encountered his first piece of luck on this trip. He was standing on the corner of Main and Division with his thumb out, when a car pulled up.
It was The Preacher, a boyhood chum, now in the U.S. Air Force.
“Where ya going,” said The Preacher.
“I’m heading to South Dakota,” was the reply.
“Well, man, it’s your lucky day. I’m headed to Chanute AFB, Illinois, so I can take you there at least.”
So, in one fell swoop, he had a ride of 800 miles or so with a boyhood chum, and, of course, they talked and talked and talked all day and into the night about life, and living, and sweethearts and adventures and all the things that guys talk about when there is not much else to do but talk.
It made the time fly by. And the miles too. And, it bonded them for life.
He stayed overnight at Chanute AFB, in the enlisted barracks. He got caught the next morning by a sergeant making the rounds, and The Preacher had to do a lot of explaining. But all was worked out and some of it is fodder for another story.
Out of Chanute, after walking a couple of miles, luck struck again. He was picked up by an older couple headed, eventually, to Omaha. First though, they had to circle up to some relatives in Wisconsin, but they agreed to take him with them. He thought that was amazing. He had never met these people before, yet they bought him all his meals and let him sleep or talk, and seemed to enjoy him for both. He was with them for 800 roundabout miles.
Of course, by then he was into his “new identity,” and he regaled them with stories of his life. He looked at it as a discipline, keeping things straight, building a timeline, all of the things he had picked up by reading about a white man trying to pass for black down in the Old South of that time.
He chose to be an Indian going back to the reservation. He knew his subject well and he put out a good story. He didn’t feel completely right fooling these kind people who had been so nice to him, but he had planned his adventure and he stuck to it.
They dropped him off in Omaha late at night by the stockyards. It was dark, and strange, and scary. And he was scared. But, he walked into this strange city, found a YMCA, and stayed there for the night.
The next day he was on the road again headed through the whole state of Nebraska, where he would see his first rattlesnake, learn that an escaped convict was possibly traveling the same road, and meet a whole bookload of characters from cowboys, to Okies to Arkies. Characters who could have starred in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” This would be a trip he would never forget. Nor would he try to.
He looks at a map as he writes this. A young man from the smallest town, in the smallest state, in the greatest country in the world.
“How I ever got out of Omaha, I’ll never know.”
It looks confusing to him now. Maybe it was simpler back then. He just knows he got out. He just did it.
Up Route 275 to Route 20 in the Cornhusker State. The towns flew by. Towns like he had never seen before. They were really small with grain elevators as big as the town. The town name proudly displayed on the top side of these silver giants, 100 feet in the air over the windswept, golden plains.
West Point, Norfolk, O’Neill, Valentine, Kilgore, Cody. They all came, and went.
He stopped at a restaurant in Gordon. Got friendly with a waitress. Thought something might come of that. They exchanged addresses and phone numbers. He never saw or heard from her again.
It was just outside of Rushville that he met his first bonafide American Indians. He was sitting on the side of the road with his thumb out. Route 87, which ran from Rushville through White Clay, up to Pine Ridge. A car stopped. It was full of Indians.
He hopped in and they took him on one of the wildest rides of his young life.
When they stopped, some 20 plus miles later, he was in the midst of Indians. Oglala Sioux Indians! The people of Crazy Horse! The killers of Custer! The Sioux! The Mighty Sioux, reduced to sitting around all day just drinking and staring. They were all staring at this white boy, who had the audacity to travel 1,500 miles and ask for sanctuary from a people who needed sanctuary even more than he did.
Yes, there were more Indians than he had ever seen in his life. There they were right in the middle of Pine Ridge, treating their cars like horses, whooping and hollering as they drove back and forth on the narrow streets. He was nervous, but he had a mission and he sought out Coach Gustafson.
The Coach was nice. He put him up in the school infirmary. It would be his “home” for the next three weeks. Then he introduced him to the best athlete Pine Ridge had seen in years. A three-sport star, who the locals thought was due for bigger and better things.
Coach Gustafson introduced the boy from East Greenwich to the Indian boy most responsible for Pine Ridge South Dakota’s Class B basketball championship!
His name was Marvin Ghost Bear.
Ghost Bear became an instant friend. He had some ponies of his own and the first thing they did was ride out on the South Dakota plain. The boy from E.G., Rhode Island, who was weaned on Cherokee, Peaches and Lady up in Frenchtown, galloping over the land where Lakota warriors had lived, loved, fought and died.
The young Oglala was amazed at the Easterner. Guess he didn’t think they had horses back in Rhode Island, but he sat the pony like he was born to it and he, and his Indian friend, galloped for miles across the wheat-colored landscape, with the wind in their hair, just like the legends of old. Crazy Horse revisited for a boy who had revered the Oglala war leader as his personal hero since elementary school.
But it was in sport that the two unlikely friends really bonded. The Sioux boys play basketball like they were born to the game. They bound like deer, the Pronghorns of the Paint, and they play a game that is exciting to watch, and more exciting to be in. It is not ghetto ball, and the sad thing is, unlike others, they have not been able to take their game beyond the reservation. They excel at sport, and art, and music but seem unable to exploit their talents beyond The Rez.
Alcoholism is rampant, and suicide is common, both rates higher than the outside world. Marvin’s sister committed suicide at age 12. Drowned herself in a sink full of water.
Diabetes strikes these people at an alarming rate. It is a huge problem. Later it would be a common bond for the Italian kid from the East and the Lakota athlete, who would eventually succumb to the disease’s sweet song.
Marvin had other stories to tell of broken dreams, crushed spirits and despair. It was quite a learning experience for the EG boy. He learned a lot.
Like all things, though, good or bad, this trip eventually came to an close. He had to get back to college and football practice, and so, said goodbye to his newfound friends from the Plains.
The trip back was no less exciting. He got picked up by an Okie couple, their car packed with furniture roped to the roof, through the windows and around the trunk and the hood. The car broke down every few miles, necessitating trips to the windmill watering troughs in the pasture to get water from the cow drink troughs that sprang up every so often on their broken, put-put ride.
He soon abandoned that couple and was picked up by a rancher, whose Cadillac actually had bull horns on the hood, just like you might see in a movie.
Eventually, he found his way back to Chanute and The Preacher. He had a nickel to his name and a candy bar in his pocket so The Preacher treated him to one of the finest meals in town. When they brought the desert tray he took one of each and devoured them all, a move that would prompt tales from The Preacher for years to come.
He wired home for money, which his mother sent, bought a bus ticket and rode a Greyhound from Rantoul, Ill., to Rhode Island, exhausted, but full of tales that would take telling for time eternal.
He kept in touch with Marvin Ghost Bear through the years. They called, and wrote and made promises of getting together. But they all fell through. Marvin would go through his own battles with the bottle, and other demons. The Sweet Song raised its ugly head and started the tease to his slide. A slide with no return.
Marvin did right himself for awhile and became a member of the School Board, and then the Tribal Council. No one could forget the boy athlete who had led Pine Ridge to some of its greatest glory, a recapture of the time of victories, like those achieved by Sioux leaders like Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Spotted Tail and Gall.
The boy from EG tried to get a job teaching on the reservation. He thought he could be an answer. Maybe not The Answer, but a chance to give back to these people he had so identified with as a young moviegoer.
He failed there but did put together an effort and sent 43 boxes of clothing to the Pine Ridge people and other donations over the years. As a coach he once tried to bring the Pine Ridge Thorpes to Rhode Island for a Christmas basketball tournament. As usual, government bureaucracy fouled the effort, as they had fouled up so many efforts on behalf of “the People” over the years. The Indians cheated out of the trip of a lifetime.
There was disappointment all around. Marvin had planned on coming with the group, and they would get together again. This time on the Italian kid’s home court.
Though that failed, they did get together one last time, in an apartment on The Rez. A sad reunion, the last reunion – ever.
It is 37 years since they first met. No more thumbing. He now has a car and money.
And a lot of thoughts as he winds his way through the plains of South Dakota. It has been a great trip for the boy from EG, now a man. That trip itself was an adventure.
He is finally going to see Marvin Ghost Bear once again. He is looking forward to it but the signs are ominous. President Clinton is supposed to be there at the same time he is. The Rez is a hornet’s nest of anger and activity as two Lakota men were killed by Sheriff’s deputies in White Clay just a few days before. It is an act that has been repeated time and again in this land, where “No Indians and Dogs Allowed” harkens back to another dark time in our nation’s history.
So, here he is, 37 years later, driving into a thunderstorm of emotions. He can feel it. It makes him nervous. Very nervous.
He finds Marvin’s apartment. It is in a brand new building. Marvin is there. He has just come back from dialysis treatment. He is battling diabetes and all he does is stare at the basketball game on the TV set and rock back and forth, back and forth. The Easterner tries to make conversation, but Marvin keeps rocking and talking in monosyllables. The Easterner is very nervous over this. It is not a good experience and certainly not what he had hoped to happen after all these years apart and all the good memories of another time. Of two young boys riding on the plains of legend and history. Of shared hoop games and meaningful talk.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. You can’t return to anyplace you’ve been and recapture what once was. It was there, but is now gone, just a dessert for the memory.
A year later he is on another trip. He meets a man he knows is Lakota and they engage in small talk. This man is a relative of someone else he knew at Pine Ridge. He asks if the man knows Marvin Ghost Bear. YES, says the man, but did you know that Marvin Ghost Bear died last month. He had diabetes and it took him. The Indian athlete who could go one on one with anyone on the Dakota plains was done in by The Sweet One. Taken down, not just to defeat, but to Death!
The Easterner is sad to hear it. Such early promise, such talent, such a good person. But that’s how it is on The Rez. Not many die a natural death. Shootings, accidents, suicide, alcohol, and diabetes claim life as a common occurrence. He will never forget that.
Nor will he ever forget that summer either. That summer so many years ago.
That summer of ponies and pronghorns and basketball.
That summer of Marvin Ghost Bear.
Hoka Hey, Kola. Hoka Hey, Mato Nagi. Hoka Hey. It is a Good Day to Die!
I hope your death was good, though I know it wasn’t.
How could it be? How can death be Good? How can death ever be good?
Perhaps we will meet again. On the Other Side. The Happy Hunting Grounds of Your People. Then maybe we can ride and shoot hoops once again. Free from worries. Free from Pain. Free!
Author’s Notes: If you would like to get a good look at what life is like at Pine Ridge, a good movie to see would be “Thunder Heart” with Val Kilmer. definitely worth a look.
The collage of photos: Marvin is upper left; opposite is a photo of Pine Ridge High, Home of the Thorpes. In the next two pictures, the water tower that loomed over Pine Ridge on the Rez and Marvin Ghost Bear with a donkey. Bottom photos are, left, me with a young colt and, right, is Pine Ridge Elementary School.
And, lastly, the photo that started the adventure, of the South Dakota Class B High School Champions: Pine Ridge Thorpes. You may not be able to read all the names so here they are: Coach Gustafson in back; from left, Clifford, Red Elk, Ghost Bear, He Crow, Hayes, Bull Bear, Tyon, Kills Warrior, Weston, Pourier, Twiss, and Standing Elk. The French names come from the late 1700s and early 1800s, when French trappers and traders intermingled with the Sioux and married their women. Pourieres and Brewers are common on The Rez.
Bruce Mastracchio writes about the glory days of East Greenwich and his adventures.